Posts Tagged Literary fiction

Historical Fiction – Creating the Wood Carver

quillI never intended to write a piece of historical fiction. I swear! But somehow my second story for the Mosaic collection morphed into much more than I’d ever expected.

It started as a timed prompt. I wrote a letter from a man destined to hang for a crime he didn’t commit during our 20 minutes. I probably wouldn’t have done anything else with it, except that Margie Deeb suggested we put some short pieces into our Mosaic collection to give it some variety. So I posted the letter to the members of our Cartel Collaborative for a critique and I also took it to my local writing group. Both groups said that the letter needed context. What was his crime? How could we know the guy was innocent?  And what year was it? Why would a man in those times be able to write?

They were right, although at first I didn’t want to deal with their comments. Instead, I suggested removing the story from the collection. This was met with dismay. So I started fooling around with it, turning it into a story. The letter writer acquired a family, a background, a job. He became an apprentice wood carver. But then I had to figure out the time period. The letter had probably emerged during the timed writing because of long-ago history classes and long-ago read novels (I’d been a huge fan of children’s novels based upon historical figures while in elementary school).

The internet is a fabulous place, but it isn’t the easiest world to navigate if the first page or two of responses doesn’t tell you what you want to know. I paged through mounds of irrelevant sites, but eventually learned enough to set the story in the beginning of the eighteenth century when several wonderful events came together to make my story realistic. The first was the break between the followers of the Anglican Church and what were called the Dissenters, which led to major riots. Perfect, I thought. I’ll make my poor man a Dissenter. His father became an Anglican priest who kicked him out for his beliefs.

The second was the justice system. It was much more difficult to figure this out, since I put my man in Manchester, instead of London. I found information on London’s legal system, but not much on other towns in England. I contacted some scholars, but only heard back from one of them. He sent me a chapter of his book. It was pretty useless, as was a book I got on inter-library loan. But I slogged onward, making a few assumptions. As far as I could tell, hanging was a very popular way to deal with almost all crimes in the early eighteenth century. It amazed me how different the legal system was in those days, with victims and their supporters facing off in the courtroom against the accused and their supporters.

I downloaded maps of Manchester, and read what I could about the city, which was still a small town. Manchester had an awful prison, which sat on a bridge and flooded every time the river rose. Putting the letter writer in it added a wonderful detail to the story.

I discovered that most men could read and write in those days, but perhaps not as beautifully as my man, so I made him a renegade student for the priesthood. Each little fact like that had to be double-checked. Where would he have gone to school?  Who would have saved his letters? How would they have been delivered (the post was obscenely expensive)?

Also, there was the question of who would find the letters, and how they’d been preserved. At first, I had a man find them and present them to a scholar, but that was too boring. My editor suggested something more personal; a parallel between the past and the present stories. That took some thinking, but my real protagonist came to life, a young American woman remodeling an old vicarage outside Manchester.

Doing all of this, I gained a new appreciation for the work which goes into every historical novel. Unless they’re set so far back in the past that you can make up everything, you have to dig and dig and dig and double-check even the tiniest of facts. And then be willing to revise your story when you discover it doesn’t hold water.

You can read The Woodcarver and the rest of the pieces in Mosaic, A Compilation of Creative Writing for free by clicking here. We’d love it if you’d leave us an honest review at your favorite online retailers.

Thanks to Asafesh at Freeimages.com for the photo of a quill

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Monday Morning Coffee

Mosaic-HR_author_namesI hope everyone had a wonderful weekend, and you’ve gotten your free copy of Mosaic, A Compilation of Creative Writing by The Cartel Collaborative. If not, I set up a permanent page over the weekend where you can get it off my site, just by clicking the above link. For those who want paper, sorry, we couldn’t do a paper book without charging you, and we couldn’t decide how to we split our twenty cent profit between our eight wonderful authors, so we decided to be all electronic. 😉 That said, you can get it in just about any electronic format you can imagine.

I’m proud and excited about this professionally edited, professionally designed, book of short stories, short short stories, and poems. I enjoyed re-reading my collaborators’ stories when I proofed them, and we’re getting great comments from others who’ve read them. Please take the time to leave us a review (at least click some stars!).

Now for another plug. If you live in New York City, I am so jealous, because you can go see my wonderful nieces perform this Wednesday, at Gibney Dance. I don’t know if this fundraiser is open to the public, but here’s the Fb page. If I could, I’d fly out to see it. Audrey’s been dancing since she was four, and every adjective I see about her is in the category of amazing. I’ve only seen her live once, and she was still in middle school ( 😦 ). I’ve seen videos and she deserves the praise.  Theresa is doing a reading  – she’s published a series of short stories in literary journals. They’ve banded with other artists, to put together a creative evening of live music, dance, and more. I so want to go! Oh, I said that already, but it bears repeating.

In other news, I spent the weekend getting cold weather veggies (parsnips, beets, spinach, …) in the ground and beginning the task of setting up an author WEB site. It’ll be awhile before that site is ready….. Oh, and go on over to shortfictionbreak.com to read my short story, Columns.

 

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A tale of creating a collaborative book

balloons

Almost time to celebrate!

 

Putting together a book like Mosaic: a collection of creative writing (to be released on March 25th!) is a lengthy process. I certainly had no idea how much work would be involved when I raised my virtual hand and said, ‘yes! I’ll do it.’

To start with, we had to do two things: write a draft of our stories, and come up with a plan.

The first part was pure fun for me. I love inventing stories. The second part was a little more tedious, but, between our more experienced writers, and the congeniality of the group, we decided that each story would go through two rounds of critiques, and then everyone would hire their own editors. We also decided not to charge for the book (which means that you’ll be able to get it for free!) Angelique Mroczka offered us a cover design – wait until you see the gorgeous job she did. Oh, and we came up with deadlines and the other details of getting something truly professional into print.

Our first deadline arrived. Ten people submitted works. So far so good. It was time to critique. Critiquing is an art, similar, but different from editing. One of the things which I find difficult is noting what’s good about a piece, especially when they’re a little raw, as some these were. What’s good might be the concept, the plot, the characters, or all of it. Then there’s what’s not working and some suggestions for how to fix it. Some critiques were almost as good as any professional edit, while others were pretty casual. Anyway, we (mostly) all read every piece and posted our critiques.

Then we had to read all of those critiques. Some of mine were pretty tough to take. It was clear that one of my two stories didn’t work at all. What a bummer. I’d written a short short (less than a thousand words), and it had to be completely rethought, re-plotted, etc. I remember tearing my hair out. I wanted to remove it, and I wasn’t the only author who had that reaction.

More about the process tomorrow! But now, I want to introduce two more of our amazing contributors, Stef Gonzaga and S. J. Henderson.

Stef Gonzaga:

Stef GonzagaStef has five poems in Mosaic. Initially, we’d planned on a book of short stories, but she wanted to write poems, and I’m so glad she did. They’re lively short pieces, which completely change the flavor of the book. There’s one about a snake (my personal favorite?), and one about love, and – well you’ll just have to read them, won’t you?

Besides being our only poet, she’s the only contributor who doesn’t live in the United States. Lots of onlies! She’s a writer and editorial manager for DesignGood, and has several books available on her WEB site (another collaborative project, a workbook on creativity, and more). Her techie skills were invaluable in allowing us to finish this project, and she set up our WEB site (yes, we have one!!!). Head over to learn more: stefgonzaga.com

S. J. Henderson:

Sunny Henderson

The most important thing you need to know about S. J. is that she loves to ride horses (can you tell from the photo?). I’m kidding, but they do seem to play a very important role in her life. Actually, the most important thing you should know is that she has published two wonderful, funny, children’s books for the 6-12 age group, Daniel the Draw-er, and Daniel the Camp-er,  and is working on a YA fantasy/horror novel (it’s fantastic, guys, really. I was a beta reader for her. I just wish she had published it already, so I could give you the link and you could buy it). Another important fact is her love of coffee. She has one not-at-all funny piece about autism and one hilarious piece about Daniel in Mosaic.

S. J., as the only one of us who’d self-published novels, provided lots of wisdom and advice as we stumbled along towards publication. She’s been a fount of information, and a steady head throughout, as well as a damn good critique-er who can see plot holes everyone else misses. I deliberately didn’t link to her novels up above, because you simply have to go to her WEB site, where you can get autographed copies. sjhenderson.net

Are you starting to get the idea that collaboration can be amazing?

Thanks to Naurich at freeimages.com for the photo of balloons.

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Book Review: In The Time of Butterflies

This novel by Julia Alvarez was a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read selection. From the book blurb:

It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their death as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas—the Butterflies.

This novel is based upon a real incident which happened four months after Alvarez’s family escaped to New York. The Mirabel sisters, known as Las Mariposas, were members of the underground resistance, along with Alvarez’s father. In her notes at the back of the novel, Alvarez says: “When as a young girl I heard about the “accident, I could not get the Mirabels out of my mind. On my frequent trips back to the Dominican Republic, I sought out whatever information I could about these brave sisters who had done what few men and only a handful of women—had been Julia-Alvarezwilling to do.” She took what she found and began to invent the characters which fill these pages.

Alvarez tells the story from the point of view of each of the four sisters, devoting alternating chapters to each. We start in 1994, with the surviving sister, Dedé, meeting a journalist who wishes to interview her about her sisters. Then we drop into the past. Dedé is a little girl living on a farm with her family. We meet the fierce middle sister, Minerva, who wants to be a lawyer, the religious oldest sister, Patria, and the shy youngest, María Teresa. Their lives seem peaceful, their father becoming prosperous. Like many girls, Minerva and Patria are sent to Catholic boarding school, where Minerva pushes the boundaries along with her girlfriends and Patria becomes ever more religious. Dedé stays home to help her papa with his store.

However, the brutal Trujillo’s dictatorship soon changes everything. Minerva and her friends, chosen to perform a skit for Trujillo, change it to make a political statement in front of him. Trujillo, known for taking pretty teenagers as mistresses, sets his sights on the beautiful Minerva. Inviting her family to a ball, he tries to claim her, but she manages to escape. From then on, the intrigue builds, yet in between the political, the sisters grow up, falling in love, having their children, and interacting with their aging parents. Their marriages have their very real ups and down.

I loved this novel. The language is rich, the descriptions beautiful, and the four sisters’ voices come across clear and distinct. I felt as if I was right there. I loved the way Alvarez combined the intimate with the political, reminding us that all warriors have parents, many have spouses and children, and every choice they make has to be weighed against the risk to those they love. I give it five stars out of five.

Note: A Wikipedia page about the Mirabel sisters states that the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is November 25 in honor of the three brave sisters who were assassinated Nov 25, 1960.

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Book review: Life After Life

life after lifeKate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life has received much praise. It sits near the top of several lists of the best books of the year (#6 in Goodreads). The basic idea is this:

Ursula Todd is born over and over again, in England, on a snowy night in 1910. She then dies over and over again, each time in a different manner. She gradually grows more and more aware of her previous lifetimes. In her first few repetitions, she merely feels fear when the event which caused her death is imminent and manages to avoid it, but eventually she begins to have actual memories of her lifetimes and learn more consciously from them. This causes her life to take a different path, and a different death to overtake her. With each life, Atkinson fills in some of the details of Ursula’s family and the world she inhabits. Thus Ursula gets the ultimate do-over, until she creates an opportunity to kill Hitler, which is actually where the novel opens.

This novel reminded me a lot of the movie Groundhog Day. Like that movie, it attempts to satisfy the ultimate fantasy, the idea that we could have an opportunity to go back and redo our lives, armed with what we now know. If only, we think to ourselves, I hadn’t said that, hurt that person’s feelings, or taken that walk, then my life would be wonderful. If only I’d never met so and so. If only I’d finished that college degree. Well, you get the picture.

Since this novel takes place in England and, in at least some of her lives, Ursula moves to London, where she spends World War II, we are treated to a slowly filled-in portrait of both the English countryside and then London itself as the Germans bomb it to pieces. We learn about the awful older brother, the wonderful sister and younger brother, and the eccentric Aunt. At the same time, we explore philosophical questions, such as: are we all repeating our lives over and over (apparently yes, since it isn’t only Ursula who does things differently each time around, although the others seem unaware that they are repeating). It also looks a little at women’s role in the workplace and home in upper class England at the time.

Each life begins with Ursula’s birth on a snowy day, and each time something a little different either occurs or gets explored, to keep the event interesting and provide the perspectives of the mother, doctor, housekeeper, etc. Luckily for the reader, that’s about the only thing which repeats (unlike in Groundhog Day), because Atkinson assumes we can recall the events she leaves out. It would be tedious otherwise. The fun comes in reading about the device which allows Ursula to avoid the death event of her previous life.

This is a wonderful concept. It’s clever, and the number of different ways Ursula dies is great (none of the deaths are made to seem particularly gruesome or painful). I found myself reading onward just to find out how she would die next. I liked it enough to give it three and a half stars, but I really wondered why it’s gotten as much praise as it has. It often drags. Ursula is not a particularly interesting person, nor does she come across as very engaged in her life. Atkinson’s prose floats about the drama, reading like a ledger of actions, dispassionate for the most part. Turning to a random page, I read:

The office was a tedious, rather irritable place these days – fatigue, probably, due to the cold and the lack of good, nourishing food. And the work was tedious, an endless compilation and permutation of statistics to file away in the archives somewhere—or to be pored over by the historians of the future, she supposed. They were still “clearing up and putting their house in order,” as Maurice would have it, as if the casualties of war were clutter to be put away and forgotten.

There’s more, but I got bored just typing this. It isn’t all this dull, of course. My real problem with the novel is the way the very first scene with Hitler comes about. In most of the novel, Ursula goes through similar lives each time, tweaking events to arrive at different ends. However, she has only three lives in which she goes to Europe, and only one in which meeting Hitler is described (a life in which she doesn’t kill him). Since she recalls each of her lives only a little, how did she recall enough of that one to know how to get close enough to kill him? Why doesn’t she live that life over and over again, not quite succeeding until the final one? That would seem more consistent with the whole re-lived life concept as carried out in the rest of the book. Of course, Hitler gets do-overs too, so she would have to kill him over and over again, in life after life, I suppose, though we are spared this detail.

Someone should do a sequel, portraying what happened in Europe after Hitler’s murder. With no Hitler, would there be no World War II, no concentration camps, and no nuclear weapons? Or would it all have occurred anyway? Anyone up to the task?

related posts:

NYTimes: Subject to Revision

Goodreads reviews

Not the Booker prize 2013: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (oh, and read the comments, which pretty well agree with me)

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Book Review: As the Heart Bones Break, by Audrey Chin

Heart BonesAudrey Chin rocks in her newest novel, As The Heart Bones Break.*     She beautifully spins the drama of one man’s life, from his childhood in Vietnam during the war to late middle-age as a world-traveled business and family man, into a fascinating tale of personal growth, intrigue, love, and loss, while at the same time weaving bits of history, the conflict between those who supported the Communists and those who supported the Americans, the difference between traditional Vietnamese beliefs and those of children born in the United States, karma, love, what it means to be part of a family, and many other themes effortlessly into the tale.

With sentences like this:

Turning away from her friends, she flipped her long pony tail of ebony black hair over her shoulder and looked straight past Binh and at you, the large double-lidded eyes in her oval porcelain-pale face flashing with scorn.

she brings you into the scenes, breathing life into them, until you know Thong Tran’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences almost as well as he himself knows them.

Except for a chapter about his childhood, Chin begins the thread of Thong’s life when he’s already a young married man living in California, working as an engineer. But he is not finished with Vietnam or the past. His family and his career conspire to make him remember. Through his memories, we see how his youth in Vietnam shaped him, and how, only by sharing his secrets and exploring those of his family, can he grow into a person who can be loved and love in return even as tragedy envelopes him.

I adored this lovely, graceful novel about a man who survived an awful war that tore families and friendships asunder. If you enjoy learning about the human heart, and about other lands and cultures, you will love As the Heart Bones Break. Honestly, it’s so good that I’m expecting her to win awards for this work. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It gets five out of five stars, without any doubt.

*If you live in the United States, you can still order the book or read it on Kindle, even though she’s still looking for a US publisher. See Audrey’s comment for the links.

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Writing buddies on NaNoWriMo

2013-Participant-Square-ButtonOne of the fun things about NaNoWriMo, aka (Inter)National Novel Writing Month, which happens in November every year, is the opportunity to connect with other writers. There are all kinds of forums on the NaNoWriMo site, twitter connections and a blog. We had some write-ins here in Bend, where I had the opportunity to meet other writers and sit with our computers, writing and occasionally exchanging comments about our progress.

I can’t begin to say how warm and fuzzy that made the writing experience. It’s somehow a great help to know you’re not alone. I loved encouraging others and receiving, in turn, their cheers for every word I wrote (no matter how awful).

The part I liked the best was setting up writing buddies. I had a mix, from a couple of women I met at write-ins, to others I’ve met online. They live all over the world. So today I thought that I’d post links to as many as I can, just to say ‘congratulations’ to them, and thanks for following along on my journey.

First, and perhaps best, are two people I met through StoryCartel, Mirel and Alex. They were each wonderful about checking in from time to time, and sending me encouragement. Mirel lives in Israel, writes a blog about daily life, and wrote a nice blog about what she learned by doing NaNoWriMo this year: Stories Worth Sharing.

Alex Brantham, from the UK, tends to post tongue-in-cheek short fiction pieces on his blog, and he also wrote a blog about what he learned from the experience: Alexbrantham.com

Plus there were others. Stacy, Kim, Sunny, The Magic Violinist (you won’t believe she’s 13 when you see her WEB site!), and M. C. Muhlenkamp from the U. S. all helped me feel supported along the way. Writing really is a lonely business.  Joy Bautista Collado, from the Philippines, has the best smile and attitude ever.

Finally, from here in Bend, Sage, who is in high school, Crystal, Matthew, and others whose names I may have forgotten.

Some made the 50K goal, some didn’t, but I believe we all got something valuable from the experience. Thanks to each and every one of them for walking the journey with me. I couldn’t have asked for better buddies. I hope you’ll stop by their WEB sites and say hello to them. We all need as much encouragement as we can get.

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