Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘interview’

Just the Facts, Ma’am

And get them straight. Know the difference between stalactites and stalagmites because no one likes tripping over stalactites in a cave – it means they’re traveling bat-like, feet up, and feeling nauseous at being upside down. And if you don’t know the difference between elicit and illicit, you may find yourself punctured by barbs volleyed your way by irritated readers. No one likes reading falsehoods, whether in non-fiction or fiction. People want certain inalienable facts to be correct and well established. Even science fiction should begin here on earth before it spins to the outer edges of the Milky Way.

As a kid I figured a word in print was a word in fact. I’ll always remember the first time I knew that to be wrong. I’d been reading a kid’s book, not one that was famous or remarkable in any way except that it occupied time in my boring life. The main character was a homely girl with few talents who was looking for something to make her shine – the same thing every lonely kid wants. A friend washes homely girl’s long hair and discovers that, wet, her hair is curly. Thing is, wet hair, soaking wet hair, is straight. If curly hair is ever going to hang like iron rods, it’s going to be when the shampoo has just been squeezed out. Curly hair releases its springs as it dries, each tendril winding around its invisible cylinder to make a singular corkscrew among hundreds of corkscrews. I know. I have curly hair. I didn’t trust anything else that happened in the book, and it was one of the last kid’s books I read. (Until I became an adult and realized how outstanding some kids’ books are.) Skepticism isn’t a bad trait to have but how unfortunate to have developed it in an activity – reading – I loved.

A colleague is writing a story that includes a common if potentially dangerous medical condition, one of those events you learn to recognize when taking emergency first aid courses. Once trained, the markers are obvious, the course of action to protect the victim is well established, and the possible outcomes are reliably documented. When her story detoured through a completely inaccurate set of medical events, from onset of crisis to the all-clear sign, I wondered if she was trying to hint at the characters taking control by faking the medical incident in order to confuse the other characters. Discussion proved that the writer simply didn’t know her stuff and made up a scenario that fit her plot. Unfortunately the whole scene threw the book out of kilter and made what was supposed to be climactic, silly. The tone of the book went from thrilling to ridiculous.

One of my books relates a devastating local event that happened in our city when I was a teenager. It forms the backdrop of the story. A very dear friend who lived right next to the event, a huge fire, gave me first hand information based on what she saw, literally right out her window.  She told me things I couldn’t have discovered any other way. But she had one crucial piece of information wrong: the year. I knew the actual year, and it was critical to my story to be accurate. She’d even loaned me the dozen or so saved newspapers with the fire as front page news, the date of the fire on top of every page. It provided a trove of facts and details I’ve incorporated into the story. I chalked up her error and insistence that she was right about the wrong year to stubborn one-ups-man-ship, or to the occasional quicksand of her golden years and her temporal distance from the event. (No, I didn’t argue with her. She was a dear friend and there was no need to point out her one little mistake. I did make it right in my book.)

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the main male character exhibits a gift for building and repairing, later for finding hidden, radios. In the hands of rebels, radio transmissions reveal secret Nazi strategy. Thus conveyed, partisans are scuttling the Axis war machine. Fascinated by the ability of radios to condense time, to breach borders and allegiances, Doerr learned everything he could about their operation, how they’re built, how they can be located, and how they transmit across radio waves. A world of beauty and horror, of innocence and moral redemption, is made palpable through the simple but thorough descriptions of mollusks, birds, diamonds, and radios, all of it dependent on in-depth knowledge of the actual items.

Isabelle Allende is famous for lapsing into magical realism in many of her books, a jaunt into what is physiologically impossible yet essential to the story. In The House of the Spirits, based on historical events in twentieth century Latin America, the violence and abuse of a powerful male figure is juxtaposed by the loving spirituality of the women around him, and eventually leads to his reformation. One woman famously plays piano without lifting the piano lid. The connection to a world outside of science and pragmatism lends a radiant quality that makes the accurately depicted historical events ever more exquisite and horrible and ultimately comprehensible.

The difference between knowing what’s real yet choosing to present what isn’t, and not knowing the difference, is what makes one writer’s works celebrated, the next, criticized. Writers must build on a scaffold of fact and history. We may deviate but before we leap off the beams, best we know the tensile strength of the steel and the likelihood that we will be able to fly. I want to hear my readers gasp as they soar over chasms, to touch rock safely on the opposite side. Or believe they have.

 

 

Newsboy painting courtesy: Karol D. Witkowski, and Wikimedia public domain images

 

 

Polystearolmonocylibrium #17

 

 

What is this stuff, polystearolmonocylibrium #17? Have no idea. Nothing I’d want to put in my mouth, over my kids, or around my garden. Must be some chemical-mineral concoction brewed up at a secret laboratory in the bowels of Los Alamos. Number 17 yet – sheesh, they made an awful lot of mistakes getting to the one potion they liked well enough to put on the market. Hope they know what they’re doing – hope they know what polystearolmonocylibrium #17 does!

Thing is, I’ve read wanna-be books – books whose authors hope they are on the road to publication – that are as knowledgeable about aspects of incidents in their stories as you are about polystearolmonocylibrium. Which means they’ve written rubbish. Writers can’t write what they don’t know about. Those who do present themselves as false, pretentious, foolish. Readers won’t put up with deception. Rule number one, or someplace near the top of the list: write what you know.

Were I to write only about what I know from personal experience, my work would be a few hundred pages of everyday observations. Best dusting techniques when guests are arriving in half an hour – focus on what shows, skip the back of the shelves. Shortest driving route up the California coast – the inland 5 Freeway which is flat and hot and unbelievably gets flatter and hotter. Discovery that California Highway Patrol does not take reports about minor surface-street accidents – non-freeway fender benders are the jurisdiction of the California Sheriff. I haven’t lived in a war zone, been kidnapped by desperadoes, invented anything of worth, or lived the life of a space pioneer, so my first hand experiences are limited to these kinds of mundane activities. How to write about spectacular events from my armchair?

Here are snippets about how the experts approach fiction. Barbara Kingsolver researched the mudslide catastrophe of the Mexican village of Angangueo, Mexico, where the monarch butterflies migrate very year. She also studied with a dedicated biology team to combine the real peril of climate change with an imaginative take on biological adaptability to write Flight Behavior. One of the most striking images of her book is that of a forest on fire with the orange flicker of monarchs that have alighted thousands of miles off course in an impoverished community seeking a miracle. Readers cheered for the butterflies to thrive in their new home, for the townspeople to find something of value in themselves, for global warming to reverse.

Charles Frazier modified with great license his knowledge of the life of his uncle, William P. Inman, a Civil War veteran. He blended the history of the Appalachians in the mid 1800’s with a story of betrayal and redemption to write the book, Cold Mountain. Frazier even attended a fiddler’s convention, and his passages about music sound like the work of a master musician. His feel for the people of the mountain, their culture and language, lends the story true breath. Readers ache for the plights of Inman, Ada, and Ruby, and the mad injustices of war.

Geraldine Brooks studied, under the careful supervision of museum attendants, the actual Sarajevo Haggadah to write People of the Book, merging her observations of the illuminated fourteenth century manuscript with her imagination to create a story that sounds completely plausible, reads with much insight about the medieval artists who may have made the book, and the Bosnian museum director who protected it from the nazis. To follow Brooks’ tale is to enter a world of artists and scholars, of piety and peril. Readers touch the lives of people escaping conflict or creating sanctuary.

From these talented and brilliant writers I learned a great deal, first of all accepting how little I knew. Research has become the pillar of my writing, as it is for these professional, oft published, and highly acclaimed writers. Learning about unfamiliar skills and historical events lends, if not the brilliance of Kingsolver, Frazier, Brooks, at least the shine of verity to my work.

I attended a lecture and demonstration at the Getty Museum to learn about the craft of marquetry, then spent hours at their detailed marquetry exhibit, taking notes on all the steps involved in the process. Later I read several articles and sought examples of this lovely work, and spent time with a wood carver who demonstrated additional skills. This knowledge of woodworking is essential to one of my novels, The Inlaid Table.

I interviewed a friend who’d lived through a fire that devastated a Southern California neighborhood decades ago. For many hours she shared the day that the fire raged through Lemon Heights, and told me a few details only a first person account could reveal. She’d also saved every newspaper article about the fire and let me borrow them. I read the papers carefully and took notes, corroborated events with maps, working the facts into the fiction of my story, The Tree House Mother.

I’ve read numerous books about Alzheimer’s, attended workshops with people whose families are struggling because a member has the disease, and listened attentively to the lectures of physicians and researchers engaged in the cutting edge discoveries that may lead to a cure. I’ve also sat many hours with people whose lives teeter in the strange vacuum of the disease, and found both dignity and craziness. What I understand of this illness rests at the heart of my book, Where Did Mama Go?

When I began writing each of these books, I knew I would have to find out more than the general knowledge and limited experience I had of specific items or historic eras. What I now know makes my stories read authentically, a frequent comment from readers. That’s what knowing your subject gets for you – a reader who believes.

I did invent one thing: the word Polystearolmonocylibrium. According to Google: “Your search – Polystearolmonocylibrium – did not match any documents.” I could research the Latin roots of the parts of the word, though ultimately it’s nonsense and means nothing. My writing means everything. Yours must as well.

 

 

Light bulb image: Google Free Images Pixabay

 

 

Dark Wine at Midnight – A Book to Keep You Up All Night

Dark Wine at Midnight by Jenna Barwin will keep you up all night – reading, not hiding under the bed in fright. It’s Book I of A Hill Vampire Novel, and I can’t wait till Book II is available.

Murderous attacks on prominent vampires unsettle everyone who must adhere to the rigid rules of living on the Hill of Sierra Escondida. We meet Cerissa Patel, a medical scientist from New York and member of the mysterious Lux, and Henry Bautista, a successful vineyard owner on the Hill. A host of other vampires compete to attract the attention of the intelligent and beautiful Patel, some for love, or friendship, or business prospects – or to ban her from their protected enclave.

Pursuit by two of the town’s most eligible vampire bachelors complicates things. Has Cerissa been sent to spy on the residents, to kill them, or only to open the research lab she claims is her goal? Is the danger to her or because of her? And just what is the research she wants to pursue?

Barwin’s intelligence shows in her authentic rendering of blackjack, wine making, horseback riding, vampires, business politics, and a complex plot that never wanders off track. It leaves plenty of suspects about who might hold a grudge big enough to kill, and who is a spy or a loyal friend. One of the most rewarding aspects of the book is the characterization of every person – each is believable and has depth, no matter how much or little their presence in the book. The story is paced just right as Barwin lingers over some scenes and plows through others, leaving the reader breathless at every turn. Did I mention the sexy romance? Oh yeah, that too.

Vampire stories aren’t something I usually seek out but I do look for excellent writing, a compelling story line, and characters who are interesting and unique. Dark Wine fulfilled all my hopes for a story that would keep me engaged, and it did that with aplomb and sparkles. Barwin is a talented writer who tops out on all the markers that identify really good writing.

If you like fantasy romance, you’ll love this book.

That’s what I wrote for my review of Barwin’s book on the Amazon site. As a writer, I’m interested in finding out about the journey of other writers, both in creating and marketing their stories. So you’ll appreciate my excitement when I had a chance to interview the author.

May I now introduce you to Jenna Barwin.

S: Jenna, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

J: Thanks for asking, Shari. I’m very happy to talk with you about my writing.

S: What’s the “elevator pitch” for Dark Wine at Midnight?

J: Dark Wine at Midnight, the first book in my urban fantasy Hill Vampire series, is equal parts mystery, political intrigue, and love story. It’s also a little bit Dr. Frankenstein meets Shark Tank, but with vampire entrepreneurs.

Here’s the elevator pitch: A research scientist is forced by her people to spy on the vampires she’s trying to help. One of those vampires is an expert winemaker with eyes the color of dark bourbon—and just as intoxicating. To succeed, she must convince him to trust her, despite the dark secrets each carries, and the mutual attraction they can’t resist.

S: What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

J: Escaping into the fantasy and watching the story unfold. I particularly enjoyed discovering the chemistry between the lovers, Henry and Cerissa, and learning who they are as people.

S: Escaping into fantasy sounds like a fun adventure. What inspired you to write about vampires?

J: I’ve always been fascinated by vampires. I read Dracula as a young teen, and watched all the horror movies. And something in me wanted the vampire, the tragic hero, to get the girl.

I’m also fascinated by what the vampire represents in society. I saw Dracula as the clash between modern science and superstition. But over one family dinner, I listened to a relative argue that the 19th century vampire tale represented the Englishman’s fear of losing his “women” to Eastern European immigrants.

The more you dig, the more there is to see. In some ways, I think the vampire story parallels substance addiction—the vampire is addicted to drinking a substance that, by drinking it, hurts the one he/she loves.

S: Addiction is a very interesting metaphor I’d never considered before in relationship to vampires, but I see your point. It makes the theme of your book a current topic, something on everyone’s mind, as many of us confront addiction in the people we love or in ourselves.

J: There are so many interesting themes to play with when it comes to vampires. I enjoyed flipping some of them around. For example, I got tired of reading about white European vampires. The vampire community in Dark Wine at Midnight is multicultural, with residents from places like Mexico and Kenya. They are immigrants who came to California, and made their home here.

S: Are you married to a vampire?

J: LOL, no, I’m happily married to a mortal. Although he’ll tell you he’s a superhuman ninja.

S: OK, I didn’t really think so, but you probably wouldn’t admit if you were. So tell me one quirky thing about your writing process.

J: I see the movie in my head before I write a scene. I’ll hear the characters speaking, and see them move in their environment. Because of that, my first draft reads like a movie script. Then I have to go back and ask myself, what is the point-of-view character thinking about? What are they feeling? And I have to try to show that, too.

S: By the way, the book cover is gorgeous.

J: Why, thank you. I’m glad you like it.

S: Aside from vampires, what inspires your writing?

J: Relationships. I think relationships change people. They call us to be our best selves, to have insight into who we are, and why we do what we do.

In addition to relationships, I get some of my most creative spurts after long hours spent applying analytical and logic skills to a task. Too much left brain work will cause my right brain to jump up and down and scream “Let me out! I wanna play, I wanna play.”

S: Do you have any favorite books about writing?

J: It’s a toss-up. Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story is at the top of my list, but Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict follows as a close second. At this year’s California Dreamin’ Conference, both authors gave presentations on writing, and I was taking notes as fast as I could type.

S: What’s next on your writing agenda?

J: Dark Wine at Sunrise is book 2 in the Hill Vampire series, and I’m currently editing it.

S: I’m happy to know that as I’m looking forward to reading the next book soon. Where can we find your current book?

J: Dark Wine at Midnight is currently free in Kindle Unlimited. The eBook and paperback are also available for purchase on Amazon. Here is the link:

https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Wine-Midnight-Vampire-Novel-ebook/dp/B06XTKJRHZ/

S: Where can we find out more about you and what you write?

J: For the latest news and special offers, sign up to be a VIP Reader at: https://jennabarwin.com/jenna-barwins-newsletter/

Or find me on social media and join the conversation:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jennabarwin/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JennaBarwin (@JennaBarwin)

Instagram: jennabarwin

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/jennabarwin/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Jenna-Barwin/e/B06XV6TMG9/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16632097.Jenna_Barwin

 

S: Thanks for the information, Jenna. I wish you well on your writing career.

 

My dear Ink Flare Readers, I hope you find this interview illuminating, and I bet you’ll love Barwin’s book.

 

 

Cover image courtesy: Author

 

 

 

 

Someplace in the World

Stories happen someplace in the world, but not just anyplace. Someplace special where I will take you. That’s the purpose of writing about specific locations and historical periods, and incorporating them into our stories. We writers take our readers to places they may never have been at times they couldn’t have traveled. Try to imagine Khaled Hosseini’s young runner, Hassan, chasing a blue kite down the sidewalks of Parkway Avenue in Trenton, NJ rather than across the snaggletoothed alleys of Kabul, Afghanistan before the revolution. Doesn’t have the same panache. Or consider Charles Dickens’ famished Oliver Twist begging for soup from the cafeteria lady at the school lunchroom instead of the miserly master of a workhouse in 1800’s London. Not nearly as desperate. Floating in a hot air balloon over Albuquerque is daily business compared to the heart stopping thrill of balloon racing around the world for 80 days at the imagination of Jules Verne. You can’t gallop the Pony Express in Manhattan or mush the Iditarod in the Everglades.

old-globe-1559231

The places where our stories happen are as important as the characters peopling them and the events energizing them. When well realized, each complements the others and creates memorable images that propel the plot. More, the plot is possible because of specific locations. Even if you have never visited Kabul, Trenton, the Great Plains, Nome, or hitched a ride in a balloon gondola, you have a sense of the roiling sky above, the smell on the street, the sounds pummeling your ears, the motion that nearly makes you sick. Ignore location in your books and run the risk of readers dismissing your work. “Where in the world does this take place?” you can hear them ask, and if they do, you have failed.

How then, to include a genuine scene of the exotic or extinct in your story, to be in that place at that moment when you’re potatoing at your computer? My own stories have begun as much in a place as with a hero and a quest. They are lock stepped into a setting as distinctive and essential as The Great Wall is to China, into a period as horrific as the Inquisition is to fifteenth century Spain. The Inlaid Table was born in a shtetl in Poland between the two world wars and otherwise would have been a laminated TV tray. Where Did Mama Go? is as fastened to the current zeitgeist of Alzheimer’s discourse as cell phones are glued to teenagers. The Tree House Mother would only have been a description of a backyard fort were it not for the twisting narrow roads that confounded fire departments when Lemon Heights (Orange County, California) burned in the 1960’s.

Our house was only a few miles from the center of that inferno. I remember the billowing black smoke that rained ashes on the flatlands where we lived. If there is an authentic voice to the fire in my story, it’s because of a bit of luck forged years before. My parents were longtime friends with a married couple who lived in the hills. When the fire ignited, our family worried for everyone, but we knew who we worried for the most. Their friends were safe and their house remained intact, but many years later the woman proved an amazing source of first hand information. I recalled a lot about that week but I hadn’t been in the hills, only a hilltop from the flames. She had.

I phone interviewed Anita many hours over several days, then met with her in a restaurant where I sensed the anxiety she’d felt all those decades past. She told me things no one had reported, details that give flesh to a skeleton of an event. About the lost fire trucks, the panicked horses, the police coming around twice to warn people to evacuate, the manager who stood on the roof of the water department building and watched the fire leap ridge lines.

Then she brought out a packet of saved newspapers in a plastic sleeve, an entire journalistic rehash for two weeks of detailed reporting, and allowed me to take them home. Studying those papers was a boon I couldn’t have planned. Small town reporters know that a once in a lifetime opportunity to write up something other than high school football scores and lost dogs is to be mined for every ounce of fool’s gold and diamond dust, because it might be the only chance to move out of the minor leagues up to the real deal. The local newshounds honed their skills with attention to detail, fact collecting worthy of the FBI, and local color so neon that everyone knew exactly who’d been interviewed and which houses had burned. Thank you one and all, you young cubs, and I hope you went on to bylines and columns of your own.

I studied the papers, I re-wrote my notes, I pondered, and had plenty of true life detail to write into my otherwise fabricated story. My hero, a figment of my imagination, got sidelined by horses fleeing down the road. She gave directions to lost firemen. I know from personal experience the acrid scent of smoke, how hot are raging flames, but the frightened horses and lost firemen – that was the contribution of my friend, Anita. She doesn’t write stories but she remembered.

Do whatever you need to gather first person evidence. If you can’t interview Columbus or visit Timbuktu in order to write your story, scour diaries, census records, personal letters, almanacs, ship registers, train schedules, old maps, and warehouse supply lists. Snoop where snooping will unearth something useful, even though you won’t know how useful till you’re writing. Get those facts and thread them into your story so your reader will smack his hand against his head and declare, “Feels like I’m right in the middle of this.”