The 3.5 Books I Read in July 2019

Too many books, too little time! I got more reading done in July than I did in June, although a couple of the books I finished last month were actually started a month or more before. The best part was that I got to read 3.5 historical novels. Although not based in my favorite time period – America’s colonial and revolutionary eras – I was pleased with the novels, and even learned some things from the one I didn’t finish.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson

#HistoricalNovel set in #EasternKentucky during the #GreatDepression with #HorsebackLibrarians.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson

This historical novel taught me about two aspects of American history with which I was unfamiliar:

            1.    Due to an extremely rare genetic disease, Methemoglobinemia, some people in eastern Kentucky had blue skin; and

             2. Part of the WPA program during The Great Depression paid people (mostly women) to deliver library books and other reading material to isolated individuals in Kentucky.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a fictionalized story of one such “Book Woman.” Cussy had blue skin and was, therefore, an outcast. She loved her job of delivering reading materials to her regular patrons. She rode a mule to do her work.

Cussy faced many dangers at home and on her book route, and this novel takes you along with her as she continually shows courage in the face of extreme poverty and personal vulnerability as a blue-skinned woman.

The first third or half of the book got a little tedious, as it seemed like most of Cussy’s days were pretty much like all her other days with the occasion father-arranged male visitors who came her way. As I recall, to a man, she found her gentlemen (and I use the term loosely) callers to be disgusting. Her father was desperate to marry her off because he’s promised Cussy’s mother he would.

Spoiler alert:  Her father finally marries her off and it doesn’t begin or end well.

I’m glad I read the book because the story of those Kentucky WPA horseback and mule-riding librarians was something I hadn’t known about. I also didn’t know about Methemoglobinemia. I like books that teach me something. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson, is a prime example of how we can learn from good historical fiction.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is the first book in the Maggie Hope Mystery Series by Susan Elia MacNeal. I read the fifth book in the series, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante three years ago. I enjoyed it and have had Ms. MacNeal’s other Maggie Hope novels on my To Be Read List ever since. I wanted to go back and begin with the first book in the series. Now I look forward to reading the second book in the series, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy.

You might recall that Mr. Churchill’s Secretary was one of the books I was reading when I wrote my June 17, 2019 blog post, https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/06/17/delving-deeper-into-dialects-and-accents-in-fiction/. I was trying to read too many books at the same time, and I didn’t finish this Susan Elia MacNeal novel until July. That’s not a reflection on the book. It’s merely proof that I try to read more books than I can finish in a reasonable length of time.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary takes place in London in 1940. Graduating at the top of her class, Maggie is highly-qualified to be a spy for the British government; however, being female, at first she is relegated to being a typist at No. 10 Downing Street for Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Part of the time Maggie Hope is assigned to decoding at Bletchley Park. Here’s a link to a great four-minute interview with Betty Webb and Joy Aylard who actually worked there during World War II:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07dgj2k. The program was part of the BBC’s celebration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. (I’m now getting a message saying I can’t watch the clip at my location, but maybe you can where you are. A friend in Belgium sent it to me on Facebook.) If the BBC link doesn’t work, perhaps you can still find it on https://www.facebook.com/JanetMorrisonWriter/. I posted the video there on July 29, 2019. While you’re there, I invite you to “like” my writer’s Facebook page.

The copy of Mr. Churchill’s Secretary that I read included several pages of author’s notes at the end. It was interesting to learn how Ms. MacNeal wove real people and fictional people into this cohesive story. She also gave some research facts she discovered and what inspired her to write the novel.

The Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan

The Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan

This is an engaging historical novel set in London during World War II. Many novels have been published over the last several years in conjunction with the 75th anniversaries of various events of that war. I’ve read a number of them, but The Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan stands out in my mind.

You might be surprised at who the spies in the story are. You’ll be surprised when some very unlikely people find themselves spying on the British Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. Woven throughout is a story of the estrangement between an adult daughter and her mother. There are family secrets that are eventually revealed.

If you follow my blog, you know I’m generally not a fan of listening to a novel, but I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this one.

I can’t wait to see what Jennifer Ryan has in store for us in her next novel. Perhaps you’ve read her debut novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. I also gave it five stars. If you want to see what I said about that book, here’s a link to my April 1, 2017 blog post, https://janetswritingblog.com/2017/04/01/the-authors-i-read-in-march/. ­­­­­­­­­­­­

The Irishman’s Daughter, by V.S. Alexander

#HistoricalNovel set in #Ireland during the #PotatoFamine
The Irishman’s Daughter, by V.S. Alexander

I’ve mentioned The Irishman’s Daughter, by V.S. Alexander in several of my blog posts including https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/04/08/three-other-books-i-read-in-march-2019/ on April 8, 2019. I’ve become a fan of V.S. Alexander’s historical novels. It’s just personal preference, but The Irishman’s Daughter didn’t hold my attention like Alexander’s first two novels, The Magdalen Girls (2017) and The Taster (2018.)

Alexander does a brilliant job of research and has a talent for sharing research without beating the reader over the head with info dumps.

The Irishman’s Daughter takes place in Ireland during The Great Potato Famine. The father in the story oversees an estate for an absentee landlord. He has two daughters. One dreams of marrying the rich landlord, who is oblivious to the poverty and starvation faced by his tenants. The other daughter is emotionally moved by the dire situation and tries to stretch their little bit of food with as many people as she possibly can. She longs to marry a local farmer.

I must admit that I did not finish reading this book. With other books vying for my attention, this one just didn’t grab me. I’ve read good things about the book, though, so I’ll give it another try when I get a chance.

V.S. Alexander’s next novel, The Traitor, is scheduled for publication on February 25, 2020. Although I didn’t like The Irishman’s Daughter as much as Alexander’s earlier books, I’ll get on the waitlist for The Traitor at the public library as soon as it’s ordered.

To see what I said about The Magdalen Girls and The Taster, please click on these two blog post links:  https://janetswritingblog.com/2017/04/01/the-authors-i-read-in-march/ and https://janetswritingblog.com/2018/03/05/reading-and-writing-in-february-2018/.

Since my last blog post

I finished the online “Building a Writer/Author Platform course taught by Karen Cioffi-Ventrice. Here’s a link to it and other courses, in case you’re interested: https://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/.

I had good feedback about last Monday’s blog post, https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/07/29/onthisday-uss-indianapolis/. Therefore, I’ll plan additional #OnThisDay blog posts in the future. Thank you to everyone who left comments or liked it here and on other social media networks.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Victory Garden, by Rhys Bowen and listening to Resistance Women, by Jennifer Chiaverini.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time this week.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog.

Let’s continue the conversation

What are you reading? Or what did you read in July that you’d recommend? Do you read historical fiction? If not, you’re missing a great reading and learning experience.

Janet

Delving Deeper into Dialects and Accents in Fiction

My blog post last week, https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/06/10/a-wake-up-call-from-dr-henry-louis-gates-jr/, was about how reading Stony the Road:  Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. tipped the scales for me in writing dialect and accents in fiction. One thing led to another, and that post became too long. Today’s blog post includes what I deleted from last Monday’s post.

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and The Rise of Jim Crow, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

If this is a topic you’re struggling with, I hope these two blog posts will trigger some questions in your mind and lead you to try to come to terms with this aspect of fiction writing.

If you are a reader but don’t aspire to write fiction, I hope my thoughts on the subject will spark a new awareness in you. It’s not just about literature, it’s about how we view our fellow citizens.

My wake-up call

The awakening Dr. Gates’ book prompted in me helped me realize that, except for using an occasional “ye” or “’Tis” for an Irish character’s speech, I wasn’t using any sort of dialect in the white characters’ dialogue. So why in the world was I using dialect in the dialogue of the slaves in the novel I’m writing, The Doubloon?

A device in writing is the use of attributing certain words or phrases to a particular character. This is done to help the reader distinguish one character from another. There is a way to do this without using “Plantation Dialect.”

Thank you, Dr. Gates, for turning that light bulb on in my head.

Another resource for writing vs. not writing accents in dialogue

Images from Louise Harnby’s “Writing Natural Dialogue & Thoughts” blog post from May 20, 2019.

I looked for additional professional advice on the topic of writing accents in dialogue and found the following blog post by fiction editor and proofreader Louise Harnby:  https://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/blog/writing-dialogue-and-thoughts-8-problems-and-how-to-fix-them.

She stated, “Bear in mind that dialogue tells us what words have been spoken, not how they’re spelled. Phonetic spelling can turn dialogue into pastiche, and offensive pastiche at that. It’s also difficult to absorb and distracts readers from your story.”

That led me to edit the dialogue I had written for a Frenchman in my novel manuscript. There is so much to learn. Times are changing. What was acceptable in fiction years ago or even last year, might not be acceptable now. Some people call this political correctness. That term has taken on negative backlash connotations, so I prefer to say, “When you know better, you do better.” Maya Angelou is credited with saying, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

A piece of advice I took from Ms. Harnby’s blog post is this: “Use location rather than pronunciation to enrich characterization – how where they’re from affects the story, their perception of the conflict or their approach to solving it.” I think this is harder than writing phonetically, but nobody said writing a novel set in the 18th century American South would be easy.

Reinforced by listening to Iron House, by John Hart

My awareness of this matter was reinforced a couple of weeks ago as I listened to Iron House, by John Hart. Listening to the novel drove home the question about the use of accent in fiction. I did not finish listening to Iron House because I became completely distracted by the over-the-top Southern accent used by the professional reader.

Iron House, by John Hart

The way in which the professional reader exaggerated the speech of at least two characters in Iron House reminded me of the extreme Southern accents used by the actors in the old television series “In the Heat of the Night.” Since the series was set in Mississippi, the actors used such slow and pronounced “Southern” accents that it was irritating to my North Carolina ears. It came across as Hollywood making fun of the way I talk.

Iron House is set in North Carolina. I’ve lived my entire life in that state, and I’ve never heard anyone talk with the extreme drawl of Caravel and Abigail in the audio edition of that novel. It piqued my curiosity, so I checked out the printed version from the public library just to see how Mr. Hart wrote the words. Sure enough, he did not write the book phonetically to convey over-the-top pronunciation in any words of dialogue Caravel or Abigail had. So why did the publisher think it was acceptable for the reader of the audio edition of the novel to use a fake accent?

In all fairness, Iron House was published eight years ago. Perhaps an audio edition recorded in 2019 would be done differently.

This has all been quite an eye-opener for me on my journey as a writer. Sometimes I’ve wished I’d started my writing career as a young adult, but now I realize I would have been a very different writer at 26 than I am at 66. I think the 66-year-old me would be embarrassed by the fiction written by the 26-year-old me.

Thinking about my reading experience

If I’m reading the dialogue of a character from Boston, my brain knows what a Boston accent sounds like. I’ve known people from Boston, so I know they pronounce some things differently than I do but not like the over-the-top Boston accents we sometimes encounter on TV or in movies. The writer doesn’t have to spell a Bostonian’s dialogue phonetically for me to catch on.

Outsiders tend to paint everyone from New Jersey with the same phonetic brush, too. I know people from New Jersey, and they don’t sound anything like Vinny in the 1992 comedy movie “My Cousin, Vinny.”

But somehow, there is a difference between an actor conveying a regional accent and an actor portraying what Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. refers to as “Plantation Dialect.” Although, I don’t appreciate an actor giving exaggerated pronunciations to a Southern character, it’s not the same as an actor giving exaggerated pronunciations to a black character. I think regional accents should be celebrated, but there is no place for “Plantation Dialect” in fiction in 2019.

I don’t have a problem with a Southern character saying “y’all” in the printed dialogue in a novel. I say it naturally. It rolls right off my tongue like butter. But I do have a problem with printed dialogue in a present-day novel having a black character saying “Nome” instead of “No, ma’am.” “Gwine” used to appear in the dialogue of black slaves in literature. I never did understand how “I’m going to” or even “I’m gonna” got translated into “gwine.”

Literature evolves as society evolves. When you know better, you should do better. I still have a lot to learn.

It will interesting to see how the dialogue in my novel is accepted or rejected by literary agents, editors, and publishers. When that time comes, I’ll let you know.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Prayer Box, by Lisa Wingate and Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Thank you for reading my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog.

Let’s continue the conversation

Do you like reading fiction in which dialect is expressed through the spelling of words in dialect, or are you turned off by this practice? Do you think it’s time for us in 2019 to reassess how dialect is used in fiction? Should writers give readers enough credit to assume they can imagine how a character from a certain region would pronounce certain words?

Those of you who live in countries other than the United States are urged to chime in on this topic. Is this something authors in other countries are faced with as they write about regionalisms or even a past history in which certain groups of people were enslaved?

If today’s blog didn’t interest you, please come back next Monday for a different topic.

Janet