What Our Characters Keep

By  Karen Wills

“All these items you’re safeguarding are, in essence, the relics of your life’s defining moments.”                   Chip and Dan Heath, The Power of Moments

Authors can depict and clarify fictional characters by their keepsakes. Sometimes such objects are discovered and loved in a protagonist’s childhood because they’re connected to influential adults.

overstoryIn Richard Powers’, The Overstory, Nick Hoel, destined to become an artist, is fascinated by a series of photographs taken every month since 1903 of the sentinel chestnut on his family’s farm in Iowa. He keeps the stack of photos intact throughout his life which becomes as singular as the chestnut itself. The tree and the photographs ultimately shape Nick—his values, his devotion to one woman, and his fate.

In another of my favorite novels, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, gentleman in moscowthe aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced during the Russian Revolution to life under house arrest in the Metropol, Moscow’s most luxurious hotel. Moved to a cramped attic room, he must choose only a few possessions to take with him. One choice is a portrait of his deceased younger sister, Helena. He loved her, and her portrait also evokes memories of Idlehour, his family’s country estate. He associates the painting with his idyllic boyhood as part of a refined, privileged, and noble family. The siblings’ history shows the foolishness and sometimes cruelty of the old life as well. Both Helena and Idlehour are part of the beloved lost past. But our charming Count might still have a most surprising future.

In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, thirteen-year-old Theo rescues a precious painting following a terrorist attack on the museum where the work by the Dutch master Fabritius is part of an exhibit. The attack leaves Theo’s mother dead. He carries the little painting with him for years, never revealing that he has it. Its beauty sustains him through grief, loneliness, and one of the most interesting friendships ever created by an author. At the novel’s end, he ponders everything that has happened, and realizes that he kept the painting first and foremost because it is so touching and exquisite.

goldfinchHe thinks, “And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them…while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

What our characters choose to keep safe can help define them. If we accept that a bit of ourselves exists in each of our characters, perhaps their keepsakes help define us, too.

river with no bridge

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Confessions of a Historical Fiction Fanatic

By Janice McCaffrey

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ramifications of reading historical fiction. Does it smother history under make believe? Or does it inspire readers to reach outside of their comfort zones.

For me historical fiction often whet’s my appetite for facts. That curiosity leads me to research and of course to Google. Over the years I’ve collected eclectic facts from around the world.

But last year a seemingly innocent choice took over my life.

I watched an international historical fiction TV series, Magnificent Century(Netflix.com). And now my family and friends roll their eyes if I so much as mention the word “Turkey.” Even during this holiday season.

I can’t help it!

I fell in love with Sultan Süleyman I   suleyman

. . . of course the actor who portrayed him, Halit Ergenç didn’t hurt.

Süleyman was the Ottoman Empire’s longest reigning Sultan (1520-1566). He set fair taxes and protected ethnic and religious minorities. He updated the Empire’s code of law and instituted free education for boys. He’s responsible for the Empire’s unique artistic legacy. He wrote poetry, was an accomplished goldsmith, and led the world in architecture building mosques and public buildings. In Jerusalem he restored the Dome of the Rock and the city walls (still the Old City of Jerusalem’s walls) and renovated the Kaaba in Mecca.

And what a romantic! During the same era Henry VIII was arguing with the Pope about a divorce, Süleyman changed the law so he could not only marry his favorite concubine, Hurrem, but also live with her. He even bent the mores of the day inviting her to council meetings and taking her advice on matters of state. She was an important diplomat especially between the Ottoman Empire and her native Poland.

Fascinated with the Ottoman Empire and Halit I’ve gone on to an array of historical and contemporary movies, TV shows and books, both fiction and non-fiction. I highly recommend The Butterfly’s Dream (Netflix) a touching story based on two lesser-known Turkish poets, Rüştü Onur and Muzaffer Tayyip Uslu.

Over the past several months I’ve experimented with traditional Turkish recipes and learned lyrics to a few of their popular songs. And, yes, I’m working on the language (thanks Free Turkish Lessons Online or I should say soğul (pronounced sowl).

I guess the answers to my original questions can be both yes and no. It depends on the person doing the reading.

This personal admission of my fanaticism is just one example of historical fiction’s ability to promote a readers’ expansion of knowledge. I’m thankful for authors who give us the facts blended with imagination.

And I wish all of you a very Şükran Günü kutlu olsun (Happy Thanksgiving)

 

Artists and the Marketplace

By Karen Wills                                    

gypsey woman

Gypsy Woman Holding Baby

“Works of art are the product of a complicated system of social interaction between artists, patrons, critics, and a public that is as broad as possible, all influencing each other in their assessments and behavior.”  Doris Krystof

Krystof wrote this in her book about the life and work of the painter Modigliani. It may hold true for writers as well. Most of us don’t write in a vacuum. Patrons might appear in the form of scholarships, academic writing programs, or advances from publishers. Our critics may begin with family members, critique groups, agents and editors who listen to our pitches, publishers, and eventually a publishing house’s developmental and copy editors.

Most important is that broad-as-possible public. Once a book is released, as authors we’re to make our book, and ourselves, well known. Our efforts may come in the forms of advertising. I ran an ad in Montana: The Magazine of Western History since River with No Bridge is a historical novel set in Montana. I sent out a press release that resulted in an interview. I’ll be signing books at the Montana Book and Toy Company in Helena on September 16, and making a presentation at Helena’s Lewis and Clark Library the following day. I’ve placed the book with local booksellers. And I try to contact book clubs like my own. Book clubs tend to be democratic. They’re the broadest possible public because members often choose from varied genres. I love book clubs.

All that said, once a book is released into the world, it takes on a life of its own, like a grown child. Critics influence the public. The public influences modern day patrons, and an author begins the next book, mindful of results of the assessments and behaviors of all involved in the last novel’s reception. Of course, some of the greatest writers (think Emily Dickinson)  and artists like Modigliani worked according to a brilliant inner vision, connecting to a divine mystery that didn’t bring them fame and wealth, but made their work immortal. And us, the broad public, the richer for it.         

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I’m too Sexy for my Scenes

By Karen Wills

the kiss 

Sex scenes. When, why, and where do they belong in novels? Sex is as important in fiction as in real life. And fiction incorporates particular reasons involving plot and structure for characters to engage in passion. The engaging, its reason for being, its character revelations, and its aftermath, even those details shown and not shown, should enhance the story

I’ve written scenes of passion into River with no Bridge (out June 21). As my protagonist, Irish-Catholic Nora, moves through life, she experiences love, or in one case lust, with three men. I hope readers will sense that the totality of these relationships, and her very different partners, move her from virginity to becoming a sensual lover. Sexual attitudes reveal so much about our characters and their changes.

Sex scenes can also be ugly precursors to damaging consequences for characters victimized by coercion. I’ve just read City of Light, a historical novel set in Buffalo, New York, at the time of the Pan American Expo. Author Lauren Belfer incorporates in one episode a depiction of women’s lack of empowerment at the turn of the century. The protagonist is coerced into having sex with Grover Cleveland. She uses details (“Your stomach like a rubbery cushion”) to show how frightening and disorienting forced sex is and how it determines so much of the story that follows.

After City of Light, I turned to Montana Women Writers own Deborah Epperson’s latest novel, Shadows of Home. Two former teenage lovers reclaim that status in several detailed scenes of passion renewed. Lovemaking is shown as their key to rediscovery and joyful reunion. It’s also a means of healing rifts, stress, and misunderstanding.

A sex scene should only be used as needed to move the story forward. The introduction of lovemaking changes characters’ relationships. A sex scene just to have a sex scene will never work. Authors often struggle with the verbal details of the sex scene. The words used can vary depending on the characters. Crude characters tend to use crude words. More refined lovers, and seducers, use a refined vocabulary. Writers also vary in our own ideas of propriety. Modern readers are quite sophisticated and unlikely to be as easily offended as their historical counterparts.

Remember the language of a sex scene belongs to the character, not the author. If the story needs the scene then use it. There are many ways to write sex scenes. Every sentence should move the story forward and show us what our characters desire or fear.

river with no bridge

May Book News

dafadills

LESLIE BUDEWITZ: I’m on the road today — or in the air, heading home from the annual Malice Domestic Mystery Convention held in Bethesda, MD, a fan convention celebrating the traditional mystery, and home of the Agatha Awards. It’s a fun time, attending panel discussions and interviews, participating in the panel on food in mystery, and visiting with readers and authors from across the continent. Of course, afterwards, my “To Be Read” pile will reach mountainous proportions!

On May 12, I’ll be participating in the Whitefish Library Association’s annual Dorothy M. Johnson Book Festival, honoring the enduring legacy of one of Montana’s best-known and best-loved authors. Join the fun Sat May 12, 6-9 pm, at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish. Authors from around the Flathead will be signing books and visiting with readers. I’d love to see you there.

leslie

 

Marie Martin: I am also attending the Dorthy M Johnson Book Festival.  I will present a work shop titled marrying Characters and Settings at the Whitefish Library from 1-3 in the afternoon. In the evening, I’ll be at the O’Shaughnessy Center with my books. It will be a nice time to visit with readers and friends. Hope to see you there.