On Characters: I Resemble That Remark

How much do characters in novels resemble the writer and the writer’s journey?

Before and after the publication of my novel, ‘A Decent Woman’, I accepted many kind invitations for written interviews to introduce and market the book. One interview question provoked much personal introspection about my character Ana Belén, an Afro-Cuban midwife born into slavery, who lives and works as a midwife at the turn of the nineteenth century in Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico.

The interviewer, a fellow author, and good friend, emailed the questions and added a smiley face after this question, “How much do you resemble the character, Ana Belén?” My long-time friend knows me well, so the jig was up. A few weeks later, I sent her my responses, and wrote this next to the smiley face, “I resemble that remark in more ways than I feel comfortable owning up to at this time!”

Of course, the character of Ana is like me, in many ways. How could she not be? I created her and the world she inhabits from my imagination and a few family stories. But. I’m not a statuesque, Afro-Cuban midwife born a slave, living in Puerto Rico at the turn of the nineteenth century. I’m a five-foot-tall, green-eyed, Puerto Rican-born writer, currently living in West Virginia. How much could I possibly have in common with Ana?

As it turns out, we share many common traits: feistiness, courage, bluntness, loyalty, a fierce love of family with a strong commitment to protecting the rights of women and children. Was it in my genetic makeup or life experience (when I was writing the book) to respond and behave in similar ways to threats, happy circumstances, and impossible challenges the way Ana did? No, not in every circumstance. Tough as nails and compassionate Ana is my heroine, but we are all survivors of something. I had a few life experiences to draw upon during the writing.

Along with a few positive traits, I share a couple negative traits with Ana, such as stubbornness, sensitivity to unfair criticism, impulsiveness, and at times, short-sightedness, especially when I think I’m right. In my story, Ana is forging a path in a difficult, new world; a world I was discovering and exploring through writing, research, and my imagination. A bit or a lot of ourselves is bound to emerge in our characters, but it was only after the book was published that I realized how closely related our journeys were and where they overlapped.

For the rest of 2015, I journaled about that question, and like the author of ‘The Artist’s Way’, Julia Cameron says, after the midway point of journaling three pages in longhand, the truth came out: I’d been working through stuff while writing Ana and Serafina’s stories, even the men’s stories, and I hadn’t realized it. Here’s what I discovered.

In 2010, I pulled out the draft manuscript I’d begun in 2005. After two years of a difficult separation and divorce, a few more years of working in an entirely new field, having my heart broken and finally, moving to a new state, I was ready to write again. My world had been continually rocked with so many unknowns that it made my head spin during that time and even now as I think back to what we went through as a family. Between 2006 and 2010, questions plagued me at every turn: What will turning 50 look and feel like? Will we be safe and will I find work? Where will I live? Can I support myself while writing full time, and if not, what the hell will I do to make that happen? Will anyone hire a fifty-year-old woman with an old resume? Should I go back to school and find a new career? Are my kids okay? Will I find love after divorce? Will this book ever be published?

I survived and so did my kids. We’ve grown and flourished where we were planted, but it was a tough road. My kids graduated from college, found good jobs, and in 2011, I bought an old house in West Virginia. At the next fork in the road, I gave up sending out resumes that I knew would never be answered—I would write full time, which was a huge gamble and risk for someone living on a small budget. The decision was made. I sat down to write and soon discovered Ana’s story had to change. I had learned many valuable lessons and developed new skill sets, more than I’d ever dreamed possible, that had enriched my life as a woman and mother. The original Ana was merely a skeleton of the woman she was meant to be; it was time to put meat on those bones. I rewrote the story, worked with two editors and sent out the manuscript. The book was finally published by Booktrope Editions in February 2015.

Ana’s journey of learning to read and write, and moving from La Playa to Ponce when male doctors entered the birthing room for the first time, threatening her livelihood, were born only after I was reborn. It makes perfect sense–I had gone back to school and moved from Virginia to West Virginia. What I did not realize until after the book was published was that Ana embodied everything I’d needed during the difficult years after marital separation and divorce: a protector, a loyal friend, an advocate, a mom. Serafina, the young, motherless widow in the story was me, a motherless child, as my beautiful mother had passed away in 1992, and I missed her terribly. The characters I created, my heroines, mimic and embody the internal and external life struggles I experienced and helped me through a difficult time. All my characters gave me the courage, guts, and tenacity I needed during the writing and publishing journeys, and later with marketing the book, which continues today. I might not have all the answers, but I am leaps and bounds ahead in my journey.

Writing ‘A Decent Woman’ was a journey and as it turns out, a quest toward wholeness. I believe in starting your journey, whatever it might be, from where you are standing, and I believe in paying attention along the way.

Fast forward. I am currently writing a second novel called ‘The Lament of Sister María Inmaculada’, featuring a young Puerto Rican nun, an old Franciscan friar from Spain, and a young Protestant minister sent to Puerto Rico from the United States in 1920. The characters, most definitely from different worlds, find themselves living and trying to work together on a barren islet of La Isla de Cabras, The Island of Goats. It is a challenging, joyful, gut-wrenching, and empowering story to write, set in a new, unknown world to me, and I am loving the process. And I am including male point of view in a story for the first time.

A new, unknown world…is it really?

We shall see. I am excited of what I’ll learn and discover through these new characters, and already, I have discovered something amazing: I didn’t think it was possible to love a new character as much as I love Ana Belén, but I do. Her name is Sister María Inmaculada.

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 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, Eleanor 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

 

 

 

When Is It Okay to Lose Your Sh#t?

I am a writer and watcher of human behavior: odd, interesting, strange, and bizarre behavior do it for me. If you’re a writer and you’re not watching people and taking notes, you should be. Usually I can’t make up the stuff I see or hear, and quite often, I’m left with a dropped jaw and raised eyebrows, but I’m fascinated all the same. Odd manerisms; interesting turns of phrases; strange or irrational behavior, facial ticks and expressions; and bizarre conversations or get ups, make their way into my novels and short stories, and make for interesting characters. I like to know what makes people tick. Pay attention; it’s all good stuff for a writer.

Why do people do what they do?

This year, a British author by the name of Richard Brittain tracked down a Scottish girl who’d written a negative review of his self-published novel, and proceeded to crack a bottle of wine on her head.

Here’s how Gawker.com described his actions. “Brittain, incensed at the one-star review, apparently tracked down Rolland’s Facebook page, discovering that she lived in Scotland and worked at an Asda supermarket. He allegedly traveled 500 miles from London and found her at the store, crouching to stock a low shelf of cereal boxes. He hit her from behind with a full bottle of wine, leaving her unconscious and with a gash on her head.”

Wow. The article went on to say that Richard Brittain had received media coverage and the attention he’d probably craved his whole life. I wonder if he’s still writing?

Next up is the bizarre turn of events at the Miss Amazonas 2015 beauty competition. In the YouTube video I watched, the Brazilian beauty pageant first runner-up, Miss Sheislane Hayalla, hugged the winner, Miss Carolina Toledo, and seconds later, Hayalla violently ripped the crown off the newly crowned Miss Amazonas’ head before throwing the crown to the floor and storming off the stage. Damn. Talk about epic public freakouts and losing your shit.

Sheislane Hayalla claimed that her rival, Carolina Toledo, had bought her Miss Amazonas title, and Hayalla cried foul play during several interviews on Brazilian television. Lots of publicity for Miss Hayalla, but it’s not clear if she retained her runner up crown, or whether there was an investigation into the allegation. Frankly, I lost interest.

Have I ever lost my usually calm composure and freaked out publicly? Sure, I’m human. One doozy of an outburst was directed at my ex-husband during the early days of our marital separation (which felt great!), and the next was due to erupt just before Christmas Day this year, aimed at my new next door neighbor, who was in the habit of leaving her dog home alone for hours and hours. And no, she doesn’t work outside the home. The instant this woman left the house to do whatever she was doing, her large Golden Retreiver, who suffers from severe and extreme separation anxiety (I don’t know what my neighbor suffers from), immediately began howling and barking for hours on end until her owner returned home. And I mean hours. I tried loud music to drown out the noise (which isn’t conducive to a good writing session), and even tried hunting ear plugs, but I could still hear the lonely pup’s pathetic howls. I work from home and was about to lose my mind when my neighbor began leaving the house in the evenings, which is my favorite time to write. I don’t understand how the dog didn’t lose her voice, completely.

Anne Lamott quote about people behaving better to writers

I have a Chihuahua, who luckily isn’t a yappy barker, except when someone knocks at my door, which is normal. If my neighbor’s dog did that, I’d be okay with it, but that’s not the case. For months, I politely voiced my concerns and my neighbor agreed–her dog was a pain in the butt. She admitted she’d heard her dog’s barks down the street as she’d driven away several times. Nice. Later, I wrote two notes asking my neighbor to please do something about her dog’s incessant barking and howling as I couldn’t get any work done. One day she saw me outside and yelled, “Get over it! She barks! Live with it!” Live with it? I don’t think so. After several calls to Department of Animal Control, I discovered there are noise ordinances in my city. A man from Animal Control came out and paid my neighbor a visit. My writing days are peaceful and quiet once again, and I hope it remains that way long into the new year!

It’s hard to know what my neighbor’s problem was with her dog, and why she didn’t seem to care about her neighbor’s frazzled nerves. But she can be sure of one thing–she’ll make it into one of my novels and she won’t be the heroine either. I can make her fictional life a living hell. That is one way an author can ‘pay it forward’ for rude behavior. Demure smile. Use it all, folks.

when writing a character...hemingway

 

 

 

 

Never wrong a writer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Holidays to you and my best wishes for a wonderful 2016!

About Eleanor

ellie

Puerto Rican 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, inspire her stories. She is a member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, and the Historical Novel Society, and she is a contributing writer for Organic Coffee, Haphazardly Literary Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

A Decent Woman, Eleanor’s debut novel, 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, and is listed in Centro Voices, The Center of Puerto Rican Studies, ‘Essential Boricua Reading for the 2015 Holiday Season’. Book clubs across the United States have enjoyed A Decent Woman. Eleanor is featured in the newly published anthology, ‘Latina Authors and Their Muses’, edited by Mayra Calvani. Eleanor is the mother of two wonderful adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is writing her second novel and a collection of short stories.

http://amzn.to/1kzKdGq

Who’s Telling This Story and Other Questions

I named my author blog, The Writing Life, for good reason–I love writing about my writing journey with its’ challenges, joys, and the confusing world of writing, marketing and publishing. Yes, the writing life can be confusing, and last week, I was confused in a big way with my second book, my work-in-progress.

These are the type of questions that kept coming to mind. Perhaps you can relate to the writerly predicament I found myself in.

What should you do when your protagonist and secondary character begin vying for first place in a story–the protagonist seat–and you’re swaying toward the secondary character? And then back to the main character you’ve chosen. Do you stick with your initial storyline, keeping it as is or do you take this new development seriously? You’ve already worked so hard on the story, dear writer. The manuscript might be finished, or you might be a third of the way through, but still!

Should your characters switch places, which will undoubtedly mean a rewrite and most probably, a bit more research, or do you stubbornly hold your ground in favor of the original story? You know this character musical chairs game will mean a lot more work on your part. Is this a wise move worthy of the time you’ve already spent on the story?

YES! Take the nagging feelings seriously. Here’s what happened to me last week.

I’d written nearly twenty chapters of my work-in-progress when my muse whispered, “Whose story is this?” I quickly recognized the situation. Oh, no. After I finished my very first manuscript in 2006, the second leading lady, ‘spoke’ loud and clear–clear enough for me to stop and take her seriously. I couldn’t deny she’d become the more interesting character to write as she was a feisty, wise, complicated older woman with a mysterious, tumultuous past versus a beautiful, young widow and mother with limited life experience.

Despite realizing the enormity of the task ahead–rewriting my story and adding new chapters–I forged ahead. It was the right move for me. Yes, it required many months of rewrites and writing new chapters, but I listened to my characters and my inner voice, who pointed to Ana, my secondary character. She’d been the leading lady all along, with Serafina playing the role as Ana’s long-time, loyal friend and supporter.

This past weekend, I gave this recurring theme (and nagging throughts) a good long look. I’d outlined book #2; thought the storyline out from beginning to end; I’d done a substancial amount of research; I understand my characters and their roles in the story; and I have a good story with unique, complex characters in a unique and complex setting. Okay, done. I was very pleased with the story and felt pretty confident in my main character’s ability to pull the story off. Yet I still had a nagging suspicion that wouldn’t let go–the supporting lady, also called the supporting protagonist, was speaking louder than the protagonist–was it her story? Are you kidding me? Again? All that writing and research down the drain!

Each character is important and integral to the story. I had to remind myself:

The protagonist is the main character and the principal figure in a literary work. It is her story to tell because it’s about her and her goal. The secondary characters must be chosen carefully and should contribute to the story and support the protagonist in her goal. The antagonist is equally as important as the protagonist as she will go against the protagonist at every step, causing the leading lady to act, suffer, make mistakes, work things out (or not), and help move the story forward. If a minor character doesn’t support the protagonist, it might be necessary to cut them from the story.

Then, I wrote to my mentor, master-storyteller Jack Remick, who graciously responded to my email full of confusion. He replied, “It’s good to be in chaos at this stage of the story. First question, of course, is: whose story is it? Keep going. You’ll solve the problems now that you’re worrying about them.” He was right. It was a great reminder. I’d lost the plot with so many characters in my head! (Check out Jack and Bob’s superb writing blog – bobandjackswritingblog.com)

So, the former protagonist in my WIP will have her own book on down the line. Her story is already firm in my mind, and I’ve done most of the research. I’ve put her aside for now. Who did I choose as my leading lady for book #2? The secondary character. She is complex and  vulnerable, intelligent and clueless, and at times, she’s haughty. She is perfectly flawed.

I immediately felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders when I’d decided. Once again, I’m writing with a huge smile on my face. It’s going to be an awesome story, now that I know whose story it is to tell. I think the former protagonist is somewhat relieved, as she was out of her element in this particular story. She was just waiting for me to realize what she already knew. Yes, writers speak to their characters and they answer us!

Sometimes you must get completely lost, almost in a state of chaos, to find your way. Writing good stories is like that: one foot in front of another, paying attention to the shady detours and dark corners which just might lead you to Shangri-La.

Happy writing to you!

About Eleanor Parker Sapia

 

elliePuerto 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 social worker and a refugee case worker inspire her stories. She is a member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, and Historical Novel Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

A Decent Woman is Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico. The book was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends Latino Book Club, and book clubs in many states have enjoyed the book. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is happily writing her second novel, The Island of Goats.