Friday, July 30, 2010

Cellular phones and brassieres

I just finished a book that was originally published in 1996, Bellwether by Connie Willis. It is, of course, a little dated since I'm reading it in 2010. The author used the term cellular phone instead of cell phone a few times which was a clear indication that some time had passed between her writing and my reading. It also left me wondering about words that were once abbreviations of longer versions.

There are company names. IBM, for example, was once International Business Machines and ITT was once International Telephone and Telegraph. Both of those companies are now officially known by their initials and, especially in the case of the latter, the work they do has little to do with their original name. Last I knew ITT was in businesses as diverse as hotels, technical education, and defense equipment.

I worked for a company a few years ago that made and sold lingerie. Every once in awhile we would get a nervous salesman who would explain how well the store fixtures they were selling would display the brassieres we were selling. I guess those guys used the formal term to avoid offending the women in our group, but instead the use of such an archaic term for bras left us all thinking we were dealing with people who had very little experience with our products.

There are also government organizations that are known by their abbreviations instead of their names. I suppose there was once a time when people referred to NATO as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or when people knew what CARE stood for. Someone is bound to catch me on this. CARE isn't a government organization. It's an NGO, which is an example of an acronym that was, to the best of my knowledge, never known by its full name.

The point of all this is that language is always changing and can be tricky for writers, especially those of us who write historical fiction. But attention to this detail can be a great tool to make writing authentic.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

My Antonia - a book within a book - Why?

I just finished Willa Cather's novel, My Antonia. It's another classic that I never read in high school, but wished I had. Although, reading it now, after years of developing my own writing, gives me a perspective that helped me appreciate it in ways I probably could not have when I was young. The novel is about growing up in a small Nebraska town. Some of it is set on a farm outside the town and some in Black Hawk. The comparison between farm living and town living is one of the most fascinating aspects of this book.

The book takes place from the point of view of Jim Burton, so we learn more about him than anyone else. But two immigrant women are described in depth. These are Antonia Shimerda and Lena Lingard. Antonia is a hard working daughter of a poor Bohemian family. She spends her first year in America living in a dugout home that is nothing more than a cave. Lena is a Scandinavian woman who grows up on a farm that is fairly successful. She spends much of her time tending to her father's cattle. She is a flirtatious young girl, but grows into a stable young woman who chooses to remain single throughout her life. Antonia takes a very different path as she grows up. The book, however, is more about homesteading in Nebraska the late nineteenth century than it is about any of these three people. The detail and language used to describe the land is wonderful.

After reading the book I thought a great deal about the introduction. It is the only part of the novel that is not from Jim's point of view. Instead, it is from the point of view of a woman who grew up with him in Nebraska. Her name is not revealed. I'm sure it was supposed to imply that she was Willa Cather rather than one of her characters, but she could also have been someone from the book such as Nina Harling, the youngest daughter of a town family Antonia worked for after she left her own family's farm.

The intro makes the book into a novel within a novel, although it does it in an odd fashion because the story never gets back to the woman's point of view. I don't see how that intro advances the story at all. I think it might have to do with the time when the novel was written. Perhaps there was a fear that a woman writing a book exclusively from a man's point of view would be controversial. That's just a thought, of course. There are other signs of the time in Cather's writing, especially in the description of an African-American and in the comparison of the eyes of a Lapp woman with the "squinty" eyes of a Chinese person. Those were both very small parts of the book, but from a twenty-first century perspective it made me uncomfortable.

The other odd thing the intro does is tell us about Jim Burton's wife. She isn't in the rest of the book, yet she is described in depth in the intro. I had trouble understanding why Cather did that. It did increase my disappointment that Jim never made a life with either Antonia or Lena, but other than that it had little purpose.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

I write like

I noticed an article on Yahoo this morning about a site called I write like. I'd heard of it before, but I had never tried it. It is simple to use. You just paste a sample of your writing in then click on the Analyze button and a few seconds later it tells you the name of some famous writer who, according to their database, matches your style.

I decided I'd try a few excerpts from my novel, Motherless Soul, just to see what I came up with. I started with the opening two paragraphs:

On the eightieth anniversary of her mother’s death Emily wrote a letter to a hypnotist. Her mother had died when she was two, so Emily’s only memories of the woman were imagined events inspired by old photographs. She’d polished those conjured recollections to the point where she could feel the thick fabric of a cotton skirt against her mother’s strong thigh and smell the Ivory soap on her mother’s bare arms. But as Emily’s body grew slow and soft and the reality of her own mortality became clear, she found that her lifelong desire to know the person from whose body she’d come was overwhelming. She thought that a hypnotist might help her reach into the back corners of her mind to make her dream a reality.

“The death of your mother was probably more important than you realize,” Glen Wiley wrote back. The rest of his letter followed the theme of his first sentence. He wrote of the particular importance of a mother’s role in the life of a woman, stating that it went beyond the need for a loving, nurturing environment that all children share. He said that daughters often grow up to be images of their mothers. “Without that clear role model,” he continued, “a woman runs the risk of feeling worthless.”

For those of you who don't recognize the picture, the site told me I write like David Foster Wallace. This was fun, so I tried another section.

Next I picked a scene where two women were talking about their friendship. This time the site told me I write like Margaret Mitchell. Once again I got a result I can be proud of.

I tried a third time, choosing a couple of paragraphs from an action scene at the end of my book. The author this section was compared to was Stephen King. I was trying for a page turner at this point in the story, so I was as pleased as I could be with that comparison.

To test the site, I decided to pick up a few quotes from the authors I'd been compared with and analyze those. I found that David Foster Wallace writes like David Foster Wallace, Margaret Mitchell writes like Margaret Mitchell, but Stephen King was compared to Dan Brown. I don't know what all that means, but it was fun to play with.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and Chekhov's gun on a wall

(Spoiler Alert)

When Anton Chekhov was talking about plotting in his plays he famously said, "If there's a gun on the wall in the first act, it'd better be fired in the third."

I just finished the book The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell in which there is a major "gun on the wall" that is aimed perhaps, but never fired. Before I started the book I looked through some of the reviews on goodreads and I noticed that one person, who hadn't liked the book, criticized it for having plot lines that weren't finished. For that reason I was sensitive to that aspect of O'Farrell's book. I'm fairly sure what the reviewer was talking about was the relationship between Iris Lockhart and her stepbrother, Alex.

There is no blood relationship between Iris and Alex. They lived together when they were part of a merged family. When they were younger they had a sexual relationship. Now, as adults, their relationship is much more complicated. It is true, as the other reviewer indicated, we readers never know for certain where Iris and Alex are headed. But the novel belongs more to Esme Lennox than it does to Iris Lockhart. This act of incest-in-law works as a wonderful comparison of the attitudes concerning behavior in the age when Esme was young and the age when Iris was young.

Ultimately the best stories are about the personalities of the characters. It seems to me that a "gun on the wall" tells us a great deal about the person who hung it there. And O'Farrell tells us about Iris Lockhart when she lets us know of her history with her step-brother. That's not only enough, it's the best a reader can hope for.

Check out my review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox on goodreads.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Radio Reading from Motherless Soul

Note: Authors Read Radio will be closing its doors as of noon, July 31. My reading will not appear as scheduled. I will be looking for other opportunities to publicize Motherless Soul and will list them on this blog when they appear.

On August 28th at 9:00 AM Pacific time (12:00 ET) I'll be reading a selection from Motherless Soul on the Authors Read show on

At other readings of my book I've always chosen a section that is close to the beginning. This time I decided to pull from the middle. The book is a past lives mystery taking place in multiple eras. In this selection Stephie, a Presbyterian youth minister, is regressed. The memories that are pulled out of the hidden areas of her mind are of a life she lived as Alex, a civil war nurse. She lives with her mother outside of Gettysburg, PA. It is after the battle. She is heading home to let her mother know she is unharmed when a sudden storm breaks out. This is a disastrous situation because many of the wounded soldiers she had been tending to were left near a creek. She knows that creeks can flood quickly and she knows that most of those soldiers are too weak to help themselves.

Michael, a friend of Stephie's, is with her when she is regressed, listening to her account of her life as Alex. He had been through a similar regression prior to Stephie's and they both know that in his former life he was Charles, a soldier who is with Alex. The relationship between Charles and Alex is a little further along than the relationship between Michael and Stephie. This puts them in the unusual position of getting a glimpse of where they are headed.

Listen to the reading if you have the time on August 28th and let me know what you think.