Politics in Fiction

By Janice McCaffrey

I attended the Virtual National Historical Novel Society Conference in June 2021 and had an Ah-ha! moment in the workshop given by Samantha Rajaram and Carrie Callaghan which they called Identifying the Politics in Your Writing. I’ve added and in your reading.

What are the politics they refer to? The online Oxford Dictionary says: Politics are the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power. (I added the bold). With that in mind the presenters asked, Who has the power? How did they get the power? How do they keep the power? Do they share it with anyone? If so, who? How do the people with power feel?

And on the other side of the coin. Who doesn’t have the power? Why don’t they have it? What can they do to get it? Why do they want it? How do they feel about not having it? If you can’t identify the person or group with the power, pay attention to the important resource they jealously guard—money, control, love, magic—and you’ll find that whoever owns that holds the power.

Power and who has it can be looked at from a macro perspective, for example who rules a country, society, organization. As well as, from a micro perspective between fewer people, clubs, congregations, families, and couples.

These concepts show up in all areas of our lives in all societies and groups. When you’re in a group of two or more sit back and observe how they interact. See if you can identify the power struggle(s) going on. Do the same when reading or writing a novel. To quote Rajaram and Callaghan, “Acknowledge and utilize the power dynamics [we see or live, and subtlety include them] in our writing.”

Another interesting workshop was called Sharpening the Blade with Julianne Douglas, Mariah Fredricks, and Karen Odden. Their handout asks, “What are the big events that all the characters will have in their collective consciousness that could cause widespread anxiety or excitement?” A couple examples would be a world war or New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Readers will be able to identify the emotions of the characters because we’ve all been introduced to wars and the big party. I recently read a novel that took place in 1941 Europe that had one Jewish character in it. As soon as I understood those three facts, I automatically became anxious and worried about the character, fearing, from my knowledge of that time and place, what the future might be for that person. It kept me reading.

These authors also asked us to perceive what political, economic, legal, educational, and social conditions would create or limit possibilities for our characters. As we write, but again, also as readers, look for these influences. And remember good writers don’t spell it out, they leave it for us readers to figure out. Which we’ll usually do through our emotional reactions that mirror those of the characters.

Both workshops gave me insight to put into action as a reader and a writer. To all five of you presenters, Thank you!

Why Is Reality So Dull…After Writing Fiction?

By Marsha Sultz

For NanoWrimo this year, I decided to write a memoir of my mother, my aunt and me. These two women were instrumental in forming my opinion of womanhood and of how a woman should behave. Were they extraordinary examples in the canon of female wisdom? No. Well, perhaps only to me.

They were normal women of their period and place in society. Lower middle-class roots, rising marginally to respectable middle class. They grew up during the Depression of the nineteen-thirties and experienced World War II from their homes in Nashville, Tennessee.

I decided to include family history – facts uncluttered by flowery prose. I thought I’d add that in revision. But midway through the month, it came as a thunderbolt that the reality of my entire family was unutterably dull. At least from the perspective of a shareable memoir.

How do memoirists charm us into their intimate world? How do they take a mundane life (sorry, but most of our lives include the mundane) and turn it into a fascinating look at a unique human being?

I realize any first attempt at a new genre is a long uphill slog but, like any saggy middle, I was struck by the fact that reality – even my reality – is often quite dull. Did I have the stamina and the imagination to pursue my initial vision of these women? Was I a good enough writer to turn their lives into a meaningful treatise on how our mothers and other elders can influence a young life?

So many questions.

At one point in my life, I was interested in family genealogy and shared with my brother my attempts to find the hidden mysteries of our heritage. He scoffed, he sneered, he thought I was searching for royal connections.

As if.

“All our relatives were poor dirt farmers in rural Tennessee,” he said. “You won’t find anything interesting.”

As in many conversations with my brother, I came away angry but determined to continue. He didn’t understand that I wasn’t searching for notable connections, I was trying to understand how my forebears lived their daily lives. How they got to market or raised their children. Where they lived and why they chose to settle in a backwoods county in the rural South.

Maybe the germ of my memoir started there. Trying to understand the meaning of a life, no matter how humble. I’ll try to hold that in my thoughts as I turn my memories of two women I loved into a testimonial of their generosity toward a young, impressionable girl.

At the end of November, I think I’ll return to my novel revisions with a lighter heart and a renewed sense of purpose. And with gratitude that I can breathe a sigh of relief and create a new reality not dependent on pesky facts.

Exploring Dreams as a Writer’s Tool

A report on two books by Diane E. Bokor

Isabelle Allende

Amy Tan

Stephen King

Anne Rice

William Styron

Sue Grafton

All of these successful writers have at least one thing in common.  They strategically use their dreams to enhance their writing. 

Through an odd set of circumstances and her own dream-work, Naomi Epel convinced twenty-six famous writers to share insights into how their writing and their dreams intertwine.  Epel’s book, Writers Dreaming, is a unique anthology and a fascinating read.

King and Rice confessed that a nightmare from childhood sparked scenes in their published stories.

King and Grafton confessed that often, before falling asleep, they beg their dreaming mind for help with plot problems.  And the process works.

Styron’s idea for Sophie’s Choice was sparked by a haunting dream fragment that lingered one morning as he awoke.

Allende and Tan use their dreams to visit supportive ancestors and to change their own life circumstances.

Some of the interviewed writers describe being able to put themselves into a dream-like waking state when writing. Steven King describes this “sort of semi-dreaming state” as a little bit like finding “a secret door in a room but not knowing exactly how you got in.”

By the end of the book, I was ready to hop into bed and start dreaming.

Another helpful book on this topic is The Dreaming Writer by Alicia Leigh (subtitled: Applied Dreaming).  The reader finds over twenty exercises from easy (cultivating daydreaming) to hard (generating lucid dreams).  At the back of the book there is a dream symbology dictionary with suggestions of how to use your own dream images in your writing. 

If you’re looking to use a new writing tool, something you already have available to you each night (and day), check out these book suggestions.

On the Shoulders of Giants

The first and last time I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, I was in college, in the early 1970s.  I loved it then, and now that I’ve just re-read it almost 50 years later, I still love and admire it.  

This science fiction classic is older than I am, but it still holds a wealth of truth and meaning, even though many outward things have changed in my lifetime.  When I was born, man hadn’t been beyond our planet’s atmosphere, there were no cordless phones, let alone cell phones.  Scientists were just beginning to understand the mysteries of the atom.  The stars were fuzzy shapes seen through earth’s atmosphere.  Computers were rooms full of reels, tubes, and wires.  The whole control room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center hadn’t been developed yet, and when it was, it carried the same capacity that we can fit in our pockets now, or on our wrists.

So how can it be that books written before 1950 still have something to say to our modern age?  Because I believe Asimov in this series has dealt with the fundamentals of human thought and behavior.  And he’s done it the way only a very skillful and well-educated scientist/author can.

For me it boils down to the truth that human nature doesn’t really change.  We can be in a setting far in the past, such as The Clan of the Cave Bear, the less-distant past of the European Middle Ages, in books by Sharon K. Penman, the more contemporary settings of most modern fiction set in the twentieth century, or the far distant future that most sci-fi writers use.  Human beings, no matter when they are living, all have the same mental processes, emotions, foibles, faults, and all.

As an author of fiction (mostly science fiction, I confess), I am seeking in my own small way to emulate great thinkers and writers like Asimov.  Perhaps I’m hoping to catch a better glimpse of some far-off truth by attempting to stand on the shoulders of these giants who came before me.  (I know there’s a quote to that effect somewhere, but I can’t remember who said it.)  And I’ll keep on looking for this “Great Beyond” until my dying day, I suppose.

Thoughts for Success

Betty cowboy hat prairie.1


By Betty Kuffel

Believe in yourself when that voice in your head tells you your writing stinks, or you’ve spelled “the” wrong, or you just don’t have it in you to finish the novel that has been living in your brain for years. Don’t listen. Believe in yourself.

Find a positive motto that fits you. Put it over your computer in full view, read it when you have second thoughts about your skills or ability to complete a writing project. Let it stimulate positive thoughts. Mine is from Dr. Seuss:

You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.

Einstein counting My writing area is a positive corner with a desk facing East. I accomplish the most in early morning, love sunrise, and am usually there to greet the lightening sky. The singing early birds brighten my days, too. Over my desk I have a couple important photos, one is of my granddaughter who makes me smile. I also have a photo of Albert Einstein counting on his fingers to remind me my lacking math skills shouldn’t stop me from accomplishing my goals. I also have a quote from him: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then is an empty desk a sign?”

When my desk looks like his, piled high with books and cluttered with papers, I don’t worry, I press on and put cleaning off until tomorrow … or later.

There are so many things to do instead of writing we have to avoid the distractions, ignore them. At the end of your writing day, take an hour to clean and straighten things out, but get ready for your next day of writing and get a good night’s sleep.

Feather women

Each morning I arise in early morning darkness. I dress, put on a little lipstick as if I’m heading to work and sit down at my computer with a cup of coffee. I look up and admire a woman flying over my desk with feathers in her hands and read my Dr. Seuss motto. It works for me. 

I don’t believe in writers’ block. When a story stalls, go on to another writing project as the stalled one churns in your thoughts. Or take a break and write a blog for deposit in the Montana Women Writers’ blog bank.

Remember: Life.Piano 

Happy writing.