Stories: Passports without borders

Stories are passports without borders. Stories are passports without visas. Stories are passports to adventure. Stories are passports into the exotic and the extraordinary. Stories are portal doors into worlds unknown. Stories are magic carpets.

One of the first reasons that made me fall in love with stories is the ability to travel to exotic places, experience exotic cultures all without leaving my chair. I love traveling and often call myself a Gypsy at heart. New places usually mean new people to meet and new adventures to experience. In an unknown place the average and ordinary can suddenly become extraordinary. Having a coffee in my local cafe is very been there, done that. But having a coffee in some little plaza in an Italian village on the Amalfi coast would immediately be extraordinary for me. In the same way, that Italian local may find having coffee in my local cafe an extraordinary event.

For this reason I have always read books that are based in foreign countries and even foreign cultures. I come from South Africa, now live in New Zealand – to me neither of these two places is exotic. They are what I know. They are familiar. But when I have told American friends that I come from South Africa and now live in New Zealand – they are always fascinated. They want to know if I have seen lions in the wild. When I tell them that we had a family of leopard living on one of the farms my father managed, they go: “WOW!”. They want to know all about New Zealand especially since the Lord of the Rings Trilogy that really put NZ on the map. But for me exotic places are in Europe or in Central Africa/Northern Africa or the Amazon in South America. But I doubt those same locals who live in these areas think that they live in an exotic locale.

That is the joy of reading stories and in my case going one step further and creating your own stories. I love writing about places I have not been because I find often what may be fairly ordinary to the locals there becomes extraordinary and special in my fresh eyes. One of my favourite pastimes is searching for fresh inspiration for not just story ideas but setting ideas. Pinterest (new addiction) comes in as a very useful tool in these moments. I also love reading/studying/researching the history of each setting and often finds it seeds an idea in my imagination that I let lie and germinate to see what it could potentially blossom into. Nowadays with the ease of the internet and software like Google Earth/Google Maps your research into a place can become acutely accurate down to the street names and the name of that cafe on the corner in that Italian village on the Italian Amalfi Coast.

But at the end of the day the best research you can do when checking out a setting in an exotic locale (if traveling there is absolutely ruled out) is to talk to the locals on the internet. In this day and age there is an internet group for just about everything and there are blogs for just about every type of subject. So I trawl the blogosphere and see if there are any local-specialised blogs devoted to the locale I want to set my story in. Setting is so much more than just a geographic location or street names. Setting is also about the quirks that make that place unique. Is there a particular smell? Smell is a big one. For instance when I smell oranges and lemons I immediately think of Athens, Greece. One of the strongest memories of my time spent there 12 years ago was the tree-lined streets with trees heavy with oranges and lemons. So the smell of oranges and lemons now sums up Athens for me. Location bloggers will give away a lot of these type of tidbits in their blog posts. And most people are always flattered when you tell them you want to learn more about their home because you find it fascinating.

So while I have begun writing on my next project I have been trawling the internet for setting ideas. So I will leave you with some images from my Pinterest board. Some of them are definite settings in my story and some of just teasing seeds of inspiration right now…Mum’s the word (for now) on which settings I am actually going to be using in both the current WIP and upcoming ones. Perhaps you can guess which settings I have chosen.

Perhaps you have been to these places or live there. I would love to know at least 2 quirks that I could not find out from the internet that is unique to each place. Leave me a comment in the comments.

Tell me>> What exotic places would you like a story to be set in? What places grab your imagination?

Source: weburbanist.com via Kim on Pinterest (Abandoned mountain town in Sardinia, Italy)

Source: worldtopjourneys.com via Kim on Pinterest (Manarolo, Cinque Terre, Italy)

Source: toptenz.net via Kim on Pinterest (The City of the Caesars, Patagonia, South America)

Source: underthesunexperience.blogspot.co.nz via Kim on Pinterest (Carcassonne, Languedoc Roussillon, France)

Source: earmchairtraveler.blogspot.com via Kim on Pinterest (Meteora, Greece)

Source: accommodation-bol.com via Kim on Pinterest (Dubrovnik, Croatia)

Source: une-deuxsenses.blogspot.com via Kim on Pinterest (Swallow’s Nest, Crimea)

Source: toptenz.net via Kim on Pinterest (Angkor-Wat, Cambodia)

Source: weburbanist.com via Kim on Pinterest (Gunkanjima, Japan – “Ghost Island”)

Source: roman-empire.net via Kim on Pinterest (Herculaneum, Italy)

All imaged embedded via My Pinterest boards – Feel free to follow me there…

What lies beneath the surface?

You are pulled from a deep sleep, your heart racing. What woke you? The night is dead with silence. Your eyes glance at the bedside clock: 3:oo am flashes at you in neon green. They call it the Witching Hour. I call it my hour of secret dread. Every tale ever heard about bogeymen, ghosts, poltergeists, knife wielding masked burglars rushes through my brain. What was that? Did I see a shadow or did my eyes just make that up? Why is the curtain moving when the windows are closed? That door is opening…

You are visiting a new friend. Something tugs at your thoughts as you knock on the front door. You wonder where this sense of memory stirs from. The door is answered. You know what she is going to say before she says it. You know what the entrance hallway is going to look like. You have been in this house. Before. The whole visit spins out before you echoing your memory. But this is the first time you have walked into this house. Isn’t it? De’ja`vu. Hindsight or foresight?

Footsteps in an empty house. Inexplicable sounds and smells. Shadows in doorways. Objects being moved. Someone watches you. You turn around, there is nobody there. Someone follows you. You feel a breath on the back of your neck that raises all the hairs on your neck. A terrible foreboding of danger.

What lies beneath the surface of your 5 senses?

Whether you are superstitious or cynical, we all have a 6th sense. This is the sense that warns you of dangers you cannot expect. This is the sense that makes sense of the impossible, the illogical, the supernatural. This is the sense on high alert at those eerie hours when the night is the most silent and it is the darkest and coldest hours before dawn. This is the sense that makes you turn around and look for the watcher, the stalker, the hunter when you know you are alone but someone or something is following you. This is the sense that you experience when “someone walks over your grave” and a shiver down the spine shakes the bones in your body. This is the sense that you tap into when something strange is suddenly inexplicably familiar. This is the sense you tap into when you walk into a house and know within your bones that though you are alone, you are not the only person in the house.

This is why I write the stories I write. I have always had a strong 6th sense. Those closest to me have been known to be freaked out by my 6th sense. I have seen ghosts. I have spoken to ghosts. I have warned ghosts away. I have dreams of future events that always spell danger or threats with an uncanny way of coming true. It has got to the point that loved ones do not want me to tell them if I dream of them. I have innumerable events of de’ja`vu. I can see through social masks of strangers and judge their characters accurately within minutes of meeting them. This strong 6th sense is something I have alternately loved and hated all my life. It saved a friend and I from the clutches of a serial paedophile/killer. It saved my father from being strangled by a vengeful ghost. When it comes now, I listen. It has never been wrong. But now I accept it as part of me. These are not stories. They are inexplicable events that have happened.

But this 6th sense, this sense of the eerie supernatural and inexplicable paranormal has always fascinated me. Whether one believes in ghosts or other supernatural/paranormal beings, there are many things in life that seem to lie “beneath the surface” of what we know or can explain. You may believe a house is just a house. But sometimes there are things left over, a sense of people and emotions that your rational brain just cannot explain. There are too many things/events that happen that overwhelm the rational brain but the evidence is too strong to be in complete denial.

I love exploring what “lies beneath the surface”. It is about digging beneath the layers of the inexplicable and allowing your 6th sense to guide your other 5 senses. These are the questions that fill my stories: What is the sense of de’ja`vu really? What is that 6th sense of danger, of knowing/feeling someone’s eyes on you even when you are alone? What is the meaning behind dreams? How can you tell whether a person has good or evil intentions with no known proof except a “feeling”?

As children this 6th sense is undisputed and accepted. But when people (usually adults we trust) start telling us we are just “imagining” it, we doubt ourselves. We start doubting the innate ability that we all have that taps into our survival skills. We start “growing up” and decide it was all just child’s play. But was it? Even the most cynical adults do get glimpses of this 6th sense throughout our lives and more often than not, this usually is re-activated by events/people/objects that put us in danger and we tap into our base survival skills. This is why I write the stories I do and even read the stories I do. Stories where someone’s life is put in danger through natural and/or supernatural means have a heightened sense of this 6th sense.

Adults have a lot to answer for. We tell a child they can do anything but they cannot think or feel what they think or feel if it does not fit into a rational acceptable explanation. Are we helping them grow up or are we stunting their innate abilities and gifts not to mention imagination?

What is imagination after all? What is so childish or illogical about imagination?

If a man had not imagined flying there would be no aeroplanes – something we now take for granted to get around this global community. If a man had not imagined there was land beyond the seas he could see in all direction, most of this planet would be undiscovered.

Talking to the cynic in those of us over the age of five…

  • Are you willing to suspend your rational beliefs when faced with something you can’t explain? 
  • Are you willing to admit that life is full of inexplicable matter “beneath the surface”? 
  • Does everything have to be tied up in a tight, neat box of explanation wrapped in a tidy bow of rationality? 
  • Are you willing to ask: What if? 
  • Are you willing to admit you cannot explain everything? 
  • Should you want to explain everything? 
  • Isn’t that the beauty of life: it’s mystery and unpredictability?

Trust that 6th sense. Explore the de’ja`vu. Trust yourself. Open your mind and open your eyes. Unleash the childlike belief you were born with. Life is full of inexplicable mystery.

The joy is not in having all the right answers but in discovering the right questions.

 

Rachna Chhabria | Character Secrets

The Mad Hatter, Alice, Gollum, Samwise, Nancy Drew, Harry Potter…

These are all characters we feel we know as well as our own loved ones. They are characters that we grew up with or came to know and love. The authors of these characters may fade with time but their creators – the memorable characters – will live on in our memories.

So what makes a memorable character? Why do some characters just creep into out hearts? What makes a character jump from the page of black and white words into a fully formed 3d character that lives, breathes and acts?

Rachna Chhabria guest posts today and tells us how she comes up with memorable characters and what the secret ingredients are. 

Creating Memorable and Enduring Characters

 

As readers, long after we finish reading a book, the characters remain with us. These are what we call memorable characters. Many times we put up with dull books because we have developed a fondness for the characters, especially the main character. We put up with the story because of our affection for the characters.

 

When we start writing our own stories and books, we strive hard to create memorable characters that will haunt readers for a long time. I have had quite a few readers telling me that they identified with Leo-the lion, who was the protagonist of my first book ‘The Lion Who Wanted to Sing’. Leo’s passion to learn singing from a singing bird, was something everyone identified with. We all have plenty of desires that we wish to fulfill. Achievement of a Desire, forged a bond between the readers and the character. Leo’s sacrifices: giving up meat, roaring gently instead of loudly to enhance the musical quality of his voice and few other sacrifices struck a strong chord with readers across all ages.

 

Memorable characters are created when a character comes across as a believable character. Readers easily identified with Leo; bored with the monotony of his life as the king of the Jungle. His desire to learn singing to infuse a fresh lease of life into his dull life resonates with every human. We have all tackled boredom and monotony at some stage or the other in our lives.

 

There has to be a sense of oneness in situations, between a reader and the character’s life. Leo had to endure the taunts and jibes from small creatures who use to tremble before him, this is something we all can identify with. Time and again we encounter detractors who try to dissuade us from activities that they consider out of our reach. After that it’s up to us to prove them wrong.

 

It’s a completely false notion that for a character to be memorable they have to be perfection personified. Imperfect characters brimming with fear of failure, battling insecurities, harbouring frequent doubts about their abilities are more realistic than characters who breeze through life whistling a tune. Perfect characters or characters who have very few flaws have an artificiality about them. We immediately detest such superior than thou creatures as they hold a mirror that reflects us in poor light.

 

Characters who are not scared to show their emotions appeal more to readers than characters as closed as a clam. If a reader is getting acquainted with a character and following him page after page, he/she needs to see the character with all its flaws. The reader is literally making the journey with the character and a journey has its fair share of sorrows, joys, fears, success, failures, frustration, strengths and worries.

 

The lion’s frequent questions regarding his ability to carry a tune echo the doubts that often crop up in our minds when we start a new endeavour. This brought about a sense of identification with the character’s emotions: anxiety and doubts.

 

Characters who encounter both success and failure are ones readers identify with. Isn’t life all about both the highs and the lows? The lows the protagonist undergoes makes us rejoice when they experience a high. If characters keep tasting failure without a bite of success, then the readers label them as complete losers. And when characters constantly meet with success, they are labeled as overachievers and the readers start resenting them.

 

To hide his insecurity and doubts from his family, Leo often secretly practiced the singing lessons inside a cave so that the next time he sang before his teacher he would be a little better than the previous session. Leo’s constant battle with the thought that carnivore animals could not sing is as realistic as it can get and becomes a mirror image for all of us. Isn’t life all about conquering fears, both internal as well as external. We have as many inner conflicts to overcome as external conflicts to battle. And our fights with our inner demons is a constant one.

 

Characters who arouse our sympathy, definitely wriggle their way into our hearts. I need to clarify that I don’t mean weepy or weak characters get our sympathy. Characters whose circumstances close in on them, are more sympathy evoking than characters who are caught in a sad state because of their deeds. When we empathize or sympathize with a character, concern for their well-being creeps in a reader’s mind. It’s this concern that sees us enduring the story despite its flaws.

 

Thanks Kim, for giving me this opportunity to guest post on your lovely blog.

 

Find Rachna on her blog: Rachna’s Scriptorium 

Mary Lou Cassotto ~ Sisterhood & Stories

Today I have the honour of having a woman who has “fought the good fight” on behalf of all women out there. She was an instrumental part of the 1970’s Women’s Movement and helped get the first Woman Senator elected to her seat. She is woman who has worn many hats in her lifetime, amongst these being a lawyer at a time when women were rarely seen in court and when they were they tended to raise eyebrows. She still wears many hats and like all women seems to thrive on being the Multi-Tasker juggling many different balls in the air. Sit down with me while I chat to a woman who knows the true value and meaning of the term “Sisterhood” and what it took to give the Modern Woman her equal voice. Be prepared to want to ask many more questions of my fascinating and courageous guest…

I introduce Mary Lou Cassotto  –  a true Survivor, a courageous “sister” and a warrior of words and ideals.


girl with a quill: Hi Mary Lou. Lovely to have you here in the Dragonfly Scrolls studio. Take a seat. Get comfortable. Can I offer you something to drink while we talk?

Mary Lou: My favourite drinks would be Chai tea in cooler months, apple martinis or mango ones in the warmer ones.

girl with a quill: Who is Mary Lou?

Mary Lou: Mary Lou is the person who has looked for the perfect job her entire life, one that would give her time to have a real life and a stimulating professional one at the same time. If you know what it is, please let ME know! She is a dreamer/realist who was once the shyest person in her class but now teaches Public Speaking on the college level when she is not teaching College Writing mostly to criminal investigation students. She loves cats, dogs, children, attending writing, reading and library conventions and meeting other writers.

girl with a quill: You have been a lawyer, teacher, librarian, drama coach. What role was most challenging?

Mary Lou: You forgot to add that I worked as a counselor as well for a while! (My apologies..) I’d have to say the most challenging role had to be the one of being a lawyer, although each job had its challenges. When I practiced law in 1975, I was often the only woman in the courtroom. I think there were just three or four of us at that time in the state capital where I worked. A lot of men did not think we women should be in the courtroom, as well as most of the women. I am sure that has all changed now, although the lack of creativity one is allowed to express in the courtroom, I doubt, has changed.

(Now I can definitely see a compelling story here..)

Writing now has its challenges as well. Although I have taught writing in college, high school and junior high school for more than twenty years, the kind of writing I was taught in school and that I teach,  is totally different from the kind one needs to know about to be a good creative writer. Writers today definitely are not following the formats of the classical authors. There is no time for readers to spend focusing on and absorbing the literature of the past. The writing craft is changing constantly, and I am continually learning.

girl with a quill: When did you decide to become a writer and how long have you been writing?

The only things I ever really wanted to be in my life were a writer and an artist, ever since grammar school. Being able to do those things seemed to me only for those born with  talent, or the very brave. I was OK at those two disciplines, but to survive I took the safer route, I became an English and Art teacher, and a librarian.

I realized at age seven that the only way to have a lasting influence on the world was to paint or write, so I began then to write my first novel. I don’t remember, but I think my book was about a princess; I wanted to be one of those too! I read every fairy tale book there was in my public library as well as studied painting in the turrets there with professional artists. My mother worked part time to fund my art courses. The library was my bridge to a larger world. My mother hadn’t completed high school, my aunts never made it out of grade school; one of my grandmothers signed her name with an X, so you can see how much of an effect the library had on me. I wish I knew where that first book was.

(The young Mary Lou was wise beyond her years it may seem in reflection. How astute an observation! Yes the power of art and creativity can not only influence the world but change it. It is a path that is not a job but a calling.)

In the 1970’s, I later tried to write a play about the women’s movement. I had helped put together most of the women’s groups in my state; I and six friends worked on legislation, hired the first woman lobbyist, groomed women to run for public office and sponsored them. I flew down to Texas to obtain funds to help run the first woman for the state Senate. I also was instrumental in establishing the Permanent Commission of the Status of Women, sat on the first Board of Directors, was the first woman chair in my town of the Economic Development Commission, as well as the first day care and battered wives shelter. The play was about the women in my groups, my “sisters” we called ourselves, and how different we all were. Many of the women  had switched sexual orientation after finding no support in their efforts at authentication. We often disagreed, because I wanted to find a way of reconciling  the “old ways” with the new. I had been raised strict Catholic and was married. The play was called, “Where Do We Go from Here?” Unfortunately, I never finished it. It was written when Wendy Wasserstein first wrote.

Then in 2009, NaNoWriMo came into my life and the rest is history. While everyone else worked on their novel, I tried writing a memoir about the true story of the women’s movement in my state. I wanted others to know the costs some women had to pay in order for other women to have their rights. After three attempts I gave up non-fiction, and switched to YA fiction. As I had worked with young people as a public defender for juveniles and as a teacher, it was a logical choice.

girl with a quill: In most jobs, we all have a water cooler area where we gather around the water cooler or automatic coffee machine and discuss the office news and gossip. Do you have a Water Cooler group?

Mary Lou: Without a doubt, my main Water Cooler group is the Warrior Chat group begun by Lia Keyes, who has been very active in the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I am absolutely addicted to the group and have learned so much about writing craft and the changes in the publishing industry from them. The members feel like “best friends” and I especially love commiserating with my Brit sisters from England, Australia, New Zealand, and my other European  sisters from Holland and from Spain. My background, because of the times I grew up in, the literature I read, and my major in college, make me think more British than American. Communicating with the group is like coming home.

I also belong to two SCBWI picture groups, and a YA group that meets near New York City. Each group is so different.

girl with a quill: Who has been the greatest influence on your life and your writing?

Mary Lou: Gladys Taber, the woman who compiled the Stillmeadow books from her magazine articles in the 1960’s in Family Circle magazine, has had the most effect on my life, overall. She is my favorite author, and like me attended an all women’s college. She then went on to teach writing at Columbia, and like myself, became disenchanted with the city, so she and her best friend from college bought a little house in Southbury, Connecticut, where they raised prize-winning cocker spaniels and where she supported herself and the rest of their families, by writing  cooking and gardening books as well as self-reflective books about the changing of the seasons. She was my hope and life line in my times of greatest despair. Like me, she wound up being separated from her husband, and how she continued to make herself happy has always been of the utmost inspiration to me.

I have also belonged to a couple of Jane Austen fan clubs, visited the homes of various women authors and male painters, and studied the Bronte sisters’ life in depth. Concord, Massachusetts, the home of Louisa May Alcott is one of my favorite places as is Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the home of Daniel Chester French, who sculpted the Lincoln Memorial. Literally, I decided to study and teach art and literature after visiting Alcott’s and French’s homes.

girl with a quill: If your life was a novel, what kind of novel would it be and what would be the story arc?

Mary Lou: My life would be a realistic YA novel as well as an inspirational one, because I have had to overcome many obstacles in my life, including being the first woman in my family to attend college, and the first woman in my town to attend law school. My being divorced after a long marriage and being a single mom also presented severe challenges.

(Those are some astounding “firsts”. You truly embody chasing after a dream!)

girl with a quill: Describe your writing space.

Mary Lou: Well, years ago I bought a table like the one Hemingway wrote on in Key West, but I write in the same place I used to write as a little girl, in my bed, with my electric blanket turned up full blast even in April, and with my dogs Cutie and Tia, and my cat Snowflake, by my side. There has to be a pine, lavender or grass scented candle wafting in the distance, complete silence, and a large block of time. I don’t know how others can write at their kids’ soccer practice! I also need my story outline and character motivation sheets at my side. Snow days are a God send.

(Wow…I am envious: A table like Ernest Hemingway..I am also a bed-writer. You have to love the invention of the laptop computer.)

girl with a quill: From the moment when you first get the inkling of a story, what is your writing process.

Mary Lou: I am afraid my writing process is not all that magical.  Don’t tell anyone, but after all these years, I first start with a theme or lesson in mind, and create a main character who is a younger version of myself. I then write out a plot outline. Even though I am a writing teacher, making one of these has also been a recent requirement of mine, including indications of where quotations, recurring symbols and crises will occur. I also fill out painstakingly long character motivation sheets. I do not find using these constraining, but liberating; they free me to just focus on dialogue and the details.

If I have any muses, they are my pets, who continue to love me, even when I am too tired to walk them. Their antics also give me ideas for my picture books.


girl with a quill: Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Mary Lou: During NaNoWriMo, I was a pantser, but I have found that plotting is the best way to write. I jot down the skeleton of my story first, and over a period of a few weeks I tweak it. Then usually, without trying, the details, like dialogue, come to me in my sleep at night.  I am usually thinking about what should happen in the next few chapters when I am writing, and I keep a notebook near my bed to record whatever ideas inevitably wake me up at 3AM.

girl with a quill: What genre are you writing in now? What genre would you choose to write in?

Presently, I am really focusing on a YA realistic novel, but I also am writing first drafts of picture books about the adventures of my pets.  Next, I have a great idea for a YA historical novel about the times of Mary Lincoln, a comic boy-girl YA book based on a girl’s experience with her history teacher mother and her mother’s love for Winston Churchill, and a paranormal sequel to Jane Eyre.

(Sounds fascinating…Get writing on the new idea..sounds like a keeper.)

girl with a quill: I hear that you are challenging yourself by writing in three different categories right now. Tell us about the three genres you are writing in right now.

Mary Lou: I am afraid I gave up trying to write a memoir a long time ago, but instead decided to make a fictional character in my YA realistic fiction book that like myself was very active in the women’s movement.

My YA book began with  a quote from Louisa May Alcott and a trip to Concord, Massachusetts. It was heavily influenced by some heroic girls I once met who decided to carry their unplanned pregnancies to full term and put them up for adoption. My novel is about a young girl putting her baby up for adoption. I wanted to say that girls have choices if they find themselves pregnant. I know how hard it was to be a single parent, yet being a mother was my favorite job. I think babies are a treasure and that there is more than one way to deal with babies if a girl finds herself in a situation of becoming a mother before she is ready to.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a bit eccentric about my dogs. We do all crazy things together, go to dog costume events, dog Easter egg hunts; we even belong to Dog Scouts of America and do reading therapy work for our badges. My picture books are about them and my “good cat Snowflake” to borrow an appellation from my favorite early chapter book author, Cynthia Ryland.

girl with a quill: Is it a challenge to write three different stories for three different markets? Which category was the most challenging, and why?

Mary Lou: It is very challenging to write in three genres both because each one is so different and because of time constraints. When I teach college expository writing, there is a different story structure for process, cause and effect, classification, and comparison and contrast essays, for instance. The same is true for the genres. One has to look at samples of each category to see the difference and study the differences in how the stories open up and hang together.

Although I focus on my realistic YA novel, I belong to two picture book critique groups and write first drafts of picture books, because I want to write books about my pets while they are still alive, and not later when sadness might enter my stories.

As I said, I have given up writing a memoir for now. I am afraid that my story just wouldn’t be sensational enough in today’s competitive market with all the celebrity stories out there. I also had difficulty figuring out how to present my story in a novel engaging way. Russell Baker chose to write about himself by focusing on how the three women in his life, his mother, mother-in-law and wife effected him. I tried this but it wasn’t exciting enough.

(I don’t know about “not sensational enough”…I am sure you were at the heart of a lot of sensational dramas in those times. Your story is a real story and I think that many people would prefer to read about a story that they can relate to than one based in Hollywood…I know I would.)

girl with a quill: If you found a genie in a lamp and could have a wish granted to be a character in you own book or in another author’s, what character would you choose?

Mary Lou: That is not a difficult choice at all. I would be the newly divorced female character, or maybe not so newly divorced when her feelings were so raw, in Under the Tuscan Sun. My divorce impacted me much as it did that author, but she got to live it out by buying a home in Italy.  Wouldn’t that be every divorced woman’s dream?

(Great Choice! I think that would be any woman’s dream….loved Under the Tuscan Sun.)

girl with a quill:What is more important to you, plot or character, and why?

Mary Lou: I’d have to say they are both important. We live in an action packed world today, and there definitely is no story without conflict, but characters are what make stories timeless and universal. I have read many stories about the Civil War, but what would Gone with the Wind be without Scarlett O’Hara. Setting is important too, but what would the moors be without Heathcliff? People read stories to understand human nature.

girl with a quill: Who is your favorite character in your own writing? Why?

Mary Lou: My favorite character would have to be Emma, the new friend my main character meets after she has been set up by the popularity hungry girls she has been friends with since grade school. Emma is half-American Jew, half-Brit. Both of her parents are English teachers and the family loves the classics. Emma is the perfect friend anyone would ever want to have. I named her Emma after my adorable five-year old grand-niece, but then, of course, there is Jane Austen’s Emma. I unconsciously modeled her a little after two older “adopted big sisters” I had that were Jewish, and my best friend from college who was an atypical army brat who spent her formative years in England. We shared the same interests, but then she went off to be a nun and work with AID’s patients in Haiti. She died at 53 of cancer. I miss her, but made her come alive  in my book.

girl with a quill: Who is your favorite character in the literary world? Why?

Mary Lou: This is difficult to answer, because there are so many: Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre, Hermann Hesse’s Demian. The first two had integrity and a will to endure. The latter shows a more vulnerable person another way of living and protects that person from bullies. I like Carrie Jone’s YA main characters a lot; they care about other people, maybe even more than themselves and have some of the same qualities as those classical characters.

girl with a quill: If I was throwing a dinner party and told you to invite five famous creative people  or literary characters, whom would you invite and why?

Mary Lou: The answer to this might have been Van Gogh in my youth; I taught art and loved his work , or Michelangelo. It might even have been Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, or my favorite author, Gladys Taber. But lately, I’ve met other heroines who are extremely creative and talented.  I’d rather invite the men and women I’ve met in my Facebook Warrior Chat group. They are so creative, so diverse and so supportive, and have lived such interesting lives. They’ve been international journalists, set designers, artists, directors, special education teachers, computer geeks. They have their pulses on the future.

Only thing, I want to meet in a warm place like Brisbane, Australia, where authors know how to party and where I can feed the kangaroos, and not in cold New England.

(I am sure Sheryl Gwyther would be tickled pink at the idea of us all showing up in her home town…mmmhhh maybe an idea is percolating…)

girl with a quill: What one piece of advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your writing career?

Mary Lou: I would say, “Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Life is what it is; don’t worry about what others think or say. Use your real voice.

girl with a quill: What one piece of advice will you give yourself as a writer at the end of the next ten years?

Mary Lou: I would tell myself, “Remember those distractions that kept you from writing all those years? The dogs being sick or having to walk them, having to keep a job to make a living, exercising, reading, visiting your friends? That was your real life.

To use all the clichés: ‘This isn’t a dress rehearsal; it’s the real thing, and you only go around once.’ You made memories; use them in your books. It’s all you really have.”

girl with a quill: What is the lasting legacy you would like to leave as a writer?

Mary Lou: I would like my books to reflect the value of the classics and knowledge of history, as well as the joys of my traditional simple life style. I would also like future young women to understand that the women in my generation valued “sisterhood” and that my generation paid a price to ensure the choices in theirs. That is enough.

girl with a quill: Where can we find you on the web?

My blog is entitled What is essential is, and can be found at  HYPERLINK “http://whatisessentialis.blogspot.com” http://whatisessentialis.blogspot.com.

Well Mary Lou it has indeed been an honour having you in my studio today. This is what I love about doing these “Warrior Wednesdays”: No matter how many times I run these interviews, I never tire of learning something new and being freshly inspired. I would also like to put forward my vote that you do write a memoir, whether it be in fiction or non-fiction format – just listening to you talk now has left me wanting to know more. Looking back at all you and many other women have accomplished that I may be able to hold my head high and have an equal voice leaves me humbled and filled with gratitude. You still have a lot to teach us younger women and I look forward to the stories you create. Thank you.


Perfection contained in their flaws…

What makes a story readable? What makes a character believable? What makes a book “unputdownable”?

Of course, you must have a great story, you must have a great imagination and hopefully you have a way with words…but beyond that: what are the secrets to a readable, “unputdownable” book?

Let me put it another way. What makes you stop reading a book after the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter? Is it bad writing? Is it bad grammar? Is the story overdone and hackneyed? All of these reasons may be true of why you stopped reading that book. But dig a little deeper. Make a list of the books that stand out to you. What is memorable about them? Was it the stories? Was it the Characters?

I have made a list of my favourite authors and my favourite books. I have noted one common theme amongst the top 20. “Perfection contained in their flaws”. I loved these books because the characters in these stories were flawed. They were assuaged by guilt, anger, jealousy, revenge, boredom, sloth, lust, pettiness, envy, ego. They were all believable because they were flawed. Now I know that there is a place in the reading world for perfect characters: You know the type. The hero is always tall, dark and handsome. He is charming and completely unaware of his astounding good looks and luck seems to follow him everywhere. He always gets the girl and he always bests the villain. The heroine is always a little fragile but actually very strong. She is beautiful and clever. She always has no problem finding a man who will rescue her or better her life. She does not have a nasty bone in her body. She has no hang-ups about her image but is always brimming with self-confidence. The prerequisite bad guy/girl: I know this is gender-biased but usually it is a guy. Going with the biased status quo: The bad guy is always mean, sometimes charming, usually rich and powerful and always has an ulterior motive to everything. In other words he is all “bad”.

Boring , predictable, putdown-able and forgettable are the four main adjectives that come to my mind when I contemplate the above stereotypes.

Instead to me great writing and believable stories need to be true to life. Even if the setting is in a fantastical world, the characters and their conflict need to be something that I can relate to. Call me a cynic or call me a realist but I like flawed characters. I like it when the hero/heroine is not the perfect matinee idol from the silver-screen. The characters that I remember and that I live through are flawed and because of their flaws they are interesting and multi-faceted. Some of my favourite characters from great novels are: Catherine and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Anna and Vronksy from Anna Karenin, Daisy, Tom and Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby. These are my favourite Characters in my favourite novels. I have reread these books countless times and each time I gasp or chuckle or sigh a little more at the flaws created in these characters. Another common theme that makes a story”unputdownable” in my view is also shared by these three great classics. This common theme is the idea that not every love story has a happy ending and that not every story has a good ending. To me these three novels encapsulate memorable writing. They are the epitome of success. Every time I read one of these stories I am drawn again into a world that often times shocks my sensibilities and then unlocks my inhibitions. These characters and their stories challenge my world view.

That is my challenge as a writer and that is my aim as an author. I want to create characters that are real and that a reader can relate to. I want to delve into the strange psychology of a being (whether that be human or fantastic) that is flawed. I want to create a character that is often in conflict with themselves and their own flaws. I want to create characters that the reader sometimes wants to just shake from sheer frustration. I want to know that a reader is able to connect on such a level with my characters that the characters cease to become characters and begin to become reflections of people the reader knows or even a reflection of the reader themselves. My challenge as a writer is to create characters that wrench all the readers emotions whether those be positive or negative emotions. I know that when you begin to love or hate my characters, I have hooked you. You, the reader, will not be able to put down my book even if you cannot stand the characters just for sheer curiosity sake to see where the story will take them.

So jump on my magic carpet: Beware though for this is not some exquisitely woven carpet of perfect hues and textures. It is a lived in, walked on and a little frayed with wear carpet. There are a few threadbare patches. There is dog hair and cat hair in a few areas. But the carpet is a real carpet in a real home. This carpet is not a museum piece or an art prop. In the same way, this writer’s stories are real stories inspired by the myriad of real characters I have come across. So jump onto the magic carpet and take a stroll through a world of imagination with me. I promise you a journey. As we all know that is the best part of any trip: it’s the journey after all that remains in the memory far longer than the destination. Meet my characters. I hope they frustrate you. I know they will anger you. I hope you love them and sometimes you just want to give them a good talking to. You may want to drag a comb through their hair at times and with others you may want to throw them under a bus. Most of all I hope you remember them for good or bad. I hope they challenge you. I hope you cry with them and laugh with them. They are all waiting for you on the magic carpet. So take a ride with me…

weaving away…the weaver of threads on a magic carpet


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