Guest Post – On Making Paperweights: Jacqueline Friedland Talks Strong Women and Memorable Books

Happy Beltane, everyone! I’m so excited to have Jacqueline Friedland as my guest here today. As her post below makes clear, she’s a soul-sister of mine in her love for strong women. Her post really got me thinking about how our early experiences with reading shape who we are later on as writers. I think I may do a follow up post on that with my own thoughts. But this post is about her, not about me. Take it away, Jacqueline!

Photo: Rebecca Weiss Photography

Did you ever try to figure out why certain novels make you fall in love and others make you fall asleep?  Perhaps you’ve wondered if there is a common thread, a specific literary ingredient that draws you so deeply into certain stories?  Maybe if you could identify a trend in the books that invariably keep you reading late into the night, that knowledge might allow you to better hone in on other books that would provide you with equal delight.

As a voracious reader and an author, it has been important to me to pinpoint the devices and themes embedded in the books I most adore.  Not only can such knowledge save me from muddling through books that don’t speak to me, but it can also help me to create written work of my own that feels appropriate and substantive in all the right ways.  Over the past several years, I have identified several characteristics that lead me to gravitate towards a novel.  I like a fast-pace, a strong plot, accessible prose, maybe some romance, perhaps some humor.  Nothing scary, gory, or overly experimental.  But there is something more elusive that has made certain books stay with me for years.

When my mother read aloud to me during my early childhood, we loved The Little Engine that Could, The Secret Garden and Little House on the Prairie.  As I grew older, I was drawn to books like Nancy Drew, The Babysitters Club and Anne of Green Gables.  Then there were the books that shot to the top of my list as I reached adulthood: Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre and The Bronze Horseman.  What these books all have in common are strong female characters (and if you weren’t aware, Watty Piper’s plucky little engine is indeed female).  These works of fiction portray girls and women who have grit, the will and determination to continue striving until they reach their goals.

There is an additional commonality between these characters though, which is that these females are not only strong, but kind.  In today’s world, there is so much discussion of women needing to be strong, but not enough emphasis on the fact that in appropriate circumstances, kindness should be perceived as a type of strength.  The ability to think about others and see past one’s own experience in interacting with people requires a special kind of fortitude.

In creating my debut novel, Trouble the Water, I felt it was imperative to include positive messages about feminine power and decision making.  The manner in which my characters approach the circumstances fate deals them is what I believe defines their spirits and ethos.  I wanted to portray characters who could make the best of difficult circumstances while also being brave enough to reject conformity.  I created women who took the lemons life handed them and decided to use those lemons as paperweights.  After all, not everyone likes lemonade.

The central female characters in Trouble the Water are each willing to think outside the Victorian or antebellum box, despite the constraints of the 1840s.  The women are courageous enough to make their own choices and to shout until they are heard.  Abigail Milton, the story’s protagonist, has worked in a cotton mill in Lancashire England, receiving a pittance in recompense since she was eleven years old.  When her parents ask her to travel to America so that she may live off the charity of their old friend in Charleston, and thereby lighten the financial burden on her family, she agrees to set off on her own, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean with little more than a stale bread crust and unwavering determination to make a better life for herself.

As the story unfolds and Abby discovers that her new home is rife with clandestine efforts to free local slaves, she is excited, energized, and eager to participate in the abolitionist effort.  Rather than judging the high-risk and profoundly illegal activity of her patron, Douglas Elling, Abby wants to jump directly into the trenches of abolition with him.  It’s a whole different kind of #metoo.

Throughout the story, Abby repeatedly resists being corralled into any of the stereotypical gender molds of the day.  From her penchant for physical exercise to her continued rejection of assistance from men, even those who simply offer to carry her bundles, Abby is her own person.  She is desperate to create meaning in her life, which she believes can be achieved through teaching and helping others.  When she develops romantic feelings for another character, she struggles greatly over how to reconcile those feelings with her burning desire for independence.

In addition to Abby, the other women featured in the novel are full of conviction and tenacity.  Cora Rae Cunningham, a beautiful, spicy, nineteen-year-old who has rejected one marriage proposal after another will not be seduced by wealth nor forced into an arrangement that is not to her romantic satisfaction, much to the dismay of her plantation-owning, socially conforming parents.  Clover, a house slave impregnated by her master, refuses to birth her baby into a life of bondage, and in the ultimate act of bravery and sacrifice, takes her chances on running North.

Creating a realistic historical novel that depicts female characters who are ahead of their time, models for women in any time period, is a challenge that I was glad to undertake.  I felt it was incumbent on me to portray women who were progressive for their time, active players in their life stories, rather than passive guests, living out the scripts that had been handed to them by other forces.  My characters have strong backbones, as well as moments of unexpected kindness and generosity.  They are just the type of women who would keep me reading deep into the night.

Sounds like your characters and mine would get along great! Thank you so much, Jacqueline! I know I can’t wait to read her book! If you have any questions for Jacqueline, please leave them in the comments below and I’ll make sure she sees them.

2014: Year in Review

happy-new-year-2014-colorful-fire-wallpapersHi everyone! I emerged from the writing cave yesterday with a first draft of my next book weighing in at 107,000 words. It’ll get smaller as I edit it, but that’s two weeks away.

For now, I thought it would be a good time to look back on 2014.

Favorites
Moment:
Meeting Deb Harkness and my WISH sisters at Hedgebrook Second place: Meeting Elizabeth Gilbert
Book:
Tie between Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell and Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers
Blog Post
(on this blog): There were a lot but these two rise to the top: General: Hell Yes, We Need Strong Female Characters and Historical: The First Black Friday, 1869 – Stocks, Not Shopping
Memory: Getting the words “write” and “create” tattooed on my right wrist
Music:
Book writing music: The score to Belle, composed by Rachel Portman. General music: Wrongchilde’s Goldblooded.
Quote:
“Historical fiction writers are just as qualified to write about the past as historians, if not more so.” Deb Harkness
Unexpected Occurrence:
Joining the Romance Writers of America. Never thought it would happen, but I’m so glad I did it. Oh, and connecting with Sarah Kennedy, Patricia Bracewell and Nancy Bilyeau via the Historical Novel Society was pretty cool, too.

The Year of “Bloom”
On January 1 of this year, I declared it the “Year of Blooming.” While I didn’t bloom publicly like I expected to, it was still an appropriate choice for the growth and confidence I gained this year. The goals I outlined were (and progress actually made) were:

  • Delivering book 3 and another non-related book I’m working on to my agent by the end of June. I did this. Book 3 is still in a first draft that needs work stage, but at least I’ve got my ideas down on paper. The non-related book was He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, which went to her on time. I also delivered 80% of a non-fiction book and its proposal, which I haven’t talked much about because…reasons. I’m still hoping you’ll see it someday. I just have no idea when.
  • Finally being able to announce when Guinevere book 1 will be available to the world. I really shouldn’t have made this a goal because it’s out of my hands. I still don’t have any news here, but please know I haven’t given up on making it happen.
  • Researching and beginning writing another Celtic era historical fiction novel. This was put on hold in favor of the 19th century American novel I just completed.
  • Attending the Sirens Conference with several of my writer friends in October (and possibly speaking there if I can come up with a topic and get it approved). I decided not to do this because of lack of funds. But I was able to speak at the Lit in Lou festival here in town, so I consider that a win.
  • Finding balance in my life between my day job, writing and all the other demands of life. *snort* I don’t think writing three books in one year along with working a full-time job is considered balance according to any definition.
  • Getting healthier so that I can have more energy to devote to the things I love. Not so much. See above.
  • Being more active on Facebook. (I’m already on Twitter all the time.) This kind of happened. I scheduled weekly posts all year on Facebook, although with as much as they monkey with who gets to see it and who doesn’t, I really wonder about the value.
  • Traveling for research (cross your fingers that I’ll have an announcement on this soon) for book 3 and my current non-related book. Travel for Book 3 didn’t happen, but instead I got to take a week-long creative writing class from Deborah Harkness at Hedgebrook, which honestly, was way more beneficial. I did get to travel to Chicago to research He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not and I will share some of that with you as soon as the book gets a contract – whenever that may be.
  • Continuing to find new ways to use this blog to reach out to Arthurian/Celtic fans, book lovers and writers. Honestly, I’m not sure what I had in mind for this one. I didn’t do a lot of Celtic topics, but there were a few that came out of the non-fic book.

Writing
If I have learned one thing this year, it’s that trying to write three books in a year while holding down a full-time job is INSANE. That’s not a feat I aim to repeat again. At least not until I can write full-time. But it is really mind blowing to think that one year ago today, those three books didn’t exist; all I had to my name was the three Guinevere novels. Now I have:

  1. He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (romantic women’s fiction)
  2. The non-fiction book
  3. A first draft of the 19th century strong political woman book (histfic)

Reading
Goodreads told me that I read 70 books this year, but that doesn’t include the five I’ve finished since they put out their tally, nor does it include the 30 something research books I used for the non-fic and the 19th century book. So my total is more like 100. How did I do it? A lot of audiobooks (sometimes two at a time), along with reading every spare moment. That’s about it.

Blogging
I know I was a little sporadic in 2014, especially toward the end of the year, but I’m coming to realize that when I’m focused on finishing a book, blogging is just going to have to take a back seat. I love you guys, but there is only so much of me to go around. BUT, I’m hoping the quality of content I give you weekly in between will make up for it. WordPress did this silly little year in review thing for my blog, so here it is in case you want the details: https://nicoleevelina.com/2014/annual-report/.

So I think that’s about it. Is there anything else you want to know about my 2014? I’ll be back tomorrow with another blog and several more this week, so stay turned!

Happy New Year. Let’s make 2015 the best yet! I love you all!

Falling in Love with Literature

readingLove or tradition? That is the question.

This week’s New York Time’s Book Review essay, “From the Heart” by Dean Bakopoulos, gives his opinion on the best way to teach literature while instilling a love of books. Is it through traditional theory or through reader reaction? In short, the author argues that people – not just English majors – connect more to a book if they form a relationship with it. He believes that asking basic questions about what makes your spine tingle in a work and what lines you wish you’d written are a better way to learn the arts of reading and writing than classical deconstruction. I’m not a teacher, but I have to say, I agree.

As a book lover and English major, I wish more attention had been paid to how a book made me feel when I was in school. I would have learned more about the craft of writing from analyzing questions like, “Why did this passage move me?” or “What makes me hate this character?” – all things I’m learning to do now as I read as a writer – than, “What form of literary theory was used here?” or “What do you think the author meant by this?” (How the heck do I know? I’m not in their head!) Perhaps these traditional teaching methods informed me in a ways I fail to recognize – after all, I never thought I’d find value in the dreaded History of the English Language class, and I use it all the time – but I think there are more accessible ways of learning about literature.

Thinking back on college, I remember very few of the books I was required to read, mostly because I’m not a big fan of the classics and that’s what we focused on. But those I do remember, I recall because they moved me – not because I was able to elucidate a hidden literary theory or expound upon their narrative form. I remember the independence I admired in Moll Flanders, the heart-rending pain of Tess of the d’urbervilles, and the laugh-out-loud hilarity of the Importance of Being Earnest (or anything else by Oscar Wilde).

Today, when I reach for a new book, I don’t often ask myself what the critics thought (although sometimes I do ask myself that upon finishing a book!) or what school of literary thought the book comes from. But I can tell you what I tend to go for in a plot and why I like a certain author’s writing. In the end it comes down to one thing: I connect with the book. If I don’t, I usually don’t finish it.

The books that truly move me are the ones I could easily teach a course on, but it wouldn’t be Ivy League accepted curriculum; it would be why I and the students like/hate the characters, how the author builds a world we want to inhabit more than this one, and what it is that tugs at our souls when we read it. These are the things that make people avid readers and what give them the urge to try to create something themselves. This is how we make sure literature, whether classical or popular, doesn’t die out, and how we inspire generations of future writers to make that same connection with readers.

What do you think? Is there value in traditional methods of teaching literature? Or would you rather focus on the emotional connection with the reader? Why or why not? What moves you as a reader? English majors: what was your experience in school? Teachers: how would/do you teach?

Confessions of an Audio Book Junkie

This was taken in my kitchen. Because you wanted to know that, right?

This was taken in my kitchen. Because you wanted to know that, right?

When I don’t have an audio book going, I get the shakes and my personality…well, it’s a little jumpy, too. I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t listen to the radio in the car. I’d much rather have an audio book (always unabridged, please).

It all started nine years ago when I had a horrendous commute to work. It was (on a good day) about 40 minutes to an hour, almost all in stop and go, cut-you-off-constantly highway traffic. To ease the stress level, I started listening to Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who mystery series (thanks, dad!). Then I went all the way through the Harry Potter series (best narrator ever!). Since then, I’ve done the Hunger Games trilogy, The Chicagoland vampire series, Percy Jackson, The Mortal Instruments and many others that way. One of the best compliments I can give an audio book is when I can’t to get back in the car to hear more.

Needless to say, it saddens me to hear that some people still don’t consider audio books “real” books or a legitimate way of consuming literature. Why shouldn’t they be? For thousands of years, listening to storytellers, bards and minstrels was the only way to know a story. Comparatively speaking, this eyes-across-paper/screen concept of reading is relatively new. Heck, even in the early 1900s, a lot of people got their stories via radio. I think, as humans, we’re wired to want to hear stories. Think about when you were little. The first stories you encountered likely were read to you by your parents.

That’s not to say that reading doesn’t have merit or isn’t important. Of course it is. I still have at least six paper books going at once (fiction and non-fiction). But the truth is, I’ve found that audio books help me read twice as much at any given time. While I have the hard copy book for times like lunch or before bed, I’ll have another book in audio form for when I’m in the car, cooking, cleaning house, folding laundry or working out. I love that it gives me more time to read, as it were. In some cases, I think audio books even help me to appreciate the poetic quality of writing better than reading ever could (The Thirteenth Tale and The Shadow of the Wind come to mind for those).

The main downside of audio books for me is that it’s not easy to rewind or “flip back” to something if you need clarification or have forgotten who is who. That’s one reason why I’ve found non-fiction doesn’t work for me in that medium. I can only do fiction. That and having to remember which track I was on when I switch from the car to listening in my house is a pain (my car only takes CDs) The price can also be a deterrent, but the cost has decreased dramatically in the last few years. I get most of mine from the library anyway, so they’re free.

The biggest thing that makes or breaks an audio book for me is the narrator. At the time Twilight first came out, the audio book version was terrible. Seriously, the worst I’ve even encountered. Thank goodness I had already read the book (yes, I did that one in both versions – that’s how obsessed I once was), otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to tell who was speaking. The actress didn’t vary her voice for characters at all. I’m hoping with the success of the series, that they’ve re-recorded it. The best narrators I’ve encountered (besides Jim Dale, who did Harry Potter and is in a class by himself) are Jennifer Ikeda (A Discovery of Witches and its sequel) and Khristine Hvam (Daughter of Smoke and Bone and its sequel). If the actor or actress can bring the characters to life and make you feel emotions with their voice, you’re in for one hell of a ride. (I envy people who can voice act.)

I’ve been wondering about the future of the audio book lately, especially with the popularity of e-readers (I don’t have one yet, but am slowly heading that way). Someone pointed out to me that audio books likely will continue to be produced, if for no other reason than to give the visually impaired an alternative to Braille. (I hadn’t thought of that. What a wonderful reason!)

As for whether it is “real” reading, that’s a debate that’s likely to continue for some time. I say, reading is wonderful, so do it in whatever form you can.

What about you? Do you listen to audio books? What are some of your favorites? Do you consider books you listen to really “read?” Why or why not? If you don’t listen to them, why not?