Archive | October, 2013

My Research Process: Making the 1920s Come Alive

31 Oct

Happy Halloween! I’m dressed as a flapper today, a passion that grew out of my research of the Roaring 20s.

KK suggested I write this post. If you want to make suggestions, please leave a comment here or on my Facebook Fan Page.

My first WIP is a YA novel that takes place in the 1920s. KK asked how I did my research for the time period and thought it would be some good information to share. I’m still in the middle of the process so I’ll share what I’ve done, but I know there’s still a long way to go!

  1. Watch movies and read books from that era. This is easier for some time periods than others. For me, it wasn’t bad. I’ve watched The Untouchables twice and called it research. I read another 20s YA novel called Vixin to see what extent of flapper life was YA friendly, and I’m reading another book now that covers the south in the 20s. Documentaries are also great, if you can stand them. These books and films will give you a good general feeling of the era and help you find a place to ‘put your head’ when you’re writing it.
  2. Find historical books and website (with plenty of pictures!). This is a must. Movies and books tend to stretch the truth a little. They are fictional, after all! Historical books will help you connect the mental image you’ve created with the facts you’re going to be dealing with. For example, The Untouchables shows Ness as a man of strong morals when history shows he had a drinking problem. The Great Gatsby movie might show flappers with headbands, but cloche hats were much more popular. Find some truth behind the fiction before you create your own and it becomes unbelievably fantastical.
  3. Research pop culture from that era. Was golf popular? How about cultural heroes? For my research, it’s bomber jackets and Lincolns, Lindbergh and Hemingway. Find out who it is for your characters. Also know what kind of vocabulary was used in your time period. Things weren’t ‘cool’ in the medieval era unless they had a colder temperature. No one comes ‘hither’ in the 1960s!
  4. Have a brief knowledge of what happened for the 20 years before yours takes place. The twenty years or so before your story will have a huge effect on your characters who likely grew up in that time (unless all of your characters are infants). Was there a war, a great tragedy, a change in government? I had to be careful of World War I because the father of my protagonist fought in it. I had to be sure her younger brother was born after the father returned. In my first draft, he wasn’t and I had to re-write to make him younger. Bomber jackets are popular because of the WWI style. The Volsted Act, prohibiting the sale of alcohol in the US, was set in place in 1920 so my characters in the mid teens don’t remember life before prohibition. It’s a good thing I did my research.
  5. Know if something big is happening in the rest of the world. You might be writing far enough back in history that this is moot due to the lack of international information but for those of us writing with any kind of radio or horse news transfer, it’s important. If there’s something going on in Europe, it will affect products, attitudes, and attentions in the US or vice versa.

From this starting point, you’re in a good position to start writing! There will be a ton of ‘one-off’ things to look up (how big were imported beer bottles from Canada in 1929?), but those can be solved with a quick Google search. Your friends and family will be wondering why you’re looking up ethnic immigration to Chicago in the late 1920s and watching a documentary on Tommy guns, but you can pass it off as research. (For the record, my best research was having a bartender make prohibition drinks for me at my brother-in-law’s wedding.)

Reader, please leave me a comment. How do you do research for historical fiction? Have any of these techniques worked for you? What more would you recommend?

Until next time, write on.

My First Poetry Slam

30 Oct

I never thought I’d be able to say I went to a poetry slam. However, I’ve been motivated by potential blog posts to try a lot of new things. When SG asked me if I wanted to drive to Ann Arbor for a poetry slam, I had no excuse not to.

After struggling to parallel park (didn’t happen), SG and I made our way to the slam. The Ann Arbor Poetry Slam has just been revived after a long hiatus and is now active weekly. If you live in the area, I recommend it, I had a lot of fun!

A photo I snapped during a banana dance.

A photo I snapped during a banana dance.

There were six poets that night and they were all really good (or at least I thought so). The woman running it, Lindsey AKA MC Banana talked to SG and I after and she’s been involved in slams across the country for over 10 years (see picture). Over the season, poets compete for points and those with the top 10 scores come April will compete to be sent to the national competition to represent Ann Arbor. The current standings are on the website I liked to above.

I feel there are a lot of stereotypes of slammers. Some of them I felt were fulfilled, while others surprised me. I will say there were a lot of skinny guys with dreadlocks, but I don’t think that will surprise anyone. I thought the pieces would be overly political and while a few were, a lot were about childhood memories and the poets relationships with their mothers. Yes, one was rough, but two were positive memories and thanks for the poet’s childhood. I was surprised to even hear a very humorous piece about camp counselors.

I talked with SG during the intermission and asked her what it was that she loved about poetry slams. She had a lot of insight that helped me watch the second round with different eyes. SG was a judge and she said that her scores were based half on the words the poet said and half on their performance of the words. The woman who won had wonderful stage presence and I think that’s a huge reason why she won. The other thing SG said about the slams is that the poetry is more ‘accessible.’ What she meant by this is that because it’s spoken and performed, it’s more straightforward. These aren’t poems that an English class would sit down and pour over for an hour, dissecting hidden meaning from each line. The poet has to speak in metaphors that the audience will understand right away which makes it much more impactful.

Reader, leave me a comment. I’d love to hear what you have to say about Poetry Slams. Have you been to one before? What do you think about poetry slams? 

Until next time, write on.

Book Review: The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti

29 Oct

My second First Reads book is completed! I was really luck to have a lot of free time to read over the past few days so this is going up quickly. I’m working on one other post that my friend recommended I write, so look for a post on research coming soon. But for now, I leave you with this, a review of Cohen Corsanti’s first novel.

Image from Goodreads.com

Image from Goodreads.com

The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti

Cohen Corasanti’s first book is based strongly on her experiences living in Israel during high school and university. If the adage that everyone has a book in them, this was hers. Though I received a free copy of this book through the Goodreads First Reads program, that has had no affect on my review of the book.

The Almond Tree follows the character of Ichmad Hamid throughout his life. The book starts with his family living on the orange farm in Palestine where his family has owned for decades. Quickly, we see him pushed off the land by Israeli soldiers and into a one-room house for his family. But even that can’t last and the home is soon destroyed and his father sent to jail. Ichmad and younger brother Abass go work in construction and must abandon their education to the chagrin of their former teacher. Teacher Mohammad teaches Ichmad at night to neuter his talent for math and physics and convinces him to enter a math competition in Jerusalem where he wins a scholarship to the Hebrew University. His mother is unwilling to let him go but his father insists and Ichmad goes to live amongst the enemies of his people, the Jews.

This story is one of loss and perseverance. Ichmad must learn to forgive those who have destroyed his family and work along with the Jews he has been raised to despise. I’ll stop my plot summary here, but know that almost nothing goes right for Ichmad throught the book. It’s almost safe to predict that anything that seems to be going right will fail. From this respect, the book is very lifelike.

I greatly enjoyed the pace at which this book went. The plot went hurtling forward and I finished it much quicker than I thought I would. For that reason, I’ll say this book was a great fictional showing of the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It was educational and entertaining.

Cohen Corasanti is obviously preaching peace and understanding through education. With Ichmad’s schooling, he learns to interact with and make friends with Jews. He sees understanding and acceptance on both sides while studying at school. His nephew has the chance to study at MIT, but cannot get out of Gaza to seize the opportunity. The nephew loses hope with no chance of education and no way of ever leaving Gaza because his father (Ichmad’s brother) is a member of Hamas.

I’m very inclined to agree with these opinions. I feel with education comes the ability to understand without agreement and the ability to find alternative solutions. When someone does not have a proper education, they gather their information from any source they can find and this has the potential to be the opinions of someone with a strong opinion. Not having been taught how to form opinions and seek sources, someone without education could latch on to these ideas. Cohen Corasanti has characters that exist on both sides of this spectrum.

Without sounding political, I’ll say that The Almond Tree goes into the roots of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and how both sides have manipulated and been unfair to the others. Because the main character is Palestinian, the characters opinions are mainly anti-Israeli and focus on the suffering of the Palestinians.

This book was compared to The Kite Runner and I understand the connection but disagree with the comparison. While Hosseini’s book is also set in the Middle East and chronicles a character who moves to America and looks for redemption from what he’s left behind, I was a much bigger fan of Hosseini’s book. That’s not to say that The Almond Tree is at all a bad book (I’m giving it four out of five), but that Hosseini’s is, in my opinion, much better written. He skips lulls in the action and gives great scenes. Cohen Corasanti is so concentrated on giving the history that she is forced to shorten scenes that are very central to the plot. Her narrator didn’t give much emotion in his story, which makes it harder to sympathize with Ichmad.

I’m very glad I read this book because it was able to humanize the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for me. As a student, I learned about the history of the conflict on a national level. We studied the Camp David Accords and the wars for the Sinai Peninsula. We never talked about Palestinians jailed for over a decade for something they didn’t do or the hoops someone would have to jump through to visit family in Gaza. Cohen Corasanti’s book helped me see this problem through the eyes of a citizen caught in the conflict and I’m very glad I read it.

Writer’s Takeaways: As I mentioned, the lack of emotion in Ichmad made him harder to relate to and I think the story suffered from that. I would have liked to see fewer scenes and instead more emotional description and reaction from the characters which would have helped me sympathize with them more. The author’s ability to keep her plot interesting and moving forward is more than commendable. She’s written quite the page-turner which I think all writers hope to produce.

Four out of five stars.

Until next time, write on.

Book Review: The Absent Lord by Jason Beacon

28 Oct

I read this book after receiving it through the Goodreads First Reads program. The description reminded me of The Princess Bride and I was intrigued and was a lucky winner.

Cover Image from Goodreads.com

Cover Image from Goodreads.com

The Absent Lord by Jason Beacon

Beacon describes this book as ‘not quite a novel’ and I’m guessing it’s because of the length.  While 192 pages, the book itself is physically small and would amount to a much thinner book if printed in a more traditional publishing size. I liked the small book, it was refreshing after the 900 page Harry Potter I’m working on. It’s set up as a story-within-a-story. While I’ve seen a few plays and movies in this format, I had yet to read a book in the style.

The outer story is of a man named Marcus who suddenly loses his job . Marcus takes the news badly and his girlfriend, Elizabeth, recommends he see Dr. Ummond, a non-traditional psychiatrist.  Marcus finds Dr. Ummond unbearable and after a brief session says he will not return.  Nonetheless, he is back days later and Ummond says that he can help solve Marcus’s problems if he will agree to listen to the story of the Absent Lord. If Marcus is not changed by the end, he does not have to pay for the sessions.  Marcus agrees.

The Absent Lord is the story of a great lord who agrees to join with the other lords and royalty of his kingdom to go on a quest to find an island of great riches. He leaves his home in the care of his servants and departs, expecting to be gone for a year, two at most. As soon as he is out of the castle, his servants begin breaking into his library and acquiring all of the knowledge therein. Having become so educated, they are beyond their household duties and spend their days with friends who are also well educated and the house falls into disrepair.

Ten years later, the Lord has not returned and the cook begins to reminisce about the good old days. She finds a stranger in the road who has lost his memory and agrees to take him in to help around the house now that the servants are either drunk, having panic attacks, or too intellectual to help. The former beast-tender has started becoming a philanderer and a woman he snubs brings her castle to the Lord’s castle to attack it. In their misery, the servants are all longing for the Lord to come back.  The cook starts to suspect that the stranger is their Absent Lord and is able to trick him into remembering how to write and shows the stranger that his handwriting matches that of the Absent Lord. The Lord’s memory comes flooding back and he recalls that he has given the cook a key to his top-floor study which she produces. He goes to the tower and lights one of his hand-crafted candles, letting the Princess in the neighboring castle, his true love, know that he has returned.

The story moves Marcus in ways he cannot understand. He begins to ask about others well-being and focus on his relationship with his girlfriend rather than his joblessness. He cannot articulate that he is changed and does not have to pay Ummond’s fee but leaves a changed man.

The Absent Lord was a cute little novel.  Using the story-within-a-story technique made what would have been a child-like fairy tale something that adults could relate to. I’ll admit that I was more of a fan of the internal story than the external story and I almost feel that I should review them separately. Like Marcus couldn’t understand his changes, as the reader I was also unsure of how the story connected to his change in mood. I saw the parallelism between the story’s message to look out for those around you and Marcus’ change to be sensitive to other’s needs, but I didn’t see how the story caused this change.

A very prevalent motif in the book was a lit candle. The lit candle tracked the time Marcus and Ummond spent together, it tracked the time the Lord was away from his home, and in the end, it was able to open a door. The motif even went so far that Beacon included a tea candle in the package when he sent me his book. I could even go on to call it a symbol and extrapolate on the meaning, but I could be way off. My best guess would be the light is insight burning inside of Marcus.

Beacon was making a point about being unselfish and thinking of the welfare of those worse off than oneself. I didn’t see Marcus as particularly selfish leading up to his transformation, so it was somewhat hard for me to see him as changed at the end. The transformation of the servants in the inner story was more obvious to me, especially the cook, who was my favorite character by far.

Writer’s Takeaway: Beacon’s technique of using a story-within-a-story allows him to use something usually associated with children, a fairy tale, and make it applicable to adults by giving the outer characters very mature problems. It’s something I’d never considered before.

There were a few things in the story that detracted from my enjoyment of it. Specifically the tendency to refer to someone in dialogue as ‘the other.’ It wasn’t incorrect, but unusual enough to make me stop and think. There were a few times I thought the text contradicted itself (Elizabeth described as both plain and beautiful for example) and I was confused about what I was supposed to think at the end. I wasn’t completely sure Marcus was cured (and how bad of a situation his relationship had been in in the first place) and how the inner and outer stories connected. The names of the inner story characters showed up surrounding Dr. Ummond in the end and I think I was supposed to think the story was real, but instead I thought the inner story author stole names from Ummond’s friends. I think adding a little more detail to the outer story would have helped to connect the inner and outer stories and made the novella seem more cohesive as a whole. While as writers we are told to value brevity, I feel we can sometimes be too brief and could benefit from more backstory.

Three out of five stars, a nice short read.

Until next time, write on.

My Weekend with Author Tom Mooradian

25 Oct

I’m very fortunate to be related to a published author.  Granted, it’s by marriage to my dad’s cousin, but I’m still claiming him.  His name is Tom Mooradian and his book is called The Repatriate: Love, Basketball, and the KGB.  In short, his book is a memoir of the 13 years Tom spent trapped behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet Armenia after he and 150 others repatriated to the country in 1947. It’s a wonderful story that reads as a fiction novel, but I guarantee you that every word of it is true, or as close to true as memory can serve after 50 years.

Tom and his wife invited us to come visit them for a weekend after attending our wedding and I was ecstatic.  The house they live in is on a beautiful like in Northern Michigan.  My dad’s been visiting it his whole life and I remember many summers swimming in the rocky lake. When Tom’s mother-in-law passed away, Tom and his wife were the natural heirs.

More than enjoying the fall colors, I wanted to see the ‘glamors’ of the life of a writer with a beautiful setting to write in, retired without another job to distract him.  I was curious how he had done what he did.  Tom published his book independently and has sold almost 2000 copies.  He has toured the US with speaking engagements and if you meet an Armenian in Michigan, they probably know or have heard of Tom.

You may be asking yourself “How was it?” Well, I’ll tell you it was much like any other time visiting relatives.  We had tomato soup for lunch, went for a walk, made cake, played board games, watched the MSU v. Purdue game, and went to church.  But the conversations in between is what you’ll really be interested in.  And more importantly, when I saw his writer’s den.

As mentioned, Tom self-published his book.  He also self-edited a lot of it with the help of his wife.  She went through the manuscript and edited it down before the two of them went through it together, getting into arguments about words and other such minutiae.

After the book was released, Tom spent almost half of a year traveling around the United States to give talks about Armenia and the repatriation.  Currently he’s working on the sequel after a trip with his wife in daughter to his old home in Europe.

Between the heartbreaking Tiger’s loss and the UofM win over Indiana (I’m sorry if you don’t care about Michigan sports) I convinced Tom to let me see his writer’s den.  I wanted to see where he would sit to be inspired. I have to say it’s not what I expected. But at the same time, it was.

The sign outside Tom's workspace.

The sign outside Tom’s work space.

Tom’s den was formerly the unattached garage, which I’m pretty sure is now half storage.  His half has a wall full of books; all kinds of books. There were his reference books on the Soviet Union, Armenia, and the Cold War. There were books I’v read and loved including Sara Gruen and Laura Hillenbrand. There was a cot in the corner where spare grandchildren sleep when the masses come to visit. And there was his desk, lined with reference books and reading books, covered in papers and pens all framing his desktop computer. The white desk is nothing special, but it’s all he needs. I was surprised to see only one window looking into the greenery and plain walls. Unlike me, Tom must need minimal distractions to focus. The beautiful red of a Michigan autumn do not inspire chilling tales of Soviet oppression.

Despite the lack of nature inspiration, Tom’s room is exactly as he needs it to be.  Tom has been writing his entire life; first as a journalist and now as an author. He knows what inspires him and where he needs to be to focus.

So, Reader, I will end this with a question to youWhere do you need to be to write? What inspires you? Please leave a comment and let me know, I’m still trying out some different things.

Until next time, write on.

Novel Girls: Starting to Write, Humor, and Too Many Characters

24 Oct

I wonder if Novel Girls is getting too social or if we’ve figured out the secrets of writing already.  There wasn’t as much to blog about that was discussed this week, but we had a great night!  We were in full force, with KK able to make it and SG’s conflict not conflicting.  Blog-able material aside, I think it was one of the best meetings we’ve had.

One of the things Nicole shared was some advice passed on to her from our friend MB.  MB has written (I think) six novels already and is going to pound out another with NaNo this year.  She was also an alpha reader on my first WIP.  Needless to say, she’s very respected in our small group of writers. Anyway, Nicole was itching to start on her novel (which is the one we’re reviewing in our weekly meetings) but had a few ideas and didn’t know which one to start.

MB’s advice was to write/type as much as possible about each story.  Nicole should include information about the characters, the plot, sub-plots, and any other details she could think of.  Whichever idea she could write the most about would be the best one to write in full because less planning is necessary.

We did talk about a technique Nicole used that we all enjoyed.  She had a scene in which a father is delivering difficult news to his daughter.  In the middle of the tense conversation, she threw in a line of humor to relieve the tension. I loved this because it’s so realistic.  I know I do it when I’m having serious conversations with my husband and I’m sure if you think about it, Reader, you do the same thing.  I thought it was a great technique to bring realism to the dialogue and to keep the novel from getting too serious.

The last point we talked about was a fear I had about my own novel. When do you have too many characters?  I got worried for a minute that I had too many minor characters in my book, but KK assured me that they’re different enough that the reader keeps them all straight and they’re all necessary.  I started thinking about them, and I do think they’re all necessary (maybe I can get rid of one, but I really like her!).  Reader, this is my question for you, what’s a good number of characters?  Assuming this changes for every manuscript, how do you decide this? When do you have too many characters?

Until next time, write on.

Recently Added to my To-Read Shelf

23 Oct

I’ve somehow managed to add another five books to the shelf.  I’m at 99 right now and I’m hoping I can keep myself under 100.  The book I’m reading now is short so I’m keeping the positive thoughts.

  • Divergent by Veronica Roth: I have a policy of reading the book before I see the movie.  Thus, Divergent must be read before the movie is release next year.  No excuses.
    Tris lives in a dystopian future where at age 16, all children choose a sect where they will devote the rest of their lives.  It sort of Hunger Games-esque, which makes it all the more appealing to me
  • Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg: This book is the new February book for my edgy book club.  It’s replacing Gone Girl because it’s not available in paperback yet.  (Frustration).
    At the age of 80, Steve’s mom lets slip that she had a sister.  Steve believed that his mother was an only child and is shocked by the news.  Interested, he begins to delve into his family’s past.
  • I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai: Nicole had posted an interview between Malala and John Stewart on The Daily Show and it seemed interesting so I watched it (you can view it here).  I was floored at her maturity and the insightful things she said.
    Malala wasn’t afraid to speak out when her right to education was taken away.  Backed by her parents, she began to fight for schooling.  In 2012, the Taliban boarded a bus she was on and shot her in the eye.  She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever nominated.
  • White Oleander by Janet Fitch: This book was a read-alike for Affinity, appearing on a list our moderator gave at the end of the meeting.
    This is the story of Astrid, a foster child in Los Angeles fighting to find herself.
  • Away by Amy Bloom: This book was the recommended book on my pate-a-day calendar today.  I’m surprised I don’t add more from it, but this one struck me as interesting.
    It’s the 1920s and Lillian has escaped from Russia to America after the death of her parents.  When she hears that her daughter might still be alive, she sets her sights on Alaska and the journey to find the only member left of her family.

That’s it for now.  Have you read any these?  Any I should bump up and read sooner?  Any that aren’t worth my time?  Let me know, Reader.  Until next time, take care.

Book Club Reflection: Affinity by Sarah Waters

22 Oct

Thank the genius who invented book clubs!  I’m so glad this book was discussed last Monday.  A lot of the questions I had about the ending and what ‘really’ happened were answered in the first five minutes and we were able to have a great discussion on the merits of the book.

Interestingly, a large number of people in the group came without finishing the book.  I don’t know if I could ever do that, but there were about four people who did.  We admitted that it was a little slow in the middle, but the reader found at the end that those small details and build-up were necessary for the ending to make sense.  Waters crafted a beautiful story.

I wrote my review of the book a few weeks back (if you want to reference it) so this post will mainly focus on what my group discussed.  Yes, I will give away the ending.  No, I’m not sorry.

Waters received a PhD. in Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction.  I’ve personally never read any GLBT historical fiction before this book and secretly wonder if she got her doctorate in her own work.  Her first book, Tipping the Velvet is also a coming-out story.  Affinity was her second novel and a later book, The Night Watch focuses more on two woman in a mature lesbian relationship.  (If anyone can recommend other GLBT historical fiction, please leave a comment.  I’d be interested to see what else she could have written her dissertation on.)

Margaret’s motivations were some of the first things we discussed.  She seems like a strong character at first, someone who is able to stand being in a prison system for long periods of time.  As time passes, she seems weaker as she is sucked in to the lies that Selina spins around her.  One woman pointed out that this weakness is derived from her obsession and that obsessions make humans weaker in general.  Take addictions for example.  We see a side of Margaret’s fancies and obsessions through her relationship with Helen, her sister-in-law and ex-lover.  Some thought the end of her relationship might have triggered Margaret’s suicide attempt, but I personally suspect her father’s death was the larger factor.  It seems that Mrs. Prior and Margaret’s brother never knew about their relationship, but Mrs. Prior starts to figure it out.  I just thought, maybe Margaret’s father knew she was a lesbian and was the only person who she felt comfortable telling. This could be why his death was even more traumatic for her.

We discussed what would have made someone suggest that Margaret, so soon after a suicide attempt, volunteer at a prison when there are so many other charitable ventures she could have partaken in.  A very logical suggestion was that because suicide was considered a crime in the UK until 1961 so Margaret’s attempt could have landed her in the prison if her family was not so well connected.  Being in the prison was meant to be a deterrent to keep her from attempting it again.  Another theory we came up with is that there was a larger conspiracy to get her into the prison so that she could meet Selina.  Mr. Shillitoe, portrayed as a friend of the family, could have been reaping the benefits of getting Selina freed from the prison.  It seems too much of a coincidence that she’s taken to the room with Selina’s hair and this could be a deeper level of the conspiracy.

The prison itself is the main setting of the story even though much of Margaret’s action takes place in her own home.  It’s described as “a grim old creature” by the porter who also says to Margaret, “I have stood where you are standing now and heard her groan– plain as a lady (312).” The prison does not just look unhappy, it’s acting unhappy.

The unhappy and gloomy mood is set so wonderfully that reading the book almost makes the reader depressed.  One of our readers called it a ‘gas-light atmosphere’ and I don’t think there’s a better way to describe it.  The overwhelming gloom fit the period well and reminded many of Charles Dickens and Jane Eyre.  (This was consequently why some felt they were reading a book for high school British Literature and promptly stopped.)  The setting being in London seems to lend itself to this feeling and to the era itself.  To make it even more ominous, most things were described as dark, black, or grey including the clothing.  The book almost felt like it was in black and white.

There’s a lot of meaning behind the words in this book.  Take the title for instance.  “Affinity” means that two things are not just good together, but meant to be together.  This can have a double meaning; that Margaret feels she is meant to be with Selina, or that the meeting of Selina and Margaret so that Selina could escape to be with Ruth is meant to be.  Either way, she uses the title very well.  The character’s names have meaning, too.  Aurora, the name Margaret chooses for herself, is very sensual in nature; a far cry from the matronly sounding ‘Margaret.’  Selina Dawes is meant to remind the reader of ‘doors,’ as doors are very symbolic in the book (the spiritual door between the girls, being locked behind a door, doors being closed, etc.).  There is also a bird called a jackdaw that steals like a magpie.  This is supposed to be like Selina stealing from Margaret.  My favorite character, Peter Quick, has meaning to his name as well.  Waters took the name from a character named Peter Quint in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.  ‘Quick’ is used as a clue to the reader that he is ‘quick,’ as in still alive and not dead.

The drugs that Margaret takes throughout the novel have a strong effect on her and it’s likely that the contributed to some of her character change.  She first takes chloral, a drug that was commonly used at the time and considered safe to use as a sleep aide.  She is later prescribed laudanum, which is a highly addictive narcotic from the opioid family.  My suspicion is that the drug made her feel the connections with Selina that she claims and that the supposed connections are not at all real.  With how much her mother gave her, one wonders if her mother wanted Margaret to be almost incapacitated by the drug.

Time to talk about the ending.  It seems I didn’t quite understand what had happened at the end when I read it myself, so I’m going to spell it out in case there are other readers here who were as confused as I was.  The big one: Ruth was Peter Quick.  I didn’t get this the first time, but re-reading it, it’s so obvious.  Ruth would flirt with the ladies and almost used it as an excuse to be close to them and touch them while Selina was tied up.  When the attendants of the seance were helping Selina recover, Ruth would take off her Peter Quick costume and dress as the maid again.  Mrs. Brink does not attend these large seances so when she walks in on one and sees Ruth dressed as Peter, she goes into shock, unable to say anything to out Selina as a charlatan and dies of a heart attack.

Margaret’s ending was even more subtle but we decided from the end of her narrative that she decided to commit suicide.  The line is “Selina…[y]our twisting is done- you have the last thread of my heart.  I wonder; when the thread grows slack, will you feel it?” (351).  We took the thread going slack as Margaret no longer being alive to hold it up.

Writers’ Takeaway: The biggest one for me was Water’s ability to create an atmosphere.  The other members of my group loved her style of transporting the reader into such a gloomy and bleak London through her description of buildings, clothing, and the general attitude of the characters.  She did 1870s England wonderfully.

I hope I’ve sparked some interest in those of you who haven’t read the book.  And for those who have, please share your thoughts here, I’d love to continue the discussion with you.  Have a great day!

6 Secrets to Pantsing (Article)

21 Oct

This will be a shorter post, but I wanted to address Pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants) again as we’re leading up to NaNo.  Nicole sent me this article that I wanted to share with you all.  It’s called 6 Secrets to Writing a Novel Without an Outline.  It’s well worth the read!

I think that even as an ourliner, there are some good things to learn from this article.

  1. Don’t be formulaic- there doesn’t have to be a standard story-line progression to your plot, keep it interesting.
  2. Make sure the things in your outline that you will introduce/foreshadow deliver upon the expectations you set for them.
  3. Re-Evaluate if you’re going in the right direction.  It was suggested to me that as an outliner, it’s good to stop half-way through and see if the plot is still heading in the right direction based on the first half.  Re-outlining might be in order.

I hope you enjoy the article and that if you are an outliner, you can still learn from it.

Book Review: Walking the Bible by Bruce Feiler

18 Oct

This is yet another book I never would have picked up if it weren’t for the wonder of book clubs.  I’ve decided to drop out of this one, however, so I can spend more time working on the ever-growing To-Read list.  I’ll read one more book for it in December, but that will be it.  This being said, I’ll be doing a book club review of this book in two weeks so if this review piques your interest, go grab a copy and come join the conversation in two weeks!

In addition, Fieler will be speaking in my area at the end of October and I’ll be writing up a summary of what he says about writing as well as picking up a signed copy of one of his books.  I’m a sucker for autographed books.

Book Cover from Goodreads

Book Cover from Goodreads

Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land through the Five Books of Moses by Bruce Feiler

Bruce Feiler reminds me of one of my favorite authors, A. J. Jacobs because of his immersion journalism and a style that makes it flow without bogging the reader down in minutia.  This book has been turned in to a series on PBS and this book is considered the companion it is based off of.  I haven’t seen the show, but I doubt it could live up to the imagery of the book.

I hope potential readers will not be turned off to this book from it’s title.  I will admit I am a religious person (practicing Catholic) and it’s hard to deny that the Bible is a central character in Feiler’s book.  However, what really fascinated me was the science and archeology behind the book.  The dating of small burial huts to before the time of the Israelites was fascinating.  If you’re interested in ancient history, this book will interest you for that reason.

Feiler himself is Jewish and grew up in a Jewish household without ever attaching himself to the Jewish Bible.  When visiting Jerusalem, he was shocked by being able to see the physical locations where so many stories from the Bible take place.  That experience inspired him to take the journey through the five books of Moses.

Feiler and his guide, Avner, travel through Egypt, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and other lands of the Near East that I can’t recall.  They visit as many confirmed biblical locations as possible and some suspected sites.  Along the way, they will read aloud the passages of the Bible applicable to that place.  Feiler comes to find an appreciation of the desert and his faith grows stronger within himself.

Feiler’s talent for detail and imagery made this book worth reading every word.  I felt like I was in the desert on a camel with him.  I could see myself walking deeper and deeper into the pyramids of Egypt.  His description of Petra had me renewing my vow to see it before I die.  And throughout the text, I was able to renew my faith in the Old Testament.  Giving the stories a physical location makes them seem even more real.  Hearing the archaeology behind the sites and locations made me feel like I could reach out and touch them.

Making the Bible tangible was part of Felier’s motive.  I spoke with a woman who has heard him talk before and he was given a large advance from his publisher to make this book happen.  (My jealousy starts now.)  This was a dream Feiler had and he was lucky enough t have the resources to make it happen.  Through the process, he was able to make it real for me as well.

One of the biggest questions that Feiler explores is this, “If these places existed, does that make the Bible true?  If they didn’t exist, does that mean the Bible is lies?”  The analogy used is from “an archaeologist I met in Jerusalem who said to me, ‘you know, Americans seem to think if you can prove that two screws existed, you prove the entire machine existed'” (taken from an Interview found on PBS).  Feiler feels this pull of reasoning a few times through his journey.  If someone has the remains of Noah’s Ark, the floods happened.  If soil evidence of the period shows no record of being underwater, it didn’t happen.  It’s black or white, no grey in between.  The one point where Feiler starts to feel that not everything will be proven with science is while wondering the desert, trying to figure out if God could have sent quail to the wondering Israelites.  This is evidence of large numbers of quail falling to the desert as they are off of the migratory path, but the area where they fall is outside the area where the Israelites were traveling.  It would have taken divine intervention to push the quail off of their course to feed the 600,000 people.  There’s the science and the divine and Feiler is able to combine the two for the first time.

This book really resounded with me.  I realized I didn’t know as much about the Old Testament as I should and this was a very modern refresher course.  I liked Feiler’s approach and I found the text easy to relate to.  For anyone who thinks their OT knowledge is lacking, I highly recommend Feiler.

Writers Takeaway: I don’t know if I’ll ever write non-fiction, but if I ever do I want it to sound like Feiler’s.  As I said before, his does a great job of taking the reader along with him on his journeys.  I would compare this book to A.J. Jacobs, Laura Hillenbrand, or Erik Lawson for its ability to read almost as fiction while at the same time presenting facts.  Very well done.

Recommended for anyone remotely interested in religion or archaeology.  Four out of five stars.