The dates of the original Q&A session were 6/6/06 through 6/12/06.
Author John Shors recently visited the ARWZ Community Forums to answer questions from fans and ARWZ readers in an Interactive Q&A. The questions and conversations in this transcript are in no particular order, and may vary from the order in which they were originally asked.
Given the vast amount of background that usually goes into a historical novel, how much time do you generally spend gathering and researching information for your work? Is your research material driven by the outline, or is it more like finding any- and every-thing available in case it's needed later? What is your next book going to be about? Nickolas Cook
I spent quite a bit of time researching Beneath a Marble Sky. Probably about a year (though I had a full-time job at the time, so this work was done at night). I actually didn't do an outline for this novel, so I researched everything I could on that era, and then simply started to write. Some of what I researched never made its way into the book (though this information has proven valuable primarily to help me field all sorts of questions during interviews and such).
My next book is very different than Beneath a Marble Sky. It's set in modern day Nepal, and takes place in the Himalayas. I did several treks through Nepal, so I was able to draw on quite a few personal experiences to write this novel. I'm just putting the finishing touches on it, and I'm rather excited.
Your main character in Beneath a Marble Sky is a woman. In our Writers' Forum we often discuss the challenges of writing a character of the opposite gender. Did you discover any particular challenges in writing about a character of the opposite gender? If so, how did you go about smoothing out all the kinks to get it right in the end? What advice might you have for aspiring writers attempting to write from the point of view of an opposite gendered character for the first time? Violanthe
Well, let's just say that writing in the first person as a 17th Century Indian princess did pose a few difficulties for a guy from Iowa! But I think that I pulled it off, and a lot of women have told me that they couldn't believe that a man had written so effectively from Jahanara's point of view.
I think that I was able to do this due to one simple fact: I worked very hard at it. A great deal of work went into Jahanara. I worked for hours and hours and hours on her character, her voice, and I think I was able to make her convincing simply through that hard work. I put five years of my life into her, so she ended up being who I wanted her to be.
But it wasn't easy!
Have you ever considered writing alternate history stories, or do you plan to stay with traditional historical fiction? Time Writer
Well, I haven't considered it yet. But I will. I want to evolve as a writer, and I want to tackle new and exciting projects. My next book is set in modern-day Nepal. After that, I plan on doing one more big historical. At that point I'll probably consider doing some non-traditional stuff. What's a great book in this genre for me to read? I don't know very much about the genre you talk about, to be honest. But I'm interested in learning more. Thanks!
If I may jump in here, two alternate history novels that I know of (because we reviewed them on ARWZ) are Pavane by Keith Roberts and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. They are both considered fairly important in the alternate history genre.
Now to my follow up question:
Do you have any preliminary ideas as to the key time period, locale, and/or historical event of this "one more big historical" that you have planned? Violanthe
My next historical will be an English Patient sort of thing. It will take place in the South Pacific in WWII. I'm rather excited about it. It will be a huge project, though. So, that is rather daunting. I'm trying to gear myself up for a labor of love that will consume me for the next two years or so. Even though I truly enjoy writing, it is still hard work. I'll probably start working on this novel at the end of the summer.
I hope i can ask another question. i see this is your debut novel can you tell us what you have had published previously and how you got from there to getting Beneath a Marble Sky accepted by a publisher?
I was a newspaper reporter prior to writing Beneath a Marble Sky. But other than this experience, I hadn't had anything else published prior to Beneath a Marble Sky. As far as how I got Beneath a Marble Sky published, it was basically nothing more than sheer hard work and determination. Publishing is a very, very tough business. I knew this, and I experienced this. But I stuck with it, and kept working and working, mainly because I believed in Beneath a Marble Sky. As the days and weeks and months passed, more and more people also believed in Beneath a Marble Sky. And I was ultimately able to leverage that belief into things like the movie deal and the trade paperback deal with Penguin. I think if one has a good book, and is willing to work very hard, anything is possible. But it takes both of those things to make it happen...
The last time we talked you had said someone had purchased the movie rights for your book. How much input will they let you have as far as the script? And when will we be seeing it? Is it in production yet? Saundra Kane
Eriq La Salle (he was Dr. Benton on ER) bought the film rights. His production company, Humble Journey Films, just renewed the option for year #2. They are now in fundraising mode, and have raised a fair amount of money. This money will go toward getting a script done (this alone can be a seven-figure undertaking). I don't have any formal power with the script (I essentially sold all of this power to HJF). However, they are very nice people, and I think that I'll able able to take a look at the script and provide them with input. It's a very slow, but a very fun process. The movie's evolution, that is.
I was wondering what books you used to research life in Mughal India. Did you read Abraham Erlay's the Mughal Throne?
To be honest, I don't remember many of the names of those books, as I researched Beneath a Marble Sky six or seven years ago. I don't recall the book you named as one that I read.
Basically, I read as much as I could get my eyes on. Various memoirs of emperors. The Qu'ran. The Hindu epics. Historical overviews, etc. I also interviewed some leading experts on this era. I spent about a year researching Beneath a Marble Sky. There isn't that much written about the Taj, surprisingly. So this was tricky work at times.
The hardest part of the writing process for me is revision. One has to first decide what ones target audience is, and then, one has to slash and bash through one's supposed masterpiece, reworking it. I have a number of works which, for one reason or another, require extensive revision. My question is, at what point is a work salvageable, and at what point would a writer be better off letting a potential story rest in peace? Anonymous
That's a really, really tough question. I really don't know how to answer it. I always wanted to write a novel, and I felt like I could do it. But I waited years to do it, waited until I found the right story to tell. I didn't want to spend three years working on a novel and then discover that it was something that people wouldn't care about. So, I think that's the key: waiting to find the right story to tell. If you don't feel as if you've stumbled upon a wonderful idea, don't start writing. That's my advice... If you have invested a lot of time into something and are trying to determine if you should go on or not, I'd have people who I respected read it and give me their honest feedback. If people weren't overly excited about it, I'd put it to rest... I think that to get something published one really has to have an excellent idea for a story. Without a great, original story, one isn't going to get far...
Is there anything in particular (any author, any work of fiction, any historical event, anything) which has especially affected your writing as a whole, or worked its way into your writing in smaller, more specific ways? If so, what was it? How (and how much) did it affect your writing, and what was the end result? Magus
Well, actually the biggest influence upon my writing was probably the simple fact that I grew up with no TV. My parents would only let us watch one hour of TV per week. So, I read. And I read a lot. Probably two or thee books a week for nearly a 20 year period. I read all sorts of books fantasy, sci-fi, James Clavell, non-fiction, etc. After reading so much, I think that I just kind of soaked up how books were put together. And I felt like I could do this.
I must confess that I do watch a bit more TV these days (mainly sports and Lost), but I still read as much as I can. And I still believe that a good novel is superior to most every movie or TV program.
Not having the ability to watch TV was a source of many battles with my parents growing up, but I'm glad that they had this rule. I doubt I could write without having read so much.
One of the things I notice in great historical novels, usually on a second reading, is the little pieces of the milieu that the author sprinkles about: the smells, the texture and color of the clothing, the little mannerisms that are unique to the time and place. One of the authors I talked to said he keeps a list of things he discovered in his research and plugs them in as they seem appropriate. Another said he tries to put something in on every page.
India is a very different place from the United States. The era you are writing about is very different, even from India today, so you must have put a lot of effort into this.
Anyway, My question. Do you put the little details in the story consciously? Do you do it specifically to make a scene convincing? If so, how do you decide what to put in and when to do so? pecooper
Great question. I do make an effort to put in certain details. Absolutely. When I am researching, and I come across something neat, I definitely make a note of it and figure out a way to weave it into the text. I probably did this 100 times with Beneath a Marble Sky... Additionally, having spent a month in India, I was able to naturally draw upon my own experiences with things like the smells, the heat and humidity, the land, etc. These descriptions seeped into the book on their own accord. I did try to add quite a bit of such detail into Beneath a Marble Sky without slowing the book down. I definitely wanted to make the reader feel as if she/he had been to India. I think I was successful here, which was really important to me.
My previous question addressed what had influenced your writing, now I'm curious what has influenced you stories. What person, time period, events, books, tv shows, movies, operas or whatever have influenced your stories, characters or settings hen developing your stories? Magus
I'm not sure what influenced me most, to be honest. I didn't draw much influence from movies, TV, books, etc. I'd probably say that my five years of living in Asia were very important. I traveled on a modest budget, and saw a great deal of poverty, as well as beauty. My time in Asia made it possible for me to write Beneath a Marble Sky, and made me comfortable in doing so. Outside of this first-hand experience, I'd say that the hundreds of period paintings that I looked at were the next best thing. These paintings really gave me a feel for how people lived and loved and fought and died.
Those of us who are writers here at ARWZ often discuss techniques for making our characters full, rich and believable. I imagine the task is even more difficult when you are working from a historical base, where part of the character has already been written by history.
What are the particular challenges of creating convincing characters when you must work within and live up to a preexisting historical conception?
Yes, creating great characters is a very tough business. No doubt about it. I think my characters turned out to be good based on the sheer amount of work that I put into them. I edited Beneath a Marble Sky 56 times. A great deal of work went into Jahanara, for instance. When I was editing, I'd keep something about her in mind say her fear of not living up to her mother. When, for example, I was on my 36th edit, I would really focus on drawing out that fear, and not much else. This technique worked well for me.
As far as a concern with creating characters within the frame that history had created, I didn't worry too much about that to be honest. I knew simple facts about my characters. For instance, I new that Shah Jahan (who built the Taj) was an emotional man who profoundly loved his wife. Knowing this simple fact, I was able to honor this fact, and then fill in the blanks with my imagination. It was almost nice that history gave me a bit of direction.
Do you think it would have been more or less difficult to negotiate the character development of a historical figure better known to your target audience (i.e. an Anglophone readership)?
I think it would have been harder, because my audience would have so many pre-concieved notions about the characters. I would have been very aware of this, and I think it would have been like a bunch of chains around me. It was much more enjoyable for me to bring people back to life that no one in the West really knows about. Great question.
At ARWZ, as you already know, we group historical fiction in with alternative reality genres such as science fiction, fantasy and horror. You address the issue of shared audience appeal in your interview with Vio, so I won't go into that here.
I am curious if you have noticed any crossovers or genre-mixing in historical fiction of late. Science fiction, fantasy and horror in recent years have shown and increase in cross-genre fiction. Have you seen this happening in historical fiction at all? Crossovers either with the alternative genres I mentioned or with other commercial genres (mystery, romance, etc.)?
That's a very interesting question, thanks. I haven't noticed a great deal of crossing over, to be honest. But I haven't really looked for it either. I haven't read it, but I've heard that The Time Traveler's Wife combined a few genres (sci-fi, historical, etc.). This novel was hugely successful, and my guess is that its success will inspire other authors to try to do more of the same... I think the concept of mixing genres is really interesting. As a writer, it would be a fun challenge.
If you were to attempt a genre crossover, which genre would you be most interested in mixing with historical fiction?
Probably sci-fi. I think I could do something really neat as far as mixing historical fiction with sci-fi. Fantasy could also work. As a boy, I played a lot of D&D, so I have a fairly vivid imagination when it comes to fantasy. That would be fun as well. Maybe I'll do it someday. You all have inspired me!
First, I will have to admit that I have not yet read yuor book. However, the subject matter is very interesting to me and I fully intend to get a copy soon.
Reading the bio bit Vio posted here sparked my interest as well. I spent a short stint as an English conversation teacher in Japan myself and found it to be quite educational. By the end of the year I intend to move from the USA to SE Asia, where I will work and travel, including to such places as India and Nepal, as well as hitting just about every spot of interest in the general region.
As for me, I have been a technical writer for the last six years or so, and I have a few published articles, but would prefer to escape that loveless marriage and take up with my favorite mistress fiction. She waits with a look of patient longing, her eyes intent and ever upon me.
To date, my favorite historical fiction novel is probably The Walking Drum by Louis L'Amour, which takes place mainly in western Asia in the 13th century. There was also a book on the untold adventures of Marco Polo, whose title escapes me at the moment, and Cloud Mountain, which I found to be particularly moving.
My question to you, (yes, I do have one) has to do with breaking into that first publication. The marketing aspect of being a published fiction author is quite different from the writing aspect. What did you do? Did you go directly to a publisher? Did you use an agent? If an agent, how did you acquire a good agent? The transition from writer to marketeer is a difficult one for most writers or would-be writers to make. Can you describe the pitfalls you encountered and the solutions you found for them?
You say you grew up reading SF & F, yet you began with historical fiction. Is that your preferred genre? Do you think it is easier to break into publication in that genre rather than SF & F or does it not matter?
Perhaps I misrepresented myself when I said I had "A" question .. but I will stop here and let you answer before the next barrage.
Congrats on your plans to live in SE Asia. Awesome stuff. Be sure to check out Thailand as well. It's an amazing place.
Well, the first thing you have to do is get an agent. Get the book Jeff Herman's Guide to Literary Agents and go through that book to figure out which agents would be more intrested in hearing about your work. Then query those agents via snail mail. Hopefully a few will want to see your work, and hopefully one will ultimately want to rep you. This is a slow, painful process. But if you have a good book, and you are unwilling to take 'no' for an answer, good things can happen. Be careful, though, there are a lot of crooked agents out there. Only go after the legit, established agents.
Of course, once my agent and I sold Beneath a Marble Sky, my work still wasn't finished. Now I have to promote Beneath a Marble Sky, and do my best to let people know about it. It's the last step in this process, but it's a crucial one. If Beneath a Marble Sky does well, it will be easy for me to sell more books. If Beneath a Marble Sky doesn't do well, I'll have a hard time. Fortunately, I'm off to a very good start, with the good reviews, movie deal, etc. Fingers crossed...
How did you keep track of continuity while writing? I find myself having dramas remembering that I wrote Bob has sandy blonde hair on page 45 only to say he's brunette 300 pages later. That's probably not the greatest example, but I'm sure you'll know what I mean. Things like the passing of days, what time of day it is, if Johnny has three brothers, not two, etc.
What is your method to keep track of continuity issues such as that?
That can be very tricky. I suppose that one could type up all sorts of little facts for various issues and then refer to that document. I'm not that organized.
What I did was simply work hard and become extremely intimate with my novel. As I mentioned it earlier, I edited my book 56 times. So, I pretty much knew every little fact in Beneath a Marble Sky, and it was somewhat easy to avoid mistakes such as conflicting hair colors.
Of course, sometimes it's good to get a fresh pair of eyes on your work, so I'd recommend having some friends read it, and having them look for such issues. Make sure it's as clean as possible before you send it to them, though. And, of course, it's an editor's job to look for those things (but better to do it yourself).
Do you have any favourite genre writers? Ian
I tend not to have favorite writers, as I think that almost all writers tend to have hit and miss books. Having said that, I do like James Clavell, Bernard Cornwell, Wilbur Smith. These writers craft complex books that are fairly character driven, and are definite page-turners. I see myself as walking in their footsteps to some degree, though I think that Beneath a Marble Sky appeals to women as well as men (while the above writers tend to have male readers).
I like writers who have the ability to craft a page-turner that has some depth to it, and good writing. I admire this kind of work. I find a lot of page turners to be sloppily written. And a lot of beautifully written books can fail to demand my attention. But that's just me. I'm probably too fussy.
What is it about India and the time and place for Beneath a Marble Sky inspired you to write the story?
Also, how do you (personally) research a place for your stories? I know about the Taj Mahal what other things did you look into? Culture? Traditions?
Thanks for the questions. If you don't mind, I'm going to pull an answer from the Q&A at the back of the paperback version. That answer is:
Ive been lucky enough to spend a great deal of time in Asia and have been powerfully influenced by its history, as well as the sights, sounds, smells, and customs found today in that part of the world. For a decade Ive wanted to write a novel set somewhere in Asia but waited to find the right storyor rather to have the right story find me.
In 1999, my wife and I were traveling in India and of course made it a point to visit the Taj Mahal. We arrived at the mausoleum as soon as it opened to the public and were the first people there that day. Walking within its chambers, hearing our voices echo in the same manner as voices did hundreds of years ago, and touching its sculpted walls was an overwhelming experience. Seeing the wonder of the Taj Mahal, and understanding that a man built it for his wifea woman he cherished above all else in lifewas uniquely inspiring. Indian poets have been writing about this love story for centuries. And yet, not many people in the West know the tale. I realized that I had to tell it. Quite honestly, I was amazed and delighted to discover upon my return to America that no one in the West had ever fictionalized the story.
As far as my research, I spent about a year researching Beneath a Marble Sky. A fair amount of this work revolved around reading religious texts, memoirs, and historical accounts of 17th-century Hindustan. Surprisingly, the written word was not my greatest aid in terms of research material. Instead, hundreds and hundreds of period paintings provided me with a rich sense of the time and place that my novel is set in. Mughal paintings are exquisite and offered glimpses of life within the harem, of how battles unfolded, of how people ate and celebrated and loved. I could not have written Beneath a Marble Sky without such visual aids.
Have you found that different cultures (Japan, Indian, Asian, English, American) respond differently to your writing or is the response as from one people? Ian
Interesting question. Actually, I haven't noticed any sort of difference. Quite honestly, I was a bit worried that Indians would find some kind of fault with Beneath a Marble Sky, but I've spoken with probably 30 Indians, and all of them have really enjoyed my novel... Fortunately, my novel seems to appeal to most people, regardless of where they call home... Your question is interesting, and I'll try to monitor different responses from different places as they come in. Thanks.
I have written a story and want to get it published (not yet but perhaps one day).
What do I do now?
I see that you're in Switzerland, so I'm not sure if I can give you great advice or not. In the U.S. one has to get an agent. An agent will then shop one's work to publishing houses. Landing an agent isn't easy, as the good ones are highly sought after. You ought to be able to get a book that lists agents, and you can then write these agents and see if some of them would be willing to look at your work. Good luck!
Why did you use Jahanara as the main character in this novel? Had you known anything about her prior to your research for Beneath a Marble Sky Saundra Kane
When researching Beneath a Marble Sky, it quickly became apparent that Jahanara would be the right person to tell the story. She was very close to her parents, and could aptly describe their love for each other. By all accounts, Jahanara was an amazing woman bright, forward-thinking, powerful, etc. I was definitely drawn to her. I also liked the fact that she was forced to side with one of her two brothers (who were at war with each other). She could side with the brother she loved, but who would likely lose the war. Or she could side with the brother she disliked, but would likely win the war. I felt like this choice put her in a rather difficult position, and I admired how she moved forward. I really enjoyed bringing her character to life, as she was truly a remarkable person.