Compassion in Fiction

Cold-Blooded or Compassionate?

In fiction contrast is important. A villain can’t look like a knight in shining armor. An evil witch cannot resemble a good princess. The novels I enjoy reading always have a very human side. Compassion is evident throughout these novels.

My trusty Roget’s Thesaurus defines “compassion” as “sympathetic, sad concern for someone in misfortune,” equating it with “pity.” It also says “compassionate” is a “concern for human welfare and the alleviation of suffering” or a synonym for “humanitarian.” Compassion also expresses pity, feeling, sorrow, or sympathy. “Compassionless,” on the other hand, means totally lacking in compassion or cold-blooded.

Although I can never remember seeing “compassionate” used as a verb, Roget’s Thesaurus says it means “to experience or express compassion, as in “to feel.” Perhaps a good mantra to recite before bedtime in these strange times would be “I compassionate.”

Creating a Compassion Scale

To help me place my characters on a continuum from cold-blooded to compassionate, I decided to create a compassion scale. The scale became so complex that I decided I needed two, resulting in a “Cold-blooded Scale” and a “Compassionate Scale.”

To create the scales, I had to start from a complete lack of compassion and move to functional, flowering compassion. I searched out words which fall on a continuum from cold-bloodedness to compassion, then I assembled a graded series of near synonyms.

On the cold side, I listed a continuum from most cold-blooded to least cold-blooded: cold-bloodedness, hostility, iciness, frostiness, coldness, coolness, hard-heartedness, callousness, stoniness, surliness, unsociability, inhospitality, antagonism, animosity, unkindness, ignoring, remoteness, indifference, and unfriendliness. 

On the warm side, I listed a continuum from least to most compassionate: courtesy, goodwill, consideration, thoughtfulness, understanding, friendliness, concern, care, generosity, altruism, philanthropy, charity, magnanimity, kindheartedness, kindness, benevolence, helpfulness, sympathy, empathy, and compassion.

The two lists helped me to understand how I could develop characters with varying levels of affect. It also gave me a way to think about how I might show change in a character as he or she develops or disintegrates in the course of the story. Of course, a complex character could appear to fall on the warm scale but have a dark, hidden side that slides deeply into the cold-blooded scale. Or a character who suffers from a cheerless childhood, could begin somewhere within the cold scale to blossom into a person who shows much compassion to others as an adult.

Compassion and Religion

Being presented with diverse religious viewpoints when I was I child made me an independent thinker as well as a student of religion. My parents didn’t go to church, unless their children were in a program or they attended a funeral, but they were both compassionate individuals.

My mother’s family practiced Christian Science, following the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy. When they came to visit, we always went to the local Christian Science church. I particularly liked the sign on the wall which stated, “God is Love” but I remember a beloved aunt of mine saying, “Buddhists believe God is within us. We believe we are in God.” My aunt was compassionate with me when I was a teenager enraged at my own mother. To my surprise, she told me my mother was a very loving person. I remember my mother keeping her Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures at her bedside when I was a child and later after my father passed away. She never spoke about it, but its pages showed significant use. I appreciated my aunt’s focus on God is Love, rather than a rigid adherence to avoiding medicine. Although our family did benefit from necessary medical care, Mother did always remind us to never overdo or abuse medication. She also reminded us to be compassionate with those less fortunate.

At the Methodist Church, which I attended from kindergarten through high school, I remember a teacher I liked very much. Mrs. Culp believed that God was continuously expanding, growing, and learning. This perspective helped her understand why sometimes it appeared that God had made a mistake. I ponder this explanation whenever inexplicable occurrences make me question if God really is Love. I still find her explanation compelling.

In the Buddhist writings I have read, I see compassion used in what seems to be a more expansive way than the Roget’s Thesaurus definitions imply. The Dalai Lama’s first commitment is “to promote human values such as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline.” Buddhist meditations, such as tonglen, invite practitioners to learn to express compassion for themselves, then for those close to them, then to those for whom it is difficult to feel compassion, and finally for all sentient beings.

As I continue to fine-tune my stories and my characters, the modulation from cold-blooded personalities and behaviors to compassionate ones continues to fascinate me. Now when I read new novels, I read with my scale in mind and try to observe how the authors have shaped the portrayal of their characters.

Compassion as a Literary Theme

Eleanor Oliphant is Feeling Fine by Gail Honeyman depicts a young woman who deserves compassion from those around her but is shunned instead. Eleanor is rather disconnected from others as well. Her own transformation begins when she accidentally becomes involved in helping an old man who has fallen. Her friend, a kindhearted, helpful guy, asks for her assistance, then assumes she will visit the injured man in the hospital. Through the example and compassion of her friend, Eleanor eventually faces the terrible events which occurred in her childhood and caused the scarring of her face and her emotions.

In Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, a teenaged son expresses compassion for his mother by pretending to be ill. He refuses to go to school. He refuses to leave his bedroom. His mother, who is an alcoholic, has to sober up to focus on helping him. To encourage him to eat, she prepares noodles and leaves them outside his bedroom door. Then, she goes out shopping. When she returns the noodles have been eaten. Compassion elicits a response.

In my novels, compassion is definitely a subtheme. Despite the differences in setting, time, and story, the interplay between cold-bloodedness and compassion is evident in the development of my characters and the final outcome of the stories. The impact of religion and compassion is also a subtheme in my novels.

Writing Goals for 2020

  1. Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

Since my last blog, I have worked on character arcs in each of these novels using my compassion scale.

2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020, by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

During the last four weeks, I finished reading through the pages I wrote during the March 2020 Novelrama. I made small corrections, and reordered and renamed files.

3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is July 7, 2020, I am posting my seventh blog of 2020. When I started writing my blog two and a half years ago, my plan was to document my progress. I didn’t realize how much writing the blog would help me think about and accomplish my writing. Practice definitely allows for reflection.

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

This month, Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group discussed Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain which was published in 2019. About a dozen of us are presently meeting monthly on Zoom instead of at the local library.

Dianne Blomberg presented an online workshop, “Writing a Children’s Picture Book,” for the Denver Women’s Press Club. I’ve written a few (unpublished) stories for children so I attended the Zoom meeting to learn more about that field of publishing.

I also joined the Membership Committee for the Denver Women’s Press Club. We held our first meeting via conference call and discussed strategies for keeping the membership involved via online connections. The import of Black LIves Matter in the press has also reminded us to expand our membership to include more women of color.

Historic Moments in Fiction

During the month of May, I delved into historical moments which have impact in my novels. The novels I am working on take part in different periods of US history— the Viet Nam war era, post-World War I, and the years leading up to World War II. To integrate historical facts accurately into my fiction is an engrossing though sometimes dispiriting task. Unfortunately for most of the 20th century, war was the distinguishing feature. My exploration of political as well as social and artistic history is helping me strive for precision within the unique time frames. I am not writing specifically about the wars in any of my books but rather about their impact on my characters. Neither am I writing dystopian fiction because I prefer to highlight the aspects of the human spirit that triumph despite horrendous events.

The Vietnam War Era

Political history covers a broad sweep including events, individuals, and movements. My first novel takes place from the late 1960’s to the mid 1970’s which was when the Vietnam War dominated the news. The war disrupted the lives of young Americans, particularly those susceptible to the draft, while in Vietnam the battles displaced and injured individuals of all ages on both sides. All over the United States, American college students protested the US involvement in the war. On the campus of Kent State, as students protested peacefully, the National Guard fired on the crowd killing four and injuring five. The massacre occurred in 1970, so this year—2020—is the 50th anniversary of the event. A current video about the Kent State fiftieth year commemoration featured a professor who was an eyewitness to the horrific scene. He spent his entire faculty career on the campus, thus he spoke to the shifts that have occurred over time. It was heartrending to listen to him as he walked around the monuments at the site. He explained to the film crew what had happened, how it had happened, and where the victims were when they were killed.

As I watched the video his personal account stunned me. It brought back the distress I had personally felt when I heard the news about the shootings. At that time, I was living in France. I remember being shocked that students had been killed in cold blood by the National Guard in the US. My mind could not process why it had happened and still cannot. When I returned to the US the following year, protests continued. Sadly, over the next few years, I personally lost friends through suicide because they could not bear the thought of being sent to Vietnam to die.

My narrow understanding of the Vietnam War expanded when I read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This novel won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, as well as several other notable awards. It portrays the incredibly complex story of a young Vietnamese whose life becomes entangled in the political maelstrom of the war in his homeland, the complexity of his resettlement in the US, and his subsequent return to Vietnam. Now that I am writing about those years, my personal reaction supplemented by the historical record provides me with the fuel to bring emotional impact into my fiction. However, when I consider the feat that Nguyen accomplished in his novel, I am humbled.

Post World War I: The Roaring Twenties

Another novel I am working on is situated after World War I which has required me to study the history of the war, the Roaring Twenties, and the Great Depression. When I lived in France a friend whose father was in the military sent her to shop at the nearby US Army base to purchase peanut butter and chocolate ice cream. At the time, I never considered what a US army base in France actually meant. When I started reading about the battles that US soldiers fought in on French soil during the first World War, I was faced with the momentous reality. Units from Colorado fought in one of the deadliest battles near the army base where we bought peanut butter. Having my personal knowledge of France and learning about the battles in which Colorado soldiers fought helped me to add depth to two of my main characters.

Because I was educated in French, I had studied les années folles more than the Roaring Twenties in the US. In France it was an incredibly fertile time for intellectuals, poets, and writers—including Collette, André Breton, Paul Valéry, and Marcel Proust. Paris experienced a proliferation of bookstores which set the foundation for a fascinating intellectual milieu filled with hungry readers. Meanwhile in 1920 in the USA, prohibition was established and lasted until 1933. This change contributed to the subsequent flight of many American writers, dancers, and musicians to Paris. The writers Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Natalie Barney; Valaida Snow, known as The Queen of the Trumpet; and Josephine Baker, who danced for the Folies Bergère, influenced the Parisian art scene during those years.

Despite the expatriation of many talented Americans, the Roaring Twenties produced exciting creative work in the USA as well. Notably, what is now called “The Harlem Renaissance” resulted from Black writers, singers, and musicians gathering in New York City. Today their names are well known by most Americans: Langston Hughes wrote poetry. Jean Toomer contributed plays and short fiction. Zora Neal Hurston’s novels became part of the American canon. On the musical side, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong made jazz so popular that it has become a must-have in the repertoire of American musicians. It has been enjoyable to read up on this era and try to determine how I can best integrate its impact into my novel which takes place mostly in Colorado.

The Depression

Another novel I am working on begins toward the end of the 1920’s and concludes around the time of the United States’ involvement in World War II. It is a family saga set in Colorado. This manuscript has challenged me to learn about local history. It has also forced me to articulate the impact national and world history have on the lives of an American family that lives far from a major city. Because my mother grew up during this period, I have heard many personal stories. I have also reread Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the story of an American family’s loss of their farm in the Midwest during the Dustbowl of the 1930’s, their subsequent move to California, and the relentless suffering they experience as they work as migrants in the fields. It is a depressing book about a miserable time. Steinbeck remarked about his own book, “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” The book I am writing will definitely have sad moments but the most important moment will feature a young woman who goes beyond mere survival to stand up to the system.

Writing Goals for 2020

  1. Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

I reworked two chapters of my first novel this month, but I decided not to submit them to the contest that I had been planning to enter. Instead, I did some reorganizing, clarifying, and checking on historical dates and facts. I also did similar work on two chapters of my second novel.

2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020 by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

This month I went back to the draft I hammered out during this year’s first NovelRama in March. I filled in accurate historical information about World War I and the 1920s. I also had to do some reading to make my language more accurate about the work the characters do.

3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is June 7, 2020, I am posting my sixth blog of 2020. The topics that I discuss in my blog are issues that I am wrestling with in my own fiction. Sadly, this month similar issues have surfaced in our daily lives. The US is alive with protests that have united individuals of all ages and diverse walks of life. The power of words was most spectacularly illustrated when the Mayor of Washington, D.C. renamed the section of 16th Street leading up to the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

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

Our Boulder Writer’s Alliance group met via Zoom twice in May. Denis Caron presented on using Amazon and Face Book to support one’s independent publishing pursuits. Rick Killian’s talk addressed the various tools he uses as an editor and ghost writer.

Today Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group discussed John Le Carré, who at the age of 88 published his 26th book, Agents in the Field. In January 2020, Le Carré was awarded the Olof Palme prize which recognizes outstanding achievement in “areas of anti-racism, human rights, international understanding, peace and common security.” The point of view Le Carré chose to drive the plot provides a good model of a narrator who thinks he knows what is happening but misses a few things along the way.

As Vice President for BWA, I helped Jessie Friedman from JLF Colorado advertise their online sessions featuring contemporary US poets and writers. Listening to writers read their own works always touches my heart.

Writing about Religion in Fiction

Religion as a Theme or Sub-Theme

Religion appears as a theme in some of the well-known novels that inspire me.  The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne stresses the cruel rigidity of the Puritans who punish a young woman in the American colonies. While her husband has been assumed lost at sea for quite some time, Hester Prynne gives birth. After she refuses to name the child’s father, she is forced to wear a scarlet A, signifying adultery. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse tells the story of a man who rejects the teachings of Gautama to follow his own rocky path to enlightenment while working as a ferryman on a river. Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow subjects a Jesuit priest to an encounter with extraterrestrial life. On his return, the priest is ridiculed and loses faith in his religion.

I am weighing the benefit or cost of using religion as a major theme in one novel and as a sub-theme in another. Various questions have arisen for me. How much of the backstory should frame the religious sect? How much narrative should I devote to explanations or discourse on the religion itself? Should any major scenes feature conflict around religious beliefs? How do I incorporate religious ideas and customs into the characters’ arcs? It is a complex process.

The Backstory

Each of my first two novels has a religious facet though they focus on different religions with divergent histories, cultures, and members. Religious thought is foundational for the characters in both novels. In the first novel, the protagonist rejects her religious upbringing, then embraces what her parents consider a foreign religion. I am struggling with how best to weave the impact of her childhood religion into her life’s path. At points, she yearns for some of the familial customs related to her family’s religion but she becomes a serious practitioner of her chosen religion.

In the second novel, the religious backstory is less about the protagonist than about her mother. I am trying to find ways to bring it in without spending too much time on it. The main character does not reject her family’s religious ideas but rather carries the ideas she absorbed when young close to her heart throughout her lifetime. She never becomes a committed practitioner, but her worldview remains tied to the religion of her childhood.

Discourse on Religion in the Text of the Novel

If the religion an author treats is not well known in the general reading culture in which the author is working, it may be necessary to provide some explanation of the religion in question. However, a novel ought not become a treatise on religion. Hawthorne demonstrates the effects of religious authoritarianism through example and counterargument in the story of Hester Prynne. I reread Siddhartha recently to observe how Hesse handled the integration of religious ideas, practices, and actions into his tale. He integrates historical and philosophical ideas about religion into the action line that Siddhartha follows through his lifetime. The author has different characters converse about the religious lessons they have learned. Though they follow different paths, Siddhartha and Govinda both reach enlightenment. In The Sparrow, Russell’s juxtaposition of Catholicism with an otherworldly culture allows her to highlight the lacunae in religions on Earth and on a distant planet.

Conflictual Scenes Regarding Religion

Another question I am trying to answer is whether or not to add any conflictual scenes regarding the protagonist’s new religion. Siddhartha starts off with a conflict between the eponymous main character and his father about religion. The young man leaves home to follow his own path because he is disillusioned with his father’s stance. In The Scarlet Letter conflict is a major part of the story. Hester is shunned, as is her daughter, from interaction with the townspeople. Her husband takes the scary name “Chillingworth” and devotes his life to uncovering the name of the father of Hester’s illegitimate daughter. Conflict abounds in The Sparrow both in outer space between factions and on Earth between members of the clergy.

In my first novel, family conflict is possible at several points in the novel, but I have to decide if it is essential. In the second novel, conflict around religious healing is definitely a potential focus for a scene.

The Author’s Own Spiritual Approach

Another aspect of writing about religion involves the author’s own spiritual approach. I am familiar with both religions I am writing about but a member of neither. Given the focus these days on “cultural appropriation” in fiction, various questions arise when writing about religion. For example, can an agnostic writer create characters who are representative of a certain religion? Can a Protestant write about characters who are Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu—or vice versa? How much knowledge of a specific religion is necessary to write authentically?

To assume that authors of fiction may write only about what occurs in their own experience would certainly be limiting. I don’t think it is necessary for an author to belong to a particular religion to write about it. Hawthorne was a transcendentalist, not a Puritan. Hesse’s interest in India was grounded in several threads of his early life. His grandparents had been Protestant missionaries in India. His interests led him to philosophy and psychology. He developed a fascination with Buddhism early on. Siddhartha reflects Hesse’s pondering about the impact of both religious and philosophical ideas on individuals’ lives.

To expect a writer to complete extensive research and write accurately about religion or any other topic is appropriate. Writers must have a solid grounding and understanding of the religions and cultures they choose to showcase. It is also important for authors to select beta readers with appropriate religious expertise who can check for errors in the author’s unpublished text.

Writing Goals for 2020

1. Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

During the month of April, I had a hard time focusing on my fiction. As I mentioned in my last blog, my husband broke his back. He ended up in the hospital. Readers can imagine how much stress this caused our family, given that COVID-19 is everyone’s present reality. When he returned home, he needed hourly care. Finally, at the end of the month, he started to get better. I caught up on my sleep and got some work done. I added conflict about religion to a scene in each of these novels.

2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020, by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

In April, I reread the pages that I wrote during the March NovelRama. What grabbed my attention was my need to do some serious historical work to ground this story firmly in the period I am writing about.

3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is May 7, 2020, I am posting my fifth blog of 2020. The topics that I discuss in my blog are issues that I find perplexing in my own fiction writing. This month I have been contemplating my own relationship to religion and my approach to it in my novels. I have done more comparative reading about religion. Furthermore, for my own peace of mind, I have been meditating on a daily basis. With the entire world facing the effects of Covid-19, I have enormously appreciated the daily talks that Deepak Chopra has been doing online regarding keeping one’s immune system strong through meditation, yoga, and a focus on the present moment.

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

Our Boulder Writer’s Alliance group met via Zoom in April. Unfortunately, I had to miss the meeting since my husband was released from the hospital that day.

In our Writers Who Read group on Zoom, we analyzed a literary eco-thriller, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk. Tokarczuk has been awarded Poland’s Nike prize for literature twice, as well as the Mann-Booker Award, and the Nobel. It was a pleasure to read a novel written in an exquisitely literary style enhanced with a complex interweaving of themes. William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell provided the major and minor themes as well as the chapter headings. The subthemes of feminism, ecology, vegetarianism, astrology, animal rights, and a critical perspective on the hypocrisy of a religious figure created a unique character arc for one of the strongest female protagonists I have ever witnessed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Illness in Fiction

Fiction and Life

As I have stated in previous blogs, my topics arise from issues I am facing in my own fiction writing. This month an issue I am attempting to write about has collided with one we are all facing in our daily lives. Consequently, I decided to write this blog about illness in fiction. The disease I am dealing with in my second novel is a rare one, Rocky Mountain spotted tick fever, although a child died of it in Colorado in 2012. Writing about disease brings up typical issues: how to create drama or tension without being maudlin, whether or not to make the illness the main theme, and whether to use a religious or philosophical approach. I decided to write about three novels that I have read and remember.

The Novel Little Women

Most readers can probably identify a book they read as a child that featured a poignant death. Beth dying of scarlet fever in Little Women is definitely the dramatic scene that still haunts my memory. As a friend told me today, it is a scene that always makes her (and me) cry. Louisa May Alcott created a loving family that suffered at the loss of dear sweet Beth. When my own daughter had scarlet fever over the Christmas holiday (at the age of four) her illness brought back my memories of Beth’s death. She awoke screaming one Saturday morning with every pore of her body covered in red bumps (she was already on antibiotics for strep throat). I was stunned at the diagnosis of scarlet fever. At the time I had never heard of anyone suffering from scarlet fever. I thought it had been eradicated. For 40 days I was terrified that my little one, lying as limp as a rag doll on her bed, would die as Marmie’s daughter had.  My daughter survived, although as an adult she told me that her heart now beats to the tune of The Girl from Ipanema. Reading literature educates us, comforts us, and sometimes gives us enough knowledge to be scared to death.

The Novel La Peste

From my college days as a French student, I remember Albert Camus’ La Peste, written in 1941 during World War II. The book starts out with a description of the city and its inhabitants written in the present tense. Then it shifts to the past tense as the narrator recounts what happened beginning on April 16, of an unidentified year in the 1940s. A bloody rat dies on the steps of Dr. Rieux’s house. Within weeks, bloody dead rats are being seen all over the city. As a college student, I was horrified, but I was also surprised that no one, even the doctor, considered that the rats were sick. By the end of April his first patient, the concierge, is struck down. He reports to the doctor that he has pain in his neck, his underarms, and his groin. When the doctor examines him, he discovers the patient’s swollen glands, the swelling in his groin, his extreme vomiting, and high fever. Then, the doctor begins to hear that others have fallen ill.

The fact that Camus uses the date April 16 to announce the narrator’s first view of a dead rat and April 28 as the day the citizens pick up more than 8000 in the city, emphasizes the period of time it took anyone, including the doctor to take the threat seriously. By the end of the book most of the secondary characters die either from the plague or from something else. The doctor miraculously survives. Camus said that he used the plague to parallel the horrors of the Nazi occupation of France. The Nazis invaded France on May 10, 1910. I find Camus’ association of the horrors of the plague with those of the Nazi regime particularly relevant today in the United States. Humanism and caring for each other seem to be the only answer in the face of biological and political threats.

The Novel The Magic Mountain

When I was studying German in college, Thomas Mann was, of course, on the syllabus. To write this blog, I picked The Magic Mountain up again to see how Mann had handled the subject of tuberculosis. In the novel, Hans Castorp, who has just finished his education and is set to begin an apprenticeship as an engineer, goes to spend three weeks at a sanatorium in the Alps visiting his cousin who has tuberculosis. The detail with which Mann describes the effects of the disease is striking. For example, when Hans first arrives, he hears a patient “coughing like no other…a dreadful welling-up of organic dissolution.” Hans is also traumatized by the strange whistle that a young woman’s lung makes because it has been punctured as a form of medical treatment. Mann depicts other therapies, such as the patients being required to sit out in the cold alpine evening for several hours each day, wrapped up to their neck in warm rugs. When I reread the book, Mann’s juxtaposition of the atmosphere of the sanatorium, which was where the ill came to be treated, survive, or die, with that of a vacation resort where people go to relax and have fun seemed particularly paradoxical.

Writing about Illness

In my novel, a child becomes ill with Rocky Mountain spotted tick fever. The scene needs to be dramatic, but not as horrific as Camus’ portrayal of the plague. In my novel, the sick child does not die, but I still need to write a scene that has a powerful impact on the reader. Her survival is related to one of the subthemes of the book. I am toying with the idea of a conflict between religion and humanism, but I don’t know if I can pull it off.

Sheltering in place during our current pandemic, with my daughter also sheltering in place more than 10,000 miles away with her husband and children, I am certainly experiencing emotions that I hope to be able to render in my own writing.

Writing Goals for 2020

1. Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

During the month of March, I simply did not find the time or energy to focus on the written text of my first two novels, although I have been playing with scenes and adaptations in my mind.

2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020, by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

In March, I participated in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ NovelRama. Each participant attempts to write a total of 25,000 words in four days. We support each other online via our FaceBook page. Before NovelRama began, I reworked the outline, renamed some characters, and defined them more clearly. The first day I was able to write 6633 words. The second day my husband hurt his back. Because it was very upsetting, I was able to write only 4400 words. The third day, I managed to write 5354, and the fourth day, I wrote 5190 for a grand total of 21566. Despite failing to reach my 25,000-word goal, I was pleased to be able to draft one-quarter of this story.

3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is April 7, 2020, I am posting my fourth blog of 2020. The topics that I address in my blog are issues that I am dealing with in my own fiction writing. I find that rereading novels I have read in the past allows me to better comprehend the authors’ varied approaches.

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

Technology is a blessing at times like this.

In March, in response to COVID-19, our BWA Steering Committee decided to move our workshops online. Our first online workshop was led by Caitlin Borve. Caitlin talked about creating email lists to develop a group of readers who are interested in what an author is writing.

Gary Allen McBride also held our writers’ reading workshop online. We analyzed Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. The novel is super contemporary, dealing with dating apps and divorce. The author fittingly describes her use of point of view in the novel as a “Trojan horse.”

A writer friend of mine and I also met via videoconferencing to discuss our writing. It helps to have another writer’s caring support, especially right now.

 

Movement in Fiction

Movement in Waiting for Godot

When I reread Waiting for Godot last month, I was scanning for Beckett’s use of color, but how he integrated movement caught my eye. Of course, it is a play not a novel, so the characters are literally on stage. Their movements necessarily follow the stage directions which are printed in the text. Nonetheless, their confined activity contrasted with their inability to leave the stage literally carries Becket’s message. Despite walking around, sitting, falling, pulling, pushing, and fighting, these characters are stuck in a recurring cycle. They are waiting for Godot.

As the play progresses, Didi and Gogo interact with each other, with Pozzo and Lucky, and with the boy who comes in to announce that Godot will not be arriving until the next day. Yet, despite all the talking and commotion on stage, these characters are going nowhere physically, emotionally, or psychologically. Whatever they are anticipating is not going to happen by the end of the play.

My reread made me stop and think about possible ways to use movement and its opposite—paralysis— in a text. Then, I started to wonder about how to use movement in my characters’ emotional arcs and in the plot. I also began to wonder if any of my characters were stuck in a time and a place as Gogo and Didi are in Beckett’s play. I realized that I needed to analyze aspects of movement and then reread my own stories based on my new perspective.

Aspects of Movement in Fiction

Movement in fiction, as in life, can refer to the literal body movements that a character makes. How characters move reveals their physical condition. Do they limp, hop, run, or climb mountains?  Do they have a remarkable physical condition? Are they as graceful as dancers or do they lumber around with heavy feet in old worn sandals? The author’s depiction of the characters’ movements creates a visual image in the reader’s mind. It also reinforces the reader’s ability to interpret the meaning of their behaviors.

How characters move their bodies can also reflect their interior emotional reality. If a character is pacing up and down, the emotional message conveyed could be worry or impatience. If a character is treading lightly, she might be sneaking up on something or being very careful to avoid stirring something up. If a character is strolling, she might be tired, relaxed, or unconcerned. If someone is staggering, he might be drunk or having a stroke. Thus, the verb for movement that the author selects conveys meaning and either illuminates the reader’s understanding of the character or confuses it.

On the other hand, emotional changes can be expressed through the character’s vocal movement. How is the character using his voice? One character might speak hesitantly while words fire from another’s mouth likes bullets from a machine gun. The timbre of  characters’ voices may be warm and loving as they murmur, or harsh and terrifying as their voices modulate at different speeds and frequencies in a fight.

Movement can also refer to the characters’ origins. Where are they from? Where are they now? Where are they going? Did they move from the West Coast to the East Coast? From Asia or South America to the USA? Have they always inhabited the same house or are they nomadic, moving from place to place? Do their lives and stories seem to be buffeted by the winds or are they firmly rooted in place? Musing about how to depict movement in fiction highlighted my need to expand my use of relevant terminology.

Vocabulary of Movement

My good old-fashioned Roget’s Thesaurus devotes almost three-quarters of a page to the various forms that derive from the basic word “move.” The term has physical, emotional, political, and strategic meanings.

A thesaurus is a beautiful tool to explore words and their relatives as well as the diverse layers of meaning. If a character were going to throw something, he could fling it, toss, lob it to someone, chuck it or hurl it. Each of these movements carries a different emotional valence. If a character were being stubborn, she could fix herself in position. She could plant her feet and stand with her hands on her hips. If the character were a general planning a strategic move, he would have to chart the troop movements with care. If a character were a soccer coach, she would have to map out how best to move players around the field.

This strategic facet of movement also leads to the use of the term in political situations. Political movements often involve efforts to move individuals emotionally through exaggerated media or informational messages. Or on the other hand, political groups are often comprised of citizens who are determined to create movement and change in the established governing structure. A movement against an unpopular war might involve crowds marching and protesting. Political movements are popular topics for literature depending on the epoch because literature itself is made up of continuously developing movements.

As a reflective observer, I have never been one for marching or protesting but my education in languages and literatures has taught me much about literary movements. While my heart lies in the French romanticism of the 19th century, my fiction writing has its roots in the 20th century, and my blogging is a 21st century phenomenon. Writing this blog has nudged me to clarify my personal understanding of movement in the texts I am writing, the use of movement in novels I am reading, and to better appreciate contemporary literary movements.

Writing Goals for 2020

This year my writing goals are to:

1. Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

My husband (www.billborderart.com) is an artist who works in oils. His view is that entering a contest is a type of adventure. Since he enters several contests each year, I decided to be adventuresome myself. In February, I took the plunge and sent off a short story and three poems to a writing contest. Fortunately, this particular contest offers feedback on entrants’ work. I look forward to reading the judges’ comments.

With all the snow we have had in Colorado this past month, it has been a good period for writing and editing. My first novel is taking shape. On February 25th, I finally reached the goal I set for myself in January 2019—to complete a first-pass edit of all the chapters. It has taken me two months longer than I planned, but now I am ready to print the manuscript out. I need to be able to read the whole document so I can mark it up and do some major adjustments.

My second novel is an orphan at the moment. I haven’t written any more chapters, but I have worked on the timeline to straighten it out.

2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020 by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

Now it is only 13 days until RMFW’s first NovelRama of the year. Before NovelRama begins, I want to rework the outline of my third novel so that I can attack a sequence of chapters and flesh out more of the storyline. From March 20th to March 23rd, I plan to write 6250 words per day to further develop this novel, going for a total of 25,000 words. This month I already reworked the first chapter and had my critique friend read it to give me feedback.

3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is March 7, 2020, I am posting my third blog of 2020. The topics that I address in my blog are issues that I am grappling with in my own writing—at this point more on the content side than on the craft side. I find that the more I write, the better I read. This month I read a recently published novel twice, taking notes to learn how the author had moved the plot along.

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

Over the last eight weeks as vice president of BWA, I worked with a project management class at Regis University whose assignment was to help Boulder Writers Alliance solve some organizational issues. It was fun to be back in a classroom and to work with graduate students. They produced a thorough action plan for BWA.

In February, I also attended our BWA workshop for Writers Who Read with Gary Alan McBride. We discussed Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. The novel plays off the meaning of the title in multiple ways. I do enjoy reading writers who pay attention to subtleties.

Depictions of Color in Fiction

Writing with a Crow’s Eye

Recently, I saw online images comparing how the human eye sees the color of a crow’s feathers with how crows see them. To our human eyes, crows appear very black, indeed completely black. To the crows’ enhanced vision, their flock appears swathed in brilliant shades of color that are invisible to the human eye. Crows’ superb vision also allows them to detect tiny colorful insects and berries.

Thinking about differences in how color might be perceived, made me think about how I am using color in my writing. Am I using various hues in a thoughtful way or simply sticking in “blue” or “black”? Am I helping my readers “see” the scene or am I neglecting to stimulate their imagination?  In other words, am I writing with a human eye or with a crow’s eye? Consequently, I decided to focus more on how I am using color to enhance description in my writing, but l am aware that to do so requires an understanding of color and the symbolism surrounding color.

Color Symbolism in Buddhism

Every year I donate to the Campaign for Tibet, which explains the collection of small prayer flags hanging over my desk. The colors of Buddhist prayer flags are blue, white, red, green and yellow, each of which has meaning. Blue refers to purity but also references the dome of the sky above us. Thus, when one positions the flags, blue should be on top. White denotes longevity but also suggests the air surrounding us or the wind blowing around us, thus it is second in line. Red stands for the life force with its fires that warm us physically or those that consume us emotionally, thus red sits in the middle. Red also represents the sacred, so monks’ robes are a reddish color. The color green symbolizes movement and the ever-flowing waters in our rivers, lakes, and oceans, while yellow stands for humility and our dependence on Mother Earth. Thus, if I were to write a story about Buddha, I would need to integrate these specific colors.

The Colors of the Chakras in Yoga

When I started doing yoga, originally a Vedic practice, I learned that in Eastern philosophy, the colors of the chakras—the energy centers of the body—correspond to the colors of the rainbow. The colors of the rainbow are those of the light spectrum visible to the human eye when light shines through a prism. It is difficult to imagine the body as a prism, but in yoga, the chakras begin at the base of the spine and end at the top of the head. The root chakra at the base of the spine is red. The sacral chakra which is slightly higher is orange. The solar plexus chakra is yellow. What surprised me most was that the heart chakra is a deep emerald green, so love is associated with green unlike in Anglo-European culture where green stands for jealousy. I was also intrigued to learn that the heart has parallel chakras. The higher heart chakra—the thymus chakra—lies to the right of the heart and radiates pink energy. In European tradition, red is associated with the heart and love, consequently, we share red hearts on Saint Valentine’s Day. The throat chakra is blue. The third eye chakra is indigo and the seventh chakra, the crown chakra radiates violet energy. If I were to write about India, the colors of the rainbow would be essential. Perhaps crows in India can see an even more colorful rainbow than any I have seen here in Colorado!

Colors in the Western Christian Tradition

In my experience, color as a symbol is not commonplace in American culture—except for the red, white, and blue of the American flag, which stands for valor, innocence, and justice. Being American, when I think of religious colors, I immediately think of the Puritans who wore black or navy blue and white, as do priests, ministers, and nuns of certain orders. In the Catholic liturgy, priests, on a daily basis, wear a black robe with a white collar, but they wear a variety of colors—red, red, white, black, or purple—for ceremonial functions.

Christian symbology is common in paintings for example, as well as in literature and in the visual media. In paintings, Christ is almost always depicted in a white robe meaning purity, although sometimes he wears a red shawl to symbolize martyrdom. His mother, Mary, is often painted in blue, representing the heavens and white for innocence, although there are also paintings of her wearing blue and red or green and gold.  If I were to write about religion in the United States, I would need to focus on the particular group. For example, the adult Amish wear dark shades of blue, brown, grey, and black.

Is Colorless Prose Possible?

As I reflected on possible uses of color in fiction, I began to wonder if colorless fiction is possible. I immediately thought of Waiting for Godot, which is a play rather than a novella. I decided to reread it and examine the use or lack of color in the text. In its 110 pages, reference is made to black and white five times each; to the colors green, yellow, brown, redheaded, and silver once each; and to blue and red twice each. While I can’t say Waiting for Godot is completely colorless, it is a monochrome script spoken by characters stumbling around the stage overwhelmed by the impending darkness of night.

Color for Good or for Bad?

Color as a symbol of character has always fascinated me. Viewers all know the good guy wears a white hat while the bad guy wears a black one. The symbolism is so strong and so widely acknowledged, that it is difficult to reverse. I suppose Batman is a good guy despite his scary black outfit, but perhaps it works because bats truly are black and are not particularly associated with evil, but rather with the night.

However, it is important to address the societal malfeasance that occurs if this symbology is applied to race or more accurately to human skin tones. In fact, the original Lone Ranger was a Black American named Bass Reeves. Just imagine how the American imagination and possibly current reality might have been different if the Lone Ranger had been depicted as a Black American.

As a writer, my goal is to avoid stereotypes and to write without reinforcing cruel associations that damage large populations. I want to write with a crow’s eye—not using color as a label but as a device to enhance shades of character, scene, dialog, and meaning to help readers experience the reality of my imagination.

Writing Goals for 2020

This year my writing goals are to:

1. Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

In January, I managed to rework nine chapters in my first novel. Since I didn’t reach my goal of finishing this first edit by the end of December 2019, I really wanted to reach it by January 31, 2020. However, again life intervened. I still have five chapters to move through my first edit. My second novel has been an orphan since December.

On the other hand, I have concentrated this past month on rewriting one of my short stories. Thanks to the expert editing a writer friend applied to my draft, I think I have accomplished a successful rewrite. I plan to submit this short story to a writing contest this month.

2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020 by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

RMFW’s first NovelRama of the year takes place March 20-23, 2020. Participating last year was fun and productive for me, so I am looking forward to the challenge this year of writing 6250 words per day for a total of 25,000 words. I plan to draft the chapters of my third novel.

3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is February 7, 2020, I am posting my second blog of 2020. Writing my blog has revealed to me into how writers around the world are looking for guidance and inspiration. As of this month, writers from 28 different countries have read my blog. I wish all my readers the best of progress with their own writing in 2020!

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

In January I attended a social event at the Denver Woman’s Press Club. Clarissa Pinkola Estés was present because she is judging DWPC’s 2020 Unknown Writers fiction contest this spring. Dr. Estés spoke about the number of rejections she received when she was submitting Women Who Run with the Wolves to publishers. Her book eventually ended up on the New York Times Best Seller list for more than three years.

On January 5, the Boulder Writers Alliance writers’ group discussed the architecture of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong. In an interview with Vuong at The Strand in New York City, he discussed an Asian stylistic form that he used in the book. It is called kishōtenketsu. I am going to try out that format in a short story.

In January, I presented a Boulder Writers Alliance workshop on Achieving Your Goals. To prepare, I reread goals that I have set in the past. Ten years ago, I wrote that I wanted to “write to publish and publish to sell.” Interestingly, this is the name of the BWA workshop series, hosted by Rick Killian, president of BWA, in which I was presenting my workshop.

 

Sounds and Silence in Fiction

Sound Brings Fiction to Life

When I read a quote by Aaron Watson from the text “First Light: Origins of Newgrange,” my attention was piqued. Watson stated, “Sound brings the world to life. It can appear to fill spaces, create atmospheres, and have an intense emotive power.” While he was referring to the way one experiences sound inside the chamber of Newgrange in Ireland, spaces, atmosphere, and emotive power are just as riveting in fiction. A novel is silent—except when the pages are rustling—how can the author use sound to make the text speak more directly to the reader?

As I pondered how I was using sound in my writing, questions arose in my mind. Where is sound important? When is sound important? Which ones should I integrate? Who or what will make noises? How much or how little sound should I introduce into a scene? Is prose like music? To be effective, should a scene vary from crescendo to pianissimo to respites of silence? If so, how do I accomplish writing such a scene?

Imbuing Fictional Space with Sounds

Our lives are immersed in sound no matter where we live. For many years, my home was in a high mountain meadow bordered with evergreens. The nearest neighbors were acres away. I became very aware of the sounds of nature when I was outdoors walking, working in my garden, or riding my horse. Crows cawed in the pine trees. Owls hooted from the cliff at the back of our property. Insects buzzed around my ankles. On a windy day, the force of the air roaring down the meadow pounded the house like a living being. In one windstorm, I watched from the kitchen window as a massive spruce tree at the bottom of the meadow crashed to the ground, shaking the earth. In a downpour, the raindrops beat on the roof, while the lightening cracked, echoing up the meadow. When I was at the barn, I heard the tinkle of water falling into the watering tanks. The horses munched hay in their stalls. The clucking chicken chorus accented the backbeat quacking of two large Rouen ducks. The world around me reverberated with the sounds of life.

When I drove back into town to go to work, the clamor of honking cars, gunned motors, and car radios pummeled my brain. I couldn’t wait to return home in the evening to my mountain symphony.

Sound Creates Atmosphere

Setting is important when crafting fiction, but atmosphere rules. Setting refers more to the concrete descriptive aspects of the scene. Atmosphere is created through emotive descriptors that often have to do with sound. A scene with a riot would be meaningless without the author depicting the drone of an angry crowd, the pop of the police’s pellet guns, the roar of the arrival of a tank.

An entertaining scene with a live band in a music hall would require the sounds of instruments—the strum of a guitar, the beat of a drum, the distinctive voices joining in on the chorus. But the descriptors would change depending on whether the scene depicted folk, cowboy, or symphonic pieces.

In an intimate scene, even the sound of clothes might create an atmosphere. If the writer is depicting a mother hanging clothes on a line in the back yard, the terms snapping, tucking, swishing, and blowing in the wind come to mind. In a bedroom scene, the sounds may be more subtle: the rustling of the sheets, the soft swoosh of a nightgown dropping to the floor.

Generating Emotive Power in Prose

Selecting appropriate vocabulary to represent sounds that reflect an emotional valence is as essential in prose as it is in poetry. Happy family scenes might contain the sound of gentle voices, bubbling laughter, children playing hopscotch, the chirp of robins in the flower garden. An alarming city scene might be portrayed with the sound of explosions, gun shots, tires screaming, whistles, fire alarms, or the wail of an arriving police siren. A terrifying scene in nature might require the sound of a roaring flood, the crash of trees in its path, the rumble of boulders rolling down the riverbank.

On the other hand, point of view impacts the emotional impact of the sounds. If the protagonist is a thief who hears a police siren behind him, his reaction will be very different from that of the police officer. If a quiet family scene is disrupted by an explosion, the author will have to depict individual characters’ reactions.

Is Silence Just the Absence of Sound?

Sound is remarkable only in its relationship to silence thus a discussion of sound requires a conversation about silence. The properties of silence carry vastly different meanings depending on the situation in which they operate. Silence is the absence of sound, but silence may also signify absence, as in the sudden stillness within the eye of a hurricane or the absence of a loved one who has passed on. Because humans are accustomed to the sounds surrounding us, an unexpected silence is rarely comforting. We wonder what is happening: is the silence threatening? Do we need to respond?

Silence may mean simply an absence of most mechanical sounds, for example, the stillness that settles over a town when a gentle snowstorm is piling up two feet of snow. The subtle buzz of traffic disappears. No one is outdoors. If we are safe and warm inside, the world around us seems peaceful.

On the emotional level, silence may imply a lack of communication—someone pouting or someone not wanting to discuss an issue. Or on the darker side, it may indicate nefarious control, if someone is shushed, or muzzled, or forbidden to speak.

In a description of a character, silence can be used to differentiate but also to hide what the character is feeling. A quiet character might simply be still when others are speaking. She may be a deaf-mute or she may be angry. Silence may even create tension in the plot if a usually voluble character is suddenly reticent or speechless.

Another use of silence would be to depict a meditative state. When I meditate, the sound of the gong seems to echo in my mind as I seek to center myself in silence. Meditation has taught me that my internal voice is very noisy. One way to seek internal silence is to simply be present to the external sounds that are almost always audible. A loud noise in the middle of a meditation retreat would definitely disrupt the scene, while mellifluous flute music in the background would be calming.

One of the most beautiful examples of sound interspersed with silence to create an emotional state is Il Silenzio, a song usually played as a trumpet solo. Il Silenzio was written as a commemoration of the liberation of the Netherlands during World War II. The notes and pauses of the melody intertwine with the listeners’ awareness of the finality of the silence of all the individuals who died in World War II. My tears flow freely whenever I hear it. Because it is played on a trumpet, listeners are also keenly aware of the interplay between the player’s living breath and the trumpet’s mechanical vibrations. My goal as a writer is to recreate through the alteration of sounds and silences a similarly deep experience for my readers.

Writing Goals for 2020

This year my writing goals are to:

1. Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

In December, I continued to revise my first novel. I still need to strengthen the main points of storytelling: point of view, structure, language, the characters’ motivations, and to make sure my story is appropriate for contemporary audiences.

I also wrote another chapter for my second novel.

2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020 by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

In 1992, I began a novel. When I reread the draft of this love story recently, I decided to pick it up again. I am planning to use my participation in NovelRama 2020 to work on it. In NovelRama writers attempt to write 25,000 words in four days. I am hoping RNFW offers three NovelRamas again this year. If I could write 75,000 words over three NovelRama events, I would be off to a good start on reinventing this old project.

3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is January 7, 2020, I am posting my first blog of 2020. I plan to write one blog per month this year, posting each one on the seventh.

In December 2019, I laid out a plan for my first six blogs of 2020. I look forward to exploring new topics as challenges arise in my fiction writing.

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

In December I attended the Denver Woman’s Press Club holiday party. Over dinner, members were encouraged to read aloud flash fiction stories (up to 250 words) about our Christmas memories. For the first time in my life, I read aloud my own creative work to a group of writers.

On December 29, Gary McBride presented a recap of the past reading selections in our Boulder Writers Alliance writers’ group. Because of Gary’s diligent work on contemporary writers, I have learned much more about arch-plot structure.

Beginning in January 2020, I will begin serving as Vice President for the Boulder Writers Alliance which gives me the opportunity to contribute to the organization instead of just benefit from it. In December, the president, outgoing vice president, and I met to discuss the transition.

 

Religion in Fiction

In the month of December many religions celebrate important holidays. Interestingly, they share similarities because most are embedded in astronomical and historical traditions. An author writing a novel has to decide which religion her characters believe in, if they do indeed believe in something. The religious aspect may be an important part of the book or simply a way of deepening a character’s verisimilitude. Religious holidays can also serve as essential aspects of the plot or the setting of the novel. At present, I am writing two novels where religion is a defining aspect of the main character. Superficially they appear to be different religions, however, my research is leading me to find many parallels.

Astronomical Foundations of Religion

Some religions follow the sun cycles with holidays based on the winter and spring solstices. Others follow the cycles of the moon. Subsequently, many incorporate traditions related to darkness and light. In the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day of the year falls near the 21st of December when the sun appears to hesitate—creating the longest night of the year. The next day, the days begin lengthening until the summer solstice occurs in June creating the longest day of the year. Such long periods of darkness and light caught people’s attention in the millennia BCE, just as they do today. In the past the long dark evenings that begin around four or five in the afternoon in November and December stimulated European’s interests in bonfires. Now they definitely encourage the placement of outdoor lighting in our modern cities. Even though we tend to blame the world of merchandise for the early arrival of Christmas decorations in November, I think the reason we want more light is primeval. If we can’t have the real sun shining down upon us, we create our own terrestrial twinkles.

Newgrange and European Cathedrals

Several years ago, I visited Newgrange, a beautifully reconstructed passage tomb in Ireland. Because its external surface is covered with white quartz, its appearance on the top of the slope is impressive as one approaches the entry. The day we visited, we were in a group of 12 who were allowed to go inside. The entrance passage was narrow, rising slightly from the doorway as we proceeded. The darkness was complete. We had to bend down at points prior to entering the internal chamber. Once the group was smushed together in the circle, the guides illuminated the space so we could see the altar openings on the north, west, and east. The arrangement reminded me of the medieval European cathedrals which are built on the concept of sacred geometry, lying north to south, with the altar in the north opposite a large stained-glass window on the south so that the sun shines in on the altar. The guides soon extinguished the flashlights allowing us to stand silently in the dark for several minutes. Then, someone directed a beam of artificial light through the roof box above the entry. It traveled up the passageway to illumine the altar, mimicking the light from the rays of the sun on the morning of the winter solstice. Robert Henesy on page 3, in First Light: The Origins of Newgrange, states “…this otherworld religion, centred on emotionally intense events by individuals who spent time in passage tomb chambers, was at the very heart of the passage tomb tradition in Ireland.”

As a visitor, my experience was as mysterious as it was mystical. It made me wonder if any of my ancestors were druids. My experience also made me realize how the religion in which I was raised dates back to these ancient solstice edifices and the practices of the people who built them more than 5000 years before the birth of Christ. These advanced builders and worshipers were what some now call “pagans.” Ironically, when we sit in a European cathedral with the light from the sun illuminating the altar, we are said to be in a sacred Christian space.

It is also noteworthy that a day near the winter solstice was chosen to represent the birthday of the light of the Christian religion.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the northern hemisphere, the full moon of the fourth month was chosen to represent the light of the Buddha. Called Vesak, it is a day where lanterns and sometimes fireworks reflect the people’s need for light and for enlightenment in parallel with our festive holiday lights.

Historical Aspects of Religion

When I was a child, I loved the celebrations that took place in December. My hometown was a particularly wonderful place to spend one’s childhood. The snow was deep. The stars were bright in the dark curve of the night’s sky. In December, each class level in the school built a beautiful snow sculpture on the grounds of the Courthouse which was at the center of town. A jolly Santa in a horse-drawn sleigh drove into town. (My mother told me much later that the Santa was a woman in a Santa’s costume.) As children waited in lines that wove through the magical frozen sculptures, Santa settled down on the Courthouse steps to welcome their requests for special holiday gifts.

At Christmas time the town also had a mobile, musical Christmas tree which covered entirely (and hid) the electrician’s van supporting it. The musical Christmas tree played carols as it rolled down the streets, stopping at every home. Santa jumped off, running on foot up to the houses to drop off bags of candy which contained a satisfyingly large popcorn ball. In my teens, my church group went caroling around the town. A local farmer drove his team of work horses pulling a huge feeding sleigh into town piled with fresh-smelling hay. Giggling gaggles of teenagers burrowed into the hay to keep warm as we caroled from house to house. If our songs were especially melodic, some folks invited us in for hot chocolate.

My childhood history echoes many eras before my own birth. Santa Claus has origins in stories from the third century AD of St. Nicolas giving gifts and food to the poor in what is now called Turkey. The sleigh was developed in northern Europe and throughout Russia due to the heavy winter snowfall. Sleighs became connected to stories of St. Nicolas as his legend moved from the East to the West. St. Nicolas is depicted in parts of Europe, Holland for example where he is called Sinterklaas, as riding a horse as he stops by houses to fill wooden clogs with goodies. Ice sculptures have their origins in the north of Europe and China as well. Caroling is a tradition that dates from the days when people clearly celebrated the winter solstice, being integrated into the Christian celebrations of Christmas much later. Only the mobile musical van and the popcorn balls of my childhood were uniquely twentieth-century traditions.

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 November, my time to edit slowed to a snail’s pace. I worked on three chapters, but my goal of having all 25 edited by the end of December is looking dim. Maybe I’ll make it by January 7, 2020.

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

In November, I did edits on four chapters of my second novel.

I also received feedback from a friend on my short story, correcting some of my content errors. I truly appreciate an expert cowboy’s fact checking.

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

Today is December 7, 2019. My 12th blog of 2019 is the last of a two-year project, which gives me a warm sense of accomplishment. Two years ago, I didn’t even know if I was capable of writing a blog, now I find writing it to be a personally gratifying challenge that takes me in novel directions. Using my blog as a metacognitive device has helped me think about all the issues involved in writing a novel. I will continue my monthly blogs on the seventh day of each month in 2020.

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

On November 6, 2019, our BWA Book Club for Writers, led by Gary McBride, discussed American Spy by Lauren Wilkenson. I was particularly impressed with the author’s ability to write a fairly long novel in the first person. Gary created a timeline of Black history to match events in the book which was incredibly informative.

On November 20, 2019, Alice Levine, a member of Boulder Editors, gave a presentation on editing for BWA’s Write to Publish, Publish to Sell session. I learned about distinctions in the types of editing services available to writers.

In the middle of November, I attended a reading by a member of Boulder Writers Alliance at Inkberry Books in Niwot, a small town near Boulder. B.J. Smith talked about his detective novels (set in Des Moines), reading thrilling sections from Blood Solutions. Other BWA members came out to support B.J. We all had an enjoyable evening.

Beginning in 2020, I will be serving as vice president for the Boulder Writers Alliance. I am grateful to all the writers who participate in BWA, sharing their knowledge as workshop leaders, through online resources, or simply as participants. I look forward to working with the team.

 

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.