Eight Books I Read in March 2020

Looking back over the list of books I read in March makes me realize how March 1 seems like a lifetime ago. The world has changed so much since then. It’s difficult to even remember what “normal” was. What a blessing it was, though, for me to have books to help me through the last five weeks of this Coronavirus-19 pandemic.

As days and weeks passed, I found it progressively difficult to concentrate. How about you?

Inheritance:  A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro

This book caught my attention by having “genealogy” in the title. Genealogy is one of my hobbies.

Inheritance
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro

As the title indicates, this book is a memoir. Dani Shapiro grew up thinking her father was her father and her mother was her mother, and her half-sister was her half-sister. A DNA test she took at the age of 54 rocked her world. Her biological father was someone other than the Daddy who had loved and raised her.

Although firmly believing or more accurately, knowing, she was Jewish, Ms. Shapiro had throughout her life defended that fact because her fair complexion and blue eyes made her look more Swedish than Jewish.

In this poignant memoir, Dani Shapiro takes you on a rollercoaster ride as she seeks answers to her questions of “Who?”, “Where?”, and “Why?” as she feels like her entire life has been a lie. The DNA test linked her to a man who had a 98% chance of being her first cousin.

Without spoiling the book for you, I’ll close by saying that Ms. Shapiro searched for her biological father’s identity, but she was beyond relieved when the 93-year-old sister of her father (the father who raised her) listened to her story and still embraced her as her niece.

Part III of the book reveals some surprising things about the Farris Institute in Philadelphia where Ms. Shapiro’s parents went for infertility treatments.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

Having read State of Wonder and The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett, and knowing that her 2001 novel,Bel Canto, had received much acclaim, I was eager to check it off my to-be-read list.

Bel Canto
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

Based on the 1996 hostage situation at the home of an ambassador in Peru, Bel Canto is a novel with a host of characters. They’re in Peru for a birthday party honoring Katsumi Hosowaka, a prominent Japanese businessman who just happens to be a big fan of opera singer Roxane Coss. Ms. Coss was performing at the party.

Peruvian officials are trying their best to influence Hosowaka to build an electronics factory in their country. It turns out Hosowaka does not intend to build a factory there. He just wants to hear Roxane Coss sing.

The party and concert are going well for a while, but then armed terrorists burst into the banquet hall and demand to speak with the Peruvian president.

The president is home watching soap operas on TV and refuses to talk to the terrorists. Since the terrorists are already in big trouble, they have nothing to lose by staying at the party and holding the attendees hostage.

The story unfolds from there. The Red Cross negotiates the release of the women – except for Ms. Coss. One of her musicians dies from not having insulin.

As happens in many hostage situations, relationships develop between the terrorists – many of whom are teens or younger – and their captives. In fact, a romance develops between Hosowaka and Coss, as well as between Gen. Watanabe and Carmen, a young female terrorist.

A sense of normalcy develops as many of the hostages adjust surprisingly easily to their new daily reality which is radically different from their former lives. (Sounds a lot like our new normal, doesn’t it?)

Does the Peruvian government eventually take control of the situation? I won’t address that, in case you want to read the book.

Ann Patchett was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction for Bel Canto.

Call the Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle, by Mary J. MacLeod

I was drawn to this book because it is set in the Scottish Hebrides. Though set on an unidentified island, the stories transported me back to Lewis and Harris, two islands that I visited in the Outer Hebrides in the 1990s.

Call the Nurse, by Mary J. MacLeod
Call the Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle, by Mary J. MacLeod

The stories are humorous and sad. They reflect how in many ways people are the same all over the world, yet islanders are by nature and necessity a little different.

The book begins with Ms. MacLeod, her husband, and their two sons vacationing on the island and deciding to sell their home in England and move to the island. The house they managed to purchase (after being approved by the factor and members of this remote community) is beyond rustic.

The native islanders are slow to embrace incomers. Outsiders are eyed with suspicion. Ms. MacLeod gradually gains the confidence of the residents as she serves as nurse. This includes using psychology in some cases as she is thrown into some different situations..

I could picture these people and the stark landscape through Ms. MacLeod’s descriptive writing and my own travel experience.

It brought to mind a Gaelic term used on the Isle of Lewis which translates  to “white settlers” in English. It has nothing to do with races or the color of one’s skin. Any non-Isle of Lewis native who moves to the island is considered a “white settler.” At least, that’s the way it was in the 1990s.

Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah

After enjoying The Nightingale and The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah, I expected to like Winter Garden. It turned out not to be what I expected.

The premise of the novel is that the owner of a large orchard is dying. His two adult daughters, who have nothing in common except their parents, meet to try to make some decisions about the future of the family business. Neither of them have ever gotten along with their mother who now displays many signs of mental illness.

I listened to half of this book before throwing in the towel. I’m slightly curious about how things turned out, but not curious enough to listen to six or seven more hours of cussing and arguing. It just wasn’t what I expected from Kristin Hannah. It was published in 2010, a few years before Ms. Hannah found her true writing voice and talent in The Nightingale.

The Litigators, by John Grisham

After deciding to suspend all the physical books I had on request at the public library, due to the fear of bringing COVID-19 germs into the house (and before the public library here closed to the public on March 16, 2020, I  downloaded an MP3 version of The Litigators, by John Grisham. A John Grisham novel has never disappointed me.

John Grisham's novel, The Litigators
The Litigators, by John Grisham

The Litigators is an entertaining novel about two bumbling attorneys who create the “boutique” law firm of Finley & Figg in Chicago. Published in 2011, this legal thriller is hilarious! It was perfect timing for me to read it during these uncertain COVID-19 times.

Finley & Figg think they’ll hit the big time and make a boatload of money handling a class action lawsuit against a cholesterol reduction drug manufacturer.

The Litigators was Grisham’s 25th published novel. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, he indicated that editors had deleted the humor he’d written in his earlier books. To read that October 28, 2011 newspaper interview, go to https://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/10/28/john-grisham-gets-the-last-laugh-on-the-law/.

Long Road to Mercy, by David Baldacci

I read A Minute to Midnight, by David Baldacci in January and wrote about it in my February 3 blog post, https://janetswritingblog.com/2020/02/03/three-books-i-read-in-january-2020/ A Minute to Midnight is Baldacci’s latest book and the second in his Atlee Pine series. I enjoyed A Minute to Midnight and was eager to read Long Road to Mercy in order to get more backstory about Atlee Pine.

Long Road to Mercy, by David Baldacci

The name of the book comes from a traumatic event in Atlee Pine’s childhood when someone broke into the bedroom of Atlee and her sister, Mercy, in the middle of the night and kidnapped and murdered Mercy. Atlee works for the FBI in a small office in Arizona. She has dedicated her life to tracking down Mercy’s killer in order to find out why he did it and why he took Mercy and not Atlee.

It’s great to see a female protagonist in a legal thriller!

The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power over Christian Values, by Ben Howe

I read this book because I wanted to know the answer to that question. I’ll write about it in my blog post next week.

Leapfrog: How to Hold a Civil Conversation in an Uncivil Era, by Janet Givens, M.A.

This is an enlightening book that guides the reader through a systematic way to prepare for and have a conversation with someone with whom he or she disagrees. It’s aimed at those difficult conversations that we don’t know how to have with our friends and relatives whose political views, for instance, are in total conflict with your own views.

It was serendipitous that I read the Ben Howe book referenced above and the Janet Givens book in the same month.

Tune in to my blog post next week to read my thoughts on these two books.

Since my last blog

I continue to make one faux pas after another on my Android tablet. On Wednesday, I put an advertisement for my blog on my church’s Facebook page by mistake. That was embarrassing. It took me a while to figure out how to delete the post.

No doubt, no one at my church was surprised at my Wednesday mistake. A couple of weeks ago I tuned into Facebook Live for the first time. I inadvertently broadcast a live view of my lap and the inside cover of my tablet for 11 seconds. I did eventually figure out how to delete that. A little bit of computer knowledge is a dangerous thing!

On the positive side, I got involved with the Masks for Front Line Heroes Facebook group – a local group that started here in the Harrisburg, North Carolina community. I can’t sew right now, but I raided my stash of 100% cotton fabric and sewing supplies to donate to the people who are making masks for local medical personnel to use when their N95 masks run out. It gave me a good feeling to know I was making a tangible contribution to the fight against the Coronavirus-19 pandemic!

Until my next blog post

I hope you are safe, well, and able to practice social distancing. It looks like we’re in for some rough weeks and months ahead here in the United States.

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m listening to Sycamore Row, by John Grisham. I’m taking the opportunity the pandemic has provided to work on my lengthy to-be-read list.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you’re being creative.

Please stay at home if your job allows that. Follow the rules, if not for yourself, do it for the rest of us. You can do this. I’ve been confined indoors at my house since January 27 except for doctor’s appointments and that February 26 return to the hospital. After being confined for 10 weeks, my advice to others is, “Make the best of it. We’re all in this together.”

Stay safe!

Janet

#FixYourNovel #4: Characterization, Part 2

When I wrote my #FixYourNovel #4:  Characterization, Part 1 blog post for February 17, 2020, I planned to post Part 2 the following Monday. Life happened, though, and some medical issues forced me to hold off on Part 2 until today. Here’s the link to Part 1, in case you missed it or wish to refresh your memory: https://janetswritingblog.com/2020/02/17/fixyournovel-4-characterization-part-1/.

If you are bored stiff by the subject, just scroll down to the end of today’s post to find out what I’m currently reading.

As I did in Part 1, today I’ll share what two or three writers, writing coaches, or editors have to say about characterization. I hope readers and writers will find something of interest in my two characterization blog posts.

I’ve read a lot about how to develop memorable characters when writing fiction. As I read what other writers, or book coaches and editors have to say about characterization, I try to determine what the best advice is so I can put it into practice as I work on my historical novel.


Book coach Andrea Lundgren’s take on happiness in novels

In her October 7, 2019 guest post on A Writer’s Path, https://ryanlanz.com/2019/10/07/what-does-it-mean-to-write-about-happiness/, book coach Andrea Lundgren observed that novels rarely show characters in a state of happiness. Maybe there’s a flashback to a time they were happy, but the reader doesn’t see the character having a happy moment.

Ms. Lundgren suggests something that goes against the grain of accepted fiction writing advice. She stated the following in that guest post:

“Do we dare take time out, for them and us, to just enjoy life as it flows by, without making the scene “keep things moving forward”?

Ms. Lundgren continued:

“And does happiness only occur in little moments, in the troughs between peaks of activity when no one is doing or demanding or announcing anything? Maybe we need to start plotting for filler scenes, where nothing happens but that exchange of dialogue and silence that is a normal, happy moment of life.”

That resonated with me. Writing experts put a lot of pressure on authors to evaluate every scene and, if it doesn’t move the story forward, delete it. In connection with Ms. Lundgren’s post, it seems to me that having an occasional scene in which your character is just relaxing with a friend or enjoying an event might help that character seem more human and more likeable. And in that way, does that scene not in some small way move the story forward?


Editor and author David Griffin Brown’s take on character

Writing as a creative guest on The Creative Penn website on August 2, 2019, https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2019/08/02/writing-tips-creating-memorable-characters/, David Griffin Brown gives tips on writing memorable and compelling characters.

Mr. Brown opens his article with this:  “Fiction editors encounter manuscripts at all stages of development. A typical issue we see in early drafts is where one narrative element is given more attention than another.

“For example, with works of historical fiction, it’s common for writers to showcase their research at the expense of plot and character. On the other hand, with a character piece, the plot often drags in the second act. And in high-paced, sharply plotted thrillers, characterization can lag behind plot development.

“That being said, most manuscripts will benefit from close attention to character conflict, motivation, and relationships. But first and foremost, it’s important to let your characters act, react, and interact.”

Mr. Brown goes on to talk about emotions, conflict, and personal relationships between characters. He talks about the king of all fiction-writing rules:  Show, don’t tell.


Chris Andrews’ take on character and structure

In his book, Character and Structure:  An Unholy Alliance, Australian fantasy quthor Chris Andrews writes about the importance of (or possibly, necessity of) getting your reader emotionally invested in your story or novel. He writes that you must make the reader care.

Character & Structure: An Unholy Alliance, by Chris Andrews

Mr. Andrews’ book says, “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.”  He says if a writer gives in to his or her preference – character vs. structure – one will dominate and the other will suffer. A character must have a logical structure to work within.

Mr. Andrews writes, “You have to be able to develop, write and evaluate a story from both sides of your brain:  logic and emotion…. Combining story (what happens to your characters) and structure (how it happens) means finding the answers emotionally engage your audience.”

I like the following short paragraph in Mr. Andrews’ book: 

“Characters are about people, not events. Structure is how you tailor events so your audience can engage with your characters.”

Mr. Andrews’ book is one of the best books I’ve read about the craft of writing. He takes you step-by-step through the structure of a novel and how your protagonist should grow and change within that structure in order for your novel to engage your readers and be memorable for them.

I read Chris Andrews’ book last September and I wrote about it in my September 30, 2019 blog post, https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/09/30/character-and-structure-by-chris-andrews/. His website is https://www.chrisandrews.me/.


Some new thoughts from Janice Hardy

In #FixYourNovel #4:  Characterization, Part I, I referenced Janice Hardy. Her blog post on February 26, 2020 was titled, “Oh, Woe Is Me:  Strengthening Character Goals.” Here the link to it, so you can read the entire blog post: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2010/05/oh-woe-is-me.html.

It’s about how a writer can make a novel’s protagonist’s life as difficult as possible. She gives lots of suggestions.


That was my inner response when I first encountered the term. In Part 1 of #FixYourNovel #4, I referred to character arc but didn’t address it.

A character arc is how a character changes over the course of a story or novel, but there’s so much more to it than that! People have written entire books on the topic of character arc. I read one in October:  Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development, by K.M. Weiland.

Creating Character Arcs, by K.M. Weiland

I highly recommend her book to others who, like me, are trying to master the art of writing fiction. The book addresses plot points, when your character arcs, minor character arcs, impact characters, and how to write a character arc in a series.


Biographical sketches

Throughout the writing process I’ve tried to keep in mind to make my characters distinguishable, but it’s time to revisit the question, “Are my characters distinguishable?”

By writing a biographical sketch for each character as I developed the basic bones of the plot for my novel in progress, tentatively titled The Spanish Coin or The Doubloon, I had a computer file containing details about each character. This was the place I made note of all distinguishable characteristics – everything from appearance, clothing, mannerisms, smell, occupation, world view, beliefs, background, family, and manner of speaking.

My hunch is that it is easier to write character biographical sketches before and as you write your novel, but it can be done after the fact. However you choose to do it, it’s a good idea to work through this step before hitting the “publish” button or submitting your manuscript to an editor, literary agent, or publisher.

I read that J.K. Rawlings spent five years writing the biographies of each of her characters before she started writing her Harry Potter series. Wow!

As you evaluate your novel’s manuscript, re-read each of your characters’ biographical sketches, every reference to them in your book, and all their dialogue. It’s time to beef-up those character traits and to check for consistency.

  • Have you made your characters’ motives clear so their actions are logical?
  • Did you reveal backstory a little at a time and sufficiently without doing an information dump?
  • You don’t have a character telling another character something they already know, do you?
  • Does your character have an arc and is it in the right place?

In summary

At this point, you might be saying, “It’s not enough for writers to invent characters? They must make each one distinguishable in appearance, actions, and speech; make them likable but not perfect; and make them memorable and compelling. Is that all?

No. A writer must also balance character, and plot, and setting. Characters must interact with one another. Characters must be believable. Characters must react to the circumstances in which they find themselves. They must have emotions. They must be motivated. Relationships and conflict are necessary; otherwise, there’s no story.

You see, there’s more to writing a novel than typing.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have satisfying creative 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. If you like my blog, please tell you real friends and your social media friends about it.


Links to my #FixYourNovel blog posts #1, #2, #3, and #4 Part 1:


Let’s continue the conversation

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Think back over the books you’ve read.

Which characters stand out in your mind and why?

Feel free to share as much or little as you want to in the comments below or on the social media I share this blog post on.

Janet