Two Other Books I Read in July 2020

Today’s blog is about two very different novels I read last month. In case you missed last week’s blog post about the other three books I read in July, here’s the link to that post: Three of the Five Books I Read in July 2020.

I like historical fiction because it lets me escape to another place and time. One of today’s books transported me to Washington, DC and the Midwest in the second half of the 19th century, while the other novel took me to Naples, Italy in the 1950s.


Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters, by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters, by Jennifer Chiaverini

I knew that Mary Todd (Mrs. Abraham) Lincoln had some mental illness problems, but this novel shines a light on her illness and how it affected her only surviving son and her four sisters. It demonstrates how family members can become estranged when there is mental illness in their midst and how siblings and children (even adult children) can be shut out and left feeling helpless to get the sick relative the help they need. It was true in the 19th century. Sadly, it is still true.

The Todd sisters had always been close and relied upon one another even as adults. The American Civil War caused rifts in their relationships, as one or more of their husbands were part of the Lincoln Administration while the husband of another sister was in the Confederacy.

Mrs. Lincoln attempted suicide in 1875. Her sisters try to let bygones be bygones, even though she has slighted each of them on occasion. After spending time in an asylum, Mrs. Lincoln is determined to never return. She was a very resourceful woman. She would walk out of one facility she was in, hail a taxi, and go to pharmacies to try to get drugs.

She had a volatile relationship with her son, and her mental illness was demonstrated in the way she gave and withheld things from him.

It is the second novel I’ve read by Jennifer Chiaverini, the first being Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.


My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

I heard that The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante, was good, so I got on the waitlist for it at the library. Then, I discovered it was the second book in her Neapolitan Series, so I got on the waitlist for the first book, My Brilliant Friend. It took a bit of juggling and pausing my hold on The Story of a New Name so I could read My Brilliant Friend first.

My Brilliant Friend is beautifully translated from Italian into English by Ann Goldstein. The prose is lovely.

My Brilliant Friend has been made into a TV series on HBO, but I have not seen it. The book follows two young girlfriends (Lila and the narrator, Elena) from their meeting at the age of 10 through their adolescent years. Elena sees Lila as more intelligent than herself. This prompts Elena to try to do everything Lila does to the extent of “copying” how she does everything. It is a complex story of women’s friendships and power. Lila and Elena’s lives reflect life in Naples, Italy in the 1950s.

There are four books in Ms. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series of novels.


Since my last blog post

Yesterday morning at 8:07 a.m. EDT, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake occurred near Sparta, North Carolina and was felt here. I live about 100 miles from Sparta. I was sound asleep at the time and the shaking of my bed woke me up.  We don’t have a lot of earthquakes of that magnitude in North Carolina. In fact, this was the strongest one in the state since a 5.2 near Asheville in 1916.

A good thing that has resulted from the changes we’ve all had to make in our lifestyles due to the pandemic is the new opportunities people like me have to watch and listen to authors on Facebook Live and Zoom. A special weekly thing I’ve become addicted to at 7pm Eastern Time on Wednesdays is a conversation among five novelists. Look online (friendsandfiction.com) for “Friends and Fiction.”

Authors Mary Alice Monroe, Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, and Patti Callahan Henry meet virtually every Wednesday evening to discuss reading and writing. Most weeks they have a guest author join them. From the website you can click on “Podcasts” and watch several of their earlier programs. It’s a great way to forget about the pandemic for an hour.

I’m still working my way through C.S. Lakin’s book and accompanying workbook that share the title, The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction as I continue to polish my historical fiction manuscript tentatively titled The Doubloon or The Spanish Coin.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. If you’ve never tried listening to an audio book, I suggest you give that a try. I’ve surprised myself this year and found downloadable audio books to be my format of choice. You don’t have to worry about getting Covid-19 germs from another library patron.

If you are a writer or other type of artist, I hope you get to immerse yourself in your craft this week.

Be safe. Be well. Wear a mask out of respect for other people. We’re all in this together.

Janet

Character and Structure, by Chris Andrews

Character & Structure: An Unholy Alliance, by Chris Andrews

I ditched my original plan for today’s blog post yesterday afternoon after reading the first seven chapters of Chris Andrews’ new writing “how-to” book, Character & Structure:  An Unholy Alliance. The book was released on Friday. Since I’d preordered it for my tablet, it downloaded at 12:01 a.m.

Chris Andrews is an Australian fantasy author. He has much more experience than I have in writing fiction. He has helped me a lot on my journey as a writer.

This book is aimed at writers, but I can imagine a fan of fiction also reading it and getting a better understanding of what goes into writing a novel. Clue:  There’s more to it than typing.

In Character & Structure:  An Unholy Alliance, Mr. Andrews writes about how important it is for a novelist to reach his or her readers by getting them emotionally invested. You can write a book with perfect punctuation about a perfect person with a perfect life but, if you don’t write it in a way that prompts your reader to care what happens to this character, your novel will fail. Your character must face challenges and problems. Otherwise, no one will care.

The following are two quotes from Mr. Andrews’ book:

“Mastering the mechanics of writing doesn’t automatically provide the entertainment factor.”

“You’re the architect, so unless you’re building your story purely for yourself, you need to consider your audience.”

Character & Structure:  An Unholy Alliance reminds writers that readers come to a novel with certain expectations regarding structure. If a writer is going to deviate from the expected structure of a novel, he or she better be an outstanding writer to pull it off. Different genres adhere to set patterns or sequences of plot. Readers are uncomfortable with any deviation and book sales and reviews will reflect that.

As Mr. Andrews states early in the book, “This book will help you balance your story so the beginning, middle and end work to your advantage [and] create the emotional high and low points your audience expects.”

He addresses how authors approach the writing of a novel in different ways. Some writers are outliners, while others are “pantsters.” (Outliners map out their story before they write it. Pantsters write by the seat of their pants.)

Mr. Andrews writes, “One process favours emotion while the other is all about logic. You need to be a master of both and that means doing the things you don’t want to do.”

I’m an outliner. That doesn’t mean I adhere to the rigid way I was taught in elementary school to outline. When I’m plotting a story or novel, I outline with sentences and paragraphs, scene-by-scene. That’s what works for me, so my bigger challenge is mastering emotion.

Character & Structure:  An Unholy Alliance is the first writing “how-to)” book I’ve read that focuses on this important aspect of creative writing. I wish Mr. Andrews had written it a few years ago! As I continue to edit and polish the manuscript for what I hope will be my first novel, The Doubloon OR The Spanish Coin, I will keep the lessons learned from this book in mind as I work to put more emotion in my writing. If my readers don’t care about my characters, my book won’t be successful on any level.

Mr. Andrews states, “It depends on your own strengths and weaknesses, but whichever path you take the end game encompass character, conflict and a coherent and emotionally engaging structure that makes your audience feel what you want them to feel.”

Also, “Applying character to structure is an unholy alliance as far as many writers are concerned. Doing it well is the foundation of creating a long and successful career.”

Mr. Andrews’ book has helped me have a greater understanding of and appreciation for the necessity of a marriage between character and plot in a work of fiction.

In his book, Mr. Andrews gives questions that fiction writers should ask about their manuscripts in order to get insight into the stories they’re writing.

Here’s one last quote from Character & Structure:  An Unholy Alliance“Combining story (what happens to your characters) and structure (how it happens) means finding the answers that will help you emotionally engage your audience.”

Can you believe all that came just from reading the first two chapters of the book?

The book goes on to say a writer needs to put himself or herself in the place of a character and in the place of the reader. How will your story come across? What will make your reader care about your character(s)? Will your reader be satisfied with how the core problem your character faces is resolved? What’s at stake for your character?

In addition to giving us questions to ask about our manuscripts, he provides entertaining exercises for writers to do in order to consider how character and structure are presented in a variety of well-known novels. He challenges the writer to back off from their story’s details and to look at the whole story as the Norse God Loki could.

If you look at your story or manuscript as a whole and see a perfect world, you’re looking at a world that will bore your reader. That’s the last thing you want! Mr. Andrews then offers a list of things you need to answer or address regarding your book in order to – as we would say in a baseball analogy in the United States – “cover all the bases.”

That brings us to the end of the sixth of 32 chapters in Character & Structure:  An Unholy Alliance. I can’t wait to see how much I learn from the remaining 26 chapters! But don’t expect me to summarize the rest of the book for you. You need to buy it for yourself. It’s available in ebook and paperback format on Amazon.com.

If you’re a fiction writer, I recommend that you purchase it and slowly and thoughtfully work your way through it. That’s what I’ll be doing in the coming weeks. I trust my novel in progress will benefit greatly from the pointers in this book.

Since my last blog post

I enjoyed some wonderful time with three precious family members who live 300 miles away, so I don’t get to see them often.

Before and after their visit, I did a lot of reading.

Until my next blog post

If you’re interested in learning more about Chris Andrews and his novels, visit his website at https://www.chrisandrews.me/.

I hope you have a good book to read. I just finished listening to The Fifth Column, a historical thrilled by Andrew Gross and have started listening to The Stationery Shop, by Marjan Kamali.

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.

Next Monday’s blog post will be about the other books I read in September.

Let’s continue the conversation

If you’re a writer, are you an outliner or a pantster? Do you find it easier to get the mechanics of a story right or do you prefer writing the emotion?

If you’re a fiction reader, does it upset you when an author deviates too much from the expected? For instance, if you like to read romance, does it upset you if a romance novel doesn’t have a happy ending? That’s what is meant by deviating from reader expectations.

Janet

A Wake-Up Call from Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“Find Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on PBS

I’ve enjoyed the various television series Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has done on PBS (the Public Broadcasting System in the United States.) With my interest in genealogy, I’ve especially enjoyed his “Finding Your Roots” series where he (and his assistants) do a thorough genealogical search for well-known Americans. Many times, the findings are surprising.

In my blog post last Monday, https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/06/03/4-or-5-books-i-read-in-may-2019/ , I wrote about the books I read in May. I mentioned reading the first two chapters of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s new book, Stony the Road:   Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.

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

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

The events and facts Dr. Gates included in his book were not in the history textbooks of my youth. This period in our nation’s history was omitted from our textbooks, as were the dark decades which followed in which “Jim Crow” laws were enacted and strictly enforced. All this was swept under the rug and not talked about. The precious little I was taught about the Reconstruction Era could be summed up as, “After the Civil War the ‘carpetbaggers’ from “up North” came down here to tell us what to do.” This always had negative connotations. I grew up in North Carolina.

As a lover of history, even at a young age, I lamented the fact that every year in school we’d study the years up to the end of the American Civil War, the school year would end, and the same thing would happen the next year. It always came across as a lack of time to study anything that happened after that war but, with the perspective I’ve gained in the last several years, I now wonder if this was part of a grand design by the State of North Carolina. Perhaps it was by intention that we never studied the Reconstruction Era.

A snapshot of my school years

So you’ll know the background from which I speak, here are the highlights of my school years as far as race goes: I attended an all-white public school through the sixth grade; racial desegregation was optional in 1965 when I was in the seventh grade (meaning there were three children from a black family who desegregated our school of grades 1-12 with around 1,000 students); the historic black public schools in our county were closed at the end of my seventh grade year, so the schools were completely racially-integrated thereafter.

Can you imagine being one of just three students of color in a school of 1,000 white students? I cannot imagine how Carolyn Morris and her two siblings felt. I also cannot imagine how all the black students in our county felt the following year when their schools were closed and they had no choice but to attend the schools that had preciously been all-white. It was a blessing that five of the six county high schools were consolidated in 1967 into two new high schools, so Central Cabarrus High School and Northwest Cabarrus High School were never racially-segregated.

Back to Dr. Gates’ book

From Dr. Gates’ book I learned in greater detail than I had before that great strides were made for racial integration during Reconstruction; however, “Jim Crow” laws started popping up all over the country (yes, even in The North) to squelch that progress. One fact that epitomizes the century after the American Civil War is that the University of South Carolina was racially-integrated after the War, but then laws were instituted to prohibit black students. The university wasn’t desegregated again until 1963.

The most important thing I learned as a writer

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

The most important thing I learned as a writer from reading Dr. Gates’ book is about the use of “Plantation Dialect” in fiction. It is something I have wrestled with in the years I’ve written and re-written my manuscript for The Spanish Coin/The Doubloon. With every revision I’ve deleted words of dialect. I had it down to just a couple of words (nawsuh for No, sir; Yessum for Yes, ma’am) by the time I read Dr. Gates’ book. Now I realize how that use of dialect, no doubt, comes across to an African-American reader.

As a white Southerner, I don’t like it when someone mocks my accent. I’m proud of my accent, but to see it overdone in spoken or written word is demeaning.

I’m fascinated by the regional accents in the United States. It’s a subject I’d like to study. I think these regional accents are a beautiful warp and weft in the fabric of our nation. If we all spoke just alike, life would be boring.

In next Monday’s blog post, I plan to delve more deeply into this subject as Dr. Gates’ book prompted me to do additional research about the use of dialect and accents in fiction. Learning to write fiction is a journey.

Since my last blog post

For a variety of reasons, I’ve made only scant progress on my manuscript for The Doubloon; however, what I’ve learned about the use of accent and dialect in fiction is far more important than my novel’s word count.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Things We Cannot Say, by Kelly Rimmer and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive 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

What is your experience in writing or reading fiction in which dialect and accent were overdone? Have you noticed an evolution in how dialect and accent are handled in novels?

Janet

“The hard work lies ahead.” What did I mean by that?

In my May 6, 2019 blog post, https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/05/06/the-only-book-i-read-in-april-2019/, I announced the completion of the first rough draft of my rewrite of The Doubloon. Then I made the following statement:  “The hard work lies ahead.” What did I mean by that?

I meant it was time to take all the steps it takes to get a novel published. There are many additional steps. I am, no doubt, blissfully unaware of some of them. Today I’ve listed many of the individual things that need to be done when polishing a novel manuscript. I’m sharing it here in case it will help someone else who is just starting out.

Steps to polish a novel manuscript

Most of the items I list below apply no matter what genre your novel is, but several of them are specific to writing historical fiction. Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I have more questions than answers, but I’m learning every step of the way.

Things I’ve done since last Monday’s blog post include the following:

  • Moved the inciting event from page 45 to page 28 and made necessary scene adjustments due to that change in timing;
  • Changed several character’s surnames so they won’t be mistaken for persons who lived in The Waxhaws, the Rocky River Settlement, and Salisbury in the 1760s;

 What’s left to do? Plenty! I need to:

  • Read entire manuscript aloud to make sure it flows naturally, makes sense, has the right amount of backstory, doesn’t have information dumps, and doesn’t have plot holes;
  • Reading or Listening? With what I recently learned about the difference in reading a book and listening to a book, I need to look at the hook and scene and chapter beginnings to see if they work well for the book listener; (See my May 13, 2019 blog post: https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/05/13/how-listening-to-a-book-and-reading-a-book-differ/.)
  • Characterization: Are the characters distinguishable, what are their motives, and are their arcs in the right places?
  •  Check Point-of-View in every scene;
  •  Tweak Scene Plot Outline;
  • Consider hiring a Scene Outline Critiquer;
  • Take professional editor’s recommendation into consideration and make those changes;
  • Authentic Details: Add details where needed to make sure the reader will feel like they are in The Waxhaws, the Rocky River Settlement, and Salisbury in 1769-1770;
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
  • Backstory:  Have I included just enough, too little, or too much?
  • Dialogue:  Have I used words not in usage in 1769?
  • Narrative and Dialogue: Have I used any words too often?
  • Fine tune every sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter, checking for things like cause and effect, strong verbs; use of passive voice; character act first, then speak; and the overuse of adverbs;
  • Check spelling;
  • Check all punctuation — the most difficult task for me; and
  • Read through the novel aloud again. Have I told a good story?

After I do everything I can

 After I do everything I can do to make the manuscript the best it can be, there is still hard work to be done. I’ll list some of those in a blog post seven or eight months from now. I’ll know more from experience by then.

Meanwhile

I need to continue to build my writer’s platform. That’s one thing this blog is doing for me. Along the way, I hope my blog readers will discern the kind of writer I am.

The road to publication

It is daunting road that lies ahead and there will probably be some potholes and detours along the way. I’ve worked on this historical novel manuscript for something like 15 years. I’ve lost track of time and can’t say with certainty when I started working on it.

Until recently, I referred to it as The Spanish Coin. In an effort to give it a two-word title, I changed the working title to The Doubloon. If I’m fortunate to get it published by a publisher, as opposed to myself, I will lose control of the title. I’m trying not to get too attached to either working title.

#FixYourNovel

In the coming months I plan to address these steps writers should take as they work their way through the novel writing and traditional novel publishing process. From time-to-time, I will blog about the steps I listed above in blog posts titled “FixYourNovel #_,” and that’s “#” in the pre-Twitter numeric.

Look for the first installment in my “#FixYourNovel” blog series next Monday:  Read entire novel manuscript aloud.

Do I have the audacity to write about how a writer goes about “fixing” his or her novel? Only time will tell.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

Perhaps I can help someone out there who is also writing a debut novel, and some of the process might be of interest to those of you who like to read fiction. If my blog readers start dropping like flies, I’ll know you’re not interested.

Until my next blog post

I’ll read my manuscript out loud and see what it sounds like from start to finish.

Let’s continue the conversation

When you read a blog written in first person point-of-view, do you feel like you’re being talked “at” or not? Do you feel more included when you read a blog written in second person? Does it depend on the topic? Have you ever thought about it?

Janet

Too much reading, not enough writing!

It’s important for a writer to do a lot of reading; however, I wonder if I’ve taken that to the extreme. The other day I realized I was using my stack of library books as an excuse not to work on my novel.

Most of my writing the last couple of years was for my blog. I aspire to be a novelist. For that to happen, I have to put in the time that first book requires.

“H” is for Historical Fiction

If you’ve followed my blog since April 10, 2017 [https://janetswritingblog.com/2017/04/10/h-is-for-historical-fiction/ ] you know that I had finished the first draft of a historical novel when I discovered a fact that prompted me to make major changes in that 96,000-word manuscript. In fact, I concluded that I had to start over.

I hit a brick wall!
(Photo by Janet Morrison)

Here are three key paragraphs from my April 10, 2017 blog post:

“One of my dreams is to write a historical novel. The historian in me struggles with the fiction in historical fiction. The writer in me wishes I could run fast and loose with the facts.

“Over the weekend, I did a lot of reading on the subject in preparation for writing today’s blog post. In the process, I found some information that shed more light on the historical event that serves as the basis for the novel manuscript I’ve been working on for the last decade or so.

“The combination of the new information I found about that event when paired with some of the reading I did yesterday about the craft of writing historical fiction made my head spin. The combination of the two, in fact, has convinced me that I must start over writing my novel. Yes, you read that correctly. I must start over.”

Where I went from there

I changed the location, the year, and the characters from the original story. Although much of the plot could remain intact, the necessity of starting over and getting my head around a new location when I thought I was getting close to trying to get the novel published took the wind out of my sails.

I tried to see it as an opportunity. The reality was two years of procrastination.

Common sense told me it would be a challenge to start writing “page 1” again, but I didn’t fully grasp how difficult the rewrite would be until I found myself unable to sit down to do the work. What I’ve learned over the last 24 months is – at least for me – writing is fun/enjoyable work but the idea of rewriting a full-length novel is gut wrenching.

In terms of production, my journey as a fiction writer has been abysmal the last two years. I continued to study the art and craft of writing, and I know I benefited from those studies. I benefit from reading good fiction, but it is time for me to stop writing about writing and get back to the actual work of writing.

The following words from my April 10, 2017 blog post haunt me today, since I have not had the grit I needed in order to follow through:

“I’m certainly not the first writer who never got her first novel published. There are numerous stories about first manuscripts being lost. Some succumbed to fire, while others were mistakenly left on a train and were never seen again. Many first manuscripts get rejected so many times by publishers that the writer eventually puts it away and moves on to another novel. Most writers have had to start over. That is what I will do, and I believe the end product will be better than The Spanish Coin manuscript.”

My April 10, 2017 blog post was a pep talk for myself, but it didn’t work.

Since my last blog post

I’m weary of making excuses – and maybe that’s what it took for me to finally start rewriting The Spanish Coin in earnest last week. I wasn’t satisfied with the new location for the rewrite. I threw caution to the wind on Thursday and took the story back to its original location. I’m familiar enough with The Waxhaws section in present-day Lancaster County, South Carolina, that I think I can make it work.

The true story that inspired my original manuscript is my inspiration for the new story. The year is probably 1767 instead of 1771. There is still a mysterious murder, but the victim is now a fictitious character.

I changed the working title from The Spanish Coin to The Doubloon. New title, new story.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Since Thursday, I’ve written 14,000 words. The monkey is off my back! I’ll report my progress in my blog posts on Mondays, so you can hold me accountable.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I just finished listening to The Island of Sea Women, by Lisa See. It’s a historical novel about an island off Korea where the women have an incredible ability to dive in the ocean and harvest specific fish and other sea life. I’m eager to start reading Tomorrow’s Bread, by Anna Jean Mayhew as soon as it is released tomorrow!

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time. If you, too, are facing a novel rewrite, I wish you the stamina it takes to see the job through.

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

Look for my #TwoForTuesday blog post tomorrow:  My Two Favorite Unsung Female Heroes.

Let’s continue the conversation

I always welcome your comments. I appreciate your moral support and constructive criticism.

Janet

Cultural Appropriation in Writing

Cultural Appropriation was a term I first encountered one day last week while participating in a writers’ group page on Facebook. Although I was not familiar with the term, I’ve had first-hand experience in wrestling with it in my own writing.

aaron-burden-123584
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

A definition

The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as

“the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

A raft of articles and video clips

As I started looking for a definition of cultural appropriation, I found a wealth of online references, which proves that I just haven’t been paying attention.

What I discovered is that non-Hispanic individuals were criticized for operating a burrito food cart in Portland, Stella McCartney was criticized for including Ankara prints in her spring fashion collection, a white man was criticized by Koreans for making a Kimchi-making tutorial, in March of this year Bruno Mars was accused of cultural appropriation in his music, and just last week Jamie Oliver was accused of cultural appropriation for calling a dish “punchy jerk rice.”

Author Morgan Jones’ opinion

Author and administrator of the “Writers on the Path to a Page-Turner” Facebook group, Barbara Kyle, started a conversation about cultural appropriation on Facebook on August 20. She shared a link to an October 1, 2016 article in The Guardian ( https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/01/novelists-cultural-appropriation-literature-lionel-shriver ) and in a follow-up comment she quoted author Morgan Jones. Here’s Ms. Kyle’s comment:

“The move to self-censorship for fear of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a sad state of affairs. Author Morgan Jones eloquently champions the opposite position:  ‘Fiction remains the best means we have of finding connection where there seems to be none; and the novel, of all forms, encourages a search that’s deep and sustained. By reading (or writing) one, you’ve travelled somewhere else. You’ve moved, it only slightly, towards others. In a world that finds and increasingly exploits division and difference, this is an invaluable, precious exercise.”

After you’ve finished reading my blog post today, I invite you to read The Guardian article referenced above. That article includes the following novelists’ views on cultural appropriation: Hari Kunzru, Kamila Shamsie, Aminatta Forna, Chris Cleave, AL Kennedy, Stella Duffy, Linda Grant, Naomi Alderman, Philip Hensher, Maggie Gee, and Nikesh Shukla. These are writers of various ethnic backgrounds, which makes their comments especially poignant.

The article’s introduction reads as follows:

“Jonathan Franzen claimed he won’t write about race because of limited ‘firsthand experience’, while Lionel Shriver hopes objection to ‘cultural appropriation is a passing fad’. So should there be boundaries on what a novelist can write about?”

Another writer in the Facebook group

Another person in the writers’ group on Facebook shared that he had given up on publishing his historical novel based on the life of Etienne Annaotaha, a Canadian First Nations hero after seeing how much flack Joseph Boyden caught for his writing, even though Mr. Boyden is 26% Native American. Imagine how a 100% European ancestry writer would be treated for writing about Native Americans if someone like Mr. Boyden is not accepted?

A quote from Walter Mosley

The following quote from Walter Mosley appeared in an email I received from Writer’s Digest last week:

“Write without restraint. It’s important to not censor yourself. People will censor the sh*t out of you… and there’s more truth in fiction than there is in nonfiction. You have to be committed to that truth.” – Walter Mosley

My challenge

In the historical novel I’m writing, set in the Carolinas in the 1760s, I’m attempting to write from several points-of-view, including that of a male slave and that of a free woman of color. My challenge is to be true to history while writing about fictional characters. I might not get it right.

I found a truck-load of encouragement from the Morgan Jones quote highlighted above! I have typed it and taped it to the bottom of my computer screen so I can read it every time I sit down to work on my novel.

So should there be boundaries on what a novelist can write about?

I say, “No, as long as the writer does her best research and uses her best writing skills to convey a story in a work of fiction.”

Cultural appropriation smacks of censorship, and I’m not for censorship in fiction. I don’t want someone else deciding what I should or should not read. Likewise, I don’t want someone else deciding what I should or should not write.

As a Southerner, I have not appreciated the disingenuous portrayal of Southerners in movies and television programs all my life; however, I uphold the creators’ right to produce that work under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Censorship is a slippery slope I don’t want to see us go down.

All that said, I will be mindful of my use of dialect in my novel. There are better ways to get across time, place, and social standing than hitting the reader over the head with dialect.

Since my last blog post

I’ve taken some courage from researching cultural appropriation. Although I was ignorant of the term itself, I’ve given a lot of thought to the subject for the years I’ve been working on my own novel.

I was also inspired by a dream I had last Monday night. As far as I can remember, it was the first time I dreamed that I was writing. I was writing my novel, and the words were flowing faster than I could write them down. The odd part was that I was writing in cursive, although in real life I do all my writing on the computer.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m trying to finish reading A Gentleman in Moscow and I’ve started reading The President is Missing, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time. I plan to get back to work on my historical novel (working title, The Spanish Coin) with a renewed since of dedication since recharging my batteries in the Blue Ridge Mountains a couple of weeks ago and since reading about cultural appropriation last week.

Thank you for reading my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog. I appreciate it! I welcome your comments

I invite your comments below. What are your feelings about cultural appropriation? Have you read any good books lately? What have you been up to? What’s on your mind?

Let’s continue the conversation.

Janet

Reading is not a contest!

I was in a bit of a reading slump the first half of June. There were many books on my “want to read” (WTR) list, but books I thought I wanted to read kept making their way to the top of the waitlist at the public library and I had to check them out within seven days or go back to the bottom of the waitlist.

Last week I tried to come to grips with the lunacy of this habit of mine. Library waitlists were dictating what I was reading, while many books languished on my WTR list.

Since I can’t afford to buy very many of the books I want to read, I rely on two public library systems to make those books available to me.

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Harrisburg Branch of Cabarrus County Public Library System

Don’t get me wrong. I am a card-carrying supporter of public libraries. I have nothing but respect and love for public libraries; however, I can’t indefinitely ignore books on my WTR list while reading the newest shiny book that rises to the top of the library waitlist. It’s not the fault of the library or the system. It is my fault. I have put the cart ahead of the horse.

Sometimes by the time I get to the top of the waitlist, I can’t remember why I wanted to read the book in the first place. Did I read a glowing review of it? Did another writer recommend it as a good example of character development?

There’s also the matter of my inability to stay awake to read as long as I’d like. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has completely wrecked my circadian clock and my memory. I hope seeing a sleep specialist later this summer will result in some improvement in my sleep.

In an effort to find a piece of new advice to help me get on track with my WTR list, I read “Hot Reading Challenge Tips from Pros Who Read More Than 100 Books a Year.” The article was posted on June 21, 2018 on the www.Goodreads.com blog (https://www.goodreads.com/blog/show/1294?rto=x_gr_e_nl_general&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=june212018&utm_content=Voracious.Readers&ref_=pe_3097180_285823010.) Great timing!

Apparently, a mid-year reading slump is not unusual. I took encouragement from that. It’s not just me.

Goodreads.com asked four of their avid readers (persons who read more than 100 books-a-year) to give advice to the rest of us. My takeaways from reading this blog post boil down to this:

  • You don’t have to finish reading a book you aren’t enjoying
  • Read what really appeals to you, not what you think you “should” read
  • Reread your favorite book. It might get your reading juices going again.

I already knew I don’t have to finish reading a book I’m not enjoying; however, old habits are slow to die. I am a work in progress. If I’m going to blog about a book I’ve read, it helps if I’ve read the whole book.

In my January 8, 2018 blog post, 2018 Reading, Writing, & Living Plans, I stated that I would take a new approach this year. With nearly 500 books on my WTR list, I said I would concentrate on reading the books on that list.

As of yesterday, my WTR list had grown to 578 in spite of the fact that I’d read 32 books in the first 25 weeks of 2018. I read 63 books in 2017, so I’m on track to equal or surpass that number in 2018. WHOA! I can’t believe I just typed that. I can’t believe I even had that thought.

Reading is not a contest!

Note to self:  Reading isn’t a contest. The person who reads the most books doesn’t “win.”

Reading whatever I want to read is a gift I received by being born in and living in a democracy. Having the ability to read at all is a gift from God and my ancestors who valued books and education.

The numbers I’ve been keeping track of are an artificial measuring stick I inflicted on myself.

My first blog post each month is about the books I read in the previous month. That was my decision, but that in itself puts pressure on me to read, read, read. When June 15 arrived and I had not finished reading one single book during the month, I started feeling the pressure of finishing several books before June 30 so I’d have something to blog about on July 2. Why am I doing this to myself?

Indeed, why?

I’ll continue to read books on my WTR list. As I check those off the list, I’m sure I’ll keep adding books to the list. That’s just the way it is when you’re an avid reader. I’ll try to stop obsessing about the numbers, though!

Incidentally, my next blog post will be about the books I read in June. Those monthly blog posts are among my most popular. I plan to continue that schedule. I just hope I will not feel guilty if I only read one or two books in any given month instead of the four or five I’ve striven for over the past several years.

Thus far in June, I’ve read three books and approximately half of three others. Saturday night, June 30 will, no doubt, find me trying to finish reading the last of those three books so I can blog about the six books I read in June.

I’m a book-a-holic in need of an intervention.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time. I’ve done some thinking about my novel, The Spanish Coin (working title), but I haven’t actually added to the word count lately.

I think I need to spend more time writing and less time reading!

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

Janet

If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss

As an aspiring novelist, I keep a writing notebook. In one section I write down the “hooks” from the novels I read. In the other section, I write down my favorite lines (and sometimes paragraphs) from the books I read.

As I learned from reading Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose, it’s okay for me to do this. In case you missed it, my April 9, 2018 blog post (“Reading Like a Writer”) is about that book.

If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss

Today’s blog post highlights a couple of my favorite lines from If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss.

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If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss

The context of the following quote is that many volunteers went to the Appalachian Mountains in the 1960s and 1970s on the heels of the federal government’s emphasis on poverty in Appalachia. In this quote Kate Shaw, the new teacher, is paying Birdie Rocas a huge compliment while reading from one of Birdie’s “Books of Truths” in which the uneducated, eccentric Birdie writes her thoughts and observations.

Here are a couple of lines I really like:

“Do you know the saying, ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater?’” [Kate Shaw speaking.]

“The teacher in her don’t give me [Birdie Rocas] time to say so when she adds, ‘Well, you write about the baby while everyone else is writing about the bathwater.’” — from If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss

Since my last blog post

I’m excited to report that I’ve written more than 8,000 words in the rewrite of my historical fiction manuscript for The Spanish Coin! After getting bogged down in outlining and writing profiles for each of the novel’s characters, it was refreshing to get back to work on the rough draft.

After learning that the location of my fill-in format sign-up form for my sometime-in-the-future newsletter mailing list was causing confusion for readers wanting to leave comments on my blog posts, I tried to figure out how to move the mailing list form to a sidebar. The operative word there is “tried.” You know I’m not very computer savvy, so bear with me on this. I’m not a quitter.

To avoid confusion, I will not include the mailing list sign-up form in today’s blog post.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Hush, by John Hart. It’s a sequel to his 2009 Edgar Award winning novel, The Last Child.

I’m also reading Look for Me, by Lisa Gardner.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time, and I hope you and I will strive to write about the baby more than we write about the bathwater.

What are you reading?

Janet

“Reading Like a Writer”

In my last two blog posts I’ve written about the books I read in March. Last Monday’s post was nearing 2,000 words, so I decided to save my comments about Reading Like a Writer:  A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose, for today. I’ll just hit some of the highlights.

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Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose

Chapter One:  Close Reading

I read and took copious notes from the first four chapters of this book and perused the rest of it. As an aspiring author, I loved how the first chapter confirmed that I read like a writer. It’s called “close reading,” and it means reading every word for the pleasure of getting every phrase – being conscious of such things as style, sentence formation, and how the author creates characters.

Based on what Francine Prose wrote, I no longer need to apologize for reading slowly. I’m trying to hone my craft by reading published writers.

Chapter Two:  Words

In the second chapter of Reading Like a Writer, the author recommends that you read slowly enough to read every word. She compares the language a writer uses to the way a composer uses notes and a painter uses paint.

To paraphrase Ms. Prose, reading to appreciate the writing is akin to not only admiring a beautiful painting from afar but also close up so you can see the brushstrokes.

I also appreciated Ms. Prose’s thoughts on the advice often given to writers, which is “Show, don’t tell.” Ms. Prose says this much-repeated advice confuses novice writers. I can vouch for that.

In editing my earlier manuscript for The Spanish Coin (before I started the complete rewrite), I took the “show, don’t tell” advice to the extreme. I was ruthless in cutting narrative, thinking I could best “show” through dialogue. It was all part of the learning process. Ms. Prose’s take on this is that showing is best done through “the energetic and specific use of language.”

Chapter Three:  Sentences

If I had known I would someday want to be a writer, I would have paid more attention in the 8th grade when we had to diagram sentences. I wasn’t very good at it, and I really didn’t see the point.

I hadn’t thought about sentence diagramming in years until I got to the third chapter of Ms. Prose’s book. She wrote about the value of diagramming sentences, and what she said makes sense to me now.

She lamented the fact that students are no longer taught to diagram sentences. Her explanation that sentence diagramming provides for the accounting of every word and provides a way “to keep track of which phrase is modifying which noun” gave me a way of understanding the value of the exercise that I could not have appreciated as an eighth grader.

I probably couldn’t diagram a complex sentence today if my life depended on it, but Ms. Prose might just be onto something when she insinuates that having that skill would help a writer.

This weekend I happened upon an article from the Huffington Post about diagramming sentences. Here’s the link, if you wish to take a look:  https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/01/diagram-sentence-grammar_n_5908462.html.

A word of warning, though, for those of you of “a certain age.” Reading the Huffington Post article, I soon felt like I’d entered a time warp. I don’t think our sentences had “complements” when I was in the 8th grade.

Chapter Four:  Paragraphs

In the fourth chapter of the book, Ms. Prose quotes master short story writer, Isaac Babel:

“’The breaking up into paragraphs and the punctuation have to be done properly but only for the effect on the reader. A set of dead rules is no good. A new paragraph is a wonderful thing. It lets you quietly change the rhythm, and it can be like a flash of lightning that shows the same landscape from a different aspect.’” – Isaac Babel

In all the various English courses I have taken, I don’t recall any teacher or professor ever saying to break for a new paragraph “only for the effect on the reader.” I’m still letting that sink in. It’s refreshing and freeing to think about it. It is for the writer to determine which rules are dead as far as her editor is concerned.

Chapter Seven:  Dialogue

Characters in a novel should “say what they mean, get to the point, avoid circumlocution and digression.”

Chapter Eight:  Details

Another interesting observation Ms. Prose makes is about details and the truth. She observes that details persuade that the truth is being told.

She points out that a piece of clothing can speak volumes about a character’s circumstances.

Chapter Eleven:  Reading for Courage

Continuing to fly in the face of common advice given to writers of fiction, Ms. Prose suggests that the trend in modern fiction that characters in a novel must be nice in order for the reader to identify with them is possibly not true.

She also says it’s not necessarily true that every loose end in a work of fiction needs to be tied up neatly by the end.

What a relief to read those last two theories! My characters don’t have to be nice in order for the reader to identify with them, and all the loose ends don’t have to be tied up at the end of the novel? This is in opposition to what I learned in fiction writing class back in 2001.

“Words,” by Dr. R. Brown McAlister

Chapter Two in Ms. Prose’s book brought to mind the title of the remarks made by one of the two guest speakers at my high school graduation. Dr. R. Brown McAllister, a beloved icon in Cabarrus County Schools at the time, had retired after many decades of teaching and working as a school administrator, and he had a dry but keen sense of humor. The printed program for the graduation ceremony listed “Words,” by Dr. R. Brown McAllister.

In his deadpan way, Dr. McAllister went to the podium and said something like, “I was asked to talk about words, so here I am.” That was in 1971 and I still don’t know to this day if he was asked to talk about words or to say a few words.

The more I attempt to be a writer and the more I read, the more I appreciate words.

Since my last blog post

I have made a social media plan and made an effort to do more on Twitter (@janetmorrisonbk), my writing-related boards on Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/janet5049), and my Janet Morrison, Writer page on Facebook. Implementing the plan will be a challenge but I’m told I must get my name out there if I hope to sell any copies of The Spanish Coin if and when it gets written and published.

I did not get much reading done last week, but I’m trying to learn that I can’t do everything I want to do. I can’t even do everything I need to do.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’ve just started reading Every Note Played, by Lisa Genova.

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Every Note Played, by Lisa Genova

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

If you haven’t signed up for my sometime-in-the-future newsletters, please do so by completing the form below.

Janet

More March 2018 Reading

March brought a return of cooler weather than we had in February in North Carolina. It also brought a stack of good books. I blogged about some of them last Monday (Some March Reading), and today I’m blogging about the rest of those that I read last month.

Four Short Stories:  In Need of Assistance, Saving the Unicorn, Faerie Blues, and Trophy Hunting, by Chris Andrews

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Four Short Stories: In Need of Assistance, Saving the Unicorn, Faerie Blues, and Trophy Hunting — by Chris Andrews

Science fiction and fantasy are not my reading genres of choice, but Chris Andrews and I connected with each other in the blogosphere as two struggling writers. (Actually, I’m struggling. I’m not so sure about Chris.) We live in different hemispheres but I have learned a great deal from him about writing. He recently published an e-book of four short stories and I was eager to read them.

“In Need of Assistance” leads off the short story collection. Well written and suspenseful, this person (me) who never reads sci-fi got pulled into the story and thought it ended too soon. In other words, I wanted to know what happened next.

The second story in this e-book is “Saving the Unicorn.” It is about a magician who travels 4,000 years back in time to free the last unicorn…. or is it?

“Faerie Blues” is the third story in Chris’ book. The identity of the faerie is a surprise.

The fourth and last story in the book is “Trophy Hunting.” This story is survival of the fittest with a twist.

Following the four short stories are the first seven chapters of Chris’ novel, Divine Prey, which is due for release in May 2018.

The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard

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The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard

This historical novel was inspired by the creation of Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II and the top-secret work carried on there in the development of the atomic bomb.

Ms. Beard invented characters from all walks of like and guides the reader to like most of them and identify with them as much as is possible for we who live in a different time. I liked that she included the black people as well as the white people who lived and worked at Oak Ridge because, as much as they had in common, their housing and treatment by the US Army was quite different. It was in the racially segregated South and the book stands as witness to the prejudice and unequal treatment that existed legally at that time.

The author included not only Christians but an atheist and a Jewish physicist. This book’s cast of characters runs the gamut from redneck bigot to the Jewish scientist whose family had surely died in Germany during the War. True to the history of the facility at Oak Ridge, some characters are poorly educated while others are highly educated, but the emphasis is on the everyday people who worked there and did not know what they were working on.

Ms. Beard follows each character and through them she allows the reader to experience World War II on the home front in the USA and through the stress and struggles of the people who worked in complete secrecy at Oak Ridge. She brings to life the inevitable inner conflicts experienced by some of the scientists who worked there and at Los Alamos, New Mexico as they were simultaneously excited by the physics of the atomic bomb and yet horrified by the realities of what the unleashing of such a weapon would mean and the suffering it would cause for thousands of innocent people.

I never had really thought about how conflicted some of those scientists must have felt. I’d also never given much thought to how many thousands of people worked at Oak Ridge and the majority not knowing they were working on developing an atomic bomb until the day the first one was dropped on Hiroshima.

Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland

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Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland

This is a debut novel by Karen Cleveland. It has received rave reviews from highly-respected authors, so I was eager to read this espionage thriller. After having read it, all I can say is, “Wow!”

Written by a former CIA analyst, this novel has a female CIA analyst working in a division studying Russia and looking for Russian sleeper cells in the USA. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so I’ll just say her marriage and work ethic are tested to the limit.

This novel will make you wonder who you can trust. It is the story of betrayal on many levels, and it will keep you turning pages and wishing you didn’t have to stop to eat, sleep, or work. If you like to read espionage thrillers, you will love this book.

A Piece of the World, by Kristina Baker Kline

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A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline

We’re all familiar with Andrew Wyeth’s most famous painting, “Kristina’s World.” This historical novel is based on the imaginary life of the woman lying in a semi-prone position in the grass on the hillside below the house in that painting.

The author, who also wrote The Orphan Train, did a beautiful job developing the characters in A Piece of the World. They were so believable, the reader will forget the book is fiction. The woman in the painting, Kristina, becomes increasingly disabled due to an unknown condition affecting her legs. She lives in the grey clapboard house on the hill as depicted in the painting. Unable and unwilling to empathize with their daughter, Kristina’s parents do little to try to get her help.

Drawn to the feel and essence of the old house, Andrew, the son of artist N.C. Wyeth comes and asks if he can paint. He sketches and paints Kristina’s brother, but the brother has little patience for posing so Kristina becomes his most consistent model. He continues his work for years.

Kristina falls in love, but is it with Andrew? I’ll leave that for you to discover if you choose to read the book.

Another Ocean to Cross, by Ann Griffin

Another Ocean to Cross by Ann Griffin
Another Ocean to Cross, by Ann Griffin

After reading Ann Griffin’s guest blog post on Writers in the Storm about how to or how not to use family history in your fiction (http://writersinthestormblog.com/2017/12/writing-fiction-using-family-history/), I pre-ordered her debut historical novel, Another Ocean to Cross. I followed her blog and she, subsequently, followed mine.

In Another Ocean to Cross, Ann Griffin weaves a compelling story about 18-year-old Renata Lowenthal, a Jewish woman desperate to escape Germany in 1938 as Hitler makes life ever-more tenuous for the Jewish population. Renata is an artist and her gentile boyfriend is in the military. He has to leave Munich, but he is smuggling Renata’s renderings of the Third Reich’s mistreatment of Jews to journalists in Switzerland.

No matter what the world throws at Renata, she meets the challenge.

The descriptions in this book are vivid and draw on all the senses. Being about the Jews who escaped to Egypt, this book enlightened me about an aspect of World War II that I hadn’t known much about.

Renata struggles to convince her parents that it is imperative that they get out of Germany and try to get to Palestine before it’s too late to escape. The tale Ms. Griffin spins will keep you turning the pages of this book and staying up at night to read just one more chapter. I will not give more details because you will want to read this novel and I don’t want to take away any suspense for you. It will take you and Renata to some surprising locations.

Reading Like a Writer:  A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose

In case your eyes have glazed over, I’ll save my comments about this book until next Monday’s blog post.

Since my last blog post

I have continued to read about writing and study areas I need help with. I have worked on my outline for The Spanish Coin, the working title for what I hope will be my first novel.

One of my readers reported difficulty in getting my comments section below to work. If you have trouble with it, too, please send me a message through the contact form/newsletter sign-up sheet below. I’m sorry for any inconvenience.

My blog steadily attracts more readers and followers, which is gratifying. One new reader and follower, Neil, also signed up for my sometime-in-the-future newsletters. Thank you, Neil.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Last Child, by John Hart, so I’ll be ready to read The Hush in a few weeks.

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

If you haven’t signed up for my sometime-in-the-future newsletters, please do so by completing the form below.

Janet