Monday, September 2, 2019

Why Vineland? Or Tarrytown? Or Wherever the Novel is Set...Does it matter?

After completing her novel Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver was pondering themes for her next book. At the time, she “had a vague feeling the world as we knew it was ending.” This thought brought her to another “dangerously uncertain” time in our history – the 1870s, which led her to writing Unsheltered.  Explaining her reasons for writing it, she said, “The country was wrecked by war and a book by Charles Darwin was shaking the very notion of what it meant to be human.” So, she “went looking for an American scientist involved in that radical debate” to use as a character and found Mary Treat living in Vineland, New Jersey. After much research, Kingsolver, in her own words, came to see that Vineland “had more real-life intrigue than I could use in several novels.” And, she had her setting.

I’m always interested in why an author chooses a certain locale. There are books where it’s obvious and many where the reader has no idea. Sometimes it seems as if the town doesn’t matter, that there is nothing germane to the story or theme – it’s simply where the characters live. Obviously not so in Unsheltered, though probably what readers will wonder when they read my novel, The Disharmony of Silence, coming out March 5, 2020 by Black Rose Writers.  

One of my protagonists, (the novel is in dual time so there are two) lives in Tarrytown, NY. Why? The story isn’t set around the town’s history and has absolutely nothing to do with Ichabod Crane or Sleepy Hollow. Simply, it’s because I’ve always been attracted to a housing complex I see as I drive across the Tappan Zee Bridge (now named the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge). Therefore, I decided that’s where Carolyn would live. It’s close to her mother in New Rochelle, also there’s no major reason for using that town. It’s just that I once worked in New Rochelle and it was sexier than using my own home town, and a short train ride from New York City which is important in the novel.

Image result for photo mario m cuomo bridge

Another character in my novel, Kate, who you could call the antagonist though there are several others, lives in Venice, California. Again, I could have chosen any town 3,000 miles from Carolyn’s home. The distance was important, though an editor once suggested I have Kate and Carolyn live closer together. Kate refused! But I spent a great deal of time in and around Venice and love the little streets surrounded by canals. Plus, it was fun to create a fictitious home with Birds of Paradise growing on either side of a sky-blue front door and a sun room where, above the roof line and through the trees, you could see the Pacific Ocean.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street: A NovelThinking of a few novels I’ve recently read, some of the towns or countries where they’re set are pertinent to the story. For example, an historical fiction by Susan Meissner, The Last Year of the War, centers around US internment camps during WWII. Japan and Germany are definitely germane to that story, as is France in the historic adventure Listen to the Wind: The Orphans of Tolosa by Susanne Dunlap which takes place in the Languedoc region in the 13th Century. On the other hand The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh, which takes place in the wilds of West Virginia, could be set in any wilderness as long as it had bogs, though while listening to the audio book on Chirp, the narrator’s West Virginian drawl brought me further into the setting and I could smell the humid air. And in the novel I’ve just finished, The Girls of 17 Swann Street, the town does not matter at all.  Yara Zgheib created a house on a street with characters I won’t soon forget – and I don’t know where the street is and it doesn’t matter!  

Has this piqued your interest? Will you now wonder about the setting in the novel you’re reading, if it’s not obvious? I hope so. It makes discussing a book and the author’s intentions so much more fun.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Does Upmarket Fiction Mean It Will Only Be Sold at Neiman Marcus?

A friend of mine uses the term “upmarket” for anything posh. A five-star expensive restaurant would be upmarket – Burger King, downmarket. Though, there are certainly people who enjoy dining at a Michelin rated eatery who still crave a Whopper with its special sauce dripping from the sesame seed bun.  Years ago, I was friendly with a woman whose husband was a chef at a very pricey, posh New York restaurant. On his days off this chef, with the tall white toque, liked eating at Friendly’s. He simply loved their hamburger (and I loved their chocolate chip mint ice cream in a sugar cone). Sadly Friendly’s, as well as my friendship with the chef’s wife, is no more, though I am glad we had that “moment” together. So... whatever your personal definition of upmarket is, be it for restaurants, department stores, or even hotels, I now ask – what is Upmarket Fiction? Does it mean the story is posh? Will the book only be sold at Neiman Marcus and other high end stores and never be seen on the shelves of a library or neighborhood book store?

Upmarket fiction is a genre the same way mystery, sci-fi, and historical fiction are genres. Upmarket novels are filled with themes and topics ripe for book club discussion and are sometimes referred to as Book Club Fiction which, in my opinion, is a term a lot easier to understand than upmarket.

For the past six months, I've read voraciously as a member of the Great Group Reads committee of the Women’s National Book Association. GGR creates a list of twenty novels and memoirs  selected from over two hundred submitted to us from publishers - all upmarket!  This coveted list comes out in October to celebrate National Reading Group Month. Take a look at our website and click on Great Group Reads Selections. You’ll have lists of books from 2009-2018 that’ll make your “to be read” pile grow exponentially!  And. in just two months, the 2019 list will be out with twenty more wonderful titles. But I digress – in addition to GGR titles submitted by publishers, I also read a few wonderful books that I picked on my own, all perfect for book clubs. Where the Crawdad’s Sing by Delia Owens and Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris are two that I devoured and look forward to discussing.  

I enjoy talking books with friends and family – actually anyone who wants to unless it’s on an airplane. Please don’t talk to me then. I just want to read! A few of my favorite titles perfect for book clubs with characters who have stayed with me long after I closed the book are A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner, When We Meet Again by Kristin Harmel and Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. All three have dual time-lines which I enjoy. I've used that time-travel choreography in crafting my own novel, The Disharmony of Silence, coming out March 5, 2020 by Black Rose Writing—also Upmarket Fiction! And, I’d be remiss if I left out three more favorites, though not with dual time-lines:  One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus,  Henna House by Nomi Eve, and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.  I can’t wait for the movie to come out next week!

What are your favorite upmarket titles? If you’d write them in the comments below, I’ll add them to my TBR pile – and then have to buy more bookshelves!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Dirty Toilet Exercise

Have you ever been on a long car ride and need to find a bathroom? And, of course, you're on an interstate where the only public rest rooms are in gas stations – and look like they haven't seen Lysol in months! What do you do?

If you're a guy, it's easy unless…well, let's not get too graphic, but if you're female, you've got to sit, yet there's no way you're going to put any part of your body on that dirty seat.  Hopefully, you have enough muscular strength to manage a squat. Though, as we age, that strength diminishes. So, as Carolyn, the protagonist in my novel, The Disharmony of Silence, which will be available on-line and in book stores in March, says: “Remember, press your buttocks back…Just don’t go down too far…Hey…There’s no way you’re gonna sit on it, right?"

To be more specific, stand with your feet separated and press your buttocks back. You can't help but go into a squat position. Then lower yourself a bit more, but stay comfortable. Put your weight on your heels and make sure your knees are directly over your ankles.  If they're peeking over your toes, press your seat back a little farther. This will protect your knees and keep them happy.  Then stand up and squat again. Repeat 8x, more if you can. You'll be strengthening your glutteal muscles as well as the hamstrings which, in turn, will help you not only squat at a gas station on I 95, but get you off a chair on your own when your ninety! Independence is the real goal.   

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Woman is Like a Tea Bag

Several years ago, while I was going through a stressful time watching my beautiful mother decline, my sister-in-law gave me a mug with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt scrolled across the  porcelain. "A woman is like a tea bag - you never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water." How perfect! Read those words again. I'll bet you'll come up with a time when you were in the so-called hot water and garnered your own strength.  

Not only do I appreciate the former First Lady's wisdom, I feel as if she's been a part of my life. No, I never had the honor of meeting her, but my mother did. I remember how excited Mom was, practically dancing her way out to the car the morning she was to pick up Eleanor Roosevelt at La Guardia airport. Just so you know, my mother was not the world's best driver by any stretch of the imagination, but that didn't matter to the teachers and staff at Harriet Beecher Stowe Junior High School in Harlem.

Mrs. Roosevelt was coming to speak with the students, all girls back then in the late 1950s, and my generous mother, a permanent substitute at 136 (which she always called the school, probably because it was on 136th Street in Harlem) offered to be the former First Lady's chauffeur.  I heard about that story for years and wish I could ask my mother now more about the conversation they had as they sat in the Buick driving through traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway. I'm sure it was fascinating.

My brother-in-law, Sidney, also met Mrs. R., around the same time as my mother. As a student at Seth Low Jr. High School in Brooklyn, he and his friend, Marvin, interviewed her for their school newspaper. Years later, for his 50th birthday, Marvin gave Sid a coffee mug (is there a theme here with mugs and Eleanor?) with a picture of the three of them printed on it. Marvin had saved the picture taken that day, most likely with a Brownie Hawk-eye, for thirty-five years! I don't know where that mug is now. I hope Marvin has it. The two boys were beaming in the photo, and at the birthday party, too, all those years later when they reminisced.
So why am I focused on this impressive woman who was not only First Lady but also served as U.S. Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly from 1945-52, chaired JFK's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, and did so much for human rights? Because, again, she's been a part of my life. This time, I've spent days with her while I devoured B.A. Shapiro's historical fiction page-turner, The Muralist.

Shapiro's characters are so alive on the page that I feel I know them and wish I could call Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Mark Rothko, as well as Mrs. Roosevelt, to let them know what happened to their fictitious friend, Alizée Benoit. Even after finishing the book, I have to remind myself that Alizée wasn't real.

Alizée was definitely like a tea bag. She not only found herself in hot water, hers was boiling, steaming, hotter than molten lava and her strength soared. I highly recommend this book. Take the thrilling ride, back and forth, from New York City today to the NYC of the 1940s with its art world and the emergence of the Abstract Expressionists, across the ocean to German Occupied France where Alizée's family struggled to save themselves from the Nazis. And remember, this is a work of fiction, though you'll think it isn't. Find out what happened to Alizée when she went missing.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Typewriters and Sand Chairs - Where's the Connection?

 The Literary Leotard is back. I haven't stopped writing or teaching exercise classes, or exercising myself, but my blog has been on  hiatus for too long. It's time to connect with all of you again and give exercise tips and/or book suggestions - and intertwine the two when my creative juices swell. I love when that happens, like the time I wrote the post Trojan Wars, Achilles and Exercise back in 2013. You can still find it here. Just scroll through my posts. It'll show up. I'm so glad that Blogger keeps all the posts I've written though for how long I don't know. Perpetuity? Wouldn't that be something!  How fabulous would it be if my great grandchildren were able to read them someday? It would be in the far, distant future as my grandsons are only eight and three. Maybe there won't even be computers at that time; they'll have gone by the way of the printing press and other machine that are now obsolete. If I was a science fiction writer I might create that story, but that's not me. I prefer settings in the here and now, or in the past, or weaving the two together as I've done in the manuscript I've recently finished which I'm hoping to have published one day. That's a long, twisty, windy road, a topic for another time. For now, let's focus on this blog and how I'm going to connect exercise with my dislike of writing and reading dystopian novels.

I have trouble imagining what our future world might be like even sixty or seventy years from now when I might have great grandchildren. Will we have chips in our ears taking the place of cell phones? Will we scroll letters in the air in front of us rather than on paper or typing them on a keyboard, and will those words somehow travel across the atmosphere to the exact person we're writing to somewhere in Europe?

 It was a little over sixty years ago that I actually learned to write script, which kids aren't even learning now, and over fifty when I learned to type - and that was on a Smith Corona, a blue one that I loved. Several years after that, I bought an electric typewriter which was so much easier. Lucky for me, I had the feel of those keys, not having to press so damn hard, that when my first job after college at Ziff Davis Publishing required my typing abilities, my fingers flew across the keyboard.  Not that I loved typing, especially not tables of numbers for the marketing department. If ZD had been a literary publisher, maybe my dream of writing a novel would have ignited sooner.

 Later, when word processors came out, the pre-cursor to the PC, I had no need of them. At that time, I was raising kids and teaching exercise classes - and writing letters by hand. Yes, letters. Oh how nice it was finding an envelope in the mailbox addressed to me that wasn't asking for a donation or pushing hearing aids or funeral plots. Ah, but I digress. So, what will our future be like? How will we be writing? What will become of my blog?  I have no idea. What I do know, though, is that in the future I want to be independent and believe you do, too. That's where the Leotard side of this post 
comes in.

 In order to maintain our independence, get off a chair without any assistance, or even a toilet, we must keep our core strong. So, keep reading, but stand up! Now, move a little bit forward, away from your chair. Ok, now lower yourself, as if you're going to sit back down, BUT DON'T. Let your buttocks and the backs of your thighs ALMOST touch the chair, then stand up again. Do this several times. You'll feel the work in your thighs and buttocks. Remember to keep your abdominals in. Keep those muscles strong. They'll get you out of a sand chair this summer and out of chairs, in general, for years to come no matter how or on what we write.  

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Soap, Moisturizer or a Luminous Novel?

When you see the words Wash and Wrinkle, don't think of hygiene or the creams we use to ward off the ravages of Father Time. Think books. Margaret Wrinkle's debut novel Wash.

  This past Friday night, Oct 27th, the New York City chapter of The Women's National Book Association celebrated the tenth anniversary of National Reading Group Month with an event at Penguin Random House honoring debut authors. After a lively panel discussion, I had the immense pleasure of meeting and chatting with Margaret Wrinkle, one of the four panelists, all whose novels have been Great Group Read's selections.  

 Wash, Wrinkle's lush debut, with some of the most beautiful metaphors I've ever read, moved me from the first page to the last when I closed the book with a deep sigh.  The story takes the reader on a journey from the burgeoning South, with slave breeding, to West Africa and back again where we meet Wash and his mother, Mena, who envelopes the reader in the beauty of her African spirituality while she infuses her son with his history and people. Pallas and Richardson, along with all of Wrinkle's other characters, are so vividly portrayed that three weeks after finishing the book I cannot shake them from my mind. Just as Wash's ancestors breathe beside him, Wrinkle's characters continue to walk beside me. 

Wrinkle captures the voice of the African slave, as if she had lived among them, as well the distinct voice of the white male slave owner. As a writer, I'm envious of that ability plus of her gorgeous phrases, similes and metaphors. I found myself dog-earring pages so I could go back and re-read the beautiful prose. Plus, I'm intrigued by her use of the craft in giving each character his or her own voice. When I asked why she wrote each one separately in first person, Margaret explained that she had to, that each one spoke to her. And, to make me even more envious of her talent, she steps back from each character and uses an omniscient narrator to bring the reader into the scene, to let us know what else is going on at the same time. When I commented on that technique wondering why she used it, Margaret smiled and said, "I had to know what they were all feeling."

Whether black or white, Wrinkle throws her characters into relationships, some brutal and some loving harboring feelings forbidden by the institution of slavery. Through each of their stories, the novel is a gift both haunting and tender.  

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Women's Fiction? What is it?

What is Women's Fiction? Is it Chick-Lit? Is it Romance? As a writer of this particular genre, I've been asked that question many times and answer with a resounding NO!! 

Women's Fiction can be Romance. It can be Historical or Contemporary. It might even be Dystopian. The one specific aspect that places a novel in the Women's Fiction category is the focus on the main character's emotional journey. It is a layered story, which makes it great for book club discussion, where, as stated on the Women's Fiction Writers Association website: "the plot is driven by the main character's emotional journey."

My novel, The Disharmony of Silence, for which I'm actively seeking representation (and dream of seeing on bookshelves in stores and libraries, and in your homes one day- in the not too distant future, please!) fits that definition, as does my WIP (work in progress) Flourish. Many of The Literary Leotard's readers have seen bits about Flourish on my website and have assumed it's a published novel. Sorry. And I can't say I wish it was, because it was in need of a complete re-write, which I'm now tackling. Kind of like when The Sands Casino, back in 1996, was demolished in Las Vegas and a new, bigger, better building was constructed on its footprint.  All writers go through this. Your favorite novel, even Pulitzer Prize winners, have been through many rewrites and some, like the Sands, don't look anything like the original when it comes to you whether in a hardbound book with a gorgeous cover or digitally on your Kindle or iPad (or whatever…)

I'd love to know how the novel I just gobbled up, Almost Missed You, actually began - if Violet and Finn, Caitlin and George and their children look anything like they did when Jessica Strawser, its debut author, first put pen to paper. Almost Missed You, published by St. Martin's Press, will be in book stores on March 28th. Look for it! Ms. Strawser takes you on an emotional ride starting on page one when you'll think Violet and Finn were "meant to be" as everyone said. You won't want to put it down. The compelling story filled with elements of danger and mystery explores "the price we pay for our secrets and just how easy it is to make the wrong choices". 

I love stories that revolve around secrets, the fall-out from them, and the emotional journey the characters travel deciding whether or not to reveal what they've uncovered, or what they're hiding themselves.