Bringing a long-dead missionary to life (despite myself)

Last year I was asked by a friend to write a short monologue for Jessie Fremont Traver Moore, a woman who’d spent most of her adult life as a missionary in Assam, India. It was for an original theater experience in the Sand Lake (NY) Town Cemetery called Amazing Graves. It featured monologues from a number of the cemetery’s dead residents to benefit the Sand Lake Town Library, where I used to be a trustee.

Since I had inveigled this friend into taking my spot on said board of trustees when I left town, I owed her. And of course I was happy to support the library.

Except…was she kidding? She wanted ME to write from the point of view of a Baptist missionary?

My Episcopal church family knows I’m a faithful parishioner but not a very pious one. I would rate myself a 1 out of 10 on ability to earnestly participate in spontaneous prayer. I’m mostly silent in group discussion of scripture. My evangelism consists of suggesting we have free bread and coffee and conversation on Saturday mornings and advocating in a more general way for justice and mercy.

As the product page on Amazon notes, it discusses faith, but those who require piety in such matters will not like it. Skeptics will probably be able to cope.

As the product page on Amazon notes, it discusses faith, but those who require piety in such matters will not like it. Skeptics will probably be able to cope.

If there are moments in my novels that suggest Christian belief might not be pointless or ridiculous — THE AWFUL MESS comes to mind — I try very hard not to bash anyone over the head with it.

Maybe this arises from an agnostic childhood. To this day my birth family finds my beliefs peculiar. And, even as a believer, I’m on the skeptical end of the spectrum. A lot of Christian rituals strike me as deeply cultural (and patriarchal and superstitious) ways of sharing the fundamental message of God’s love. I suspect I feel at home in the Episcopal tradition mostly because it’s so Anglican (yep, I’m an English major) and because the national church is decidedly liberal.

Even so, I don’t believe Episcopal practice is inherently superior to any other faith tradition that preaches love and forgiveness instead of hate and exclusion. Including non-Christian traditions.

I have attended Baptist services and Methodist services and Congregationalist services. I have also attended Christian and Missionary Alliance services, where missionary work truly is the focus of that congregation’s outreach. But whenever people talk about missionaries, I automatically wonder what the native people think of these white people coming in and trying to win their souls for Christ. Especially given some pretty brutal, imperialistic history connected to those efforts.

So I was leery of Jessie Fremont Traver Moore. But she surprised me.

She was named Fremont after an abolitionist candidate for President who lost. So in her family there wasn’t any of that blindness to the evils of slavery and of racism that we tend to associate with American Evangelicals today — not that this is necessarily fair.

And what a woman Traver Moore was! She left published journals behind, some of which her descendant in town loaned me, and another of which I found on Google, so I got to hear her official version of her life. I had to read between the lines for the unofficial version, of course, but there were hints of it there. (I never got the feeling Mrs. Moore suffered fools gladly.)

Here’s a woman who trained in seminary and crossed the globe multiple times by sea (the last time right as WWI broke out), going into regions where poverty and disease were rampant. In Nowgong, the village where she and her husband based their work, the Moores learned the native language, translated books to it, published them, and taught in it. The school they started there is still educating students today.

You can read the entire short monologue (which got a few edits from the descendant, Dee Erickson), but this is my favorite part:

Diane Doring portraying Jessie Fremont Traver Moore as part of Amazing Graves, 30 Oct. 2016 in Sand Lake, New York.

Diane Doring portraying Jessie Fremont Traver Moore as part of Amazing Graves, 30 Oct. 2016 in Sand Lake, New York.

In Assam we not only brought many Assamese to Christ, we started a school that eventually was educating over 100 girls, Hindus and Muslims as well as Christians. We participated in the civic life of Nowgong, and I counted many lovely Hindu and Muslim ladies among my acquaintance, even those who did not feel compelled to accept Jesus despite my best efforts to share the Good News with them over tea in their homes. In my diaries – which, by the way, I published — I remarked how I nonetheless hoped I would see them in heaven.

Now, I would forgive you for thinking at this point that since I have clearly passed already I could tell you whether I have met with those lovely ladies in heaven, but I’m afraid I have not been authorized to reveal any information about what comes next. We who are dead leave all that gazing into mirrors darkly to you.

You might be interested to read the other monologues, too. I’d start with the introduction and then follow the gravestone links for each. It was fascinating to see how the Rent Wars in particular foreshadowed some debates we’re still having today. (If you don’t think who you vote for ever matters, read this.)

A BARDWELL’S FOLLY update

cover of Bardwell's Folly by Sandra HutchisonThe Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of BARDWELL’S FOLLY is up on NetGalley for most of November, and reviewers are welcome to request a copy. I’m not actually the person who decides who gets these, but if you are a blogger or reviewer who might potentially give the book some play, you should be approved (if not, let me know!).

My pub date of November 29 sure is coming up fast. Too fast, really, since the end of the semester and Christmas are also racing into view. If you want me to reserve a signed author copy for you, please do let me know so I can get it to you before Christmas. And if you’d like to attend a reading or a launch party, let me know that, too, through any channel.

 

 

 

 

Updates, Kobo deal, Goodreads giveaway

Bardwell’s Folly

BardwellsFollylibreblur200x309“Bardwell’s Folly” has been read by five beta readers now, and thanks to that feedback I’m making some good revisions.  I’m hopeful this version will be done by the end of the week. Then it goes to my fussiest beta readers in the hope they will throw in some proofreading, too. Then it’s into Kindle Scout, unless I chicken out and just put it up for pre-order. I did stick a toe in the water with regular querying (if a tweet and one query count), but my heart just wasn’t in it.

The Awful Mess

This week I finalized a new (or, actually, old, re-imagined) cover for the ebook edition of “The Awful Mess” because Amazon won’t allow me to advertise with a nude-ish person on the cover. (They also refuse anything with blood, I’m told by author Julie Frayn.) Now I just have to upload the new cover and update, like, everything. (Actually, the paperback will retain its lovely and striking and not exactly prurient Damonza.com cover — and I did lean heavily for inspiration on an option he’d given me back in the day, when I’d asked for something with those rocks as well as an original option.)

Evolution of a coverOf course, having made that decision, I finally got an offer to do something interesting  just because it’s a SELF-e Select title, so I might hold off on trying it in Kindle Select until after then. I’m still going to change the cover, though. For all I know, that’s why BookBub keeps turning it down lately.

Speaking of Self-e, why Amazon considers a program that gives curated indie ebooks to libraries free as infringing on Kindle Select is beyond me. If I were them, I’d be happy to see my indie authors building a library readership, especially since SELF-e books now include buy links.

SPECIAL DEAL FOR KOBO READERS: Use code 50Jun through June 27 (midnight EST — that’s coming up fast, of course) to save half off “The Awful Mess” and many other indie titles.

And next up?

For the next book I keep stalling out on my original plan. I’m thinking of returning to Lawson, New Hampshire instead. They do say series are the way to go. I’ve had a story in mind that would offer interesting challenges to Winslow and Mary, one related to issues that sometimes arise over immigration in small town New England. And Annie Soper deserves a love story. But I’m just beginning to flesh those ideas out.

A Goodreads giveaway of “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire”

While you wait for a new book, you or your reading friends might want to sign up to enter the Goodreads giveaway of an autographed paperback of “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.”

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire by Sandra Hutchison

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire

by Sandra Hutchison

Giveaway ends July 09, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Our father? Our mother? Words matter

I was thinking about how much words matter this last weekend during my first vestry retreat. (Vestry, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the group of parishioners elected to attend to the business of the church.) We were given two lectures about prayer by an articulate Catholic fellow, Paul Delio. It was interesting and insightful and yet as the time passed I began to feel a bit oppressed.

I especially felt this way during his discussion of the Lord’s prayer and the beginning of it: “Our Father,” which Paul pointed out was originally “papa,” really — what a child calls  his daddy.

I was sitting there thinking that obviously Jesus was a product of his time, even if he kept pushing the boundaries of it. And the men who codified what became accepted as holy scripture were also men of their time. So of course it was father or papa or abba that made sense for that prayer at that time.

But it matters, this “father,” when it is always, always “father” and never, ever “mother.” Especially in my parish church, which makes no attempt at a more inclusive liturgy. All year long, for example, we give “Him” thanks and praise, instead of the gender-neutral “God” that is pretty customary in most Episcopal churches I’ve attended.

“I don’t think of God as masculine,” I told our group in the discussion that followed, when Paul assigned us to talk about ways we would revise the prayer for our own understanding (which, to be fair to Paul, is the opposite of oppressive). I told my group I considered the language patriarchal. Why couldn’t it be “Our Father/Mother?”

My priest didn’t have any issue with the idea of God not being masculine. That was, he told me, quite well-accepted doctrine. He did have issues with “Father/Mother,” which we didn’t get into. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he objected at least partly because it’s such an ungainly phrase, and in this case at least further from the original source.)

Still, though. Accepted doctrine? Then why IS it always “Father”?

Maybe it wouldn’t even occur to me to get disgruntled about all this if I hadn’t once had the joy of attending a church led by a gifted female priest who went right ahead and changed the prayers to correct for gender bias. The Rev. Lucinda Laird would alternate Her and Him, He and She, God the Father and God the Mother. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was also the God of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. The first time I heard it I was shocked. She could do that?

She could. (It no doubt helped that this was in the Diocese of Newark.) And I grew to love it. I loved that the girls in our church were growing up hearing that every Sunday as an ordinary expression of our worship. They didn’t need to feel that extra little distance between God and them that boys never heard. They saw a strong, confident, gifted woman leading a thriving congregation in thanks and praise.

I miss that. (Not that I don’t consider my current priest quite gifted, or my current congregation thriving.) And I’m not ready to get militant about it, and in any Episcopal church it’s really the responsibility of the priest and bishop in any case. (“Episcopal” literally means “governed by bishops.”)

But I offer it as a matter of thought, to consider how the language we hear in church might be excluding or distancing a good half (or more than half, in many cases) of the congregation hearing it.

And I feel I should point out that there are indeed more inclusive ‘official’ liturgies available through the Episcopal Church, including Enriching Our Worship, here. It’s a fascinating read for those who are interested in such things.

Even one of the bathrooms seemed rather spiritual at this retreat.

Even one of the bathrooms seemed rather spiritual at this retreat.

I’m also aware that I sound more than a lot like slightly annoying lesbian Carla in “The Awful Mess,” giving the poor interim priest a hard time about patriarchal structures as they walk through her kid’s upcoming baptismal service.

But as my main character Mary notices, at least Carla is engaged.

And that’s what I’m aiming to be.

——–

Speaking of being engaged, thought I would let you know I’m fast closing in on the end of a first draft for “Bardwell’s Folly” — which is a good thing because I’m at nearly 100,000 words now and in my genre it’s usually not a good idea to get much longer than that! Next comes revising and then starting the fourth novel while I wait for word back from my beta readers. Huzzah!

 

Tim Farrington reviews “The Awful Mess” … and I freak out

Cover for The Awful Mess: A Love StoryI recently received an email with a lovely review of “The Awful Mess” from one of my favorite authors, Tim Farrington, who wrote the “The Monk Downstairs” — a book I love so much that I’ve gifted and loaned it repeatedly and put it on my short list of books I recommend to anyone.

And I’ve just been holding onto this review and reading it now and then — hoarding it, really. Not only because it is from Tim, taking my novel seriously, but also because he compares my writing to the work of my favorite author of all time, Jane Austen.

(Insert happy girly scream here.)

See, I was just really hoping he’d like it. I was really hoping for a nice blurb I could use to sell the book. Instead, I got more validation than I’d ever dreamed of. I feel as if I’ve had hands laid on me and I’ve been welcomed into the abbey.

But that’s also a little freaky. As a self-published author, I expected to skulk around the outside of the abbey completely unnoticed for years. Part of me is not sure I really want to take the work that seriously. Except that, of course, I do, or I wouldn’t have published it in the first place.

So I feel incredibly grateful and blessed to have received this gift. This validation.

I’m still strangely reluctant to share it, though, even as I work on this blog post. I shared it with my parents before I drafted this, just to try to loosen up. (Dad congratulated me and told me it made a nice distraction to read it on his iPad during the painful work being done on his ingrown toenails. Thanks for grounding me, Dad.)

Is this because of the whole women-shouldn’t-brag thing? A little fear of genuine sheer hubris? Or am I afraid that this will somehow happen to it:

But taking the work seriously means I have to try to sell these books rather than just write them, the idea being to get people to actually read them, so… here is Tim’s review:

I finished “The Awful Mess” with that wonderful/melancholy sense you get finishing a good book, of a kind joy mixed with sadness that it was over. It is such a lovely novel, in the classic way, with interesting, exquisitely human characters deftly drawn and fascinating in all their particularity, and a story that keeps the pages turning. Despite the comic recurrent note from the characters, that “This isn’t The Scarlet Letter, after all!” this is in fact a book in lovely dialogue with Hawthorne’s story, a New England story of a fiercely independent heroine struggling for a life worthy of aspirations, and her entwinement, in a small town, with a minister of the Lord, among others; and so a story of conscience, passion, and hypocrisy, of souls tested not only the fire of moral truths but in the glaring but often unilluminating light of a tiny community’s gossip, prejudices, and presumptions.

Mary Bellamy is wonderfully contemporary, and utterly sympathetic character, and her growth in both knowledge and self-knowledge throughout the book gives us some of the novel’s most satisfying substance. As a self-described “heathen” with a sharp mind, a good heart, and a wicked sense of humor, she also acts as a sort of acid test for the varieties of faith she encounters, and when she falls by the wayside to a violent catastrophe, it is through her eyes that we see the parable of the Good Samaritan enacted in fresh contemporary garb, with vivid and specific contemporary characters. And Mary herself, through her struggles, comes to see the real difference between the sheep and the goats: there is bathwater aplenty in this unsparing look at human piety and human self-delusion, but there is a baby as well, and a lovely awareness of that real heart of humanity is one of the many things that make the novel so completely satisfying.

It puts me in mind of Jane Austen, the moral mathematics here, that almost algebraic Austenesque precision in the characters ultimately reaping what they sow, and paying to the last farthing, is so strong and rings so exquisitely true in every case.

It’s wonderful, in short! It renews me as a reader, to enjoy a book so much; and as a writer, see it done so well.

What more could a writer ask for, right? A glowing review of “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire”? (He did that too!!!) Maybe this is all just more writing-happiness than I can handle in short order. But it’s also wonderful.

Today I’m off to Florida. I hope to check out a locale or two from the next book as well as see Mom and Dad and his toes. I’ll probably be back in two weeks to share my thoughts about that — well, not the toes. I don’t write horror.

Blooming furiously before the frost: the usefulness of deadlines

She climbed into the middle of the front garden and took a deep breath, trying to calm down amid the flowers and the fat, droning bees. The annuals were at their full height and blooming furiously, as if they knew this was their last chance to set seed before the frost — just like her, really.

cosmos bouquet plus living room 003I thought of this passage from “The Awful Mess” this week as I was cutting cosmos to bring inside before what was supposed to be a cold night — though we were spared a frost. I always cut a lot more flowers as frost approaches. It’s because I know they will soon be gone.

The passage from “The Awful Mess” is a reference to infertility, but it applies equally well to writing. I always write more when I am feeling mortal, conscious of a final deadline for saying what I want to say, rather than focused on the more immediate day-to-day responsibilities I have as an author, teacher, homeowner, mother, stepmother, grandmother, daughter, sister, friend, pet owner, parishioner, neighbor, colleague, gardener, taxpayer, or citizen.

The novel in progress just keeps taking second priority, though part of that is me dithering over a key plot point. So I’m taking a risk (at least by my own you’d-think-I-grew-up-in-the-Great-Depression standards) this spring. I’m trying a form of “going pro” by taking next semester off from teaching to get the draft finished and revised. And since I’m buying  myself that time, I have a clear deadline to meet.

It’s a bit of a risk, and it may not ever pay off. But that’s okay. As she sits among the flowers, Mary reassures herself that there will be social services to keep her and the baby she’s bearing from starving. As I contemplate 16 weeks fully devoted to writing, I can reassure myself that writing is, at least, its own reward.

Once in a while I get to see students suddenly “get” that their writing can be a way to make meaning out of their lives — that it can be an act of profound discovery, and not just a chore to be gotten through. It becomes something they take genuine delight in and not just a hurdle they must overcome in order to get a grade, or a paycheck. (And in this publishing climate, it’s probably just as well to think of any given writing project that way.)

Autumn is a good time to put the garden to bed, stock the larder, and buckle down to a long winter of writing (or perhaps an earlier NaNoRiMo for some of you). Whether you expect it to pay off or not, I hope you will enjoy it. May you make many happy discoveries!

Adventures in Amazon keyword padding

by Sandra Hutchison

Note: The specific keyword examples mentioned in this post are out of date now, because Amazon has changed the way keywords are input (possibly to cope with just this kind of issue). However, you might find it amusing anyway — and I suspect I could have gotten into just the same trouble using the current form. (This is also a reminder, fellow Kindle authors, to check your backlist titles to see what’s going on with the keywords.)

Authors sometimes work very hard to get keywords into their product descriptions on Amazon, but there’s actually a better way to come up in Amazon searches. It’s a technique called keyword padding that I first learned about in this helpful post by David Penny.

But you’d better be careful how you do it. I learned this the hard way.

TheAwfulMess 396 x 612 pixelsMy first novel, “The Awful Mess,” was on sale for a time in August, with a BookBub promo in the UK, Canada, and India and some other support for US and international sales as well. When I found out about keyword padding I thought, “Hey, great! Maybe I can leverage my current rank to capture a few more readers!”

A more cautious soul might suggest that I should enjoy a strong rank for a while without fiddling around.

“The Awful Mess” is in two main fiction categories: contemporary women, and literary. My seven keywords at the time of the promotion were romance, American, general humor, dating and relationships, love story, suspense, divorce.

Divorce isn’t really a strong theme in the novel (unless you count the increasingly  problematic ex-husband), so I replaced that one with a padded keyword:

“progressive Christian novel about an Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town in New England during the time when openly gay Bishop Robinson was being elected.”

You can have up to 400 characters. What you can’t have is a comma. I could just list terms one after the other, but I’m a writer and English teacher and that felt like cheating, so I wrote it up as a (ridiculously long) keyword phrase instead.

I wanted to get “The Scarlet Letter” in without having to add it to my product description, where it would probably scare away everyone who remembered hating that book in high school. (Although a reviewer or two has noticed and mentioned the correction, that never makes it show up in Amazon searches on “The Scarlet Letter.”) EDIT: Turns out adding another title to your keyword is a violation of KDP policy. I’m not sure why this made it through. It may be because nobody would attach their book to “The Scarlet Letter” and expect to generate significant sales because of it. It’s not like putting in “Harry Potter.”

I wanted “Episcopal or Anglican” because the terms vary in the rest of the world, and the book should interest some folks who like to read fiction about Episcopal/Anglican priests (if they can stand the sex and irreverence — I’m no Jan Karon).

When I first published this book I actually used “Episcopal” as a keyword, but that’s a tiny, tiny market and thus not worth spending a whole keyword on — but here it’s just one of a whole bunch of little niches I can mention. Note also that although I have always had the words “Episcopal priest” in my product description, the book usually would not come up in searches on Amazon for that.

“Bishop Robinson” in that padded keyword phrase is a reference to the heated debate that was going on at the time and place this novel is set. Gene Robinson was the first openly-gay Episcopal priest elected a bishop in the United States — in New Hampshire. Gay rights are a sub-theme of the novel (the hero’s sister is a lesbian in a committed relationship, though her father the Evangelical doesn’t know it … yet).

And the result of this change? About 24 hours later in the UK my novel was immediately ranking in the top 100 for Christian women’s fiction and Gay & Lesbian fiction.

#9 in Christian in the UK

Unfortunately, this book is not what readers would expect in either category. AND these two markets are pretty much mutually exclusive.

In theory, this gave me added visibility. But it didn’t strike me as worth confusing and quite possibly offending my readers. My companions in the Christian women’s fiction category were largely Evangelical, and their readers might have little sympathy for my characters — sinners that they are — or, worse, the suggestion of liberal theology. Not to mention, my main character is an agnostic for 99.9 percent of the book and it’s debatable what exactly she is for the other 0.1 percent.

Meanwhile, someone looking for gay and lesbian fiction to likely to be pretty unexcited by what is predominantly (and pretty clearly described as) a heterosexual love story, though presumably the inclusive theology wouldn’t offend this audience.

Anyway, though it may be coincidental with a natural slide a month after my price promotion, sales that had been percolating along in the UK immediately slid a bit. But on the plus side, my book DID come up when I did a search on “The Scarlet Letter” and on “Episcopal priest fiction.”

I wanted to keep those, so I ran and changed my padded keyword again. I took out “progressive Christian” and “openly gay” and used something like this instead:

Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in small town New Hampshire in New England at time of election of Gene Robinson.

I decided to stick New Hampshire in there, too, since New England was working, and I used “Gene Robinson” because a search on that at Amazon had turned up a bunch of books that targeted Episcopalians … so why not? Of course, if I had thought the least bit carefully, I might have predicted that this change would result (about twenty-four hours later) in this:

geneticengineeringwtf

Yes, I was now writing science fiction about genetic engineering, thanks to Bishop “Gene” Robinson. And while Bishop Robinson may indeed have caused a revolution, it was not in human genetics.

Oops. Let’s try that again. Today, my seventh keyword reads:

“Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary version of “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town New Hampshire or small town New England at time of Bishop Robinson”

That could still use work (it’s clear I was in a bit of a panic when I wrote it). However, the categories are back to what they should be, and the book now come up in searches for “The Scarlet Letter” and “contemporary version of the Scarlet Letter.” It also comes up in searches for “Episcopal priest” and “Anglican priest.” (Faster if you add “adultery.”) It comes up in searches for “small town New England.” (Both novels do, actually.)

So, dear colleagues, I invite you to go for it. But please… be careful out there!

Update October 12: My sales at Amazon slid so abruptly after this post that I became paranoid they didn’t like me writing about keyword stuffing. But it’s probably just coincidental with me pulling back from some day-to-day marketing. So this technique is not a huge instant boon for sales, clearly, but it can help readers who are searching for something very specific find you. I would also think that if you write nonfiction, it might be absolutely invaluable.

Technology, gay rights, the Confederate flag, and other cool ways to date your novel

It’s exhilarating to be living through so much change, especially when it seems to be going in the right direction. But what if your books become dated because of it?

Earlier this month at the Glens Falls Public Library Julia Spencer-Fleming, my favorite living Episcopal mystery romance novelist*, took a question from the audience about coping with changes in technology in her books.

As she pointed out, cell phones have made mystery writers’ lives a lot harder. She also noted that she is fortunate in her setting — a place an awful lot like Argyle, New York — because if necessary her characters can encounter poor or no signal in the local wilderness. (I’m thinking Clare and Russ really need to avoid Verizon, because so far I’ve had no trouble up north.)

Rico Shen [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 tw (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/tw/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rico Shen, via Wikimedia Commons

Spencer-Fleming also mentioned advice she’d gotten to keep technology as unspecific as possible. In other words, perhaps your characters should just call someone rather than doing something with a “phone.” Specific devices or ways of using them can become obscure in a couple of years.

I had to deal with this as I spruced up (AKA finally coming up with decent endings for) some short stories I used in “Missionary Dating and Other Stories.” Cell phones hadn’t even been thought of when I first drafted one of them. Some beta readers told me I needed to clarify when these stories were set, or update them, because they were no longer realistic.

This week another of my books got dated in the way I had always hoped it would. “The Awful Mess: A Love Story”  has a sub-plot involving gay rights which is centered largely on Winslow the cop’s support of his lesbian sister, and suspense over Winslow’s conservative father’s ability to cope with the discovery that his daughter Laura is not only gay, but she and her partner Carla are having a child.Cover for The Awful Mess: A Love Story

One of the issues is that Laura would have no legal rights to a child born of Carla if something happened to their relationship. But as of this week, the Supreme Court has made marriage equality the law of the land. Laura and Carla wouldn’t need to worry that their marital or parental rights wouldn’t hold up simply because of where they were living.

So if the need for nationwide marriage equality had been my A plot, my book would have just become a bit quaint. Such are the risks of dealing with current events. But that can also add a depth of truth, assuming one can avoid stooping to mere propaganda.

ManfieldPark1999One of the reasons I enjoy the take on “Mansfield Park” in the 1999 movie is that it links the Bertram family to slavery in the West Indies, whereas in Austen’s novel you’d have to be pretty aware of the history to even suspect it. (It also spices up Fanny by crossing her with Jane Austen herself — an unforgivable sin in the eyes of some Austen purists, but personally I think this particular Austen novel needs a bit of tinkering before it will work on screen).

I’m also conscious of history changing as I work on my third novel, “Bardwell’s Folly.” It’s about the daughter of a famous dead Southern novelist who was raised in the North, almost completely ignorant of her family roots. When she gets caught saying something racially insensitive, she is forced to try to better understand her Southern legacy.

And oh boy. We have we seen some fast changes in that regard this week, especially in regard to the Confederate flag. Good changes. Way overdue changes.

Of course, the flag is the least of the issues involved, as opposed to the continuing institutional and social racism endemic in the South and the rest of the country, almost as if the Civil War continues to be fought — and sometimes even won by the wrong side.

Still, having people like Strom Thurmond’s son proclaim that the Civil War was fought over slavery is a good step forward. For someone who grew up in Florida watching people like Thurmond and George Wallace win elections using racist code language (or out-and-out hatefulness), it’s astonishing to see the Confederate battle flag so quickly lose supporters.

Sometimes it’s a minor thing that can mess you up. I’d been toying with the idea of having my heroine and her traveling companion, the daughter of a distinguished African American, meet up with a figure very much like Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to explore their ancestry, much as is done in the fascinating series Finding Your Roots.

But that show has just been suspended. Gates is in hot water because the show left out Ben Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors at Affleck’s insistence.

My reaction to this: Affleck is a wuss. Part of what inspired “Bardwell’s Folly” is my own infamous ancestor, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (yeah, that guy who built his fortune trading slaves, massacred black soldiers at Fort Pillow, and served as an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan). My maternal grandfather’s first name was Forrest, after him. And Forrest, along with the Confederate battle flag, is more popular than ever on Confederate bling marketed to that anxious subculture of white Americans who say they “want their country back.”

I find that deeply disturbing, frankly. Especially in a country where, since 9/11, domestic terror is taking twice the toll of the foreign-inspired terrorism we’ve just spent vast fortunes and thousands of American lives trying to defeat.

In other news…

Summer blog post schedule

I’ve been keeping dutifully to a Saturday posting schedule for this blog since I started following a regular schedule in February, but as of this week I’m switching to summer hours. (Part of this is because I was with my lovely grandkids this weekend and vastly over-estimated the energy I’d have left after my return.) So, through August I’ll post every other Sunday. I may also have some interesting guest posts for you soon.

Requisite book flogging

Cover of Missionary Dating and Other Stories“Missionary Dating and Other Stories” goes live Tuesday, which (I just learned) is the absolute worst day to launch a book, because that’s when traditionally-published books release.

It’s always fun to learn these things.

Anyway, it’s currently available for pre-order in e-book format only at all the retailers.


* Dorothy Sayers is my favorite dead Episcopal (technically, Anglican) mystery romance novelist.

 

 

 

Creating believable relationships: Who are your characters’ imagos?

My husband and I made it through 23 years of marriage before certain fundamental issues caused us to decide to part as friends. I doubt we would have made it anywhere close to that long if we hadn’t, fairly early on, participated in a workshop at our church on something called Imago Relationship Therapy.

Have you noticed that you (or your friends, since it’s always easier to see it in others) tend to fall for certain types of people … who tend to have the same issues? We do this, Imago Theory says, because what makes us feel warm and loved is very much based on what we experienced from our primary caregivers when we were growing up. Yet these same things are also guaranteed to make us absolutely crazy.

Imago Theory posits that we are all seeking to heal the wounds of childhood through our choice of mate, which is what drives romantic love, but in the process we will inevitably exacerbate those wounds — cue the power struggle.

brokenheartI bring it up here because, although I am by no means an expert at this theory and its practical applications, it can also be useful to look at what drives your characters to each other, especially since what attracts people to each other is also what may ultimately heal them … if they can survive the conflicts along the way.

And conflict is the heart of all compelling fiction, isn’t it? Sometimes, but not always, with a nice healing resolution at the end.

(Those of you who know anything about typical patterns of codependency in alcoholic/addicted families will recognize similar patterns in Imago Theory.)

When I was writing The Awful Mess, I gave Mary an alcoholic father, a powerful, critical mother, and a mean-tempered alcoholic first husband for a reason. Winslow definitely has a judgmental streak, and I’m willing to bet that Mary unconsciously grooves on that, just as she manages to feel comfortable with his almost comically judgmental Bible-thumping father. But Winslow being a cop and ex-Marine also freaks her out, since it means he has the potential for violence, which is what scared her the most in her first marriage.

Similarly, I suspect Winslow is unconsciously drawn to Mary’s bordering-on-depressive, withdrawing personality (though she also has a pretty mouthy judgmental streak of her own) because of what he experienced when he was growing up.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.David’s emotional remoteness in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire echoes Molly’s experience of her own distant father, which is probably why he becomes so compelling to her when he does begin to establish a bond of affection with her. Meanwhile, Molly’s plainspoken exasperation probably echoes something from David’s wife and his mother, who hadn’t made any bones about her disappointment in him at key moments — which is why Molly’s affection can be so healing for him.

I won’t claim that I actually plan this stuff out when I’m writing (I’m a pantser, and I’m also probably too busy unconsciously working out my own demons), but once something is written and developing I do look hard at it and try to evaluate it in these terms. What are the wounds my characters carry with them, and how might they seek to heal them? (Not necessarily consciously or wisely, mind you.) Because that is one way to drive any character forward in a believable way.

If you’d like to learn more about Imago Relationship Theory, whether for your writing OR your love life, here’s a really helpful page: http://www.imago.com.au/. You might also want to check out the many books by its originators, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.

And here’s wishing you a happy, healing heart!

The writing life: Should we risk offending people, or not?

Last month, an article in the Romance Writers of America newsletter Romance Writers Report by Jennifer Fusco caused quite a bit of controversy by recommending that authors avoid controversy. It gave specific examples in telling authors what to avoid comment on: “…religion. Gay marriage. The ruling in Ferguson, Missouri. Politics.”

Screen cap from Sean Munger: https://seanmunger.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/rwr-advice.jpg

Screen cap from Sean Munger: https://seanmunger.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/rwr-advice.jpg

And thus, ironically, Fusco did exactly what she was advising authors not to do.

The response apparently began with Racheline Maltese, who writes LGBTQ romances and was understandably offended by the idea that she should shut up about a matter of basic civil rights.

Sean Munger took it a step further, noting that the kind of author who would avoid any comment on matters like this is just plain boring. I think it’s a brilliant analysis.

Then again, it’s convenient for me to think that, because I find I just can’t shut up about this stuff. I did try. One of the first things I did before starting out into social media was read M.J. Rose and Randy Susan Meyer’s What to Do Before Your Book Launch (which is quite useful, yet oddly costs at minimum $115 new at Amazon right now — and, I’m sorry, but it’s not THAT useful — the first link up above is the ebook for Nook at $5.99). It essentially offered the same advice, without the specifics to rile people up.

It was advice that resonated for me at that point, because at the time I had just taken my son’s computer for fixing to a local guy whose shop turned out to be full of rabidly anti-Obama stuff. While this was still arguably better than going to get some high school kid to work on it at the national chain where I’d bought the machine, I swore that I was never going back to that guy again. (Incidentally, his web site gave me no clue of what I was getting into.)

It’s not that I boycott businesses owned by Republicans — I have a number of Republican friends. I occasionally even vote Republican in local elections. But I felt practically assaulted by all the vitriol in his shop — and I couldn’t help but conclude that anyone THAT rudely in-my-face about his politics didn’t really deserve my business.

And in social media there’s often no mediating personal relationship. I may not know that you are at heart a kindly fellow who will go out of his way to help the poor at the local food pantry. I only know that you are spreading what I consider racist propaganda. CLICK! You’re unfollowed.

This works both ways, of course. I notice that if I get specifically down on, say, the GOP’s attitude towards what they call “entitlement” programs, I immediately lose some Twitter followers.

Of course, it doesn’t pay to be too fast in our judgments, especially in an age of irony. Is this guy joking or is he serious?

The thing is that while I do indeed try to employ what Mary Maddox describes as “a benign detachment that leaves room for readers to draw their own conclusions,” anyone who reads my books with a keen eye may notice a strong point of view about feeding the hungry and marriage equality (and other aspects of inclusiveness in the Episcopal Church) in The Awful Mess, and about women’s rights and justice issues surrounding rape in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.

So if I’m going to anger people who disagree with me on those issues anyway, why should I hold back before they buy the book? Is it my job to try to fool people into thinking they’re going to read something else?

Of course, after teaching college English for some years, I have also noticed that people will read pretty much whatever they want to believe into any given book. Seriously. So … yeah, if I didn’t want to chase away any potential readers, I suppose I could keep my views hidden and they might never even notice that I disagree with them.

But I still can’t do it. These views matter, or I wouldn’t have written in the books in the first place! I didn’t write the books to be able to say, “Hey, look, I wrote some books! Aren’t they shiny?” I wrote them to say something. It’s all working towards the same end. It’s all living out loud.

So I’m just going to be as obnoxiously opinionated as I feel called to be by my concept of the truth. Yours may well vary from mine. We can still respect each other’s right to speak. You never know, the world might even benefit from our discussion.

A fun interview, a BigAl review, and a shameless bribe

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Currently in Kindle Select, with a promotion coming later this month.

This week I was fortunate enough to enjoy two big events in the life of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, my second novel.

First, BigAl of BigAl and Pals reviewed it very positively. Of course, like most reviewers he also notes that it may force you to ponder things you never wanted to. That may make this book harder to sell than The Awful Mess, which is easier sailing once you get past that pesky committing-adultery-with-a-married-priest thing.

Later in the week I had an interview on The Indie View, which asked some great questions. I enjoyed answering them — though it was something I did a while ago, so it was a little funny to see that some of my ideas (for example, about how to market the book) have already changed.

They decided to highlight the one bit of name dropping I did, so I’m going to assume that was clever somehow, and keep going. Yes, I used to sit in Marilynne Robinson’s living room while her husband Fred Miller Robinson, then a professor at UMass/Amherst, taught the undergraduate creative writing workshop I was taking. I remember being impressed that they were so hospitable with a bunch of scraggly undergrads. (I was of course even more impressed later, when I read her first novel, Housekeeping. Amazing book for those of you who appreciate beautifully-crafted literary fiction.)

That shameless bribe I mentioned

I’m trying to grow my subscriber list, so in order to entice you to join it, I offer the following:

  • As I’ve noted before, this year I’m going to award a $20 online bookstore gift certificate (Amazon or whatever you prefer) to a random person drawn from the subscriber list each quarter. So at the end of March, somebody’s getting one. The list is still pretty small, so your odds are way higher here than they are in other lotteries. (Sorry, family members, you are disqualified.)
  • cover for Motivated Sellers

    “Motivated Sellers” – a prequel to The Awful Mess

    I’ve finished the short prequel to The Awful Mess that began with “After that Slap.” (Those of you already on the list may remember this.) It’s in production at the moment. It’s now called “Motivated Sellers” and I will soon make it available free to all members of my reading list. You get to spend some time with Winslow and Bert and watch Mary’s real estate agent dodge that issue of how the house smells. And then I’d love it if you’d let me know whether you think I should make it available to the general public or not.

Those of you already on the list know I don’t send a lot of email. Right now if you want blog posts, that’s a separate subscription. I may combine the two lists, just so the update people don’t forget who I am. Blog posts only come every two weeks unless something exciting is going on. (I tried doing it weekly again recently and while I enjoy it, I find it takes a major amount of time that really ought to be going to fiction writing.)

And yes, spring WILL come

forced blossoms and primroses

Some flowers to help us survive winter!

I want to end on a cheery note for those of us suffering through the worst winter in decades in the American Northeast (as I write this, it is snowing AGAIN.) I forced these branches from a sick tree in front of the house into blossom this week. It’s a reminder that those buds out there really will swell and break into flower and leaf someday.

Want to try it yourself? Cut some branches, put them in water — maybe with a teaspoon of hydrogen peroxide to discourage bacteria — and be patient. It took about three weeks, and I had just been about to dump it all as a failed experiment when I noticed the buds swelling. Forsythia and willows are the easiest to do this with, if you have those. But fruit trees can work. I used to do it with ninebark, too. If you hammer the ends of the branches flat that is supposed to help them take up water, but I didn’t bother with that.

Those are primroses underneath the branches. I picked them up at the grocery store on sale this week. (They are often on sale about now.) If I keep the spent blossoms pinched and keep them moist, they should continue to bloom for quite some time.

Stay warm and think spring thoughts!