Monday, March 28, 2011

Hannah Tinti and The Good Thief

Rochester had a notable author in town this week, Hannah Tinti, giving talks of all kinds. The first one I attended was a reading and discussion of her award-winning novel The Good Thief followed by a book signing.

If you’re a fan of Charles Dickens or Robert Louis Stevenson, this is a book for you. If not, don’t sweat it! The language is elegant without being pretentious and this baby moves. A missing hand, grave robbers, corpses who sit up in their burial shrouds, a dwarf emerging from a chimney who pays for his supper with an elaborately carved toy—it’s hard to put down.

This novel is good fun for readers and extra tasty for writers. The setting of 1800’s New England comes to life with the smell of oily boys bathed bimonthly and the sight of an entire town of women with their ears to the ground after a mine collapse, listening for their husband's voices.

The characters are unique, each an outsider marked by a striking physical attribute (a gentle giant who can snap a man's neck with his bare hands) or habit (a swindler with tales taller than a sequoia). There’s symbolism in rocks, parallels with the lives of saints, and an underlying theme of redemption.

graveyard 3
Image courtesy: Calamity Meg

Ms. Tinti’s story-behind-the-story was just as rich. Many of the details in The Good Thief can be traced back to a traumatic event she experienced as a child in a Salem, MA graveyard. I won’t give away the details as they’ll be published in a group of personal essays by several authors.

Next post I’ll give the 411 on the master class in writing presented by Ms. Tinti.

Have you let your personal life creep into your manuscript?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

With Age Comes . . .

A leg to chew on
Image courtesy: Taz, etc.


The doll slipped out of his pudgy fingers again. He snatched it off the floor and stuffed the rubber head in his mouth. This time it came off. He socked the hole to his eye.

Yes, there was just enough room. He started stuffing in the C4 plastique.

Firecracker Explosion
Image courtesy: Wesley Oostvogels

Thank you, bartender, I'll have another:

The left knee woke her. Jen couldn’t sit up and massage it; her back was too stiff. The MRI was scheduled for 9:30. She was terrified that the doctor would recommend a knee replacement.

She couldn’t let that happen. After her right knee was replaced, she was out for four freakin’ months. The American Cup was in four weeks and her full twist and a flip flop, flip flop 2.5 beam dismount kicked ass.

Knee Injury
Image courtesy: The Latest Slub

Okay, I’m messing with you. Blame Terry Towery and his blog on aging. It got me to thinking of all the ways a writer can convey a character’s age. Stating it is boring. Having someone look in the mirror? Boring. My little trick with misdirection is fun, but it’s only good for introducing a character.

Setting and action can tag a character’s age. Cheating on an algebra quiz, screaming at the kids in the backseat to shut UP, searching through a purse to find that elusive coupon for Fixident—each comes with assumption of the character’s age.

Of course dialogue is handy. Young children skip articles, drop endings, and misuse words. “Her my bestest frien’.” They also misinterpret what they hear—sometimes with awesome results. Little Bear called our washing machine ‘wash and clean’ and Big Bear declared the huge yellow trucks with scoops on front to be ‘bobo-lizards’.

When I wanted to make sure my college-age character sounded authentic, scouring blogs at 20 Something Bloggers gave me tons of voices to sample. Plus I found this at Sara Swears A Lot and laughed until I cried.

Have any cool tips/examples for developing or introducing characters?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Safe Sex: Penguin-Style

cute penguin couple - explored
Image courtesy Adam Foster

Howdy, howdy. Today I’d like to thank Zoe Courtman for sending me the following award:

And now, for seven things about me . . .

First: current events and/or traumas. Considering the tragedy in Japan, I’ll keep the whining to a minimum.

1. My computer died. The reason I’m bummed and not in a straightjacket is the last thing I did before the hard drive self-destructed: backed-up the writing to two separate places. Thank you, old Mac, for hanging on that long. I’ll miss you.

2. My basement flooded. The sump pump went belly up and we woke with two inches of water all around. Bright side: I had finished my New Year’s Resolutions to clean out the sump pump room. (30 less boxes of wet mess to clean up!) Brighter side: our insurance rider for the sump pump. We only had to pay the deductible. If you have a sump-pump in your house, ask your agent about this rider. Clean up cost: $3000.

3. The Fabulous Miss Sydney lost a front fang to feline root rot. There goes that pretty snarl. Sorry baby.

4. For those of you keeping count, Big Bear has been sick seven, count ‘em, seven times since New Years. Do they make hypoallergenic hamster balls in size 6X? I know first graders have cooties, but this is ridiculous.

Flaming Lips
Image courtesy: dalai-alana

I’ve been reading Water for Elephants and love it. It reminds me of my old zookeeping days. Here’s something you may be surprised to know:

5. Vultures have a sense of humor. Our turkey vultures would perform targeted vomit-bombing on the keepers for yucks. And when I left the paper towels in their exhibit? They rolled their trees in two minutes flat. Bravo.

6. Speaking of wacky birds, I used to be the penguin keeper. Each morning, I’d slide back the exhibit door and Chewy, my man, would rush out into my lap for some morning snuggles like a sleek, black puppy. He’d bring me sticks and pebbles—the penguin version of roses and chocolate.

One morning I was surprised at how hard he seemed to be struggling to climb my arm. His flippers were flapping, tail wagging, feet flying. Then he stopped, went limp, and closed his eyes looking sort of . . . happy.

I looked down at my latex-gloved hand. OH NO, HE DIDN’T!!!!

(I felt so used.)

7. And finally, what would I do with the extra dough if I became a successful novelist?
A) Find a good therapist
B) Learn to play the guitar
C) Locate a vet who could set up Miss Sydney with a gold fang.

Looks like I’ll have plenty of time to mull it over. Until then check out these Stylish Blogs. You know what to do, kids.

Terry Towery
Writing Nut
Teresa Wellborn
L. Diane Wolfe
Christi Goddard
Vicki Rocho
Sarah Fine

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Recent Reads

Good morning, readers. Our weather is bipolar. Saturday: fifty degrees, rain and green grass. Sunday: back to snow. This is the third such turnaround in the past month. Spring's here! No, it's not. Spring's here! No, it's not. What-ever.

Here's some of the excellent things I've read while the weather goes through its repeated identity crises. Each tale deals with loss, be it of family, home, rights, or civilization as we know it.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

If you had to read this in high school, like me, then maybe you remember the bizarre sexual practice of pairing young fertile women with old, politically powerful men with the geezer's wife present and holding the handmaid's hands during the act! If you're a writer, read it again for the language. More than pure poetry, how Atwood plays with words--damn, all I can say is BRAVO!

If you enjoy her vision of a dark future, don't miss The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake. Yes, I'm talking to you, fans of King's The Stand. You'll love all three.

Chris Clive's Incendiary

Proceed only if you have a strong stomach and can handle works inspired by 9/11. A wife and mother loses her family in a fictional terrorist attack by Osama Bin Laden. The novel is composed as a letter to Osama, creating a work both gut-wrenching (as expected) and hilarious (bizarrely unexpected). While Little Bee is better, this one is well worth the journey. The main character is far from perfect and the twist at the end is too awful to contemplate (because it's all too believeable).

A movie exists starring Michelle Williams. I can't wait to find a copy.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

I read this right after Incendiary and between the two, I'm not sure which one was more painful. Sounds like a criticism, but no. Both of these books hurt me, but the sorrow was sweet. They made me ache for people that don't exist. They made me want to do a better job evoking reader's emotions with my characters.

Durrow's beautifully crafted novel is told from several points of view, each voice full and genuine. Rachel--half black, half Danish--moves in with her black grandmother after losing her family--a gruesome event in which she is the only survivor.

I hung onto every word of Rachel's struggle with racial identity because my kids are mixed. Seeing their preference for lighter-skinned dolls at age four is frightening. I worry how they'll be viewed by their peers and how they'll view themselves.

Like Incendiary, the twist at the end is beyond belief.

Requiem by Fire by Wayne Caldwell

This is Wayne Caldwell's sequel to Catalootchee. I read these for a couple of reasons. My parent's have lived in the Asheville, NC area for over twenty years and it is surreal to read of familiar places as they were a hundred years ago. Caldwell incorporates his historical research into the story with grace--something I want to emulate in my next manuscript. While Catalootchee gets wrapped up in the characters and setting to the point of sacrificing plot, Requiem keeps things moving. The chapters on firebug Willie McPeters puts this character on par with King's Trashcan Man.

Hmmm . . . I wonder if I could relate all these books to The Stand--some kind of six-degrees of separation deal. Nah, I'll leave that as an exercise for you.

And last, but not least, Jodie Picoult's Sing You Home.

This is the first book I've gotten that comes with its own CD soundtrack. I haven't listened to the songs yet, but I like how she substitutes 'Track' for 'Chapter'.

Is it just me, or do several of Picoult's books feature obstetrians, midwives, or something else related to childbirth? Not that there's anything wrong with that. I've decided each of my novels will feature a cat.

Feline book mark
Image courtesy of Strep72

Anyhoo, she creates a fascinating conundrum for her characters. Zoe, having lost her baby late into the pregnancy, also loses her husband to divorce when he decides he can't handle another fruitless attempt at IVF. She finds new love--with a woman--remarries and decides to give motherhood one last shot by placing her frozen embryos in her partner's healthy uterus.

But not so fast! Zoe's ex-husband has given up alcohol for Jesus and can't stand the thought of his children being raised by two women bound for hell. So he sues for the right to give the embryos to his equally evangelically-minded brother and wife who are also struggling with infertility issues.

This book does a great job at showing the difficulties same-sex partners face. It would have been easy to make the religious side completely evil, but Picoult doesn't do that. Somehow, she makes you root for characters on both sides.

What wonderful books have you read lately?