I grew up among middle-class everyday folk. Language was one thing that separated groups of people as I had come to know them. When I was young, every once in a while I’d hear someone say, “Oh my! She talks so uppity!” Read More
Tag Archives: language
MA: Folks, help me welcome today’s guest-blogger, Sylvia Ramsey. Growing up in a rural area of Missouri and being the child of a father born in 1898, she feels that her interpretation of life spans several generations. This influence can be recognized in both her poetry and her short stories. She has experienced life at many levels. One of her most prized possessions is a personal letter that was written to her by Rosemary A. Thurber giving her permission to adapt her father’s short story “The Last Clock” to be used for Readers Theatre.
Sylvia is presently a Communications professor and the Academic Resource Center Coordinator at GMC Community College in Martinez, GA. She describes herself as a determined scrapper who will wrench all the very best from life that she is capable of conquering. Her philosophy of life is reflected in her poems. “Armor For Survival” and “A Tired Vagabond.” More about the author can be found on her website or on the authors den website. http://www.authorsden.com/sylvialramsey1.
Her novel, An Underground Jewell, was a labor of love. She explains, “The ideas for stories all come from my life experiences and knowledge I have gained along the way. The book, An Underground Jewell, spawned from a short story that was written about a Christmas Eve in the distant future when life on earth had changed drastically. That story was written in 1989.
Where did the idea for the novel come from?
SR: The idea to create a novel originated because I let imagination loose to wonder about the possibilities of this story. I first began by creating a character who would write the story, and the reason why she wrote it. At that point, I began to develop other characters and a plot. I finally began writing the book. At one point, I had to stop writing because my husband became very ill, and I became his caregiver. At the same time, I was diagnosed with T3 bladder cancer. To add to the delay, my computer crashed and I had to start over. I was lucky that I had part of it printed out. After my husband died, I began writing again. Finally, 20 years later, it was finished and published. “ An Underground Jewell and my other two books are available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites.
MA: How did you develop the character of your protagonist?
SR: Elizabeth Jewell is a very unusual woman in many ways. My best friend says that she is me, but I think her character has the traits of both my mother and paternal grandmother. Both of these ladies were strong and independent. I do not think either one of them would have left their future up to fate, because they never did. Elizabeth is like them, she sees a threat and does what she needs to do to help clear herself of the accusation. I can see where my friend would identify with me because I share some of the same traits. I wanted her to be unique in her world, and have enough foresight to see things around her that others may not see. She is intelligent enough to know that she needed help to clear herself, and because of her connections, she knew who to ask to help. There are several heroes in the novel, and there are many mysteries to solve other than clearing Elizabeth’s name. Some are solved along the way, and others are not revealed until the end. I have had people remark that I have revealed the outcome in my description, but they are only getting privy to the story on the surface, because it is much more complex than that.
MA: So who is your antagonist in the story?
SR: The “bad guys” are members of a group who have aspirations to control the society of the Western world. They have managed to infiltrate various agencies of our government to do so. Their underlying motive is control. They have an excellent understand of how language influences thinking and perceptual reality, so they have launched a long-term scheme to achieve their goal to control the people’s perception of reality.
MA: When did you start writing?
SR: I began writing when I was nine years old. I was the reporter for our 4-H club, and a new reporter at the local paper took me under his wing. He encouraged me to write feature article in addition to community news. By the age of twelve- years-old, I was getting bylines and a small paycheck each month. I have been writing something ever since. I do not remember thinking, “I want to be a writer”. It was just a part of who I am, and what I do.
I am always writing something, but not as a “profession”. I do a lot of writing at the college, blogging, and on my Facebook page. Currently, I am doing a blog series on Living with Bladder Cancer for the Healthy Women website. I am a sixteen-year bladder cancer survivor, and even though it is ranked fifth in prevalence over all, ranked fourth in males and as prevalent as cervical cancer but deadlier in women, it is very underserved. There is little awareness in the public sector, and even the medical community as a whole is basically under educated. I have a new blog that I just launched, Thoughtful Reflections, on which I hope to feature a variety of people in the field related to the publishing world.
MA: What type of professional writing do you do?
SR: In the everyday world at my “job”, I write lesson plans, reports and various types of writing that is done within the field of higher education. I have had research articles published in professional journals. In the mass media area, I have written news and feature articles for newspapers and magazines. In the creative realm, my love is poetry. Over one hundred of my poems have been published in literary journals. In 2004, my first book of poetry, Pulse Points of a Woman’s World, was published; in 2009 my first novel, An Underground Jewell, and in December of 2110, my first children’s book, Merchild Land was published.
MA: What projects are you working on now or plan for the future?
SR: There is a novel in the works that is a fantasy titled the Dark Crystals of Miradirth, and a collection of short stories titled, Squirrel Tales. I have several web pages, a blog (Thoughtful Reflections – http://wwwthouhtfulreflections.blogspot.com/), and a Facebook page called Ramsey’s Sacrificial Metaphor. I hope to do many more articles on bladder cancer as well as a collection of survivor stories. As far as An Underground Jewell is concerned, I have thought about doing another book that features the main character, but right now, I have other stories to tell.
MA: Sylvia, thanks very much for blogging with me today. I want my readers to know a few things about Sylvia, some of which she’s mentioned in passing, above. Sylvia is a 16-year survivor of bladder cancer, and looks at the experience as another learning peak in life. She is very much aware that even though this is the fifth most common cancer in the United States, it is very much underserved. She serves as the Vice-President of the American Bladder Cancer Society because she knows how important to provide support to those who have experienced this cancer, and how important it is to create more awareness around the world. That is why all of her royalties go to the American Bladder Cancer Society, www.bladdercancersupport.org. In March of this year, she sent them checks for close to $600 from her book sales. Her books are available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Sex…with Finesse by Mary Deal (Contains Adult Content: That Ought to Bring in a Few Extra Visitors!)
One way to ruin a good story is with a lackluster sex scene or bedroom scene.
As I edit writers, one of the most important problems I find is that fledgling writers have great difficulty writing the obligatory sex scenes, love scenes, bedroom scenes, whatever. Men and women have different types of difficulty. Some women seem afraid to put their feelings and emotions on paper for the entire world to see. Men write withholding or censuring words, or they express the idea of sex without emotion.
What I tell both men and woman is to secretly write down – commit to paper in longhand – everything they know about sex – everything beautiful or every lewd act they know of. Writing with pen and paper keeps a person connected to their concentration. These can be quick notes or the whole scene in paragraphs. Write every dirty word that comes to mind. (Are there really any dirty words anymore?) In committing to paper, something they must do is to additionally write from the POV of the opposite gender. Too, the writer should describe the sex act from the first gleam in the eye all the way to orgasm. Since no one will ever see what is being written, they are to use any words or any language to describe the scene they wish to express.
Another exercise is to write a column of one-word descriptions. When finished, begin again at the top. Only this time, write a complimentary word from the POV of the opposite sex. This provides not only an idea of how well you understand the opposite gender’s POV but also provides a measure of how well you’ll be able to write a response from the opposite sex into the story.
Write everything you know about sex. Take the time to do the exercise just once. When I once ask a guy how much he knew of his real life partner’s ability to respond to him, his response was, “I just keep trying to —- her. She’ll come around.” Needless to say, he wrote some of the most worthless and incomplete sex scenes I have ever read.
One writer reached a point of having finally written a sex scene so well that she went on to write more. I know what her motivation was, considering when you write thorough love scenes, it has the potential to keep you rocking on the edge of your seat!
The simple rule is just once; write everything you personally know about sex. Every bad word and every phrase. When it’s all written down, for sure, you won’t want anyone seeing it or pre-reading some juicy love scene you’ve decided to include in your next story. Heaven forbid they might get to know you better!
This is only an exercise. To keep your thoughts private till you’re ready to do some serious writing, destroy your notes when the exercise is completed. But don’t just simply tear them up and flush them. Celebrate. Burn ’em! Tear them up into fine little pieces and burn them in a bowl much like a funeral pyre. Celebrate the end of frustration and inability to write about sex.
What one gains from the exercise is this: Once completed in privacy, with the repressed thoughts on paper, you will have brought yourself in touch with sex as you know it. You will have faced the fact that you’re either too shy about sex or too brazen, or anything in between. The simple act of committing your knowledge to paper in private seems to allow us to better write about the act when it must be included in stories. For once, you will have written all you know about sex. The initial reason for clumsily stumbling through the obligatory scenes is gone. Committing your views to paper that first time only once is, for the writer, like the first step on the moon. Once you take that first step, you overcome hesitation and apprehension.
You needn’t analyze your responses to these exercises and try to convince yourself that you understand yourself sexually. All this exercise accomplishes is to help you find easier ways of expressing sexuality through writing. It’s almost like saying, “Never mind who you are. Just get in touch with it.” The premise is that once you have written all you know about sex, you will not hesitate to write about it again.
You may not be happy with the very next love scene you write but now you will be able to examine and critique the scene in first draft. Having already written something you know conditions the mind, and the Muse. Now you’ll want to improve upon your scene and your Muse will happily comply. After all, you’ve already written out far more than you need.
Most critics say that in writing sex scenes that we are to suggest, or imply the action. Tantalize your reader with only suggestions of what people do in the sex scenes. Suggest. Writing out every last detail of the sex act becomes nothing more than pornography. That could ruin the image your story needs to convey. You will know exactly what you wish to include in your descriptions and what to leave out after having completed this simple exercise.
This is a good sex scene, leaving something to the imagination:
With all the teasing they had done through dinner – subliminal foreplay – he was already too excited when he slipped between the sheets beside her. He seemed hesitant. The moment she pressed her body against his, he pulled away suddenly and his breathing changed. He clutched a handful of sheet and drew it to himself as he struggled to maintain his composure. Then he said, “I-Im sorry. We’re going to have to wait a while.”
At first she was disappointed. Then she realized she had teased him mercilessly and kept him waiting right through coffee and desert and had herself, brought on his great embarrassment. She smiled, nibbled his ear then prodded his shoulder. “Roll over,” she said. “I’ll give you a feather massage.”
This, to me, is what I call porn writing:
With all the teasing they had done through dinner – subliminal foreplay – he was too excited as he slipped between the sheets. He pressed hard against her and his body felt coarse and clammy. He clutched at her buttocks and breathed heavily and immediately lost it on her thigh.
She felt dirty and frustrated. Her super stud was a dud. In disgust, she threw back the sheet and made a dash for a hot shower where one potential evening of good sex slid down the drain.
Did the coarseness of the second version destroy the sensuousness you felt from the first?
While I realize both versions will appeal to different audiences and that both versions have their places in appropriate plots, it’s still better to leave something to the imagination even if you have your character purging her disappointment in the shower.
Learn to write sex scenes with finesse. It’ll work in every plot.
Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre. Read More
MA: Please welcome my guest today, author Debra Chapoton. Debra spent over 30 years teaching English and Spanish. She began writing fiction before retiring and now has 6 books published. She is currently working on a non-fiction project as well as another young adult fiction book. So, Debra, how did you get involved with writing?
DC: I have always been an enthusiastic reader and a lover of words. My profession of teaching grammar, writing and language skills in two languages was the perfect background for easing into a post-retirement career of writing.
MA: What made you want to write novels in particular?
DC: I love to tell stories that kids and adults would enjoy. I want to leave a legacy.
MA: Tell me about your stories.
DC: After writing a children’s series of adventure and fantasy books I tried my hand at writing a thriller: Edge of Escape. Emotionally impaired yet clever, Eddie obsesses over pretty Rebecca. He drugs her, abducts her and locks her away. She escapes, but that is part of his plan as he pretends to be her knight in shining armor. Will she accept his special devotion or reject his fragile love? Stalking gets a sympathetic twist in this story of fixation and fear.
MA: How did you develop your protagonists?
DC: Most of my characters, probably all, are based on people I know. The protagonist was easy to develop since the former students I modeled the main characters after were fresh in my mind; I had just had them in class for two semesters.
MA: What are your heroes’ strengths and weaknesses?
DC: First, it’s up to the reader to decide who the hero is, so I don’t want to slant things . . . but the character who is my personal favorite is idealistic but naïve.
MA: What about an antagonist…is there a unique “bad guy” or a recurring nemesis of any kind?
DC: Again, the reader has to decide who the antagonist is. For me the worst character is actually Eddie’s mother, who shaped his pathetic life in a most pitiable way.
MA: What projects are you going to work on next?
DC: I plan on writing more children’s novels and I currently have another general fiction novel a third of the way finished. I also have a non-fiction project ready for publication this summer. It is based on a year-long Bible study that I taught.
MA: Will you continue to feature the same protagonist in future stories? Will any other characters migrate over to future books?
DC: The characters in my children’s books will appear again, but my adult and young adult characters are specific to each book.
MA: Thanks, Debra, for visiting with me today. Folks: check out Debra’s blog here: http://www.edgeofescape.blogspot.com
Become an Actor
Quite often, I hear people say that they have a lot of difficulty when writing dialogue. Here are some tips for improving dialogue and making it a snap to write:
1) Know the character you have established.
* Is your character male or female?
* In what time period is your setting?
* Is your character laid back or a Type A personality who’s always jittery?
* What is your character’s purpose in the story?
2) Assuming you know the above facts about your character, they can only speak one way.
* Write a line of dialogue.
* Then stand in front of a mirror and become an actor.
* Put yourself in that character’s mind.
* Be the character.
* Speak the line.
* Gesture when you speak.
* Use facial gestures.
* Try speaking the dialogue in difference accents or drawls.
* You already know the basics of your character and the particular scenes, so you won’t find too many ways he or she can speak.
3) As you speak, try changing the words of the sentence of dialogue.
* Try saying the same thing in a different way.
4) Act out the characters parts.
* Be one or more characters interchangeably.
* Interact and speak the lines of each.
* Your mind will automatically “round out” what is needed.
* You may decide instead of a character with stilted language, he or she becomes relaxed and easy going.
* Each state of mind produces different ways of speaking.
You may find that your character also changes in personality. Be careful here. If you’ve completed your story and then change a character’s mannerisms, which may affect personality, you may need to make a sweep through the entire story to bring that character in line with the new image you’ve created. But if that’s what it takes to make your story hum, you do it.
Chances are, you won’t make sweeping changes with this technique unless they are needed. You will simply find new ways to put some zing into the dialogue.
Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre. Read More
More Words to Lose
Have you ever really listened to people talking? We writers should do that all the time. It’s one of the reasons we love to people watch, not to eavesdrop but to learn about fascinating accents, jargon and colloquialisms that could add zing to the characters in our fiction.
In becoming aware of how people talk, on a daily basis I hear words and phrases that make me cringe. Call me a purest. Call me obsessive compulsive. I shake my head when I hear anyone say, “I told him, I said…” What is the purpose of being redundant? “I told him” and “I said” mean exactly the same thing.
“I told him, I said, be careful.”
“She told me, she said she didn’t like my cooking.”
I sigh when I hear a person saying “basically” before starting each new sentence they speak.
“Basically, what you need to know is where to start.”
“Basically, the mystery started with a nondescript clue.”
As you can see in the above two examples, the sentences do not need the word basically at all.
Dislikes such as these are at the top of my list to get hit with the delete button in my compositions.
Language takes on a different aura in dialogue if you have established that one of your characters actually speaks this way: “Basically, ma’am, I’m here to learn the truth and that’s all.” Still, it would be very off-putting to the reader if your character started all or lots of his dialogue with that dreaded word. Correctly portrayed, you would have set up the character’s speaking personality as, perhaps, slow and as being a methodical thinker and that one word used once or twice would then enhance his speech mannerisms.
However, my writing is not yet perfect either. I must continually be vigilant for sentence starters like: “She thought….” or “He said….”
She thought she wanted to go along.
He said he didn’t want to go.
When writing from the main character’s point of view, the reader will be in that character’s mind, seeing the story action from his or her point of view. The reader will be thinking the character’s thoughts. At least that’s what happens if our writing is good enough to draw the reader in. Starting sentences with phrases like “She thought” is, again, redundant. All a writer need do is state the character’s thought: She wanted to go along. Immediately, we feel or sense the character’s desire without being told it’s a thought.
Deleting unnecessary words and phrases helps greatly when word count matters and it really does, not to mention cleaning up a manuscript.
If in a case like “He said…,” instead of saying “He said he didn’t want to go along,” put what the character said in actual dialogue: “I want to go too,” he said. That’s unless you’re relating a past experience. Even then, you would simply say: He wanted to go along.
Any time you catch yourself telling what this or that character said, most of the time what the character said should be put in dialogue, instead of the writer “second-hand” telling the reader what was spoken.
I continue to be amazed at how people in my own circle of friends and family use these incorrect phrases. But then, they are not writers who need be astute at the verbiage they commit into stories. They are just being themselves, and that’s just fine with me. They give me a lot to think about and I am grateful that they can just be themselves with me and not worry that I am going to correct their every spoken word.
Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre. Read More
The letter S
Drop the s. If you believe that one letter couldn’t possible cause you to receive a rejection, I encourage you to think again, especially if the same mistake recurs throughout your manuscript.
Incorrect usage comes from the lax attitude about our English language. Most people speak in jargon or a brogue that comes from a certain locale. I also call it family hand-me-down language. Truth is, no matter from where you hail, your written grammar must be correct for a broader audience.
I’m speaking of the letter “s.” Check out these sentences:
She ran towards the garage.
The ball rolled backwards.
These sentences are all incorrect. That is, the use of the letter s is incorrect.
The letter s denotes something plural. In the first sentence, if you move toward something, you can only go in one direction. Toward.
If the ball rolled backward, it can only go in one direction. Backward.
If you look upward, you can only look in one direction. Upward.
Strangely, an example of an exception is:
She leaned sideways.
The rule here is that when leaning, you can lean sideways in more than one direction, therefore the use of the s.
You’ll find many other words that are incorrectly used with s endings. When you find these, make note of them, maybe a running list. You’ll have the list to refer back to when you question your own writing.
This is but one of the finite idiosyncrasies of producing better grammar when writing stories and books that you hope to sell. Study your own language and speech. Watch how the s is used or omitted in books that you love to read. Get into the habit of listening to the speech patterns of others. Be critical of what you hear, but never critical of a person who speaks that way. Instead, mentally analyze what you have heard. Learn the right from the wrong of speech and your writing will reflect your knowledge.
The following tips are some that have been reconstructed from a handout I gave at one of my workshops for writers already far along in their manuscripts. On the registration form I asked what each attendee would most like to learn. Surprisingly, the frequently mentioned information pertained to feeling insecure about submitting once the manuscript was finished, and how would they know it was ready for submission.
In order to help avoid rejection of your manuscript, you need to think through what you’ve created. Start by analyzing these points before submitting.
Does your story start off strong enough to grab a potential reader’s attention?
Does your plot contain enough twists and turns to keep the reader from knowing the ending beforehand? Or is your story so predictable that it might be boring?
Does any possibility exist that you’ve created a story that creeps along, when it should fly and keep the reader turning pages?
Do you know the difference between a slow moving, arduous read and a story that moves like lightning where the reader has difficulty keeping their eyeballs in their sockets?
Have you included your own opinions in the plot sequences instead of allowing the scenes and characters to write themselves?
Are you preachy and trying to make a statement concerning something in which you believe and wish to share? Have no doubt. It is a definite turn-off and will show in your writing.
Have you developed your story to its fullest potential? If not, that would be the same as a detective having four clues and investigating only three. Whatever happens in your story, make sure you cover all aspects and possibilities of each scene.
What about your narrative voice? Is it different from your characters’ dialogues? Does it sound realistic or forced?
Always be careful of clichéd writing, and the use of stale jargon. Use only the most recent language of the time period of your plot that people in real life would use if they were your characters. To have a story taking place in present time, but using age-old language just doesn’t work. That’s unless the author shows that their particular story requires it.
Does each and every scene pull in the reader? Are the scenes developed so the reader knows when and where things happen and how the characters fit into that scene? In other words, have you written the scenes well enough so the reader will feel a part of it all and not know that they sit in a chair reading a book?
Do you have the appropriate beginning, middle and ending? As already stated, the beginning should grab the reader’s interest and make them want to keep reading. The middle may sag if you’ve simply tried to flesh out the story by adding inappropriate information that doesn’t feed into and forward the plot. The ending should be dramatic or contain the element of an Aha! experience. Whatever the experience, the reader must feel satisfaction for the characters when the story concludes.
Are your characters’ dialogues commensurate with the types of people you’ve created them to be? Do all your characters sound the same? Even if all your characters share the same backgrounds and social status, you must make each of them unique. One of the easiest places to accomplish this is through their dialogues.
As with the story line, the same applies to the characters. Are they lackluster predictable types?
Do your characters perform to the best of their abilities while moving through the plot? They can be demure to dastardly, but whatever they are, make them true to type and the best that they can be for the situation in which you’ve placed them.
Have you had your finished manuscript edited by a new set of eyes, preferably professional ones? A relative or friend critiquing your manuscript just isn’t enough – unless the person is an English teacher, perhaps.
Too, here’s something I do:
I have my final manuscript in one long file. I do a search for various important words that I may have used throughout the book. When I find too many of one word, I replace some of them with a different word or phrase with the same meaning. To read the same words too often begins to make the writing seem amateurish, as if the author had not seen the inside of a dictionary or thesaurus.
Lastly, these are some suggestions that should be thought through before submitting your work to agents or publishers. This information also applies to short story and novella writers, even some nonfiction. Much of this information may have crossed the mind of the writer way before getting to the end of the writing phase. In that case, that author is a huge step ahead and their manuscript will show it.
MA: My guest today, Narrelle M. Harris, is a multi-talented person. She’s a Melbourne-based writer with four novels, one play and several short stories under her belt to date. Her latest book is The Opposite of Life, a vampire novel set in Melbourne. She is about to launch a new iPhone app, Melbourne Literary, a guide to books, writing and literature in Melbourne, which was designated a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008. Narrelle lives in the city centre of Melbourne, Australia, with her husband, Tim Richards, and their apartment-bound cat Petra.
Welcome, Narrelle. Please tell us how your involvement with writing began.
NH: I think I’ve been writing pretty much ever since I knew how to make the letters. I even recall one of my brothers and I getting a tape recorder and telling a story about the life of a little germ, which we made up as we went along. I don’t remember much about that one, except that at one stage the germ was having a great time tumbling out of a carton of milk and swimming around in a bowl of cereal. He was a fairly harmless germ, as I recall. Anyway, I always loved assignments where I had to make up stories, and I wrote them to entertain myself in exercise books as well. Eventually I discovered science fiction TV shows and fandom, where stories you wrote could be published in fanzines and people would write in with feedback. That was fantastic, a great training ground on developing technique. Eventually I got too restless writing with other people’s characters, so introduced a lot of new ones of my own, and that morphed into writing my original fiction.
MA: It sounds then, like writing novels was not a difficult transition for you.
NH: Novels came about as a natural extension from the short stories I’d been working on – I was enjoying world building and I liked my characters and wanted to do more with them, so over time the plot ideas and themes I had grew more complex and needed more time to explore.
MA: Tell us what you’ve written so far.
NH: I’ve been a bit all over the shop, really. My first book was a crime thriller called Fly By Night. It had two novellas in it with the same characters, Frank and Milo, musicians and a gay couple. That was published by Homosapien Press in 2004. (The two novellas are now available separately on Kindle). Then I wrote the two fantasies, Witch Honour and Witch Faith. Like Anne McCaffrey’s dragon books, they are fantasy with a touch of an SF back-story. They were published in the US by Five Star. Then I was inspired to write a book about how being a vampire isn’t as sexy as its reputation would suggest, and wrote The Opposite of Life, about a girl who has suffered a lot and a short, chubby, geeky vampire called Gary. That was with Pulp Fiction Press, and there’s a sequel in the works.
My latest project, though, is a non-fiction iPhone app, Melbourne Literary, which is a guide to literary Melbourne. I’ve done other non-fiction – I had an essay on what’s called The CSI Effect in a true crime collection called Outside the Law #3, about whether watching too much forensic TV affects juries. I’ve also been working on some short stories lately, mainly in the comic-horror genre. One, about a girl whose brother gets turned into a zombie and she’s trying to fix him before Mum finds out, will be published later this year in Best New Zombie Tales Volume 2.
Comic horror seems to have become a bit of a thing since The Opposite of Life, which has a lot of humour in it, as well as an exploration of what makes life worth living even though it can hurt beyond bearing sometimes.
MA: With so many projects, how do you go about developing your characters?
NH: Characters in my earlier books were often inspired by people I knew, or at least amalgamations of people I knew. The Opposite of Life was different, in that Gary the Vampire came up as a response to being tired of seeing all the thin, glamorous vampires in all the films. I just wanted to write about an ordinary guy who was really uncool and didn’t get any cooler just because he was undead. Lissa, the female protagonist, arose out of the kind of story I was telling. I wanted her to be young, a bit funky but also a someone outside groups because her experiences of loss and grief had left her not quite fitting in anywhere completely. She’s a librarian mainly because I thought someone who had lived her life would find great comfort in the escapism of literature, and that she would love the idea taht she could maintain order in some part of her life, at least. She’s one of the few librarians who really loves cataloguing and shelving. She loves imposing order in a tiny corner of her chaotic world.
MA: Are your characters as superhuman as they sound?
NH: I try to make all my characters very textured and human, so they have different kinds of flaws. Frank, for example, gets impatient and can be bad tempered while Milo has a tendency to just sail through life and be a bit thoughtless. He’s not intentionally mean, but he just doesn’t think sometimes.
Gary’s flaws – well, he’s a bit slow on the uptake sometimes. He’s a nice enough guy, really, but he just doesn’t always know what’s appropriate in conversation. He didn’t have those social skills when he was alive, so he can’t blame being a vampire for that. But as the story develops he learns to be more thoughtful. He’s a very straightforward guy too – I don’t think he knows how to lie. It’s one of the things that Lissa likes about him – she might not always like what he has to say, but she knows he’s honest with her. Lissa is courageous and loyal, but also stubborn and a bit impetuous. It gets her into terrible trouble. She has to confront one of her worst flaws by the end of the book – she’s a bit self obsessed and everything she goes through forces her to come up out of the grief and anger she’s been lost in. Both of them, really, have to learn how to engage more with life.
MA: Any recurring nemeses?
NH: The Opposite of Life is written in the style of a crime novel, so the ‘bad guy’ is the person or persons who have been killing people around Melbourne. It’s obviously the work of a vampire, and the vampire community isn’t pleased by that – they try to live under the radar these days. But while there’s an actual bad guy doing bad things, I guess the real bad guy is thematic, the idea that you can avoid life’s pain by withdrawing from it, refusing to engage, and the kind of person that decision makes you become.
MA: I assume you’ve not had any real experiences with vampires (wink), but did your life inspire your writing in any way?
NH: My books are full of real life things, from characters being inspired by friends, to things I’ve read in the news becoming part of the plot. I put a lot of landscapes in. The Opposite of Life is full of places I love (and sometimes loathe) in Melbourne. The Witch books contain landscapes that I travelled through or lived in when I spent three years abroad. I lived in Egypt for two years, and in Poland for one (my husband and I were teaching English as a foreign language) and so much of what I saw and did there has been incorporated into the stories.
MA: Given your prolific writing career so far, I take it you aren’t finished yet, right?
NH: I’m working on some short stories at the moment, as I’ve been invited to submit some to a potential anthology project. I want to write three books about Gary and Lissa as well, so after the current sequel I have to start work on the third. I have ideas for a third Witch novel and some more Frank and Milo stories too. I also have an idea for a rather more complex crime type novel. I’m also planning to create a few more iPhone apps once Melbourne Literary is out there. I have note books full of ideas too, so I don’t think I’ll run out of things to do for a while.
MA: Very interesting and varied. Anything else you’d like to add?
NH: One of the things I’ve been doing, to entertain myself as much as anything, is using Gary and Lissa outside of their books. They are huge fun to write, and their (most definitely not sexual) friendship comes out so well in their conversations. Gary actually collects vampire films and books, and Lissa as a librarian has a lot of comments to make on fiction generally. This meant that when I see vampire stuff now (or sometimes just interesting things, like art exhibitions) I get a triple viewpoint. There’s what I think of it, but also what I think Gary and Lissa would think of it. I started writing up their observations and now I have a semi regular part of my blog called the GaryView, where the two of them discuss pop culture from their rather unique point of view. Gary mainly complains about how most vampire fiction is nothing like the reality of being a vampire. Surprisingly, a certain amount of their back story gets revealed this way, and sometimes these funny little reviews get unexpectedly poignant. They’re a popular part of my blog, but really, I do it because it’s fun and because it’s a really useful writing exercise.
Gary and Lissa also have Twitter accounts, for the same reason that it’s an interesting writing exercise. They occasionally have tweet-chats with other people. That’s fun because I don’t know what people are going to ask, so again it’s a good exercise to consider how Gary and Lissa might respond to issues that I might not have previously considered. It was through doing the tweets that I realized that Lissa never goes to the cemetery to visit the graves of her loved ones. That’s the place where she had to say goodbye to them, and it gives her no comfort. Instead, I realized that she would go and do the things that she used to do with them while they were alive. She might go to a particular cafe to spend a moment thinking about her Nanna, or to a library where her eldest sister used to find books for them to read.
MA: Thanks, Narrelle! Please visit Narrelle’s website: http://www.narrellemharris.com
and Blog: http://narrellemharris.wordpress.com
MA: My guest-blogger today is Jessica Knauss. Born and raised in Northern California, Jessica has become something of a wanderer who hopes to settle down soon. She has worked as a librarian and a Spanish teacher. She lives with her husband Stanley, with whom she plans to open a soft-serve ice cream shop in the future. Jessica has participated in many writer’s groups and workshops, including the International Writers’ Program at the University of Iowa. Her nonfiction has appeared in Medieval History Magazine, Hortulus, LL Journal, and an encyclopedia entitled The World and Its Peoples. To date, she has published fiction in Bewildering Stories, Do Not Look at the Sun, (Short) Fiction Collective, Full of Crow Quarterly Fiction, Sillymess, This Mutant Life and Short, Fast, and Deadly. Her poetry can be found at Haggard & Halloo, Apollo’s Lyre and The Shine Journal. Her novella Tree/House, about a woman’s awakening through sleeping in trees, is available at Amazon. Açedrex Publishing will release her poetry chapbook, Dusk Before Dawn, in September. Get updates on her writing at her Facebook page.
You have been very busy with all your writing projects!
JK: I came out of the womb with a pencil in my hand. In grade school, I could hardly be bothered with math, but let all other experiences influence the stories that just kept coming out of me unbidden. I grew up in Northern California, close to the Redwood forests, near the foggy grey beaches, and gained a sense of awe at nature and a strong isolation from civilization that shows up in all my work. I studied a lot of subjects, mainly Spanish, because my love of Spain sprouted spontaneously one day when I was about 11. I’ve been a librarian (love those books!) and a Spanish teacher in the beautiful cities of Boston and Providence. Somewhere along the way I lost sight of creative writing, but have now taken it up again with complete seriousness. The stories and characters were patient. They knew I had to come back to them some day.
MA: Was your decision to write novels a conscious, formulated one, or did something simply inspire you?
JK: The novels chose me instead of the other way around. For me, being a writer consists of taming the wild muse and making a craft out of a formless mass of creativity I’m re-learning to tap into.
MA: So tell us about Tree/House.
JK: My novella, Tree/House, is a timeless coming-of-age story in which a woman, Emma, has made terrible decisions throughout her life, allowing herself to be led around by anyone with more force of will. When the husband who took her on dies suddenly, she slowly turns her drifting into a direction, learning some shocking truths along the way. She could not go through this process without Geraldine, a vagrant who camps on her property, sleeping not in the barn or the stable, but in the wild old trees. Geraldine is in need of some emotional rehabilitation herself, but with her assertive personality, she helps Emma see the alternatives to the passive life she has lived. The novella has a slightly nineteenth-century feel to it, because the characters write letters, build libraries, and trek through the countryside on foot, but at just 28,000 words, it’s a fast, fun read that will leave you time to read it again! It’s perfect for book clubs and discussion groups or just sharing with friends.
I also have a poetry chapbook that recently released, called Dusk Before Dawn. This is a compilation of most of my poetry from over the years, and I’ve put them together in a trajectory that addresses the nature of language, the search for love, the nostalgia of place, the creative process, and, most importantly, personal identity. Some are like stories, and others a very lyrical. They make a nice companion to Tree/House, as they address many of the same issues.
MA: Emma sounds like an intriguing character. How did you go about developing her in the story?
JK: One of the lines from what ended up being the third chapter came to me in a bolt of sheer inspiration. It’s when one of the servants on the estate is telling Emma some unsavory truths she didn’t know about Geraldine: “Do you know she killed the cat, aimed for the stable boy and slept with her boss?” The protagonist at that point was merely a receptacle for this information. Emma’s character grew out of the way she reacted to Geraldine’s extravagant style. The antagonist, Franklin, grew out of that passivity in a natural way, creating the drama organically.
MA: Would you say Emma is a strong character? Is she flawed at all?
JK: I’m afraid Emma is all weakness: confused, not confident, no direction, no definable talent, and worst of all, led easily astray. She represents any woman who finds herself at a crossroads, and I think her indecisiveness and insecurities make her very sympathetic for readers.
MA: Do you have a definable antagonist, or is Emma challenged by many characters because of her weaknesses?
JK: Franklin, who ends up as Emma’s husband (and then brutally murdered in revenge for past misdeeds) is very dangerous because he knows how to manipulate her, all while she believes she is making her own choices. His praise of Emma seems unfounded and bizarre, just like the rest of him. He seems to have sprung out of nothingness to impose an ancient order on her disorganized life. He is a jailer and a neglecter and represents every thing evil and intransigent, at the same time that he opens a new world of literature up to Emma. His gifts are awkward, beautiful only in a certain light, and I hope the reader feels as weird about him as I do.
MA: Is there any of Jessica’s real life story in Emma?
JK: Absolutely. Because of the organic development of the plot, Emma’s predicament reflects the trapped feeling and self-doubts I was going through at the time. The writing and sending of letters comes directly from my experience, and I think it increases the feeling of isolation as she’s trying to make a decision about what to do with her life. I had a terrible experience with a wrinkled wedding dress that I make Emma go through with a little more naiveté, and I had a friend in college who told me that eating French fries gave her the hiccups, so thanks for that tidbit! (I’m not sure she would want me to broadcast her name, but she knows who she is.) Franklin turned out as a Bluebeard type. He has elements from just about anything I felt stifled me in the past, including, of course, old boyfriends! I think all this leakage between life and fiction, unintentional or otherwise, helps give the story psychological realism the reader can really get into.
MA: Now that Tree/House and your book of poetry, Dusk Before Dawn, are out, what’s next on your writing horizon?
JK: I’m striking out into territory that may seem very different by writing a historical novel set in tenth-century Spain and based on an epic revenge poem. It’s full of battles, glittering armor, and exotic locales. It’s not really a departure for me because I have a PhD in Medieval Spanish, and, continuing the feminine theme of my previous work, the story has female characters who know how to manipulate the society in which they live.
I’m always working on weird short stories, and waiting for that bolt of inspiration for my next longer work.
MA: Will Emma come along in future works?
JK: Tree/House readers have said they would love to spend more time with the characters. I have considered writing the further adventures of Geraldine, or even a prequel showing how she really got to be the fascinating woman she is in Tree/House, but nothing concrete is on the writing schedule. Read More