Friday, February 28, 2014

A Conversation with Amy Greene

By Susan

In 1936, a Tennessee Valley Authority project to provide a hydroelectric dam to power Appalachia flooded a valley and town in Eastern Tennessee. In Amy Greene's newest novel, Long Man, she chronicles the story of Annie Clyde Dodson whose toddler Gracie goes missing before the flood. Told from eight different perspectives over the course of three days, Greene wrenches her characters through an impossible situation: as the floodwaters rise, a mother's emotional and reckless decision brings about her greatest fear: losing her child.
Amy Greene, who's debut novel and bestseller Bloodroot published in 2010, and I have been friends over the past few years as she's written and revised Long Man. We had a chance to catch up last week as she prepared for the February 25 release of Long Man, when we talked about some of the concepts of the novel. Here's what she had to say.

SIP: Long Man is a lyrical exploration of place, inheritance, and character. In telling this story, you utilized eight different points of view. What was your writing process, and why did you ultimately decide to write it from so many POVs?
AG: When I wrote Bloodroot, I knew my characters very well. They were all first person, so finding their voices was, to me, simpler in that book than it was in this one. In Long Man, I started with a plot-based concept for the novel—the flooding of the valley in 1936— and then I dove into character, writing them in third person. As I was writing, I found my plot petering out, and I realized I didn't know my characters well enough to know what they would do next. I went back in and found them again. Each character represented something to me, thematically, so I felt that I needed all of them and each of their perspectives to adequately tell the story.
For this novel, there was too much distance with omniscience in order for me to know them well enough to write about them. I had to choose not to be afraid so that I could really have empathy for my characters. After all, this is the story of a mother who loses a little girl right before a flood! As a mother, that was difficult to write. In order for me to understand each of them, I had to have all eight points of view.

SIP: Let's talk a little about backstory. This story takes place over three days as Annie Clyde, her husband, James, her reclusive Aunt Silver, the sheriff, another deputy, and Beulah, the local midwife and medicine woman, all search for Gracie. In addition, the appearance of Amos, the one-eyed loner, puts just about everyone on edge. You do a masterful job of giving us real time action over the course of three days, and you also dive in to each character's story to show the reasons for their decisions. How did you decide how to roll out each character's history?
AG: (laughing) It wasn't easy. I should tell you that this novel went through six complete drafts. I couldn't have done it without Robin (her editor, Robin Desser, at Knopf). I felt such a responsibility to get this novel 'right.' Thank God for Robin, and all said, I am so thankful she pushed me to stretch as a writer. At the same time, adding and removing the characters’ histories became a difficult thing. As each character made a choice to hide something, or to reveal something, in order for the reader to really understand why they made those choices, I had to show the accumulation of their lives that brought them to that decision. Without the backstory, I couldn't have done that.
The balance between the backstory and the present story really had to click for me. In a way, I had to be emotionally willing to let go of some of the backstory in order to move forward. It came down to the fact that I knew far more about each character than actually ended up in the book. And that's okay.

SIP: Your fictional town of Yuneetah is, inevitably, obliterated by the flood in the end. I read in another article that you remember seeing the tops of silos in the lake when the waters were low. I also grew up near Cave Run Lake, a Corps of Engineer lake where my grandparents had a home, and I remember being fascinated by the nearby graveyard, which had several headstones for 'the unknowns' who'd been displaced by the making of that lake. As an Appalachian writer, how do you feel that this concept of place (and—conversely, the lack of place that comes from the destruction of the town) plays out in Long Man?
AG: Well, I suppose I am, and will always be, an Appalachian Writer.  It's such a microcosm here. We are isolated by our mountains, and in many ways we experience a 'time out of time' way of life. I live ten minutes away from my family's farm, and Cherokee Lake is just a few miles from there. I see the lake as part of the landscape, but what if that flooding had encompassed my family's land? Would I, like Annie Clyde, hold fiercely to that, perhaps even making reckless decisions in my attempt to keep it? Of course, when you are writing about something, you don't always know exactly what you are writing about.  You discover that as you go. And so for me, writing about my connection to this land was something that developed as I was writing the book.  I put a lot of myself into Annie Clyde. When it came down to it, there was really no way around that.

You can find Long Man at your local bookseller, at any Barnes and Noble or online. Thank you, Amy Greene, for stopping by What Women Write!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What a Writer Does

by Elizabeth

I've got a confession to make. I don't always behave like a writer. And I don't mean I don't write every day (though I don't), and I don't mean that I don't constantly research my craft (though I don't), and I don't even mean that I don't regularly attend workshops or classes or conferences (though I don't). No, the unwriterly behavior that I often miss out on is cooperating and collaborating with other writers. That's not necessarily something that a writer must do every day, or even every week, but is it a big part of being a writer?

For many writers, yes. And for this writer, as I was reminded this week, yes. Because when this writer acts like that writer, this writer is fulfilled. Satisfied. And writing.

It's been a while since I've done any major critiquing, for instance. Part of that is merely timing and (bad) luck: no one's asked. I assume and hope that's because the folks I work with simply aren't in that spot at the moment, but to fall back on that is a bit lazy. There are other writers out there, other venues and opportunities, and since nothing's landed in my inbox, the onus is on me to seek those out. Yet I haven't.

Also: supporting other writers, one of the base reasons this blog exists. Been a while since I've really done much of that. Other than a few author talks which I might have casually mentioned here, and the purchase of a book or two, I've not done much for some time to support and promote other writers.

This week that changed.

I exchanged information with another writer in my genre to critique each others' WIP. This, by the way, was the happy outcome of at least two other writers doing their jobs: putting us together. I found this writer via one of the ladies on the blog, who mentioned me to another writer friend, who thought of her friend, and like mixing a new recipe, they put us together and I'm hoping the result will be delicious for us both. I'm so looking forward to reading this woman's manuscript and helping her with it even as my own baby nurses at her computer at the same time. In fact, I'm craving the experience. How do I know that?

Because earlier this week I did precisely that for a children's book another writer I know sent to me. This is someone I've known for several years, but it's only recently I offered to read anything she wanted to send me, and within weeks an email arrived and I dove in to be delighted and excited and energized by her work and originality. It felt terrific. I almost forgot how much I love this part of the process. What a pleasurable way to be reminded.

And I have a note in my calendar to contact yet another writer tomorrow, someone who I met last fall who has a new book coming out in March. Can I interview you for my blog, I asked that day so many months ago, not realizing how much more his book (yeah, another guy in a tiara) would mean to me by the time we feature it here at WWW. Now, the very moment I am re-embracing these fundamental aspects of a writer's duties, up pops the reminder that I've committed to do this. To be a writer. To support other writers in multiple ways, in every way I can.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Marissa Meyer Book Signing

By Pamela

I've dragged my daughter to at least a handful of book signings in her life. This time she turned the tables on me. On Valentine's Day, Marissa Meyer, author of the Lunar Chronicles, was in town, promoting the launch of her third installment of the series, Cress. My daughter, Mia, had already read the first two books, Cinder and Scarlet, and was about to begin the third. She could not wait to meet Ms. Meyer!

Mia with Marissa Meyer
We met up with three other moms and their girls and eagerly joined the 100 or so fans at Barnes and Noble.

Ms. Meyer was a delight. Not only did she chat for way longer than I anticipated, she was so engaging--taking questions and talking at length about her writing process.

Several years ago she decided to participate in NaNoWriMo--in part because her Seattle chapter was holding a contest: Whoever completed the most words in November would win a walk-on role in an upcoming Star Trek episode. Motivated by the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream (inspired by her favorite Trekkie--her Uncle Bob), she spent the weeks leading up to NaNo getting organized.

You see, she'd recently had a dream in which Cinderella was fleeing from the ball and, at the point in the Disney version where her glass slipper falls off, Marissa saw Cinderella's entire foot fall off. Cinderella (aka Cinder) was a cyborg! And thus the seed for her first novel was planted.

From there she took her love of Hans Christian Andersen's tales and sketched out futuristic stories featuring Little Red Riding Hood (Scarlet) and Rapunzel (Cress). During NaNo, while working full-time and taking a class, she wrote just over 150,000 words! And yet she didn't win, getting bested by a little more than 100 words. (Her only consolation for not winning was learning the promised Star Trek gig never materialized, either.)

The next year or two would be spent taking those 150,000 words, adding to them and polishing them into drafts for her first three novels. (She admitted her first attempt was pretty bad.) But she said reading Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell taught her the tools she needed to craft her stories into something worthy of being published. She landed an agent, sold the book and is busy (between tour stops with her husband) finishing the fourth and final installment. More books are planned, much to the relief of her devoted fans, and I'm sure we'll see a lot more from this talented, charming author. I know my daughter is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Winter (featuring Snow White and Cinder on the moon) and will be sure to read anything else she writes.

So encouraging to see and hear from a young author who is motivating kids to read--and maybe write!

Friday, February 21, 2014

An Evening With Cathy Marie Buchanan and Robin Oliveira

By Kim

Those of you who have been reading the blog for a while know that I’m a huge fan of Cathy Marie Buchanan. (You can see my review of The Day the Falls Stood Still here and The Painted Girls here.) I was so thoroughly haunted by her debut novel back in 2009 that I wrote her fan letter, and we've periodically kept in touch online ever since. When I learned she was coming to speak at the Dallas Museum of Art on February 18th, I jumped at the chance to finally meet her in person.

Robin Oliveira's My Name is Mary Sutter has been on my to-be-read list for quite some time. I knew nothing of her new book, I Always Loved You, until a few days ago. How I missed a love story about two artists, I have no idea, because that’s the sort of book I devour. I am, in fact, scrambling through this post because I’m anxious to return to I Always Loved You. I’m currently on chapter ten and already I know this story of Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt will stay with me. Expect a review here in the next few weeks!

About 300 people packed into the Horchow Auditorium at the Dallas Museum of Art. Cathy Marie Buchanan spoke first, making the audience laugh when she confessed to being a terrible speller who wanted nothing to do with the written word until the invention of spell-check. In fact, she had chosen her college major (biochemistry) partly because it would involve very little writing. Her inspiration for The Painted Girls came from the years she spent training as a classical ballet dancer in her hometown of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Degas prints hung on the walls of her dance studio. Years later she watched a documentary about Degas’ statue, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, and knew she must write the model’s story. Her reading of the passage in The Painted Girls when Marie first sees her statue drew sympathetic gasps from those seated around me, especially as Buchanan had already discussed the hateful comments made about it at its unveiling. I admit I got misty-eyed, partly because Buchanan significantly changed the tone of her voice. I "heard" Marie and I ached for her.

I'm surrounded by brilliance! - Photo by Deborah Downes
Robin Oliveira then took the stage and entranced the audience with a story of how Edgar Degas’ friends come to his apartment to sort through his things after he had died. Mary Cassatt and her maid were among them, and Mary was on a mission to find something in particular—the letters she had written to Degas over the years. She found them and kept them alongside his letters to her until near the end of her own life. Rather than risk their correspondence being found and published later, she elected to burn them, leaving the nature of her relationship with Degas forever a mystery. This sort of gap in historical record is gold for both a novelist and their readers. One of the most moving parts of Oliveira's speech came when she showed a picture of one of Degas’ prints that featured Mary Cassatt. A reader once showed up at an event with a copy of this picture tucked into a manila folder and said Oliveira would be interested in it. In the print, Cassatt stands in front of an Etruscan tomb featuring an image of a man and woman resting in each other’s embrace. A message to Cassatt? Perhaps. I like to think so.

During the Q & A, both authors agreed their favorite part of the writing process is research and that they much prefer re-writing to composing a first draft. Buchanan is already researching her next book which, from the little she was at liberty to say, sounds both engrossing and entirely different from her other two novels. I Always Loved You just launched a couple of weeks ago; Oliveira is sorting through ideas for her next project, which is certain to be brilliant.

I made sure I was last in the book-signing line, so I could chat with both authors and they graciously posed for a picture with me. My mom, also present with her ready camera, snapped a few more candid shots while my father was left carrying all our bags and books. (Thanks, Dad.)

If you have the chance to see Cathy Marie Buchanan or Robin Oliveira speak, definitely go. They are both brilliant speakers. Click on the author’s name to be taken to their ‘upcoming event’ pages and see if they will be coming to your area soon.

An interesting side note:

After we left, I realized that I have in my possession original correspondence written by a Civil War nurse whose name Oliveira surely encountered in her research for My Name is Mary Sutter. The letters were written, interestingly enough, to my 3x great-grandmother, Martha Angell, in the 1840’s, when both girls were teenagers. Martha Angell is the grandmother of the protagonist in my novel. Such a small world! Wish I had thought to bring copies in a manila folder of my own. (Robin, we must talk!)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Love at first sight

By Julie

Who was it that said a picture is worth a thousand words?

They were right.

This happened this week: My firstborn's firstborn.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sister life

by Joan

I’m fascinated by the idea that single moments in time affect destiny. A missed train, a lost letter, a betrayal, an un-forgiven insult, a lost job, a war; these are the heartaches and tragedies of fiction and life.

As writers, we understand the power of words. Words spoken and words left unsaid. Recently, the Good Men Project shared a post, “A First Love Found Me on Facebook 30 Years Later. What He Confessed Took My Breath Away,” written by Robin Rice, novelist and writer of this other moving essay

They had shared only one lovely night. It wasn’t until thirty years later that he said, “I thought about you constantly after that one date. For years it was daily. Then, because it was ruining my life, I forced it to an every week or so category. When I met my wife, maybe once every month.”

But he’d never told her. She's devotedly married, but still she wondered, “What might it have been like, had I known?”

In Tiny Beautiful Things Cheryl Strayed eloquently wrote, “I'll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don't choose. We'll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn't carry us. There's nothing to do but salute it from the shore.” 

I like to think there are infinite alternate universes where each sister life runs its course, where countless paths split like hairline cracks in ice.

Sometimes those life-changing moments consist of particular individual choices (this love or that?), others, decidedly intrusive decisions (such as for Philomena), still others, the affects of world events, such as the Depression or war. What might life have been like, if only...

What if Theo had not lifted The Goldfinch from The Met? What if Jacob Jankowski had jumped a different train, not served Water for Elephants? What if Briony had not told the lie, had no need for Atonement? What if Harold Fry had dropped Queenie’s letter in the postbox and walked a hundred yards back to the house instead of hundreds of miles through England? Different stories, of course.

In Life After Life, what if Ursula Todd had not died on that first snowy evening in 1910? Well here, at least, Kate Atkinson unveiled Ursula’s sister lives.  

Francine Prose powerfully wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “Life After Life makes the reader acutely conscious of an author’s power: how much the novelist can do. Kill a character, bring her back. Start a world war or prevent one. Bomb London, destroy Berlin. Write a scene from one point of view, then rewrite it from another. Try it this way, then that. Make your character perish in a bombed-out building during the blitz, then make her part of the rescue team that (in a scene with the same telling details) tries unsuccessfully to save her.”

Which single moment has changed your character's life? What if it had happened another way?

Bandon Beach, Oregon, photo by Rick Mora

Friday, February 14, 2014

Who Do You Love?

By Susan

Every novel, I've heard, is a love story.

I suppose it's true. All protagonists want something, and if the author has done their job, that protagonist yearns for that thing (or person) more than anything they've ever wanted.

In Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream, he talks a lot about yearning. Not only does he devote a chapter to it, but that it is the basic building block he uses for all good fiction.
"It's the dynamics of desire that is at the heart of narrative and plot," he writes. He's also quick to point out that in genre fiction authors never forget this fact, and yet in literary fiction, it's often pushed aside.

What does yearning looking like? First, the author must know exactly what it is that the protagonist desires, and must show the reader this desire early in the text, and they must have sufficient motivation to fulfill that desire. Along the way, as they encounter conflict, they must overcome the obstacles to obtain what it is that they yearn for most of all.

Here are books from my own shelves where you can extract the protagonist's desire from the title:

Title                                                                         Desire:
Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe                  home
I'll Fly Away, Wally Lamb                                      freedom
Clay's Quilt, Silas House                                        family
The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker     rescue
The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh   understanding
Middlesex, Jeffery Euginides                                  identity
Grace (Eventually), Anne Lamott                           God

So for this Valentine's Day, think about what your characters love, and make sure that their journey to obtain it brings the reader along for the ride!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Oh My Darling

by Elizabeth

Kill your darlings.

Writers are very familiar with this advice, something that sounds stark and ugly to the ear and is indeed one of the harder things for a writer to do. I've heard some people go so far as to interpret it to mean, if you really really really love a piece of writing, you should stamp it out of your work. Me? I don't believe being in love with a piece of prose means it has to hit the trash, but I do know that sometimes some of the best words we write just don't belong.

I'm dealing with this with my current project. I've got plot in place, story, voice, no sagging middle (I hope!), all the elements coming together nicely, a good length--and some chapters that just no longer belong. Including some stuff that is wonderfully written, funny or heartbreaking or simply elegant, and yet no longer has a good enough reason to make the next draft. Darlings.

So I'm killing them, and as I do, I move a copy to a file I keep with that simple name: Darlings. It helps me to know that the work I did isn't gone forever, it's just elsewhere, even if it's never read by anyone but me.

As I pondered whether or not a particularly fun and fun-to-write group of chapters will survive (they probably won't), it occurred to me to publish an old darling here. This is from a manuscript I finished about five years ago:
Ruth was one of the old ladies at the gym.  She came in six days a week, never on a Sunday, and walked two slow miles on the treadmill, eyes front, a ready smile for everyone who passed by, even Denise, though of course Ruth had no children to bring her.  Once in a while she slipped into the back of a strength class, clutching the lightest hand weights available, two pounders swathed in lavender vinyl.  She didn’t actually keep up with the rest of the class, but she never quit, never left early, and indeed gamely lifted and lowered to the end.  One time, and one time only, she even came to kickboxing.  It was an unusually full class; Reggie had them three and four to a bag.  She put Ruth on the bag with a woman she knew, Goldie, and another first-timer, a beautiful heavy-set woman in her forties who was there on a one-week trial membership.  Ruth was slow, of course—she was seventy-seven on her last birthday, after all—but, as with the strength classes, she stayed until the end, kept moving, and never gave up.

She had gone to the library this afternoon with her son and her grandchildren.  The plan was to get a movie to watch later that night, the three of them cuddled together on the couch for the night while Mike and Amy went out to dinner with friends, high heels and sport coat, a fancy night, good restaurant.  They found a movie, Roman Holiday.  “You’ll love it!” she promised, knowing eleven year old Camille truly would, and hoping she wasn’t lying to thirteen year old Michael.  Then, while the others wandered off to find some books, Ruth settled into a chair to relax for a bit, but quickly fell asleep instead, head back, mouth open, the inspiration for silent smiles in the hush of the library.  It was only when Mike stepped gently on her foot about fifteen minutes later that anyone realized she had finally failed to finished something.  The movie was resting on her lap, not yet checked out.  And Ruth had quietly died.

What about your darlings? Feel free to post them in the comments section, or better still, email them to me at and we'll publish them on a regular post in the near future. It's not the same as appearing between a couple of hard covers, true, but it's more than hiding in a file unseen by anyone but the writer.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Writing Jar

By Pamela

I sorta hoard glass jars. I know, it's weird. But in one set of recycled jars I keep baking supplies--chocolate chips, chocolate chunks, cocoa, white chocolate, mint chips--which I corral in a small wooden crate that I keep in my pantry. A quick glance lets me know what I'm running low on and no more bags get spilled on the shelves.

Another set of my glass jars are filled with small candles which I move from place to place--sometimes on my mantle, other times on my dining room table. Wherever I need some soft lighting, there go my jars. I use another set to store soup and other leftovers as I try to use plastic sparingly.

photo by Carina on All About Books
Then Joan sent me a link to a Book Jar as a way to tackle my to-be-read stack of books.
(This clever blogger color-coded her selections according to genre, but you wouldn't have to.) So last month, I wandered through my shelves and stacks and wrote down the names of about thirty books I hadn't read and needed/wanted to. I then cut the paper into strips and folded them and deposited them into one of my many jars.

This weekend I thought of another way to work the Book Jar concept into a writing exercise. Simply create a Writing Jar. In it, place strips of paper with writing prompts. So whenever you're not writing on your work-in-process or need to step away from a current project for a bit, you can pull a strip of paper from the jar and take a dip into un-tread waters.

Writing prompts abound in books on writing or on the Web. I'd recommend Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True by Elizabeth Berg. Take these authors' suggestions for writing prompts, write them on slips of paper and drop them into a jar. Then keep the jar near your writing space and select a prompt when you need some inspiration. If you don't have access to writing books, a quick Internet search for 'writing prompts' will give you links like this, this and this.

If you have children who share your passion for writing, make a separate jar for them with age appropriate prompts. Maybe you both write from the same prompt and then compare stories. Set a timer and see what a little pressure causes you to create.

The idea is to limit your reasons for not writing. Keep those creative juices flowing, even when your manuscript stalls. You'll never know what you might find--a new character to add to your WIP, a new scene might emerge or perhaps a short story you can send off to a journal or contest. Just keep writing! And if you need a jar, call me. I'm sure I have an extra one you can use.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Research Workshop: Dig Deeper

By Kim

Half of Therese Walsh’s upcoming novel The Moon Sisters is from the point-of-view of a young woman with synesthesia. (I’d never heard of it either until reading the book.) In The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan brought to life the underbelly of the Paris Opera Ballet during the 1870s in gritty detail. Alyson Richman took readers into a concentration camp in The Lost Wife. Jodi Picoult tackles controversial topics in all of her novels, which requires insight into the minds of characters ranging from school shooters to stigmatas to modern day witches.

If you’re writing a novel, chances are you'll have to do research in order to make your story believable and compelling.

As a writer of historical fiction, I’m neck-deep in it. Each new piece of information I dig up potentially comes with a deeper story; sometimes that story can change the whole trajectory of a scene. Today I’m going to show an example of what I mean by this, and how taking the time to scratch beneath the surface can enhance your work.

This past week I received an e-mail from David Menary, an Ontario writer penning a book called Literary Landmarks of Cambridge. He intends to include a profile on my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens, who did write, but was better known for his painting. While researching Clara Bernhardt, another author he will feature, Menary discovered a journal entry about a visit Clara made to Carl’s home in December of 1934. Here is a shortened excerpt of what she said:

“There’s a man I shall not quickly forget. He looks more completely the artist than anyone I've ever seen. Tall, thin, emaciated from long illness, with eyes so deep-set and piercing you felt all your disguises penetrated by one glance…Pain has not only touched his face – it has carved it…As he talked I was surprised and disappointed and desperately sorry to find him cynical and bitter. Yet he is risen to the peak of his profession artistically if not financially. He said if his life were his to live over, he would not choose painting. As to his illness: “It is all very well to tell yourself it is for the best, but I feel I am not getting a square deal. I resent it.” How dreadful to live that way, and to die like that…for he looked mortally ill…No doubt he believes in [God] – any creator has to – but if I am not mistaken, God does not mean anything to him in personal relationship…He is keen, and witty, but quite unsmiling. Very weak physically, sometimes his voice would blur out, and he mentioned he had to use drugs all the time and that he rarely slept.”

If you were to write a scene illustrating this visit using only this passage as a guide. what information can you glean about Carl and Clara?

Carl: He is an artist of some acclaim who has been sick a long time, lives in great pain, and will probably die soon. He’s grumpy about this. His eyes, height, and frailty are his distinguishing physical features. He takes medication and may or may not believe in God. The line about living his life over again implies an older man, but he could just as easily be young and dying too soon.

Clara: She's insightful and has a way with words, suggesting a good education and wisdom that comes with either age or experience. While she has sympathy for the artist’s plight, she’s frustrated that he refuses to see the good with the bad in life. She believes the best way to accomplish this is through God.

There are a lot of unknowns here. Why is Carl cynical? Why does Clara make such assumptions about Carl's religious beliefs? With fictional characters, an author can invent a back story and motivations, but both of these people in question actually lived. Let’s dig a little deeper to see if we can flesh them out a bit. Bonus points if we can tell the truth.

Carl Ahrens in 1934
Let’s start with Carl. A simple Google search of his name will reveal that in late 1934 he was 73 years old and that he'd had a tubercular hip since his youth. His name is mentioned in several art history books and he has a painting in Canada’s National Gallery, but by 1934 he had already been overshadowed by a younger group of painters and his house had just been foreclosed. His wife’s memoirs (available to view at several libraries) describe a man of boundless energy and an adventurous spirit cut down by illness, destitution and bitter enemies. The “drug” in question was codeine. Side effects of large doses include sleeplessness and extreme irritability. His medical records, also available publicly due to his association with a prime minister, show Carl was admitted to the hospital a year later. They describe him as being six foot tall, eighty-five pounds, and suffering from a condition “of a most uncomfortable nature.”

And now for Clara. I was shocked to discover that she was only 23 in late 1934 and quite pretty, too. Had you pictured her in a wheelchair? I hadn't, though she had been in one since age 11, when she contracted  polio. Her formal education ended after 8th grade because she couldn't take that wheelchair on the streetcar to get to the high school, though she continued to study on her own and was on her way to becoming a well-respected Ontario writer. A year before this entry was written she had spent months in a rehabilitation facility where she did extensive physical therapy and, with the help of her religious faith, came to terms with the injustice of her own childhood illness.
Clara Bernhardt by Stephen Jones

With the addition of these details, our hypothetical scene has grown much more compelling. We no longer have a simple dialogue between a grumpy artist and an insightful but slightly self-righteous woman. We have two people, both immobile, one at the end of his life and the other in the prime of hers. We understand his bitterness and why she finds it disappointing. Perhaps she perceives he sees through all of her disguises because on some level she realizes they are kindred spirits, that he was once much like her.

What are some ways you have dug deeply in your own research? Have you learned anything that shocked you and changed your story for the better? What stumbling blocks have you run into?          

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Winter doldrums and a few bright lights

By Julie

Wow! This has been a winter for the books. Every time we turn around there's more news of big snowstorms, bitter cold, terrifying ice, and here in Texas, general gloom. We are just not used to days and days of cold and grey skies in our temperate, usually sunny state. I think everyone is getting a little stir crazy. Cabin fever is at an all-time high, tempers can run amok (especially on social media!), and Vitamin D levels are falling into the basement.

I've had an exciting few weeks with the release of the Calling Me Home paperback, but between events, I pretty much want to burrow under my down comforter--especially since I installed a brand new heated mattress pad--and read or sleep all day. How about you guys?

I'm making good progress on my new manuscript, learning lots of writing lessons all over again, and keeping my eyes and ears open for great resources around the web. In the last week, I've come across some blog posts and videos that have stood out for me, and I thought I'd share. It's one of those "Sometimes other people just say it better than I ever could" days.

Teri Walsh, the fearless leader of Writer Unboxed, one of the best resources for writers on the Internet, wrote this post that just goes to show that what looks fearless on the outside can look quite different on the inside. She sends a love letter out to published and aspiring writers everywhere with the message that never fails:

You are not alone.

Check out her moving post, A Simple Truth.

I've heard the name Brené Brown here and there over the last few years, but somehow didn't come across her TedxHouston talk in 2011 until last weekend. I then proceeded to watch several videos in a row and found what she said really meaningful. It applies to so much in life, including our self images as writers. Now I'm reading her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. So much about being a writer and finding our voices is about being our own unique authentic selves, and I think you might enjoy watching this and seeing what Brown has to say.

Finally, just for laughs, here's a cartoon I came across and had to share with a friend who lives in Chicago. I'm not sure how long it's been since they've been above freezing for more than a few hours at a time. I. Can't. Even. Imagine. This morning, however, I was shocked to discover it was 27 degrees there AND here in the DFW area of Texas! Maybe this will make you smile, too.

Stay warm, readers and writers! Spring is coming!

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Bermuda Triangle of Writing

by Joan

I’m in a writer's frenzy. I feel like a book that doesn’t know what it wants to be. 

While working on my novel-in-progress, I’m also writing (or thinking about writing) essays, short stories, books reviews, travel blog, personal blog, and this blog. I’ve got excel spreadsheets for my WIP outline, contests and literary journal submissions, and more ideas than time. Every time I open a file, I’ve suddenly got something to say that belongs in a different file, or perhaps the opening line to yet another (unfinished) short story.

Recently I’d started feeling like I was in the Bermuda Triangle of my novel, getting trapped in the first third without a way through to the next part. I’d jotted a brief outline of where the story was headed, including a twist that, if I pull it off, could be game changing for me. And maybe that’s why I’m stuck – it’s scary and harder than anything I’ve written.

When my desk is as cluttered as my mind, I know it’s time to take a step back and organize. At least once a day, I spend a half hour or so scrolling through social media for publishing news and tips. I often find myself clicking on Twitter links to industry or craft essays.

Last week I came across author Karen Woodward's wonderful blog. Karen writes urban fantasy and shares DAILY tips on craft.

The post I discovered last week (originally posted in December)  has changed the way I’m writing this novel. And it’s all because of index cards.

The idea is that a novel is a series of sequences. We introduce characters and setting, foreshadow conflicts to come, add conflict and “try-fail” cycles. In the end, there’s a resolution, the character achieves his goal or stakes are raised.

Within each sequence (in my book, I think of them as Parts I – IV), there are scenes and sequels.  For each scene, I used a large index card, first noting a short description and then adding:




What is my character's goal in each scene (should be consistent with her predominant goal), what will keep her from the goal, what setbacks will she encounter while she tries to move toward her goal. While filling in the details, I referenced back to both my outline and my draft. I soon found myself adding paragraphs or even pages spurred by these ideas. 

Next I added sequels.

Ms. Woodward quoted Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer to describe sequels:

“A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes, like the coupler between two railroad cars. It sets forth your focal character’s reaction to the scene just completed and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come.”

So following each scene, I noted the elements of a sequel:


Review and options


What is my character’s reaction to the previous scene, what are her thought processes, what will she decide to do next? This should logically flow to your next scene.

What I realized pretty quickly was that I had a great character, a big-picture notion of her trajectory and the book’s themes, but not specific immediate goals and conflict. Using this method, I’ve now outlined over half of my book. 

A danger of using a method like this is that it might become too formulaic. I’ve read books that I find way too contrived. (Heck, I’m pretty sure I’ve written a few). As I see it, the trick is to incorporate these elements while keeping the scenes and dialogue fresh and surprising. And of course the most important thing is to just keep writing.

I can see now that applying the method to my other writing projects will help as well. It might just help me take those essays and stories from unfinished to finished.

Have you tried this method or others? And how do you decide what to write next?

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