Do You Believe in Magic?

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Back to the coffee shop… more magic!

It’s all coming back to me. Two days into NaNoWriMo and the drama has begun. And it’s not all about the writing. I’m beginning to think NaNo (or birthing a first draft of a novel) is a bit like birthing a baby. You forget all the bad parts—the physical pain, the fears and the feelings it can’t be done, the fear that something will go wrong, the sleepless nights, the anguish of worry—or maybe you’d never be willing to do it again.

Last year I “won” NaNo. That is, I wrote 50,000 words during the month of November: National Novel Writing Month. Actually, to be technically accurate, I wrote more than 50,000 words. And I finished the first draft of a novel.

Last year I also wrote four blogs about my NaNo drama. In one, I detailed how I decided (somewhat spur of the moment) to commit to NaNo. In one I recounted my injury that I was afraid might sideline me from finishing (I shut my hand in the car door)—well actually MEH (My Engineer Husband) typed that one for me. In one I recounted certain NaNo truths (and lies). And in a final one, I talked about how I won.

Today I reread those four blogs. Believe it or not, I’d forgotten all about them—except the one that talked about winning! I forgot I slammed my hand in the car door. I forgot it was a last minute decision. I even forgot how much fun it was. It kind of went by in a whirlwind to be honest.

Yesterday after my first writing session (I wrote only 782 words—and I knew that to finish the 50K I’d need to average about 1600 a day), I was discouraged. I felt pretty sure that my idea wasn’t a very good one. Then this morning I got up early. I made a pot of coffee and started writing. Before I knew it I’d written a thousand words. Then two thousand. The idea still didn’t feel like the best one I’d ever had, but I was inhabiting the world, I was seeing the scenes in my mind. I’d even identified a song that was emblematic of the story. (It wasn’t  one of the ones from my last post. It’s “A Sky Full of Stars” by Coldplay. It’s now on endless loop while I write. Yesterday I heard it on the radio in the car and I had to turn it off—I started to feel my eyes drift closed, started to feel a writing trance coming on…no, really.)

And there’s more. That drama. It’s all falling into place. Like magic.

Drama.

I forgot when I got up that it was Daylight Savings. In fact, last night I accidentally set my clock ahead instead of back. So did I wake up two hours early?

I made coffee.

I wrote my words (2695 this morning).

I went into the kitchen and a spaghetti squash fell off the counter onto my little toe (as MEH said, “a squash squashed your toe.”

The first snow of the season started to fall.

After I posted a snowy pic on Instagram, I started thinking more about the novel I’m calling TYAAD.

More pieces fell into place, and I fell a little more in love.

Magic.

What are you doing for the month of November? Do you believe in magic? I do.

Cheers,

Julia

p.s. if you’re doing NaNo, too, let’s be buddies! I’m Julia.M.Martin!!

On Starting Again, Again

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Because wouldn’t you rather look at this amazing sunrise than a blank screen?

The blank page (er, screen)…

It’s staring me in the face these days.

That’s not entirely true. My alter-ego, mystery-writing self J.M. Maison is busy at work on the next book in The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series (it will be done soon).

But me? Myself? I?

I’m starting over, again. The wheels are churning. I have an idea, several, they’re coming together (I wrote about it here on Writer Unboxed last month…about cooking an idea). I’m hoping this: that I’ll finish the mysterious first draft, then just in time for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month in November) the pieces will have fallen into place for the next novel.

That’s what happened last year. NaNo was a big success for me (you can read my husband’s funny post about it here). I wrote the first draft of a novel (I’m now querying). I love the exciting wind-in-my-hair feeling I got from NaNo. And I think I’m going to do it again.

Okay, that’s all today—I’m off to write. Have a great day everyone!

What about you? Have you ever NaNo-ed? Did you like it? Or not so much?

Cheers,

Julia

Fresh Ink Flipped: Q&A with Natalia Sylvester

ChasingTheSunLima-e1403897593544I can’t tell you how happy I am to post this interview with writer friend Natalia Sylvester—because it means her debut novel Chasing the Sun has been released! I hope you’ll forgive me for injecting a loud “YAHOO” here… because Natalia and I have been great blogging and Twitter friends since I first went online, and I have followed her path to publication with great anticipation and excitement. In addition to being a close writer friend, she is one of the finest writers I’ve met through social networking. I have been fortunate to have Natalia as a super-duper early reader on two of my novel WIPs, and she gave me invaluable feedback that helped me shape my thoughts not just about the partials she read but also about my fiction writing in general—thank you Natalia! Although Natalia and I have not yet met in person, I’ve had the great pleasure to talk to her via Google Chat, and I can tell you she is as charming in person as her book is in writing.

I highly recommend Chasing the Sun…And here’s the good news! You could win your own signed copy of this wonderful novel—Natalia has generously offered to give one copy away. Simply enter the Rafflecopter at the end of this post!

Natalia and I are often on the same wavelength in our blog posts (and without any coordination have posted about very similar topics on the very same day)…but her Fresh Ink series is uniquely her own. Fresh Ink focuses on debut novelists and their journey to publication. When I prepared for this Q&A, I thought it might be fun to ask Natalia some of her own Fresh Ink questions…and here’s what Natalia said when I asked her:

You won’t believe this! Talk about being on the same wavelength: JUST the other day I was thinking how it’d be fun to ask someone to do a Fresh Ink interview with me, flipped! So of course I’m beyond ecstatic to see question #1 (but not surprised that you read my mind).

I just want to take a moment to say how thrilled I am to be a guest at your blog today, Julia. You’re one of the first bloggers who I connected with when I sought out social media to meet other writers, and I never imagined that I’d not only find writers, but true friends. Thank you so much for having me!

Thank you, Natalia! The feeling is entirely mutual!

1. Here goes…this first question is Fresh Ink…flipped!

Length of time from book’s start to pub date: 9 years (Though I did set this book aside for a period of 5 years in between.)

# of agents you queried before signing: 17

# of books written before this one: 1

# of revisions you went through: 3 complete rewrites and probably 3 revisions per rewrite

We’re lucky that there are so many great resources for writers to learn about publishing these days. That being said, what’s the one aspect of the process you never could have predicted?

I never would have predicted how much I’d learn throughout the process of talking about the book and being asked questions I’d never really thought about. Since the book launched, I’ve learned that the first memory I have—one that I thought took place after we’d moved away from Peru—is actually me remembering a night in Peru when we all the power had gone off in our house. These blackouts were common at the time; groups like the Shining Path would often set off bombs, set fires, or set off the power throughout the city.

ChasingtheSun_Cover_jpegI’ve also remembered the moment I learned about my grandfather’s kidnapping in more vivid detail that ever before, because talking about it forced me to dig deeper than I’d tried to dig in the past. I’d always expected writing a book to be an act of self-discovery, but hadn’t anticipated that promoting it would be just as eye-opening. The curiosity that readers bring to a story opens up a whole other world of possibilities.

2. Can you describe a little bit about your writing process? I know that in addition to being a novelist you’re also a busy freelance writer—how do you balance those two (potentially competing) writing endeavors?

It’s funny that you ask how I balance them, when in fact I feel like they balance me! Writing fiction has always been a very emotionally intense process for me: most days, I’m overwhelmed by insecurity, wondering if the words will come, if the story and the characters will take shape like I hope they will. This, paired with the scary or difficult-to-imagine places that fiction tasks us with going, can be draining. So I can’t imagine writing fiction all day every day, but my work as a freelance copywriter allows me to keep pulling from my writing “toolbox” daily. Things like voice, word choice, tone, and the importance of telling a story, are parts of the craft I get to practice through copywriting.

At the same time, switching between the two forms doesn’t always come easy for me, so I try to write fiction first thing in the morning—two hours before I’d normally wake—and then spend the rest of the day on social media, marketing, and also my freelance work. Of course, that’s in ideal conditions! I’ve had deadlines for revision force me to mix things up a bit, and that’s always a welcome challenge because it pushes me out of my comfort zone.

3. You’ve talked about how Chasing the Sun was partially inspired by your grandfather’s kidnapping in Peru. Having written fiction that started with a tiny germ of my own life, I know it doesn’t take much…and I’m so curious how your story strayed from reality and where…

Where it’s most rooted in reality is in the questions I was hoping to answer through the story, things I’d always wondered about my grandfather’s kidnapping but had been too afraid to ask: How does living through an experience like this affect a person? How does it affect not just the victim, but the family, who are also victims tormented by the waiting and the not knowing? What happens when this person returns—can things ever go back to normal, and does normal even exist? And most importantly, is there any hope left once we’ve survived such a dark, traumatic experience?

But from the beginning, it strayed from reality starting with the characters because I wanted this story to be about something bigger than my family. At the same time, I wanted to create some distance and give my grandfather’s story the privacy and respect to be his own, while still exploring it in what I hoped would be a more universal approach. Andres and Marabela very quickly took on a life of their own—I didn’t even realize they were having marital problems until the end of one of the first drafts. Suddenly the story wasn’t just about a kidnapping. It was about a frail marriage, and on top of it, Marabela is taken and all these hairline cracks in their relationship are exposed. I was much more interested in this because even tragedy doesn’t happen in a vacuum, under ideal conditions. There are always so many complex factors at play, rooted in the deeply personal. So the book also became a character study, which I think all stories are, to some extent: if we’re only looking at the action and not at the characters it’s affecting, are really looking close enough?

4. One of the things I loved about Chasing the Sun was your use of language—your writing flowed beautifully and simply and yet was complex in language (I hope that makes sense), and I found it quite reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its descriptions and visual richness. I felt I was seeing the world as the characters saw it, particularly so with Andres. His voice and presence is so loud and clear. Very impressive. Can you describe a bit how you came to see the world through his eyes and talk through his voice? How did you make him come alive to yourself and to the reader?

You awe and flatter me by bringing up Gabriel Garcia Marquez—thank you! Much too kind of you!

It’s interesting that you bring up Andres’s voice because out of all the characters in the book, his voice was the one I struggled with the least. I think it’s because, while I don’t agree with a lot of the choices he’d made in his life (and does make throughout the story) I could most relate to him being on the outside perspective of this kidnapping, because that’s how I’d felt my whole life in relation to my grandfather’s kidnapping: I didn’t know what it’d been like for him, and all I could grasp at were my imagination and unanswered questions.

I also knew from the beginning that he was a very driven businessman, that he’d put everything into starting his company and growing it, sometimes at the expense of spending time with his family and nurturing his relationship with Marabela. As a freelancer, I’ve also started my own company, and though I don’t feel I’ve neglected my family for it, I’ve often feared getting to that point. So developing Andres’s character ended up being an exercise in placing myself in some of my deepest fears in order to better understand a person like him.

5. I love when I find a line in a novel that makes me realize where the title originated—and when I read the sentence about Andres driving like he was chasing the sun, I immediately understood the significance and the importance of the title. I know you had a different working title…and I’m wondering, can you discuss how you came up with the first—and this—title?

Oh my goodness, titles, my weakness! I went through so many throughout many stages of the process, but once I submitted it to my agent (it was called Take This Woman then, and already I was begging for alternate suggestions!) we decided to shop it as Where We Once Belonged, and that’s what it sold as.

During the revision process with my editor, we discussed how, while the title was beautiful and hinted at the importance of the past and relationships, it didn’t have a sense of urgency, or any heat (yes! She and my agent actually used that word). I reread the book, highlighted lines that stood out to me, and kept coming back to Chasing the Sun for many reasons. One: the sun is such an important symbol in Peruvian culture. For the Incas, the sun was their god (named Inti, Quechua for sun) and even our currency was once called the Inti and later became the Sol. And two, I felt Chasing the Sun captured how so many of the characters, including Andres, are always chasing after what most eludes them, and what perhaps will always be out of their reach.

6. “In the eerie glow of the red light, they work in silence, and when they’re done the room is just another poorly lit windowless office with a view to nowhere.” This sentence (on page 68) was so evocative for me. I loved that Marabela was a photographer during the time of darkrooms—as a photographer myself, I can say you described the processes and feelings and products so very well…particularly later about the spools for the film, in the pitch dark. Have you worked in a darkroom?

I took photography in high school, and this was a couple of years before digital had really become a thing. My school had this big, beautiful darkroom where I would spend hours and hours developing pictures, waiting for the images to manifest in the liquid-filled trays, and even days after, I could always smell the chemicals still on my fingertips. I loved everything about the process because it was so sensual: not just sight and smell, but a special kind of silence, paired with the act of feeling your way through the dark, developing spools of film in complete blackness. I have to admit this is one part of the novel that involved very little research. I miss the darkroom so much that really, Marabela’s desire to go back there is my own. It’s really what made her come alive for me, because I didn’t know she was a photographer until the second to last draft. Suddenly, we shared a passion and I felt I understood her, and how she saw the world, so much more clearly.

7. If you were a novelist being interviewed for your own Fresh Ink, what question would you ask her/yourself? (And then please answer!)

One question I was recently asked that I really enjoyed was from a reporter who said he loved the exploration of masculinity and what it entails, particularly because Ignacio, Andres’s son, is a teenager but also on the cusp of being a man. He wanted to know if this was intentional. I was fascinated by the question because I wonder how much of what we write is truly intentional, and does it really matter? Intentional or not, these words and themes still come out of us, sometimes from our subconscious, and the process of writing actually becomes a process of learning about ourselves. So while Ignacio’s struggle with becoming a man is something that I didn’t originally set out to explore, once I noticed it in my drafts it felt very true, and I intentionally left it in. I think in writing there are choices we make, and choices we don’t realize we make, and both teach us something new about ourselves.

Thank you again, Natalia. I am so thrilled to have had you on my blog for this Q&A! 

N_Sylvester-150x150A former magazine editor, Natalia Sylvester now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. CHASING THE SUN, partially inspired by family events, is her first novel. Connect with Natalia on Twitter and Facebook and on her blog, too.

 

Readers…don’t forget to enter the Rafflecopter for your chance to win a copy of Natalia’s book!

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An Interview with Jolina Petersheim, author of The Midwife

untitled (6 of 18)Please welcome author friend Jolina Petersheim to my blog! This is her second visit; not quite a year ago, she was here with a Q&A about her debut novel The Outcast. Today she returns with a Q&A about her second book The Midwife. Jolina was one of the first bloggers who reached out to me when I  joined Twitter—over three years ago—and she remains one of my closest blogger friends. I’m so happy to congratulate her on The Midwife, a fascinating book that absolutely captivated me. What I love most about Jolina’s books is that they pull me into wonderfully engaging new worlds. Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog for the second time, Jolina, and congratulations on your second book baby!

At the end of this Q&A you’ll have a chance to enter a Rafflecopter for a chance to win a copy of one of Jolina’s books, a Starbucks gift card, or an Amish wall hanging!

I read that you got the idea for The Midwife after a friend considered using a gestational surrogate. In the course of writing the book did you talk to surrogates or parents who used surrogates? What types of research did you do before and while writing this book? Was there anything that surprised you about surrogacy or swayed your own opinions about it?

I didn’t talk to parents who used surrogates or to surrogates themselves, but I did discover an online surrogacy forum early in the research of The Midwife that just transformed everything, providing me with a range of valuable information at the click of the mouse (which was very convenient since I had a newborn at the time). I didn’t realize, for instance, that a surrogate has to have carried a child to full-term and had a natural birth to qualify for surrogacy. This threw me off at first, because I wasn’t anticipating for Beth Winslow—the surrogate in The Midwife—to have lost a child through adoption when she was in college. However, as Beth’s backstory started to reveal itself to me, I realized that this loss of a previous child is one of the main reasons she refuses to lose the child in her womb when the biological parents of the surrogacy learn there might be a genetic abnormality and attempt to coerce Beth into terminating the pregnancy, which she refuses to do and instead runs and hides in an Old Order Mennonite home for unwed mothers called Hopen Haus.

You balance writing with motherhood—what advice would you give to a woman about to embark on a career in writing combined with motherhood? What has worked particularly well for you? What has been the most challenging?

Give yourself time! I wrote The Outcast (my first book) in six months—working up to eight hours a day because I had an agent’s interest but no official contract, and also because I knew I had a narrow window of time until my daughter was born. After her birth, however, I signed a two-book contract with my publisher. While talking about the timeline for my next book, I asked for a year instead of six months, and they kindly agreed. Trying to find my footing as a debut author and as a debut mom was a little challenging for a while, but with my husband’s and family’s help, it all worked out. I found that taking an afternoon to write at the library or at the coffee shop really strengthened my focus and gave me renewed zest for the story. And now, looking back, I see that having a creative outlet to pour myself into during my daughter’s difficult period of sleep deprivation was such a blessing to me. I would do it all over again!

978-1-4143-7935-7What inspires you as a writer and keeps you writing? Follow on: how do you keep track of your writing ideas? Do you keep a daily journal or notebook?

Books inspire me! I keep one next to the bathtub, one next to the bed, one in the diaper bag and/or my purse. Since my daughter’s birth two years ago, I haven’t had quite as much time to read, but I’ve made up for that by listening to audiobooks in the car or while I’m cooking. Hearing the story rather than reading it is almost more rewarding, in a way, as so many of the performers put their entire heart into the work (like the wonderful narrator, Tavia Gilbert, in The Outcast and The Midwife; I love working with her!). If I’m ever having a dry time creatively, taking a day or two to read or listen to a quality piece of literature refreshes me like nothing else. For instance, I read The Orchardist while I was working on the first draft of The Midwife, and those lyrical passages reminded me that writing is an art form, and we should give it the respect and time that it deserves.

As for recording ideas: I kept a journal from the time I could write until I got married, but six months after I married my husband, I started blogging and drafting my first novel (the latter which shall never see the light of day!). So, rather than using my spare time to record our life in my journal, I used the spare time to work on my story. This pattern has continued to this day. I used to think that finding a story idea must be the most difficult aspect of writing, but now that I’ve trained myself, I can see the ideas everywhere. Now I realize the difficult aspect is turning ideas into story!

Do you follow a certain daily ritual and/or schedule? Do you write at the same time every day? Are there things that have to be the same in order for you to write, e.g., a lucky coffee cup or other token you always need to have with you? How did these things change or remain the same after you had a child?

My husband teases me and says I’m one of the most routine-oriented creatures he’s ever known. Indeed, I do get a little flustered when something throws my day off, and I’ve had to acquire more flexibility after giving birth to my daughter, because newborns and toddlers have a schedule all their own! However, usually I try to write in the morning from 6 until 8. My husband, at 7, gets our daughter up and gives her breakfast before he leaves for work. I respond to emails and do a little social media by sitting on the tiled floor during my daughter’s bath time (she would stay in there until her fingers and toes are pickled!), and then – during her nap – I work for two more hours. Rarely do I work more than four hours a day, even on deadline. It just doesn’t seem to work out with my family’s schedule. Still, I’ve found that slow and steady does win the race, so I just plod away a little bit each weekday (saving blogging and guest posts for weekends), and at the end of the year, I usually have a manuscript.

I don’t have any special place that I write, though in the winter I do gravitate toward a comfy chair in the living room with a footstool (sometimes, if cajoled, my husband will build a fire in the fireplace). The other seasons, I like to write outside on the front porch that has a panoramic view of our field and the surrounding mountains. This past week, the farmers baled our hay, and it was so beautiful to watch the gold pieces rising into the air and the grasshoppers springing across the field.

Before my daughter’s birth, I used to write up to eight hours on weekdays, so that has certainly changed, but I have definitely found a routine that I love now and that works for everyone. Come September, though, when our other baby is due, I know that this routine is going to change. By the time I’m eighty, I’m really going to have this flexibility thing down pat!

I really liked the name Ernest Looper, and I’m fascinated by the name Rhoda Mummau—and I’m wondering if there’s significance to these name or other names in the book? Do you choose based on just “what you like” or is there a method to the naming?

Earnest Looper was actually a road sign we passed one afternoon, and I liked the sound of it and just changed the spelling a little. Rhoda seemed, to me, like the name of someone you wouldn’t want to trifle with—which Rhoda closes herself off to the pregnant, unwed girls in her midwifery care, although she is ministering to them in such intimate ways—so it fit. Mummau was actually the last name of my great grandmother, Verna. I like to choose names that I am familiar with in some capacity because I think they ring true. I have a nonfiction book on my shelf called The David and Anna Miller story, which records the names of everyone in my Mennonite heritage, back to the 18th century. I like to sort through the names and rearrange a first and last name until I find one that I enjoy. For instance, I found the name Leona Ebersole—the main character in my next book—by using this method.

Sometimes during my writing, I find one character in the book that I can identify most closely with—was there a character in The Midwife you felt most similar to? If so, why?

Though Beth Winslow, the surrogate in The Midwife, is an introvert and I’m about as extroverted as a golden retriever, I really found myself relating to her journey of learning to overcome fear with faith.

Because she has lost a child in the past, she holds on to the child she’s carrying as a surrogate with an even greater fervency. When her worst fear comes true, and she is unable to get the child back from her biological parents because they share no genetic connection, she must walk through a journey of healing and self-discovery.

I was in the editorial process of The Midwife when my husband and I miscarried a child at ten weeks, and suddenly I found that Beth’s journey of healing and self-discovery was my own. It was such an incredibly powerful time for me—rereading the scenes that my own fingers had typed before our family’s loss and seeing how God had orchestrated those scenes to later minister to my soul. I believe the redemption I experienced during the editorial process is conveyed in the midwife’s story, as it is not just the midwife’s story, it is also my own.

When I interviewed you for your last book The Outcast, I asked if you had actors in mind who might play the characters in a movie or in a reader’s mind. I’ll ask the same for this book… what actors might play the lead characters in this book?

I love this question! Again, I had so much fun with it that I created a Pinterest board with the characters. I would share the names of the actors I’ve chosen, but I believe you have to see them in the poses that I’ve selected to get an idea about what kind of character I imagine.

Thanks for having me here, Julia; what an incredible honor to visit with you!

The honor is all mine, Jolina! Thank you so much for being a return visitor to my blog! You can connect with Jolina on Twitter, on Facebook, and on Goodreads. And don’t forget to enter the Rafflecopter for a chance to win one of her wonderful novels.

 

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Goodbye Maggie True

I’ve gotten used to the fact that I can’t “go by” my daily name (Julia Martin) as a writer—there are writers, authors and artists by the name Julia Martin. When I got married, I was cautioned by a friend: “Don’t change your name—I already know another Julia Martin.” 

It’s why I write under my full name (maiden as middle): Julia Munroe Martin.

Because of my own name issues, I’m used to checking and double checking names on Google and Facebook. Character names. So a couple of years ago, when I thought up the premise for my current WIP (a mystery novel) but before I committed, I googled the main character name I was going to use for my amateur sleuth: Maggie True.

Nothing. And so it was that Maggie True came to be. My MC and Joe True’s loving wife.

Now I’ve finished the first draft, onto revisions. And the other day on a whim I checked again. Sure enough there she was: Maggie True—and I’m not talking about a real person (although there is one). I’m talking about a fictional character. And not just any fictional character. A character in a mystery novel. And not just any character in a mystery novel: the main character in a mystery novel.

It’s an unpublished book (except on the web) and unfinished (hasn’t been added to in a couple of years), but still definitely a reason to change a character’s name. Right? But here’s the thing. I love the name. Everyday this summer I’ve sat down with Maggie True (86,000 words worth of keeping company), and even before that—on this blog—I’ve written about stepping into my character’s life, imagining what Maggie True would do when she encountered the mystery of the blue bags or tried to figure out what neighbor called the police about a woodchuck in her shed.

Regardless, I’m back at square one. On the one hand I feel lucky I realized it before starting to query (or self publish) my novel. On the other hand, I’ve grown very attached to the name so I’m in a bit of a funk about it. Maggie True has become my daily companion—her name synonymous with her actions and the story. 342-manuscript pages worth of adventures we’ve gone through together. But Maggie can be no more. Joe has lost his Maggie. And I have lost one of my favorite character names.

Which means….I’m back to looking at names again. She’ll still have the same last name (True), and the name needs to go well with her husband’s (Joe). Some early ideas I’ve had are: Meg, Agnes (Aggie), Katie, Trudy. Unfortunately nothing sounds quite right—not in my writer’s mind. Granted, it’s not quite the same angst I went through naming my children, but it’s a big deal. So, I’m turning to you, writing and reading friends.

Any name suggestions? Or should I just keep the name as is? What would you do?
Writers, how do you pick character names? Do you google them? Would you change Maggie’s name or stick with it? Have you ever changed a MC’s name late in the game? Would you be, like me, sad to say goodbye to a character name?


Cheers,
Julia

Nichole Bernier, Author: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

I am very happy to welcome Nichole Bernier to my blog for a Q&A. Nichole’s recent debut novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., tells the story of Kate Spenser who inherits a trunk of journals from her best friend Elizabeth. I finished this wonderful novel last week, and I highly recommend it. Thank you, Nichole, for the opportunity to interview you!

GIVEAWAY: One lucky commenter will receive a copy of Nichole’s book (thank you Nichole)! Nichole will also send you a personalized bookplate! All you need to do to enter the giveaway is leave a comment before noon on Friday, August 24th. The contest is now closed, congratulations DINDY YOKEL, you won a copy of Nichole’s book!!

Welcome Nichole!

One of the reasons I enjoyed your book so much is that I’m fascinated with the dynamics of friendship. This particularly resonated with me: “…that’s a funny thing about people who don’t fit into a box. They grow to infiltrate everything, and when they suddenly go missing, they are missing everywhere.” I love that. Can you tell me a little bit about your inspiration behind the “friend who doesn’t fit in a box”? Where it came from? What made it so important for this particular story?

I’m glad it touched you, thanks. I’ve always been intrigued by the way people play certain roles in our lives — how, depending upon circumstances and the way we’re thrown together at certain times, we can become quite close without actually knowing one another in a three-dimensional way. I moved a lot growing up, and I’ve moved a good deal as a married adult with young children. And these PTA and playgroup friendships can be quite intense and candid and supportive — though we may be personally and politically quite different, and under other circumstances, might never have become friends. That fascinates me: where people intersect, and what common ground matters most at that moment in time, and where/why we draw the line at becoming closer, consciously or not.


I was also so fascinated with how much Kate learned about her friend Elizabeth that she never would have known if she hadn’t inherited the journals. Was this based on specific real-life friend experiences you had? What was the seed for the “unknown quality” about her friend?
 

The inspiration for the book, and for the friendship between the two women, was the loss of a friend in the September 11th attacks. In that first week I helped her husband by returning the media calls and describing her, over and over, in sound bites that I hoped she would have approved of. But I wondered then — and then for the next few years — how she would have wanted to be described, and to be remembered. And it occurred to me that it’s probably inevitable that there be some difference in the way we see ourselves, and the way we’re seen by others.

My novel is in no way about my friend, but is about the questions that stayed with me about identity women have as wives and mothers, sisters and friends: The difference between the faces we show the world and the aspects of ourselves we keep private, the quiet aspirations and fears. The “what-if” of the novel spooled off from there, and became about a woman who inherits the journals of a friend, and learns she didn’t know her friend as well as she thought — including where she was really going when she died.

I blog a lot about writing from a strong sense of place. In The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. much of the story takes place on Great Rock Island, and you created a vivid scene in my mind. What was it about this setting, outside Kate’s normal life, that was important to the story? Did you visit a similar place? And did you use a particular house as a model for the beach house?
 

My main character Kate Spenser is isolated and lost in the anxious summer of 2002. Though she’s on vacation with her family on the island they love to visit each year, she’s becoming increasingly unhinged by the anxiety of parenting in an arbitrary post-September 11th world. She knows her emotional response has gone beyond the realm of normal but she can’t stop the tapes. Putting her on an island gave her the physical and emotional sense of being marooned, and being amid the pleasant summer-tourism island languor but with the melancholy of being in a bind, seemed the best way to represent a person who is stranded in her own life.

There was a model for the house, and it was a wonderful ranch bungalow we rented one summer on the water on Martha’s Vineyard. When I came home I drew an architectural rendering on a giant white board to keep it in sight.


Follow on to the previous question: I loved the loft space you created for the house—the place that Kate read Elizabeth’s journals. Was there some place that inspired this idea? Why was it important that Kate was so removed from the rest of the house and activity while she was reading?

I loved the idea of Kate reading in a place that was a slight retreat from the chaos of the family, unwatched and uninterrupted.The reading loft was not a part of the bungalow we rented — it was an added figment of my imagination. But I love it so much I’ll probably have to build it someday.


I love the Beyond the Margins blog—one of my daily go-to reads. I know you along with other Grub Street writers started that blog in 2010. Some social media experts think that blogging is on the decline. I’m curious whether you think this is true—both for individual and group blogs? Also, what benefits have you seen from being involved in the group blog—is it something you would recommend to other writers who have an opportunity to be involved in one?
 

I really don’t know about the state of blogging in general, but I can say that good blogs build community, and that’s why we first formed Beyond the Margins: To have an excuse to come together for daily essays on the craft and business of publishing, but also to celebrate the writing of others. We call it a literary magazine run amok, and it’s been great fun as well as a good platform for our writing, but it’s also been an important source of networking. The relationships we’ve formed through the blog over the past three years have been invaluable — with fellow writers, published and not-yet published, editors, agents and editors.


In addition to Beyond the Margins, you also have a personal blog, a very successful freelance writing career, and now a very successful novel. Oh, and you have five kids too. Impressive. Do you write at home? Can you tell me a little about how do you juggle all your commitments? Are you a planner or a pantser (in life and in writing)?

I’m afraid I’m doing more pantsing than planning — or should I say I plan just elaborately enough to let me pants it where I can. I have the kids’ schedules on two electronic organizers and a wall calendar, and when I sit down to write (usually at my coffeeshop or library). I do plan in advance what I’m going to be working on because I’m so thrilled for the babysitting time that I don’t want to fritter it away in warm-up exercises the whole time to figure out what I’d like to say.

But regardless of what I’ve planned or outlined, when I write, I depart from it liberally. A manuscript, like a big family, can be an unruly thing and you have to work with what comes along.

Nichole Bernier is author of the novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D, a finalist for the New England Independent Booksellers Association fiction award, and has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. AContributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler for 14 years, she was previously on staff as the magazine’s golf and ski editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She is a founder of the literary blog Beyond theMargins, and lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children. She can be found online at nicholebernier.com and on Twitter @nicholebernier.

The Glamorous Writing Life

One of my blogging/Twitter writer friends, Natalia Sylvester, and I joke about the glamorous writing life—you know the one we all have in all our free time, lounging around and writing in our PJs…eating bonbons, that one. Sometimes I think about that life these days—when I’m deep in a project like I have been recently, because then….

The house goes down the tubes—as the expression goes—like it always does during one of my intense writing sprees. As I worked steadily at the dining room table, toward the final draft of my WIP, each and every one of the other surfaces in the house eventually got covered.

The kitchen table: by whatever came into the house (oh that was also MEH’s—My Engineer Husband’s chosen work at home spot, quite possibly because I’d consumed every other spot). The office “home desk” is covered with bills and incoming mail; my desk in the office is covered with various other writing and research projects. Yet another, a table we use for games, still has a half-finished and very dusty jigsaw puzzle left from my daughter’s last visit home.

This weekend, as I de-cluttered the dining room table and loaded up a file box with all my notes and research folders and everything else from the finished novel, I started cleaning up a little, too. Because when I stopped writing so intensely, I noticed the house was an abject mess. Let me just say, I could never be described as a neat freak…. but I also do not like an overly messy but especially not an overly dirty house. I hate that. Nonetheless, that’s what I have.

It’s one of the (very) few luxuries about having an empty nest: not worrying too much (if at all) about the house being remotely clean. (Don’t ask me about the other luxuries, I don’t write that kind of blog.) We don’t entertain a whole lot; if we see friends we usually meet them somewhere else. That means no one really comes in and out of the house except us. Used to be our kids’ friends’ parents would drop by to pick up their kids from play dates and gasp at the drifting dog hair. In truth this never actually happened at my house but once I picked up my daughter at a friend’s house and was truly shocked, truly, by the large quantities of dog hair drifting by—something I’ve thought of once or twice or every hour as I pondered the near-ankle-deep dog hair in my own dining room. When you have a black lab, like we do, especially in the spring these things happen, or that’s what I told myself…

On Saturday a Furminatorarrived in the mail. (If you don’t know what a Furminator is and you have a dog that sheds, especially a dark coloreddog, you should definitely check it out because “unbelievable results” does not begin to describe this dog brush.) Okay, this is pretty embarrassing…but here goes: we bought ours on rush order by direct instruction from our vet; last week she tested Abby for hypothyroidism because she (the dog, not the vet) had gained some weight and her fur looked “uneven and unkempt,” something that might indicate her thyroid is out of whack. It wasn’t—out of whack—it was because we didn’t have time to brush our dog (and were giving her too many peanut butter treats). The vet called to give me, as she said, the good and the bad news… “Her results are normal. Here’s what I want you to do. No more peanut butter treats and buy a Furminator.” We bought.

But it wasn’t just the dog hair. Laundry was piling up. A lot of it. In fact yesterday when I sorted it all out on the kitchen floor, there were ten loads in all. Don’t judge too harshly. Six of the ten loads were sheets and towels—the kids are coming home and we’re preparing. But it wasn’t even just the laundry.

Every spice I’d used in the last month or so (maybe even since the new year started) was out on the kitchen counter, and I use a lot of spices…. And even the sprinkles I used on MEH’s April Fool’s Day birthday cake had not been put away. To be fair to myself (and MEH, who pulls half the cleaning duties in the house), we did do the basics: washed dishes, loaded and unloaded the dishwasher, took out the trash, washed and wore clean clothes (most days), fed and walked the dog, wiped up spills on the stove, occasionally (very) swept the dried up mud out of the mudroom. But beyond the basics? Not a lot.

And there was a lot to be done. So yesterday I did some cleaning—not all of it but I got a good start—and I’ll admit I feel a lot better: the spices and sprinkles are back in the cabinet, the counter’s cleared off, the jigsaw’s still there (and will be until my daughter is home next month…who knows, maybe she’ll still want to do it…yeah, that’s it) but the rest of the tables got cleared off. We vacuumed the drifts of dog hair in the dining room. Oh, and we “furminated” Abby.

Last night I literally gasped with pleasure as I slid between our clean sheets (nothing more about that! Remember? Not that kind of blog…). This morning I woke up and saw only three loads of laundry lingering on the kitchen floor. Another gasp. And then I knew it was true… I really do lead the glamorous writer’s life.

Today as I sit down to start anew, the fresh and shiny WIP awaiting me on the cleared-off kitchen table, I’ll happily watch the dog hair build around me, the spices congregate on the counter, and the tables fill one by one…. Because in truth, there is no other life I’d pick over this one, not one.

Cheers,

Julia



Some Words About Word

My current WIP is in the final stages of edits—over 300 manuscript pages, 30 chapters, over 80,000 words.
And almost every day when I sit down to edit, revise, hone my words, I struggle with MS-Word: the word processor I use (I can’t say word processor of choice, it’s just what I have, what I use). And MS-Word and I? We often don’t get along. And that’s a problem because I spend a lot of time with Word, approximately 12 hours a day these days.

First, some background: I’ve been using word processing software since before there was word processing software. The truth is I’ve been using computers to write since before computers were used to write—since typewriters were used to write. And I’ve written users’ guides about computer software. So I know a thing or two about software and computers. Furthermore, I’ve read a lot about using MS-Word.

So why can’t I figure out the best way to use MS-Word to write a book?

For one thing, Word keeps changing—I recently upgraded to Word for Mac 2011 and had to learn a whole new way of using it. Frustrating in the middle of trying to finish my novel. But as much as it changed, some of the most annoying things remained the same, for instance: “Why the heck did you auto format that? Please don’t make that into a list…indent that text…change the font size…start a new page…or whatever else you did automatically—unless I want you to!” (Yes that’s in quotes because I actually speak out loud to my computer, specifically to MS-Word.)

But that’s not why I’m writing this post—the real reason I’m writing this post—the thing that is really confounding me about MS-Word right now is: “Why do you not have a way to write (and by write I mean manage) a long document, say a novel?”

The thing is, I keep all my chapters in separate files—for me they’re easier to manage that way, easier to revise as I’m writing, easier to go through, easier to find things in. But now… toward the end, it’s so annoying. To have to repaginate everything every time I make a change, doing seemingly endless searches through 30 chapters for things I want to change. Keeping track of which chapters I’ve changed what things in. And I can’t believe there’s not a better way.

I have writer friends who have one long novel-length document—which is what I started to create this morning from all the separate chapters—but I worry: will it be unwieldy? Will it take too long to load? To search? Should I use an MS-Word “master document” with chapters as contents—which is one of the ways MS-Word suggests to do long documents? (Not that I’m particularly interested in any advice MS-Word has for me.)

And that’s why I’m writing this post, to ask you my writer friends: how do you manage your long documents? What are the tricks you’ve developed, the resources you use? If not for this novel, this WIP, then for the next, I’ll be ready and start with a system that works. So that when I reach the end of my novel, I’m not equally consumed with figuring out MS-Word as I am with celebrating THE END of my novel.

Please leave your advice in comments!

Cheers,

Julia

Q&A with Alex George (A GOOD AMERICAN)

Last summer, writer friend Erika Marks (LITTLE GALE GUMBO) introduced me on Twitter to novelist Alex George—who was here in Maine researching the setting for his next novel.

Today I have the great pleasure to interview Alex in this post. We share a Maine connection, but the real reason I interviewed Alex was that less than two weeks ago his novel A GOOD AMERICAN was released to wonderful reviews—including being named #1 “Title to Pick Up Now” by O Magazine, February 2012!

I wanted to know more about A GOOD AMERICAN and the writer behind the book; specifically I wanted to ask Alex questions about his definition of home—a theme central to this blog and my heart. I also wanted to know a little bit more about what he thought of Maine as the setting for his next novel.

Finally, I am giving away one copy of A GOOD AMERICAN! All you need to do to be entered into the giveaway is leave a comment before Friday (February 24) at midnight EST!

Please join me in welcoming Alex George! 

Is A GOOD AMERICAN your debut novel? If not, is there a common thread or theme in what you write?

I’ve written four previous novels which were published in the UK and some European countries, but A GOOD AMERICAN is my first book published in the States – hence the “debut novel” tag.  However, this book is so different from my earlier efforts that it feels like a true debut in all respects, not just geographically.

There was no common theme in my earlier books, except perhaps for music – which also features heavily in A GOOD AMERICAN.  But this book is much bigger than the others, both literally and figuratively.  I remember, many years ago, reading THE MAGUS, by John Fowles, and being so completely consumed by the story that I failed to notice that the bus I was traveling in got stuck on the side of the highway in the pouring rain.  I never forgot that.  So more than anything, I just wanted to tell a really good story.  I hope I’ve managed to do that.

A GOOD AMERICAN is called “…a universal story about the families we create and the places we call home.” Because I grew up traveling around a lot, home is something I think a lot about and write a lot about. What does home mean to you and why is it something you wanted to write about?

Home, and what that means, is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, ever since I left England and moved to the States, nearly nine years ago. Of course, there’s the old saying, “Home is where the heart is,” but I suspect that may be a little too simplistic.  If it were that easy, then Missouri—where I live now—would be home, as it’s where my children are.  But it’s actually more complicated than that.  When I return to England, the past rushes up to me in ambush, and I am pole-axed by a longing to return there for good.  But I don’t know if that’s a function of simple nostalgia, unhappiness with where I am, or something else.  It’s very confusing.  What I do know is that you cannot deny the pull of your past.

It’s a topic I wanted to write about because it’s such a universal theme, one that applies to everyone.  We all have a home, even if we might be a little unsure where it is.  The characters in the novel have an ambivalent relationship with “home,” which I don’t think is unusual.  Many of them spend a significant time trying to escape it—but they all get pulled back in the end.  I don’t think that’s an unusual situation.

One of the things that drew me to your book was that your main character is described as “being an outsider.” Are there parts of being an outsider that you can relate to from your own life? If not, what drew you to writing about an outsider?

I’m an Englishman living in the middle of Missouri.  If you look up “outsider” in a dictionary, you won’t see a picture of me there, but perhaps you should!  Every time I open my mouth, I announce my otherness to the people around me, betrayed by my accent and my failure to grasp the rules of football.  But I think that your question touches upon a more universal issue.  I believe that, in some way, we all feel like outsiders.  Rightly or wrongly, we all feel isolated and remote at times.  And that felt like something worth exploring.  James Meisenheimer, the novel’s narrator, feels a little distant and remote from his family, although he loves them deeply.  I think that distance allows him to tell the story he has to tell.

I know you recently completed the U.S. Naturalization process and became an American citizen. I’m not sure how long you’ve been in the U.S., but how did you draw from your own experiences as a newcomer to the United States as you created your novel’s narrator, James?

My experience as an immigrant to the United States mostly informed the characters of Frederick and Jette, James’s grandparents, since they were the characters who made the journey from Europe to America, as I did.  Frederick is an unequivocal and passionate convert to the American way of life; Jette is more cautious, and, indeed, often feels homesick.  I think most immigrants experience a degree of ambivalence about leaving their home country and starting afresh elsewhere; Frederick and Jette personified those two contradictory sentiments. 

Every immigrant is afflicted by the same paradox: one wants to fit in with one’s new country, but one never wants to forget where one came from.  My mother was born and raised in New Zealand, but she has lived in England for more than fifty years.  She still calls New Zealand home.

On February 16, 2012, I became a citizen of the United States, less than ten days after the book was published.  There is a scene in the novel when Frederick and Jette take their oath and become citizens.  It is rather extraordinary that I should be undergoing the same process at the same time as the novel is being published.

What are your favorite and least favorite parts about becoming a U.S. citizen?

I’m looking forward to voting.  I’ve been paying taxes for the past nine years so I think it’s about time I had a say as to how they were spent.  As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst system of government in the world, apart from all the others.  It’s an old cliché, but it’s a privilege to live in a country where power changes without a shot being fired.  Sometimes I think many people take such things for granted.  I will vote with pride in November’s Presidential elections.

I am devoted to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  I think they are wonderful, inspiring documents, and I am committed to the principles that they enshrine.  Freedom, equality, diversity, tolerance: these are all magnificent things for a country and its people to aspire to.

I love America, but I won’t deny that a small part of me was sad when I took the oath.  A friend wrote to me on the day of the ceremony, and told me I had an English soul—and that this was something that due legal process could not ever change.  I think they may have been right.

The book has a lot of music in it. I’m curious, did you have a theme song in your mind as you wrote it? Or was there any particular music you listened to while you wrote?

I love to write about music.  It’s always a challenge, since it exists in a totally different medium.  But I am passionate about it, and I can’t quite imagine writing a book without music in it somewhere.  But no, I had no particular song in mind while I wrote.  There are an awful lot of different types of music in the novel – it starts with an opera aria, and ranges from New Orleans jazz, blue grass, ragtime, and barbershop singing.  Funnily enough, the book critic from USA Today said she thought the book would make a great Broadway musical!  Music plays a variety of roles in the course of the novel, but its principal function is to act as a type of glue—it’s a way of forging bonds and making connections between people.

Generally speaking I don’t listen to much music while I write—it’s too distracting.  On those rare occasions when I do have music playing as I write, it can’t have words, for the same reason.  I listened to lots of solo piano pieces – mainly Scriabin, Beethoven, and Shostakovich.  And the Bach cello suites.

We met over Twitter over a mutual interest in Maine, and you’ve said that your next novel takes place in Maine. What drew you to Maine as a setting? Have you found challenges in having a novel set in Maine?

I love Maine.  I have only been twice, but as you know, the place has me in its spell, and I cannot wait to return.  It’s so beautiful, so very different to the landlocked tedium of Missouri.  It is, without question, my favorite place that I have been in the United States.  I believe that you do yourself a favor if you write about things and places you feel passionate about (for better or worse)—that passion will come out in the words on the page.

Mainers have an independence of spirit that I appreciate.  It strikes me as being something that is a good thing to write about.

There are obviously challenges in setting a novel in a place that you don’t know especially well.  A lot of research is required.  To the extent that this involves burying my nose in a book, this isn’t such a great thing.  (And I have a lot of books about Maine.)  But if it means (and it does!) that I have to keep returning there, and that I am able to claim those trips as tax deductible expenses—well.  Definitely a good thing.

Follow on question: What are some of your favorite places you’ve been to in Maine? What are some places you’ve heard about but haven’t gotten to see or experience yet?

I enjoyed Portland, but really fell in love with Maine when I went further north.  I spent a week in a cottage just outside Ellsworth last August.  My friend and I spent most of our days in Acadia National Park, walking and climbing and drinking in the beauty of it all.  It was one of the happiest weeks of my life.  We drove up Route 1 from Portland and wanted to stop in every town we passed through.  I’d love to go back to that area and explore some more.

Please leave a comment to be entered into the drawing to receive a copy of Alex’s book A GOOD AMERICAN! (Deadline: Friday, February 24, midnight EST) The winner will be chosen at random, but I would love it if you would tell in comments a little bit about what home means to you! The contest is now closed: Congratulations Nina Badzin, you won a copy of Alex’s book!

Cheers,

Julia



* * * * * * * *

Alex George is an Englishman who lives, works, and writes in Missouri.  He studied law at Oxford University and worked for eight years as a corporate lawyer in London and Paris before moving to the United States in 2003. A GOOD AMERICAN has been named as the #1 Indiebound pick for February 2012, an amazon top ten book for February, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick for Spring 2012. You can connect with Alex on his website (alexgeorgebooks.com), on Twitter @alexgeorge, and on Facebook.

My Mind’s Eye

My life these days consists of editing and little else. For about eight hours a day, I am seated at my dining room table. And although I can’t say I love the editing process (I enjoy writing more), I must admit I amenjoying it.
And here’s why. My WIP novel is really taking shape, the one I finished a first draft of in September. As I was writing, it gave me a little shiver; in short, I was in love with my book. Then I started editing, and for a while I didn’t really like anything about it. But now? I’m falling back in love.

The shiver is back.

The thing is, I can live in that world—the one where my main characters live. When I close my eyes, I see their faces, I see where they live. I see the paths they walk down, both literally and figuratively. It’s like watching a movie in my mind, and I’m the director. So now I’m tweaking the writing, moving some text, carefully choosing each word, so that when someone else reads what I’ve written, they can see what I see, live in that world.

And feel the shiver.

Do you enjoy the editing/revision process? When you write (and edit) your WIP do you see a movie in yourmind? Do you fall in and out of love with your writing like I do? Do you feel a shiver?

Cheers,

Julia

Made in Maine: LITTLE GALE GUMBO

I am so happy to have as guest blogger today my friend Erika Marks—whose debut novel, Little Gale Gumbo was released just a few days ago! I met Erika on Twitter, and we quickly discovered something big we have in common: the State of Maine. Although we’ve never met in person, we’ve traveled the same paths at different times, making for some interesting and fun Twitter discussions! 


Erika has generously offered to give one lucky commenter (to this blog post) a copy of her wonderful book, Little Gale Gumbo (I’ve already read it and can tell you that you won’t want to miss it!). Simply leave a comment before midnight Saturday, October 15, and you will be entered to win a copy of her book! Then on Sunday, October 16, I will announce the winner on that day’s blog post.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

Made in Maine: Little Gale Gumbo by Erika Marks
It has been such a joy getting to know Julia through Twitter. When we first met, I had no idea she was not only a fellow Mainer, but that she lives just down the road from where my parents live in Maine. (The tip-off was when she posted pictures of a very familiar dog park.) If you ever wonder why there are so many books set in Maine, look no further than Julia’s wonderful blog and her beautiful photos (and even videos!) of the Maine landscape for your answer. But it is Julia’s attention to the details of her home environment that make her posts such a unique experience for her readers and such rich tributes to Maine.


Photo courtesy of Erika Marks
When I chose to set my novel Little Gale Gumbo primarily in coastal Maine, I knew there would be an inherent challenge in writing a story with a popular setting. It is all too easy to assume readers have a built-in understanding of a place because it has appeared so frequently in books (not to mention movies and TV). But setting is as much a character in a novel as the people who populate it.


So how to make a familiar setting feel fresh?


Answer: make it yours.


In the case of my novel, I used pieces of my own experience growing up in Maine to set the stage, because for me as a reader—and a writer—it’s the details that make a setting authentic. Never think that just because a place is popular, it can’t be seen in a new light. The job of a writer is to bring a new vision, a new palette, to the familiar. To give it a twist, a spin. Don’t just smell the salt of the sea; thanks to the tides, the ocean’s aroma is constantly changing. High tide and low tide do notsmell the same. Show your reader those differences and you’ll keep their eyes from skimming over a description they may think they already know.


Most readers know what snow looks like—but what does it smell like?


Most readers have heard of Maine’s famous chocolate-cake-sandwich, the Whoopie Pie—but what about the equally well-loved, but not as well-known, Maine confection made from chocolate and potatoes, the Needham?


Most readers know about eating lobster—but what about eating steamers?


Instead of finding scallop shells on the beach, find razor clams. Instead of lobster dinners, have baked bean suppers.


In other words, don’t try to shape your setting to the one you think your reader already has in mind. Your reader wants you to set the scene for them.


I also had the benefit of having several of my characters get to know Maine for the first time. When Camille arrives with her daughters from New Orleans, it is a frigid November day and her youngest daughter Josie, toes and fingers numb with cold, is quite certain they have landed on the moon when their ferry glides up to the dock. When a character is a stranger in your book’s setting, that’s a perfect opportunity for you, the writer, to see freshness in the familiar. Much in the way when friends come to visit you in a new town and want the grand tour; let yourself be a tourist with your characters. Show them around. See the environment as they do, see the contrasts, learn what startles them, what makes them smile.


Maine is a remarkable and precious landscape—it is no wonder that its setting speaks to us as writers and readers. Even those of us who are sure we know it like the back of our hand. But thanks to the Bergeron women, I felt the damp chill of a misty Maine morning as if for the first time. I caught a whiff of warm blueberries ripening in the sun. I heard the crunch of snowmobile boots on a path of iced-over snow, and the faint crackling of sea foam as it clung to the beach, finally released from the surf.


These are the pieces of Maine that live in my heart.


I am proud, and grateful, to know they now live in the hearts of my characters, too.


How do you all “visit” a setting—familiar or not—when you’re writing? (And remember, leave a comment to be entered to win a copy of Erika’s book!)


Erika Marks lives in North Carolina with her family. Her debut novel, Little Gale Gumbo, is now out from NAL/Penguin. 

Find Erika on Twitter @erikamarksauthr, on Facebook, or on her website http://www.erikamarksauthr.com. To buy the book, go to Little Gale Gumbo on Amazon.com.