Something new is always a good idea

I’ve been enjoying learning the ropes from a cool bunch of writers on Facebook who are dedicated to writing LOTS of books. They say the more books you have out, the easier it is for readers to find you and thus, the better your revenue stream will be. That means money, to the writer. Crass and commercial as that may seem to some writers and readers, it’s impossible to not think about money. It gives the writer space to be creative, time to dream, and a reason to write another book.

Frenchman announcementAs my fifth book in my Bennett Sisters Mysteries launches I feel this effect. When I run some cheap ads on Facebook for the new book, people discover the whole series. Now at five, there is some heft, some reason for people to think about connecting long-term to these characters.

I’ve also been doing a blog tour for The Frenchman, the new one, and wrote this guest post about how the characters have changed, and I’ve changed in my understanding of them over the years. (See Beth’s post on Shelf Rider.)

As I launch the fifth installment in the Bennett Sisters Mystery series it occurs to me that one of the joys of writing a long series is the chance to really dig deep into the personalities of the characters. Although I originally conceived of the series as linked stand-alones about each of the five sisters, the first book, Blackbird Fly, centered on the middle sister, Merle. When I eventually continued the series, I continued Merle’s journey of self-discovery after the sudden death of her husband. It just made sense that one summer sojourn in France wouldn’t cure all her problems, lovely as France might be.

discoverFranceagainSo Merle has a Frenchman. Initially, like Merle, I didn’t see how a long-distance relationship with a man who lived across an ocean would work. How could she work in New York City and Pascal work all over France’s wine country and they continue a romance? Because, although I didn’t write the series as a romance, women have love affairs— have you noticed? And they like to read about them. Merle’s affair with Pascal might have just been a fling, a curative, that first summer. But as the series goes along it’s obvious that Pascal thinks of it as something more. Although Merle isn’t sure what he thinks— he’s a Frenchman and you know how they are— her feelings mature, especially in this fifth book.

Their relationship is an underpinning in the novels to intrigue, sisterhood, and the joys and trials of mid-life. The sisters range in age from 40 to 55, or so, and I try to find aspects of women’s lives that are interesting and challenging. Life can be hard but reading about how other women make choices and navigate the pitfalls is helpful and revealing to me, and I hope to readers.

As a writer you never know how readers will react to your characters. Will they think them weak and stupid for their choices? (Yes, I’ve had that review.) Or will they identify with them, cheer for them, hope for them? That’s what I live for, that identification from the reader. I am not an Everywoman myself. I am opinionated and cranky and sometimes not that nice. Also, funny, a good friend, a loving parent— I hope. We all have so many aspects. I see some of myself in each of the five Bennett Sisters. I am a middle sister myself though, that’s why Merle appeals to me.

I recently had a review of Blackbird Fly that made all the writing worthwhile. (I love that readers are still discovering the series.) A reader said “The main character, Merle Bennett, could have been me, though I’m not a lawyer, have never inherited a house in France, and never had her problems. The writing puts you in the book.”

Right there, that’s why I write.

Then, if you love France like I do, the reviewer says that for her, at least, I got something right: “I’ve spent enough time in France to know that Albert, Mme Suchet, and the others in the village who snubbed, helped, or sabotaged Merle are just so … French. The story unfolds just as it should along with Merle’s self-discovery and personal regrets.”

And so Merle’s journey continues in The Frenchman. Who is the Frenchman, you ask? There is of course Pascal, Merle’s Frenchman. But there are many more in this book, policemen and old villagers, young punks and charming neighbors. And in Merle’s novel, chapters of which are included in the novel, there are Frenchmen from the Revolutionary period: farmers and rebels, nobles and royals, villagers and strangers. I had such fun writing Merle’s novel— which will be fleshed out and published separately as well— about a goat-herder who flees the terror in Paris for a farm in the Dordogne. Merle calls it ‘Odette and the Great Fear,’ and it will be available soon as an e-book.

I hope your writing and reading goes well as we ease into chilly weather– the best time to read and write! Happy autumn.

Lise

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Tricksters and Pranksters

The origins of April Fools’ Day are shrouded in a bit of mystery but probably hark back to the time when, in the Middle Ages, the calendar was changed. March 25 had been the beginning of the new year and in some places in Europe it touched off a weeklong celebration, ending on April 1. Whatever the beginnings, April Fools’ Day or something similar, has a long tradition in many cultures around the world.

Loki
Loki

Why would a practice of scamming somebody, embarrassing them and making them look ridiculous, be so popular, you ask? We have only to look at the long list of tricksters and pranksters in mythology and literature to see that playing jokes, taking authority down a peg, and generally creating a little chaos where the heavy hand of tradition rules, have always been widespread practices. They make us laugh, they lighten the heavy load of life— which was much heavier in the Middle Ages when most of us would have been peasants or slaves— and gave hope that the future will be brighter than the present.

220px-Édition_Curmer_(1843)_-_Le_Chat_botté_-_1
La Chat Botté, or Puss ‘n Boots

Famous tricksters include the Norse god, Loki, whose tales helped explain natural phenomena like earthquakes while providing a naughty, often nasty foe for Odin and Thor. In many Native American cultures Coyote is a trickster who can shape-shift as man or coyote and is often portrayed as being part of creation myths.

Some pranksters are helpful, some harmful. Often they are mix of both. Puss ‘n Boots, a French-Italian character, helps his master, the third and lowly son in the family, find wealth and love through deception. A German trickster, Till Eulenspiegel, was possibly a real vagrant and highwayman whose wicked ways became the stuff of legend, even though many of his pranks were scatological in nature (involving tricking people into touching, smelling, or even eating his… poop.)

Till_Eulenspiegel
Till Eulenspiegel

[When I read about Till Eulenspiegel I thought of the scene in ‘The Help’ when a disgruntled maid tricks her uppity employer into eating a pie made from— spoiler alert— excrement. She deserves a special April Fools Award, no? Shall we call it Der Eulenspiegel? Jawohl!]

Speaking of the South, the tales of Br’er Rabbit circulated for centuries before they were written down, told on plantations among slaves, and originating in Africa. While the Uncle Remus versions may be distasteful today the originals had a purpose, to create laughter, release stress, and show that sometimes you have to use your wits to get out of the sticky wicket. Algonquin and Cherokee tales incorporated many of these same stories of the trickster rabbit, taken from slaves.

Terrorized by Kitsune
Terrorized by Kitsune

Tricksters aren’t limited to the Western Hemisphere. In Japan a nine-tailed fox called Kitsune was originally a Chinese creature. The Japanese lived in close proximity with foxes and during their superstitious periods believed the fox was magical and slightly evil.

Reynard the Fox
Reynard the Fox

Another fox of trickster lore is Reynard who appears in early French tales. His name became so synonymous with ‘fox’ that the French word for fox, goupil, is now archaic. From the Alsace-Lorraine region straddling France and Germany, his stories first appeared in the 12th Century in Latin poems and spread throughout northern Europe.

Doctor Who, Shape-Shifting Thru Time

There are so many more from around the world: Kuma Lisa, a trickster fox of Bulgaria, the Curupira, a red-haired jungle genie in Brazil, and Maui, a Polynesian trickster who hauls islands out of the sea.

We see them regularly in books and on screen: Captain Jack Sparrow, an amoral ‘bricoleur’ who can take a messy situation and somehow make it right, The Doctor in ‘Doctor Who’, the ultimate shape-shifter, and those prankster brothers from another mother: Dennis the Menace and Bart Simpson.

In books and stories we are often drawn to the most colorful characters. Whether we’re writers or readers, villains and jokesters can make or break a book. We love when the hero’s perfect day is shattered by something funny or humiliating, when the heroine is shocked by a little mayhem. Is it any wonder we are fascinated with bad boys, motorcycle gangsters, despicable rich assholes, and the ultimate chaos-creator, the serial killer?

Trickster Russell Brand as Puck

The comical sidekick, or someone like Shakespeare’s Puck, the shrewd knave from Midsummer Night’s Dream, offers a break from the grim business of murder, or falling in love with an ass. Shakespeare knew the incredible value of comic relief in any story. And so did generations of lovers of a good tale before and after.

 

April Fools! Go out and do some dirty work. I’ll be there right after I finish these ‘Kick Me’ signs…

PS: Send nominations for your favorite trickster. Der Eulenspiegel 2016 is on the line.

Rereading your favorite novel, love or leave it?

They say that every time you read a book it’s a different book, because you are different. If you read a book when you’re twelve you bring one set of experiences, opinions, and influences to that reading. Read it again at twenty-one, it’s a new book because you’ve survived to your majority, studied, read, and maybe even written something yourself. So if you keep reading that book, at thirty, forty, fifty, does it keep changing for you?

I submit that it is possible to read a book too many times. Unless you are dissecting it for the purpose of figuring out its structure you can bore yourself. There are so many books in the world! Read a new one! Only my most favorite novels hold up time after time, offering up nuggets of humor and wisdom again. My favorite novel is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen precisely because there is so much left out of it. I read it first at seventeen. I reread it looking for more, sure there is something I missed. Most novels, even ones that I absolutely adored, stories that make me gasp and cry, leave it all on the page. Because, frankly, that’s where it’s at, writing-wise.

I’ve been thinking about reader reactions, and rereading, since reading this piece in the Guardian. Authors are generally voracious readers and sometimes reread novels out of necessity (nothing else in the house) or to study the way an admired author got the job done. Poetry, of course, and classics like Shakespeare, Doestoevsky, and Jane Austen are definite rereads. The classics hold up because they are dense and enjoyable and fulfill a reader’s need for philosophy of living, human emotion, or just plain excitement.

As you can see from the article authors have a diverse list of favorites that are often very personal. Reading is like that. Have you ever given someone a book (that they didn’t request, written by someone they’ve never read) and wondered why they never read it? You loved it so they should too. But like jewelry and perfume, novels are an individual taste. Often as readers we don’t know exactly why some stories resonate, holding us captive and nestling deep in our subconscious, while famous novels loved by millions leave us cold. It doesn’t matter what you read as long as you’re reading for pleasure (unless you are in a Nazi book club. If so, my condolences.) Pick a novel, new or old, fresh to you or as familiar and comforting as an old sweater, and read it. Enjoying reading is one of the most basic, simple pleasures of life.

Reader reactions fascinate me. As a writer you can only write the book you can write, and hope that it appeals to someone (or many someones.) In the age of online reviews anyone who reads a book can offer his or her opinion of it to the world, uncensored and often poorly spelled. It’s sort of like fan mail. One of my novels now has nearly 40 reviews on Amazon (a consequence of a giveaway campaign last summer) and as much as I hate the bad reviews and cherish the good ones I find the whole thing amusing. How can one reader write: “something for everyone, intrique, romance, murder and all tied up neatly together,” and another have the opposite reaction: “too much nonsense in it. It took me forever to read as I was very bored with parts”? Well, because one might be fifteen, the other seventy. One might be used to reading romance novels, another might be into ‘Twilight.’ You never know. I couldn’t have written this book when I was twenty (Blackbird Fly, by the way, written when I was 50ish. I couldn’t have written any novel at 20 but I loved my journalism classes.)

I bring to the table my own experiences, just as the reader does. I love that I can hear what they think. It makes writing a lot less lonely.