Sunday, May 30, 2010

Happy Birthday Harry!

I wish a very Happy Birthday to an author whose memoir I finished reading this morning. The Invisible Wall was published when Harry Bernstein was 96 years old. He's gone on to write more books, and today he turns 100.

I don't read many memoirs, but this one (recommended by Novel Journey) had me on page one. It tells the story of a street, one side Jewish, one side Christian, in an English mill town in the early 1900s, beginning when the author was four or five years old. The book's subtitle, A Love Story That Broke Barriers, provides a huge clue as to the underlying power of the book.

From the back cover:

"Harry Bernstein returns home and, magically, takes us with him. Captivated by its dancing prose and descriptions of neighborhood life, we experience with the child Harry all the wonder, thrill, and heartbreak of being a working-class kid learning to navigate the balkanized world of Christians and Jews within a single English mill town. Bernstein gives us a people's history, a street-level perspective on a world that might otherwise have been lost, with crucial lessons that will endure throughout time." ~ Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of All Souls.

Harry Bernstein has published two more books. The Dream and The Golden Willow.

Happy Birthday, dear Harry. Your book opened up a whole new world for me, and an era I knew very little about has come alive. A fitting gift to celebrate 100 years of living!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Line We Drew

While working on Willa today I found myself tapping out a line of dialogue from my male MC, Neil MacGregor: "I took my own name back when we sailed for Philadelphia."

It reminded me of one of my favorite songs, Sailing to Philadelphia by Mark Knopfler and James Taylor. Or maybe I was just looking for an excuse to work an approximation of the song title into my story!

The song is about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the Englishmen who surveyed the boundary line in a border dispute between the British colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania between 1763 and 1767.

I was born in Virginia, like generations of my maternal ancestors going back to around 1700, but I grew up in Maryland, just to the south of that gold star in the center of the map. The Mason-Dixon line was a term I'd heard in school and elsewhere frequently enough, but always associated it with the Civil War era. North of the line was freedom, south of the line was slavery. It wasn't until I heard this song several years ago that the actual men who surveyed this boundary, nearly 100 years before it became the demarcation line of freedom, piqued my interest.

Have a listen. I wish it was an interesting video. The only other options were live concert performances without James Taylor. Just not the same. So close your eyes and think about Last of the Mohicans, or something. :-)

Note: I've had to initiate comment moderation due to a spam attack. I've always hated spam. Nasty stuff.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Emotion, Layers & the Power of Storytelling

I'm still a bit teary this morning after last night's finale of LOST. They had me until the very end, where things got weird and... just weird, and I felt a small sinking in my heart, and lost connection. But up until those last few minutes I'd been on a roller coaster of emotional connection with so many of the characters' journeys that I'm feeling quite drained today. James & Juliet, the ride was worth it for you!

That is the power of storytelling. We're hard-wired to be affected by it, to be changed, to be deepened. Jesus knew that, and often taught in parables.

For good conversation about emotion in fiction, how to evoke it and how not to overdo it, check out Character Emotions and You, the post and discussion at Novel Matters today.

On the ACFW Loop this morning the question was asked: What gives some stories staying power? What makes us want to reread some books (or rewatch series, as I plan to do with LOST never mind those last few minutes), even though we know the plot, the characters' journeys, and how it ends?

There are many good answers to that question, and most of them are the answers to what makes a story satisfying in general. Well developed, sympathetic characters with goals that matter. Conflict with high stakes. A plot that isn't predictable. A setting that can be seen and heard and smelled and felt. An ending that makes sense and is hopeful or redemptive (not necessarily happily-ever-after-all-threads-tied-in-a-pretty-bow-perfect).

But those elements don't always make me want to reread a book, even if I thoroughly enjoyed it. There's one main element a book has to boast for me to want to read it multiple times, and listen to the audio version too if there's one to be had. Layers.

Layers of theme. Layers of symbolism. Layers of character connection. Layers that might resonate subconsciously on a first read, adding a sense of richness and depth and verisimilitude, but that then leap out at you when you reread the book because you aren't rushing through with your focus on the page-turning plot that exists on the surface of the story. Layers like a range of mountains, fading into the distance from vibrancy to more and more subtle hues until they vanish beyond the range of sight.

Crafting such layers, it seems to me, takes time, and time, and more time. The books that have layers for me, that I never fail to find something more, something deeper, something richer, with every read, took the author quite some time to complete.

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series top my list of books with layers (each of those takes about 2.5 years to write). Then there's Catherine Marshall's books, Christy (nine years) and Julie (seven years). And The Lord of the Rings (a decade in the making). I'll return to these books for the rest of my life.

What are some titles/authors whose writing holds layers for you? Books that have grown with you, books that have something more to offer every time you read them?

I'd really love to know, so I can read them too!

photo by palojono (Flickr)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

My Blog World: A Snapshot

Today I want to highlight what the blogs I'm following have posted. Just because. No really, it's because I'm deep in a scene in my WIP and want to stay focused there today and through the weekend. Not on that one scene, but I'm around the halfway point in the story and feeling the need to step up the pace, both in the story itself and in my work intensity. So, big breath before I dive in today, and here's a look at what's going on in my blogging world. Some pretty cool stuff here. Check 'em out!

~ On the Seekerville blog, multi-published author Camy Tang has a post on writing the One-Sentence Hook for your story. This is a very worthy and needful exercise, even if you aren't seeking publication for your work yet. I've tried it. It's not easy!

~ Author Jennifer Hudson Taylor has a post on a subject near and dear to my heart--Scottish trivia. This question is about a certain clan motto. The clan motto of the Camerons, the Scottish immigrants in Kindred, is Aonaibh ri chéile: Let us unite!

~ Author Sarah Sundin has a post on Today in WWII History.

~ Favorite Pastimes has posted a review of No Other, by Shawna K. Williams. Set in WWII Texas.

~ Richard Mabry, author of Code Blue, talks about the importance of sales figures for authors.

~ The Borrowed Book has posted an excerpt of Emmy's Equal, by Marcia Gruver.

~ Ruth (reviewer extraordinaire) at Booktalk & More has posted part one of her upcoming summer movie list. Go watch some trailers. The one set in Hawaii caught my eye.

~ Author Jody Hedlund writes about Creating Characters that Make Readers Cry. This is one of my favorite writing craft/industry blogs by a soon to debut novelist.

~ Novel Matters, a blog I visit daily, has a guest poster this week. Andy Meisenheimer of TED (The Editorial Department), talks about freelance editing and the services TED offers to authors, pubbed and unpubbed. Very informative.

~ Carla Gade talks about her writing process, juggling multiple projects, and jumping in to write a story when you don't know where it starts.

~ Quick! Historical author (and my crit partner) Laura Frantz is giving away a copy of Deeanne Gist's Maid to Match. Winner will be announced on Saturday, so go there and comment, schell!

~ And at Novel Journey, one of the first writing blogs I discovered, author Athol Dickson has some profound words on beauty, and writing when life is painful. Don't miss this one. 

And that's it for my followed blogs. There are more over in the sidebar... all good stuff for writers and readers and anyone interested in the crazy business that is book publishing.

I have a cabin full of people on the New York frontier about to hear an ominous gunshot, so I need to go make sure they are completely unprepared for what's about to happen next....

Monday, May 17, 2010

2010 Genesis Finalists

I got the call on Thursday. I finaled in the 2010 ACFW Genesis contest in the Historical catagory! After receiving the three judges' score sheets, with some incredibly helpful feedback, I polished my entry and resubmitted it for the second round of judging on Saturday. It was a very busy couple of days of editing, which was nothing but fun for me despite it also being work.

Probably my favorite part of the writing process is that "thing" that happens in the third, fourth or fifteenth draft, when I sink deeper into story and setting, lose all track of time and place, and really start to inhabit my characters. This is when I'm refining motivation, or tweaking dialogue, adding a bit of humor, or that narrative phrase that sounds more like the character's voice than the default narrative which is my own voice and is so easy to fall into when what I want is a blend of the two, preferrably much more of the character than me!

The contest had a great turnout this year. A total of 486 entries, which I'm told is up by 7% over last year. Below are the names of all finalists in each category for 2010 (winners to be announced at the ACFW conference in September. Yes, it's a long time to wait but at least I'll be there this year, unlike in 2008 when Kindred placed third in Historicals.).

(total entries: 47)
Cindy Hays
Lynnette P. Horner
Chris Kraft
Mark Lundgren
Christina S. Nelson

(total entries: 63)
Jeannie Campbell
Sarah Forgrave
Janice LaQuiere
Rebecca Syme
Linda Yezak

(total entries: 35)
Lori Benton
Brenda Jackson
Robert Kaku
Lisa Karon Richardson
Katie-Marie Stout

(total entries: 65)
Susanne Dietze
Anne Greene
Pam Hillman
Lisa Karon Richardson
Ruth Trippy

(total entries: 45)
Rich Bullock
Barbara Early (double finalist with two entries)
Lynda Schab
Chawna Schroeder

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE (there was a two-way tie for the fifth finalist slot):
(total entries: 50)
Valerie Goree
Mindy Obenhaus
Leslie Pfeil
Dianna Shuford
Teri Dawn Smith
Terri Weldon

(total entries: 49)
Ben Erlichman
Suzanne Krein
Shelley Ledfors
Andra Marquardt
Holly Smit

WOMEN'S FICTION (there was a three-way tie for the fifth finalist slot):
(total entries: 76)
Lisa Buffaloe
Jennifer Fromke
Terri Haynes
Fay Lamb
Christina S. Nelson
Melissa Tagg
Michelle Ule

(total entries: 56)
Angela Bell
Lin Harris
Kasey Heinly
LoraLee Kodzo
Stefanie Morris

CONGRATULATIONS to all the finalists! Looking forward to the conference in Indy. It will be my first ACFW.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pulling Up Words

On a wet spring morning I stood at my kitchen window watching the robins in my yard, spread out like a troop of minesweepers canvassing the wet grass, pulling earthworms from the rain-rich soil. Each bird would study the ground, head cocked, until suddenly--strike! Then the tugging match ensued, ending more often than not with a long wriggling worm springing from the earth, to be gobbled down in a fraction of the time it took to reap it.

After a moment, the smallest of the robins drew my eye. This little bird had hit the jackpot, having caught hold of a monster of a worm, and was pulling for all it was worth, rearing back and straining its tiny body, releasing the taut-stretched worm for a lightning-quick instant to gain a better hold on its vast length--vast in robin-reckoning, anyway. But the worm wasn't giving ground without a fight. I stood there rooting for the bird going the rounds with its breakfast, and was inordinately cheered when it finally won the battle. In a second the robin swallowed its prize and immediately began its darting, cock-eyed search for the next worm.

Writing (you knew this would come back to writing, didn't you?) can be every bit as toilsome. Sometimes the word I crave, that precise word that will evoke the sensory image or mood that a character or scene requires to come springing off the page with a life of its own--and do so without calling too much attention to itself--is captured with nothing less than the same relentless tenacity displayed by the little robin. Sometimes it's a battle I wage to yank that word from the hard-packed soil that is my brain.

Some days the worm wins. Some days I wish I were a bigger robin.

But success--capturing that perfect word, that wriggling juicy right word--belongs not always to the biggest, the fastest, the one with an eagle's soaring talent, but to the writer who doggedly goes on tugging at word after word... after word.

~photo by sparkle1103/Flickr

Sunday, May 09, 2010

18th Century Life: Laundry Day

Over the weekend I wrote a scene that takes place during the washing of a tub full of laundry. While I've researched laundry practicalities in the 18th century before (a major character in Kindred is the laundress on a small plantation), I'd never actually written a scene where the stage business was heavily dependent upon the step-by-step process of getting the laundry done.

So I googled the subject for a quick refresher and found this wonderful link I thought worth sharing, in case anyone wishes to see just how sweet most of us have it in these modern days: Laundry Day in the 18th Century. It's a three page article that explains the process succinctly but in enough detail for me to build my scene around.

A typical 18th century laundry day routine: Up before dawn to gather firewood for the kettle in the yard; haul the water; sort the laundry; boil the first load, agitating it with a stick; transfer to wash tub; scrub each piece of laundry; try various harsh means to get out stubborn stains; transfer to rinse tub; rinse each garment; wring each garment; spread to dry on the bushes or hang on a line; gather more wood; haul more water; begin the next load.

And there's still the pressing and the ironing to get done!

Some aspects about what we usually think of as simpler times were really not at all simple, but tedious, back-breaking work. I hereby promise myself to never complain about having to do my laundry at the laundromat again, where all I have to do is load the washer, put in my coins, then sit back and read a book until they're done. Then transfer them to the dryers and go back to my book until they're done. Then fold them and take them home. A week's worth of laundry done in 90 minutes. 

Want more on 18th century laundry? Here's an article about the wash house at Mount Vernon, George Washington's plantation home. Included is a list of the laundry accoutrement inventoried upon the President's death in 1799, and their value. I just love stumbling across little details like this, so I can occasionally name the price my characters would have paid for their purchases whether at a trading post, or town shoppe, or the village square on market day... when they were fortunate enough to have hard coin to spend. Much buying and selling in the late 18th century was still done through barter, at time before our country began issuing its own coinage and nearly every sort of money under the sun was in circulation.

But that's another topic for another post!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

An Abundance of Grace (and Books I'm Reading)

I thought I'd share this week the books I happen to be reading now. Between research, writing craft, fiction and audio books, there's always a stack of them in progress. Here's a snapshot of what I'm reading/listening to this week:

The Bloody Mohawk, by Thomas Wood Clarke -- research
The Adirondacks, by Paul Schneider -- research
Royal Escape, by Georgette Heyer -- audio book
Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons, the Story of Phillis Wheatley, by Ann Rinaldi -- fiction

And the book I want to highlight in this post, The Art of War for Writers, fiction writing strategies, tactics and exercises, by James Scott Bell.

In the Introduction Bell writes, I still read books on writing. My philosophy is if I find just one thing of value, even if it's only a new take on something I already know, it's worth it. Anything that helps me become a better writer, I want to find. That's the spirit I hope permeates this text.

I'm halfway through this book, but didn't need to read that far to decide Bell's hope was met, and then some. The layout of the book is similar to a devotional, with short entries that take just a few minutes to read. I started with the intent of treating it like a devotional and reading one entry per day, but have found it impossible not to read several entries at a sitting. Yet some of the entries are so inspiring and chock full of instruction that I want to linger over them, read them over and over again until I have the words ingrained. Oh, the quandry!

Through The Art of War for Writers I'm learning new techniques to create page-turning fiction, as well as being reminded of techniques I already knew, but am not yet established in. We learn by repetition. I do, anyway. Sometimes all it takes is another writer saying the same old thing in a unique way to make it sink deeper into my understanding than surface knowledge, so that it becomes part of the fabric of my first draft writing, instead of something I go back and fix in later drafts.

Therefore I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know them and are established in the present truth. 2 Peter 1:12

Lastly in my personal devotions I've just finished 2 Corinthians and am heading into Galatians. A particularly inspiring verse from Chapter 9 got highlighted in this read through. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. 2 Cor 9:8. That's a promise I long to see worked out in my life on so many levels, including as a writer.

Writing is so often a lonely pursuit, and writing for publication comes with a host of pressures and stresses. Pray for the writers you're linked to, that they may have an abundance of grace for every good work!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Book Signings, then & now

Yesterday I attended a book signing for my friend, author Ann Shorey, whose second historical novel, The Promise of Morning, has just released from Revell. We had a lovely lunch beforehand, and a great time of conversation about... what else, books and writing.

I can't attend a book signing these days, or even think about one, without my favorite movie, Amazing Grace, coming to mind. Though the main storyline of the movie was that of William Wilberforce's decades-long struggle to abolish the slave trade in Britain, included in the movie was the character of Olaudah Equiano (played by the Senagalese singer, Youssou N'Dour), a man who purchased his freedom from slavery and worked as a sailor and merchant back and forth across the Atlantic, and whose autobiography depicting the cruelties of slavery was instrumental in convincing British lawmakers to abolish the slave trade, which happened in 1807, a decade after Equiano's death in 1797.

Years before this movie was released I stumbled upon Olaudah Equiano during the course of my research. I knew that Kindred was going to have a lot to do with slavery. The complexities of plantation life have come to hold a great interest for me. In writing Kindred, I sought to explore the answers (at least in the lives of my particular characters) to many questions concerning the issue of slavery and how it affected those caught on both sides of the slave/free line. Some of those questions were stirred as a result of reading Equiano's slave narrative, particularly this passage:
But is not the slave trade entirely at war with the heart of man? And surely that which is begun by breaking down the barriers of virtue, involves in its continuance destruction to every principle, and buries sentiment in ruin!
How might this process work out in the lives of my characters? And is there any coming back from such a damaged mindset, once it has taken hold? What emotional and spiritual conflicts might such a journey entail? What would its lifelong consequences be? These were just a few of the questions I explored during the four years I spent writing Kindred. I very quickly I realized that one of my characters would have in his possession a copy of Equiano's book, which was published in 1792, a year before Kindred begins.

When 2007 rolled around and Amazing Grace was released in theaters, I went eagerly to see it, certain the story of Wilberforce's abolition of the slave trade in Britain would strike many familiar and heartflet chords with me, but unaware that I was about to see Olaudah Equiano portrayed on screen with powerful and quiet dignity by Youssou N'Dour.

Nor was I prepared for the wonderfully amusing scene of Equiano signing copies of his new release on the streets of London!

Perhaps this scene was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, or perhaps the tradition of author book signings has a longer history than I'm aware of. That's another topic to be researched another day, unless... anyone like to hunt down that historical tidbit? Just when did the first public book signing take place?