Death in Fiction

Honoring the Dead

November is an apt month to discuss death in fiction as it begins with All Saint’s Day on November 1, or as it is called in Spanish El Día de los Muertos. With similar but different roots historically, the European and Central American celebrations both recognize the souls of the departed.

Pre-Christian cultures believed that late fall was a time when the portal to the underworld was permeable. Souls could pass through to visit the living. Europeans who celebrate All Saint’s Day (and All Soul’s Day on November 2nd) view the commemoration as a solemn occasion. People go to church, pray, and light a candle for the souls of loved ones. These northern tributes recall ancient rites of autumn as well as the inevitability of a death-dealing winter.

Further south in Central American where the seasons are reversed, families prepare food, gifts, costumes, various artifacts, jewelry, altars, parades, and dances to honor those who have died. Then, the family goes to the cemetery to decorate the graves, share their memories, and gather for a picnic. Because monarch butterflies migrate from the north to the south during this time, some of the decorations reflect the colorful design of their wings. The winged visitors are thought to carry home the spirits of the dead.

Both traditions are a part of my life in the fall. The monarchs visit my flower garden in Colorado in September. Their black and orange wings complement the waves of purple asters which are in full bloom then. Hundreds of them alight to nibble on the flowers for several days before heading farther south. On all Saint’s Day, I always devote a meditation to the memory of my loved ones who have passed through the veil. I wish them well, telling each one they hold a special place in my heart. If I happen to be visiting a cathedral, I light a candle for each one. Maybe next year, I’ll construct an altar decorated with monarchs to connect my European heritage to my life on the American continent.

In Fiction Someone Must Die

I read once that to write an effective novel, a character must die. How and when depends as much on genre as on the writer’s skill. Recently, I read American Spy, a thriller by Lauren Wilkinson, in which the protagonist, Marie, is in constant danger. Marie knocks off a guy, who has crept into her house in the middle of the night to kill her, then calls the cops. An assassination gone wrong in the first pages of the book is a terrific hook to grab the reader’s attention. In detective novels, a death tends to set up the action which involves the solution to the question of who killed X.  It is up to the main protagonist to figure out “whodunit.” In American Spy, we know who killed the intruder, but we don’t know why. The rest of the novel tells Marie’s fascinating story.

In family sagas, the passing of a family member may be the impetus to the action that occurs, or it may simply be a function of setting up the mood of the story. In a tragedy, the main character or characters and possibly others will die. In romances, a character may die, but never the lovers—readers expect a happy ending. Of course, in a comedy, no one dies, they might just get egg on their face instead.

Death as a Plot Device

If death is used to move the plot forward, the death must have significance for the protagonist. How the protagonist reacts to the death is an important marker in the development of the story. For example, the protagonist might transition from one state of mind to another—euphoria to depression, for example. Or, as in The Wizard of Oz, when the wicked witch dies, her demise is the key to winding up the plot and sending Dorothy home as a wiser and happier girl.

Protagonists don’t usually die. But, if a protagonist’s life or death is in question, it could be used as the backbone of the plot such as a cancer victim’s story that ends with a miracle cure.

Death as Mood

If death functions to set a somber mood, it may serve simply as a background for the action of the plot. Think of the scenes from movies where the family is attending a funeral and something happens. The backdrop of the funeral creates a solemn or melancholy mood; the action pulls the characters out of it. If the mood affects the main character, it may be used to influence the characters’ emotional arc as well as the plot of the story.

Death as Symbol

When death is used as a symbol, it may embody a threat, a skull and crossbones type of effect, a finality, a fear, or a weapon. For example, Hades threat to Orpheus is that if he turns to look at Eurydice as he leads her from the Underworld, she will be lost to him forever. He does and she is. In a more contemporary story, Harry Potter carries on his forehead a scar shaped like a bolt of lightning—a symbol that he narrowly escaped death when He Who Will Not Be Named offed his parents.

In 19th century novels, it was common for the heroine to die at the end of the story, as in the case of Madame Bovary. When I was studying literature at university, the number of heroines who died at the end of books, often by suicide, depressed me. It always seemed to me that their death was a not so subtle threat used to control women readers—or more personally to keep me from developing any dangerous ideas about life’s possibilities.

Death and My Writing

As I ponder the various uses and aspects of death in fiction, I wonder how to use it effectively in my own novels. One thing I don’t want to do is write is about a heroine who dies à la 19th century heroine. I want my female characters to survive and triumph. The deaths that affect my heroines will need to enhance the action, not end it. It is a challenge to figure out whether to use death as a plot driver or as the turning point in my stories.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of October, I worked on several chapters. The more I learn about writing the more critical of my own writing I become. My manuscript is not yet a coherent novel. I still have work to do.

2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

This past month, I reworked three chapters. As I worked, I realized that I am going to need an omniscient point of view to tell the story appropriately. I had thought that I could tell it through the eyes of one of the characters, but it is not working out.

I also managed to edit a short story I have been working on. I sent it off to a friend for feedback on the accuracy of certain details.

3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is November 7, 2019. This is my 11th blog of 2019. It is my 23rd blog since I started setting goals for my writing process. Since I often don’t know what I think until I write it down, writing the blog has helped me sort through my use of various modalities. Going over my goals regularly reminds that I need to get to work on what I promised myself I would do. Goal completion takes focus because life simply happens. Some days I feel like working, other days I don’t, but I force myself to work on something each day, regardless of my mood.

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

October is a busy month for me because my husband opens his art studio to the public through Boulder’s Open Studios event for three weekends. It is fun to see the amazement on visitors’ faces when they step into his studio. Serving as the artist’s assistant keeps me busy, thus it is hard to concentrate on my own work. However, I did manage to attend my regular writers’ meetings.

On October 6, I attended the Boulder Writers Alliance book group for writers. The group discussed Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. It is an intriguing novel with an idiosyncratic protagonist.

On October 16, I attended the Boulder Writers Alliance session on Write to Publish, Publish to Sell. The session was led by Nathan Lowell whom I know through the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers community. Nathan writes science fiction. In his discussion about marketing, he explained that the best way to market fiction is through personal networks of friends who write in your genre. This is something I am going to have to work on—developing a network of authors who write in the genre I am targeting. Perhaps I will make creating such a network one of my goals for next year.

 

Ghosts and Spirits in Fiction

The Spirit World in Stories

As a child, one of my jobs was to read to my two younger brothers in the evening to quiet down the two giggling wigglers before bedtime. I read them many stories but the one I can still recite is James Whitcomb Riley’s poem, “Little Orphant Annie.” I loved it because it had a heroine, a little boy got sucked up the chimney, and because the rhyme scheme made it easy to memorize. It also entranced me because of its connection to the spirit world—“An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you /Ef you/Don’t/Watch/Out!” My mother seemed attracted to the spirits as well. If she heard a strange noise at night, she always whispered, “From Ghoulies and Ghoosties, and long-leggety Beasties, and Things that go Bump in the Night, Good Lord, deliver us!” Looking back I can clearly see that my attraction to literature began early and involved rhythm, imagination, and spirits. As an adult, I have always loved novels that introduce the unknown or some form of magical realism.

Inspiration and the Spirit World

In my mid-thirties, I had a lucid dream that appeared in technicolor accompanied by a rhyming song. I woke up laughing with glee. The song told me that I would be a writer. The dream even gave me my pen name for which I have purchased a URL. Whenever I sing that song to myself it makes me happy.  Thus, when I read a quote in which Luis Alberto Urrea repeated something he had heard, it reflected my personal experience: “I was in a small house in Cuernavaca with old healer women…. One of them told me: ‘When you write, you light a bonfire in the spirit world. It is dark there. Lost souls wander alone. Your inner flame flares up. And the lost souls gather near your light and heat. And they see the next artist at work and go there. And they follow the fires until they find their ways home.” It made me happy to think that my desire to write had awakened a soul in the spirit world who had sung to me. Now I finally have the time to write. Every day when I sit down at my desk, I hum my spirit song.

So What Does Spirit Mean?

As I was writing this blog, I realized that I was using the term “spirit” to mean essentially “ghost” and also to mean spirit in the sense of body, mind, and spirit. So I looked up the derivation and history of the word. The root word means “to breathe” which I found fascinating because of the term “prana” in yoga which refers to the breath. I also realized that it is difficult to talk about breathing without using words that use the root of “spirit” which comes from the Latin “spirare” meaning to breathe and from  “spiritus” which means the breath. This family of words includes aspire, conspire, inspire, perspire, respire, and transpire. Growing up in a very cold clime, making ghosts with my breath inspired me, especially on a dark night. Perhaps a frozen breath cloud is the origin of the human concept of a ghost. Then, again perhaps the dream world we all experience has had an impact on the appearance of spirits in literature.

What Do Spirits Have to Do with the Spiritual?

Reading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse when I was in college opened my mind to the possibility of spiritual illumination. One image I have retained from the novel was of the mirror that broke into a thousand pieces, each one reflecting a part of him. I wrestled with the meaning of the broken mirror for many years. Now I think it reflects a view of our lifetimes in which at moments we truly exist as fragments of ourselves but each one is indeed an authentic and necessary bit. Perhaps our own breath, which begins when we first cry as newborns and which ceases when we exit this world, is the foundation of spiritual practices (and visions of ghosts) that have existed for generations throughout many cultures and kinds of literature in the world.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

1.  Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of September, I drafted another chapter of my first novel. I like how it is taking shape. December 7th is approaching!

2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

This past month, I edited one chapter of my second novel.

3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is October 7, 2019. This is my tenth blog of 2019 and my 22nd blog since I started setting goals for my writing process. Writing this blog with a set publication date—the seventh of each month—helps to keep me on my toes. In order to have something to write about, I do indeed have to do something—that is, I have to sit down at my desk and compose, revise, or edit. I also have to force myself away from my desk into the company of other writers as I document in my fourth goal below.

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

In the first week of September, I attended the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Gold Conference in Denver, Colorado. Nationally known writers, Anne Hillerman, Marie Force, and John Gilstrap presented keynotes as well as workshops. Every session I attended was useful to me. I audited an excellent critique session led by Abby Saul, an agent from the Lark Group. I also reconnected with Kate Jonuska whose book on critique sessions I had read recently. Kate subsequently presented a superb workshop for BWA on how to provide feedback in a critique session.

Also at the beginning of September, Gary Alan McBride began his 2019–2020 series of his Book Club for Writers under the auspices of the Boulder Writers Alliance.  In September, we discussed a Japanese cozy—Newcomer by Keigo Higashina and the translation of his work into English. Gary charted in a helpful visual detailing how Higashina used point of view.

During the third weekend of September, I attended the Jaipur Literary Festival in Boulder. Fortuitously, I was invited to the author’s dinner and met a group of inspirational writers. While I would have loved to own a book by each author, I purchased only one—Good Talk, a graphic memoir by Mira Jacobs. I highly recommend it—particularly to those teaching a class in diversity, inclusion, or multiculturalism or to any family of mixed heritage.

Appetites and Aversions in Fiction

As an aspiring novelist, I have been contemplating how to write about appetites and aversions. Writers are human beings. Readers are human beings. Human beings have appetites. They also have aversions to certain things. A writer who is considering writing a novel has to take both into consideration when sketching out vivid characters and creating graphic scenes. Figuring out how to handle the raw side of humanity in my novels is a struggle.

Appetites in Fiction

Appetite, of course, refers to the body’s need for food or sex. Appetites tend to fall along a continuum from moderate to excessive. A character may like chocolate, crave caramel, and be addicted to coffee. Another may have a hankering for a beer, be keen to try homebrew, or have a propensity to be an alcoholic. Others may long for a partner, hunger for a sexual relationship, or be a glutton in the bedroom.

Each of us can probably bring to mind a scene from a novel or from a movie that highlights eating. One I have never forgotten is the famous scene from the film Tom Jones, which has recently been described as “gastro lust” because it portrays the relationship between the characters’ appetites for food and sex. Another I remember is the scene from Babette’s Feast in which her tightlipped guests succumb to the mouthwatering pleasures of her delicious meal. Both scenes, though very different, display an upsetting of tightly defined societal norms of behavior.

Food as an Object of Desire

Food can be used in a novel to mark social status, income level, ethnicity, generational interests, personalities, and psychological issues. Social status markers could include the types of restaurants or hotels your characters select or avoid. If you were writing about a poor family and a rich family, you could highlight the differences in their existence through scenes that featured what they have to offer when guests come to visit. Ethnic differences might include a focus on applicable holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Juneteenth, Cinco de Mayo, or Bastille Day. Generational differences in food would need to be highlighted in a family saga prior to and after the invention of the microwave.

An author could use aspects of food to describe a character’s personality and physique. A male hero may eat 6000 calories a day, have a body like Superman, and expect his wife to put three hot meals on the table a day. A novel about a ballerina might mention that her 1000 calorie diet a day consists mainly of protein drink, cucumbers, and lemon water. Ethnic differences might apply to what characters eat when they are in their own setting as opposed to what they may or may not eat in another setting in the story. Regarding psychological issues, a character might have a fear of eating such as anorexia or be an overweight gourmand.

Food for Comedic Focus

Food scenes in novels can also be used for comedic relief. The Thanksgiving scene in Avalon— You cut the turkey without me!—is still clear in my mind after many years.  The scene is unforgettable because it melds the significance of food as it relates to ethnicity, social status, income level, generational interests, personalities, and psychological issues, creating complex internal echoes in the viewer’s mind.

For pure raw comedy, food fights are common in cartoons, movies for children, and bad boy films, as dozens of examples illustrate. Why are food and eating so often the object of humorous portrayal? Perhaps because we were all told as children to sit up straight, hold our forks and knives correctly, eat with our mouths closed, and not to steal bites from our sibling’s plate. We all know what it is like to be hungry or to be too full. We all know the rules that exist and thus the rules that can be subverted to make the audience laugh.

Aversions in Fiction

Rather than wanting something, a character’s personality may be based on an aversion. Once I met a psychology professor who studied disgust. She said it was inexpensive research because all she needed was a research subject who had a nose. Apparently, we wrinkle our noses when something disgusts us. Like appetites, aversions fall along a continuum from mild to extreme. A character may dislike vanilla, hate peanut butter, and be completely repulsed by raw oysters. Or if you are writing about sex, an unwilling partner may have a distaste for the missionary position, be intimidated by dating sites, or be completely repulsed by threesomes. If you are writing a counter-culture piece, disgust with bureaucracy, dislike of the bourgeoisie, and an abhorrence for the normal may become fodder for the theme and action of your piece.

Now that I have partially figured it out on an intellectual level, I have to figure out how to write about appetites and aversions in my novels. My personal ambition is to write a scene as powerful as the one in Barry Levinson’s Avalon.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of August, I drafted three new chapters for my first novel. Rewriting is going slowly because the manuscript still has plot holes.

2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

This past month, I drafted four more chapters for my second novel which makes a current total of 21 chapters.

3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is September 7, 2019. This is my ninth blog of 2019 and my 21st overall since I started my goal setting for my writing process. I do enjoy writing the blog. Writing the blog forces me to articulate what I know and don’t know.

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

In August, participating in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Novel Rama really fired me up! During the four days of sprints, I wrote a short story, added material to both my novels, and completed a draft of a non-fiction manual that I hope to be able to publish online. I did not manage to sprint to the summit of 25,000 words, but I did write 23,530. Even though it is online, I am beginning to feel as though I know some of the writers who participate. I love the little videos the sprint leaders post to encourage the participants. The comments from others are supportive, sometimes funny, and at times remind us all that life happens. The llama memes add humor to the challenges we all set for ourselves.

During this past month, the president of Boulder Writers Alliance, Rick Killian, and I attended a fundraiser for the Jaipur Literary Festival. Held at the home of Jyotsna and Roshi Raj, much like the old-fashioned salons, it featured the poets Reed Bye, Tree Bernstein, and Anne Waldman. I am looking forward to attending the festival at the Boulder Public Library in September.

In the middle of the month, I attended Rick Killian’s session on Craft and Style at the Boulder Writers Alliance meeting.

At the end of August, BWA’s annual social event brought together two of my favorite organizations—BWA and the Jaipur Literary Festival. Connecting our members will strengthen both groups.

Writing and Compassion

Schooling and Compassion

Today discussions about the arts and humanities can be depressing as high schools focus more on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), as tertiary institutions eliminate undergraduate requirements for proficiency in a second language, and as parents fear that their young adult’s liberal arts degree will not result in a “job.”

As a life-long reader who is attempting to become a serious writer, these decisions dismay me. While I do advocate for students studying science and math, I find even small steps taken to move young people away from the liberal arts worrisome. I believe strongly that compassion begins in a reader’s relationship with the characters in the stories they read, whether the books are written in one’s native language, in another, or in translation.

Dialogues about race or class can also be disappointing, as they often infer that no one can grasp another’s point of view. It always surprises me when someone says that readers of one “race” or gender cannot comprehend stories about a different “race” or gender. My reading would be very limited if I read only books by women with blue eyes and brown hair who speak English as a first language.

Having studied six languages (I speak two fluently and read two others fairly well while struggling mightily with the last two), I have learned that individuals are prisoners of their own languages. Some ideas simply do not translate. Some concepts exist in one culture but not in another. To truly figure out a text, it helps to be able to read it in the original. Of course, it is impossible to be fluent in all languages, but learning a second at least, gives one the realization that despite our similarities, sometimes we simply view the world differently. I advocate for second language requirements because I believe that monolingualism is not just a deficit, it is a handicap. Students who don’t read literature forego the opportunity to know another’s mind intimately. Readers who don’t read literature from other countries also suffer from a limited point of view.

Compassion for “The Other”

My reading has taught me since early childhood to empathize with others. Little Women changed my life. So did The Hardy Boys. When I read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, I suffered along with Janie when she was forced to marry an old man. When she fell in love with Tea Cake, I shared her folly. When I read The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, I bore the pain of a constrained life along with her. I also realized how the gossip and intrigue of the court of Japan, 1000 years ago, resembled the court of Louis XIV in France in the 17th century. When I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, I understood his horror of the death camps during World War II—even though he is of a different generation, gender, and religion than I am.

When I read The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, the indignities suffered by the indigenous peoples of the Americas shook me to my core. For example, when the white European Spaniards landed in what is now Florida, they declared loudly in Spanish (to non-Spanish speaking natives) that their land now belonged to the King of Spain. Concomitantly, I read the actual history that Cabeza de Baca recorded of his exploration which extended from Florida to what is now Mexico. The number of bodies of American Natives left along his pathway was sickening. He might never have survived himself if he had not been accompanied by a Moorish slave who spoke several languages and learned to communicate with the tribes they encountered.

Compassion and the Space in Between

Literature provides a shared space where the author’s vision can touch the mind and heart of the reader. Readers’ experience of the human condition is expanded tenfold as they learn about how “the Other” lives, loves, gives birth, fights, suffers, or dies. But it is a realization of the space between us, an acknowledgment of the voids that exist in our languages, a facing up to the fact that despite our similarities, our cultures are comprised of zones that may always seem just out of our reach, locked away in words or concepts that simply do not translate into our own language. Compassion is needed in these in-between spaces, but it is most necessary in our daily lives as we walk among crowds of people who do not look or speak like “us.” When I read, despite the differences in space, time, language, and culture between myself and the characters on the page, I always experience a profound closeness, even a oneness.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of July, I have worked on clarifying the premise for my novel. I have to make it drive each scene.

  1. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

I have been reworking the outline for my second novel because I am going to participate in RMFW’s August 2019 Novel Rama. The dates match my availability. With the comradeship and moral support of the other writers, I hope to complete 25,000 words in four days.

  1. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is August 7, 2019. This is my eighth blog of 2019. In thinking about monetizing my blog, I am weighing the value of some of my nonfiction writing. This month I met with a friend who is developing an online business. I have drafted a manual she is familiar with and would like to sell on her website. She thinks that I could market my manual on my own blog as well. I have been mulling over this monetization issue for a while but have come to no definitive conclusion.

  1. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

This month I have continued to read about writing. One of the books that I read is by a writer whose workshop I am scheduled to attend in September at the RMFW’s Gold Conference. I like the vocabulary she uses to describe building a novel. Her approach makes more sense to me than some others I have read because she talks about characters having goals. I look forward to hearing her in person.

I also read a book by a local writer on critique groups. She suggested not only how to be an effective participant as a writer but also as a presenter of feedback to others. I am not yet ready to join a critique group but her argument for participation in such a group was persuasive.

This month I also attended my first garden party with the Denver Woman’s Press Club.  Connecting with other writers was motivating. The level of compassion for the young, mature, and elderly women in the group was palpable. Interestingly, the novels I am working on seem to match DWPC’s current theme of making the past present through writing.

 

Writing and Community

Flannery O’Connor wrote in The Regional Writer in 1963, “Unless the writer has gone utterly out of his mind, his aim is still communication and communication suggests talking within a community.” When I read this quote, it made me think about my own writing. My first novel takes place in the 1970s. The second takes place pre-World War II. I had never really defined my stories as “community,” but this quote made me reconsider what I am writing because I am definitely writing about two entirely different communities. The 1970’s story is about young people who are bonded not only by their age but by the events happening around them. The second one is about a family, living in an isolated region of Colorado where they could not survive without their ranching neighbors. It is essential for me to figure out how to distill the language and habits within each of the communities in my novels.

Communication in Writing

Of course, writing is about communication. But communication does not just rely on words. In fact, when I was working on my dissertation years ago, I read research on the topic. Albert Mehrabian’s work in the 1970s showed that 93% of what is communicated when we are talking to someone is in our nonverbal cues. Nonverbal cues refer to facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, the closeness or distance we allow between ourselves and another person, as well as to various aspects of voice—tone, rhythm, fluency, pitch, volume, or rate of speaking.  Mehrabian noted the words alone accounted for only seven percent of the meaning in an oral exchange. Naturally, much linguistic research has been carried out since then. Various projects have delineated different kinds of gestures, for example, speech illustrators, symbolic gestures, or culturally specific gestures. Now, as I pursue my aspirations of being a novelist, I wonder what these data mean for writing.

Words versus Nonverbals

A writer only has words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages of print to recount a story.  The reader cannot see the writer, nor does he or she usually even think of the writer. Rather the reader gets hooked on a character. An engaged reader follows the development of that character along to the end. So, what is it exactly that hooks a reader?

If the only content that is being communicated is through words, is a writer stuck with only being able to communicate seven percent or can the writer portray nonverbal behavior effectively using words? This question has led me to read a bit differently. I have always paid attention to how authors use dialog, now I read to see how different writers describe nonverbal behaviors. I just read a short story, “Night Riding” by Candace Simar, that used effective nonverbal communication beautifully: “She fingered the asaphidity bag around her neck and held it to her nose for a deep inhalation of camphor and garlic. Perhaps it would be enough to prevent pneumonia.” The nonverbals she is describing lead the reader to infer the character’s age and knowledge of herbal medicine—both essential elements of the plot. However, if you are not part of the character’s community, you might not know what an asaphidity bag is. Thus, this writer has to integrate more details into the text.

Drawing the Reader into an Unfamiliar Community

Readers carry stereotypes in their minds. They have certain expectations for what a New Yorker might say as opposed to a Coloradan. So perhaps part of the meaning is literally carried in the community the author chooses to bring into life. I recently read a British cozy. I was fascinated with how quickly the author drew me into the Welsh community she was describing. It may be that it resonated with my memories of the small community in which I grew up because I felt a familiarity with how the characters communicated or didn’t communicate with each other. For example, I recognized the “big guy” as opposed to “little guy” descriptions. But within several pages, I was enjoying a Welsh community that I had never heard of before.

What is it that forms a community? In this case, it was isolation. It took place in a village at the foot of a large mountain (which also mirrors where I grew up). It was familiarity, the families lived there, thus they were aware of the neighborhood gossip. The author also quickly established that there were outsiders involved. Some had recently joined the community, others were victims, others who were there only to solve the mystery. The story also included community activities, known hiking trails, and shared knowledge about the mountain and its weather conditions. Thus, much of her meaning was carried through her play on the familiar contrasted with the unfamiliar.

Communicating about Community

What is it the writer wants to communicate? How does she do it? These are questions I am delving into. In my first story, I want to communicate to the reader that it is possible to find one’s way in the world despite setbacks, death, and feeling that one was born into the wrong community. My heroine has to leave home, go somewhere she had never been before, and along her path, she finds a community that is foreign to her but that becomes her home. In my second story, I want my readers to understand how difficult life was during the depression and how poverty affected one’s ability to protect one’s family. I want readers to experience the helplessness the community feels in the face of illness, lack of money, or horrible accidents.

Conversation in Community

I belong to three book clubs. One is a longstanding feminist book club. We read only books written by women, mostly fiction, but once in a while an interesting biography or social treatise. Reading these books has been mind-expanding but also comforting. We have literally read books by women from around the world. We have found that we can identify with women from all the continents. Over the years, I have observed that talking about the books in our monthly community has literally changed the women in the group. We do have a rule that each woman must explain why she chose her book. Each member, no matter how shy and unwilling to share opinions she is when she joins, has eventually found her voice and her ability to explain what she took from the book.

My second book club is also made up entirely of women, but it is more eclectic. We read a variety of novels, biographies, or nonfiction by a variety of writers. The group has no rules for interaction, so the discussions vary considerably in format. Nevertheless, as the membership has stabilized over the last four or five years, we have developed into a mutually supportive network. Conversation builds community and communities create support.

My third reading community, which I have attended for this past year, is limited to writers of fiction, memoirs, or screenplays. We dissect a novel each month. We are expected to read, take notes, and pay attention to writerly concerns as we read. The group leader does a thorough analysis of the book on several levels to share with us. It fascinates me that members choose to discuss very different aspects of what the author is trying to communicate. Reading about community, talking in community, about reading, and now writing about community is my passion.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of June, I have continued to work on editing my first novel. At the moment, I am feeling more self-conscious about my own writing. Sometimes it feels like trying to fit my left foot into my right shoe. When I get impatient with myself, I focus on doing mechanical editing for a while then I go back to the hard content work.

  1. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

I have been doing more research on the time period in which my second novel takes place. Fortunately for me, several websites have popped up that focus on the corner of Colorado that interests me. As folks post old photos, it helps me get a better feel for machinery, clothing, and activities that fit the time period.

  1. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is July 7, 2019. This is my seventh blog of 2019. This month I have been thinking about how to monetize my blog, or at least considering if it is worthwhile to attempt to do so. I have read several articles and looked at various statistics. But I think for now it will remain a work in progress. I will continue to write and publish it as is for the remainder of 2019.

  1. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

This month I joined another writing group, the Denver Woman’s Press Club. The President, Anne Randolph, the author of Stories Gathered at the Kitchen Table, whom I met through the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, invited me to apply for membership. My application was accepted. Joining an organization that dates from 1898 and which has supported women’s writers for 120 years is a thrilling opportunity. Minnie Reynolds, the Society Editor for the Rocky Mountain News at the time, founded the group. She also shepherded the suffrage movement in Colorado. The movement’s colors were purple, gold and white, representing the royal glory of womanhood, the crown of victory, and the purity of home and politics. Minnie Reynolds predicted that we would have a woman president in 2017! We would have had one if our current political system had chosen the purity of politics!

 

 

 

 

Scents in Fiction

Portraying the Senses in Fiction

To write captivating fiction requires the author to integrate human beings’ five developed senses—hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling—into their prose. A vivid sensory vocabulary enlivens the text while stimulating the reader. Each sense has a positive and negative valence. Sounds may be pleasant or irritating. The ability to see may be above normal or nonexistent. To experience touch may be desired or obnoxious. Food may taste delicious or horrible. Bodies may smell alluring or rank. As I have been exploring how best to write evocatively, I have looked into terminology for the sense of smell. Odors have a powerful role to play in engaging the reader.

Environmental Scents

Wherever one grows up, the air is filled with scents that mark changes in the weather.  I spent my childhood in a valley that had a Sulphur Spring on the west end of town. If the wind was coming from the West, the unpleasant smell of rotten eggs filled the air. Natives knew it meant that a storm was blowing in. Where I live now the air that sweeps down from the mountains on the West is fresh with the scent of pine forests. But in the winter when a cold front comes down from the north, the foul stench of the feed yards 70 miles to the North East floods over the city, announcing the arrival of a polar blizzard.

If I were writing about a big city, I would have to incorporate the odors of the alleys, the smell of the diesel buses, the perfumes or aftershaves of the crowds passing by. If I were writing about the sea, the smell of the salt water, the reek of rotten fish on the beach would fill my pages. Currently, I am writing about a period when there were no buses on the streets, and very little traffic (because most people walked and families only had one car, while university students had none). A few kids bicycled. The scents I remember from this era are the perfume of lilacs in the spring, the almost aftertaste of the wet grasses after an afternoon rainstorm, the smell of dry dust swirling from the dirt roads around town on a hot summer day.

Ceremonial Scents

Certain scents are associated with the observance of rituals. Most of these rituals have something to do with religion. I remember the pleasant cinnamon candles from the Christmas Eve services of my childhood. When I was in college, I studied abroad. The fragrance of burning wax in the cathedrals in France where visitors lit votive candles to send prayers to heaven for their loved ones inspired me—a Protestant—to plunk a couple of francs in the box. My spirit felt lighter after I had placed my burning votives snuggly in the metal holders.

In my 30’s, when I felt the need for guidance, I went to a Native American shaman who smudged me with smoking sage to clear my aura. I’ve never forgotten the pungent cloud swirling around me lifting the darkness away. The decisions she helped me make that day guided me along a path that allowed me to establish a successful career. I keep a bundle of sage sitting on the mantle in my living room, just in case I need another smudging!

Later in life, I attended a New Year’s Eve ceremony at a Buddhist temple perfumed with sandalwood incense. As we sat in a circle around a fire, we chanted while tossing grains of rice into the flames. With each grain we tossed, we voiced a blessing for a person we knew. First, I blessed my family, friends, and acquaintances. When I couldn’t think of any more individuals, I sent blessings to all sentient beings. The repetition gave rise to an experience that I can only express as bliss. Much later I read that sandalwood incense opens the heart and throat chakras.

Revolting Odors for Unpleasant Scenes

Fiction, of course, requires virtuosity in scents beyond the comforting or the ceremonial. A writer must master the vocabulary for odors that fall on the unpleasant side of the continuum—death, rot, mustiness, mold, oil fields, barnyards, mucky ponds, body odor. This vocabulary ranges from amusing to disgusting. I like the words the British use for strong unpleasant odors, such as pong as in the “pong of unwashed laundry.” Or frowsty, as in a “frowsty, moldy basement.” When I checked for malodorous words, I found about 60, so writers have many words to choose from to create a particularly malodorous scene.

Scents and Memory

As A la recherche du temps perdu taught us, scents stimulate memory. Anyone who is an aficionado of literature knows about Proust’s madeleines. I suspect that is why madeleines are available—much to my delight—at all the Starbucks I visit. They certainly were common nowhere but in France in my youth. For me, it is the scent of cinnamon rolls that sends my memory on a happy ride. My mother was a superb baker. As I crested the hill on the road to my house when I was a child on the way home from school, the elixir of her cinnamon rolls caused my pace to quicken. To this day, my mouth waters when someone mentions cinnamon rolls. My experience, along with Proust’s, suggests that writers can delve into their own pasts to create memorable experiences for their readers.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of May, I have attempted to assure that the scenes I have drafted are animated with emotion, not just events. During my first draft, I definitely focused more on events in which my characters could be interacting with each other. This is an arduous process.

  1. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

During RMFW’s NovelRama, I worked on the first draft of my second novel. I used Marc LeBlanc’s “Eight Kinds of Fun” to stimulate my imagination. It worked. In four days, I generated drafts of 16 different chapters. In May, I used this personal experience as the basis of a workshop for the Boulder Writers Alliance. I shared my understanding of Marc LeBlanc’s model with the group. Then, I gave them a handout to help them sketch out ideas for their own novels. The participants were delighted with the insights they had into their own creative work. I intend to keep using this technique to reinvigorate myself when I am stuck.

  1. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is June 7, 2019. This is my sixth blog of 2019. Almost half of 2019 has slipped away. Writing my blog has impacted my own reading. As I work on “emotion” as a driver for reader interest, I am paying close attention to how other authors put their scenes together. Since I am not writing an action novel, the emotional content in my own has to be more subtle. Finding a balance is tricky.

  1. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

As a current member of the Steering Committee for the Boulder Writers Alliance, I attended the Program Subcommittee meeting in May to consolidate plans for our programming for next year. The group is diverse. We all learn from each other. One mechanism of group development that fascinates me is how the content of the various BWA workshops has become the lingua franca of the group.

 

Sartorial Concerns in Fiction

Sartorial Vocabulary

Dress, clothes, costumes, tailoring, patching, mending, sewing, weaving, stitching, knitting, embroidering, crocheting are all terms within the sartorial category required to write fiction. Even though the words themselves don’t vary, their manifestation changes from year to year, from period to period, from country to country. Thus, thinking about the description of how characters are dressed in a novel requires thought, research, and attention to detail. Tiny Tim could not possibly be dressed like Harry Potter although they are both English. Leia could not be dressed like Rapunzel even though they are both princesses. In Outlander, how Claire and Jamie are dressed changes dramatically as they flit between countries, cultures, and centuries.

Sartorial Points to Keep in Mind

Every novel is set in a time period, whether it be the past, present, future, or even a parallel time frame in science fiction. If the writer is dealing with the past or present, being accurate about the clothing individuals wear is essential. If the novel is set in a future period, authors can be more playful and creative about their character’s attire. In fantasy and science fiction, they have the liberty to create new sartorial trends—which may appear at the next Met Gala!

Accuracy and descriptiveness depend on gender, age, class, culture, jobs, education, and of course, the personality of the characters. A good example of a quick and dirty class distinction is beautifully done by Tommy Orange in There There, when he describes Bill Davis as wearing “light blue latex gloves … and [holding] a clearish-gray garbage bag.” The reader understands that Bill is a janitor.

Integrating Sartorial Elements into Your Descriptions

Accuracy requires research. Because our memories are feeble, it is important to make use of local library or museum collections, the web, photo albums your parents had, or photo albums you have kept for yourself. We forget how much fashions change or what folks were wearing during a certain period. For example, when I look back at old photos, I am even surprised by what I was wearing at the time.

Sartorial Faux Pas

It is important not to make blunders in describing apparel. Mistakes could cover any egregious mismatches of the categories named above. For example, in the 1970s, the time of the “flower children,” embroidered flowers were common decorations on bell-bottom blue jeans. The other day, I saw a twenty-first-century version, but the flowers were made from iron-on patches.  This would have been a terrible faux pas for a true hippy.

Costuming must match the time and place or it is jarring. I recall a famous movie about a gay cowboy. The clothes he wore were completely wrong from the viewpoint of someone who grew up in a ranching community in the West at the time the film was supposed to be situated. The character dressed more like a farmer from the Midwest. As you write, you want your readers to be able to imagine your characters in a believable way. You don’t want them to be critiquing your sartorial mistakes as they read, so do your homework and write accurately.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of April, I attended the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ full-day Education Event. Panels included “Finding Your Unique Writing Approach,” “Self-Publishing,” and “Marketing for Writers.” A one-on-one with Corinne O’Flynn, who helped me lay out the equivalent of an elevator speech on the novel I am currently editing, was elucidating. I also took a two-week online course with RMFW on writing a synopsis. The instructor, Sharon Mignerey, provided excellent materials and thoughtful feedback. Before I started the class, I couldn’t fathom that drafting a synopsis would help me tighten up my plotline, but it certainly did. Now I feel more energized about approaching my editing.

2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

While I was doing my homework for my synopsis class, I added on—just for myself—some practice at writing a synopsis for my second novel. Working on the draft synopsis showed me where my plot holes are, so back to the drawing board I go.

3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is May 7, 2019. This is my fifth blog of 2019. At the RMFW Education event, I had to chuckle when one of the panelists, Angie Hodapp, exclaimed, “We don’t need any more blogs on writing!” Perhaps writing this blog is indeed an exercise in staring at my own navel. Nevertheless, it is helping me to formulate my own thoughts and explore the issues I am grappling with as I attempt to create a story. Setting myself a posting deadline for the blog has also helped me keep on task with my goals.

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

At the RMFW Education Event, I met some fascinating writers. Listening to them discuss the pros and cons of pen names, self or traditional publishing, or critique groups expanded my own mental forays into creating a career as a writer for myself. Additionally, our Boulder Writers Alliance spring workshop this month featured Professor Polly E. Bugros McLean who discussed her “on-the-ground” research for Remembering Lucile: A Virginia Family’s Rise from Slavery and a Legacy Forged a Mile High.  Listening to Professor McLean made me realize how much research I still need to carry out for my second novel. I’m going to have to hit the road!