Writing Style and Reading Audiences

Friendship and Writing

My doctoral dissertation looked at the correspondence between George Sand (Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin Dudevant) and Gustave Flaubert. Their letters were fascinating because despite their age difference (she was 17 years older than he) they communicated as equals. The letters are often humorous. Most deal with writing.

Sand was a prolific writer. She wrote more than 20,000 letters in her lifetime, 63 works of fiction, as well as a dozen plays. Her collected works total about 160 volumes. Flaubert authored around ten.

They met soon after Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was published. Sand read it. She was impressed. She sat down and wrote a laudatory article in support of the young writer. He was so grateful that he wrote to her, begging to meet her. Their meeting was the beginning of a life-long friendship. They visited each other’s estates. When they were together, they would sit by the fire discussing literature for the entire night. When they were apart, they wrote letters, leaving us with a wonderful view into the lives of two writerly friends.

Style and Writing Habits

Studying their work, I realized that Flaubert’s genius lay in his determination to portray accurately and realistically while integrating depth of sentiment and character. Sand’s genius resided in her understanding of social issues, her vivid imagination, and her fascination with natural history. She wrote fluently and eloquently, rarely crossing out a line of her handwritten manuscripts. Because she wrote to earn money, she published in the “feuilletons” or the weekly newspaper serials of the time. The literacy rate in France during their lifetime was 90% and the weekly serials were extremely popular. Flaubert, on the other hand, struggled, scratched out words and sentences, searched for the precise word, and spent years perfecting his work.

But if we look closely at their prose, it is clear that Flaubert understood how to pack a wallop. He does this by weaving all five senses into a single paragraph of description that ends with an action. For example, in a description of a kitchen in chapter 9 of Madame Bovary, the wall is damp (touch) and oozing (sight), the door is creaking (sound), the stove is steaming (smell), Emma is nibbling nuts (taste), and drawing on the tablecloth with her knife (action). He integrates sensations, emotions, thoughts, and action creating a lucid description that the reader can envision in his or her own mind’s eye.

Sand, on the other hand, tends to narrate her stories in long sentences as a sequence of discussions or a sequence of events rather than focusing on detailed description. Interestingly, Sand was a genius of the short, pithy sentences that become maxims and her statements are often quoted as such. Their differences in style attracted different readers and created different followers although they both enjoyed reading each other’s prose.

Targeting a Reading Audience

As I write, I always have these two authors in mind. Flaubert stated, “One never tires of what is well written, Style is life! It is the very blood of thought!”  Sand wrote with a social purpose because she hoped to have a positive impact on the lives of women and the poor, stating, “Art for art’s sake is an empty phrase. Art for the sake of truth, art for the sake of the good and the beautiful, that is the faith I am searching for.”

My own style is not yet definitive. I struggle to find the right tone and the right voice. I do believe that writing with an audience in mind is important. But I also want my work to be well written stylistically. I hope to eventually hit the right note as I progress with my editing this year.

Writing Goals for 2019

How exciting it is to be at the beginning of 2019! I like this number—two thousand nineteen has a nice ring to it. I am looking forward to a year of writing, attending events on writing, and learning more about writing and publishing. Having worked on my writing goals since January 2018, I am better attuned to my own process and progress. Over the holidays, I took a break, although I spent some time pondering how to approach my goals for the year 2019. After much thought, I have decided to maintain similar goals for 2019. I will continue to focus on my creative writing and do the research to support it. This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by the 7th of December 2019;
  2. Complete a draft of my second novel by the 7th of December 2019;
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019; and
  4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing.

Happy New Year! May your year be filled with satisfying work!

Darkness or Light? That Is the Question!

Considering Darkness Versus Light in December

When I took a course in reading theater years ago, we read a critic whose hypothesis was that dark political times bring lighter theater pieces, while lighter, happier political times bring forth darker aesthetic work. While examples are necessary to illustrate this idea, it is a subject which has always fascinated me. December is the darkest month. Humans react by installing stars made up of many light bulbs on mountains, decorating trees in the park with colorful LEDs, and lighting their homes with scented candles. It has led me to reflect on the darkness or light that novelists choose to portray.

Utopian or Dystopian?

Theodor W. Adorno, who lived through the Nazi takeover of Germany, wrote that all art lives in a space somewhere between the utopian/aesthetic and the political/mimetic. It seems to me that most popular novels are about the latter, whether it be personally political as in individuals abusing individuals or publicly political about the abuse of power by one group against another. Many modern novels fall into this dystopian time-space continuum.  Such dystopian worldviews seem bald-faced to me in the sense that they are a compilation of everything horrible that can occur. I am not sure what they bring to the reader besides depression, despair, fear of the present, and dread of the future. Likewise, many award-winning books treat dark subjects. The characters suffer brutal torments. Sociopaths rule. Nothing ends well. I’d like to see a book award for novels that address more productive lives, although it might garner serious critique from The New York Times.

Depicting Life in Fiction

Perhaps because we are living through a dark political time, I am attempting to write a novel that is uplifting—not Utopian, but positive—rather than dystopian. I think readers need to be shown options for approaching their existential problems. We live in the real world. Most lives are normal, though they may be fraught with problems. Most people approach their lives from a workable position, even though a few give up. Some commit suicide; others attack innocent people. Some choose political activism; others decide to run for office. Some prefer to teach; others to write. Some wish to help; others become healers. As Mr. Rogers’ mother used to tell him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Expressing Gratitude

This past year, I have encountered many helpers. My daughter, who is an excellent soundboard and editor, has been my first reader for my blog. I am grateful for her insights and corrections. The Boulder Writers Alliance speakers have been helpful as their discussions about their own experiences are encouraging to me as well as entertaining. This month, I had some serious help with my novel writing, not directly, but indirectly. Gary McBride leads a “forensics of writing” group for the Boulder Writers Alliance. His ability to dissect a novel is extraordinary. I want to write something he would have fun analyzing. Time to get back to work!

Update on My Goal Setting

The year 2018 has been a fascinating year personally, professionally, and as a citizen. It could be called the Year of the Shift. So much has altered this year. Earth tremors, hurricanes followed by floods, droughts that caused fires, even under-ocean volcanoes have changed the landscapes where many of us live. These earth changes have been reflected in global and national politics, finances, and displacements of people. All this has occurred, while I in my little writing room have been attempting to accomplish the four goals I set in January 2018:

  1. Focus on my creative writing and do the research to support it: Eleven months have passed, I am currently working on my twelfth month of writing. My creative focus has literally transformed my life. I have enjoyed doing the research necessary to write. It is as though I am finally figuring out what I can and cannot actually accomplish.
  2. Complete a draft novel by the seventh of December 2018, writing 30 pages per month: Today December 7, 2018, I should have a complete draft of my novel done. In fact, I have undershot my goal. Of the 24 chapters in my outline, five are still empty.  I am also short on my page count, although I have written 285 pages. I cannot beat myself up too much about this because at the request of my children I have also written 220 pages for “my personal story” on the StoryWorth program. Thus, while I originally planned to write 365 pages this year, in fact, I have written 505 pages. This gives me hope for the coming year when I plan to concentrate on finishing my novel.
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2018: Today, December 7, 2018, I am posting my twelfth blog. Writing a blog was a goal I had never dreamed of taking a shot at until this year, yet it has been extremely satisfying. The blog has supported my creative writing in ways I did not expect. In the past, I have never shared my in-progress work with anyone. I always just finished what I was doing, then presented it to the appropriate person. Also, one of my weaknesses is that I do not question enough. I am more likely to reflect, reflect, reflect, but not to question. Writing the blog has made me question what I am doing, what I want to say, even what is worth saying. Definitively, it has pushed me to focus on time, to write my pages regularly. Writing the blog makes me accountable to myself and my readers.
  4. Develop a network of kindred spirits who are willing to share their own goals, progress, and observations with me: In November, the Boulder Writers Alliance workshop speaker was Debra Jason, who spoke about the topics covered in her book, “Millionaire Marketing on a Shoestring Budget ™. Debra Jason is a career guide on LinkedIn. I chuckled to myself when she recommended writing a blog. When she asked if anyone was writing one, I talked a bit about mine. Suddenly there I was in a face to face situation sharing my goals, my progress, and my observations with other writers —an extension of my fourth goal!

Handling Dreams in Life and Fiction

Should Dreams Be Used as a Device in Fiction?

In an earlier blog, I talked a bit about journaling and writing down dreams as a way to stimulate your creativity and keep a log of your creative life. In this blog, I discuss the possibility of using dreams in my novel. At a workshop on writing fiction that I attended this fall, I was perplexed when the speaker said not to use dreams in a novel. Because dreams are definitely an essential experience of our lives, I find it hard to accept her statement. Every culture discusses dreams and the interpretation of dreams. In my home, dreams are often the topic of discussion over the breakfast table. My husband and I are both vivid and creative dreamers. As an artist, his visual and symbolic acuity make him a fantastic interpreter of mine. I like to use my dream book to interpret his. Novels are based on lives; living people dream. I think fictional characters should be able to dream as well.

Dreams as a Narrative Device

In “Dreams and Narrative” in Psychology Today, Patrick McNamara discusses the similarity between dreams and narratives. He states, “Most of us experience dreams as stories…or at least dream reports are very much like stories.” According to him, research on dreams reveals reoccurring content which reappears in multiple retellings of dreams. He also notes that neuroimaging of the brain during REM sleep suggests dreams are indeed “real experiences.” He sees dreams as social “communicative devices or signals whose target is the waking self or other members of the social group.” McNamara concludes by calling for more serious research on dreams and their social nature.

Dreams as Prophecy

Dreams can be interpreted in various ways. I did a count of dream interpretation books advertised online. At least 20 are published per year. Some see dreams as prophetic. I have, in fact, had prophetic dreams myself. I know this because I have kept a dream diary. For example, once I dreamed that I had to go to South Africa to take care of my brother. My brother did live in South Africa, but I had no intention of ever visiting him there. Several months later, my mother telephoned me. My brother was extremely ill. His partner had called her to tell her that my beloved brother was dying. Mother panicked. She begged me to go to Cape Town to take care of him. She felt vulnerable because she was terrified of flying and refused to get into an airplane. At first, I resisted because the trip would be long. I would miss too many days away from work. I would have to leave my daughter and husband. But because her helplessness was palpable, I went. While there I documented everything via photos, so she could see the whole environment. Her son, although normally 180 pounds but at that moment 120 pounds, was thin and weak, but alive. Happily, the situation ended on a positive note. My brother recovered. He is currently an active composer of music in Cape Town, almost 20 years later. Several years after my trip, I was rereading my journal and rediscovered my dream entry. It made me stop and think about the potential authenticity of premonition.

Dreams as a Connection to the Collective Unconscious

Carl Jung discussed the phenomenon of the collective unconscious, which I have experienced on multiple occasions. Back in the year 2000, I dreamed I was standing on a two-wheeled vehicle. I was moving down the street, maneuvering it with controls on the handlebars. It was propelling itself with some kind of motor. It was a marvelous ride. Waking up laughing, I grabbed my dream journal to record a drawing of the strange vehicle with an explanation of how it worked. I wanted one! Over breakfast, I recounted my dream to my husband, showing him my drawing. He responded, “It would make a handy-dandy vehicle to drive to work.” A year or so later a national company came out with what we all now recognize as the Segway—the embodiment of the means of transportation in my dream. Since I am a writer instead of an engineer, I missed the opportunity the universe was sending me to become an inventor. Someone else did not just laugh when they had their dream but rather turned it into a money-making project.

From Dream Life to Fiction

My own relationship with dreams has helped me to build a character whose dreams meld with her daily life. My protagonist is in transformation. She doesn’t know exactly where she is going. She is confused by whom she thinks she is. Strange experiences keep happening in her life. I have decided to handle some elements through the intrusion of dreams in her narrative. The dreams are at times a signal of something to come or at others a result of what has happened. They may even serve as what I am going to call a “plot motor.” They move things along. They suggest to the reader that another level of consciousness is occurring for my heroine.

Update on My Goal Setting

 This month I am restating specifically the goals I set in January 2018, followed by my monthly update.

  1. Focus on my creative writing and do the research to support it: Ten months have passed. I am learning by experience what an economist friend told me once, “Always plan for a three-month lag.” She was correct. The month of October has been a challenge. My husband, the artist Bill Border, was in Open Studios for three weekends. I served as a planner, advertiser, greeter, accountant. Then to make matters worse, I hurt my shoulder. I couldn’t type for more than a week. I have a friend who suggested using the dictation function on my computer to write, but I am definitely a hands-on thinker. Consequently, I am short of reaching my November 7thgoal for pages written.
  2. Complete a draft novel by the seventh of December 2018, writing 30 pages per month:  On November 7th, my page counter should stand at 334. Right now, it stands at 273—my goal for October 7th. As I was reviewing my chapters, I realized I had renamed and copied Chapter 4, but it was the same chapter as Chapter 3. Boom, I was down 20 pages. At first, I thought it was a disaster, then I realized I needed the empty chapter because I needed to build in some missing character development. The lack of this information was causing me problems as I tried to write later chapters. So, I sat down to write an entirely new chapter. It has helped. Things are starting to flow a bit better. At least I made it back up to my end goal for October. Now I am a full 31 pages behind.
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2018: Today, November 7, 2018, I am posting my eleventh blog. Blogging is beginning to feel like a friend. Recording my process regularly truly helps me sort through the reams of material on my desk. It also helps me verbalize my frustrations and challenges.
  4. Develop a network of kindred spirits who are willing to share their own goals, progress, and observations with me: This month I was unable to attend the Boulder Writers Alliance meeting because the workshop was during Open Studios. Nevertheless, I did host a dinner party with a novelist friend, Bill Liggett, who discussed his work and showed slides about the site of his climate-fiction novel, Watermelon Snow. Bill has asked me to write a review of his book. As a result, I now have before me an unexpected challenge because I have never written a book review on a novel. Since I am a novice at reading “cli-fi,” writing this review will force me to expand not only my writing skills but my reading canon, as book reviews require comparisons with similar works.

Creating Realistic Characters

Developing Your Characters’ Personalities

When I was a young counseling psychology student, I took an Abnormal Psychology course. During that time, I also worked as a teaching assistant in educational counseling and completed my internship at the university counseling center. In the process of developing characters for the novel I am drafting, I realized that the various models of personality I had studied might serve me well as a writer. While there are different models available, one I have enjoyed working with is Timothy Leary’s Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality (New York: Ronald Press, 1957). There are various versions of his model online. I like the original because it has four poles. It also has eight levels of intensity that radiate out from the center point to the end of each axis.

Timothy Leary’s Interpersonal Behavior Circle

Timothy Leary, well known for his experimentation with LSD, was a respected psychologist who worked for Kaiser Permanente in California in the 1950s. His research team studied how pairs of individuals interact. It is an effective way to grasp different types of personalities, using a two-axis layout. The vertical axis runs from “dominant” at the top to “submissive” at the bottom. The horizontal axis runs from “Hate” on the left to “Love” on the right. If a person scores near the center their behavior is more normal. The higher the score from 1 to 8, the more extreme the behavior is.

Individuals who fall on the vertical poles fall on a continuum from Dominant (Managerial/Autocratic) to Submissive (Self-effacing/Masochistic). On the horizontal poles, the continuum extends from Cold (Aggressive/Sadistic) to Warm (Cooperative/Over Conventional).

Concentric circles are placed over the axes to indicate the levels of intensity of each personality starting at level 1, moving outward to level 8. Thus, a “Dominant” person who is at the level one intensity would, on the cold side, be “able to give orders” or, on the warm side, “be well thought of.” A “Cold” person on the dominant side would be “able to be strict if necessary” or on the submissive side would be able to “be frank and honest.” A “Warm” person who is at the level one intensity, would, on the dominant side, be “friendly;” on the submissive side, be “cooperative;” while a “Submissive” person on the cold side would be “able to criticize self;” or on the warm side “able to be obedient.”

At the highest level of intensity (8), a “Dominant” person on the cold side would be described as “dictatorial” or on the warm side by “everyone admires him/her.” A submissive person at level 8 would on the cold side be “Always ashamed of self” or on the warm side “Spineless”.

Thus, if you wanted to create a hyper-normal character who spoils everyone with kindness, you would be describing a level 8 Dominant/Warm character. If you wanted to put an aggressive/sadistic villain into action, you would use the level 7 of “frequently angry, self-seeking and impatient with others” combined with “hard-hearted, cruel and unkind” at the level 8 on the “Cold” axis.

Creating Complementary Characters

It is a terrific guide to understanding the varying intensities of personality. The scale also provides keywords at each level within each quadrant (Dominant-Hate) (Dominant-Warm) (Submissive-Hate) (Submissive-Warm) to help a writer describe different extremes of personalities accurately.

A person’s interaction on the extreme of any pole creates a counterpoint type of response from a person on the opposite pole. Thus, if one character communicates coldly/dominantly, Leary’s research shows that the other person involved in the interaction will predictably take a submissive stance to avoid conflict. It takes self-control to pull oneself out of this habitual behavior in real life, but it is possible. For example, if someone is coming from a cold dominant position, a knowledgeable person can choose to sit down, become submissive, then wait for a chance to become warm, dominant. When the cold dominant person fizzles out, stand up, and say warmly, “Would you like to sit down to talk about it?” In my experience, it works.

Thus, in fiction, if the writer wants the characters to end up in a fight, both characters must engage as cold dominant, escalating the argument. Or if the author wants a character to simply operate at a normal level, she can keep the characters’ interactions at a level one. This interplay can create believable characters, allowing the author to follow Leary’s roadmap from normalcy to nuttiness and back again.

Looking back on my years as a counseling student, the personalities of the counselors and their clients were fascinating. Using the lens of personality theory to figure out what was happening was helpful, even though the internship convinced me that I did not want to be a working counselor. Clients’ problems made me too sad. In retrospect, now that I am writing fiction, I find that my training in psychology is a valuable aid in character development.

Update on My Goal Setting

 This month I am going to restate specifically the goals I set in January, followed by my monthly update.

  1. Focus on my creative writing and do the research to support it: I have finished nine months of writing. Even though I am writing about an area in which I have lived for many years, it has taken detailed research to make sure I am not making errors. I have found that focusing on my goals helps me keep rowing upstream, rather than being swept down with the existential flood that often surrounds me.
  2. Complete a draft novel by the seventh of December 2018, writing 30 pages per month: On October 7th, my page counter should stand at 274. Right now, it stands at 255. I am still short by 18 pages which means I still have 110 pages to write before the end of the year.
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2018: Today, October 7, 2018, I am posting my 10th blog. Blogging has been an educative adventure. It has forced me to write, read, and redo. It is a conversation with myself that allows me to connect with the world. An unexpected pleasure is that old friends have contacted me because they read my blog.
  1. Develop a network of kindred spirits who are willing to share their own goals, progress, and observations with me: This year I have been a regular attendee at the Boulder Writers Alliance meetings. In September I was asked to facilitate a workshop on goal setting for writers for the group. I was able to share my writing journey. Preparing for the workshop forced me to work on my goals for next year as well. Twelve writers of various levels of experience attended. Using my handout, they worked enthusiastically on their goals during the session. Comments following the session included, “This was a very professionally done workshop.” “Your worksheets clearly reflect years of research and experience.” “Your work has had an amazing snowball effect. My kids wanted to set their goals.” Continuing to expand my writer’s network, I also attended the Zee JFL Literary Festival Boulder. Over 70 writers gathered here to talk about their past, current, and future work. I listened. I absorbed. I asked a few questions. I made a couple of comments. I connected. I was humbled but enthralled.

Creative Time in Novels & Life

A day has 24 hours. A week has 168 hours. Months have an average of 732 hours. A year has 365 days or on a leap year 366 days. A year has 8760 hours—unless it is a leap year, then it has 8784 hours. A typical novel has between about 100,000 to 120,000 words in 300-400 pages.

How Many Pages Can I Write in a Year?

It depends on how much time I have at my disposal. It also depends on how many activities I can eliminate from my daily schedule. I have an acquaintance who has written 60 books in 10 years. My output is much less prodigious.

As I have stated earlier in this blog, my goal for 2018 is to write one approximately 365-page novel and to blog monthly about my process and progress. The page total for my monthly blogs will add an additional 50 pages to my writing output by the end of the year.

This combination fiction-non-fiction writing goal is helping me view my process from a bird on a branch perspective. I can see many sticks on the ground. Which ones do I need to build a functional little nest for my story? I also see many little seeds. Which ones will germinate into a compelling fictional narrative? Most importantly, how much time do I have to interlace my sticks and cultivate my seeds?

Concomitantly with my personal goals, and unbeknownst to me at the time, my children established a third writing goal for me that has forced me to increase my weekly page output. They gifted me with a subscription to StoryWorth on my birthday last year. Each Monday, StoryWorth sends me a question about my life which has to be answered and returned by the following Monday. At the end of the 12-month commitment, StoryWorth will produce a book made up of what I write and any photos I happen to include. I am currently answering the 41st question selected for me. This task has added an additional three to five pages per week to my production.

What Kinds of Writing Am I Doing?

Currently, I am doing three kinds of writing on a weekly basis: Fiction, blogging, and what I would call, rather than autobiography, a type of personal book report. The StoryWorth reporting style writing, done to a weekly deadline, has helped me focus narrowly on structure and editing because the story itself is simple to reconstruct—I lived it. The process has definitely sharpened my ability to see and fix my own errors. On the other hand, the fiction writing is opening up my creative flow. Unexpectedly, I also feel that it is opening up my heart. I am simply happier. Importantly the monthly blogging deadlines are forcing me to think metacognitively about my own writing process while forcing me to focus on the concrete goal of writing the number of pages I have committed to writing each month.

Time in a Novel Is Foundational

Goal setting to guide my writing has made me experience time as a living presence in my life. A presence that looms as well as a presence that seems to slip away faster and faster each week. My experience of time has made me wonder how I should use time in my novel. Should it press on my characters as it has on me this year? Should the story flow at a chronological pace? Or might it shift between time periods? Or will time become an actual protagonist in my story as it did in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—where time manifests as the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?

How Will I Represent Time?

Shall it be as dramatic as a ghost or simply viewed through seasons, months, or years that pass by for my characters? Shall I start the headings for chapters with dates or simply work time into the story more subtly? Recently, I read Anthony Doerr’s, All the Light We Cannot See, a novel that skips back and forth over many years. At the head of each chapter appears a date. As a reader I found myself checking back to the date headings to determine how what had just happened or what had happened years before fit into what I was reading at the moment. Because of his chosen time format, Doerr’s date headings were a useful reading guide.

I also just read A Day in the Life of Denis Ivanovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The book encompasses a single day—from morning until bedtime—of his life in a Russian gulag. The reader trudges through the frigid landscape and poorly heated buildings along with the main character, experiencing the exhausting, cold day viscerally. Two very different approaches. Two very different styles. Now I have to figure out my own “timepoint,” to coin a new meaning for a rarely used word.

Defining a “Timepoint”

Concepts of time shift dramatically across cultures, yet they impact our daily lives and habits. In the West, we see time as the sun rising, then passing from East to West, experiencing time on a daily calendar. Our experience of time is based on a yearly solar calendar that requires the allowance of a leap year every four years because a day is not exactly 24 hours. Human concepts have had to adjust to the idiosyncrasies of planetary time. When the West moved from the Roman calendar to the Gregorian, it resulted in strange occurrences, for example, the Roman “November” is no longer the ninth month, but the eleventh. It fascinates me that the meaning of the names of the months was forgotten or ignored by the creators of our calendar. It also made me realize that our general approach to time has an element of fiction, the suspension of disbelief. A sidereal day is really 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.0905 seconds.

Other cultures operate on the lunar calendar. A novel set with lunar time could have many evening scenes. It might also use metaphors that relate to the moon. A novel set in solar time might focus on night or day scenes, creating a more realistic mood. Perhaps a novel that used the image of sidereal time, focusing on the earth’s rotation relative to fixed stars, would allow for a more scientific or a more poetic use of time.

Which approach to time will I choose?

Update on My Goal Setting

I have finished eight months of writing. The challenge of keeping to a schedule is beginning to feel invigorating.

  1. I have been able to write fairly regularly working on my novel, my blog, and, additionally, a StoryWorth document. I am now into my ninth month.
  2. . Since August 7, 2018, I have made significant progress on my novel. This month I had to devote some time to coordinating my organization. I checked my chapter outline against my page count outline and against my actual chapters. Organizing large amounts of material is tedious, but necessary. I felt good about the reorganization. The story is starting to take on a life.  On September 7th, my page counter should stand at 243. Right now, it stands at 225.
  3. Today, September 7, 2018, I am posting my ninth blog. Blogging about my writing has highlighted the parallels between my life and my fiction writing. Not in the sense of story but rather in the sense of organizational and sensorial parallels.
  4. I have continued to build my writing network. In August, my Boulder Writers Alliance hosted a talk with Paul Cohen, the author of The Glamshack. Cohen read a short section from his novel. It was fascinating to hear the author’s voice interpreting his own text. Brad Wetzler’s interview with Paul Cohen brought out surprising comments. He was honest about his struggles. I particularly liked the anecdotes he told about working with agents and editors.

A Sense of Place

Recognizing Place

As an undergraduate student, I remember being bored by the descriptions of bougainvillea in French novels. I had never seen one. Then, when I was 19, I went to France to study for a year. Once there, I realized that the authors’ descriptions I had been reading were based on a different landscape than that of my childhood. The writers were depicting their own sense of place, so as a reader unfamiliar with it, it had been obscure to me. Within weeks, I fell in love with France. I loved the gardens. The architecture was beautiful. The professors were brilliant. I fell in love with the landscape. My ways of thinking became so French that I went on to earn three academic degrees in French Literature.

The Geography of Place

After a year studying French culture, history, art, and French language in the southwest of France, I developed a deep appreciation for my new home. I escaped the city every weekend for a jaunt through the green, well-tended countryside. One day we were driving south from Bordeaux through the Forêt des Landes along highway N10. I realized that the forest, which continued for miles, had been planted in straight rows so that a vehicle could drive down the tracks. Because the forests I had grown up with in the mountains of Colorado are natural, I had never seen trees manicured to such an extent. After doing some research, I discovered that this beautiful maritime pine forest had been planted in the 18th century, as a source of pine sap for industry. It was essentially a field of pines, as opposed to my idea of a forest.

The Aesthetics of Place

Human beings experience a sense of place as their bodies move through space. As their eyes view the scenery. As their ears pick up the rhythms of new kinds of music. This physicality of place became clear to me one evening when I was sitting in a 13th-century cathedral listening to an organ concert. The vibrations created as the keys of the organ moved the sound through the huge pipes literally shook my liver. I remember looking down at my stomach to place my hand on my abdomen. It was the strangest sensation I ever experienced!

As I moved through the city walking my regular 5 to 7 miles a day, I absorbed my new home’s aesthetics. Along the smaller streets, I observed different kinds of shops. In some spaces, sculptors were carving large blocks of marble. Through the windows of others, I could watch weavers creating exquisite tapestries. Pastry shops were exquisite, with delicate, colorful delicacies tempting the walkers-by. One of my favorites was a seamstress’s small shop where I could have my nylon hose perfectly repaired for the equivalent of 20 cents. It saved me a fortune.

The Economics of Place

Naturally, since I was a student in France, I was on a small budget. I lived in a woman’s boarding house with about 40 other students. The shower was open only once a week for two hours. My friends and I decided to take advantage of the public baths so we could bathe more often. Walking into a French public bath was a dramatic experience. We bathed that day, but we did not return. Instead, we registered to take a weekly swimming class, where we could shower afterward.

As study abroad students, we ate mostly in the student restaurant. The most common meal served was soggy green lentils that had turned a soupy grey color. On Friday evenings, we went out for steak-frites accompanied by a glass of house red. Once a month we made a reservation to order paella for a group at a tiny Spanish restaurant that was frequented by Spanish workers from the docks on the Dordogne. The paella was delicious. After dinner, a guy would grab his guitar. The waitress would untie her apron, jump up on a table, and perform a flamenco. As she danced, the workers would snap and clap to the rhythm she pounded out on the table top. It remains one of my favorite memories.

The French call Bordeaux a rich bourgeois city. It is a transatlantic shipping port, surrounded by some of the most famous French vineyards. Thus, it is home to incredible economic diversity. On occasion, we were invited as guests by our host families or professors who lived in chateaux surrounded by trimmed vines. Maids in black dresses with white lace aprons served our seven-course meals. It was an eye-opening experience to view such a breadth of economic conditions in one short year.

Social Aspects of Space

In France, it rains 300 days a year (unlike Colorado where we have 300 days of sunshine). I learned to peek out my window at the street below in the morning before I left the building where I lived. If all the older Frenchwomen walking on the street were carrying umbrellas, I took mine. If they were not, I left mine at home. They were much more accurate than the weather report.

French college students spent a lot of time in cafés. We drank coffee. We discussed politics, art, literature, and most of all the cinema. Because at the time, practically none of my French friends spoke English, my French became very fluent during these regular afternoon discussions. Because none of us had a phone where we lived, over coffee or after class we would plan ahead when and where to meet for our next get together. Once we set a date, everyone showed up. No one ever canceled or changed their plans. There was no way to connect other than walking for 30 minutes to the nearest friend’s place.

One’s Sense of Place Can Shift

When I returned home after a full year of study abroad, I was shocked by the width of the main street of my hometown. I kept banging my knuckles on the doors of the house I had grown up in when I reached to open the door. I was so unaware that I was the one whose reality had been altered that I asked my mother why she had changed the doorknobs. The bright sunshine almost blinded me. It seemed tediously hot. I longed for a cool rainy day. I dreamed of sipping a steaming café au lait in a French café where I could sit quietly, read a book, and watch the passersby.

When I returned to France three years later to teach at the University of Bordeaux, everything seemed normal. I fit right in. I knew what to do. I knew where to live. I knew where to shop. The best pastry shops were imprinted in my memory. I was glad to be home.

When I returned to Colorado after a year of teaching at the University of Bordeaux, I did not experience the strange disjuncture I had that year when I was 20. The light did seem bright, the mountains stark, the climate dry. But the doorknobs were now simply “American doorknobs.” My body readjusted to my environment without my thinking about it.

On the other hand, as I sat studying for my master’s comprehensives in French, everything I read made more sense. I had been there. I loved the descriptions. The characters I was reading about matched individuals I had met in France. My sense of place paralleled that of the authors I was reading.

Choosing a Sense of Place as a Writer

Now that I am writing a novel, the setting I have chosen is one familiar to me as a young adult. It is not the landscape of my childhood, but one in which I have lived for many years. The physical presence of the mountains encircling me, the clear blue skies that sometimes fill with enormous stacks of thunderheads, the soft whisper of the pine trees constantly surprise me with their beauty. I recognize the roar of a Chinook, the unexpected warm wind that sweeps down from the mountains and melts the snow in a few hours, or that of a 120 MPH cold wind that chills not only the bones but the soul. The sensation of running on the Mesa Trail is fused in my bones.

I know the music and artistic venues. The economic status of the citizens is familiar. I am accustomed to the different groups of people who live here, although because they have changed over the years, it is a challenge to keep descriptions accurate for the time I am writing about. When I was young all the houses around the University were the homes of professors. Now faculty cannot afford to live here. I know what it feels like to walk all over town because there is no public bus service and I have no car.

Now my task is to find the words to paint this landscape onto a page filled with words to create a fictional world that makes my sense of place come alive for the reader.

Update on My Goal Setting:

  1. I have finished seven months of writing. I am glad I set my goal at an achievable level because life simply happens. This month my daughter’s family (husband and four children) visited from France and stayed at our house for three weeks. Time flew by.
  2. Since July 7, 2018, I have continued to make progress on my chapters. On August 7th, my page counter should stand at 212. Right now, it stands at 190. I am 22 pages short. However, this month I have spent a lot of time reworking my outline, rearranging chapters, and rewriting to make sure the transitions are clearer. I also took a break from this novel and worked on another piece I started years ago. It keeps rattling around in my brain, so I decided to give it some time. I did write five pages for it. Sometimes, I just need a change of focus to renew my energy. But I am going to have to knuckle down to catch up on my page count!
  3. Today, August 8, 2018, I am posting my eighth blog. Blogging about writing has allowed me to reflect on my own experiences in order to make important writing decisions.
  4. My writing network was on hiatus in July, so I spent some time reading for a sense of place in My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tostaya, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I also listened to several recorded interviews with novelists on YouTube.

It’s All in the Name

Names Matter

Names have a life of their own. A person may embrace his or her name, tolerate it, embody it, or reject and change it. The sound and meaning of my first name have always pleased me. It was never shortened when I was a child because my mother hated nicknames. She stuck to the traditional names chosen for her children. Once someone tried to call me Laurie. It felt like a bucket of cold water had been poured on my head. I immediately responded, “Don’t ever call me that again!” My intense response shocked me. The diminutive simply did not fit.

Fitting Names Together

When we were expecting a child, my husband and I practiced different names for several months. I repeated them aloud to see how they sounded with our last name. I practiced writing them down to view the visual impression. We wanted something musical. Did the combination of names have a balanced number of syllables? Did the name look elegant in cursive? Did we both like the names—we agreed that we did have to agree. I also watched the “Births” section of the newspaper each week to see if a certain name had appeared. If it appeared, I dropped it. I didn’t want my child to be one of many with the same name in his or her school class. Our daughter ended up with a three syllable first name, a one-syllable middle name—spelled to match one of my favorite characters in a book which was also a relative’s middle name, and our two-syllable last name. Her name connected her to my family, my literary interests, and her dad’s family. It was easy to understand when pronounced. Her chosen name made us both happy. I also liked what I thought it meant, but on this I was mistaken. I thought her name was a derivation of Elizabeth. It is not. It is a derivation of Adelaide. So while I thought it meant truth (My God is my oath), her name means “noble type.”

Names Are Significant

Names carry meaning. The meaning can shape the person who holds it. Names can be selected to infer extreme femininity (see all the novels in which the female character is named “Lily”). Other names in novels exaggerate masculinity (Stud). First names can be chosen to hide the gender of the person carrying the name, a recent trend again based on current values.

Recently, I read a study in the American Psychological Association that studied participants’ abilities to match names from a list correctly to images of individuals. Participants could surprisingly match names to unknown faces. One interpretation is that individuals literally grow into their names. Interestingly, my adult daughter is a very noble type—tall, slim, and striking in beauty.

Historical Names

When I was small I wished my name had a connection to the past because my siblings’ names recalled those of our ancestors. Being named after a historical figure or a current statesperson can link a character to the past. The simple act of a woman keeping her own last name or taking on her husband’s last name when she marries makes a political statement that reflects a historical moment. Spouses who create a new last name for themselves when they marry indicate on the other hand a refusal to accept tradition. In a sense, they are creating a rift in history.

Naming Characters in a Novel

As a writer, I am attentive to the names I give my characters. The derivation of the name matters. The form of the name makes a difference. I have also dabbled in numerology and its relationship to names. In a sense, the name carries the destiny of the person—determining how they look and act. For my characters, I have chosen names that reflect the character’s personality and life trajectory. Their family history and genealogy are relevant. The names that I have selected, while not necessarily the most common in that age group, would not have appeared strange during the time period of the story.

Although as Shakespeare said, a rose with any other name would smell as sweet, it is all in a name.

Update on My Goal Setting:

  1. I have finished six months of writing accompanied by fascinating research. I have learned that I cannot write without research to back up practically every paragraph.
  2. Since May 7, 2018, I have continued to make progress on my novel. On July 7th, my page counter should stand at 181 and it does. Whew!
  3. Today, July 7, 2018, I am posting my seventh blog. Blogging while I am working on a novel has helped to keep me focused. It has also allowed me to reflect on my choices. This past month, I have had to rework the sequence of my chapters. As the story continues to develop, some gaps have occurred. It takes adding a chapter or a section of a chapter for the development to make sense.

Happily, my writing network continues to grow. I attended a double workshop on the importance of maintaining a physical exercise regime while writing. The topic nudged me to remember that I have a body as well as an imagination. The first speaker, Hilary Constable, discussed how running fuels her creativity. The second, Brad Wetzler, discussed how a regular yoga practice keeps him healthy. He finds that he generates more ideas after a yoga session. Since running is out of the question for me, I may have to reboot my yoga practice.