Truth and Deception in Fiction

My blogs this year focus on appositional aspects of personality. I am studying how well-known writers make use of these traits in their own texts. It is my hope that my examination will help me write characters that ring true. This month I discuss how the concepts of truthfulness and deception can be used to craft opposing characters.

What Is Truth in Fiction?

As I read different novels, it appears that the ways authors handle truth fall into three categories: truth as verifiable facts, truth as genuineness in a character’s personality, and truth as accuracy in how a character sees others and surrounding events.  

If the author is focusing on verifiable facts, the characters may be portrayed as being certain of what they say. They know that if they are questioned, they can attest to the veracity of their claim. If the character’s point of view is portrayed, the reader can believe what the character says.

The second quality of truth, genuineness, tends to describe a range of human behaviors and interactions. Truthful characters may be depicted with different shades of meaning. One character might be described as candid and straightforward. Other characters and the reader may align with this character. Another might be outspoken or too direct causing the other characters and the reader to back off or feel reserved in return.

The third quality of truth may be shown as exactness in one’s assessments of people or interactions. This layering of meanings allows the author to create different types of characters with subtle differences that the reader must decipher. If a character is good at assessing the truthfulness of other characters he may serve as a good witness to an event.

Each of these qualities of truthfulness call for an opposition in at least one other character. One opposite of truth is deception.

How Is Deception Portrayed in Fiction?

I found a similar triple layering in how deception is used in fiction. One category of deception might include deliberate tricks or ruses. Such a character could be depicted as a clever trickster whose ruses can fool the gullible or as one who deliberately projects a false impression.

A second type of deception could refer to duplicity or deceit. Such a character could be cunning or crafty. A character whose major quality is duplicity could be the engine of a story in which even the other characters are confused as to what is happening.

A third type of deceptive character, a con artist, could cheat others or commit fraud. The con artist engages in deliberate treachery. Such a cheat or fraudster could definitely play the role of the bad guy in the story.

How do Contemporary Writers View Truth and Deception?

In Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger, truth and deception occur as part of the plot and create a major question of the novel: is there life after death? In this novel, an honest, innocent character appears to be using a ruse.

In Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, truth and deception are screens through which the main character describes what he sees and thinks as the scenes of his life play out. Sadly, it is society at large that frames and sets the stage for the enduring duplicity that occurs. Continued deception forces all of the characters to play roles in a reality that is never authentic but always staged with winners and losers.

In The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante truth and deception are at play on practically every page of the novel. It is a novel about a teenage girl coming to grips with the reality of adolescence and adult life. What she has believed to be the truth of her existence gets turned on its head repetitively. Her reactions to her new reality reveal her own shifting relationship to truth and deception. She becomes a smooth con artist who manages to fool the adults around her.

Colum McCann, whose novel Apeirogon deals with a factual story, said in a Zoom interview with the Poetry and Prose Bookstore that he had to balance factual truth with what he called “illustrative truth.” He places a meeting scene in a monastery, for example, “to get to the true heart of the actually true” because the monastery was symbolic. He also mentioned that both fiction and nonfiction can be true. One of the striking aspects of this novel is how he positions natural reality and beauty against the deception and ugliness of human limitations.

Truth and Deceitfulness in My Fiction

In my first novel, I am dealing with factual truths and spiritual truths. My second novel addresses truth coming up against the deceitfulness of a corporation. My third, treats the topics of truthfulness and deception in personal relationships.

My Writing Goals for 2021

Revise and complete a final edit of my first novel, sending it out for review by December 7, 2021:

During the month of March, I had to do more research on this topic which was a calming activity in face of the violence that occurred in our city.

Complete a revised draft of my second novel by December 7, 2021:

This past month, I worked on more research for this novel. I learned about issues in Colorado about which I knew little that add interest to my story.

Add to the draft of my third novel by participating in the RMFW NovelRama in the spring, summer, and fall:

Unfortunately, there will be no NovelRama this spring so this goal is moot. I will delete it next month.

Send Moon Chimes: Poems to a poetry contest and publish the Moon Chimes Workbook: Arts & Sciences:

A notice was sent that my book had been received for the contest. I am pleased that Moon Chimes is receiving good reviews on Amazon.

I have not worked on the workbook.

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

Boulder Writers Alliance: I attended a workshop called “Why Creating an Ideal Client or Reader Profile Is Essential for Success” presented by Vala Vincent, a social media marketing business coach.

Boulder Writers Alliance, Writers Who Read: In Gary Alan McBride’s group, we analyzed Apeirogon by Colum McCann which was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. McCann won the 2009 National Book Award for his novel Let the Great World Spin. Apeirogon is a beautiful, if excruciatingly painful, read.

Denver Women’s Press Club: I worked with the Membership Committee this month.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers: This month we voted for the Writer of the Year and Independent Writer of the Year awards.

Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2021:

Today is April 7, 2021, I am posting my fourth blog of 2021. March was a difficult month in Colorado because my city suffered its first mass killing. Everyone I know has been in mourning. I am personally grateful for the support of friends and the broader community. May the victims’ memories be a blessing. May the survivors find peace and healing.

Courage and Fear in Fiction

For Valentine’s Day, my husband gave me a heart-shaped Madagascar carnelian. I was pleased when I read that carnelian is associated with courage, motivation, love, and creativity. Having a stone from Madagascar also made me happy because my daughter and her family live there. Because I had already chosen courage and fear in fiction as my topic for this month’s blog, I have enjoyed having the stone sit next to my computer as I write.

Even though courage is often contrasted with cowardice, the basis of cowardice is fear, thus, in this blog, I place courage and fear in opposition.

What Is Courage?

In French, the word for heart is coeur from the Latin, cor, which is also the base of the word courage in French and in English. Courage comes from having a brave heart in the face of danger. A synonym derived from the English word heart is lionheartedness, which is used rarely today, but well-known in the appellation “Richard the Lionheart.”

How does having a brave heart manifest in more contemporary terms, particularly in fiction? Is a purely courageous protagonist attractive to readers? Is the story more interesting if the protagonist starts off timid and gains courage throughout the novel? Or is it more riveting to create a courageous character who loses heart at some point and has to recalibrate?

How Do Novelists Depict Courage?

Some readers prefer a courageous protagonist who achieves against all odds, be it a hero or anti-hero. But what exactly is courage and how can a writer portray a courageous character? As I have pondered this question, I have observed that fiction writers tend to focus on three kinds of courage.

A courageous character might be described as brave and able to survive in the face of incomprehensible danger. In Margaret Atwood’s, The Testaments, Aunt Lydia could be termed courageous. She survives for years when many others do not and succeeds in taking down an evil regime. Atwood describes Aunt Lydia’s courage as “The plotline of my resolve,” which leads me to think that one aspect of courage is choice.

Courage in stories is sometimes portrayed as heroic or valiant. A heroic or valiant character is more typical of historical novels, war novels, or romantic dramas. In Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea, Victor Dalmau (a doctor) is heroic in battles and in the prisoners’ camp where he treats the ill and injured. He is valiant when he marries the unwed mother of his dead brother’s son to create a family unit which allows them to escape from Europe on a ship sailing to Chile.

In the same novel, courage surfaces as determination, guts, and grit when Victor’s heretofore unknown daughter shows up on his doorstep at night and announces that she has spent her life looking for him. He and his adopted son (her cousin) embrace her.

What is Fear?

Fear on the other hand is not a choice, it is a reaction to harm, possible danger, or a sudden attack. In my personal analysis of fear in novels, I have observed that it emerges based on a character’s experiences in the past, present, or future. Phobias, that is, irrational fears that result from social anxieties (such as public speaking or flying) or fears of things (such as snakes or spiders), are grounded in personal experiences in one’s past or adopted from vicarious experiences one has. Apprehension, dread, and anxiety are often due to an over-active imagination that visualizes possible frightening outcomes in the future. Alarm, panic, being frightened, or being scared tend to be the result of sudden physical and emotional reactions to an unexpected incident in the moment. The startling occurrence triggers shock or surprise which may result in a freeze or flight reaction.

How Do Novelists Depict Fear?

Toni Morrison eloquently encouraged writers to, “Make up a story…Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.” Three recent novels do exactly what Morrison suggested.

In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, the author depicts a historically based social anxiety. The main character was dramatically harmed as a child. The episode has been so deeply suppressed in her emotional memory that it governs her life without her having a clue as to what is really going on. The “stitch” that saves her is a loving relationship with a young man who believes in her.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, an entire country is controlled by the fear of what might happen if anyone attempts to subvert a cruel regime. In the end, two young heroines, with the aid of an older planful mentor, have the courage to envision freedom and the ability to take down the regime.

In Kunzru’s Red Pill the unnamed narrator experiences a psychological descent based on shock and panic that lead him from a fairly sane existence into one overcome with fear’s dark caul. A loving family relationship saves him in the end.

Fear in My Novels

How do I handle courage in my novels? In one, the protagonist must overcome a deep-seated childhood fear to accomplish a difficult task. In another, the protagonist must find the courage to live after her worst fear is realized. Finally, in the third, a shocking development leads the protagonist to reconsider what really happened.

My Writing Goals for 2021

Revise and complete a final edit of my first novel, sending it out for review by December 7, 2021:

During the month of February, I worked on research. The more I write, the more I have to learn.

Complete a revised draft of my second novel by December 7, 2021:

This past month, I worked on research.

Add to the draft of my third novel by participating in the RMFW NovelRama in the spring, summer, and fall:

The first 2021 RMFW NovelRama session has not yet been announced.

Send Moon Chimes: Poems to a poetry contest and publish the Moon Chimes Workbook: Arts & Sciences:

I sent Moon Chimes off to a poetry contest this month. I also, for the first time, attended the Crestone Poetry Festival which was on Zoom this year. Art Goodtimes, the 2010 Western Slope Poet Laureate, facilitated a Gourd Circle. Art explained that the gourd is a symbol of male and female collaboration. Most of the attendees read a personal poem or one by another poet. I was truly swept away by the participants’ passion and mutual support.

I did not work on my Moon Chimes Workbook: Arts & Sciences this month.

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

My personal writing contacts continue to expand despite the COVID-19 lockdown—for Zoom, I am grateful.

BWA: I attended two Zoom workshops that Rick Killian led—one on writing a book proposal and the other on being a solopreneur. I also did some work for the organization.

Writers Who Read: In Gary Alan McBride’s Zoom group, we analyzed Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. Structurally, it is an original novel. As to voice and point of view, it is exceptional. Because the group plans to discuss The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, I also attended a Boulder Bookstore Zoom talk with Ferrante’s English translator, Ann Goldstein, and Michael Reynolds, her publisher, who is the chief editor at Europa Editions.

Denver Women’s Press Club: I attended a Zoom workshop with Anne Randolph on “Kitchen Table Writing” and a talk on Colorado Women in World War II. Additionally, our membership committee held a Zoom meeting for new members. It was delightful to learn about each writer’s path.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers: I have been in conversation with the RMFW Newsletter editor about starting a BWA Newsletter.

Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2021:

Today is March 7, 2021, I am posting my third blog of 2021. As a fun aside, one of my calming pastimes is to study the Irish language. Today, I was pleased to read that the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has a new Bernese Mountain Dog puppy that he named, Mishneach (pronounced “meeshnaak”) which means “courage.” With cruel variants of the virus beginning to circulate worldwide, it is good to consider courage in the face of fear. Mask up and stay well!

Innocence versus Experience, Corruption, and Guilt in Fiction

When I thought about writing about innocence the first literary allusion that came to mind was Blakes’ Songs of Innocence which were published in 1789. When I was a child, two of my most favorite poems were The Lamb and The Tygre. Blake viewed the lamb as innocent and the tiger as fearsome, but both as God’s creations. While Blake does not mention guilt in the poem, he must have questioned why God would make a fearsome tiger who, given the opportunity, would eat an innocent lamb for lunch. These poems were probably my first introduction to contradiction. The beauty of poetry is that it allows the poet to depict an image or thought in a few words. Novels, on the other hand, require more than 60,000 words to develop a premise while illustrating it for the reader.

Portraying Complex Aspects of Innocence

In fiction, to create an innocent character usually requires counterbalancing one character with another who is experienced, corrupt, or guilty. Parsing these multiple nuances requires understanding the terms from moral/social, spiritual, and legal perspectives.

On the moral or social side, innocence refers to be a state of being that Blake used in his contrasting poems. Moral innocence refers to childlike goodness as opposed to worldly experience. The lamb suggests the innocence of childhood. The tiger can be interpreted as a parallel to adult action in a ruthless world. In a social setting, the moral connotations are more complex. An innocent character might be an ingenue, that is, a person who is naïve, simply inexperienced, such as a green horn in a western setting, or an unsophisticated boor in a cultured or upper class setting. An innocent character could also be a person who is gullible or easy to fool—the opposite of streetwise. These social innocents could be shown in apposition to individuals who are shrewd, suspicious, or avant-garde depending upon the requirements of the plot.

On the spiritual side, innocence implies purity, chasteness, or virtue. Such a wholesome or decent person could be shown in opposition to an untrustworthy, depraved, or corrupt character.

In a judicial setting, innocence means not guilty. In American courtrooms, persons on trial are assumed to be innocent, resulting in the use of the term “legal innocence.” The defendant is not required to admit innocence or guilt, rather his or her status must be proved. A defendant who is proven not to be innocent in a legal setting may be described as responsible for the crime, culpable, at fault, or guilty. Creating a guilty character requires the writer to decide if the guilty one will show remorse, be contrite, or if the character will refuse the court’s judgment.

Portrayals of Innocence and Guilt

In a recent novel, Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru, the main character’s internal view of himself begins as that of a devoted husband and father. It devolves to that of a paranoid, compulsive participant in a strange game. The novel is a deft interplay between innocence and guilt in the intimate, interpersonal, and public realms.

Joanna Scott’s novel, Arrogance, is based on the life of Egon Schiele. The artist is accused of pornography. He is imprisoned for 24 days. Although the court views his work as vulgar, depraved, and illegal, Schiele justifies his innocence by protesting that as an artist he is simply doing his work of depiction.

My Efforts to Depict Innocence, Corruption, and Guilt

In my first novel, my main character is a blameless person. As goodness may be viewed as boring, I have been struggling with how to make her more worldly. In the same novel, I have been wrestling with how to portray a character who is subtly evil. On the surface he appears to be a friendly chap with lots of friends. Deciding how far to go in proving guilt in a novel is a complex question. In my second novel, an innocent woman attempts to prove the corruption and guilt of a corporation. In my third novel, innocence and guilt are both difficult to prove on several levels. One of the issues with fiction is to allow the reader to figure things out so how best to portray innocence, experience, corruption, and guilt is tricky issue for a writer.

My Writing Goals for 2021

Revise and complete a final edit of my first novel, sending it out for review by December 7, 2021:

During the month of January, public events distracted me. Editing proved difficult. I decided to read some of the novels on my list for this year. I also attended two online conferences.

Complete a revised draft of my second novel by December 7, 2021:

After attending a superb Zoom workshop with Anita Mumm on how to and how not to present a pitch for one’s novel to an agent, I presented mine to an agent via a RMFW Zoom interview. She was not interested in my book.

Add to the draft of my third novel by participating in the RMFW NovelRama in the spring, summer, and fall:

I plan to tackle this story again during the 2021 RMFW NovelRama sessions.

Send Moon Chimes: Poems to a poetry contest and publish the Moon Chimes Workbook: Arts & Sciences:

I investigated poetry contests online.

I explored copyright issues for my Moon Chimes Workbook: Arts & Sciences.

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

BWA: I participated in a Steering Committee meeting. I also attended a workshop entitled How the Pale-Faced Lie Sold Over 125,000 Copies. Sandra Jonas and Jill Tappert from Sandra Jonas Publishing discussed their experiences helping David Crow market his novel.

Writers Who Read: In Gary Alan McBride’s group, we discussed Red Pill by Hari Kunzru.

Denver Women’s Press Club: I attended a workshop with Sylvia Cordy on her Opening Act Theatre which is a project to teach young Black girls self-assurance through acting lessons.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers: This month, I attended a two-hour workshop on how to do a pitch, led by Anita Mumm, from Mumms the Word Editorial services. We practiced our pitches in small groups. Exchanging feedback was helpful. I practiced doing a pitch on my second novel.

Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2021:

Today is February 7, 2021, I am posting my second blog of 2021. January was an unsettling month for everyone. I managed to calm myself through reading, attending workshops, and learning more about writing and publishing.

Trust and Betrayal in Fiction

When I told my husband the title of this blog, he responded, “But you can’t have trust and betrayal. You can have one or the other.” This is certainly true in personal relationships where betrayal negates any trust that has been established between two people. It is also true in our public life. In fiction as in life, trust and betrayal are often interwoven themes.

What Is Trust?

In my personal experience trust manifests in relationships in multiple ways and requires coordination between at least two people. First of all, can we believe what we tell each other? Can we have confidence that we will do what we have discussed doing? Can we rely on each other? Can we depend on each other? Can we expect each other to show up and do what we agreed upon beforehand? Can we confide in each other and have confidence that what we share remains between us? Can we believe each other? Can we depend on each other when we are facing challenges? Can we rely on each other to take responsibility for our actions and words? Can we trust each other to care for one another? To protect one another? To guard one another? Can we have faith in each other and count on each other to be there when we need help? Are we committed to each other and to our relationship, be it family or friendship, a working relationship, a romantic relationship, or a question of public trust?

When the answer to the above questions is “yes,” trust is sustained. Trusting relationships then inspire other affirming behaviors. Individuals who trust each other create long lasting alliances. Organizations founded on trust endure; those that are not built on trust, do not survive.

What Is Distrust?

The opposite of trust is, of course, distrust or mistrust.  In this case, the answer to the above questions would be “No, I cannot believe you. I mistrust you. I doubt you.” Distrust creates suspicion. It makes individuals wary of one another. In the public sphere, when trust is not present, people are guarded, even cynical. And, as happened yesterday on January 6, 2021, in these United States of America, lack of trust in the certified results of a national election was questioned by a mob egged on by the lies of a person who cannot be trusted. Nevertheless, as damaging as distrust might be, it is not as pernicious as betrayal.

What Is Betrayal?

Betrayal is more devastating than mistrust because it involves conscious duplicity. The untrustworthiness is deliberate. The deceit is premeditated. The dishonesty destroys any semblance of authentic relationship. In fact, the deceit may result in the destruction of life or property. Betrayal may occur in family relationships, romantic relationships, social relationships, and as unfortunately demonstrated in the USA yesterday, in politics.

Trust and Betrayal in Novels

Octavia E. Butler’s novels have been on my mind lately. In Parable of the Talents, trust and betrayal are crucial elements of the principal story line. The main character, Olamina, lost her mother at birth. Her father was murdered. Her stepmother and step-brothers were killed when their walled home was attacked and destroyed by a mob. As an adult, she founds her first Earthseed community, Acorn. Unbeknownst to her, one of her brothers was pulled from their burning home and saved. When they are reunited, her happiness is profound. Yet her brother disapproves of the community she has built. He attempts to convert her followers to a politicized form of American Christianity. When his conversion attempts are questioned, he leaves Acorn.

Soon afterward, the American Christians attack and seize Acorn. Her husband is killed and her infant daughter stolen from her. Olamina is enslaved, tortured, and raped by the murderers. When she escapes, she searches for her child. At one point, she goes to an American Christian free meal to gather information. There, she observes her brother giving the sermon. Horrified, she confronts him and tells him that his people have kidnapped her child and murdered her husband. He denies it. She continues searching for her child as she rebuilds other peaceful communities based on her Earthseed beliefs. Many years later when Earthseed is established nationally, her daughter, now an educated adult using her adopted name, contacts her. Olamina learns that her brother had found her daughter when she was only two years old, had let her know that he was her uncle, had told her that her mother and father were dead, had funded her college years, and had proceeded to act as her only remaining family. He deliberately orchestrated a sustained betrayal of his sister and his niece for years.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, is a story of family betrayal as well. One daughter lies to her parents. The other children of the family betray their parents. The younger sister sees her sister leave the house in the middle of the night but doesn’t tell her parents—even when her sister cannot be found. Her brother knows that his sister has been seeing a boy but doesn’t confess his knowledge. The mother leaves the family without saying where she is going for several months. The father has an affair. Yet, as the story closes, the family’s torn relationships are healed through forgiveness and the re-establishment of trust.

In the recent novel, A Burning, by Megha Majumdar, issues of trust and betrayal are interwoven throughout the story which is told from the perspectives of three main characters. The structure of the novel brings out the personal nature of the sometimes devastating decisions that individuals make as they conduct their lives. Both a friend and a teacher betray an innocent young woman—making the story even more tragic to read.

Trust and Betrayal in My Novels

In real life, betrayal arrests forward movement, destroys relationships, and sometimes results in death. In fiction it creates movement and drama. The interplay between trust and betrayal provides the emotional tension needed to keep the reader turning pages and also results in unexpected endings. As I revise my own work, I am paying attention to the major and minor themes I want to highlight. One of my draft novels includes interpersonal betrayal. Another highlights social betrayal.

My Writing Goals for 2021

Revise and complete a final edit of my first novel, sending it out for review by December 7, 2021:

During the month of December, I decided to take a break from my work on my first novel. My brain needed a rest. However, my recent ruminations about trust and betrayal will help me to move forward on this manuscript.

Complete a revised draft of my second novel by December 7, 2021:

This month, I worked on a synopsis of this novel for my upcoming pitch meeting.

Add to the draft of my third novel by participating in the RMFW NovelRama in the spring, summer, and fall:

I plan to tackle this story again during the 2021 RMFW NovelRama sessions. I will flesh out my new characters’ perspectives to see what they bring to the story.

Send Moon Chimes: Poems to a poetry contest and publish the Moon Chimes Workbook: Arts & Sciences:

This past year, I worked closely with Sandra Jonas Publishing to publish my poetry chapbook. Moon Chimes by Laura L. B. Border is now available on Amazon in print and e-book versions.

I have researched upcoming poetry contests for chapbooks. I think it is possible to enter Moon Chimes in at least one contest this year.

I also plan to work with Sandra Jonas to publish my Moon Chimes Workbook: Arts & Sciences. The workbook can be used in coordination with the poetry book to create learning activities for adolescents in regular classrooms or in homeschooling. I have already completed a first draft and sent it out for some initial reviews. My goal is to finish it, send it out for a second round of reviews, revise it, and publish it in 2021.

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

I was re-elected President of Boulder Writer’s Alliance and will continue to support the organization this year to the best of my ability.

In Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group in the beginning of January, we discussed A Burning by Megha Majumdar. The novel was nominated for the National Book Award in 2020.

Denver Women’s Press Club did not hold any events in December. However, the spring schedule looks superb.

The Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter announced that in January 2021 there will be an online Pitch Fest. I signed up to pitch my second novel with an agent.

Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2021:

Today is January 7, 2021, I am posting my first blog of 2021. December was a busy month with all the seasonal and planning tasks I set out for myself. Nevertheless, I set aside time to enter one of my stories in a flash fiction contest. Then, I laid out my blog topics for 2021, decided which writing goals I want to achieve this year, and caught up on my novel reading.

Politics in Fiction

Political Meanings

This year, I have been following Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of History at Boston College, who has been doing bi-weekly talks on American political history. In one of her daily Letters from an American, she stated, “A nation grounded in fiction, rather than reality, cannot function.” This statement caught my eye because I was working on this blog about politics in fiction. To parallel her remark, I do think that a novel which is not grounded in reality cannot function either, even if it is a fantasy.

To write this blog, I decided to refresh my memory on the various meanings of “political”—a word which has undergone some deformation in recent years. The Greek root of the word means “civic” or “citizen.” I chuckled when I noticed that in both my French dictionary and my English dictionary “political” was positioned between “politeness” and “polka,” mimicking common usage of the word. That is, it can mean “showing skill and sensitivity in dealing with others” but it can also mean “dancing around” issues. Different dictionaries define the word “political” with slight variations: “shrewd or prudent in practical matters, tactful, or  diplomatic,” yet also “expedient.” Synonyms include astute, ingenious, wary, discreet, while antonyms are imprudent, indiscreet, and tactless. It seems to me that in many recent online discussions, the word has become more allied with its antonyms than with its synonyms. Yet despite some wiggliness in the meaning of “political,” the arenas where politics are in play seem fairly standard.

Political Arenas in Fiction

Any novel set in society is likely to include some type of political arena. Political functions involve leadership, communication, problem-solving, fundraising, representation or the lack thereof, power struggles, elections, and so on. Most American towns have specifically political spaces that involve the mayor, the town council, the school board, the county sheriff, the local police, or the Selective Service Board. Likewise, politics plays a role in any organization including business, education, and religion. Reporting by local, national, and international media can contribute to the creation of political situations and impact the lives of citizens.

As I work on my novels I have to decide if any of these arenas can be used to create subplots or even structure. I also need to consider which political characters—either main or secondary—might come into the story depending on their usefulness to the main plot.

Political Topics in Fiction

A novel about any period in history necessarily incorporates references to the politics of the time and how it affects the lives of the characters in the story. To write a novel, the author has to spend time studying the political environment in which their characters exist. Because I am working on three different novels from three different time periods, I have had to do some reading to develop a feel for how I might integrate political situations appropriately.

Political topics encompass issues about the people and political parties who hold offices, the occurrence of events, campaigns, protests, and voting. Political issues can function to create alliances or oppositions. They can cause discord and divisions. They can be used as the central frame for a story, as a secondary subtext, or to define certain characters in the story. In other words, they can be used to create tension.

International and National Politics as a Backdrop

One of my novels takes place at the end of World War I. Two of the characters return home from fighting the war on foreign soil.  How the war affects their lives, their spouses, and their town is significant. While the war forms a backdrop for the story, I have to decide how much time to spend on that part of the novel and how to depict its influence on the characters.

Another of my novels takes place in the 1970’s. The national government’s actions in the war in Viet Nam, the coverage of the war in the media, young people’s protests about the draft, and civil rights all play a part in the actions and behaviors of my characters. The war impacts them all in some personal way. Although none of the major characters is drafted and sent overseas, some of their acquaintances are.

A third novel, I am writing takes place during the Great Depression in the USA and leads up to the USA’s involvement in World War II. Naturally, national politics play a role in the background of the novel, but I plan to focus more on local politics in this particular Colorado story. In the West, the use of land and water is a longstanding issue. Who has the rights to surface and underground rights and who doesn’t leads to who has power and who does not.

Utopia, Dystopia, or Everyday Politics

In the utopian novels I’ve read, authors have created worlds where politics work in a variety of ways. Herland (1915) by Charlotte Gilman Perkins is an example of peaceful but controlled power in a novel. In Herland, the society is made up uniquely of women. There is no war. There is no conflict. Women are in charge of running the society, the schools, the construction of buildings, and the production of food. Their major political focus is to control reproduction. Their society is disrupted when some young men crash their airplane on the women’s land and survive.

In Octavia E. Butler’s dystopian novel, Parable of the Talents (1998) —the sequel to Parable of the Sower—the US government and country is in tatters. The election in progress at the beginning of the book involves a dark-haired politician whose motto is “Make America great again.” It made me wonder if novels sometimes cause developments in real life!

In Isabel Allende’s The Long Petal of the Sea, the main characters escape the Spanish civil war and Franco’s fascist regime and cross the ocean on the Winnipeg, a refugee ship commissioned by Pablo Neruda. They settle in Chile. After establishing themselves and their families comfortably, they sadly become victims of political unrest in their new home.

Even though these novels are very different, the underlying element is the impact local, national, and international politics have on the quotidian lives of human beings. They are novels about power and victimization, love and heartbreak, fear and courage, distress and the human will to survive despite catastrophic losses. For that reason, it seems that the reality of politics has the potential to add a strong emotional impact to the novel form.

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:

Since November 7, I have researched more specific details about the political time period for these novels so that I can integrate them into my story. I did not work on any specific chapters.

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

Writing about politics this month made me realize that I had to add some minor characters to better develop the authenticity of the town which is the major setting of the story.

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

Today is December 7, 2020. I am posting my twelfth blog of 2020. December 7 is a date that always makes Americans stop and consider their own history and international politics. It marks the day the Japanese Air Force attacked the US navy at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941, drawing the United States into World War II. 

This month I have also worked on the completion of my poetry project, Moon Chimes, which will soon be published on Amazon. Now I am looking forward to resetting my goals for 2021 during the month of December.

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 worked on a description of my current role as VP and the tasks I have undertaken.

In Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group, we discussed The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2020. This novel is a deep dive into the physically and sexually tortuous world of reform school. A subtheme of the story is the blindness of local politics to the realities of the human and civil abuses at a reform school for adolescent boys in the south.

As a participant in Denver Women’s Press Club, I zoomed into a Sunday Salon on The Future of the Ski Industry presented by Kristin Rust. Kristin discussed the impact COVID-19 has had on skiing in Colorado and Canada this year. Skiing and politics are bosom buddies in Colorado.

The Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ newsletter has announced that in January there will be an online Pitch Fest. I may sign up to pitch one of my novels with an agent.

In November, I zoomed into the JLF Colorado conference. Yann Martel, the author of The Life of Pi discussed his approach to writing. His most recent novel is The High Mountains of Portugal. I think I found a soulmate in Yann Martel. Then, I watched an excellent discussion session on The Color of Words featuring Chika Unigwe, who wrote Better Never than Late, Kara Keeling who wrote Queer Times, Black Futures, and Natalie Etoke author of Melancholia Africana. An interview with Emma Donoghue was particularly interesting because she talked about her last novel, The Pull of the Stars. She said she decided to focus the novel on just a few days in Ireland during the flu pandemic of 1918.

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.