Race in Fiction

Questions of Race

Questions of race have been paramount in the news this year, yet “race” is a term which is difficult to define. Nina Joblonski, an anthropologist and palaeobiologist at The State University of Pennsylvania, told Live Science (2/08/2020) that “If you take a group of 1000 people from the recognized ‘races’ of modern people, you would find a lot of variation within each group…the amount of genetic variation within these groups is greater than the average difference between any of the two [racial] groups…there are no genes that are unique to any particular race.” Thus, the term has practically no meaning yet many repercussions. Academically, race is viewed as a social construct meaning essentially a term that a social group has created to refer to a subgroup. Color and skin tone are usually involved in the construction of race. Economics plays a role. A major factor in the construction of race in America is neighborhoods.

Contemporary writers have to master the skills to create characters who ring true yet have different ethnicities, languages, cultures, and skin tones. They can draw on their own experiences, on models used by other writers, and from reading widely. As I have thought about using different races in my own fiction, I have have recalled various significant experiences in my own life.

Experiencing Race

I remember my daughter, who has the same hair color, skin color, and eye color as Elizabeth Taylor, coming home from kindergarten one day crying because she didn’t have blond hair and blue eyes like the other girls. Later she was happy when a little girl who looked like her joined the group. She was even happier when, upon her request, I placed her in a grade school which served the University community. Classrooms were filled with multi-national, multi-lingual, and multi-skin tone students. One day I when I picked her up at the new school, she came across the playground with six other little girls. They had their arms around each other. They all had shoulder-length dark hair. Yet each of their little faces belied different genetic heritages: Asian, Native American, Hispanic, and European. When she got in the car I asked, “How do you like being with other dark-haired girls?” “I love it!” she answered.

My daughter grew up to marry into a French-Malagasy family. They live in Madagascar. Their children have skin tones the color of coffee with cream. When you ask them what nationality they are they respond: American, French, and Malagasy—in three different languages. In school, they are learning to read and write in Malagasy. People who don’t know them often call them “vazaha” which means stranger, implying that they are not Malagasy. The term “vazaha” also means “light-skinned.” Interestingly, when a dark-skinned “vazaha” is encountered, the Malagasy modify the term to “vazaha tsy fotsy” or “not white stranger.”

Once I attended a conference in China. I was surprised to learn that China has more than 50 minority groups. In a group discussion some of the minority women discussed the issues minorities were experiencing there. It was difficult for me to distinguish between them and those who belonged to the majority. I, on the other hand, was definitely a minority in the room. Several times when I was walking alone in a garden our group visited, I had people come up and stare into my eyes, boldly asking if they could take a picture of me. To this day, I chuckle when I envision a photo of me, the strange foreigner with aquamarine blue eyes, posted on someone’s bulletin board in a suburb of Beijing.

Approaches to Race in Fiction

Well-known authors have been speaking out about racial issues for many years in the USA. To help myself conceptualize how to write about race in my own novels, I have been reading many good books that integrate issues of race and culture in starkly different ways. Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, who started the Dorothy Parker Society in 1992, collected Parker’s columns on the theatre in New York City in Dorothy Parker: Complete Broadway, 1918–1925. In the acknowledgment section of the book, Fitzpatrick thanks the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People “for its care and attention to” Parker’s estate. Parker, who was White, supported the Black theatres of the time. She was outspoken in her critique of White actors performing as Blacks, especially when they wore “Black Face.”

Toni Morrison pointed out in an interview with The Guardian that race and racism are both social constructs. She emphasized that “Black” and “White” are also social constructs. She made it clear that the only race is the human race. In her work, she approaches race in a theatrical, almost Biblical, voice. Her characters are portraits of extraordinarily idiosyncratic individuals who leap off the page and live in your memory forever.

In Lost and Wanted (2019), Nell Freudenberger portrays two women who studied together at college. One of the friends is alive and the other is dead. The living White woman is a professor of physics. Her friend, who has recently died, was an upper-class Black woman who was a writer in Hollywood. Freudenberger barely highlights her blackness. It is simply one of her characteristics, her lupus and her early death being of more importance. Neither does she go into detail about the White woman’s appearance, rather her passion for physics is her defining characteristic. Freudenberger does touch on some of the tricky shoals that the pair had to navigate in their academic life that were rooted in racism and sexism.

Angie Thomas wrote The Hate U Give (2017) in response to the deaths of Black American children at the hands of the police. In a video interview at Politics and Prose, Thomas said that her novel was designed to elicit empathy not sympathy. Thomas is effective at breaking down stereotypes of inner-city Black Americans and unmasking the invidious racism of White Americans, even those in high school. Her main character, Starr, reflects on how she has to shift her language and behaviors when her parents enroll her in a predominantly White high school across town. When she finds her own voice, she becomes a social activist. Thomas portrays the Black community through the lens of Black musicians, slang, the stress of poverty, and the freedom of a well-paid job. It is an excellent portrayal of contemporary American neighborhoods and the impact they have on individuals’ lives.

In Parable of the Sower (1993), Octavia Butler takes a slightly different approach to race. She rarely points it out. Once in a while she refers directly to skin color. Butler deliberately integrates human beings—Black, Hispanic, Asian, and White—into the Parable sequence, often in multiracial marriages. Her main character, Lauren Olamina, has a mixed name. Butler chose the name “Lauren” because it can be masculine or feminine, allowing the young woman character to pass as a young man at one point in the novel. Butler used the fact that some Black Americans in the 1960’s adopted African surnames to replace the names of former slave owners. “Olamina” is a Yoruba name that means “this is my wealth” and also refers to spiritual leaders, which Olamina becomes in the sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998).

Thinking About the Depiction of Race

At this point only one of my draft novels has characters of different races built into the story from the outset. My depiction parallels individuals I have known personally, although none of my characters represents a specific person I have known. Fortunately, university environments in my lifetime have included individuals of all skin tones and many nationalities. I’m glad I have this direct experience to guide me as I place my characters into scenes.

Additionally, I have attended several workshops with the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conferences on depicting race in fiction. In her 2019 workshop, Making Minority Characters Seem Real Rather Than Stereotypic Caricatures, Brenda M. Hardwick, a Black author from Denver, said, “Don’t use stereotypes. Write about people as they are.” I think this is good advice. The works of many great writers demonstrate that readers can slip under the skin of any character.

My Personal Republic of the Imagination

To recall my last blog, my republic of the imagination is one where authenticity reigns. My personal reading list displays a long history of reading novels written by writers of different backgrounds. When I read Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I ached for the love of a young lover just as Janie did.  Han Suyin’s Crippled Tree made me cry. Reading Maryse Condé’s Segu, I suffered the horror of the voyage on the slave ship from Africa as painfully as the young African prince in chains. When I read Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji, I recognized that the indignities suffered by women 1000 years ago are just as real today. How the Garcia Sisters Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez, made me recall issues with my own sisters. When I read, Julie and the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, I learned from the brave Inuit girl in the story how to survive alone in the cold. I understood the issues faced by homosexual men better when I read Less by Andrew Sean Greer. My life is richer because of the diversity of authors I read. My empathy for characters and the human beings around me arises from who they are rather than from the shade of their skin tone, the color of their eyes, or the neighborhood they inhabit.

Race in My Own Fiction

One of my novels portrays a broad diversity of characters because it takes place in a university town. The specific time in US history provides the opportunity to include aspects of racial issues. I began the other two novels originally with only White characters, partially because of where they take place, but also because I was focused on the story and didn’t consider how I might write in characters of color. Both take place in Colorado in eras that I used to think had few Blacks, but a recent book, Remembering Lucile, by a friend of mine, Polly E. Bugros McLean, clearly demonstrates how strong the Black community in Colorado has always been. Since my second novel is still in draft stage, I plan to add secondary characters to broaden the verisimilitude of the story. My third novel takes place in a mining town in Colorado, so I will be able to add secondary characters. After all, a diversity of individuals flooded to mining towns in search of prosperity.

Heartfelt stories are the ones that keep me reading. My goal is to write novels that will tug at the heart and soul of readers regardless of their birth status. In my mind, fiction has the ability to unite readers and protagonists just as effectively as modern-day virtual reality headsets designed to help the wearer experience the world kinesthetically.

Writing Goals for 2020

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

This month for my first novel, I researched more specific details about the main character’s chosen path.

For my second novel, I researched more about the time period.

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

For my third novel, which I drafted during the NovelRamas this year, I added a subtext of spirituality, created a new character, and compared my characters to a list of seven causes for all human reactions. It was an interesting comparison because each one matched a different item on the list. These additions benefited from the research I was doing on my other two novels.

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

Today is November 7, 2020, I am posting my eleventh blog of 2020. This month I have felt very scattered. Writing my blog calms me down. The news of Biden’s election today made me happy. Friends from around the world messaged me with photos of celebrations in their countries. Bells were ringing in Paris and London. In Ireland a famous tower was illuminated by a green spotlight. In Chile, friends were hoping for a similar change in government. In Madagascar, friends and family were dancing.

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

As Vice President of Boulder Writers Alliance this past month, I participated in a Steering Committee meeting, drafted an Excel spreadsheet of tasks for the Steering Committee members, and wrote the minutes.

In Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group, we discussed Weather (2020) by Jenny Offill. Written in first person, it details the narrator’s response to environmental changes. Sadly, one of our long-time members died this week from COVID-19. May Stephanie’s memory be a blessing.

As a member of the Denver Women’s Press Club, I zoomed into a Sunday Salon. Kathryn Wynograd presented a superb workshop on Creating the Braided Essay.

This week, I looked up Brenda M. Hardwick (a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers) on the internet. I was pleased to see that Janine Bolon had interviewed Brenda on The Writers Hour: Creative Conversations. Brenda discussed her latest book, Allowing the Magic, Allowing the Miracles.

Imagination in Fiction

The Power of Imagination

Azar Nafisi is one of my favorite writers. Professor Nafisi grew up in Tehran reading traditional Persian literature and novels in English and French as well. Nafisi’s The Republic of the Imagination argues that imagination is central to our lives and that a lack of it leads to governments that control rather than inspire. When she was asked how she occupied her time in Tehran as bombs were falling during the Iran-Iraq war, she responded, “…I read James, Eliot, Plath and great Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez…it is precisely during such times, when our lives are transformed by violence, that we need works of imagination to confirm our faith in humanity, to find hope amid the rubble of a hopeless world.” Her understanding of literature and the imagination resonates with my own. From my early days to the present, I have taken refuge in the freedom of reading literature. Flights of the authors’ imaginations have always transported me to new realms where I could wander on my own. My own love of stories led me to pursue literature as a course of study. It has also led me to write fiction.

What Is the Imagination?  

The French perspective on the imagination is called l’imaginaire. In English we don’t use the term in exactly the same way. L’imaginaire in French refers more to the structure of the imagination and how human beings use it to build their own worlds of understanding. Americans, in my experience, tend to focus more on creativity, which is an aspect of imaginative thought. Definitions of the imaginary in English include inventiveness or inspiration. Imaginary can refer to the unreal or something that exists only in your mind’s eye. Incongruously, every day we rely on vision and the powers of the imagination to move us forward.

Even if our imaginings are unreal, we spend much of our time in our imaginations. We imagine a social structure that surrounds us. We imagine romance. We daydream about what we wish we had said to someone or replay scenes in our minds. In our dreams or nightmares, which represent about a third of our life, we visualize places, people, actions—happenings that would be impossible to undertake in our waking lives.

Each of us carries our own imaginaire with us throughout life. We may comfort ourselves or delude ourselves. When I was a child, I had an imaginary twin named Lana. She was a great comfort to me when I needed to talk to someone. Lana still seems more real to me than children I knew in my neighborhood. I have learned to remediate my own delusions through meditation because that is a pathway I prefer not to follow.

As an aspiring novelist, I am imagining three different imaginary worlds. I can picture them, envision what my characters are doing, saying, feeling. I can even imagine my characters’ imaginations, dreams, or delusions. Having the freedom to imagine is critical to a fulfilling life, especially as a writer.

Creating Imaginary Worlds in Fiction          

Recently, I’ve been studying how various authors deploy their imaginations. In the realm of speculative fiction (which the French call alternately litérature d’anticipation or science-fiction), the author imagines, speculates, or anticipates what a world in the future might be like. Margaret Atwood imagines a normal American world transformed into a fascistic, pseudo-religious facsimile in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and its downfall in The Testaments (2019). Octavia Butler in her novel Parable of the Sower (1993) foresees Los Angeles in 2024 as a dangerous dystopian world where people are trying to escape to the north because of the drought. Pitchaya Sudbanthad, in Bangkok Wakes to Rain (2019), envisions a world in which technology has advanced in strange ways despite global warming and the flooding of the city. In The Old Drift (2019), Namwali Serpell anticipates a bio-technological takeover of humans using tiny drones. Imagination grounded in past and potential reality is what makes these novels so gripping.

Using Imagination in Realistic Fiction

The novels I am working on are not speculative. In one sense they are historical fiction because they take place in the 20th century, thus my own imaginary world is more constrained by reality than those of the authors I have discussed above.

Isabel Allende in A Long Petal to the Sea builds a story with a historical figure, Pablo Neruda, as well as imagined characters based on the stories of individuals who survived the Spanish Civil War and later a revolution in Chile. My characters are not historical figures, although some are inspired by individuals I have known. I am attempting to ground my story in historical facts and events, but I have to invent the action and the characters themselves. Thus, my imaginaire has to create the characters’ lives, imaginations, dreams, nightmares, and world as individuals who lived at that time might have experienced their own times.

Writing Goals for 2020

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

Over the last few weeks, I began working on my first two novels using a revision technique discussed in the Colorado Writers Collaborative online conference by LS Hawker, who writes thrillers. I began with revising both timelines.

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

This month I worked on more detailed descriptions of my characters.

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

Today is October 7, 2020, I am posting my tenth blog of 2020. Over the last month, it has been difficult to concentrate on my own work. The air here has been very smoky from the forest fires in Colorado and on the west coast. COVID-19 cases have soared in our University community. We also had an unseasonal six inches of snowfall so I had to undertake a premature harvest of my garden.

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

As Vice President of Boulder Writer’s Alliance this past month, I zoomed into a workshop presented by Rick Killian, President. Rick discussed the hero’s journey and suggested that as readers read they imagine themselves as the hero of the story they are reading.

In Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group, we analyzed The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.  The story continues Atwood’s tale of a former United States, known in the novel as Gilead. Gilead is ruled by a male-centric, fascist-style government which is defeated by a woman-led underground network.

This month I didn’t watch any online sessions with the Denver Women’s Press Club but I recruited a potential new member.

Members of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers were invited to attend the newly formed Colorado Writers Collaborative’s online conference. The sessions were pre-recorded, then loaded onto YouTube. I watched 30, all of which were insightful. Topics that spoke most to me included: revising the first draft of your novel, editing the first draft, creating depth in characters, the most common mistakes novel writers make, tips for indie writers, and others. I appreciated the fact that when I didn’t quite catch something the speaker said, I could rewind. I also used closed captioning which really helped with comprehension. From my perspective as an online audience member, I learned how important it is for presenters to put their name and the title of the workshop on the first slide; introduce themselves on the second slide; give an outline of the presentation; and end with contact information.

Feminism in Fiction

My View of Feminism

Because I was educated in French and in English, my view of feminism encompasses both philosophical and social aspects. The leading French feminists in the twentieth century were women educated as philosophers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a historical and psychological approach to the history of women, was published in 1949. De Beauvoir’s huge tome discusses women’s place in history focusing on facts and myths as well as on women’s lived experience. The book’s impact is credited with initiating what is now called the second-wave feminism—the first waves refers to the movement in the USA that brought women the right to vote in 1919 and in France women the right to vote in 1945. Because the French took predominantly an intellectual approach to feminism, French feminist scholars discussed philosophy, the psychology of women, women writers’ approach to writing, and literary theory and criticism as it did or did not apply to women authors. French feminist psychologists, Luce Irigaray, for example, in Speculum of the Other Woman attempted to better understand a woman’s psychology as rooted in her physical body in contrast to the phallocentrism of male writers. Hélène Cixous and Monique Wittig  attempted to write from the experience of the female body expressing a woman’s reality through écriture féminine.

In the USA, feminist scholars were for the most part equal rights advocates. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) was based on a survey of her female students at Smith College. Its publication reawakened an American interest in feminism which been waning since women had achieved the right to vote. Friedan went on to help develop the National Organization of Women—founded in 1966 partially in response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which is still an engaged social activist group. Kate Millet, whose doctoral thesis in English literature analyzed D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer from a feminist viewpoint—shocking male literary critics—published the book as Sexual Politics in 1970. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, published in 1970, examined how women throughout history have perceived their roles.

In the 21st century, American feminist scholarship has expanded to include concerns with intersectionality—that is, the interplay of race, gender, sexual preference, religion, ability, socio-economic status, and nationality on individuals’ possibilities as they attempt to live their lives in an unjust society. Though she is classified as a science fiction writer, Octavia Butler’s novels are representative of an intersectional approach to literature. Intriguingly, a French feminist at the time of the French Revolution (1789), Olympe de Gouges, devoted her writing and political life to supporting what today is called “intersectionality.” De Gouges wrote plays as well as political pamphlets decrying the treatment of black slaves and women. The fact that she was one of only three women beheaded by the revolutionaries does give one pause.

As I work on my novels, my approach to feminism is always at the forefront of my mind. My favorite definition of feminism is, “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.” I would add to that definition, “worthy of respect, competent in all aspects of life, and deserving of choosing their personal life’s path.” Believe it or not, there are today many men, women, and governments who do not concur with this definition.

What Is a Feminist Writer?

Recently, I have read many novels by women, some professing to be feminist while others do not mention the word. I have been puzzling over what exactly creates a feminist novel, how a feminist protagonist might be depicted, and why some women novelists reject the assignation of “feminist.”

My doctoral dissertation examined the letters of two 19th century writers: George Sand (the pen name of Aurore Dupin Dudevant) and her author friend, Gustave Flaubert. She was 17 years older than he, but from the moment she lauded his novel Madame Bovary in the press, they were close friends. They were both night owls and spent literally nights together discussing literature. Sand wrote many novels, plays, political tracks, ideas on education, and more than 20,000 letters over the course of her career. Her plays were so popular in Paris that on opening night, it was impossible to navigate in Paris due to the crowds lining the streets. Yet, George Sand stated in print that she was not a feminist. There was a feminist movement at her time, but she did not identify with the women protesting for the rights of women. She was an aristocrat, owned her own property, had divorced her battering husband, and was earning enough money from her writing that to give away more than one million dollars in her lifetime. She was obviously living the life of a feminist so why did she refuse the label?  Her novels feature heroines who do interesting things like become spiritual leaders or travel to unknown realms—which seems feminist to me.

Flaubert on the other hand referred to himself as “une vieille hystérique”—a hysterical old woman. He also famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” that is, Madame Bovary is me.” Madame Bovary exemplifies the confinement, limitations, and deadly mistakes young women endured in marriages to older men in the countryside. As in other nineteenth century novels, Madame Bovary dies rather than thrives. Flaubert also featured another woman in a short story called “A Simple Heart,” the story of Félicité. Félicité is a working woman—a servant. Her work is hard. Her only pleasure is her parrot who dies and she has him stuffed. Again, the story details the difficulties of a woman’s life and her unfair position in society. Flaubert to me is a feminist.

What Defines a Feminist Character?

To be categorized as feminist, does the character have to be political or radical? Can she be married, divorced, widowed, or single? Is feminism a question of how she defines herself in relationship to others? Does it have something to do with her education or what she reads? Her language? Her sartorial style? Is feminism an individual or a public stance? Is feminism psychological, social, emotional, physical, spiritual, or economic? Can a feminist be a wife, mother, a grandmother, or a daughter? Can a feminist be a male character? Authors seem to have a hard time deciding how to write about women characters, especially as the main character in a novel. As writers wrestle with these issues, they seem to be seeking another type of freedom in the writing world.

Some contemporary women novelists display the courage to write about women protagonists who, despite being quirky, achieve a certain satisfaction in their lives—for example, Olive Kitteridge in the eponymous novel and in the recently published, Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout. Strout’s characters—women and men—seem to be caught in the web of life yet show their humanness through small acts of kindness. In Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant, Eleanor suffers from traumatic stress disorder resulting from an event in her childhood. She is who she is. Yet, she survives through establishing a relationship with a compassionate young man. If a feminist is a woman who lives her own life as she chooses and survives, both would qualify.

A Woman Protagonist versus a Feminist Protagonist

As I work on my novels, I am constantly questioning my own writing. Are my women characters simply women filling typical roles or do they have feminist qualities? Two of my novels take place at historical moments when feminist movements were at issue so I have the opportunity to embed a feminist subtext. The other novel takes place during the Great Depression when women had to do just about anything to simply survive. Each novel has a strong female protagonist. Each one is committed to self-development. My hope is to create strong and memorable female characters which to me implies a feminist approach.

Writing Goals for 2020

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

In August, after printing out the full manuscript, I reworked parts of my first novel. I am enjoying reading it as I edit but it is challenging to place a proper order on it.

Regarding my second novel, this month I focused on integrating accurate scenery and describing the house and land more vividly.

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

During RMFW’s NovelRama from August 14–17, 2020. I succeeded in writing 26,335 words in four days which amounted to 1,335 words beyond my personal goal. I practiced writing different characters’ points of view through journals, letters, and their reactions to certain scenes.

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

Today is September 7, 2020, I am posting my ninth blog of 2020. The topics I choose to write about arise from thinking deeply about my own writing. As I write my blog, I am very aware of whom my readers might be. This month I watched an interview with Elizabeth Strout in which she says, “I’m always thinking about the reader. I have an ideal reader. It’s somebody who is patient but they’re not super patient. It is somebody who needs the book, if I can deliver it to them. So, I have a sense of responsibility to them.” I definitely need to figure out who the ideal readers for my fiction are.

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

As Vice President of Boulder Writer’s Alliance this past month, I zoomed into a workshop presented by Dr. Melanie Peffer, who discussed writing her book Biology Everywhere. I also contributed to an online Steering Committee conversation about how to maintain membership in the organization during a pandemic.

In Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group, the group discussed Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Olive Kittridge. The format of the book presents 13 chapter stories about an older Olive and people in the same town whom she has known for years. The format is a novel approach to point of view.

As a participant in the Membership Committee for the Denver Women’s Press Club, I communicated with the other members. DWPC is holding Sunday Salons and Thursday Meet and Greet sessions via Zoom. Sadly, I missed two I had signed up for because I was so tired I needed a nap.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ August 2020 NovelRama provided the opportunity for writers to encourage each other to keep pumping out 6500 words a day for four days. Participants posted memes of llamas, aliens, and flowers to amuse and inspire us as we pounded on our keyboards.

Secrets in Fiction

What is a Secret?

The concept of secrets in fiction fascinates me. I assume it interests other writers. Pondering how to use secrets brings up several issues. First of all, we need to understand the types of secrets and when or if to use them. Second, we have to modulate the purpose and results of the secret. Third, it is necessary to carefully consider the placement of the secret, the accompanying clues, and the resolution.

Administrative Secrets

In fiction, as in life, secrets are always deliberate on someone’s part. If the secret pertains to an administrative function—be it government, religion, or secret societies—it may involve an administrative secret, a classified document, a confidential meeting, a closed meeting, a meeting not open to the public, or other information not shared with others outside the organization. Some organizations have secret handshakes, secret passwords, or secret meeting places. Such secrets are always evident in novels that deal with espionage, detective stories, and thrillers.

This type of secret may also be used in stories about business, religion, the military, law, medicine, education, or even agriculture. The use of administrative secrets also occurs in speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy fiction where it can bleed over into the supernatural. John Le Carré’s last novel, Agent Running in the Field, deals with multiple levels of state secrets, espionage secrets, conjugal secrets, secret installations and offices, and ends with a spectacular secret escape.

Family Secrets

Family secrets on the other hand are not shared outside the family. Even within the family, they may be shared only with certain members. Family secrets are the stuff of fiction and allow for a host of storylines. Family secrets may be as simple as eavesdropping and not telling; lying or deliberately hiding information to protect or to deceive; thefts; or betrayals that involve conjugal, personal, or inheritance issues.

Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea, which is an historical novel, contains several family secrets and a surprise ending which is based on a romantic secret. A brother keeps a dead soldier’s wallet and doesn’t tell his girlfriend that he is dead until he has to marry her to be allowed passage on a ship to Chile. A woman has a seven-year affair with her husband’s friend and never tells him until they are very old. A doctor who plays chess with a politician keeps the games secret to protect his own and others’ lives.

Constructing Secrets in Writing

When constructing a novel, a novelist has to decide whether or not to make use of secrets. In writing, secrets can be a vehicle to craft the scene where the action takes place, move the plot along, or create characters. Writers must also determine which characters will be aware of the secrets, whether or how to reveal the secrets, and at what point or if to resolve the secrets.

The Irish writer, Tana French, wrote a masterful suspense novel, The Wych Elm, in which a tree in a yard of a country home holds a secret. The secret itself is hidden throughout most of the novel and when it is revealed, the exposé uncovers other types of secrets.

The entire plot of Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake, a crime fiction novel, depends on a shared and carefully crafted secret. Individual characters also have personal secrets that help to develop the subplots. It kept me guessing and trying to figure out what was really going on throughout the book.

Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted falls into the categories of domestic and friendship fiction. Freudenberger uses a minor character’s secret to drive the main plot. The author also unveils her protagonist’s thinking process about unknown interactions and secrets from the past as the main character learns different perspectives about events from those around her.

To Use or Not to Use Secrets

It is clear from my examples above that secrets fit into different genres.  As I rework my first novel, the issue of whether or not I need to integrate secrets into the plot or the lives of the characters is intriguing. I look forward to the exploration.

Writing Goals for 2020

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

Beginning in July, I have set about a thorough re-edit, rewrite, and consolidation of my first novel. My first task was to print out the 25 existing chapters so I could sit down and read it as a “book.” I have no idea how long it will take me to complete the work  but I do know it will take at least five different edits. I feel exhilarated and energized to pull it all together. I would like to send it out to some beta readers by the end of the year.

For my second novel, I worked on research to further authenticate the setting.

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

During the last four weeks, I have not worked on this novel because I plan to participate once more in RMFW’s NovelRama from August 14–17, 2020. My goal is to write another 25,000 words of my draft over the four days. If I can accomplish the feat, my draft will total about 60,000 words.

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

Today is August 7, 2020, I am posting my eighth blog of the year. Writing a blog for more than two and one-half years has been an experience in accountability to myself and to my readers—who come from almost 30 countries across the world. When I started the blog, I assumed some beginning novelists would join me in my pursuit of goals and communicate with me. Only a few have commented directly on the blog. Some writers I know personally have contacted me via email to share ideas.

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

As Vice President of Boulder Writers Alliance this month, I took on the task of helping to institute an online newsletter. To begin the process, I chatted with a newsletter editor from another writing organization and communicated my information to the Steering Committee.

In Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group, we discussed Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted. This novel fit nicely into my blog topic for this month.

Denver Women’s Press Club is holding Sunday Salons and Thursday Meet and Greet sessions via Zoom. I logged on for Joan Jacobson’s Sunday Salon. Joan discussed her book Phantasmagorias: Colorful Colorado Characters Spark Homegrown Summer Adventures. I also logged on for Bonnie McCune and Kathleen Duhamel’s Sunday Salon on writing book reviews.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers canceled the in-person conference for fall 2020 because of the coronavirus. In an excellent troubleshooting move, RMFW joined two other groups—Pikes Peak Writers and Northern Colorado Writers—to form the Colorado Writers Collaborative. In September, in place of a conference, the three groups will host online workshops. I look forward to participating in some helpful sessions.

 

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.