my weekly rhythms

The word rhythm, in reference to the daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, and annual practices that provide a semblance of structure to our lives, is trending. I have to admit that I’m a sucker for the concept; I am drawn to links or magazines that tell me how to improve my bedtime routine or make adjustments to my home to make it feel more like winter than fall. (By the way, it currently feels like summer outside where I am, proving that while the natural world does have rhythms of its own, these don’t always correspond to our schedules.) I think the word rhythm is a little cheesy when applied this way; it always makes me picture a Jamaican reggae guy playing one of those portable drums. (Is that weird? Don’t answer that.) But in spite of the over-trendiness, the cheesiness, and sometimes the total lack of correspondence to reality, I think this idea of rhythms (or habits, if you want to sound more practical or less Rasta) can be useful.

It is particularly useful for those of us who work jobs that do not have a set schedule—a group of people that has become larger this year, since a work-from-home schedule is by nature more flexible than an on-site schedule. (Read more about this in my post from two weeks ago.) I am thankful that, as an online faculty member, I can set my own hours. I want to be clear about that—I realize my flexible schedule is a rare privilege. I also realize that many online faculty members don’t have as much freedom as I do, whether that’s because of a second job or a heavier courseload or small children at home. But despite all that, I thought it would be helpful if I shared a bit about why and how I have developed some flexible weekly work rhythms.

First, why. I actually started learning the importance, for me, of having a semi-structured work schedule two years ago, when I went from working a mid-level administrative position—in which I was expected to be on campus more or less all day, spent a lot of that time in meetings, etc.—to a teaching-only faculty position, in which I was expected to be on campus only during classes, office hours, and meetings (which were rare in this context; my university did a good job protecting people from pointless meetings, at least in my experience). This flexible schedule, combined with the fact that I lived only a two-minute drive or ten-minute walk from campus, opened up an immense freedom to do what I liked with my waking hours, unlike anything I had experienced since my own college years. Unfortunately, I spent a lot of that precious time pacing around my house trying to figure out the best way to use it. Here’s an example: In my previous job, the daylight hours were mostly spent in a windowless office, so when I got home from work, I wanted to spend the remaining daytime out and about. So I had gotten into the habit of grading at night, and I had a hard time getting myself to sit down and grade when the sun was out. When I changed jobs, I was so determined to use my free time during the day for doing non-work things (even if some of those things were time-wasters) that I still ended up shoving all of my grading until the end of the day, dreading it all day, and staying up too late to get it done. Again, I want to stress the fact that everyone has different styles of working, and some people work best at night. I am not one of those people. But because I didn’t have a schedule, or at least an outline of a schedule, for using my daytime hours, I wasn’t getting things done during the time I tend to be most productive and get the most enjoyment out of my work.

I was still trying to figure all this out when I met my now-husband Jordan and made the goal of aligning my schedule with his (he works all day on weekdays except Friday, which is a half day) so that when we got married, we could spend our non-work hours together. And I was still in the process of making that shift when COVID-19 forced my spring classes online, thrusting me into the life of a fully-online professor several months before I expected it. Fortunately, I had received an excellent planner as a Christmas gift and was filling it out religiously every week. The planner and my motivation to align my schedule with Jordan’s helped me create a work week that resembles a typical 8 to 5 schedule, but departs from it in some key ways.

I won’t bore you with all the details of this schedule, but I do want to outline some of its main features in hopes that you might pick up an idea or two for establishing your own weekly rhythms.

  • When it comes to grading, I dedicate one day per week to each class. I reply to emails throughout the week, regardless of the class the student is in, but for grading, when I’m done with the class, I’m done for the day. (There’s an exception once every eight weeks, when I grade the big end-of-course projects. That week, I pace myself more carefully.)
  • I take Fridays off. (This works out perfectly right now, since I have four classes.) Again, I realize this is a privilege, and I’m thankful for it. But I don’t feel like it’s necessary to create busy work for myself just because this is a workday for most Americans. (However, during that big grading week, I sometimes have to work on Friday.)
  • I start and end work around the same time every day. I start a little later than Jordan, who begins his workday at 7 am; I use the first couple of hours of the day to do laundry or other tasks around the house. I take a lunch break with him from noon to 1 pm. And I finish when he’s finished, at 5 pm, if not earlier. If there’s something on my work to-do list that didn’t get done that day, I cross it off and move it to the next day.

I have other weekly work rhythms too, like posting my weekly announcements on Sunday afternoons, but I’m afraid this post is already pretty boring, so I’ll stop. Perhaps next week I’ll write about the non-work rhythms I try to incorporate into my life—the “restorative habits” I write into my planner each week. Meanwhile, do you have any regular scheduling habits or other work habits you’d like to share? Like I said, I eat this stuff up, so I’d love a new strategy to try! As always, thank you for reading my blog.

home: the new co-working space

Yesterday afternoon, I took a break from folding laundry and replying to students’ discussion board posts to make myself a cup of tea. I looked outside and saw a chickadee in our birdfeeder. Chickadees are harbingers of colder weather and new birds to look at, and besides, ever since a small stand of trees near our backyard was cut down a few months ago, we haven’t seen any birds at our feeder besides the occasional mourning dove that plants itself there for hours and doesn’t do anything but poop. (Sorry, mourning doves. At least you have a pretty voice!) So, the arrival of the chickadee was an exciting event, and I hollered to my husband, Jordan, who was working in his home office, to come out and look. As if they had been waiting for his arrival, a flurry of birds suddenly appeared, including more chickadees, some cute little brown guys (look, I never said I was a real birder), and even a couple of Eastern bluebirds—my favorite songbird but one that I rarely see. For about fifteen minutes, they flew around the backyard, alighting now and then on our feeder, the neighbors’ fence, and the scrubby bushes on our property line, even daring to get as close as our patio picnic table. Then, shortly after Jordan went back to his office, they were gone, and they haven’t been back (though I’ll be on the lookout around 2:30 this afternoon).

I shared this story because moments like this are among the blessings of working from home, especially with someone you love. This year, millions of people around the world started doing what fully-online professors (and those in an increasing number of job sectors) have been doing for years: working in the space where they also sleep, eat, do chores, and spend time with those they love. Working from home comes with its share of challenges (e.g., distractions, guilt over unfinished tasks, the difficulty of establishing a quitting time), and those challenges are compounded for those with children at home. I don’t want to minimize those challenges, but in this post I am focusing on the joys of working from home, as well as a few of the practical considerations.

Jordan, an engineer, started working from home in March, like many people did. He already had a home office with a pretty sweet computer set-up (powerful processor, big monitor, headset, etc.) because he’s an avid gamer. With a few adjustments (purchasing a second monitor, downloading the primary software he uses for work), he was able to set himself up to work basically the same way he did at the office, with one major difference: his co-workers aren’t here.

Sure, he can and does email, call, and ping them on Microsoft Teams. But if he wants to get up and stretch his legs and decompress after a stressful meeting, the only person in his physical space is me, and I’m not much use in a conversation about solenoids. (They’re little magnetic parts that open and close things. I’ve learned that much.) But then again, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe what Jordan needs in that moment is both a cup of tea from a real teakettle (which I know he can’t get at the office) and a conversation with someone who’s doing something totally different, like grading English papers.

I think we all know that siloing is a major problem with the way our culture treats work, especially in the higher education sector. We specialize in one thing, starting with our undergraduate majors and getting increasingly narrower as we move through the levels of education and professional development, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with getting really good at one thing (like making solenoids), I fear we are neglecting skills and character qualities that transfer from one situation, context, or career to another. Perhaps we are losing the ability to have meaningful intellectual conversations with those in other fields.

That just got really philosophical. But I went there because I’ve been thinking about the relatively recent phenomenon of co-working spaces. You’ve probably heard of them: they’re buildings (or floors) where anyone who needs a space to work—freelancers, private practitioners, telecommuters looking for a change of scene or some peace and quiet—can rent a room or cubicle alongside others who are doing the same thing. Though I’ve never worked in one of these spaces myself, I can imagine that one of the benefits—besides having someone to split a lunch order with—is that you get to have conversations with (and possibly eavesdrop on) people who are doing very different work than you are. Maybe you learn something from them, and maybe you even come up with ways you can partner with your cross-disciplinary co-workers. I wonder how many new businesses and community services have been hatched out of these almost accidental partnerships.

During this year’s pandemic, many couples, families, and roommates found themselves in a co-working situation with people they already knew and loved, but had never worked alongside. For Jordan and me, who just got married this year, this has been basically an unadulterated blessing. It has allowed us to spend almost all day, every day together during the formative early months of our marriage. It has allowed us to become familiar with each other’s work habits and given me a peek into Jordan’s relationships with his co-workers, who I know are very important to him. We have been taking an hour-long lunch break together, which gives us time to prepare and eat healthier meals. (And as a side benefit, we’ve gotten through all the seasons of Friends and most of Avatar: The Last Airbender during our lunches.) And sometimes, we get to share special moments like the bird-stravaganza of yesterday afternoon.

The only thing we’re still trying to figure out with regard to working from home is where my space will be. This was Jordan’s house before we got married, so I didn’t already have a workspace of my own as he did. I started out working on the dining room table, which had its benefits (good lighting, plenty of space, good view of birds), but I felt like I had to clean up my stuff at the end of every workday, and I wanted a more permanent area. So lately, I’ve been working in the bedroom. Next to one of the windows, I’ve set up a small, brown and green vintage metal table that I bought at an antique shop a few years ago. My laptop sits there all the time, along with my planner and a few other items. A chair doesn’t quite fit underneath the table, so when it’s time to work, I pull over a vintage wooden chair reupholstered in a bird print (another antiquing find) that usually sits in another part of the room. So far, this setup is working pretty well, but I’d also like to try setting up a little work corner in our living room. Jordan and I have talked about sharing the home office, but we don’t think this would work very well for meetings, and I’m happy to let that be his space since my work is more mobile than his.

I’m still figuring out my space, but trying out different spots is more fun than inconvenience. I’m thankful that I get to work from home, and even more thankful that I get to do it alongside my favorite co-worker.

What does your workspace look like? Who are your co-workers, in both senses of the word? What are some of the challenges and benefits of your work setup? I’d love to hear from you!

What’s next for Penelope?

I’ve been blogging at this site since December 2011. I started the blog so that I could review a couple of books that I wanted to receive for free. Since then, I’ve written about topics as serious as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and as frivolous as my hypothetical Roller Derby name. I’ve told numerous embarrassing stories about cooking mishaps and breaking things. I’ve reviewed movies and albums, shared a couple of fan fiction stories, and hijacked the blog for a couple of months as a promotional platform for my self-published novel. I once seriously considered and made some steps toward re-branding this into a “Hufflepuff leadership” blog. (I still think someone should do that.) I’ve written about my job, my faith, and lately, my marriage. And I have nine partial drafts in my queue, including a “zany” travel mishap story that turned out to be boring when I wrote it down and a post tentatively called “what Ross Geller has in common with almost every Jimmy Stewart character (and me?).” (This one was doomed from the start.)

I realize that if I kept pressing forward for another year and a half, I could celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog. But I think it’s time for me to end this long chapter in my writing life. I’ll keep the WordPress account in case I want to write a special post now and then, but these will likely be rare. Writing will always be one of my primary means of processing my thoughts and feelings, but not all of that writing needs to be shared with a readership.

Speaking of you, my readers–I know I’ve always had a small following, but you’ve been incredibly faithful. Some of you left long, frequent comments on my posts; others read the blog quietly for months, maybe years, before dropping into a face-to-face conversation the fact that you were reading it–always a delightful surprise. Thank you for paying attention.

I’ve thought for a while that it would be fun to have a podcast or a YouTube channel (actually, I have a great channel idea that I’m trying to convince my husband to help me with), but I don’t think I’ll jump into anything like that anytime soon. I’m thankful for the years I’ve been able to share my thoughts with you, and I hope we can stay in touch by other methods. Now I’m going to go cry a little.

a quick guide to being a great teacher

Like my title? Yeah, that’s clickbait. (And if you’re a teacher, you should know that.) But it also fits the story I want to tell you today.

Since 2016, when I designed the main online college course I teach right now, I have been requiring students to create a “research quick guide” in one of the last modules. The assignment is supposed to get them to reflect on what they know about how to do research in their field (“field” can be academic or professional, or in the case of my creative writing students, genre) and come up with a succinct way to share that knowledge with others. The important thing is the content, but somewhere along the line, I’ve gotten a little hung up on the design element of the assignment. I often find myself deducting points when a student’s guide is “hard to visually scan” or “more of an essay than a quick guide.” The problem is that there’s not a general consensus across contexts as to what a “quick guide” actually is. I’m committing that terrible teacher sin of asking my students to read my mind.

I should also point out that it’s pretty ironic that I’m judging other people’s design skills, as may be evident from the fact that I’m still using this template from when I started this blog in 2011. I mean, I know basic principles like “don’t use Comic Sans in a work email” and “don’t put too many words on a PowerPoint slide (and then turn your back to the audience and read straight from said wordy slide),” but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. So not only am I asking students to read my mind, but I’m also asking them to do something I don’t really know how to do myself.

Now, as part of a larger update of the course, I’ve set out to create a quick guide for my students. My initial motivation for this project was not to create a quick guide as such; instead, I wanted to respond to a suggestion a student made last fall. (I’ve been carrying around the now-grubby no-longer-sticky note in my planner ever since then.) It turned out that some of the off-hand tips I gave her in emails were actually quite revelatory for her as a first-time online graduate student who hadn’t written an academic paper in years, and she thought that other students might also benefit from the advice. She suggested some categories, like “how to check grades and feedback,” “what is an annotated bibliography?,” and “getting to know your professor.”

Meanwhile, many students have asked for an example quick guide, so I decided to combine these two endeavors. I would create a quick guide to being an English 602 student (very meta, if you ask me). I hoped to be able to send this out to current and future students and tell them, “Hey, I’m not a designer, but I made this in Word and it wasn’t that hard and didn’t take me that long. You can do it too!”

I finally started on the document yesterday. For visual interest, I decided to use a variety of Word’s prefabricated text boxes and sidebars. I also used some relevant clip art icons to create a short border between two of the sections, and I inserted a photo from my computer. Nothing fancy, but I think it looks pretty good (though I still need to do the second page).

Here’s the problem: It wasn’t easy. Once I got some of the text boxes on the page, dragging them around to accommodate new elements was frustratingly difficult. Inserting and resizing the picture was a stab in the dark–I wasn’t sure what those numbers meant or why most of the photo had disappeared off the bottom of the page. I had to get my husband to help me, and even he, who’s all-around better at this stuff than I am, admitted that he didn’t know how to do everything I wanted to do.

So I don’t feel honest telling my students that creating a document like this will be easy. I sometimes have students who have design backgrounds or who use Publisher regularly in their work, and they turn in beautiful, readable, user-friendly quick guides. But for students who are having trouble centering their title or inserting a paragraph break in a basic essay, what I’m asking them to do in this assignment could be panic-inducing.

I’m going to finish the quick guide and send it to my students with the message I had planned to give them, minus “it wasn’t that easy and didn’t take me that long.” I am also going to add that their quick guide doesn’t need to look as good as mine; even some bullet points or a numbered list will show me that they’re thinking about how not to overwhelm their readers. I am going to continue assigning the quick guide, because I think it’s useful for students to work on problem-solving skills in a class about workplace writing–who knows what their bosses may ask them to create someday? But now that I’ve gone through the process of creating a quick guide myself, I’ve learned what’s most important about this assignment, and I’ve developed some empathy for my students. And I’ll be able to answer questions better in the future.

Lesson learned: Don’t ask your students to do something you’ve never done yourself. That may not be a quick guide to becoming a great teacher, but it might be a small step to becoming at least a good one.

marriage observations from a non-expert

Remember a couple years back when I kept talking about re-branding this blog into a Hufflepuff leadership blog? (If you think this idea sounds strange–I agree–and want to know more, check out this post and others throughout spring 2018.) This never happened because I ended up leaving my job for a regular classroom faculty post, and thus organizational leadership no longer formed a major part of my reading and thinking. I bring this up because I’ve noticed that for the past few months, I’ve been posting fairly regularly about marriage, and I imagine this will only become more frequent now that I’m actually married. Even though I do not plan to leave my marriage like I left my job, I probably will not re-brand Penelope Clearwater into a marriage blog–Hogwarts-themed or otherwise. One, there are too many marriage opinions out there, and two, I like the freedom to be able to write about whatever the heck I want to. (I am currently mulling a post about Ross Geller, Jimmy Stewart, and the enneagram.) Just know that I will probably be posting about marriage fairly often, at least for a little while.

And sometimes my marriage posts will be fairly sappy. Today, I basically just want to tell you how great my husband is. See, I’m having one of those days that might be funny on a sitcom but in real life is mostly sad. The day began with a large portion of the built-in shelving in our closet breaking and crashing to the floor because it was overloaded with my clothing. Then, this afternoon, while trying to start the process of getting my last name changed on my Social Security card, I fell for a scam that, though relatively benign, cost me $40 for basically nothing. (Ironically, I was just “teaching” my online students this morning about how to evaluate a website for credibility.) It’s one of those days when I feel like quoting Charlie Brown after he puts an ornament on his sad little Christmas tree and it droops to the ground: “Oh, everything I touch gets ruined!” It also doesn’t help that I’m reading a novel about a man who gets Alzheimer’s disease at a fairly early age; I keep thinking I notice his symptoms in myself. I have cried at least twice today, and I have tried to shoddily cover up my embarrassment (about how much clothing I own and how I could be so stupid as to fall for an obvious internet scam) by alternately over-apologizing and blaming my husband for making me feel bad about myself. It’s been ugly.

Here’s what my husband did, though. He hugged me. He calmly helped me pick the clothes up off the floor. He told me a story about how he recently almost fell for an internet scam. He kept walking back into the room where I was working to tell me that I wasn’t stupid and that he loved me. He did this so often that it kind of got annoying, actually–I mean, I was trying to reply to emails! But if given the choice, I’ll always pick being annoyed by too much love over wondering whether my husband is mad at me and thinks I’m dumb. Always.

gaming with a gamer

As many of you know, I got married a few weeks ago! My husband, Jordan, and I decided to postpone our Hilton Head honeymoon until later in the year, but we still found ways to make the week after our wedding special, despite the fact that I had a lot of grading to do: we had a movie night, took lots of walks, and even went on a DATE (i.e. we picked up coffee and drank it in the car while waiting curbside for tacos, which we brought home and ate).

As you know if you read my interview with Jordan, he is a massive board game geek and owns more games than anyone I’ve ever met, which is not a judgment but merely an observation. (I have no room to judge; my books take up way more space than his games.) He/we had received several new games over the past few months that, for understandable reasons, we had not had time to play, so one of the special things we did during our honeymoon week was a game night…which turned into a game week-and-a-half. That’s because the game we decided to play that night–Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, a Cooperative Deck-Building Game–is actually seven games, one for each year at Hogwarts, and while we breezed through the first several, it took us multiple tries to beat the higher levels.

This was my first experience playing a cooperative game and only my second playing a deck-building game. I should add that, while I’ve enjoyed board games ever since I was a small child who made my parents read the Candyland backstory to me every time we played, I tend toward games that play to my strengths (vocabulary, trivia, yelling) and not my weaknesses (strategy, backstabbing, learning complex rules). My idea of a complicated game, until I met Jordan, would have been something like The Game of Life (though my favorite part of that one has always been naming my little peg children) or Monopoly, a game that Jordan finds so embarrassing that he hides it in his closet instead of displaying it on his nerd game shelves. I say all that to say that I’m probably going to show my ignorance of games in this post, and I’m okay with that.

So if you’re like me or even less of a gamer, let me explain what a cooperative deck-building game is. Deck-building means that you start out with a few dinky cards (in this game, you start with mostly Alohomora! spells worth one coin each) and gradually use these to acquire increasingly powerful cards that eventually help you win the game. Cooperative means that instead of trying to beat each other, Jordan and I worked together to beat increasingly powerful villains, from Crabbe and Goyle (mildly annoying) to Fenrir Greyback (will bleed you dry in several different senses) to, ultimately, Lord Voldemort (when you beat him, you’ve won the game). This sounds like a good way to start off a marriage, right? I thought so too.

And I was right. 🙂 (You thought I was going to say that I was wrong, didn’t you?) The week and a half during which we played this game almost every night taught me a number of things about myself, my new husband, and how we work together. We were very predictable and played as Ron (Jordan) and Hermione (me), but in this case, Jordan was actually the highly logical one who was able to look at a complex situation and immediately understand it. I was the one who yelled, “Bloody hell!” a few times. I generally think of myself as a pretty smart, quick-thinking person, but games are Jordan’s domain, and my quick wit looks pretty slow next to his in a gaming situation. And in a cooperative gaming situation, that works to my advantage!

We had to be a team. I had to swallow my pride and let him explain things or gently correct me sometimes. He probably had to swallow his impatience when my turn took forever or his amusement (or fear?) when I got mad and threatened to throw the cards. (I never actually did.) And in the end, all of this deference and kindness helped us to defeat the forces of evil and save the wizarding world (not to be too dramatic or anything).

I highly recommend this game to anyone who loves Harry Potter or games, but especially to anyone about to get married. Go, put it on your registry now! You’ll thank me.

what historical fiction readers really want

Last week’s post on the challenges of writing historical fiction garnered more copious feedback than my posts typically do, including a book recommendation from my uncle; some thoughts on the benefits and challenges of research from my former student Kandy Crosby-Hastings, a historical fiction writer herself (read her savvy observations in the comments to last week’s post), and some comments from my dad, which I’ll return to shortly. I also received a nuanced response and respectful critique from another former student and my occasional Twitter interlocutor (occasional because I’m really bad at Twitter), @Andy__Ford, and it is his epic series of ten tweets that I would like to spend most of my post engaging with today. And that’s because I realized, after reading his comments, that my previous post presented an unfairly generalized portrayal of historical fiction readers. Today, I’d like to complicate that portrayal a bit.

My post last week was directed toward historical fiction writers, not readers. I was also trying to be amusing, which sometimes gets me into trouble. I was also trying to keep my post relatively short. So I fell back on the bogeyman story that I tell the students in my creative writing research class: If you don’t do your research, those cranky historical fiction fans will find all your mistakes and eat you alive in a public forum!!! Although it supports the basic premise of my course—research is important—this story is based on a caricature, and like all caricatures, it is rather unkind. Here is Andy’s response: “I don’t think those Goodreads trolls actually exist, and if they do, they’re probably in the minority….As a reader I am happy to suspend my disbelief so I can enjoy a story, and I think most readers are like that.” In other words, historical fiction fans aren’t waiting to pounce on writers for committing an anachronism; they just want to enjoy a well-told story like readers of any genre do. My conversation with my dad reinforced this point: he sent me a really bad review that he gave a book classified as historical fiction. But he criticized the book for bad writing, not for historical inaccuracy, and so he applied the same standards that he would to any book. As Andy said in another of his tweets, “I don’t think the details matter as much as the feeling”–the feeling, that is, of what it must have been like to live in the world where the story is set.

While writing this post, I remembered something. Last week, I claimed that I had never written historical fiction except for a Civil War story I handwrote in elementary school. But just now, I remembered the short story called “Dinner Party, 1885” that I wrote at the end of the summer between the two years of my master’s program. I had spent the summer maxing out my check-out limit at my university’s interlibrary loan department, reading everything I could get my hands on from and about the Victorian period, including a number of 19th-century health and hygiene manuals, which related directly to the topic of the thesis I was about to start writing. By the end of the summer, I felt like I was a Victorian, and so that short story flowed out of me in a way that no piece of writing has since then (certainly not these blog posts!). I was proud of that story, and it ended up being published in my university’s literary magazine. (P.S. A long shot–If anyone still has that issue of Lamp, could you scan a copy for me? I don’t have the story anymore.) But here’s the key: I don’t think I spent much if any time looking up details like what the exact cut of my protagonist’s waistcoat would likely have been. I wrote the story from the feeling I got from reading all those books, from immersing myself in the period. Yes, if I were to expand that story into a book and/or try to market it to a wider audience, I would probably do some fact-checking. But that would be an afterthought, not the heart of the story. And so we return to the point I made at the end of my last post: no amount of accuracy can make up for a bad story with stilted characters.

I hope I’ve done some greater justice to historical fiction writers and readers this time around. Keep the comments coming!


the challenges of historical fiction

I had fun last week interviewing Jordan! Thanks for the questions you submitted and the great feedback you gave me afterwards. If you send more questions, I’d be happy to do a part two (and Jordan will do it whether he’s happy about it or not), so if there’s anything else you want to know about Jordan, please let me know in the comments below or via your favorite method of getting in touch with me.

This week’s topic was suggested by reader Robert Stiles, a prolific writer and a YouTuber at Channel Legendarium, where he explores a variety of historical, literary, and mythological topics. Robert, who’s been doing some research for a new historical fiction work, suggested that I write about the challenges historical fiction writers face. He said, “Stanley Kubrick noted that you have to inform your audience about the period enough to get the story, while still telling a story first and foremost.” (By the way, Robert, if you know the source of that statement, could you let me know? I didn’t come across it in my highly detailed [not] research, which consisted of googling “Stanley Kubrick historical fiction.”)

Although my enjoyment of historical fiction goes all the way back to my early elementary school years, when I had the American Girls catalog memorized, I have never attempted writing in this genre myself. (Exception: A short story called “The Considerate General” that I hand-wrote around third grade, at the peak of my childhood Civil War obsession.) In fact, you probably couldn’t pay me to touch it. There’s no way I’m opening myself up to the criticism of fans who really know their medieval weapons or Regency fashions and who won’t hesitate to call out a mistake on Goodreads. Astute readers of historical fiction can catch anachronisms much more subtle than the standard example I give my students–a cell phone in a Shakespeare play. Here’s the thing: I don’t have the discipline to do the research it would take to write a quality work of historical fiction. But I do teach a class on research for creative writing, and I’ve found (well, I knew this before developing the class, but the class has confirmed it) that historical fiction is probably the most research-heavy fictional genre, with only sci-fi giving it a run for its money.

Brief digression: This is not to say that other genres don’t require research. The whole point of my class is that creative writing never just comes out of the writer’s head. For Sam’s Town, a contemporary novel about an improbable event that nobody, to date, can fact-check (the zombie apocalypse), I still had to do research on everything from broken legs to the Ohio Turnpike. I also wanted my novel to fit into one specific strain of zombie apocalypse lore, so I had to research the rules of that body of lore.

So one of the risks of writing historical fiction is that you won’t do enough research and your readers will expose you as a screwup. (I’m only slightly exaggerating.) But the equal and opposite risk is that you’ll get so bogged down in your research and your world-building (what would you call this in historical fiction? world-recreating? world-evoking?) that you’ll forget you’re actually writing a story. I see this often with my students in the class I mentioned, especially those who choose to write historical and science fiction (or both–I currently have a student who’s researching for a project that involves both time travel and the Black Death). Their proposals are full of excitement about the research they’re going to do, but when I ask them what’s going to happen in the story, they’re at a loss. Or they end up turning in a thinly-veiled research paper, in which all the dialogue consists of characters reporting the author’s findings. I hope this doesn’t come across as mean-spirited toward my students; they have only four weeks to pull off the daunting task I’m asking them to do. And many of them do it quite well. But that risk is always there.

If you’ve written historical fiction, what were some of the challenges you faced? Next week, I might look at this topic from a reader’s perspective, so if you’re a reader of historical fiction, let me know some of your favorite books and authors, as well as some of your pet peeves.

special guest next week: send me your questions!

Hi everyone! Next week, I’m going to have a special guest on my blog: my fiance, Jordan Martinus, a magnetics design engineer who enjoys playing role-playing and board games, teaching kids at Bible Study Fellowship, and staying active with CrossFit and basketball. He also loves hanging out with me and participating in such pastimes as walking, cooking, and watching movies. What would you like to know about Jordan? Post your questions here, and we’ll tackle them in next week’s post!

Sam’s Town revisited

This past weekend, I received another royalty payment (which I know is a crass and demeaning topic that true artists are supposed to avoid [kidding!]) for my novel, Sam’s Town, so I want to take a moment to thank everyone who has purchased, read, reviewed, or recommended it. As Mac Barnett and Adam Rex’s recent picture book How This Book Was Made reminds us, a book really isn’t finished until it has readers. So thank you for making my book a real book!

In case you missed basically all of my posts last fall, in October I self-published (via Kindle Direct Publishing) my zombie apocalypse novel Sam’s Town, which has a title borrowed from a Killers album and fantastic cover art by Mike Nair. It’s more about relationships than about zombies, but fans of George Romero and The Walking Dead should find it satisfying. You can read more about it here and in most of my September and October posts. It’s available in paperback and e-book formats; the shopping link is in the post above. If you have questions, let me know in the comments!