Thursday, October 27, 2011
When I get an idea for a novel, I break out a fresh spiral notebook (as you now know from one of my first posts on this blog). I jot down thoughts about titles, character names, and the descriptions of those who will populate my book. I record ideas about the season in which the story will take place, the weather, and "visuals," such as being able to see someone's breath in the cold, crisp air, or the smothering feel of heat and humidity just before the relief of a summer thunderstorm. For me, this process of examining and recording random thoughts can go on for weeks, maybe months, until I begin hearing voices. (I'm fortunate not to have lived in the time of Joan of Arc!) The voices I hear are those of the characters who are "composting" or coming to life in my brain. I already have their approximate ages and personalities in my head, but when I "hear" their voices -- the tones they use and the unique language they favor -- that's when I sit down and begin the first draft of the book. In Good Fridays, Emily, in her eighties, uses easy, conversational phrases such as "we lived right smack dab in the middle of the block." Thirty-year-old Sara chooses gentle, non-confrontational words during the road trip with her manipulative and emotional mother, Vicki, who is sixty-four. For decades, Sara has realized she must avoid doing or saying anything that will upset her mother. Vicki, quick to judge and quick to blame, uses short, direct commands to maintain control of conversations with her daughter or anyone else in her path. The reason why dialogue needs to be unique to each character in a book is so readers can tell who is speaking in the book. If a writer has done a good job assigning the proper dialogue and tones to his or her characters, the conversations can flow freely, and not be hindered by the reader having to trip over "Vicki said" and "Sara replied" over and over, line after line on the pages. Those are speed bumps for readers. What a writer needs to do is keep the pace moving forward, and not interfere with the suspense and action that makes the reader want to keep turning the pages.
Monday, October 24, 2011
Emily received her very first diary from her cousin and best friend, Rosemary, for her eleventh birthday, March 30, 1934, which fell on Good Friday. In her nightgown, sitting at her desk that night, Emily had no idea what to write on the first of so many beautiful, crisp white pages. She also had no way of knowing she would continue keeping diaries for seventy-four years. Emily learned early in life she'd get no comfort from her mother, while Emily's father was forced to let his wife control the family. Emily's cousins were her best friends until she began keeping her diaries. On those pages she could confide, lie, rant, and make promises to her nonjudgemental diary. She wrote of heartbreak and happiness, dreams and disappointments. She vented about her mother's unfair treatment and sadly expressed her concern for her father's wounded pride. Each night when she gently closed the diary, she'd pause for a few seconds and smile with anticipation about what the next night's entry might be. Heartbreak or happiness? Dreams or disappointments?
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Of course, the original story of Emily's life in Baltimore and the Eastern Shore of Maryland takes up the majority of the pages in Good Fridays. But inserted among the parts with Emily's diary entries are the daily accounts of the five-day road trip Vicki and her daughter, Sara, are making from Denver to Baltimore for Emily's funeral. Whether it's a book or a movie, a story needs to have conflict, suspense, action and resolution. There has to be one or more problems facing the main character, and the sooner the better. For Sara, who is the main "contemporary" character in Good Fridays, that conflict begins on page one and represents the fact that she's going to be in a car with her domineering, condescending mother for five days and fifteen hundred miles. Each way. This is a woman Sara has never been able to please, has never been able to let her guard down around, and has never understood. Until now. Although Sara feels somewhat empowered by the recently-acquired knowledge that the problem with her mother is that she has a mental illness, Sara isn't sure she can manage such an enormous amount of "quality time" during the trip and come out of it in one piece. Sara knows Vicki's white Mercedes is about to become her cell for five days. The reader learns that Sara has set two tremendous goals for herself during this trip. First, Sara is planning on confronting her mother about the unfair treatment she's been handing out during Sara's thirty years, and secondly, Sara's going to also confront her mother about another injustice that Vicki's guilty of, something that's been kept from Sara her entire life. So right away, there's lots of suspense for the story. When the white Mercedes arrives to pick up Sara, the reader has already learned enough about Vicki's behavior to pause before joining Sara in the passenger seat. The action throughout Good Fridays is what leads to the story's resolution. By the end of any story, people have to change. Things don't always work out the way a character hopes, but things are definitely different than they were at the beginning of the story. The reader should be given a sense of satisfaction by "The End." Happy endings? Sometimes. But sometimes more like real life.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
Sixty-four-year-old Vicki Stephenson Edwards and her daughter, Sara Edwards, thirty, have always had a challenging relationship. For as far back as she can remember, Sara has felt responsible for her mother's happiness or unhappiness. She's tried to conform to her mother's moods to avoid outbursts and arguments, but even after three decades, Sara feels she's failed to develop the skills to stay out of her mother's cross hairs. About two years before the story of Good Fridays begins, Sara learns that her mother has a mental illness, called borderline personality disorder. The relief Sara feels when she realizes everything is not always all her fault is short-lived when she learns that her mother is incapable of changing. Sara now understands that her mother is a high-functioning sufferer, meaning Vicki can achieve a semblance of normalcy if necessary, but when in the company of those closest to her, like Sara, she shows her true self. Vicki plays the blame game, never taking responsibility for her behavior. She's a bully and a manipulator who twists the truth to suit her needs. As Sara's therapist explained, Sara's in a no-win situation because her mother's goal is, "Heads I win; tails you lose." Dr. Harper has worked closely with Sara to show her the only way to survive being Vicki's daughter is to change herself. Sara is now prepared to confront her mother to set boundaries about the way her mother treats her. The therapist has convinced Sara that she does not have to be the target of her mother's rages; instead she can calmly tell her mother that they won't accomplish anything by talking when her mother is so upset about a situation, but that she will discuss anything with her mother later when Vicki feels calmer. This tactic will definitely not change Vicki's treatment of her daughter, but it will limit some of Sara's exposure to the abuse. Just when Sara makes the commitment to stand up to her mother about this issue, she discovers something much bigger, something so life-changing and heart-breaking which her mother is solely responsible for, that Sara has to summon all the strength she has to confront her mother about this new injustice.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
There is no story without conflict. It doesn't have to be as gigantic and menacing as Moby Dick, or anything as terrifyingly evil as the creature in Alien, but there is no story without a problem. If everything is perfect in the characters' lives, what's the point of reading about them? Each of us has too many books waiting on the bedside table to waste our time wading through boring books. A successful Hollywood screenwriter (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, speaking of conflicts!) once told me that writers have to earn their readers' loyalty with each word we write. In my novel, Good Fridays, Emily Carmichael's life is dominated by her mother. Young Emily can accept the fact that she has strict nuns for her teachers, and she can handle the disappointment of having to be somber when her birthday (March 30th) falls around Good Friday, but her mother is a major source of fear, anger and frustration in Emily's life. Emily's father has learned to let his wife be the boss because he realized a long time ago that when she's happy, then everyone else can be happy. Seeing her father resigned to such a life saddens Emily, but she has no idea how to cope with the years of unfair treatment inflicted on her by her mother. When Emily protests her mother's unfairness, her mother flies into a rage, yet when Emily complies, her mother abruptly twists the truth, confusing the issues and angering and frustrating Emily. Her mother controls every aspect of Emily's young life, from selecting the clothing she wears to which boys she's allowed to socialize with. When the older Emily falls in love with Oliver Wells, the man she wants to marry, her mother rejects him before even meeting him. When Emily and Oliver's daughter is born, Emily is so deeply depressed (because of the recent heart-breaking events in her life) that she submits to her mother's demand that she give up baby Olivia for adoption. Emily's mother had rejected Oliver and because Emily had gone against her mother's orders and married Oliver, the baby was also rejected by Emily's mother. This is the major conflict in Good Fridays that sets in motion the story of Emily, Vicki and Sara. Next time, I'll discuss the conflicts between Vicki and her daughter, Sara.
Friday, October 7, 2011
The main character in Good Fridays is named Emily and she was born on Good Friday in 1923. Emily is one of those old-fashioned, feminine names that's been enjoying a new popularity in recent years. Emily's last name is Carmichael, the name of a road near a place where I used to work. I liked that the names Emily and Carmichael each had three syllables. It made the character sound strong, serious and complex. Emily's sweet and lovely cousin was her best friend and so her name was Rosemary. The first school I went to (as did Emily) was St. Mary's. There was a Sister Ursula and a Father McDonald in my life and in Emily's, too. To get ideas about names for the characters of the mother and daughter in Good Fridays, I determined how old they were going to be in the story and searched online for lists of the most popular baby girl names in the years they were born. I came up with several names that seem suitable and let them play around in my head until a name for each one surfaced. I knew Vicki's name should end with an "I" because of her self-centered and narcissistic nature. The name Sara was simple and straight-forward, just like the thirty-year old woman whose name it became in the book. Emily's first husband was named Oliver Wells and there's a good reason for his first name being what it is, but the explanation will give away too much of the story. Husband #2 was named Jack Curtis, a clean, fast name suitable for a star New York Yankees pitcher. Some of the last names I used in Good Fridays are from my own family. My grandfathers' first names were Stephen and Edward. Stephenson became Vicki's maiden name. Her married name is Edwards, as is Sara's. The Baltimore department store where Emily worked for so many years is actually a name from my mother's side of the family. So, choosing named for characters in a novel is extremely personal for me. Obituaries and church bulletins are also good sources for names. Sometimes it's better to use what's real than to make it up. For a writer, the world is full of ideas just there for the taking. I like to do some research on names for inspiration to find the perfect name to fit the character, and also have a little fun along the way. It all comes down to creativity, which is what writing fiction is all about -- just pulling things out of thin air for readers to enjoy. I want to thank my friend, Deb, for saying how much she liked the name Emily Carmichael, because that's what gave me the idea to share this part of the writing process with you in this post. More later...
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Good Fridays spans the life of Emily Carmichael Wells Curtis, who lived until 2009, when she was eighty-six years old. The character of Vicki Stephenson Edwards is sixty-four during the 2009 life-changing road trip she takes with her daughter, Sara Edwards, who is thirty. Three generations. Three different woman. Three unique personalities. Which woman do readers identify with? That depends on various factors. The comments I'm hearing from readers about the characters in Good Fridays are varied, as are the readers themselves. Age seems to have something to do with how a reader responds to a particular character's behavior. The issue of whether or not the reader is a mother seems to have an impact on how she feels about each of the three main characters in Good Fridays, as well as the type of relationship that reader has with the women in her immediate family. Some readers tell me they can relate to the adversity each of these characters has gone through, and most certainly Emily, Vicki and Sara have each been victimized in very different ways. A book reviewer brought up the point that maybe in the story of Good Fridays, there is no villain, and that's an interesting observation. Sometimes the protagonist in a story is not a specific character, but maybe a circumstance. More next time...