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Wise Words on Novels from Jane Smiley

Remarkable wisdom from Jane Smiley in her new book "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel." So many fascinating things to say about the novel, its history and structure, and the writing life as well. She suggests that it's not necessary to read the book cover to cover but I plowed through it with delight. Because this list of quotes is so enormous, I think I might post single quotes on Facebook, one at a time, and yet enable the really hungry go-getters to read them all...

Two little asides, remarking on modern culture: when you read on a tablet with Kindle you don't get page  Read More 

New Book Idea, New Neighbors

Thrilled to say that I’ve come up with an idea for a new book and I’m struck by how it’s like having neighbors move in next door: I can hear them through the walls, characters behind the conscious/subconscious barrier, rattling around. I’m not quite sure who they are or what makes them tick, what their  Read More 

The Little Ice Age as Setting for A Slender Tether

Few people are aware that Europe suffered through a Little Ice Age during the Middle Ages, a time of unprecedented cold which I was drawn to include in my new book, A Slender Tether, because of its current relevance: the inexplicable weather, severe storms, and global warming that are in the news on a weekly basis these days. It’s my suggestion that these had a profound effect not just on the lifestyles of Europeans, but also their sense of consistency and predictability.

“Speak the words “ice age,” and the mind turns to Cro-Magnon mammoth hunters on windswept European plains devoid of trees,” suggests Brian Fagan, author of The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850, on which much of my research is based. “But the Little Ice Age was far from a deep freeze. Think instead of  Read More 

Ride a Horse to Imbue Your Writing with Truth

If you write historical fiction that’s based in a time-frame prior to the invention of the car (and most is), here’s a tip: learn to ride a horse. It was virtually the only mode of transportation for most of our characters and the experience of riding long distances and/or the relationship that one had with a horse can add to your historical fiction. The good news is that I’ve found a place where one can learn from a woman who loves historical fiction almost as much as she loves her horses. It’s called Wind In Your Hair Stables in Wanship UT and it’s a joy.

Wanship is just 20 minutes from Park City UT and 45 minutes from Salt Lake City, an easy drive through lovely hilly country. The stables and grounds are artfully rustic and pristine, built with rough-hewn wood. The owner, Sueanne, has a marvelous,  Read More 

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

I love historical fiction but it’s a recent appreciation and it was born of a reading of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind because it’s a historical setting but a modern novel form and it is incredibly artful; it is literature because the period of time involved is usedas another device to examine a universal truth. It’s not just a story of the building of a bridge or a queen, a beheading, a war. It’s art.

I think it’s important to remember that fiction, regardless of genre, setting or format, is about illuminating the human condition; it’s not about “gosh, something interesting happened.” That doesn’t work for modern stories either. It has to be “gosh, this interesting thing happened and look at the fascinating emotional transformations that happened as a result.”

But historical fiction faces at least two additional challenges,  Read More 

Interview with the Author: Jess Wells on A Slender Tether and Christine de Pizan

Q: Tell us about Christine and what you’re trying to convey here
JW: I was drawn to write about Christine de Pizan because of her courage and determination. She wrote more than 20 volumes of work across a wide range of disciplines and was the first to argue for the political and social equality of women during the time. Today, there are thousands of professors and students who study her as a seminal voice of the Middle Ages. I was particularly compelled, though, by the desire to dramatize the struggle of a pioneer. It’s particularly important to me as we write stories of women of the past that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking them to be one-dimensional super-heroes. I teach writing historical fiction and I tell my students that despite our bumper stickers that say ‘Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History’ we seem to create female characters that are unblemished. In fact, many of our pioneers  Read More 
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Paracelsus, Father of Modern Surgery and Chemistry

Here’s for “My Main Character Blog hop”

1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?
a.Theo Paracelsus, a historic person, is considered the father of modern chemistry and was a brilliant scientist and renegade doctor of the 1400s. He published The Great Surgery Book in 1536, which was an astounding compendium of anatomy and surgical procedure.
2) When and where is the story set?
a. The Mandrake Broom is set in Europe during the witch-burning times 1465-1540 set mostly in Salerno, Italy and Paris, and centers on the fight to save medical knowledge. Paracelsus becomes the colleague and partner of my fictional main character, Luccia Alimenti, whose mandate was to carry the herbal and medical teachings of the famous Trotula throughout Europe. It’s my suggestion that their collaboration united the side of medicine from the wicca that was focused on herbs but not surgery, with the surgical side that cut but didn’t cure.
3) What should we know about him/her?
a. Paracelsus was an astoundingly free thinker, a physician, botanist and the first to champion the theories of psychology and toxicology. After a rigorous, traditional education, he became an itinerate doctor, traveling to battlefields and encampments of the poor to better understand disease and anatomy, which was unheard-of in his day.
4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?
a. Paracelsus was a eunuch because of an illness in his childhood and also developed a serious addiction to laudanum, an opiate. The central conflict in his life, though, was his rage against the medical establishment and its close-minded ways. He got a reputation for being incredibly arrogant and incendiary, and in some situations had to sneak out of town for fear of imprisonment. He railed against his colleagues, burning some medical textbooks as evidence of fraud.
5) What is the personal goal of the character?
a. Paracelsus had a hunger for medical knowledge and a refusal to settle for the limits of knowledge of the time. As a contemporary of Leonardo de Vinci and Copernicus, he championed scientific thought at a time when the Inquisition made that extremely dangerous.
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Should You Hide the Identities of People in Memoir or Fiction?

Should you hide the identities of people in your fiction or memoir? What’s the impact of revealing family secrets in your work? Two excellent takes on the subject in today’s New York Times Book Review. The decorated Francine Prose says go for broke, except with children: you’re their custodians and it isn’t fair. Otherwise, look at the great fiction/memoirs that have relied on real life and consider what would have been done to them if the writer had been reticent. Of course, she says, you have to be prepared for the consequences.

In counterpoint (though they’re somewhat allied) Leslie Jameson has a wonderful view of the subject. I’ve seen this frequently in my teaching at The Writing Salon: “There’s the danger that overly autobiographical writing will be hampered by serving too many gods (fidelity and artistry at once) or be crippled by the involution of its gaze, made less ambitious by the umbilical cord of its genesis in lived experience.” But actually, she says we’re all creating fictional ‘terrariums’ (love the metaphor) where a certain version of ourselves can survive. And utilizing real people in our work isn’t ‘mining’ or extracting, but creating a type of alchemy, more like agriculture with the truth as the seed.  Read More 

Ambition as a Theme in A Slender Tether

Fiction is a great form, but so is the essay, and I find I want to explain the theme of ambition and its reversal -- disillusionment -- which underlies my story of Christine de Pizan, “The Raptor Among Blue-Birds” in my new book, A Slender Tether.

We owe our pioneers a great debt, and Christine de Pizan is one of our earliest and most eloquent pioneers. Genuine people, however, are multi-dimensional and the faceted sides of the human psyche give us an opportunity to examine the truth behind each side of the story, in this case the addictive and conflicted nature of ambition.

For example, all pioneers waffle between the inculcated lessons of the status quo (giving rise to self-loathing) and their determined, brilliant will to move forward. Pioneers know their position as an out-cast, as Christine does when she acknowledges that she is a raptor (ferocious and potentially deadly) amid a court of decorative and powerless blue-bird women. She sometimes feels reptilian in her alienation.

Her mother had her own form of ambition. It’s historical fact that  Read More 
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Hard-Wired to Crave Variety

(first posted 12/11/12)
Love it when science (especially when delivered by the New York Times) delivers a reason behind a craving, in this case my empty-nester’s new craving to pick up my purse and keys, throw on a black coat, and get out into the San Francisco night, to see young people out on dates, to go where the crowd is, to wander Valencia St. with no destination, out for the thrill of the dark…

“It’s cruel but true: We’re inclined – psychologically and physiologically – to take positive experiences for granted. ..Because…we are biologically hard-wired to crave variety. Variety and novelty affect the brain in much the same way that drugs do – that is, they trigger activity that involves the neurotransmitter dopamine, as do pharmacological highs…Surprise is a potent force. When something novel occurs, we tend to pay attention, to appreciate the experience or circumstance, and to remember it. We are less likely to take our marriage for granted when it continues to deliver strong emotional reactions in us…Surprise is apparently more satisfying than stability.”
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