Interview Transcripts

Nancy Varian Berberick: Research 5/18/06



Legend:
Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in black.
The Moderator's comments are in blue.

Mary Rosenblum

Hello all.

 

I hope you're enjoying spring weather and spring inspiration. Welcome to our Professional Connection live interview.

 

Tonight my guest is a longtime friend and fellow writer, Nancy Varian Berberick.

 

Nancy Varian Berberick is the author of ten fantasy novels and a couple of dozen short stories. Under the by-line Nancy Virginia Varian, she's written a children's novel that's rambling around in the pipeline with a few upcoming short stories for grown ups. Nancy has been an instructor for Long Ridge Writers Group since 204 and is delighted to e part of the faculty for Shape, Write and Sell Your Novel.

 

Nancy, I'm so pleased to have you back to visit again. Welcome!

Nancy Varian Berberick

Thanks, Mary

 

It's great to be here again.

Mary Rosenblum

Research is something that gives novice writers a lot of trouble.

Nancy Varian Berberick

I can understand that. I found it daunting at first, too. Back when I was writing Shadow of the Seventh Moon.

Mary Rosenblum

How much, at what stage do you begin writing, how do you keep track of it all?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Keep track .. hm. You know, I really don't. I don't have file cards

 

and such until I'm really comfortable in my subject.

Mary Rosenblum

Let's see...you write both fantasy and historical fiction, right?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Well .. sort of. Most of my non-Dagonlance work is historical fantasy. I'm just starting

 

to work on a non-fantasy novel about -- pirates!

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, cool to the pirate novel! Is this aiming for the historical fiction market?

Nancy Varian Berberick

I hope so. My agent tells me to just write and not worry about the market yet, but

 

I can't imagine what else it would be. :-)

Mary Rosenblum

How much research do you have to do for historical fantasy? Can't you just make it all up?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Oh, I wish I could make it all up. Nope, it's a lot of reading

 

This is why I tell people to write what you love -- you're going to do a lot of reading bout it.

Mary Rosenblum

So what do you end up researching for one of your historical fantasies? Where do you begin?

Nancy Varian Berberick

These days, I'm fairly well versed in the subject matter. (They're all Garroc stories!) But I do have to refresh myself when I start a new one

 

However, at the beginning, I acquired quite a library about Anglo Saxon times

Mary Rosenblum

That's right. Garroc's world was pretty solidly based on Anglo-Saxon culture, right?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Right, with a smattering of Welsh and Norse lore. I began with a yen to know more about "Beowulf" and .. ended up writing about Garroc.

Mary Rosenblum

Interesting. (And it's a time period that has always fascinated me, which is probably why I enjoyed Garroc's adventures)...

Nancy Varian Berberick

But I still collect translations of "Beowulf." One day, Mary, I'm going to translate that puppy myself.

Mary Rosenblum

Wow...I'm impressed.

 

And I'm curious...

Nancy Varian Berberick

Curious? About the translating?

Mary Rosenblum

Did you choose to use real Anglo-Saxon culture in order to give it an historical flavor or simply to give your world consistency?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Ah, yes I chose the culture for that reason. I got tired of Tolkien knock-offs and decided to ground the stories in the real world.

 

Actually, I chose the period at Doug Clark's suggestion.

Mary Rosenblum

Good for you! So where did you start? How much did you feel you needed to know before you could put Garroc onstage, so to speak.

Nancy Varian Berberick

I felt like I needed to know EVERYTHING! My first mistake. But I enjoyed trying to learn it all

Mary Rosenblum

How come it was a mistake?

Nancy Varian Berberick

I've come to know that what I need to know is just enough to sound like I know what I'm talking about.

gwanny

How do you keep from getting yourself bogged down in research? When do you know that enough is enough?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Okay, how come it was a mistake: because I spent all kinds of time reading everything under the sun

 

only to learn that I needed authenticity, not a thesis paper

 

Bogging down in research can be a problem gwanny. I really LOVE doing research. I know I'm bogged own when I'm not creating, just making notes in the computer or my journal.

Mary Rosenblum

Do you have any 'rule of thumb' for when you've amassed enough research details that you can safely begin chapter one?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Yes, when I feel like I can take the reader to the place where the first chapter begins. I want him to smell the place

 

feel it, taste it -- be there. If I can do that -- I'm good to go.

Mary Rosenblum

So then you continue to add to your research as you write the draft?

Nancy Varian Berberick

All the time. Now that I'm writing bout Jamaica in the early 1800's this is taking a bit

 

longer than I'm used to. But I have that first chapter written and I'll go on making notes and reading from there.

Mary Rosenblum

Do you ever hit a point where you know where the story needs to go, but you have to stop and do research first?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Oh, for sure. I'm there now. I'd love to get the early chapters to my agent

 

but I know I have to do much more work on making them sound "real." This is when I begin to

 

burrow into he diaries and journals of folks who lived during that time.

Mary Rosenblum

How do you handle that, when the story nags at you but you need more facts? Do a summary? Just grind your teeth?

Nancy Varian Berberick

I just grit my teeth. I do make notes in the books I'm reading.

 

I'm good and start out using post-it notes, but I finally have to write in the margins: THIS for chapter 3, THAT

 

for chapter 4.

iamnina

How do you organize all that material?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Ultimately, I collect it into primary sources, secondary sources, maps, and ideas.

Mary Rosenblum

Ah...so what does each of those categories include?

Nancy Varian Berberick

I know that primary sources -- letters, journals, diaries, newspaper article, etc. will tell me about how people lived, what they ate, wore, thought, sang .

 

Secondary sources are what others think about the time and place; historians and so on.

 

Maps and ideas pretty much dwell in my computer so I can grab them fast.

janecj333

I always worry that research material will look just like that...research...if I plot it in as an exercise in making it sound right. I love when writers write as if they live the milieu, as if you could step into their story and the WAY they are telling it is the way it would really have happened.

Mary Rosenblum

Isn't that where skill comes in, Nancy? Turning that 'research' into 'being there?"

Nancy Varian Berberick

Mary, you're right. Skill, and having read so much about the time and place that you feel like you're writing

 

about your own town.

Mary Rosenblum

What is your best source for that 'your own town' feeling? The primary sources?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Yes, the primaries. that's where a writer will find the sensory descriptions, the lay of the land, the sound of people's voices.

 

Oh, wow. A side note -- I hope y'all will forgive my typing! Long day writing

Mary Rosenblum

Where do you find those primary sources...especially for a time so far in the past?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Well, for the Dark Ages, I resort to the histories written at the time, poetry and whatever else was created then.

 

For my pirate story, it's a whole lot easier. I'm reading journals now and I've found a real treasure trove on the Deep Web, or Invisible Internet.

Mary Rosenblum

Oooh, tell us about the Deep Web. (Mary's ears prick up).

Nancy Varian Berberick

Doesn't that sound wonderful? I'm just learning about it now. For one thing, it's utterly free of ads!

 

For another, it's a pipeline into academia. Yummy

 

Just google on Invisible Web and you8'll find all kinds of ways in.

Mary Rosenblum

Oooh, will do, Nancy, thanks.

 

Is it mostly academic information?

Nancy Varian Berberick

So far, that's what I'm finding. Some of it is free, other things require a fee to access. But it's like Christmas for any researcher.

 

Maps, journals, letters -- the real life writing of real people.

qwerty

Do you ever worry about getting it wrong?

Nancy Varian Berberick

All the Time. ;-) But I try to keep as close to real as I can.

 

And, thing is, history is changing. It's alive. each time someone makes a new discovery --

 

we're all groaning and thinking we'd like to rewrite our books and stories.

Mary Rosenblum

Do you feel that you have a bit more leeway, writing historical fantasy, as opposed to something that will be read as historical fiction? (And I'm laughing...every time another probe...

 

gets sent out, all us SF writers cringe!)

Nancy Varian Berberick

Leeway ... yes for fantasy. I don't take too many liberties, but when I'm writing in the AS period, no one agrees with anyone about what really happened -- and those are the people who lived then!

Mary Rosenblum

Have you ever had a fan complain that you got something wrong?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Whoo! Boy have I. Those would be the Dragonlance fans. So far I haven't tripped up on anything obvious in Garroc's stories.

Mary Rosenblum

Really? The fans are well versed enough in Anglo Saxon culture to catch you on mistakes?

Nancy Varian Berberick

DL fans are. They're a pretty smart group. But, I'm always happy to learn more.

megger

Nancy, is there a particular online site you feel is a good resource for more ancient maps?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Hm. How ancient is ancient? If you're talking the Dark Ages and earlier, I'd trust a google search on the subject: Dark Ages; maps and see what you get. They’re changing all the time.

 

But by and large, I trust academic sites over hobby sites.

megger

Medieval actually

Nancy Varian Berberick

Ok, look at a site called the orb. I don't know if it's a .com or .edu

 

but a google search will find it.

 

Megger -- you should also start roaming around the Invisible Web and see what's there.

Mary Rosenblum

Here's a link to an explanatory site for the invisible web: invisible web link

 

What about libraries, Nancy? Aren't they still useful? Our Oregon Historical Society is full of antique hand drawn maps and so forth...diaries...letters...claim books.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Oh, libraries -- absolutely. I don't get out to libraries much any more, the internet has corrupted me. And there's UNM's library right up the road!

 

Bu now and then we'll take a trek and sit around all day ooh-ing and ahh-ing,.

info

Being as you write with historical facts, do your maps tend to be what the country looked like at the time instead of being made up?

Nancy Varian Berberick

I try hard to strike a balance. I'm encountering that problem with Jamaica now. Do I talk about how the people saw it, or how my readers will know it?

 

Same thing with language.

Mary Rosenblum

So how do you deal with the problem that if you stay true to your POV, your readers may not know what he or she is talking about?

Nancy Varian Berberick

A little goes a long way, that's the rule. I'm encountering the problem with language now.

 

The owner of a plantation swill speak of her slaves in ways that make me gag --

 

but she gets to have her words. I must be care that the narrative voice speaks to 21st century sensibilities

Mary Rosenblum

Do you ever worry that some readers might attribute your character's values to you?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Yes. It’s happened in the past. But I feel that if I keep the narrative voice strongly anchored in the here and now -- I won't use

 

awful words to describe a salve, he'll be described as human being, my intent should be clear.

Mary Rosenblum

And let's face it, you can't avoid that without writing fiction that is oppressively politically correct.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Exactly. My feeling is, when I write about a particular period, my duty is to the story, the time, and the reality of the time.. Readers are intelligent enough to get it if they want to.

 

If they don't want to, they have an axe to grind and no business with me.

qwerty

Your student Alan in Spokane say's, Howdy!!!!

 

Have you ever learned a language to write in voice?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Hullo, Alan!!

 

Yes, I learned Old English to write Garroc's stories in first person narrative. Fun, fun, fun!

Mary Rosenblum

That's so cool, Nancy. :-)

 

Really hard to find a native speaker to check your prose with it's Old English.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Thanks. I've been in live with OE since high school, and learning the language for real gives Garroc an authentic voice. Working Jamaican patois now ...

 

Well, yeah -- so no one's going to complain about my accent. ;-) But the rhythms work well for a feeling of reality.

qwerty

With me, it's Romani, and it kind of scares me.

 

Getting it wrong, I mean.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Why, Alan? Are you going to learn the whole language? Or are you reading and listening for rhythms?

qwerty

Speaking in character, Serena for example.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Oh, getting it wrong. What are your sources? Are they oral or written?

qwerty

Both, but I don't know any Gypsies.

Nancy Varian Berberick

If you have oral sources, listen to them. Get a feel for the rhythms and how words go together. Learn the accent and write that way. Drop in a real word now and then ... and you'll get the hang.

cosmos

What are your best tips for creating powerful characters that jump off the page and that readers love?

Mary Rosenblum

Especially when that character lives in a very different culture?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Everyone wants something, no matter when thy lived. Find out what your characters want, take it away from them, give them a reason to fight for it ... the idea is to write about what will connect your character to your reader. The common things we all feel.

Mary Rosenblum

Human universals in other words?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Exactly, Mary. We can use the differences to enhance the sense of time and place, but in the end your readers will want to read about people they can feel for.

 

Let's face it, I wouldn’t' really want to hang around with some guy from 6th century Britain.

Mary Rosenblum

That's really the key to historical fiction of any sort isn't it? Creating characters who are

 

recognizably human even if they don't act like us?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Yes. I love stories where the characters have one foot in each world, so to speak.

janecj333

When you began to write fantasy did you set yourself boundaries that you didn't want to cross, such as dragons, yes, but trolls, no?

Nancy Varian Berberick

I recognize their feelings, but their world is exotic and fascinating to me. I think historical fiction fails when it's just 21st century people in period drag.

 

Jane, I wanted to write everything. I fell in love with dwarfs, though -- highly under regarded -- and ended up in a Norse kinds of space. I'm still there.

janecj333

After hearing so much emphasis in sf writing on who did what, I realized yesterday (in a chat with a literary author) that there is more to writing than just getting people from here to there, and making sure someone steps in their way. Does fantasy lend itself to more literary writing than sf?

Nancy Varian Berberick

I don't think so. I think, alas, that literary writing is not well regarded. What counts is the action and if you can smoosh a bit of characterization in there, that's okay. Jonathan Strand & Mr. Norrell nothwithstanding.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, I'm going to have to put my two cents worth in here. While a lot of both fantasy and SF are action driven entertainment fiction...

 

you do have writers who have other agendas and the plot/action is secondary. Nancy Kress is one, for example, in SF...there are a goodly number.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Well, I'll bow to that. I might just be still pouting that Jonathan Strange 7 Mr. Noreell didn't get the Nebula.

 

Mary, maybe it's easier in short fiction.

Mary Rosenblum

I think it's actually easier in novel form...because you have more room to work in more plot. :-)

 

I want to go back a bit here

 

because I think you said something very powerful and I'd like to pursue it...

Nancy Varian Berberick

Oh, if I were writing with no restriction, I'd agree with you. But having written for ACE and for WIZARDS, I've encountered a lot of restriction. Hm Maybe I need to look at SF?

Mary Rosenblum

That 'bad characterization' is putting a twenty first century POV into 'period drag'. I see a lot of that in SF too...they're in 'future drag'.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Yep. I value authenticity and I'm a great fan of authors who can give it to me.

megger

21st century in drag....that's was makes me wonder about something said earlier, unless I misunderstood, and why we as writers should worry about being PC with the past?

Mary Rosenblum

Yes, how do you 'get' that period mindset?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Very, carefully. It wasn't hard working with Garroc, but the pirate story is going to be tough. My first primary source was

 

the journal of Lady Nugent, the wife of the Gov. of Jamaica in the early 1899's. She was fairly liberal

 

in her thinking. But she still sent the slaves on ahead to see if the river was safe to cross. Lost two guys one night, not a word to say.

 

Gave me the chills.

info

Can you explain what you mean by 'period drag' or 'future drag'? I got a little lost on that one.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Period drag -- that's dressing a character in period costume, but not attempting to make her behave like a person who lived in the time. For example,

 

If I were writing about someone like lady Nugent, I could go only so far with her liberalism. She'd take care of her slave, make sure they lived well, but

 

she'd tell her husband to shoot anyone who offered to harm her. Or she'd still call them "blackes" or other unpleasant names. She was who she was.

kashmir

It would be like Jennifer Aniston playing Scarlett O'Hara in her Friends persona, right?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Yes! And speaking of Miss Scarlett -- that is one fine period drama. A good example of what I'm talking about.

janecj333

Death in the 1890's, be it the chicken for the pot or a man drowning because some aristocrat couldn't be bothered to wait a week for the river to go down, must have been pretty common.

Nancy Varian Berberick

It was. And in Jamaica at the time, people dropped like flies. Yellow fever was the terror of the European population.

 

Slaves were property first and people ... often not at all.

janecj333

And that's what milieu is about...recreating how people might have acted because we can't possibly know.

Mary Rosenblum

Well, you do find primary sources, right Nancy?

 

That must help.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Diaries and Journals are easy to find. So are reproductions of period newspaper. Libraries and book stores -- old ones -- are good for that

 

there's nothing like "hearing" a real person's voice in her journal.

Mary Rosenblum

How did you create a voice for Garroc when you must find very few personal journals from that time period?

Nancy Varian Berberick

What, you think he didn't keep a journal? You think I'm making this all up?

 

*grin* I used poetry, historical records, letters and the Chronicle.

 

This was the period when the Church was colonizing England, and the priests and monks loved to write.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh that's true.

megger

As I understand it, the monks and priests were about the only ones who did!

Nancy Varian Berberick

And the kings were happy to learn how to do it to -- or hire [people to. They were writing every chance the could.

 

No, no really. The fashion became to create your family's history and kings learned to write, their wives did, and so did poets. Unfortunately, much as been lost and so what remains gives a skewed picture.

Mary Rosenblum

Foxx has been trying to send a question to the stage along these lines...

 

Foxx asked if people might not have written what they thought should be rather than what actually was...ancient political correctness?

Nancy Varian Berberick

About who wrote when? I'm not saying everyone wrote, but the wealthy learned, the kings did. We don't have a lot of original material, but

 

when you read between the lines of hat we do have, you see that there are references to works that no longer exist. :-(

Mary Rosenblum

So does your historical research give you a changed perspective on events of today? Do you find 'people are people' even across the ages?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Foxx -- when you're talking about the monks, perhaps yes!

 

Mary, that's a great question. In ways, I do find that humanity has constants,

 

things in common that we all understand. But, as I said, I wouldn't want to hang out in the hall of a REAL 6th century Saxon king. Eeeeww!

Mary Rosenblum

Do you find that you need to alter some things so that you don't have to do a lot of explaining or can you make things pretty clear through context.

Nancy Varian Berberick

For me, it isn't a matter of altering things, it's a matter of using material that will be clear in context. In other words,

 

use what the story and the reader need.

klmiller

Sorry I'm late. Does the writing of a given time ALWAYS reflect those times? Usage and vocabulary can be invented to imitate a style from the past can't it?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Hm. I think it's a matter of what the author knows the reader will get. I could have a ball using Old English all over the place,

 

but my readers would probably go find another book to read. So, I use a word, a phrase, then imitate speech patterns in modern English.

Mary Rosenblum

How's that working with the Jamaican patois?

 

What was that a mix of?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Pretty well, actually. Today I just got a copy of Matthew Lewis' journal of his two years on his plantations. The patois is a mix

 

of English, French and African. A little of that goes a long way!

Mary Rosenblum

Wow, what a mix of rhythms, too!

Nancy Varian Berberick

I'll be using reasonably modern English, but with a 'accent". A bit of patois here and there, then back to catching the rhythm and casting modern English that way.

cosmos

As one of the faculty for the LR novel writing course, what is your best advice for students taking the course?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Read, read read. Then write, write, write. Learning to write is a process, not an even. ;-)

Mary Rosenblum

That's good advice for anyone aspiring to writing!

klmiller

Do you think readers will be turned off by or necessarily notice if you don't have a tight grasp of a language if you only use a hint or smattering of that language?

Nancy Varian Berberick

I don't think so. When I write historical fantasy, or now when I'm writing the pirate chicks book, the promise is to tell a good story.

 

I think of the language as part of setting, not part of story.

Mary Rosenblum

Consider this...if your reader doesn't speak that language, a lot of it will shut that reader out of many conversations.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Exactly. Funny you should put it that way. When I was researching OE, many of the books I used were written

 

in a time when readers would be expected to know Latin and German and French. Well, not me, and

 

I was shut out of a lot of information that was not translated.

Mary Rosenblum

Here's a question, Nancy. Geezer thought it was 'off topic' but it's not. We've been talking about 'rhythms' of language without either of us really explaining what that means.

geezer

Off topic for Mary. Maybe for a future topic you could for we that are tone deaf give examples of how to write the rhythm of Spanish, French, etc.

Mary Rosenblum

Want to explain?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Okay, I'll try. Geezer, when you read a language that, say, from the romantic tradition -- French, Italian, Spanish, the grammar is different from English and that creates

 

a pattern that hearing people know as rhythm. Subject, verb can often be verb then subject. German is much like this too. So looking at the grammar

 

of the language I want to imitate will allow me to use that patter or rhythm if you will when writing in modern English.

Mary Rosenblum

That's a good way to handle dialect, too, isn't it?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Another thing to look at is a translation of a book from another language. The translator tries to preserve the sense of the original language, and so you hear the rhythm of it in reading.

 

Yes, Mary, a great way to handle dialect. Which should NEVER be over done! ;-)

Mary Rosenblum

Before we run out of time, Nancy, tell us about the Jamaica novel! Any new stories or books coming out soon?

 

Any chance you'll be at World Fantasy Con this year?

Nancy Varian Berberick

The Jamaica novel is in the works, it's a pirate story about two women who learn that they are half sister. One is the daughter of a slave, the other of the plantation owner.

 

New stories ... yes, another Garroc story, and one that tells the alternate tale of what would have happened if Pilate stayed Jesus' sentence.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, that's cool, Nancy. Is that a Dragonlance book?

Nancy Varian Berberick

No, I'm afraid traveling is difficult for me these days. Hauling the wheelchair around

 

is a drag, and MS is a real energy eater. I miss the cons!

Mary Rosenblum

Ah, I’m sorry to miss you, Nancy.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Yep. It's tough. I stick to the hometown cons now.

geezer

Ahar. Thank ye, Nancy.

Nancy Varian Berberick

To answer you earlier question, the pirate novel is my own baby. No Dragonlance for a while. :-)

 

Yer welcome, matey!

Mary Rosenblum

I figured the pirate was your baby. What about the Garroc story...the alternate Pilate story?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Garroc story coming out in 2007, the alternate history coming out in the fall. That one I loved writing. I think

 

it's my favorite this year. What a strange and touching situation .

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, cool, what's the title of the alternate history?

Nancy Varian Berberick

"Yeshua's Choice". What will he do with the rest of his life now that he isn't going to sacrifice it for the sake of the world

Mary Rosenblum

Wow, girl, you tackled a BIG alternate history topic!

Nancy Varian Berberick

I grew up Catholic and know the story well, but looking at it this way ... well I had a new appreciation of it.

Mary Rosenblum

Who's bringing it out?

Nancy Varian Berberick

Hah! No, the problem was the whole thing as too big. I had to narrow it down to what would happen to one man. Because essentially, the world would not

 

have known that anything was different. Only Yeshua would know.

 

Daw will publish the anthology, the title of the antho is Time twister.

Mary Rosenblum

Cool! I'll have to watch for it.

 

Well, we've actually kept you a bit over time.

 

Thank you so much for coming. This was a fascinating topic, and you brought us a lot to think about.

 

And some great tips.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Mary, I had a great time. Thanks all for putting up with the typos!

Mary Rosenblum

Oh you're far from the worst, dear. You've been a great guest.

 

Keep me posted on the Jamaica story!

 

That sounds SO cool.

Nancy Varian Berberick

Hey, you know what was fun? Meeting one of my students!

ashton

Thanks for taking the time to share with us, Nancy. Have a great night...and avoid those storms...

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you all for coming!

Nancy Varian Berberick

Ashton, thanks. We're actually hoping for the storm, but I know what you mean. ;-)

 

Night all.

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you all for coming.

 

Good night, Nancy!

 

Good night all, and have a great weekend!

 

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