Friday, April 30, 2010

That's It....

More Scribblin' is no more.

The Trouble with Taglines

(February 25, 2010)

I've been reading some blogs lately that have been talking about marketing your novel. The most recent one I read was about having a "tagline", which as I understand it, is sort of like an advertising slogan. I decided I really ought to get cracking and come up with something for my tagline.

The problem is, I am terrible at coming up with pithy sayings that express the heart of what I've written!

First of all, I'm really reluctant to use the word "romance" in a tagline, because in relation to novels, I think that word has become associated with things that simply aren't in my books, although there is definitely romance in them. So how do I tip people off that this is a love story without setting up expectations that won't be met?

Here are some of the ideas I've had and have shot down:
  • "Old-Fashioned Love Stories Never Go Out of Style" - well, there's a quick way to kill interest in the story! Yeah, label it as "old-fashioned".....
  • You know, it's good to use an "antithesis" approach, but "Regular people, unusual love" just brings up some pretty bad connotations, ha ha....
  • "Romance and History on the American Frontier" - ok, that works for the current projects (except I used that "romance" word), but the next project I have in mind is not a love story and isn't set on the frontier. I don't want to have to be coming up with a new tagline to "brand" myself with every new book (ugh)!
  • "Character-driven historical fiction" - yawn...
  • "Books you'll like, I promise!" - Ok, I think I'm getting desperate....

Finding Edward DuVal

(June 25, 2009)

Last week, I made the "sacrifice" to chauffeur my son to a camp for students who play brass instruments. That meant I was "stuck" from 9-3:30 everyday in the genealogy room of the city's library with nothing to do but work on my writing. It was a productive week - I finished two chapters. But I might have done more if I hadn't become obsessed with a new project - finding Edward DuVal.

If you've read this blog at all, you've learned two things about me: first, that my WiP is about the struggle between the Cherokee and the white settlers for the land that became the state of Arkansas, and second, that I am rather a stickler for accuracy ("done but for the toe," not "done but for the cuff.") Edward DuVal was the U.S. government's agent to the western Cherokee during the time my book takes place. In order to work in some of the important events that were part of the Cherokee/white struggle, I'm going to have my protagonist (John David) luck into a job as a transcriptionist for DuVal. That will put John David in a position to observe the inner workings of those events.

DuVal will, therefore, be a rather important character in this book. So over the past months, I've been trying to find out as much as I can about him, so as to be as accurate as possible in my protrayal of him. I know that probably doesn't matter to anyone but me, but it does matter to me. I had learned quite a bit about DuVal by reading the correspondence between him and his bosses at the War department in Washington in the Arkansas Territorial papers. The impression I got was that of a man who was ambitious, but eager to do his job well and to be fair to the Cherokee, even if it meant bypassing the territorial government (which I think DuVal saw as inept and biased). I read in Josiah Shinn's Pioneers and Makers of Arkansas that DuVal was a "young" man when he came to Arkansas Territory, and that he was eage to "magnify" the office of Indian agent, and therefore made some mistakes, like not respecting the territorial governor.

A couple of months ago, I hit a little vein of rich information by asking "The Google" (as my sister calls it, ha ha). I found in the footnote of an old book that DuVal had served as a clerk in the Department of the Navy, and although he was only a lowly clerk, sort of became the "go-to" guy for anyone who wanted access to William Jones, the Secretary of the Navy. However, when Jones was replaced as secretary, DuVal lost his position of favor and ended up as a storekeeper at the Navy Yard in Baltimore. I discovered by perusing a list of President Monroe's papers that DuVal had tried after that point to get a number of political appointments, including several out West. He tried, unsuccessfully, to be named Secretary of Mississippi Territory and, later, Secretary of Arkansas Territory. Finally, in 1823, he got his wish: in what was probably one of the last acts of President Monroe, DuVal became the Cherokee agent.

An interesting little side note: I found testimony from William Jones regarding the burning of the Naval Yard when the British were invading Washington, DC, during the War of 1812. Apparently DuVal was with him when Jones gave the order to burn the Yard. DuVal may have even been part of the crew that carried out that order. Quite exciting, I thought!

That brings me back to my week in the Fort Smith library. I had a set of questions about DuVal that I hadn't been able to answer with The Google alone. Most relevant to my story was the question of DuVal's age. But I also needed to know something about his family, and I wanted to know something about his military background. I haven't done much genealogical research; that is my sister's specialty (and she has certainly pulled some magnificant rabbits out of the hat for me from time to time!). Looking up family trees and at lists of men who were mustered during the War of 1812 and at historical lists of officers in the U.S. Army and Navy was a new experience -- and I sort of became addicted. I found out from old newspaper accounts when and vaguely how DuVal died (in 1830 of a "violent illness that lasted two or three days"), and (I think) how old he was (one account said he was 40 at the time of his death, so I'm taking their word for it). I found out from census records that DuVal probably had at least three young sons when he moved to Arkansas, and from an old letter that his wife had a "fine daughter" shortly before he died. I thought I had found a marriage record which turned out to be the wrong Edward DuVal, but I did eventually find out his wife's name (Ellen Jones).

That's all I need for my book, right? What is important is NOT Edward DuVal, it is the history that he was part of making. However, as I got involved in this research, Edward became sort of a friend, and I found myself wanting to know more and more about him. Was this Ellen Jones he married the daughter of his boss at the Navy Department, William Jones? Just what WAS Edward's military record? I couldn't find him in any of the lists of the War of 1812. Was he a political appointee who gave himself airs by referring to himself as "Major" DuVal, or was he really a major? How many children did Edward and Ellen have? What happened to Ellen and those children after Edward died from that "violent illness"?

Last night, I finally decided (at nearly midnight) that this obsession with DuVal had gone far enough and that I must quit (or at least suspend) the research on him because it's getting in the way of other pursuits (like sleeping!). So I'm not allowing myself to search for those answers any more right now. Maybe later I will do that. Maybe sometime I will put it all together and write an article about DuVal to submit to the state historical journal. (hmmmm.....on second thought, I wonder if there is any kind of state prize for historical articles? I seem to recall something about that....hmmmmmm.........)

A Motivation Problem

(May 24, 2009)

No, it's not my motivation that's the problem this time...I'm trying to understand what would make one of my characters act the way he does, and I would welcome any help.

This is from my second book, in which the protagonist was illegally squatting on Indian land and was evicted by the U.S. Army. He's currently living in a town on the side of the river the government gave to whites. The standard of living he and his family are experiencing is considerably higher than the one he had on his illegal farm. Yet he's pining for that piece of land.

What would make someone be so fixated on something like the land? I'm having some trouble understanding the character because I am much more practical than that, living by a sort of "get over it" mantra. Some of the possible motivations I've offered to myself include 1) he likes the landscape better than that south of the river (but it's not THAT different!), or 2) it reminds him of home (but again, it's not THAT different). So why can't he just get over it and say, "It's not that different, I'll just find a spot south of the river?" It's important to the plot of my story that he be fixated on living north of the river, because that's where the main conflict comes in. White people coveted this land the government had given to the Cherokees, and they put pressure on the politicians to move the Cherokees out--something that didn't take a tremendous amount of pressure, I might add.

Anyone have any thoughts? I greatly appreciate any help!

The Problem of History

(May 6, 2009)
There's been debate recently in some of the blogs I follow over the issue of accuracy in historical fiction. Since I've said before that realism and historical accuracy are important to me in my writing, I'm not going to rehash that debate. My purpose in this post is to discuss the difficulty entailed in achieving that historical realism.

The catalyst that got me thinking about this comes from my work on my second book. The protagonist has been kicked off the land where he was squatting illegally, and now he needs work of some kind so he can support his family. I've been trying to reason through what type of work for hire would be available for a man on the frontier in the early 19th century. I decided it would be helpful to know more about the town where this story is supposed to take place (it's an actual place). So I went by the "local history" section of the public library.

The trip proved to be an exercise in frustration. Granted, I didn't have a lot of time to look (had to pick up the kids after school), but all I found were two articles in the state's historical quarterly and two books written in the 1940s and 1950s by the same man. The thing that was frustrating about those sources was that they were written in such a subjective manner that I'm not sure I can trust the information in them to be true. The standards of academic research that I've had drilled into my head through my profession were nowhere to be seen in these articles; there was no citation of sources and little effort to corroborate stories that were given. I found one story that I thought was probably of dubious origin (kind of a "wise old Indian" fable) that was repeated in a later article - I'm guessing the original article was the source.

Beyond the lack of objectivity in the sources, I had another problem - the content was all rather vague. There were some tantalizing tidbits about a store owned by a man named Saugain, and mention of twin villages on opposite sides of the river (Indians on the north, whites on the south), but none of it gave anything specific that I could tie my narrative horse to.

Fortunately, my sister dabbles in genealogy. She and I had been talking about my writing over lunch (bless her, she always lets me talk about it and acts like it is SOOOO interesting!). When I got home in the afternoon, she had sent me a link to the Government Land Office website, which had surveys dating back to 1820. It was a wonderful site! It doesn't tell me everything I need to know, but it did solve one plot problem I was anticipating.

The thing is, I guess I will have to piece together a picture of the history of the area from sources like the old surveys, census records, the records of the territorial government, and accounts from the one newspaper in the territory. There are apparently no surviving diaries or personal letters. I guess the people on the frontier were too preoccupied with trying to live to worry about leaving a record behind for later generations. I know that I don't consciously leave "records" for future generations; I don't really think of the time I'm living in as "history." I'm sure it was the same for those early pioneers. Thank goodness for government red tape, or there wouldn't be anything to give us insight into their lives!

Well, This is Depressing!

(April 21, 2009)

I had to do my "parental duty" tonight and go to a choir parents' meeting for my son's choir. So in between work and the meeting, I moseyed over to the local Hastings store to kill a few minutes and check out what was on the shelves for teens and young readers. It wasn't encouraging. Other than the classics and Newberry winners (like Johnny Tremain), I don't recall seeing a single work of historical fiction on those shelves! There was an entire shelving section, about 12 feet long and 6 feet high, devoted to the Twilight series - I kid you not. Across the aisle were all the Twilight-wannabes, with their promise of vampires and dark, angsty teen love. One book pictured a cheerleader with sort of zombie-looking eyes sprawled across a bleacher seat. My son was familiar with that series (apparently it's a series - aren't they all?), and he said something like, "Yeah, all the kids in my school want to read are books about people who are in love with vampires or dead people." (He's an eighth-grader, by the way, and he did like the Twilight series himself.) I said, "In love with dead people????" Sounds like a real fun read, ha ha.

Whatever happened to historical fiction? I fear that if it were not for all those English and Language Arts teachers who require kids to read one historical fiction book per quarter that kids wouldn't read it at all...I know my son wouldn't. That just makes me so sad. I think about all the wonderful adventures I've had, and all the wonderful characters I've met, and all the things, wonderful and not, that I've learned about our world by reading historical fiction. I find it so sad that kids would rather live on a steady mental diet of creatures from the underworld.

As an aspiring author of historical fiction, it also alarms me. How will I ever crack open a slot on those shelves for my book? I was joking with one of my friends that I should have written a book about gossipy, mean-spirited, well-dressed vampires who lived during the Tudor period and then I might have a better shot at getting published. It was just a joke, but I do wonder if ordinary pioneer folks who are struggling to live day to day are going to appeal to anybody. At least they have some of that angsty love going on, lol.

Maybe we need a new label for this genre. Maybe "historical fiction" has gathered too many connotative associations that turn people off. Maybe we need to rename it, something like "Fiction of the Past" or "Pre-modern Narratives." Anybody else have an idea?

It's the Little Things that Kill Suspension of Disbelief

(March 20, 2009)

I caught an error in Dancing in the Checkered Shade this morning. Flipping through the television channels, I came across a program about knitting a sock. That caught my interest, since I mention in my book that a character had been knitting a sock. As I watched, a sense of horror (lol) began to spread through me. I'd made a mistake. In my description of the knitted sock, I said it was "finished but for the cuff." But I saw that these knitters started with the cuff and finished with the toe, which makes perfect sense when you think about having to shape the foot of the sock. I resolved right then to fix that error in the manuscript as soon as I could escape from the day job for the afternoon.

"What's the big deal?" you may ask. "Probably no one would ever catch that mistake. Not all that many people knit, and very few of those who do actually knit socks. Who cares?"

I care! I said in my post yesterday that realism matters a lot to me, so I want things to be right. Besides that, the sock error is the kind of thing that can ruin the world of a story for a reader. Granted, there might not be many who would know it was a mistake, but that one sock-knitter out there who might read my book someday would come across my error and say, "Wait a minute...." Any time a reader has to say, "Wait a minute," a crack has developed in the seamless facade of your story and in the willing suspension of disbelief a reader gives to you. So, yeah, I care.

This error reminds me of one I caught in a book about the Civil War I was reading once. At the beginning of the story, the main character is a young boy whom the book specifically says was having trouble growing any facial hair. Six months later, he's been conscripted into the Confederate army and fought in a tough battle. The author then says something about his full beard. Wait a minute! No 15-year-old boy I've ever seen has gone from peach fuzz to a bushy beard in six months. I guess Civil War-era coffee really did make a man of a boy!

Fortunately for me, the fix is easy. I change one word ("cuff" to "toe"), and the problem goes away. But now I'm wary; what other simple errors lie lurking in the manuscript? Will I find them in time?

People Probably Think I'm Odd (and maybe they're right....)

(April 24, 2009)

Just about every writer has a spot where he/she prefers to work, where ideas seem to flow easily and inspiration seems to abound. For me, that spot is the local Wendy's restaurant. When I am sitting alone at the table at the very back of the eating area, under the sunroom roof, I can work through even the stickiest plot problems or brainstorm character motivations. I don't know why that particular spot is so productive for me -- well, maybe I do. I get my food and then for 30, 45, or 60 glorious minutes, I am anonymous. No one knows me as "Mama" or "Dr. Marlow" and wants the activities that come with that role. I don't even have to worry about doing the dishes when I'm finished eating. For the time I am at Wendy's, I can fully concentrate all my mental effort on my writing.

I always assumed I was anonymous. But today as I was trying to work out how John David would react to being evicted from the land where he and Maggie are illegal squatters, one of the women who works at Wendy's was cleaning the lobby (I usually go after the initial lunch rush is well over). From the corner of my eye, I could tell she was watching me as she wiped the tables. She came closer, and then in her cheeriest voice, she asked if I needed anything else, a refill, maybe? I said no, but I'd made eye contact, and this was her opportunity. She asked, "What are you doing? Everytime you come in here, you are working on something so hard."

Why not? I told her the truth, that I am writing a book and her restaurant is a great place for me to work. I reminded her that J.K. Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter book at a coffee shop in her hometown, and I assured her if I ever become famous for this book, I will be sure to put in a plug for Wendy's. I think she thought I was a little crazy, but she accepted my story with an "Oh, cool," and moved on to the next table.

Anyway, at least they won't have to wonder any more!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Maggots in the Cornmeal

(March 13, 2009)

How does an author handle it when the protagonist of his work has to do things that are less than honorable? In other words, what do we do about the "maggots in the cornmeal" of history? (I'm borrowing this phrase from a discussion once with Jack Shakely, author of The Confederate Warbonnet.)

Tonight I was procrastinating in my actual writing by doing some research into the history of the treaty with the Arkansas Cherokees that will figure prominently toward the end of my second book. To summarize, white settlers and the Cherokees were both claiming a section of land in what is now northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma. The territorial legislature in Arkansas had launched a "pre-emptive strike" in the battle by designating the area "Lovely County," making it part of their jurisdiction and effectively claiming it for the whites. A delegation of Cherokees from Arkansas went to Washington, DC, in 1828 to try to get government officials to enforce the provisions of previous treaties that would keep whites out of the region. However, the delegation found that the US government wasn't interested in talking about the old treaties; all they would talk about was a new treaty in which the Cherokee would agree to give up their lands in Arkansas in exchange for land farther west. After 6 weeks of futile negotiations, the Cherokees, "frustrated and worn out," according to one source, agreed to the proposal, on the condition that nothing was final until the full Council back in Arkansas Territory had approved the agreement. They signed the treaty on May 6, but on May 12 - less than a week after the signing - President John Quincy Adams took the treaty to the Senate for ratification proceedings, obviously without any effort to get approval from the other Cherokees in Arkansas.

Unpleasant happenings, agreed? And yet the protagonist of my story (John David) is a white man who wants to settle on land that, by rights, belongs to the Cherokees. If he is going to achieve his goals and his dreams, he has to participate in these actions that defraud an entire group of people and deprive them of their own dreams.

How do I manage the necessary balance between having my protagonist act in a way that rings true to historical fact and yet having him remain a sympathetic character that readers will still like? Actually, the reason I am procrastinating is because I've reached the point where I have to write the first scene in which John David has to harbor some politically-incorrect feelings toward the Cherokees. It's not that he's a "perfect" person who's never displayed any negative feelings or behavior; it's just that this time, he's really not justified in what he's going to do. It's a little scary to put those "maggots" into the "cornmeal" of my story.

I Need a Character Name - Quick!

(March 2, 2009)

Naming the characters in my stories has always been something of a struggle for me. Sometimes I'll hit on something that sounds right in my ear the first time, but often a character will go through several names before I settle on something. Maybe I overthink the issue, but it seems to me a name needs to fit the time period, and it needs to evoke something of the character's personality, and it needs to have a rhythm that reads easily. I always know this is going to be my least favorite part of writing something.

Well, I've hit that point in my current project. And I have an additional problem this time -- the characters who need names are the first of the Cherokee characters who will be in the story. I will be using several actual historical figures in Cherokee history, but these two characters (father and son) are completely fictional. The son, in particular, will play a key role in the story so he needs a good name.

From what I've been able to gather in my research, a number of the Cherokee at that time (1820s) had (or took on) anglicized names, perhaps in an effort to show themselves as acculturated. For example, Elias Boudinot (the editor of the first newspaper in the Cherokee language) started out life as Gallegina Watie (or Oowatie). That became "Buck" Watie since Gallegina meant "deer." But when Gallegina/Buck decided to attend a missionary school run by whites, he adopted the name of his financial benefactor, Elias Boudinot. It was a name he kept until he was murdered for his role in removal of the Cherokee to present-day Oklahoma.

However, I've also seen in my research Cherokee who kept names that aren't exactly familiar to ears accustomed to English names. Some are clearly Indian names, like Ta-ka-toka, while others seem to me to fall somewhere in the gap between cultures, like John Jolly or George Guess (who is better known as Sequoyah).

So....what do I choose as names for these characters? I could simply go with anglicized names and be historically accurate. However, that might imply an attitude toward white culture that I don't really want these characters to have. But I am very uncomfortable with trying to come up with Cherokee names for the characters. What I want are names that show these characters have adopted some elements of white culture (they are going to be farmers), but that still have something of a unique quality to them.

Hmmmmm....I think it's time to go do some dishes and some heavy thinking.

Relying on the Kindness of Strangers

(February 12, 2009)

I've had a really blessed life - no broken bones, no major accidents, no bad illnesses. The only disadvantage is that sometimes I need to write about this kind of event in a character's life. Without realistic details, my writing will "lack the verisimilitude of real experience" (which is a criticism one of my college professors put on one of my stories years ago!).

What's a writer to do? Borrow from others, of course! My current project has a good example. The main character, John David, has sprained his ankle while exploring the woods around the campsite he and Maggie set up. At this point in the plot as planned, it's an important event that leads to other events. That means I can't just say, "His ankle was sprained and it hurt." I need details - what it looks like, what it feels like.

Lucky for me, as a teacher I have access to a lot of students and their experiences. During my years of teaching speech, I've heard a few speeches about sprained ankles, and I've witnessed students hobbling around as they deal with the aftermath of a sprain. So when I needed details to write about John David's experience, I turned to two of my former students to probe for details of their experiences with a sprained ankle.

Admittedly, it feels a little weird to approach a near-stranger and ask about intimate details of his/her life. But when I explained to these young people why I wanted to know, both of them were very generous with information. Both of them are athletes who've suffered multiple sprained ankles, so they had vivid memories of the experience. Kristi, a soccer player, was very specific about the swelling, discoloration, and pain involved. David, a basketball player, took a different approach, giving details of how two of his sprains happened and giving suggestions for how my character's sprain might happen. One of the things I really appreciated about their responses was that they included unique personal details. Kristi talked about how the pain made her nearly sick to her stomach, and David said he bit his shirt a lot to help him bear the pain. That's the kind of information that goes beyond dry, clinical detail; it conveys personality -- and that's exactly what a writer needs for detail to do.

I've incorporated almost everything these former students told me into the account of John David's sprained ankle, and I feel pretty confident that even though I've never had this experience myself, my description of the events will ring true. I'm most grateful for the openness of these students and their willingness to help me out. No one can experience everything directly, but as long as there is someone willing to share his/her story, at least we can experience things vicariously.

In Memory of Mr. Malvern

(February 22, 2009)

It's not kosher, I know, to admit that any of the characters in your writing are based on real people. Too much drama can arise as a result! Today, however, I'm going to make an exception to that rule, because one of the people who was the real-life model for a favorite character in Dancing in the Checkered Shade died Friday night.

His name was Malvern Gray, and he was the sweetest older man I've ever known. He was 88 years old and I guess he died of complications from pneumonia (not sure about that, though). His wife told me this morning they had celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary on Thursday. My family and I sat behind the two of them at church just about every Sunday, and I always found it so touching to see the little intimacies they still showed after so many years of marriage, like holding hands during the hymns. I guess that's why, when I needed a model of a loving, life-long marriage for newlyweds Maggie and John David to learn from, I thought of Mr. and Mrs. Gray.  I hope the portrayal in the book does them justice.

Kicking Them When They're Down

(February 7, 2009)

I recently read a couple of blog posts that were discussing whether readers prefer stories in which the main characters suffer or stories in which everything turns out well for the characters. Nixy Valentine contends readers want to go on a "ride" with the characters, through a range of emotions, good and bad. The Disorganised Author asks if writing (and by extension, reading) isn't an escape from the negative aspects of life. It's an interesting question, and I would submit that readers use the emotional ride of fictional characters to escape, at least temporarily, from the very real problems in their own lives.

When I was a journalism student, I learned that one of the key news values that make for a good news story is conflict. That conflict comes in various forms - man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society - you probably know them as well as I do. You also know that conflict in life is inevitable. If a story is going to ring true, it must have conflict as well. So as much as a writer may hate putting his/her characters through the suffering, suffer they must. much?

In Dancing in the Checkered Shade, I knew the main characters were going to have to suffer through heartbreak and rejection at one point in the plot. Their relationship had always been tenuous anyway, since they married on an impulse instead of making a reasoned decision. At this point near the end of the story, Maggie is tired of trying. When John David tells her he's going to leave her for a while so he can keep on with a job he's committed to, she tells him to not bother coming back.

In the original version, I wrote Maggie as being very matter-of-fact and cold during the whole scene. She gives "reasons" why he should leave, and she announces she's setting him free. John David doesn't really resist; when he tries to say something to her, she closes her eyes. At that point, he gives up and says goodbye to her, going off to join his boss (who has been calling through the door).

That scene bothered me for a long time. It didn't seem to have the "punch" it needed at this point in the book (near the end), and to be honest, it felt very flat and emotionally starved. So when I did my next edit, I got mean. I felt bad about it, because what I had planned was going to require Maggie, the narrator and the character I hope readers will identify with, to be a real jerk. In the rewrite, she starts out being "reasonable," but then she gets angry at John David. She slings unfair accusations at him and denies that they've ever felt anything for each other. Her anger builds up until she resorts to physical violence, slapping him (which ties back to an earlier scene quite neatly, ha ha). And when he makes a final attempt to reason with her, she's the one who cuts it off with goodbye.

It works much better, I think. Since Maggie made a jerk of herself, she has better opportunities later to regret and repent, which makes for a more satisfying resolution at the end of the book. And I think it's more realistic, too. Who among us hasn't done something we sorely regret, something which seems beyond our power to repair? So, while it might have been a risk to make the main character go evil (temporarily!), I'm hoping readers will still identify with her every step of the way.

For the good of the story, the characters have to suffer. I also believe that the greater their suffering, the deeper the potential emotional impact of the story will be. However, I'm no sadist! I also believe the best stories are those in which the characters find some way to deal with that suffering and ultimately come to peace in some form. I completely agree with Elizabeth George Speare, who said,

"I do not believe a historical novel should gloss over the pains and the ugliness. But I do believe that the hero...should on the last page...still be standing, with the strength to go to whatever the future may hold."

Setting the Stage

(January 26, 2009)

I decided it really didn't make much sense to start talking about an interview with my characters unless people know a little something about my project first.

Dancing in the Checkered Shade is a work of historical fiction and a love story that follows in the tradition of books I cherished when I was a teen reader, works like Hannah Fowler by Janice Holt Giles, The Edge of Time by Loula Grace Erdman, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, and Judith of France by Margaret Leighton. I won't flatter myself by pretending my book is on an equal basis with those classics, but they were my role models. I hope Dancing in the Checkered Shade will appeal to readers of any age who enjoyed those books, as well as to young adults who are reading some of the fine historical fiction available now, like No Shame, No Fear by Ann Turnbull or Pirates! by Celia Rees.

The story is told in first-person by a young woman (Maggie Boon) who has impulsively married a stranger (John David McKellar) to escape from her abusive father. She gets more than she bargained for when John David decides to take her to Mexican Texas to try for one of the free land grants Stephen F. Austin has arranged. During their trip toward Texas, Maggie and John David face physical and emotional challenges that threaten to drive them apart. However, they find the faith and love to hold on to their dreams, even in the face of failure.

I first had the idea for these characters and the story 20+ years ago (I suspect a young man I was "chasing" at the time had a strong influence on my creative process, lol!). I never wrote anything more than character sketches, though, until five years ago. One night as I was bringing my kids home from a school function and listening to my favorite Irish music CD, I was struck with an urge to pick the project up again. For once, I didn't procrastinate! I worked on the manuscript in the spare time leftover from being a full-time teacher and mother and wife. At the end of three years, I had a manuscript with 269,000 words.

Fortunately, I was pragmatic enough to realize no one can get away with a book THAT long except Victor Hugo. I began the process of editing, a process that I finally wrapped up about two months ago. During those two years, I trimmed out more than half of what I'd written originally, ending up with a manuscript of 110,000 words. I don't regret anything that was left in the computer's recycle bin - the story now is much stronger.
One thing that happened as I was writing is that I realized there was too much story for one book (those 269,000 words didn't even cover part of what I'd originally plotted). So, as much as I fear falling into the cliche' of producing a sequel, I'm working on a second book about Maggie and John David, focusing on their experiences once they settled in Arkansas Territory. Actually, this portion of the story has more dramatic historical content, because it will deal with how the Cherokee were pushed out of Arkansas and into what later became Oklahoma. Because of the plot events needed to tell the second story, I will have to shift from having Maggie tell the story to having John David be the narrator. As a woman, and a married woman at that, Maggie wouldn't move in the same circles as those male officials. After all, it wasn't until the late 1820s that Frances Wright pioneered public speaking for women. I do have a plausible way, though, that John David can interact with the officials (I got the idea while reading through the historical documents).

Whether it was because I'm intimidated by the idea of writing from a man's perspective, or if I'm intimidated by writing about actually historical events, or simply because I'm procrastinating again, I'm having trouble writing John David's voice. Nan Hawthorne has suggested an interview with him. We'll see.

An Evening of Literacy and Learning

(April 16, 2009)

Tonight I attended a local authors' event sponsored by the county literacy council at the Hastings store in town. Eighteen authors participated, representing all different genres. Each author was given five or so minutes to make a presentation, and I was curious to see how they would handle them. From my observation, I've drawn several conclusions about what to do when I finally am involved in an authors' event as an author.

1) Be prepared. There were a couple of the authors who admitted, first thing, that they had problems with their vision, and then proceeded to read with their noses in the book or to stumble their way through the selection. My thoughts on that? If you KNOW you have an event coming up, and you KNOW you have issues with something like vision, then you ought to take steps to be ready. Print out your selection in a larger font so you can see it well; practice reading it aloud ahead of time. Do whatever it takes to avoid looking like an unprepared amateur.

2) It's not about you. Several of the authors started off by telling us when they first knew they wanted to be a writer. The first time through, that was mildly interesting, but by the time you've heard four or five people say they have been writing since they were (fill in the blank) years old, you begin to start wondering what's on the magazine rack you're sitting against. The best presentations were the ones that focused on something related to the book or that the audience could relate to. One woman, whose book was a novel based in the Civil War, told a couple of stories of Civil War events in the local area. Another woman, who had written a children's book about fire safety, had a testimonial from a little girl who said what she learned from the book helped her get herself and her father out their home when it caught on fire. The last speaker, a man who had written an "automythography," was very wise - he made a joke about "being all that stood between the audience and their pajamas" and then gave a very concise overview of his book. It makes me think of one of the principles I teach in speech class: "Consideration of the audience is important at every stage of speech preparation and delivery."

3) Don't be pretentious. Two of the authors mentioned comments by reviewers. One said his work had been compared favorably to Orwell's Animal Farm, and the other said a review said his work is a combination of the National Enquirer and the Bagadavita. I guess if you've got reviews, you want to use them for all they're worth, but somehow those comments just seemed out of place in a Hastings store in front of small-town people on a Thursday night when you're part of a panel that includes a children's book and a manual on how to pitch.

4) Don't look cheap. I've heard people say if you're going to have a website, you need to cough up the money to buy your own domain name, and now I know why. One woman gave her web address as "www.freesites/something," and that word "free" just really jumped out.

5) Look like you're having fun. One of my favorite presentations for the night was from a high school maintenance man who had written a book of poetry. He gave the audience genuine smiles, and he performed a couple of poems with some enthusiasm. He seemed genuinely glad that we were there to hear his poetry. Other authors just seemed sort of uncomfortable and treated the audience like "customers" there to maybe buy a book.

I know it's easy to sit in front of the magazine rack and listen instead of being one of the presenters. But I hope I can take what I learned from my observations this evening and put them to good use if I ever DO find myself behind the presenter's table.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

YES!! What She Said!

A real gem from Janet Reid's Query Shark blog:

Really good novels don't have everything on the page. Really good novels are like spiderwebs: the filaments, words, are important but the space they create, the unspoken, is what makes it beautiful.

You must trust your readers to make intuitive jumps with you and to know some of why things happen. They'll be able to do this easily if you write it by SHOWING, not telling.

The Downside of Being Global

As you might know, I have a second blog in which I focus on my writing and research.  Well, I seem to have picked up a "fan" who likes to leave lengthy messages about sexy babes and big breasts, etc., etc.  Therefore I'm killing that blog.  I'll be moving some of the posts to this blog.  So if I seem very prolific over the next few days, you know why!

(And I really hope my lascivious "friend" doesn't find me here!)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Plot vs. Story - A Reader's View

I recently finished reading It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville, the Newberry Award winner for 1964. I was motivated by curiosity (and the need for an "I" book for my A-Z reading challenge).  Back when I was a kid, I read this book, and I couldn't remember much about it, just that there was a boy and he adopted a stray cat.

Sad to say, after reading it again, I can't say much more about it now.

That's not entirely fair to say, I guess.  There were some stories about Dave's relationship with his father, and about how Dave's family sort of adopts a young man who was like a stray cat, and about the "crazy cat lady" who wins a fortune from her estranged brother, and about Dave meeting a girl.  As I sit here trying to piece it all together, though, it seems to me that something was missing.  I think that something is a plot.

Maybe I'm sensitive to plot right now after reading an entry on agent Janet Reid's Query Shark blog. In that entry, she advises a writer that his/her query has "a series of events rather than any kind of plot."  That made me wonder, what's the difference? (I'm sure Mrs. Richardson, my high school English teacher, would be groaning about now if she read that!)  I won't delve into my thought processes in answering that question here (since I've already done that on my other blog), but suffice it to say a plot is more than just what happens in the story.  The plot is about how the events of the story change the protagonist. If a character is dynamic (and the best ones are), then somewhere along the way in the story, external events have an internal counterpart. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, for example, when Harry gets to the Department of Mysteries and finds the visions of his godfather lying injured were only a lure to bring him there, he realizes his own responsibility for endangering his friends and that he really doesn't know everything it's going to take to battle the powerful evil of Voldemort.  It's a humbling experience for him, one that makes him better in the end.  That's plot.

Back to It's Like This, Cat.  I like Dave Mitchell as a character, really. And if I stretch myself, maybe I could argue that the stray cat is a metaphor for the stray people that Dave accumulates over the course of the story.  A metaphor isn't a plot, though. The novel is a collection of entertaining episodes, but at the end, I can't really put my finger on how Dave is different for going through those episodes.  Maybe he doesn't fight with his father as often?  Maybe he has a wider view of the world? I just don't know. At the end I found myself asking, "It's like what, Cat?"

I do have to say one other thing - I can't imagine parents today letting a teen do the things Dave got to do in this book.  Riding a bike from one borough to another in New York City????

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hey, Katniss, I'll Take Your Leftovers!

I read in one review of The Hunger Games that Collins was just copying the whole threesome romance angle that was a major plot feature of the Twilight series (which I haven't read). Maybe so. But it's still a pretty compelling storyline, anyway.  One of the things that will have to be resolved in the final book is who Katniss will choose, Gale or Peeta (assuming both live and that she will choose someone).  One afternoon while pulling weeds out of the stone walkway in the back yard, I pondered over how this seemingly hopelessly tangled storyline will work itself out.

Gale hasn't had a lot of on-screen time in the two books. However, from the things Katniss thinks about him we know that her relationship with him is one of those really special friendships.  They share common experiences such as the loss of their fathers in an accident, and they've built trust by breaking the law together to hunt and provide for their families.  We know from what Katniss tells us that he sacrifices himself to the coal mines to provide for his little brothers and sister, even though he "is only really alive in the woods."  We know he's clever and has a gift for setting snares.  By the time he made his first siginificant appearance in Catching Fire, I was already primed to like him a lot.  And then when they meet for the first time after the Games are over,

"...suddenly, as I was suggesting I take over the daily snare run, he took my face in his hands and kissed me....Then he let go and said, 'I had to do that. At least once.' And he was gone."

Who can resist that?

But Peeta certainly gives Gale a serious contest as the romantic hero of the series. He is so kind and so unselfish, from the first act of taking a beating from his mother so he could give Katness some bread, to his efforts to protect her in the arena. He's clever in his own way, a way that I can appreciate as a teacher of public relations. He has a sense of honor, and although he doesn't rebel against the Capitol as openly as Gale does by hunting, Peeta understands the injustice and inhumanity of the government's policies and is determined to do what he can to stand up to them.  The night before he and Katniss go into the arena for the first time, Peeta says,

"No, when the time comes, I'm sure I'll kill just like everybody else. I can't go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way show the Capitol they don't own me.  That I'm more than just a piece in their Games."

How do you choose????  I have no idea how I would resolve this plot if I were Collins.  I hope she will find some way to let them all win.  I hope it doesn't devolve into one of those tired plots in which Katniss ends up with one of them and then some secondary character is tossed in there for the other. I think I'd rather see one of the guys end up alone -- people do survive broken hearts, you know.

I do have to say one thing about Peeta, though.  He's almost too perfect to be true.  I'm sorry, teen girls, but if you kiss a real guy a bunch of times and then share your bed with him, eventually he's going to want something other than to just hold you all night so you can sleep.  It's very romantic, and I know there are guys out there who have a lot of self-control, but everyone's self-control has limits -- in the real world, anyway.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Notes from a Reading Binge

I don't very often go on a reading jag, where I pretty much ignore all but the most essential duties (like being sure the family is fed). But from about Thursday until Saturday afternoon, I was totally caught up in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series. I finished The Hunger Games on Thursday and went immediately into Catching Fire Friday morning, finishing late yesterday afternoon in time to cook something decent for supper (after throwing sandwiches on plates for lunch, ha ha).

I had several things I wanted to write about while reading, so instead of trying to tie it all into one coherent post, I'm going to stick together several small segments.

Katniss "Not Dynamic," Teen Says

When my son was first learning to read in kindergarten, I told myself I was going to be a mom who was on top of it all and keep ahead of what he was reading so we could talk about anything that might be challenging or questionable.  Ha.  I bet you can imagine how long THAT lasted.  He outstripped me on the Harry Potter series by the time he was in second grade.  I still try to read some of the things he's read, more now to be able to keep my finger on the pulse of young adult literature and culture than to keep my thumb on him (so to speak).  Every now and then, we do talk about those common things we've read.

For example, this morning on the way home from church, I asked him if he thought there was a plan in place all along to put Katniss in the Hunger Games to turn her into a symbol (more on that later). We shared perspectives on that for a moment, then he said, "Katniss wasn't a dynamic character."  Interesting comment to be coming from the mouth of a 14-year-old boy, so I asked what he meant.  He went on to explain that she didn't change much (I guess he DOES pay attention in his English class!).  Then he retreated back into the solitude of his iPod, so I'm left to ponder the validity of his statement on my own.

He has a point.  On the surface, some of the things Katniss does seem to be from unselfish motives, like volunteering to take Prim's place in the initial reaping.  But in reading her thoughts about everything that happens to her, I believe she's got a pretty self-centered outlook on the world.  When you get right down to it, the reason she doesn't want Prim in the reaping is because she herself couldn't stand the thought of her frail little sister being killed in the arena.  Ok, that's a good place for a character to start at the beginning of a trilogy.

(WARNING - Spoilers abound below!)

But while I was reading the conclusion of Catching Fire, I thought it seemed like Katniss was angrier about being used for the plan without anyone telling her than she was concerned with whether the plan was going to help the terrible life condition of the people in the various districts (which she had witnessed on her victory tour).  She says she thinks she hates Peeta for fulfilling his mission to keep her alive, and you get the sense it's because she feels that she failed in her mission to keep him alive (even though they believe he is still alive at the end of the book, he's most likely in the hands of the Capitol and may not have long to live).  She decides she's going to die from spite as a last, desperate way to try to spare him.  That seems to cheapen the sacrifices Peeta made for her.  A more mature character would possibly say, "Ok, you thought the cause and my role in it were important enough to sacrifice your life....the least I can do is make sure you don't die in vain."

I can't help making comparisons to Harry Potter, who was also the "chosen one" around which a rebellion of sorts centered.  Harry went through his whiny phase in Order of the Phoenix, but by the last two books, he was ready to take his place in the fight.  In all fairness to Katniss, Catching Fire is only the second book of three, so maybe in the third book, she will realize this thing is bigger than herself (to fall back on a cliche') and play her required role.  I'm betting she will, with typical Katniss intensity.

Well, that took more room than I thought it would, so I think I'll break this note into a short series of posts over the next few days.  Don't want this to turn into a dissertation.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What Changed My Mind?

At the beginning of the week, I picked up Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, the next book on my A-Z reading challenge.  About halfway into the first chapter, I was seriously considering dropping it and finding a different "H" book to read.  For one thing, the narration is in present tense, and we all know how much I despise that.  Mainly, though, I was just really disturbed by the whole premise - that a nation would put 24 kids in an enclosed space to fight to the death until only one remains.  Add to that the notion that the kids selected for the "games" are chosen at random, with no regard for whether they are suited to fight, and it just gave me the willies.

I started looking for something else to read, but didn't find another "H" book right away, so every night I kept reading a little in The Hunger Games.  And suddenly, I'm hooked.    Yesterday while I was doing something else, I found myself wondering what was going to happen in the book.  This morning I picked it up "just for a few minutes," and now I'm finding myself in a real struggle to not just abandon the work I'm supposed to be doing with Photoshop in favor of curling up in my favorite easy chair and reading the day away.

Why the turnaround?  To be honest, I think it is the character of Peeta.  I've started to feel some empathy for Katniss (the viewpoint character), but Peeta seems to be kind and good, and I guess I'm hoping he and Katniss together will do something that will expose the cruelty of the games.  I'm hoping they refuse to play by the rules and possibly bring down this ridiculous institution.  Now I simply have to know how it turns out -- enough that I can put up with that annoying present tense voice!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lessons Learned from the Cats

10.  The best time to use the litterbox is immediately after it has been cleaned.
9.  There's something outside the window that is so fascinating one could spend hours perched on the windowsill looking at it.
8.  A lot can be communicated by a look and a single syllable. 
7.  It's really fun to crouch and hide and -- wait -- wait -- pounce! on an unsuspecting friend.
6.  Anything can be a toy - a shiny piece of gum wrapper is exceptionally fine.
5.  The more expensive cat litter is definitely worth the difference in price.
4.  You can get your way if you rub against someone's legs and then flop on the floor in front of him/her.
3.  Some people are better at covering their "stuff" than others.
2.  It's fun to play outside for a while, but then it's nice to come in and sleep on a fluffy pillow.
1.  Cats really want to be helpful while I'm typing on the computer, but they can't spell.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Settling...In a Specific Case

I just finished Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring last night, and I couldn't help thinking of the recent "self-help" book for women, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb.  Now, I haven't read Gottlieb's book, and from the reviews I've read, I believe I wouldn't necessarily agree with what she argues in the book.  But in the specific case of Griet, I think "settling" was probably a mighty good choice.

(Sorry - there just have to be spoilers in this discussion.)

 In this imaginative account of the backstory for Vermeer's painting, Griet, the girl in the painting, develops a strong attraction to Vermeer.  I think a huge part of the attraction is that he represents a world Griet treasures, yet can't be part of in her actual life. I don't mean that he's of the upper class and (on the surface) wealthy; it's the artist's eye that appeals to her, looking at clouds and seeing ALL the colors that are there instead of just mushing them all together and calling them white.  She appreciates the way he orders the elements that go into the paintings to lead people to look at them in just the right way.  She understands that when he looks at something, he doesn't just see the surface of it, but what the "truth" of it is (maybe I'm exaggerating a little there).

On the other hand, she always seems to notice the blood residue around Pieter's fingernails and the smell of meat that clings to him, even when he's not at the meat stall.  It bothers her that he doesn't pay attention to those details.   Although in the end, she chooses to marry Pieter, I think if circumstances had been different and had allowed for it, she would have chosen Vermeer in a heartbeat. 

That would have been a mistake.

I say that because of respect. As I was reading the final portions of the book, when Vermeer was painting her portrait, I was completely annoyed with him because he had so little respect for Griet.  He didn't care that keeping the fact that he was doing the painting a secret made Griet's life with the other women in the household miserable.  (Actually, that started much earlier, when he ordered her to help him with grinding the paints.)  Because he didn't want to have to put up with the flack he would catch from his wife, he left the entire burden on Griet to bear - not just the burden of the truth, but the burden of what the wife and the other maid feared because they didn't know the truth.  I really disliked him when he gave Griet no choice about the earrings. So what if she had to go through the pain of piercing her ears herself? So what if wearing his wife's earrings would  threaten Griet's economic security and that of her family? Vermeer had no concern other than that he wanted to look at the earrings actually in her ear so he could paint the "truth."  He even made her pierce the other ear - the one that wouldn't even be seen in the painting - and wear both earrings so it would be "true."  And once the painting was finished, Griet felt his fascination with her was finished, as well.  She was really no different from the jewelry box or the blue table rug that were part of the set pieces in other paintings.

Pieter, though, respected Griet enough to let her keep her secrets. Sure, marrying him meant moving into that patriarchal system that marriage has always been, where he would be the dominant party.  Yet, in the specifics of this marriage, I get the sense that Pieter thinks of Griet as his partner in the enterprise. She may be cutting up bloody sides of beef rather than sitting for a painting, but with Pieter, what she wants and what she thinks matter.

So, how does this relate to "settling"?  Some people I know argue that a person should never give up passion.  They think it is most important in a relationship to be "soulmates" who understand each other and who value the same things.  "Settling" for less than that, they say, is to do yourself a grave disservice. Yet I think if Griet had kept trying to maintain the relationship with Vermeer (if she had the option - Catharina probably wasn't going to give her the choice), she would have been miserable throughout her life.  There might have been moments of pleasure - those fleeting times when Vermeer actually seemed to notice and appreciate her -- but they probably would have been few and far between.  By "settling" for Pieter, Griet actually opened up the world for herself.  She became a respected businesswoman with the right to refuse to serve people who were rude to her.  She had her own family and she helped provide for them.  Pieter allowed her the privacy of her past and her thoughts without prying into everything and without having to know the entire "truth" of her - he was satisfied with the part that was useful for life.  Pieter wouldn't have made Griet wear the second earring.

I'm not in favor of settling just for the sake of having someone.  But when the most important factors like basic respect and an attitude of love and equality fall into place, why sweat the small details?  Does the bloodstain around his fingernails really matter THAT much?