The Writing Life Interviews: Silvio Sirias

Welcome to Tuesday Author Interview series at The Writing Life. This morning, I have the great pleasure of chatting with Silvio Sirias.

Silvio Sirias is the award-winning author of the novels Bernardo and the VirginMeet Me Under the CeibaThe Saint of Santa Fe, and The Season of Stories.

A late bloomer in the writing of fiction, Sirias was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up there until the age of eleven, when his family moved to Granada, Nicaragua, his parents’ country of origin. He considers this move the most significant milestone in his life as it shaped his bicultural and bilingual outlook. He returned to Los Angeles to attend college. Eventually, he received his doctorate in Spanish from the University of Arizona and worked as a professor of Spanish and U.S. Latino and Latina literature for several years before returning to live in Nicaragua in 1999.

In 2010, Silvio was named one of the “Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch (and Read).” The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature lists him among the handful of authors who are introducing Central American themes into the U.S. literary landscape.

He moved to Panama in 2002 where he lives with his wife and their dog, three cats, and parrot.

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Welcome, Silvio.

What is the genre(s) of your books?

Most reviewers, Eleanor, list my work as literary fiction. That categorization reflects my background as a reader. I labored for many years in the academic world, teaching literature. But if I were to label my novels, I’d file them under Latino titerature as my writing is a constant exploration of our shared Latino heritage.

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Please describe what your latest novel is about.

Two ideas for Young Adult novels had been bouncing inside of my head for years. One was a story loosely based on my experiences growing up in Los Angeles around the time my parents decided to move back to Nicaragua, their homeland. The second one was the story of the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, his “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean, and his subsequent beheading. I decided to merge both ideas and have fun weaving these disparate stories together. The end result is The Season of Stories. 

I enjoyed the merging stories in The Season of Stories. How did you come up with the title?

Early on in the process I discovered that the act of storytelling would have to play a key role within the novel. Also, half of the narrative revolves around the 1961 Los Angeles Dodgers’ baseball season. Hence, The Season of Stories.

What is your favorite part of writing?

There are two stages of the process that are, by far, my favorite. The first is the research stage. That’s because it’s there that I get to “experience” the story. The second part is the revision stage. It took years, but eventually I learned to treasure the task of polishing a rough draft. The revision part has become, in my eyes, akin to working on a fun, yet demanding puzzle.

Great description of revision. I love both research and revision. Does your main character resemble you?

An easily identifiable alter ego appears in all of my novels. But only in The Season of Stories and Meet Me under the Ceiba is he a key player. That said, there is part of every novelist in their most important characters. As Gustave Flaubert said regarding his best known creation: Madame Bovary c’est moi.

I agree. What do you find is the most challenging aspect of writing?

Forcing myself to get started every morning. I tend to procrastinate until the idea that I’m wasting time becomes unbearable.

What authors have influenced you as a writer?

Whenever I’m faced with a challenge in the creation of a novel, I turn to writers who were successful at tackling similar dilemmas. In my first novel, Bernardo and the Virgin, I borrowed techniques from Juan Rulfo, a Mexican novelist, and Virgil Suárez, a Cuban-American author. But the structure of the novel was lifted directly from Julia Alvarez’s ¡Yo! in Meet Me under the Ceiba, I lifted the structure of Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez. For The Saint of Santa Fe, I borrowed several literary devices from Graham Greene and the Spanish novelist Miguel de Unamuno. And for The Season of Stories, I appropriated the structure of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and the narrative tone of Scott O’Dell, who wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins. Does that make me a plagiarist? Not at all. I’m merely following the Aristotelian practice of imitatio, which the writers of the Renaissance embraced wholeheartedly. In other words, if writers follow great models, their own work will shine.

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Insightful answer, Silvio. You mentioned many great authors and a few personal favorites in your reply to the previous question. I found that I can’t read when writing the first draft manuscript of a novel, but of course, many favorite books remain in my subconscious. When feeling stuck or lost in a particular stage of revision, revisiting what the writer considers great works of literature can be helpful as a roadmap. 

Silvio, what do you hope readers will gain from your books?

The best compliment a reader can give me is “I really enjoyed reading that novel.” If readers experience a brief respite from the travails of everyday life while reading one of my books, then I did my job.

Any advice or tips for writers looking to get published?

Don’t be in such a rush to see your work in print. These days it’s easier to get published than at any time in human history. That makes it all the more important for writers who are serious about the craft to work as long as it takes to deliver a manuscript that’s as perfect as possible. It would be a disservice to your written legacy to publish something that’s not ready just because you can’t wait to see your name on the cover of a book. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, always put your best foot forward—and that takes a lot of work and patience.

Silvio, tell us something personal about you people may be surprised to know?

Although I’ve taught countless creative writing classes, I’ve never taken one.

Please share your website and social media links.

My website: www.silviosirias.com

My Author’s Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/silviofans/ (Please excuse the name; it was a gift from an overzealous friend.)

And I share tutorials on writing on my YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/channel/UCjZH11xFwpjb6Hn1tzianYQ

Sirias - Cover - 9781937536565.indd

Where can we find your books?

All are available on Amazon. 

What’s next for you?

Like you, Eleanor, I’m a peregrino. We’ve both walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, and you well know what a powerful experience that is. At the moment, I’m writing a novel that weaves a medieval pilgrimage with a contemporary one. It’s still untitled and it has taken a lot of effort to get the narrative to take off. But it’s in full flight now and I hope to have a rough draft completed before June of 2017.

El Camino was indeed a powerful, unforgettable experience for myself and my then-teenage children. I kept a daily journal on my walk, and of course, my experiences will feature in a future novel I have in mind. How could they not, right? Good for you, fellow peregrino!

Thank you, Silvio, for chatting with us today. It was a pleasure getting to know more about you and your books. All the best!

ABOUT ELEANOR PARKER SAPIA: 

ellie

Eleanor Parker Sapia is the Puerto Rican-born author of the award-winning historical novel, A Decent Woman, published by Scarlet River Press. Her debut novel, which garnered an Honorable Mention for Best Historical Fiction, English at the 2016 International Latino Book Awards with Latino Literacy Now, was selected as a Book of the Month by Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club in 2015. Eleanor is a writer, artist, and photographer, who is never without a pen and a notebook, and her passport and camera are always ready. Her awesome adult children are out in the world doing amazing things. Eleanor currently lives in Berkeley County, West Virginia, where she is working on her second novel, The Laments of Sister Maria Inmaculada.

Eleanor’s book: http://amzn.to/1X0qFvK

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PLEASE VISIT ELEANOR AT HER WEBSITE: HTTP://WWW.ELEANORPARKERSAPIA.COM

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rays of Hope and Understanding

footsteps in sand prIf I had a time machine, I would press a button and erase last week. It was one of those weeks you’re ready to block from your mind or forget completely. I can say with total certainty—I hope it never repeats itself. If I’d known my world would be in such turmoil, I would have holed up on a remote island or in an isolated mountain cabin and shut out the world. Everything seemed to go wrong and nothing worked—nothing I said was helpful, nothing I wrote was pleasing, and nothing I did helped me move forward. There was no movement in any positive or clear direction. For three days, I floated in some limbo-like place, where for every two steps forward, I was forced to take five steps back. My tub stopped draining, my washer pooped out again, and a necessary check was beyond late. I prayed for answers and relief.

Maybe the planets were lined up in a strange astrological configuration, precluding me from accomplishing good, necessary, and helpful work because nothing I did changed the way things were going down. So I put those situations on the back burner. Denial and being still can be beautiful states and very helpful when nothing else works, or when we can’t see our way forward. It was a bleak time with no relief or end in sight. I had to look away. By sitting quietly, I realized how low my energy was and how shaken my confidence levels were in a few areas of my life that I’d previously thought were fine and dandy. In some areas, I had some semblance of control, yet in a few others, I was helpless to change events, thoughts, or perceptions.

I realize I’ve written the word ‘nothing’ six times so far in this blog post. Enough already. Well, I’m happiest when writing, but to work on my novel at that time would have been wasted time as I was having trouble focusing and counting my many blessing, for which I’m very thankful.

It was time to fill my dry well with projects and activities that usually take my mind off troubles. As it turned out, it was too cold for working in the flower garden, I couldn’t focus enough to read, and who cleans to relax? Certainly not me. I decided to continue researching for my novel called, ‘The Lament of Sister Maria Immaculata’, set in 1900 on an islet off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico called Isla de Cabras, The Island of Goats. I find the process of researching both interesting and satisfying (nearly as much as writing), but I already had a bunch of research material. Wouldn’t that be wasting time? Oh, I don’t know, it seemed a better option than jumping into bed and pulling the covers over my head for the rest of the week. At least I’d be moving forward for a very good cause—my book, and in the process, hopefully I’d improve my mental state and lift my spirits.

I write historical fiction, Historical Caribbean, Hispanic, and Latin America fiction, to be exact. In my stories, I strive for accuracy in setting, the historical timeline, history of the era, and period details such as, customs, food, music, social and class structure, dress, religion, architecture, and so on. My job as a novelist is to help the reader become immersed in the world I create for them as they step through from real life to the past. My goal as a storyteller is to enable my readers to connect with the characters on page one by giving them enough juicy details so they can see, hear, feel, touch the world and characters I’ve created as they enter my fictional world. At the same time, however, bogging our readers down with large information dumps is never a good idea. Information and details must be carefully woven into a story so the reader’s eyes don’t glaze over, causing them to lose interest in the story with too many facts, figures, names, and dates so we can show off our awesome research skills. Not a good idea. We want our readers to learn new things about our chosen setting and characters in a seamless, organic way. Many fiction writers believe we are preachers, teachers, and historians, and that’s true in a way–we have ideas, beliefs, and messages we wish to convey to the world through our books, but first and foremost we are storytellers.

So, I fired up the laptop and began with the Library of Congress, which led to the Hispanic Department, which led to searching for information about the leprosarium on Isla de Cabras, where my current story takes place. I don’t know if I felt any better, but the search was gratifying and took my mind off my troubles. During the research, I discovered several doctoral dissertations, which I thought might be helpful, so I emailed the Hispanic Department for help because I couldn’t access one pertinent dissertation. The next day, someone from the Department emailed back with access information and included a link to another doctoral dissertation. Thank you, person at the Hispanic Department of the Library of Congress! Well, that was exciting news because the student, now a Doctor of Anthropology, had also written a paper that included difficult-to-access Governor Reports of the time period I needed, complete with lists and inventories from the leprosarium, maps of the islet I hadn’t seen before, charts, and details of buildings on the island at the time—priceless information.

la jungla beach

As I understood, I had two options: ask my local library to order the dissertation, or visit the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Both options involved more energy than I had in reserve last week, so I went on Academia.com and emailed the Doctor of Anthropology, requesting a copy of her dissertation. A day later, she kindly replied, graciously offering to forward several documents. I was grateful for her generosity, and hope her dissertation will be one of the attachments. Pesky closed doors were finally opening. My hope, spirit, and mood were bolstered and uplifted.

I spent the next few days reading articles and papers that filled in missing pieces to my story. The information aided in adding more concrete images to my story and in fleshing out characters. So now when I say the boat approached the dock, I now know which side of the island the only dock actually stood and where the disinfection sheds stood for disembarking patients, called inmates at the time. The mother lode of information is priceless for creating rich description, a vivid setting, well-fleshed out characters, for creating mood, and for historical accuracy.

So, it’s Monday. Have things improved in my world? I’m hopeful things will sort themselves out this week, and I pray things improve around me, but for the moment I’m lying low. I’m buying a new washer, finally, and I’ve returned to my story, excited and armed with loads of delicious detail and interesting information, which I hope will please my readers. I’m happily writing again.

What did I learn last week? I was reminded that there are things in life we cannot control, no matter how hard we try to reign stuff in and how much we worry. Sometimes we have to let go because we might not get the answers or solutions we want, when we want or need them.

We share our world with lots of people and people can and do impact our lives in positive and negative ways. Our job is to weather the storms with dignity, honesty, and clarity, while remaining as humble, open-minded, and compassionate as we can with what we know. And when we find life is still difficult and doesn’t make sense, it might mean we don’t yet have the necessary tools or skills, or that we weren’t given the entire story with which to make a decision. So we forgive ourselves and others, and try to understand with an open heart, a newly-expanded heart, which is entirely possible and worth growing.

Writers, check out Academia; you just might find what you’re searching for. Happy writing to you!

https://www.academia.edu

About Eleanor

ellie

Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language family support worker and a refugee case worker, continue to inspire her stories.

Eleanor’s debut novel, ‘A Decent Woman, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico, was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club. Eleanor is featured in the anthology, ‘Latina Authors and Their Muses’, edited by Mayra Calvani, and in the soon-to-be released anthology, Organic Coffee, Haphazardly Literary Society, edited by Allie Burke. Eleanor is a proud member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, The National Association of Professional Women, and the Historical Novel Society. She is a contributing writer at Organic Coffee, Haphazardly Literary Society. When not writing, she loves facilitating creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

Eleanor adores her two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is happily writing her second novel, ‘The Lament of Sister Maria Inmaculada’.

http://www.amazon.com/Decent-Woman-Eleanor-Parker-Sapia-ebook/dp/B00TUP47W

Drones: A New Research Source For Writers?

el morroThe Internet is incredibly helpful when researching and writing historical novels. We have access to everything under the sun, and then some with a click of the mouse. I remember many times when I finished writing a chapter of A Decent Woman and went back to fill in with details I’d gleaned from my Internet research. Now, not everything we read on the Internet is accurate; in fact, I found conflicting items on historical timelines, for example. So it behooves us to double check with secondary sources for accuracy.

Along with the Internet, we have our local library, museum archives, curated collections, vintage photographs, postcards, and letters, old films and maps, and of course, there is a vast collection at our disposal of non-fiction and fiction books written on most of our topic of choice.

Last month, I discovered something interesting while researching for my work in progress, The Island of Goats. I’d like to share that with you.

The Island of Goats, set in turn of the century Puerto Rico, Spain, and France, begins in a leprosarium on a small islet off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico called Isla de Cabras. Through my research, I found photographs of the island, but nothing in great detail until I stumbled upon a YouTube video taken by a man with a drone camera. I was immediately intrigued. In the video, the camera hovers over the ruins of the leprosarium, flies along the entire rocky and barren coastline, and finally enters a few dilapidated stone buildings of the leper colony. My jaw dropped at the amazing images the drone was able to capture—a fascinating bird’s eye view! I watched it several times and was able to get closer looks by starting and stopping the video.

Now, I can describe the outside of the buildings in greater detail and accuracy, and with new eyes, describe what views the sufferers on Isla de Cabras would have looked out upon from inside the buildings. The views are amazing, and I’m one happy camper…er, writer.

Eleanor

About Eleanor Parker Sapia

Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s work as a counselor, alternative health practitioner, a Spanish language social worker and a refugee case worker inspire her stories. She is a member of PEN America and Historical Novel Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, and is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

A Decent Woman is Eleanor’s debut historical novel, set in turn of the century Puerto Rico. The book was selected as 2015 July Las Comadres & Friends Latino Book Club, Book of the Month. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children and she currently lives in West Virginia.

A DECENT WOMAN available now on Amazon amazon.com/-/e/B00U05ZO9M

On Memory and Tips for Writers

writing at the river 015I don’t understand why I had a bad memory as a child, but I did. My head was in the clouds a lot. I was the kid running home as the sun set because I’d forgotten how long my mother had given me to play with my friends. Yeah, I know–those days are long gone for many kids today;  I watched my kids like a hawk.

As a kid, I forgot many doctor appointments, until I saw my mother’s face at the classroom window. I’d pack up my books, and have to explain to the teacher why I had to leave, and she wasn’t always pleased. I still remember the day my mom looked through my coat pocket and found the crumpled envelope that held my piano lesson money. I think it was five dollars. The money was taken out of my meager allowance for missing the once a week  piano class. The following week, I hid in the school bathroom after school so I wouldn’t have to face Sister Rosela’s wrath. If you knew Sister Rosela, you would have hidden, too. She was a stern, dour-faced nun with lots of chin hairs and an unusual amount of black hair peeking out from under her veil. In my forties, I realized the nun was probably going through menopause. God bless her. I’ve long forgiven her for being so scary. Sister, I get it; you were old and tired. When I told my mom that the nun had pulled my ear (a lie), I never went back to piano lessons. I was never musical, anyway.

My first Algebra teacher wrote this in my middle school yearbook, “Eleanor has the attention span of a butterfly on a flower.” He drew a little, daisy-like flower beside his name, and I remember wondering if he was a closet artist. It makes me laugh to think of that today, and he was right–I was interested in everything and anything, but Pre-Algebra. I love reading and history, and always had my nose in a book. See there, I’ve forgotten that teacher’s name, and I really liked him, too. In high school, I ran from class to class after the bell rang, and many times, I’d sit down at my desk and cringe–I’d forgotten a homework assignment or a quiz we were having on that particular day. Believe it or not, I had above-average grades in high school, lots of friends, and received awards for English Literature and Chemistry. I was shocked by the Chemistry award, and to this day, I believe my teacher made a mistake. There is a chemist out there today, still pissed off that they were overlooked that year. I’m sorry. If I’d known who you were, I’d have given it to you.

Today, I appreciate and need lists in my life–the ones I write in the hope they will help my life and writing life remain organized. They are meant to keep me on task and on schedule as a full time writer, as my head is often in the clouds and in exotic lands. I can easily lose four or five hours a day to writing and yes, I still miss doctor’s appointments, much like I missed piano lessons, but I understand that I don’t really want to go. I prefer staying home to write or paint.

As my historical novel, A Decent Woman, heads to layout very soon, and as I write and research for my second historical novel, Finding Gracia, my lists include:  book reviewers and book bloggers; historical fiction bloggers; writing websites; literary competitions; and links of websites and blogs of favorite authors. For researching my second book, I keep lists of El Camino de Santiago de Compostela websites; links for backpacking sites; maps and books of El Camino routes; and a running list of novels written about El Camino. AND I must write my lists long-hand; I don’t type store them on my cell phone or in my laptop–I keep them in notebooks. Yes, I’m old school! I have separate notebooks for each topic, and I always have a notebook in my purse and one in my car. Always. I have a stack of papers, folders, books, and notesbooks from researching colonial Puerto Rico, the history, culture, and timelines of the island, all used to write A Decent Woman. I will keep them as souvenirs of a long road to publication, and as a reminder for days that I’m feeling lazy, that I am tenacious, driven, and focused on what I love to do–write.

These days I keep several running lists: future day-trips; independent book stores; small art museums; easy hikes, local flea markets, and farmer markets; books to be buy and read; ebooks to buy; and local periodicals, radio and TV shows who might feature a debut author like me. I do not, however, make grocery lists. I live alone now, and I seldom cook for a crowd except for holidays. I eat what’s there, order in, and only shop for food when I’ve eaten everything in the house. I make some crazy concoctions, too. Some have worked and tasted great; others were thrown out immediately.

I keep lists of writing tips for authors written by authors, and lists of quotes, which inspire me. I attribute this love to a very inspirational high school English teacher who asked us to collect quotes, write them in journals, and add art work to accompany the quotes. We did that in my junior and senior year.  Here are a few favorite quotes on writing:

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” – Robert Frost

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” – Anaïs Nin

“Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” – Stephen King

And my favorite, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

Happy writing to you!

A Decent Woman is coming soon! We are hoping for late March-early April–a Spring book baby.

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Choosing the Right Book Cover and Title

USE THIS IMAGE OF BOOK COVER (NO NIPPLE! lol!)

At a recent gathering, a woman I’d just met, joked – ‘I’m not decent enough to read A DECENT WOMAN.’ A couple of weeks later, another person said the same thing. While I understood they were joking, I started thinking about the importance of a great title and awesome book covers.

As a reader, I love asking authors how they came up with their titles and book covers. My recent experiences with the jokes prompted a conversation with my best friend who suggested I write a blog post about how I came up with the title of my historical novel, and why I selected an image of a bare-breasted black woman for the book cover. Thanks for the great suggestion, K!

During the writing and editing of a novel, a writer is very close to their story, so much so, they may forget readers are from every part of the world, speaking dozens of languages, and have entirely different life experiences to ours. Reader’s interpretation of book titles, book covers, and stories will be as varied as grains of sand on the ocean floor. Now, while an author can’t control how their title, book cover image, and their story are received and interpreted by a reader, she can write blog posts about how I came up with my title and book cover image!

The title, A DECENT WOMAN, and the image on my book cover are perfect for my historical novel.

BOOK COVER –

I chose to use a portion of an image of the painting, Portrait d’une Negresse by Marie-Guillemine Benoist because I fell in love with the painting during one of my many visits to Paris. Years after I finished my manuscript, I discovered the symbolism this painting inspired when it was exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1880 – the emancipation of women, the abolishment of slavery, and the rights of black people. I was thrilled. The protagonist of A DECENT WOMAN, freed slave, Ana Belén, is a single midwife living in 1900 Puerto Rico who fights society and male medical doctors as they enter the birthing room. Perfect.

I sent my ideas along with a copy of the vintage-inspired font to the cover designer I’m working on for this project, Greg Simanson, and he put together the awesome cover. I’m sure Greg will do as great a job on the back cover, as well. I leave that to the cover designer pros!

TITLE –

The original manuscript of A DECENT WOMAN was called, ‘The House on Luna Street’. My Puerto Rican grandparents lived on Luna Street in Ponce, Puerto Rico before they moved from the city center to the suburbs. I later discovered Rosario Ferré’s novel, ‘The House on the Lagoon’ and the novel, ‘House on Mango Street’ by Sandra Cisneros. Too close for my comfort. After much deliberation, I scrapped the title and filed the photograph I’d taken of an old front door painted light aqua with a half-moon cut out for a future book. Now, I’m very happy I didn’t use that title– it no longer fits the novel that evolved after rewrites and a bit more research.

Through my research of turn of the century Puerto Rico, I realized the themes of my story were decency and indecency, and the dark side of our personality that often comes out when we are abused, lost, desperate, struggling, and poor. I explored how easily good people can fall into indecent situations that lead them to the dark side. I continued exploring themes and the word ‘decent’ kept popping up, but I still couldn’t come up with a title.  Sometimes the simplest and amazing titles are the ones right under our noses!

The character of Ana Belén, a hard-working woman who struggles to lead a decent, honest life, is plagued by a crime she committed as a slave in Cuba. Her dark past must remain a secret if she is to continue working as a midwife in Puerto Rico. When a second crime is committed, this time on Ana’s behalf, the themes of light, forgiveness, and redemption enter the last half of the book.  You will have to read my book to see what, why, where and how Ana deals with all that!  The title fit and stuck.

A DECENT WOMAN is a story of betrayal and choices, sacrifice and love. The combustive backdrop of 1900 Puerto Rico after the United States invasion of the island offers a provocative look into the complex lives of women of that era.

A DECENT WOMAN, COMING OUT AUTUMN 2014 WITH BOOKTROPE.

 

 

Writing Tough or Raw Scenes: How to Access the Emotions

I was sitting on the patio of our river place when this rainbow appeared. I took this as a good sign as I was working with my editor’s last edits of A Decent Woman. The rainbow started on the West Virginia side of the Potomac River and seemed to end somewhere in Virginia or had it begun in Virginia (where I used to live) and end in West Virginia where I now live?

beautiful rainbow at the river May 2014

Recently, a good friend asked how difficult it was to write the tough and raw scenes in my historical fiction novel, A Decent Woman. I knew what she meant and it was a great question. My story is about the complex lives of women in turn of the century Puerto Rico and life wasn’t easy for women of that era. I’d never experienced slavery or physical abuse at the hands of a man nor had I served jail time like my protagonist, Ana. So, how did I write those scenes without personal experience?

How do you write believable, realistic scenes and dialogue when you haven’t experienced the tough or raw situations your characters find themselves in?

It’s not easy, believe me. When I wrote the first manuscript of A Decent Woman, I didn’t have a title, but I knew who the characters were and what their roles in the novel would be. The original story was about the friendship of two women-a midwife and a client turned friend in turn of the century Puerto Rico. No real beefy issues except for a philandering husband. I finished writing in six months and then, discovered a book of non-fiction that changed my story forever. I still believe the Universe placed this scholarly book in my hands.

Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920, written by Dr. Eileen Suarez Findlay, posed a challenge – I knew I had to go deep into uncharted waters or go home with my first novel. The story I had written was  interesting, but flat. The characters were one-sided and I hadn’t delved deep enough into their thoughts, motivations and desires. I hadn’t added challenges to their lives, no drama and the philandering husband had no voice. After I read Imposing Decency, I began the second draft of A Decent Woman, and the stories of my characters within the story emerged. How?

You go to that place in your heart that you’ve kept walled up and protected. We all know that place we’ve put away and kept hidden so we don’t feel the pain again. No one I know, including myself, has been immune to some type of loss. Pain in pain. We might have lost a parent, a sibling or a cherished pet. Many of us have experienced a devastating divorce, the painful loss of a home or job as a result of the divorce or the economy. Our children may have suffered bullying in school or a heartbreaking disappointment in their young lives.

If you have personally escaped such things, you are blessed. In that case, access your heart and be open to the pain and suffering of others. You’ve certainly read tragic stories in newspapers or television. Sit with a sad or tragic story. Put yourself in the person’s shoes and imagine what that person or family must be going through with their loss and grief. Write down your thoughts and if you never use them in whatever you are currently writing, you might later. And if you never use them, you have learned to dig for emotions and feelings within yourself. You’ve accessed that place of raw truth within yourself and your compassion for others has deepened. Both are beautiful experiences.

For writers, it’s important to access our wounds. This involves being willing to remove the bandages and slowly, pick at scabs as we write. It can be intense. You may find yourself crying as you write which has happened to me many times. You are in the moment. Keep writing.

Use your own life experiences. I worked as a counselor, in a children’s residential treatment center, and in a Belgian refugee center. I didn’t have to look hard. I’ve always known that my life experiences would help me with this book. I just had to start and be willing to access what I’d read, heard and seen which was tough.

When I finished the first draft of the manuscript of A Decent Woman, I hadn’t planned on writing tough, raw scenes. The characters in my story live in a tumultuous time. Writing about the complex women’s lives in turn of the century Puerto Rico demanded writing raw scenes because they happened. The current manuscript is one I’m proud of.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Ernest Hemingway

After an intense writing session of a difficult chapter or scene, I go to the garden and dig in the dirt or I take a mini road trip in the country or along the river. I admire God’s beauty and I let those feelings and emotions go to a place of peace…until the next writing session.

Ellie

 

 

 

 

 

The Social Media Merry-go-round

I joined NetworkedBlogs last night and I love it. I can now view all my favorite blogs in one place and save the blogs I want to read later which will free up my email inbox. What will they come up with next? That is tongue in cheek, of course. “They” have and will come up with tons more and I would like it all to slow down a bit. Please.

Social media. Gotta love it and sometimes, it’s a royal pain. I get it, though. I’ve used it for years, building my author platform and it really works, but new sites come up all the time. New and improved. As soon as I learn a new site or app, there are ten to take its place. My adult children are computer wizards. “Mom, try this. It’s right up your alley.”  Okay, thanks! Yet another site that I have to look into. Groan. Just let me work with what I have for a little while, I want to say! It’s second nature for the younger generation, but it didn’t come easy to me.

Take my maternal grandmother for instance. She was born in 1900 in the coastal town of Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico, just outside the colonial town of Ponce. When she died in 1994, she had seen and experienced the horse and buggy, the telegraph, trains, cars, land line telephones, victrolas, radios, tape recorders, television, airplane travel and computers. My grandmother had a cell phone when she was 90 and watched me write and do research on a computer when I visited her. I remember her amazement at the information available to us by simply typing words and phrases in little Search boxes. She took it all in stride and went with the flow, as I must do.

But, you don’t understand. I still happen to think it’s pretty amazing that when I fire up my laptop, I am instantly connected to our world and beyond. No joke. I truly am. To a non-computer, tech-savvy person such as myself, I marvel that when I log on, it all works. I am instantly connected with my favorite authors, blogs I love, and I can keep up with what my favorite authors and artists are doing through their posts on Instagram, LinkedIn, NetworkedBlogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.

I’m doing all that, as well and I know there are sites that I should be using and I will. Just give me time. It takes up a whole lot of time to maintain a social media presence. On good days, it’s a lot of fun. I normally tackle this blog in the mornings and then, post it onto my various sites. I read the news of the day online and midday, I post again. In the early evening, I check all the sites to see who read what and who followed or liked me. It is then that I answer emails and respond to comments. In between all this, of course, I’m writing and trying to figure out what I can eat in my pantry so that I don’t have to go out. Once a week, I read the blogs I follow and I comment. I love that day and learn so much from writers, authors, publishers and agents. I make a pot of tea, grab my afghan and away I go into someone else’s world. In the late evenings, I read books, the news online, and very often, I fall asleep after a chapter of my current book. I wonder why?

When I write, the Internet can be very distracting. I’ve been known to write a paragraph of a novel and then, stop because I’ve just written something that I must research.This happens all the time. With a very innocent sentence such as, “Isabel leaned against the palm tree…”, I am stopped dead in my tracks. Palm tree. Is that correct? I know Puerto Rico has palm trees, but what type of palm tree, what variety of palm tree? Did that variety exist in 1901 in Puerto Rico? See what I mean? It’s constant but, at times like that, I thank God for the World Wide Web and for my BFF Kristine who immediately Googled palm trees and uncovered the Royal Palm!

Social media is never far from my thoughts. I know very few authors, writers and artists who don’t “do” social media. Even Pinterest has become a place to market and sell books. I cannot get onto Pinterest if I have any chance of writing. That is my one addiction. I must have 30 boards and of course, I have a board for my novel, an inspirational board, and a board of the books I want to read, to include the ones presently on my nightstand. It’s SO addicting.

Most authors have a Facebook account for personal stuff and one for each book of their books. I love that idea and that’s what I did, as well. I don’t have a website yet, but I’m working on that. I know a woman who maintains 12 personal websites. I can’t even keep my ten usernames and passwords straight from various websites and I never remember a birthday (except for my children and immediate family) until I see it on my Facebook feed.

I just don’t have that much space left in my brain…or do I?

So, if you had the idea that writers do nothing but write and sit around in cafes, discussing the world over vino while smoking Havanas, think again. I tried that. I went to my neighborhood bakery shop that has WiFi to spend the whole day writing. It was fun, but I didn’t get a lot done. I drank way too much coffee, had way too many Zuzu cupcakes, watched the patrons come in and out, and I talked with the owners. Back home I went. I write better in the company of my animals where the coffee is basically free and I can listen to my favorite music uninterrupted. I still visit the bakery shop, but just not to write. I do, however, never leave without six mini Zuzu cupcakes.

Has anyone written a blog about how not to gain weight while writing a book? Let me know. I’d read that blog 🙂

Happy writing to you.

Ellie