Category Archives: story and theme

trust

DSC_0132I love it when a historian echoes one of my hunches. I read a lot of history: biographies, memoir, overviews, always have since I was a girl and became intrigued with the Plantagenets and Elizabeth I. I think I’m looking for tone, the shading I’ll paint under the story I write. I really don’t know; I just absorb and let the vapor appear filtered through whatever it is that makes up me.

So, I’ve read dozens of biographies about Louis XIV, and only this one—by a woman—and just read this week said what my gut told me as I wrote a piece of Louis’s personal story in Before Versailles. “The young King, entranced by the sincerity and intensity of Louise’s feelings towards him, loved her as he had never loved before, and was never to love again.” (Therese Louis Latour 1924) As I read other biographies, in which Louise de la Valliere is a footnote, glanced at and abandoned by the writers, I always felt there was a unique tenderness in the love affair. And that’s what I wrote.

DSC_0132It’s nice to have my hunch validated, even if the writer isn’t current or well known. I think much of what I do has to do with subtlety. And I must trust subtlety.

Grace notes: Saw a dove sitting in her nest in one of my trees. Nests used to mean much to me; they were a symbol of my own task in this younger life I was living.

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buzz

640px-Carpenter_bee copyThe garden is keeping me sane right now while I struggle with the middle of this book. What I’m really struggling with is not knowing. I have a vague plot, but nothing precise because the way I write, character has to lead to the next action. So I have to feel right in the character before I feel right in the action. Whine. Whine. Wine. Please.

640px-Carpenter_bee copyI feel like the carpenter bees that love the cedar of my garage. They drill precise holes and burrow in and out to forage. But the return is never easy. They hover clumsily before the hole they’ve made, can float for hours before they enter. They remind me of landing craft whose pilot can’t make a decision.

So I can’t get in my hole of a story again easily once I leave it. To distract myself from the fear that this time I may not pull a novel together, I garden. I’m in the clean up, prune, unglamorous stage. Sweating. Hauling. But I have focus and a plan. I can see what needs to be done, and I do it. Done. Finished. Finito. New task. Next, please. Straightforward. Right there in front of me. Unmistakeable.

640px-Carpenter_bee copyIf I look back over this blog, I see my whines about my last novel, Before Versailles. As the Duchess always says, Nothing changes and everything does.

Sigh.

research trip….day 1

I’m in another world, literally and figuratively.

IMG_0354The train station at Maastricht. I miss one of my train connections, but after panic subsides realize the trains run like clockwork and just get on one that names the next town I need to be in. Three train changes later, I’m proud of myself and the kindness and English of strangers.

IMG_0362The view from my hotel window. Heart of the city. Narrow, narrow streets. Houses old in a way we have no idea of.

IMG_0368The statue of d’Artagnan on the edge of what was once fortress walls. Fruit trees are blooming everywhere in the city, and all is spring’s green, a special shade.

IMG_0411

I am taken by my new historian friend on a foot and car trip around the outskirts of the city, so that he can show me how it looked to the French in 1673. We end up in a vineyard, city in sight, because this is where he thinks a famous portrait was posed from. I am reeling with fatigue, but the hosts of the vineyard, friends of his in a d’Artagnan society they all belong to, give us a complimentary glass of wine. The courtyard and buildings are all old stone. We are in the country though the church spires of Maastricht can be seen. Dinner is late, eaten on the busy market square, table after table open to the night, the sun still up even though it’s past 8. I stagger to bed filled with thoughts of churches where long-ago soldiers might be buried and sacred wells whose water might solace them and monks whose vineyards might have thrived where the one I stood in does.

 

return to

I have old faithfuls, books I return to, books I read the way a baby sucks a pacifier. One of my pacifiers is almost any regency by Georgette Heyer. I have paperbacks of hers so old that the pages have to be rubber-banded in a heap. I love her plucky heroines, the sometimes truly witty banter between characters, the very sweet romances. There is a lot of subtle humor in character interactions, which amuses me even more each time I read it. I also reread John le Carre’s Little Drummer Girl about once a year. I love the heroine he’s created in this book, the way he describes and builds character, and the truly gripping plot. He is a master of plotting and character. I reread To Kill a Mockingbird pretty often; the underlying tenderness of the story takes me, though I find the African American characters a bit stereotyped, but what do I know. Maybe for 1930s Southern America, they are not stereotyped at all. It’s just that they’re shaded all one tone, and the others aren’t. I love Winston Graham’s Poldark Saga, the first six books. He’s a fine, fine historical novelist, and Ross Poldark has my heart, as does Demelza. I adore Dr. Naomi Ramen‘s Kitchen Table Wisdom. Again, the scope of heart in her collections of stories about people gravely ill and those who serve them is huge. It’s a wise book, too, nuggets about leading a deeper life scattered like bread crumbs. I love Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek, though having read it so many times, I now see plot flaws, but I just never mind them because I like the character of Dona and her story so much, and the marvelous dreamy quality of du Maurier’s prose. Anything I like ( I’m almost always reading), I now put up on my shelf in Goodreads. But the ones listed here are my tried and true go-back- tos for a needed mental rest. My husband doesn’t understand it, and I can’t explain it, except that they never fail to comfort me, I never fail to not like them, I never fail to be amused again or touched again…..and that’s special…….

It occurs to me that I learn a little more about writing each time I read these favorites; I learn on a level I’m not aware of…..

Do you reread? What? And why? Or why not?

story

Last time I wrote about what was not true in my latest novel (or in other words, the fiction in the fiction), so here’s what is true in Before Versailles……when Louis XIV* was 22 years old, his mentor died, and he was brought face to face with the fact that someone else in the kingdom was quite powerful, perhaps more powerful than Louis himself. What he did with that fact is interesting even to this day. During that same time period, Louis had been married for one year to a Spanish princess, and for that year, he’d been faithful. But he began a friendship with his new sister-in-law, an English princess who had always lived in France, that quickly turned to flirtation, and maybe more. History becomes quite unclear on this point.

To me,  all of the above, from powerful men to painful decisions to powerful flirtation, is the stuff of drama, the stuff of story. And Louis’s only brother and heir was gay. And that brother’s best friend was also in love with the English princess. More drama. And Louis himself fell in love as he grappled with power and how much was truly his…..all of this in a period of four months in the summer air of the summer palace of Fontainebleau. And so I tried to make a story of that, of young people in extraordinary positions who were unfurling in all manner of ways. They were the Hollywood of their time, a real historical reality show. I thought for a long time the story belonged to the two key women in the excitement, but it didn’t; it belonged to Louis. And once I realized that, I had so much, passion, fear, ambition, treachery, love, betrayal, competition, tenderness; those emotions and qualities were really there, and it was my job to make them discernable again, to polish the tarnished silver of another century and show everyone its gleam……..

For me, it’s always about the people in the story….what do you think? What pleases you in fiction?

*A marvelous snippet from YouTube from Le Roi Danse that shows a young Louis XIV…enjoy…..

human

I’ve spent the week being an 11-year old boy wandering through Shanghai separated from my parents as the Japanese invade and World War II begins in the Pacific. I’ve seen events no child should see, but often does, and I’ve retained a skewed innocence and sense of wonder in a world closed in and bearing its teeth to survive. There’s nothing like a really good book, is there? I picked up J.G. Ballard‘s Empire of the Sun, which had been sitting around for years on a shelf, and finally opened it. And there I was, so gripped by his story (mainly his own) and his writing style that all week long I had another place to live in my mind. It wasn’t a pretty place; people on the edge of survival and dealing with inhuman behavior don’t behave in heroic ways….though, again, some do. His story was so intense that I would have to pause between chapters and take a deep breath. And, of course, I’ve been mulling it over since I finished it, the way connoisseurs breathe in fine wine or brandy, thinking about war, about savagery, about what we will do to survive, about what I might do in a world gone mad, about why we say inhuman for cruel, unimaginable behavior when the behavior seems indeed a part of being human….and then going to walk outside to see two tiny rose blossoms opening in the soft, safe world in which I really reside….

(A little audio of the book by the delicious Jeremy Irons…..)

my work

I’ve been spiffing up the notebook I present as part of the basics-of-the-novel class I teach for continuing studies at Rice. Certain words, advice, sayings leap off the page to peck at me as I hunch over the computer redoing…..such as these words by poet Mary Oliver. They’re all writing is about….they’re all life is about, actually…..

My work is loving the world.

Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird -equal seekers of sweetness.

Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.

Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?

Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me

keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished…………..