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

 

 

 

 

 

River Evacuations and Lessons Learned

Sophie’s first time at the river!

Earlier this week, I received an email from the office of the Park where my river lot is located. The Potomac River in my West Virginia neck of the woods would crest at 25 feet on Friday night. A river alert. Not good, I thought, but not scary. Yet. I’m an experienced river woman (okay, only five years of experience), twenty-five feet is baby stuff. You just need to know how to gauge the situation and the river…and I learned that the hard way two years ago. I was alone during a river evacuation and trust me on this, I was not prepared. It was an evacuation of epic proportions and of course, it rained all day long. Monsoon rain.

I’d been at the river for a couple of rainy days working on my novel when I got a call from my co-owner. River alert and it sounded bad. She read me the email and I heard the words, “epic”, “30-35 feet”, “move to higher ground.” I imagined a wall of Hancock River water barreling towards me. She said she would find someone to help me. She was the command center for this operation and I was the grunt. I was not a happy camper, literally.

The evacuation would involve pulling our pontoon boat cum boat dock out of the water onto higher ground, followed by the wood steps, followed by our Park model camper. My co owner hired a local guy with a boat and when he arrived, I pointed at stuff and supervised. I was definitely not happy, but he seemed to know what he was doing and before I knew it, he was waving goodbye to me.

While the pontoon boat was towed upriver to the boat ramp, I ran inside the camper and tried to secure pieces of furniture, dishes, pots and pans, glassware, hurricane lamps, anything that could jostle and possibly break during the impending and unexpected move. An hour or so later, local guy drove up to the camper and gave me the victory sign. Done!

Then, my co-owner called back to tell me that a guy with a big truck was coming to pull out the camper. Her words were “a big ass camper.” That worked for me! Within minutes, our camper was hooked up and I locked the door to the camper. I drove behind our camper and watched it wobble, creak, and careen around corners. It was then that I had a real jolt of a moment – I was alone. I was a middle-aged single woman from the city who had moved to wild and wonderful West Virginia and was following the first camper she’d ever set foot in led by a total stranger. How had this all happened? Oh, yeah. I’d wanted another adventure 🙂

We’ve had several scares since that evacuation that have resulted in less than spectacular flooding or river levels that didn’t match the predictions. I’ve learned to listen to our neighbors who are far more experienced than we are, and to have thicker skin about the possibility of losing our pontoon boat, our camper and everything on our lot to the Potomac River.

So, you can imagine my emotions and feelings of dread when I received the river alert email earlier in the week about possible flooding. I watched and all week, it remained green. Last night, it turned yellow and then red. Our guy was on call.

This morning, I received a text and a photo from a friend who owns a riverfront lot up river from us telling me that our place looked good. I was so relieved! I drove out with a friend and again was reminded that with the good might come the harsh, hard and unexpected. I have thicker skin these days about potential evacuations and actually, about most potential issues and problems in my life. I trust my gut and I don’t sweat the small stuff…too much. I learned that I am level-headed in an emergency and that yes, I am a river woman 🙂

Happy weekend to you and thanks for visiting my blog.

http://www.elliesbookz.wordpress.com

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No evacuation, yay

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Taking Risks and Knowing When To Move On

writing at the river 015 Our riverfront property on the West Virginia side of the Potomac River has been my favorite place to write for four years. Last night, my co-owner and I signed on the dotted line to sell this idyllic property. I hoped this day would never come, but it did. I had a hard time putting pen to paper. I’ve accepted that this place might not be available to me to write, relax and enjoy nature from, and I’m sad, but I’m moving on. I’m a firm believer that when we close a door, a  better one opens for us.

In my previous life, I worked for a Northern Virginia non-profit as one of five Spanish language Family Support Workers (FSW). I worked there for a couple of years and although I dearly loved the important work we did for our wonderful illegal clients, I was unhappy. Our caseloads were unmanageable (25-27 families per FSW), the workload was brutal, and the burn out rate among FSW was very high. We were required to make home visits every week, sometimes five a day. Our job was to educate young parents and single mothers from pregnancy to their child’s fifth birthday as their first born in this country entered kindergarten. I found it extremely frustrating because most families were hurting. Their most basic needs were not always met-shelter, food, diapers,  medical care and I found it difficult to teach and educate when they were hungry or had just been kicked out of their cockroach-infested apartment.  And if you’re familiar with the DC area traffic, you will understand that we were all behind in our documentation, visits quota, weekly and monthly reports and mandatory classes. And, of course, we were paid peanuts. Before I arrived, five FSWs quit in one week and our complaints and team suggestions fell on deaf ears.

Frustrated, stressed to the max with no time to write or paint to relax and be happy made Ellie one very unhappy woman! During this time, someone gave me a copy of Who Moved My Cheese? I devoured that little book and gave copies to my children, family and friends.

I realized that I had to change my life. I’d been a working and exhibiting artist for over 27 years and I wanted to finish the historical novel I began writing in 2005. What was I was doing working at a job that was not fulfilling and wreaking havoc on my nervous system! The work was important work to be sure and I knew that. But living in the DC area making peanuts was nuts. I had to live where I could afford to live AND paint and write again, but I didn’t want to leave my adult children who were just out of college and  now living and working in Northern Virginia.

So, the next best thing happened. After a year of searching for river properties in Virginia and West Virginia (I’d only visited once) that I could afford, I came across an online ad for the property we now own. I showed it to my friend and she was interesting in going on this crazy adventure with me. We drove out, took one look and made an offer. We got the property for a great price. She and I inherited a large camper on a large, level lot, a pontoon boat with no motor and a riverfront patio. We loved it. We drove out on the weekends with family and friends and I kept my FSW job thinking that I would now be happy. I could relax at the river, return energized and I was still living ten minutes from my kids who were soon out of my nest. Perfect!

No. Not perfect. The fresh air, river, the birds, and thoughts of our fun, relaxing weekends called to me every day as I sat in horrific traffic knowing that I would be late for yet another home visit  that I barely had time for. My hands were tied and I knew it. Nothing we said to the powers that be were listened to. Two months later, I called our realtor and asked her to find me a house in West Virginia, close to river. A month later, I gave my two week notice. Three other FSW left after I did. I signed the documents with jittery hands and inherited a quirky, drafty 109-year old red brick house with a great garden and good bones. I’d never bought a house alone. I felt like I’d fallen off a damn cliff, but knew that I had to push forward. The momentum had started. There was no going back, but my kids thought I’d lost my marbles.

I live 30 minutes away from our river property, so I have been fortunate to spend large portions of time there, gardening and writing. The photo is the exact spot where I finished my debut historical novel, A Decent Woman. It is a very special place to me.

So, life goes on. My co-owner is retiring and returning to her hometown in Massachusetts. My son is moving to Europe next week and my daughter is getting married next Fall with plans to move to North Carolina in the future. For me to visit friends, my children and family who live in many different states and in Europe, I decided not to pursue another co-owner to keep the river property. It didn’t feel right. The money from the sale will allow me to travel, pay off my student loan (hallelujah!) and maybe buy the 17 sets of wood shutters for my original sash windows. Or maybe I’ll just travel 🙂

The awesome little book, Who Moved My Cheese? helped me to learn how to recognize opportunities, continue to believe and trust in my gut instincts about people, places and things, and mostly importantly, I’ve learned to make moves toward a better life and future by making fierce and fearless moves.

I reread the book when Booktrope accepted my manuscript, A Decent Woman. I had queried literary agents and small publishing companies for two years and I am grateful that this Indie publishing company took a chance on me.

I just had a light bulb moment…maybe one of the conditions for the sale of the river property could be that I am allowed to write at the river during the week when everyone goes home. It’s strictly a weekend place and most owners live in Maryland Pennsylvania. I could keep their garden weeded and mow the grass (there is no lawn) during my breaks from writing…

sometimes I surprise myself 🙂

Ellie

 

 

 

 

Rainy Day Update

A DECENT WOMAN is scheduled for publication in July 2014. At this time, my Booktrope Team and I are heavy into the editing and marketing phases of the book. I am fortunate and blessed to work with such talented folks!

This week, I’m finalizing the email to family and friends about joining my Book Launch Team. I’m also putting together a list of local book stores and hope they are open to me coming in to do a book reading. Local in this area means I’m looking at book stores in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and possibly, Washington, DC. I’ll be happy to drive an hour or two to do a book reading. But when I think about reading from my book, I get butterflies in my stomach. Not the good kind. I begin worry. Will I ever get to the point where I feel confident that I’ve sent out the best possible version of my book?

Lighting another’s candle from the flame of our candle does not diminish our flame in any way.

On Saturday, I met 10 awesome authors at the Chocolate and Book Festival in downtown Martinsburg, West Virginia. Half of the authors live in my town which was exciting to learn. I enjoyed visiting with them and with my favorite Queen Street store owners who graciously hosted the authors for the annual event. It was a fun event, the chocolates were amazing and I am excited to join the book festival next year! The authors and I shared information about our books and the issue of butterflies in the stomach during a book launch came up. I realized that my butterflies and I aren’t alone. The consensus was that sending a book out into the world with complete confidence is a goal! Gaining more confidence comes with experience, learning as much as we can about writing and, of course, continuing to read great books by talented authors.

I am extremely grateful to authors who share their writing and marketing expertise through classes, workshops, blogs, and books. I am a sponge at this point in my life which seems pretty amazing given that I’m over half a century old 🙂 The authors I met on Saturday very kindly shared what they’ve learned about marketing in this area and offered me several great tips on who to see about printing bookmarks, postcards and banners for my book launch. In June, I will be giving a brief presentation on reviewing books at the Berkeley Springs Book Fest in beautiful Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. I’m looking forward to meeting more local authors on that day!

In the middle of all this excitement, my son moves to Europe in a week. His move is never far from my thoughts. This past weekend, I enjoyed a wonderful weekend with my children and family in Northern Virginia, celebrating my son and this happy milestone in his life. It is looking like London will be my son’s new home. Two companies are willing to sponsor him and that’s great news. I only had to excuse myself once from the dinner table. I thought that was pretty damn good. I managed to hold it together and will try to keep it together at the airport next week. I can’t promise, though…a dear friend will accompany me to say goodbye to my son. He will keep me focused on making it back to West Virginia through DC traffic in one piece and has promised to remind me that the future looks great because it sure does.

All in all, this will be a busy week for me. I hope you are well where you are!

This Friday we will be interviewing Patricia Mann, author of the women’s contemporary fiction novel, IS THIS ALL THERE IS?. I hope you will enjoy this talented writer as much as I do! Please join us.

~Ellie

Unexpected Blessings and Lessons

This is Sophie, a six month old Chihuahua, I adopted last month. I wasn’t in the market for a baby to add to my brood of furry children. It just happened. In the past, when I’ve sent photos of puppies to my children, I’ve received texts that urged me to resist the temptation, put the puppy down and slowly walk away from the puppy in question. I love animals, what can I say. I’m glad we welcomed Sophie, however, she has brought a lot of fun, joy and good lessons in ways that this writer never expected.

My life has been an exciting blur of positive activity and blessings since my historical fiction novel was accepted for publication by Booktrope in February. A puppy? I didn’t need a puppy at this time in my life! For a writer who lives alone with a friendly cat who seems to think he is a writing critic and an equally friendly Pug who lives to eat, the thought of bringing another pet into our lives seemed nuts. I’m helping to plan my daughter’s wedding next year and my son hasn’t decided whether he will move to London for his job. There are so many wonderful things happening to our family and I couldn’t be happier or feel more blessed. It’s a busy time, but I am learning to go with the flow because the momentum is in place and life goes on.

I thought I must be nuts to consider adopting Sophie, but I didn’t hesitate when I got the call and offer from her former owner. You see, I saw first met Sophie as she sat in a shopping cart in Walmart eight months ago. She was this tiny two month old and I fell in love right on the spot. I had never seen a puppy that small and instantly, my motherly instincts took over. I couldn’t help myself. I gave the man my card and told him to call me if he decided to breed her. He called last month to say that he couldn’t keep “Baby Girl” and had remembered me.

My good friend was visiting me with her Bichon Frise, Ruby, and we jumped up and down! Two grown women with plenty going on their lives couldn’t wait to meet this baby. Sophie came home with us the next day. As we drove home, Sophie on my friend’s lap, I vacillated between how nuts I must be to adopt another dog, a puppy no less and how excited I was. We just couldn’t resist her. Look at that face. Could you?

Sophie has reminded me that although I might be pulled in many directions at this time, it’s important for me to play, take a nap when I need one, get fresh air, and take writing breaks. Ozzy is nearly seven years old and he spends most of his day snoozing as does Pierre. They are used to my writing schedule which includes hours upon hours at the laptop. I take walks with Ozzy and play with them, but lately, our play dates have been few and far between. Sophie has changed all that. She takes cat naps and as a puppy, I have to be alert to her outside bathroom breaks and need for quality cuddle time. It’s like having a baby all over again and there is a new schedule to keep.

All my worries about Sophie disrupting the harmony of my home have disappeared. As I write this blog post, Sophie and Pierre are sleeping on the back of the couch in a sunbeam and Ozzy is snoring nearby. Ozzy and Sophie now sleep in the same doggie bed and morning time means tussling and wrestling for the baby and the cat.

Although I have a great group of friends who I wish I could see more often and I do when time permits, I was becoming a writing hermit. An author with her nose in social media, related online news, books and my manuscript. For example, I called a New York City office yesterday to ask about securing the rights of an image for my book cover and the kind gentleman told me that I had indeed found the right place and that it was possible. He also gently asked that I call back during normal business hours–it was 6:38…pm. See what I mean? I lose all track of time these days.

A cold wind is blowing today, but I’m off to walk the dogs. I need some fresh air, but first I need lunch and a bathroom break.

Ellie

Character Study-Ana Belen from A Decent Woman

Somehow, my cat Pierre knows when I’m editing my book. I don’t know how he knows this. When I’m doing my bit on social media, he is nowhere to be found and as soon as I settle in with a mug of tea and pull my novel up on the laptop, the cat is there in minutes. Here he is looking all smug and critical. I caught that smirk, Pierre. He doesn’t think I’m working hard enough today. I can tell and he doesn’t approve of social media. I tell him it’s necessary for writers and authors, but he says, “Get back to your book, Eleanor.” A real slave driver that cat is.

I’m looking forward to spending the whole day with my book. As I write this, it is snowing. Again. Actually, I like to write and edit when it rains and snows. No one is out and about on my street and it’s very quiet, save for the CD I bought for inspiration. Soft music in the background and a mug of hot tea are very conducive to writing and thinking about what my characters are getting into.

Have I introduced you to Ana, my protagonist? Here’s a little information about Dona Ana, the midwife.

When my story opens in 1900 we meet Ana Belén, a 40-year old Afro-Cuban midwife who grew up as a slave on a sugar plantation in Cuba. At 20, she was hidden by her father in the bowels of a steamer ship and arrives in Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico in the middle of the night. She has no family or friends on the island, and yes, there is a dark secret. A secret that Ana fears will ruin her, her reputation, not to mention, her business as the only midwife in the Playa de Ponce.

Ana’s positive qualities – Ana is a hard-working midwife, tough as nails, and tender and loving with her clients and their children. Despite always hoping to appear stoic and serious, she has a fun side that is shared with a select few. She is highly intuitive, courageous, a loyal friend, and she recognizes that she needs good working relationships with the male doctors and obstetricians who have entered the birthing room for the first time. She is a spiritual woman who practices the Yoruba tradition side by side with Catholicism. Ana becomes a fighter for the rights of women with no regard for social class when she realizes that men, society, and the Church regard her as an indecent woman.

Although Ana understands that Ponce is male-dominated and knows her place in society, she fearlessly forges ahead with her work and her unlikely friendship with Serafina, a member of Ponce society. Her friendships later in life include prostitutes and women, white, black, brown, mulattas, creoles, all labeled as indecent by society. She is a teacher and a mentor to younger women, but doesn’t realize that until later. When Ana lets down her emotional walls, she becomes naive, hopeful, more trusting, and she finds love.

Ana’s negative qualities – Ana was born on a sugar plantation in Cuba, and this makes her secretive. She has trouble trusting, assumes she knows it all, and doesn’t make friends easily. She is leery of the men she meets and has no use for male doctors, which could cost her if she doesn’t learn the game and play it. She is judgmental, stubborn, opinionated, and a bit naive with friendships and men. Ana is cautious, rebellious and at times, can appear unfeeling. The love of her life could cost her dearly and in the end, she could make the ultimate sacrifice for a dear friend who has betrayed her.

My historical fiction novel, A Decent Woman, will be published in March by Booktrope. I see Pierre lurking around the corner… Ellie

Facing My Fears

My good friends bought an awesome A-frame cabin in Great Capacon, West Virginia a year ago. I’m in love with their cabin and all the rustic furnishings, especially the amazing stone fireplace that reaches the ceiling. They have three beautiful acres that surround the cabin and plenty of places for their Golden Retriever to find adventures. It’s a magical place where I can see myself finishing my second novel. I’m very fortunate that my gracious friends have invited me to write there during the week and it’s only an hour from my house. And, they have Wifi!

On the second morning of my visit, my friend B asked me if I was ready for a mini road trip. I’m always ready for a road trip! I grabbed my camera and off we drove up and down hills and along the Great Capacon River. The snow on the ground was finally melting and I could see spots of ice on the river. It was a beautiful day in West Virginia. Soon, we were driving up a steep hill and then, we stopped. From where we were parked, I couldn’t see anything but trees, so we got out and B walked aka kinda slid down a small embankment to what looked like the edge of the known world. I caught a glimpse of a river, but I turned away as quickly as I could.

This little story is about how we are able to freak ourselves out and how ridiculous our thoughts can be when we are faced with our greatest fear. My friend had no idea that I am deathly afraid of heights, so I don’t blame him one bit! I was thrilled to see this little piece of Heaven that B loves and it was a beautiful sight to behold.

So, B went to the edge, looked over and came back. “It’s awesome, El! Wait until you get down there!” The incline was pretty steep to the edge and my boots kept skidding. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared, but when he held out his hand, I took it, mostly to steady myself. I immediately felt light-headed and not sure on my feet as we inched forward. I sure as hell didn’t go out to the edge where he’d stood. I told him that I had gone as far as I could. I sat on a rock because I was getting dizzy.

I suddenly realized that this was a perfect place to kill someone. Like in the movies. Had I pissed B off in any way in our many years of friendship? Was killing me the reason he hadn’t asked Angie to join us? He could bring me to the edge and lightly push my back and over I would go into the wild blue yonder. No! This was ridiculous. Stop it, I told myself. I love this man, my friend!

I was fascinated at my body’s reaction to the height, the imminent danger and our potential deaths. My body shook, my stomach felt really weird and I finally knew what it must have felt like for Thelma and Louise before driving off the cliff! I couldn’t control my hands and flipping stomach. A small landslide could surely knock us into the abyss and forget about a shale avalanche, sheesh. I forced myself to think pretty thoughts.

I kept fighting with my imagination of losing my balance and falling to my death onto the craggy rocks below and then, Bob went closer to the edge filled with shale chips. I couldn’t even look at the river and small waterfall because I thought B was going to die any second. What would I tell Angie?! Uhmmm, A…your husband is dead. I’m so sorry to tell you that B is dead. She would ask me if I’d helped him and I would have to tell her the truth or lie.

I managed to take a photo of B looking toward their cabin (which we couldn’t see) and I wondered if this would be the last known photograph taken of him before he became one with the Great Capacon River. Then, I had a horrible thought. What did the cliff look like from underneath? What was holding up this inclined cliff? More shale?

I couldn’t stand it. I asked him to pretty please come back a foot and from the look on my face, he realized that I was petrified. He laughed and came to where I was sitting. “You that scared, El?”

“You bet your sweet ass as I am!” I had to laugh and before I knew it, I was looking to my left and this photo is what I saw. It was breathtaking in every sense of the word. A miracle of nature. I took more than 25 photos and even managed to slowly stand up for the last few and then, I was done!

Before coming out to visit my friends, I’d told them that I wanted to shoot some guns. I wanted to cross that off my bucket list. We shot rifles, a 45 and a huge handgun. My hands shook with every pull of the trigger and my shoulder was sore, but that was an exhilarating fear, not like my fear of heights. Ellie will remain on safe ground where she intends to stay. Yep.

Remind me to tell you about the one car wooden “bridge” we had to cross to get back home. No railings and the rising river was no more than a foot below. Yeah. A vacation house for sure IF you can get there and remain safe inside the cabin with no avalanches, floods or mudslides.

Note: I am presently looking for a cabin in that area. I honestly love it out there 🙂 I had a lovely weekend, thank you, B&A! You are the mostest of the mostest.

Ellie