Guilty pleasures-Amish Quilt shop mystery series

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Every once in a while it is nice just to read something because the books are fun reads; guilty pleasures if you will. I started with Isabella Alan‘s first Amish Quilt Shop mystery Murder, Plain and Simple, because she has set the series in territory not far from my home, and I wanted to see how she fictionalized real places, because it is a technique I am trying to integrate into my own writing and I wanted to see how someone else did it and did it successfully.

Murder, Simply StitchedI was hooked after the first book and ordered the rest of the series. Not because I am enamored of the Amish (I don’t get the fascination to be honest), but because Alan has created likable characters, both Amish and non-Amish; given the heroine a love interest, complicated by the fact his former wife lives in the area; she loves her parents but clashes with her mother; and it is all written with a sense of humor–even though these are cozy mysteries and dead bodies are involved, and the Angela feels compelled to help the sheriff bring to justice the guilty party.

Angela Braddock is a transplanted Texan. She moved from Texas to Rolling Brook, Ohio, after inheriting her Amish aunt’s quilt shop. She is also trying to get back on her feet after her fiance breaks off their engagement. Her French bulldog–who suffers from a bird phobia–moves with her and is unsure of what to make of all the fresh air, grass, and wildlife. He is, after all, an urban dog through and through.

Murder, Served SimplyHer partners in crime solving are Old Order Amish women; members of her late aunt’s quilting circle. Colorful characters in their own right, they are joined by the handsome sheriff and non-Amish citizens of Rolling Brook, including a tea shop owner whose tea concoctions are some of the worst ever foisted upon civilization.

 

 

Murder, HandcraftedMurder, Handcrafted is due out this summer. I’ve already per-ordered mine and am anxious to see what trouble Angela and the residents of Rolling Brook are up to now.

 

 

Feeling Foreign

I’m currently reading the Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being the first book in the series), which is set in Sweden. I have never been there, nor to any Scandinavian country. I don’t have friends or relatives from the area, and I have only ever met a handful of people of Swedish descent. I have no helpful background for Stieg Larsson to use when trying to evoke the sense of place in Stockholm. However, Larsson is successful in giving me a feeling of place when reading his novels. He combines tactile sensations of food and drink along with a deep immersion in Swedish locations and names to create a strong sense of place.

 

The food and drink of a place is an easy way to describe a place to someone who has not been there. In the Millennium trilogy, everyone is drinking coffee. All the time. Drinking coffee is not an exclusively Swedish activity, but the frequency of the act of drinking it strikes me as something foreign. I take coffee in the morning and afternoon, but Larsson presents it as a cornerstone of life. Important characters are eating dinner? Have a coffee. The sneaky antagonist is plotting his revenge? Over coffee. A protagonist can’t sleep? Put on the coffee! The story of the Millennium trilogy is rooted in Sweden, and Larsson ties something I have experienced to a sense of place I haven’t yet developed. He’s bridging the gap for me.

 

As a side note, Larsson’s use of coffee would not be as effective if he repeated ‘they drank coffee’ hundreds of times. He describes the type of coffee (black vs espresso, instant vs cafe). He tells the reader if the coffee warms the character’s hands or if the mug at the crime scene is cold. He shows us swirls of milk and cream and foam. As a writer it is important to provide these sensory details to the reader. Without them your world can come across as flat or lifeless.

 

Another way Larsson makes the trilogy feel authentically Swedish is the sheer volume of characters with Swedish names. It might seem trivial, but think of it as immersing the reader in the people of the area. If there were three or five or ten characters in The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (the third book in the trilogy), the names would evident but not pervasive. I don’t have exact figures, but you would need multiple sets of hands to keep track of all the Swedish names of people and places. What that means for a writer wanting to immerse their reader in a new place is that you should consider naming locations or minor characters you might normally give no more than a pronoun. Say they drove through Sandwich on their way to Chicago, or that the mailman’s name is Kristov. The added detail will help your reader feel a sense of place.

 

A Dead Letter in Reverse: Melville’s Bartleby

From Jeffery Schrecongost at South85:

I was assembling my ENGL 112 course syllabus the other day, and, in reviewing Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” I was reminded that an argument for Bartleby as antiestablishment hero is not indefensible. The harmless, if not initially loveable, chap is curiously comedic in his hell-bent defiance and awkward introversion and can ultimately be viewed as a martyr for individuality. Conversely, an interpretation of Bartleby as individual-to-a-fault can be successfully supported as well.

Read more of Jeffery’s post at South85

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Drama, or Melodrama? The Fine Line of Emotion

Drama, or Melodrama? The Fine Line of Emotion

by Rhonda Browning White

 

Successful stories are emotional stories: we connect with that which moves us. A writer’s work is at its best when the reader feels emotion alongside a character. We must take care not to cross that very fine line and overdramatize a character’s feelings; otherwise, a reader will be about as patient with the emotional scene as with a toddler’s temper tantrum.

An excellent example of understated yet powerful emotion is present in Leslie Pietrzyk’s “The Circle”, a Pushcart-Prize-nominated short story appearing in the Winter 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review. “The Circle” relates the stories of two characters—one a young female narrator grieving her husband’s recent death, the other a grief counselor named Ruth who is in denial of the cancer that’s taken root in her breast—deftly juxtaposed and intertwined. Death and cancer: two painfully grim subjects that if not handled correctly, especially when examined in one short story, risk leaving a reader morose and depressed, potentially swearing off the author’s work forever. The last thing needed in a story of this gravity is melodrama, but there is equal danger in making light of such serious subjects through use of glib dialogue, inappropriate humor, or unrealistic character actions.

Fortunately, Pietrzyk’s “The Circle” conveys honest emotion through the body language, dialogue, and the internal thoughts of both of her point of view characters, without veering across the line into melodrama. One case in point is the recent widow’s bleak expression of hopelessness when describing the room in which her support group is held:

“Drab, large, as shapeless as something with four walls could be, so that while the room was rectangular, the boundaries felt ill-defined. Alternating between stuffy and chilly. Windows high up on the walls, offering squeaks of light but no view. Fluorescent lighting with a slight buzz. An unplugged coffee maker on a long table covered with a plastic, red-checked tablecloth with dark brown burn circles where someone had set down something hot. It was a room where sad people collected, people with vast problems. She stared at a wall calendar with a picture of a European castle, wondering why something seemed off, and finally realized she was looking at last month’s dates.”

Pietrzyk doesn’t tell us her character feels hopeless, nor do we see the young woman moping, shoulders sagging, as she drags herself into the room. Why? Because that would be melodramatic. Instead, as we see the room through the character’s eyes, we feel her heavyheartedness.

We see a concurrence of bleakness—this time expressed through anger—in grief counselor Ruth, when she refuses to call her doctor, refuses to schedule a breast biopsy, and lies to her friends about doing both. We feel her resentment when she takes control of what she worries may be the short amount of time she has left.

“People ramble through grief at their own pace—tiptoes to raging bulls—and Ruth does not judge. It’s not a race.

“No, what Ruth finds disturbing is the steady gnaw of anger as she listened to the widows speak that first night. She’s been tired lately, maybe, or about to get her period. Maybe that ill-advised Mexican meal. But today, home after work, after not calling the doctor, she realizes why: those bitches are alive, and she is dying.”

Again, the expression of emotion is restrained, yet ruthless, and in a story that deals with difficult topics such as death and cancer, this is crucial. There can be no histrionics, no clichés, nor any falsely callous song and dance. This careful balance when walking the fine line of emotional expression in writing is what allows readers to engage and immerse in the story and experience truthful emotions alongside and through our characters.

 Gettysburg Review Winter 2013

 

 

 

Running the Novel Marathon

by Kim Triedman My gym misses me. I haven’t exactly been pulling my weight lately. Or blasting my abs or busting my butt, either. In fact I can honestly say that from the moment I started writing my second novel this past September, I have gone through the gym …

via Running the Novel Marathon.

Everything I Never Told You-Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng’s debut novel and she sets the bar high. Her novel revolves around the a Chinese-American family living in small town Ohio, a rarity in the 1970s.

What works in this novel is Ng’s use of a third person narrator, and through this narrator, we learn how deeply dysfunctional and non-communicative the Lee family is. The novel begins: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six-thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this Innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast” (1). Lydia’s death reveals how isolated each family member is from all the others. Set apart from their community because of the bi-racial nature of the family, they are also set apart from each other. Lydia’s death isolates her family further from their community–her death is a suspected suicide–and, when most needed, each other as well.

Ng’s third person narrator slowly reveals the inner thoughts and disappointments each family member harbors. Through her death, this narrator also shows each family member struggling to cope with what the each wanted reality to be, and the truth. The old saying is the truth shall set you free. In this case, the truth severs the frayed threads tying this family together, sending each of them tumbling through their grief, unmoored from each other.

Lydia is sixteen and a perfect mix of her genetic heritage: “But Lydia, defying genetics, somehow has her mother’s blue eyes, and they know this is one more reason she is their mother’s favorite. And their father’s too” (3). The ‘they’ in this quote are Lydia’s siblings, her older brother Nate and younger sister Hannah. Within the first few pages, the narrator reveals several secrets. Nate and Hannah know black-haired, blue-eyed Lydia is the favorite child out of the three. The only hidden secret is the parents unaware their other two children have picked up on the favoritism.

Marilyn Lee sends Nate and Hannah off to school and takes a mug from the cupboard, a routine gesture in a morning suddenly thrown off the routine. As she does so, she flashes back to a memory of Lydia when Lydia was eleven months old. Marilyn left Lydia playing in the living room on a quilt, and had gone into the kitchen for a cup of tea:

             “Marilyn took the kettle off the stove and turned to find Lydia standing in the doorway. She had started and a red, spiral welt rose on her palm, and she touched it to her lips and looked at her daughter through watering eyes. Standing there, Lydia was strangely alert, as if she was taking in the kitchen for the first time. ..The thought that flashed through her mind wasn’t How did I miss it? but What else have you been hiding?…Marilyn often had her back turned, opening the refrigerator or turning over the laundry. Lydia could’ve been walking weeks ago, while she was bent over a pot, and she would not have known” (4).

Here we learn through the narrator Marilyn doesn’t know Lydia as well as a mother should, especially when it comes to walking. After a short time, Marilyn calls the police and James at work. Eventually, through the narrator, we learn this isn’t the first time the police have been called about a missing family member.

We also see James, grading history papers in his office. He’s a tenured faculty member, a professor of American history, at Middlewood College. When younger and:

“still junior faculty, he was often mistaken for a student himself. That hasn’t happened in years. He’ll be forty-six next spring…Sometimes, though, he’s still mistaken for other things. Once, a receptionist at the provost’s office thought he was a visiting diplomat from Japan and asked him about his flight from Tokyo. He enjoys the surprise on people’s faces when he tells them he’s a professor of American history,” but becomes defensive when people “blink.” (9).

He still feels the outsider, set off by his ethnic heritage, even though he’s as American as the people he is talking too.

Throughout the novel, Ng’s effective use of the third person narrator continues to reveal the secrets of the Lee family and how those secrets keep the family isolated from each other.

Toward the end of the novel, Ng also uses her narrator to flashback to Lydia, when she was alive, allowing the dead girl at the beginning of the novel a voice in her own story. It is an inner story that has shaped Lydia’s life, one she needs to revise, with devastating results.

The novel raises questions: how well do we know family members? Is what we “know” true, or assumptions, because it’s far easier to deal with assumptions–what we want to be true–than what really is? Everything I Never Told You is a novel that has stayed with me, long after I finished reading it.

Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. New York:Penguin Group. 2014. Print.

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Revision? Try Renovation.

By Robin Black This post first appeared October 11, 2011   What can renovating and reclaiming your home after years of neglecting it teach you about revising fiction?  A lot more than I imagined, it turns out. My husband and I have lived in our house for sixteen …

via Revision? Try Renovation..

Coming Fall of 2015-“This Angel On My Chest” A collection of short stories

Leslie Pietrzyk, fiction mentor in Converse College’s MFA program and friend to Why The Writing Works bloggers, made a big announcement at winter residency:

My manuscript of short stories won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize!  My book, THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, will be published in the fall of 2015 by the University of Pittsburgh Press!  Oh, yay!

Read the rest of her post here.

I still miss Leslie’s (and her co-leader Marlin Barton) workshops. 🙂 If you’re interested in learning from this fantastic writer, apply here.

Voice, Language, and Perfect Endings

From time to time, Why The Writing Works will repost some of our earlier blogs. This entry was posted in February, 2012.

in Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Rhonda Browning White

Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford’s personal emancipation from a voiceless black woman who didn’t count for much in the grand scheme of her horizon, the Deep South, into a woman who explored the future, discovering strength in herself in spite of other’s opinions.

Strong themes run throughout the story—feminism, racism and classism, for example—but the thing resonant to me throughout is voice, or language, and the way the two intertwine. Metaphorically, Janie has little or no voice in the story, but relies on others to do the talking for her. This is true even as she relates her life story to best friend Pheoby in flashback, prompting Pheoby to repeat her story to others: “You can tell ’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf” (6). This demonstrates Janie’s complete trust in Pheoby, but it also reveals Janie’s belief in the futility of talk, of voicing her opinion, bearing forth an argument, or trying to convince people to change their minds. “Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ‘em nothin’, Pheoby. ‘Taint worth de trouble. . . . To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothing’ about” (6). Janie left home at sixteen with much to learn, and she returns having broadened her horizon (not only demographically, but emotionally, as well), and she is no longer as prejudiced as she was when she left.

Hurston’s liberal use of the Southern black vernacular spoken by her characters juxtaposed with the narrator’s rich, literary prose provides framework for the setting and underscores the sense of place in which the characters exist. This union of these two radically different styles of language adds depth and knowledge of the culture of 1930s Florida that environmental descriptions alone can’t provide. This change in voice mimics the distinctly different discernments of the scene as viewed through the eyes of Janie, who had never been there before and saw it as another “new horizon,” and Tea Cake, who knew from experience the hardscrabble life they’d live while inhabiting the Everglades. Hurston’s variation in these two interpretations of the place gives the scene a feeling of fact, depth and realism it wouldn’t have if both descriptions had been conveyed using the same regional dialect.

The story’s final paragraph returns to the narrator’s lyrical voice and ends with a reference to the horizon mentioned in the novel’s first paragraph and referred to throughout:

“The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came   and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner in the room; out of each and every chair and thing. . . . She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see” (193).

An ending like this that references the beginning is a common trend in fiction, one that feels both necessary and natural. Had Hurston ended the story with Janie giving voice to her feelings, the story wouldn’t have had such power. Janie had finally learned what it meant to love, was at peace with the loss of that love, (because she felt honored to have experienced it for a time), and refused to share that glorious, private feeling of privilege with anyone else. She finally found her voice by defending herself and sharing her life story, but she determined to keep it to herself, to draw it close, cherish and protect it. This, in my opinion, is a perfect story ending.

Hurston, Zora Neal. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper, 1998. Print.

A Manuscript Critique Sale to Benefit Caregivers – And A Little Personal History, Too

I stumbled across this post this morning and wish I had found it sooner, but here it is. The sale date is tomorrow. Read on:

 

By Robin Black   Any interest in having your prose or poetry manuscript reviewed by the likes of Philip Levine, Elizabeth McCracken, Ron Carlson, Tony Hoagland, or perhaps some other equally amazing author?? There’s an app for that. . .or anyway, there’s a website. And you’ll be …

via A Manuscript Critique Sale to Benefit Caregivers – And A Little Personal History, Too.