Michaeline: Writing Where the Grass is Greener

Tish, Aggie and Lizzie putting out a fire while a young heroine looks on.

Letitia Carberry (known as Tish), and her henchwomen, Aggie and Lizzie, save yet another young couple in love while putting out fires and being their unabashed spinster selves. (Image via digital.library.upenn)

Two things collided and lit up my intellectual sky this morning. First was that tweet by the guy who said being childless is a privilege*. A lot of Twitter people piled on – one of his arguments basically boiled down to “you can euthanize your pets, but you can’t euthanize your children, so stop comparing pet ownership to parenthood. Pet-owning childless people, you have no idea, so your arguments along that line are invalid.”

I tweeted that not having kids is a privilege, and having kids is a privilege – just very, very different privileges that carry their own burdens and responsibilities. I added that the grass seems particularly greener on the other side when we are fed up and anxious about things.

And goodness knows, the pandemic has increased the number of bored, anxious, fed-up-to-the-gills feelings.

So this idea of childlessness being a privilege (with caveats) ran into the reading I’ve been doing recently. Problematic early 20th century writer Mary Roberts Rinehart is racist and classist – but it’s a closely observed racism and classism that make her characters live and breathe. And in addition, she’s good at plotting, and turning rather ordinary situations into screwball comedy.

Her casual sideswipes at great swathes of humanity make me deeply uncomfortable, but she’s got good ideas that would work well in this time period or even the near future.

One of the perennial calls from readers is for books that have mature heroines. Most of Roberts Rinehart’s books do feature narrators out of their first blush of youth, and in particular, her series of stories about Letitia Carberry, a “spinster” who has a taste for adventure (motorcars, boats, that sort of thing) and her two friends. Tish Carberry buys an island where her friends go to hang out in the summer, and they rescue young couples who are crossed in love. (The young men in the stories are often appalling stalker-boys, and the girls often don’t know their own minds before realizing that they luuuurve those awful wretched boys. You have been warned!)

Older woman swimming in an inner tube calling to an older woman washing a white sheet on the shore.

“Get the canoe and follow. I’m heading for Island Eleven.” Actual caption to the original, and I can’t add much more. Tish calls to the narrator, Lizzie. (Image via digital.libary.upenn)

But if you boil the muck down and distill the essence, this is a great idea! Three happy spinsters, merrily following their own interests and pursuits. They go camping! Tish enters a car race and blows away the competitors while her friends cheer her on (and fear for her life!). The women have time, they have money, and they have a certain amount of respect as “elderly” women (they are in their 50s, IIRC), and can also totally Karen their way out of a situation by pretending to be weak and fragile. (And sometimes it’s funny that their fragility is real, but they don’t want to admit it.)

I think it’s very much a “grass is greener” situation. Roberts Rinehart married a doctor after graduating from nursing school. The Tish books were written from 1911 to 1937, so she would have been about 35 when she published the first Tish book. According to Wikipedia, her sons would have been about 14, 11 and 9 in 1911. Since her first book, The Circular Staircase, was published in 1908, she would have had at least three years of writing while juggling her job as wife and mother.

I can easily imagine that the Tish books were a mental vacation from those responsibilities. Just think: what fun it would be to buy an island away from everything, provide homes for your best friends, rent a few cabins to make ends meet and then indulge in camping, fishing, crafts, motorcars and whatever else struck your fancy – without having to justify it to a husband or feel like you were stealing the college education from your children!

Her kids were a success, and her writing paid for extensive renovations to a house in town that she bought, as well as a rural retreat. Letting her imagination stray to a place where the grass was greener certainly seemed to pay off for her! A room of her own? Let’s aim for an island of our own!

*Privilege confers certain advantages, and I don’t see privilege as a zero sum game in every case. Childfull/childless is one of these cases. Renting/owning is another case where both sides have pros and cons. In race and gender discussions, privilege is more fraught and puts the burdens and deprivation people have in stark contrast. Imbalanced privilege that we can fix is definitely worth doing something about. 

Jeanne: Finding Your Beginning in Your Ending

jen-malone-425423679Last week I attended an online workshop presented by Middle Grade and YA author Jen Malone on the topic of Show Don’t Tell.

The class focused on opening scenes, and how to write them in a way that provides enough information for your readers to understand what’s going on without drowning them in backstory. Following are a couple of gems I gleaned from the class.

First, a handy little rule of thumb for gauging the balance between showing and telling in your first scene. If you’re not sure if it’s too heavy on the telling, try visualizing it as a movie opening. If you need a voice-over to get through the scene, you’re telling too much.

The other thing she said that really struck me was to envision your main character the way you want them to be at the end of the story and then create a first scene that portrays the character as the opposite of that.

That was fairly easy to do for Lilith, my protagonist, because she’s a familiar character from my previous two books. The character I’ve been struggling with is Samael, Lilith’s ex-husband and the head of Hell’s legal department (i.e. the devil’s advocate).

I knew some of his character traits: ambitious, competitive (every lawyer I’ve ever met is over-the-top competitive) and a mind like a steel trap. But I couldn’t figure out what this would look like in my opening scene.

So, I tried out her method. At the end of the story, I want him to be:

  • Willing to give up being a power in Hell
  • Willing to lose if it will give him the life he wants
  • In touch with his emotions and able to recognize that not all choices can be made strictly via logic
  • Family-focused

Which means at the beginning I want to portray him as:

  • Ambitious
  • Competitive
  • Ruthlessly logical
  • Career-driven

This may not sound like much, but now that I know how to portray him in that opening scene, I feel like I have a much better handle on it.

What tricks do you use to help you get started?

Michille: Beach Reads 2020 (and before)

His Lady to ProtectI’m a week late to post for the start of the summer season with the holiday weekend behind us wherein lots of folks (idiots) in my area and around the country headed to the beach. For our non-US friends, Memorial Day in the US is a federal holiday for remembering and honoring people who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. It is currently observed on the last Monday of May, which means a lot of Americans have the day off (and head out of town or have a cookout).

With beaches on the mind (or currently in my imagination), I was thinking about beach reads for this summer. I’m not heading out anytime soon because having 100,000 Americans die of COVID-19 (that we know of) scares the crap out of me, especially since I was dog sick in January just after returning from a 2-week trip to China. Pneumonia makes me one of those ‘vulnerable population’ folks. But I will probably have some time to put my nose in a book despite the new crazy workload created by this pandemic (and I’m just so incredibly thankful that I have a job that I can still do [albeit 12 hrs a day]). Continue reading

Michille: Character Actions

Reading Week Lessons LearnedOne of my favorite writer blogs is Writers Write. Most of what they write about is creative, but they also discuss business writing, and blogging and social media. A recent topic was a fun one for me – 60 Things for Your Characters To DO When They Talk or Think. What things can characters be doing while talking? What actions will reveal character more thoroughly?

When I read the list, I mixed up a few which ended up giving me amusing images, like bathing a cat (I mixed up giving a dog a bath and cuddling a cat) and watering a child (mixed up watering houseplants with watching a child play). Of course, giving a cat a bath could create some hilarity in a story. Some of them seem a little too much like sittin’-and-thinkin’ activities, like knitting, hiking alone, or waiting in the doctor’s office. Continue reading

Jeanne: Six Sigma for Fiction: The Action Workout

Depositphotos_27159627_l-2015This is the last of my posts on adapting manufacturing quality improvement techniques for fiction writing (unless I randomly remember another one at some point and see a connection).

The Action Workout was a group collaboration technique. The way it works is, you get a bunch of people into a room to review a process with an end goal of slimming the process down to its essentials, removing both unnecessary cost and opportunities for mistakes.

How, you ask, can this possibly be adapted for fiction writing? Hang with me and I’ll explain.

In the Action Workout as taught by a couple of women who ran the IT Help Desk at the manufacturer where I worked, the goal was to break the process into each of its discrete steps, identifying the steps that provided something of value to the customer. If a step didn’t add customer value, you looked for ways to remove it.

Let’s use a coffee shop as an example. What are the steps to serving a customer? Continue reading

Jeanne: Torturing Your Characters

Depositphotos_11087992_s-2019Lately I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in romance–the physical torturing of characters–the heroines, in particular.

This may have always been the case and I just hadn’t noticed, but I don’t like it. I don’t like it because:

 

a) my imagination is vivid enough that it’s very unpleasant to read

b) Much like our bodies are constructed from what we eat, I think our psyches are constructed from what we ingest in the form of entertainment and

c) It’s lazy writing.

In my books, my characters undergo a fair amount of psychological torture (and some random, cartoonish physical torture if Satan’s feeling especially cranky) but I draw the line at detailed depictions of physical torture.

As I said, I just don’t like to read this kind of stuff. I also don’t watch movies with graphic violence. I saw the move Seven years ago and it took me weeks to stop flashing on the various gory scenes.

I’m a big fan of Dick Francis’s novels, especially the ones set in the world of horse racing, but one almost universal component of his books is that at some point the hero gets tortured. I always skipped those parts. Continue reading

Michille: Favorite Characters

Marrying WinterborneOne of the reasons that I like reading and writing romance is the character-driven nature of the stories. I like character arc. One of the reasons that I don’t usual watch TV series is the lack of character arc in most of them. If the focus of the show is on, say, solving crimes, like Law and Order or Criminal Minds, I don’t get annoyed with lack of character growth. I do get annoyed when it takes five or six seasons for two people who clearly have spark to get together. I understand why it takes that long, I just don’t like it so I don’t watch it.

I have favorite characters and there are usually the books that I go back and re-read, particularly when I’m struggling with my own character’s arc. What was the character like in the beginning? How was he/she changed at the end? How did the author show the change? Continue reading

Michaeline: Kaiju vs. Dragons

Japanese movie poster from 1954 Godzilla with Tokyo on fire

Hydrogen bombs, giant monsters, love triangles . . . Godzilla has got conflict out the wazoo. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Dragon: 1. Archaic: a huge serpent 2. :a mythical animal usually represented as a monstrous winged and scaly serpent or saurian with a crested head and enormous claws 3: a violent, combative, or very strict person 4. capitalized: DRACO 5. :something or someone formidable or baneful. –Merriam-Webster, 2019 07 13

Kaiju is a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”. In English, it has come to mean “monster” or “giant monster”, referring to creatures of a large size seen in movies from Asia. –Simple English Wikipedia, 2019 07 13

Tor recently had a Dragon Week, and asked on Twitter, “Which is the deadlier dragon?” The choices were Smaug (dragon from The Hobbit; voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie) or Godzilla (a spitting lizard boi from the 1954 eponymous film).

And, Twitter (predictably) lost its mind, arguing that Godzilla was not a dragon. Continue reading

Nancy: Echoes and reversals, beginnings and endings

Last week, a friend of mine, who happens to be a writer (quelle surprise!) posted in her Facebook group about being obsessed with beginnings and endings as she starts a new writing project. I’m in the same headspace right now for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’m about to embark on my own new writing project. The second is that my husband and I finally got to watch a proper ending for an HBO series we loved that died an unexpected death thirteen years ago.

We were Johnny-come-latelies to the prestige TV phenomenon of the series Deadwood. But after years of having the story recommended to us by trusted friends, we eventually watched the first episode. And we were hooked.

The very first scene* had a twist I saw coming but couldn’t quite believe would really happen. The first season introduced a community of characters who were sometimes repulsive but always magnetic, storylines that focused on character minutia but were simultaneously sweeping, dialogue that was vulgar while also Shakespearean. And as we watched the last episode of the third and final season, we realized with dismay what the show’s early fans had experienced in 2006–this amazing story, unexpectedly canceled after the third season had wrapped, never got a proper ending. Continue reading

Jeanne: To See or Not to See

ParagraphsA few weeks ago, I attended a book talk at Paragraphs Bookstore in Mt. Vernon, Ohio with Donna MacMeans, a member of my RWA chapter and former treasurer of RWA National.

Donna’s first novel, The Education of Mrs. Brimley, won the Golden Heart® for Historical Romance back in 2006. She has since followed it up with nine more published novels.

At Paragraphs, she described the book as “a book-length strip-tease.” She went on to explain the premise: unmarried Emma needs to escape London and the twisted domination of her uncle. She discovers an advertisement for a teaching position in Yorkshire, but the successful applicant must be a widow. Desperate, she applies anyway, forging a reference that nets her the job. Then, attired in her late mother’s widow’s weeds, she heads for Yorkshire. Continue reading