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The Advantages of Fictionalizing Your Family Story

I am obviously a big fan of historical fiction (two of my novels are based in the Middle Ages) and I tell my students writing their family stories that there are advantages to crossing the line into fiction – either fictive biographies or historical fiction.

First, fictional characters can be the personification of important forces in the story.


Status quo: You may not have any evidence that someone told your grandmother that a woman can’t open her own blacksmith shop but since the establishment of the status quo is essential to showing the adventurous nature of your grandmother, you need to introduce this idea. However, these ideas must be personified within a character, they can’t just be a vague social pressure that is described.
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How and Why You Should Write the Story of Your Family and When to Veer into Fiction

Happily, my new course on “Crafting the Story of Your Family: For Writers and Non-Writers Alike” at The Writing Salon has begun and I am reminded of what the New York City Library has listed as one of their “20 Reasons You Should Write Your Family History”: the historical and literary record needs more material from previously underrepresented people – women, people of color, the poor and working-class, the disabled. In short, if you think the historical record is too filled with privileged white men, get writing.

The Social Advantages of Writing Your Family Story
In this culture filled with megastars, it’s hard to remember that, in fact, you and your ancestors count. “The entire story of mankind has come to us from individual voices from the past,” some say. Family histories and first-person narratives are important historical documents that fuel research, social histories and fiction. They provide the sparkle that enlivens and provides depth to data on birth dates, names of children and day of death.
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Please join me Oct. 22nd for a Special Reading at The Writing Salon, Berkeley

San Francisco Bay Area writers and readers: Please join me at The Writing Salon in Berkeley on Oct. 22nd, 7-9 p.m. as I read new work, introduce my student Agatha Hinman to her first public reading, and share the stage with Karen Bjorneby and her student.

I'll be reading from my unpublished collection of short stories, The Disappearing Andersons of Loon Lake, featuring a story that is particularly appropriate for an audience of writers.

The event is free but space is limited. Refreshments will be served and my books will be available for sale.

Please join me at The Writing Salon, 2121 Bonar St., Studio D on the Second Floor, Berkeley CA, 94702, October 22, 2016, from 7-9 p.m.

Looking forward to seeing you!
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Reading and Writing -- Pleasures from the Same Wellspring

It is my contention that the desire to read and the desire to write come from the same place – a longing to live in fantasy. They are both great brain candy (but good for you so perhaps ‘brain fruit,’ though more substantive than that so perhaps ‘brain kale’ but that sounds unpalatable. Clearly the metaphor needs some collective work.) An interesting piece recently ran in the New York Times Book Review, in the back section called “Bookends” – always one of my favorites in the newspaper because of the quality of the writing and the subtlety of what they discuss. On Sunday, June 12, 2016, the question was whether or not it is harder to be transported by a book as you get older. And what Benjamin Moser says is “the problem is that the deeper you go into your own writing, the harder it becomes to enter someone else’s. If pursued seriously, writing demands a kind of obsessive concentration that came, at least for me, to preclude reading.”

Reading great stories or novels adds another dimension to one’s life as if having a secret

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Join Me in the Workshop: How to Write Historical Fiction, in Berkeley, CA

Really happy to be back to teaching, and back to The Writing Salon. If you're anywhere near the SF Bay Area, I would love to see you at this fun and affordable one-day workshop:

Writing Historical Fiction – Weaving Past and Present into Art

Historical fiction can transport you into worlds that are incredibly fun to write. Do you want to reintroduce a little-known hero/heroine into popular culture? Would you like to tell the sweeping saga of your own family’s struggle in America? Is there an event from long ago that seems hauntingly relevant today? Any story that is more than 50 years in the past is considered historical fiction, so sometimes one’s own childhood can be the source of inspiration.

Historical fiction has its own unique demands, though. I'm fond of mentioning that “You can’t just throw a tapestry over the flat screen TV in your scene and call it historical. There are real differences between modern life and life in the past, which require real differences in your writing. And that, to me, is the greatest thing about it.”

In this lively, one-day workshop, we will:
• Identify where each of you is in the process of your project – idea, complete research, plot obstacle
• Discuss how to research and when to stop researching
• Discuss how settings can help your plot
• Consider how to tell the story of famous people told from a fresh angle
• Identify ways in which historical stories illuminate modern truths
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Tell Your Family Story in a Private Book?

Frequently I have people sign up for my writing classes – both the classes on general fiction construction and historical fiction – because they want to tell the story of their grandmother's trek across the American prairie by covered wagon; or their grandfather’s disappearance in World War II Germany; or even their own story from the Summer of Love. In all of those instances, I am struck by the notion that these writers are hemmed in by facts as well as by their desire to paint their ancestors in a favorable light. This doesn’t necessarily make great fiction, especially when fiction requires that you sometimes bend the facts to serve a larger truth.

So I was particularly interested when William Novak, co-author of memoirs of Lee Iacocca, Magic Johnson, Nancy Reagan and others, wrote a recent article in the New York Times entitled “Writing Books Very Few Will Read” in which he described the not-often-discussed existence of a market for private/family-read-only memoirs. That is, he was recently contracted to write a memoir of a family patriarch under the stipulation that the memoir never be publicly published. In fact, the private memoir was a family tradition – the father of the patriarch had had one written, as had his father before him.

Even more interesting, though, were the differences between writing a private book for a family and a public book. First and foremost was his realization that commercial publishers “encourage the writer to pay special attention to the sordid elements of a life, because, let’s face it, scandal, crime, addiction and other human failings are more compelling to most readers.” In the private book, Novak says, the writer is free to “explore the qualities and actions that will inspire future generations.” This would definitely solve my students’ quandary of how to write a family story that is accurate and yet kind.

Novak also says that “another happy surprise was that private books don’t demand complete structural consistency.” He describes the process of being free to make the form fit the content rather than the other way around, and include a few pages of oral history, an annotated list, an edited conversation or other liberties that one cannot take in a commercial book.

I think my students will be quite relieved to hear all of this.

#JessWells, #WilliamNovak, #TheNewYorkTimes

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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 numbers, you get "locations" which seems odd but hey. (If anyone knows how to display actual page numbers, I'd love to hear it.) Secondly, to protect my wrists from further repetitive motion injuries, I'm using dictation software now, which means two things: 1) I was able to dictate these quotes with far far less effort than if I had typed them and 2) there are sometimes odd grammatical errors of the very simplest kind (there vs their) in the copy now so please forgive me and blame it on the "Dragon" (of Dragon Naturally Speaking, the product.) Here's the wisdom of Jane:


“The novel integrates several forms of human intelligence – verbal intelligence (for the style), psychological intelligence (for the characters), logical intelligence (for the plot), spatial intelligence (for the symbolic and metaphorical content as well is the setting), and even musical intelligence (for pacing and rhythm.)” Location 851

“If we look at our roster of novelists, we have to be struck by two facts: one is that most of them started out as nobodies, and the other is that many of them have come to be regarded as profits and sages. Their job is to develop a theory of how it feels to be alive. He depicts as much as he can of what is around him if he were more of a specialist, he wouldn’t be a novelist, he would have a field of study (if he were more a specialist of words, he would be a poet). If you were more of a generalist, he wouldn’t be a novelist, he would be a roving bore, spouting theories to anyone who couldn’t get away fast enough. A novelist is on the cusp between someone who knows everything and someone who knows nothing.” Location 989

“In general, the broader a novelist’s interests and sympathies, the longer he can pursue his vocation.” Location 1066

“The novel was invented several times – most notably in 1004 by Murasaki Shikibu in what later became Kyoto, Japan, and once again in the 13th century in Iceland, in the form of the Icelandic saga – the modern novel is usually considered to have originated with Don Quixote.” Location 1177

“The Panchatantra, written in India in the Sanskrit four A.D. 500, was probably familiar to Boccaccio through a Latin translation of about 1270.” Location 1201

“Realism and psychology: two essential characteristics of the novel.” Location 1358

“The rise of the novel...organizes itself around individuals and pays attention to the inner life and its relationship to the outer life. And the novel requires conflict, especially inner conflict.” Location 1387

“Don Quixote is the first modern novel because the reader’s experience of Cervantes’s mind working over this relationship is the first modern example of undiluted authorial consciousness as it unfolds page by page.” Location 1415

“The wars, controversies, and religious movements of the 16th century required people to look within – life, death, and eternal salvation were at stake. The result was the characteristic rhythm of the realistic novel – action, reflection, action, reflection, action, reflection, for hundreds of pages. It is a hypnotic rhythm.” Location 1430

“Novels have protagonists; protagonists, like narrators, have points of view. Point of view is like perspective in a realistic painting – it changes the size and shape, the nature and identity, of characters, objects, and events in accordance with their proximity to the viewer.” Location 1824

“The novel is the only imaginative form that must have both action and point of view, suspense and reflection. In this it seems to mimic the way life feels.” Location 1834

“In every other category – government, religion, survival, and reproduction – freedom may or may not be present. History is full of conformity and enslavement in the name of politics, faith, production of food and shelter, and child-rearing. All of these institutions can exist without freedom, but art cannot.” Location 3047

“Readers of novels have an instinctive understanding of whether the novelist is exercising his freedom or whether he isn’t – that is, whether he means what he is saying or whether he doesn’t – because the novel is based in the most primal human materials, emotion and language.” Location 3057 “Ours is the only social system that always carries this freedom, so it is of a value that cannot be overestimated, as it coexists with and counteracts all of the other systems that promote conformity.” Location 3089

“When kings and queens appear in our list of novels (which they rarely do) they are demoted to minor figures with few lines, or they appear in their private capacity. Kings don’t fit because the novel is about how persons relate laterally to one another.” Location 3131

“In 1604, Cervantes came to writing a Don Quixote, the first real novel, from an eventful career as a soldier in the Mediterranean wars, a bureaucrat, and, for five years, a slave to the Viceroy of Algiers.” Location 3168

“The novel has changed the nature of human consciousness in two ways – it has made readers and audiences more receptive to the ups and downs of everyday concerns, and it has given everyday concerns more ups and downs.” Location 3295

“Identity is point of view and language functioning together, simultaneously.” Location 3313

“A tale is something that tellers and listeners agree, for the sake of entertainment, might have happened, but it always contains the possibility of impossibility – this is the charming hook…” Location 3667

“Successful observation requires detachment, and the reward of successful observation is new knowledge.” Location 3834

“Writing is writing, not planning. The sooner you put words on paper, the happier you will be.” Location 4032

“To pursue truth and interest is much more productive than to pursue originality, which will happen in any case.” Location 4076

“From the standpoint of enlarging your diction, do not be afraid of any sort of contamination of your linguistic purity by the research you pursue.” Location 4082

“Fiction is not so much about what happens as about how it happens: how it happens is intimately bound up with who does it.” Location 4093

“More complexity is more fun as well as more true.” Location 4175

“Emotional complexity is the sin qua non of the serious literary novel.” Location 4202

“Writing a novel is easy because there is nothing simpler than adding word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and then going back and reading and writing it over again. To do it, the author simply has to remember that it can’t be done, that the ideal edifice that exists in his mind may not be, cannot be, and will never be communicated, but something will.” Location 4224

“Avid readers who become novelists are always a little ahead of themselves in terms of taste, but only a little ahead. Admiration for the work of other novelists should remind you of the goal, but not make the goal seem unattainable, should open up your desire to write, not shut it down. Writing novels is an essentially amateur activity. Professional readers and literary types have to be able to dispense with their professional side in order to engage in the amateurism required in the rough draft of the first novel.” Location 4381

“Sometimes vital physical labor promotes inspiration, as when Arthur Miller was building his work cabin in your left as you get both of the pit of the and she you think you get both the button and suddenly felt Death of a Salesman enter his head as a whole concept.” Location 4413

“The ultimate fact about novel writing is that you can never control whether your writing efforts will be successful, but you can control whether they will be enjoyable or satisfying.” Location 4442

“The great thing, as Henry James would say, is to do that rough draft, recognizing it as your first experience of ‘the incomparable luxury of the artist’.” Location 4458

“A plot has four simple parts: exposition, rising action, climax, and dénouement. Each of these parts has a job with regard to the action, the characters, and the themes, but its overall purpose is to organize the material to carry the reader along with at least a certain amount of suspense, giving her the feeling that her familiarity with and knowledge of the material is growing as she reads. The suspense can come in any form.” Location 4523

“The climax works not to lift the reader to the highest pitch of excitement but to lift her to the highest pitch of understanding.” Location 4538

“But you have to provide something that looks like a climax, and you have to get it going about 85 to 90% of the way into your novel.” Location 4541

“If you were asked to tell everything you learn about your novel from that one page of the climax, what with those things be?” Location 4551

“’ How’ is for the rising action.” Location 4583 The rising action is the meat of the novel.” Location 4599 “what is really going on in the rising action is that something that seems implausible at the time of the exposition – the climax – is being prepared for. It is in the rising action that the novel becomes more and more different from life.” Location 4605

“As you aim for perfection, don’t forget that there is no perfect novel, then because every novel is built out of specifics, every novel offers some pleasures but does not offer some others, and while you can try to achieve as many pleasures as possible, some cancel out others.” Location 4667

“James takes very seriously the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. I may feel strongly that the un-lived life is not worth examining.” Location 4679

“A real climax has to seem to solve the problem the exposition poses.” Location 4789

“Almost every novel gathers itself at the 62% mark, changes strategy, and freshens.” Location 4902

“A book about a scam and a betrayal has two climaxes – the climax of the action, when big things are happening and the narrator doesn’t know what they mean, and the climax of the interpretation, when the narrator extracts the real meaning of not only the climax but also of the whole train of events.” Location 5008

“I think it is fruitful to think of novels as passing through levels of decreasing privacy.” Location 5095

“Egilssaga is exemplary in its use of the materials and techniques that were in some sense left over from the age of the epic and that had become less grand and heroic as they entered the age of history and memory.” Location 5563

“… Some of the problems that writers of other sagas run into, in particular the sense that a character’s actions are against his own interests, that plausibility is being sacrificed to plots, and that what is going on is really not understandable.” Location 5585

“Prose is for exploring what is unique about situations and characters – we might say that prose is Aristotelian. Poetry is for exploring what incidents and persons typify – it is Platonic.” Location 5677

“Lazarillo de Tormes was subversive in giving a voice to the hitherto voiceless, and demonstrates that the novel is indeed a naturally democratic form – promising not “every man a king” but rather “every man a protagonist.” Location 5710 Published in 1554, it was enormously popular. Location 5698

“Don Quixote, volume 1, is not a modern novel in the sense that it describes a distinct and significant transformation in the mental state of its hero.” Location 5788

“A novel cannot tarry too long with the meaning of events, because meaning is usually experienced as either revelation or instruction. Revelation is by nature momentary, and instruction is by nature not very entertaining. Beads of meaning, therefore, tend to be strung along a wire of actions.” Location 6042

“This religion of the middle class, the self-made protagonist, stands in strong contrast to the pattern of aristocratic literature (notably the epic) that preceded it, in which the hero is the dupe of circumstances, and his only choice is the manner in which he meets his fate.” Location 6153

“The novel is always about whether and how particular individuals fit into their social milieu.” Location 6265

“The telling sign of a great novelist of rich imaginative gifts is the ability to draw beautiful minor characters and to allow them to remain minor.” Location 6573

“Nothing is so seductive in a narrator as self-knowledge.” Location 6902

“Now we are at the heart of the dilemma of the novel. Are the stories the novel relates typical or unique? Do we expect the novel to confirm our beliefs about the world or to challenge them? Is the point of the novel the revelation of the ideal or the depiction of the real? In fact, no individual novelist can decide which side of this dilemma to adopt. Realism or idealism is native to his or her temperament and intrinsic to his or her vision of the world. But Jane Eyre reveals something about the dilemma – compelling idealistic novels, novels that grow from wishes – are beloved. Compelling realistic novels, novels that grow from astute observation of likely outcomes, are respected. A diet of too many idealistic novels comes to seem shallow. The diet of too many realistic novels comes to seem sordid.” Location 7005

“… The difference between the novel and the drama is that while the drama works by precipitating and then accelerating the action, the novel works by retarding the action.” Location 7175

“In fact, every novel requires the author to have a psychological theory – every train of logic (which in the novel is made up of actions, dialogue, and expressed thoughts) requires theory to progress from one step (one plot point) to the next. Some theories are more conventional than others, some are more profound than others, some date more quickly than others, but an author with a theory, even a theory that dates very quickly, is in general more humane and large spirited than an author with no theory or no interest in theory.) Location 7503

“The prolonged exposure to a novelist’s sensibility required by a lengthy novel is akin to a long train ride with a stranger, sometimes more demanding and uncongenial than the reader is prepared for. In that sense, every novel is, in the end, a social experience as well as an experience of solitude.” Location 7653

“No novelist can quite escape the social theories of his time, because the novel is a social investigation. So to some extent the reputation of every novelist will rise and fall according to how his social theory holds up.” Location 8360

“What is utterly original in fiction is always more private than what is original in other forms, because it is un-circumscribed by conventions (like poetry) or the presence of other people (like drama and movies).” Location 8655

“American literature has decentralized respectability. The aim is not to bring outliers into the mainstream, but to broaden the mainstream so it includes the outliers without destroying their uniqueness. It is the countervailing force against the homogenization of American life… – The part un-dissolved in the whole, representing it and reproducing it.” Location 9053

“The novel is not a good medium for portraying mass events – words and sentences are too sequential and linear to evoke the overwhelming without making it abstract by using figurative language.” Location 9147

“The underlying premise of the novel as a form is that such rationalization and reconciliation is possible, because the novel always tries to set the individual into the social context.” Location 9345

“All novels eventually become historical documents, because they either chronicle everyday life taking place all around the author as he writes, or they chronicle his ideas of what is true and important, which are always strongly determined by his circumstances.” Location 9425

#JaneSmiley, #JessWells

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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 plans are, but I’m thrilled that they’re there. I’m enlivened by them, curious, appreciative. Are those children I hear? Who is arriving, what is the conflict, what is their journey? That anxiety-producing empty space is being filled now, the community is being built, and I’m no longer alone. Welcome! (Now the question is, how to be invited in next door!)


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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.  Read More 

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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, gentle approach to working with horses: she taught stress-relieving meditation and breath work for more than 14 years before focusing on her life-long love of horses. Based on that background, she teaches you how to apply concepts of “pressure on/pressure on” to encourage compliance in the horses while acknowledging their timidity and flight response. She works with your chakras and the process of sending your energy out to the animals. Real Horse-Whisperer stuff.  Read More 

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