Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays

So it's here! Christmas Eve! And only one more dish to prepare for tomorrow's feast. The tree is finally up, too, with lights. The whole works. Christmas cards are all over the mantlepiece and hanging on garlands. And now, I can sit back, relax, and... of course: READ!

My best wishes to all, for a wonderful Christmas and a happy and healthy 2011.

Uh-oh... Just a week to decide what my New Year's resolutions are going to be....

Monday, December 20, 2010

Victorian Heroines -- What a Plight

When I should have been cleaning house (my share of it, anyway), or writing, or decorating the tree, I had a cold, which gave me the opportunity to loll in bed and finish reading Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.

First off, I would like to say, it wasn't The Moonstone -- a book I found to be much more accomplished in terms of character and dialogue. The Woman in White had a brilliant plot (Wilkie's great strength), and I loved it. I loved tracking the mystery of it all. It was so brilliantly layered that I could discover things bit by bit and feel excited at every turn.

To be fair, there were memorable characters: In my opinion, Count Fosco is one of literature's most memorable and fascinating villains; the magnificent Marion far outshown her heroine-sister and was much more worthy of the art teacher's affections; and Anne Catherick was mysterious, tragic, and always interesting.

But the heroine's besotted art teacher, Walter Hartright, was more appealing for his artistic bent than for his flowery language as he pursued villainy to its reckoning. How I tired of his inordinate delicacy of feeling when it came to his beloved! (Oh, those Victorians!) As for Miss Laura Fairlie herself (the story's heroine), she made me so glad I was not a Victorian Lady.

If I were a Victorian Lady I should have to swoon at life's every turn:

1. First of all, if my father died and left my uncle in charge, my uncle could marry me off to anyone, and my great recourse in life would be... to swoon.

2. If I found myself attracted to my art teacher (who would be beneath me) and fancied that he returned the interest, I should have to hurry to my bedchamber and... swoon.

3. If my sister sent him away because, after all, I was betrothed to another, and I had to say goodbye, decorum would require that I hurry away -- face flushed and heart beating rapidly -- to my room and... swoon.

4. If a letter came to the house and I recognized the handwriting as being that of my un-intended -- you know, the one that made my face flush and my heart beat rapidly -- well, I would certainly have to whip out smelling salts or... swoon.

5. If my marriage was wretched and the aforementioned art teacher who made my face flush and my heart beat rapidly was bent on my rescue, I would have no choice in life but to... swoon. And for a good long time, too. Doctors would be sent for and no one could visit me. I would be left to rest and take care of my ever-so-delicate nerves.

And so on....

If I were not so lucky as to be miserably betrothed to a villainous man by my uncaring Uncle... say, if my father died and left me penniless and unmarried, I would probably be governess to the above swooning woman's children.

And if I were from the servant class in the Victorian Era, I would be either cooking or cleaning or caring for some swooning woman or another. For some reason the servants weren't considered to have delicate nerves.

Or maybe it was because they didn't lace their corsets up tight enough to bring about swooning?

Now the strangest thing about this, is that, while I find the Victorian heroes and heroines rather lackluster, I love reading about the era itself. The cobblestones. The gowns. The top-hats. The fog. The extremes, I suppose. It's an era laden with story, no matter how you look at the society of the time.

Do you ever have that experience? The time suggests character and story, but the roles themselves are not appealing at all?

Monday, December 13, 2010

How Do Your Characters Feel About Holidays?


The overseas packages and cards are on their way. Now there is only the local mail to take care of. The lights are up. The tree is almost up. I love Christmas. It's probably my favorite holiday of all. Some of my happiest memories are tied up in it: Making gingerbread men and icing them; basting the turkey (this, in my meat-eating days); wrapping presents and keeping secrets; decorating the tree.

And then, as I drove off to an appointment, I wondered (I do some of my best wondering in the car), "How does Imogene feel about Christmas?" (Imogene is the MC in my latest book.) "And how about Nora?" (The MC in another book.) The first book takes place in summer; the second at Easter. But I realized suddenly, that it doesn't matter when the story takes place: If you know how your character reacts to certain holidays and what those holidays conjure up for them -- Christmas, Thanksgiving; Boxing Day; Guy Fawkes day; Diwali (Divali); Kwanza; Ramadan; Hannukah; Mother's Day -- you've learned a lot about your character. It doesn't matter if the holiday figures in your story. Anniversaries of any kind are loaded with nuance, memory, and meaning in a person's life, and in the lives of your characters as well. Those anniversaries give you insights into their memory banks and what to draw on as they turn to other meaningful moments. They are as important as age, height, physical characteristics, favorite colors, treats and toys, wishes or dreams of the future, and even bad habits.

So now I'm on a treasure hunt of sorts: Given the culture of my differing heroines, and knowing their settings, I'm on a hunt to find out how the calendars of holidays in their respective worlds play out in their minds.

How about you? Do you know how your characters relate to their holidays? Are they happy? Nostalgic? Rebellious? Conflicted? Reminiscent? Excited? Do they wish it were like some other year they would revisit if they could? Do they want it to never end? Do they just want to get through it? Are they oblivious and just going along, not thinking? Visiting those questions might surprise you.

Let me know what you find out.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I have just finished reading The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins. T. S. Eliot called it "the first and greatest of English detective novels." I don't know if it was the first, but I do think it is one of the greatest mysteries of all time. I read it a few year ago purely as a "reader", and was charmed by it. I read it a few days ago as a writer, and once again became enthralled as a reader.This is not a usual book review. This is a share of one of my favorite reads of all time.

First of all, it was refreshing to read again a mystery that was primarily a mystery. No graphic details about the amount of blood or bruising around the wound. No dwelling on layers of skin and vivid descriptions of abrasions, so typical of today's crime novel. The story was about the moonstone: Who stole it? Why? Where did it go?

There are layers of mystery and multiple mysteries all through the book to tweak your imagination and send you on a new train of thought, just when you think you know what is going on. Individuals have their little mysteries, and you get drawn into them: What did Rosanna really know, and why did she act so strangely and pretend to be ill when she wasn't? Why wouldn't Rachel speak to Franklin, even though he was trying so hard to find the diamond? Why was Godfrey willing to propose to a woman he knew loved someone else?

Some of the characters in this book are unforgettable: Mr. Betteridge, the faithful, humble butler whose attitude toward serving the Herncastle family raises it to the level of a veritable calling, and who reads prophecies into the paragraphs he marks in Robinson Crusoe. Miss Clack, the poor cousin and fanatic who spends a whole afternoon tiptoeing through Mrs. Verinder's London house depositing religious tracts among plants, behind sheet music on the piano, under unfinished embroidery work, and even in the pocket of a dressing-gown, and who doles out unremitting forgiveness to those who invite her to leave or slam doors in her face. Rosanna Spearman, the hapless maid who pines for Franklin Blake, although he loves Rachel Herncastle. The melancholy Sergeant Cuff who surely is a forerunner of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes with his eye for footprints and his use of a magnifying glass and his ability to notice details and make shrewd predictions. And gruff Mr. Bruff, the family lawyer who unsentimentally looks out for Rachel Verinder's interests. These characters were so well drawn through their own eyes and through the eyes of others that they linger on long after the book is closed.

The two main characters were refreshing in how they defied stereotype: Franklin Blake is actually a rather shallow rich person who solves problems by traveling sadly around the continent. And yet (and this gives away nothing about the plot) somehow he has won the heart of Rachel. Rachel Verinder is unduly outspoken and decisive for a Victorian era young lady of her station. All through the mystery, their relationship seesaws and adds layers to the search for the diamond's whereabouts that Bettinger, Bruff, Cuff, and a sad-eyed medical assistant, Ezra Jennings, attempt to solve.

And to make the tale even more delightful to read, an underlying thread of humor runs through the book, all 522 pages. True, the story unfolds slowly, through the multiple viewpoints of some of the characters above. Slowly and leisurely. This isn't an afternoon read -- or even one of those "I couldn't put it down and read all through the night" books. It's a delicious book to be savored, bit by bit, full of chuckles in every chapter, and piquing interest on every page. It's a reminder that nothing beats a good read for pleasure, and I'm so glad I took the time to revisit this gem.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Importance of Quietude

I haven't been blogging lately, partly because I am learning the ins and outs of Apple; partly because I was getting ready for the Thanksgiving holiday; and partly because recent events have left me too reflective to knock out a writing post.

In September, while we were on vacation, a dear family friend passed away. We attended the memorial after our return, and it was truly a beautiful, life-affirming event. But I miss her just the same. Then, right after Thanksgiving, another dear family friend fell and had to go to emergency. No broken bones, but it wasn't his first fall, and his health problems are definitely going to get worse. Now these people and their spouses have been literally like family; they've supported and advised me in crucial ways at turning points in my life. They all made a difference in how my life turned out.

So they and their immediate families have been very much on my mind. The writing I have done has been philosophical journaling. The time I usually spend flitting around favorite blogs to see what other writers are saying has been spent instead taking long walks around Midtown with my dog. The turning leaves in all their splendor, the crisp air on my face, the quietude of just thinking -- all of these are restorative. It reminds me that in the busyness of current life and the hectic appeal of cyberspace, sometimes it's good to just turn everything off and dwell on simple things.

I know I'll be back to blogging soon enough. And rewrites of stories and books. Query letters and synopses. And a new story that I can feel burgeoning inside. But right now I need to cull memory, and savor the deepening of spirit that comes from remembering what others have given to me -- and the hope of giving something back in return.