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.

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…………..

samurai

We’re giving a tea party for my niece. As I gather boughs with great, white clusters called snowballs from my sister’s shrubs to put into vases, my thoughts are far away, on bits and pieces of movies I’ve watched as I bid my time here, movies about warriors, movies about sports and young men, movies about God in unexpected guise and the demons in one’s self. In case you hadn’t noticed, says the coach in one of them, life ain’t fair and sometimes you get the short end of the stick. But how long you carry it is up to you. Movie samurai practice their swordplay in my thoughts, their solemn, intense, yet zen focus, the clean, hard discipline and code of honor bulwarking all, death no enemy, but an accepted piece of the life of a warrior, with an honorable way to die underpinning all. Texas high school seniors repeat their lines as I set out silver trays, football heros, who must deal with the last clear, clean drama most of them will have in life, winning state or not. Again, rules are there, even if not followed by all. Their play on the football field is a kind of war to them, requires them to grow in ways they don’t expect. Or I think about the real war-traumatized movie hero with God striding beside him; the moment when I realized his companion was God made me blink my eyes at the TV screen and weep from the sweet simplicity of it. What do you want from me, screams a soul-maimed warrior. What do you want from yourself is the reply.

As I arrange tea cups for the party to come, there’s a longing in me for clean purpose, for a code of conduct so precise that I have no questions, for an honorable way to die as clear as goal posts on a football field. Dialog from one of the movies echoes in my head: it’s a game you can’t win. It’s the playing of it. The dialog is about golf.  Life, I think, watching snowball petals drop lightly on a polished table top…..life.

Have you a code of conduct, a code of honor? What is it? And how is a woman a warrior, for I know we are. Yet, what are our battles? What are our swords?

fences

Well, I was going to cheat today and just hunt up an old blog post to repost, but as I read through them I liked them so much, I decided I would follow Ray Bradbury’s advice: Start writing more; it’ll get rid of those moods you’re having. This week the side fence fell over. It wasn’t much of a surprise; in fact it was leaning so much that it didn’t even make much of a racket smacking the ground. The neighbor’s house is gone, razed to make way for a townhouse at some point in the future, and the wind was just strong enough, the fence just weak enough, the lack of a barrier just lack enough for the fence to topple. At first I felt invaded. Anyone could see in. But now I’m growing used to it, and I like the space open to me and am going to feel boxed in when the fence is back. It made me think about my life. How boxed in is it? What old habits keep me small and cramped? Am I just so used to it all that I don’t even notice? My very dear Dunya, a practicing meditator and mystic, wrote this comment last week: the ‘seasons of the heart’ has new meaning for me; I truly am surprised now at my heart. As life progresses she turns her beating more clearly toward infinite joy and away from transient happiness, but this turning brings me into places and into contact with people in a fashion that mystifies me. Some joy is found right where it has always been, — in plain sight — and some is found where I had no idea I would ever look.

Turning toward infinite joy and away from transient happiness….how often transient happiness has been transient for me and how mad I’ve been when I couldn’t keep it in my hot little grasping hand. Somehow the fence’s blowing over swept away some cobwebs, and now I’m thinking of Rilke: Whoever you are: some evening take a step out of your house, which you know so well. Enormous space is near…….

Enormous space is near. What fences do you need blown over?


paperwhite new year

I bought them late, in December, snuggled them among glass stones, poured in gin water. I didn’t expect them to bloom so quickly, for the stalks to shoot up so taut and green once the bulbs were fed, didn’t expect to see the blossom already swelling inside its green casing. Two of the groupings I made have opened into paperwhites, the small fragrant blossoms that are such a contrast to the brown bulb that begins and then feeds them. The paperwhites are in the dining room, kitchen, living room….taking the place of the Christmas decorations I’ve so firmly put away, before a stray sorrow from Christmas past can find me and puncture my carefully restored peace with the season. Somehow there is a metaphor to these paperwhites. Somehow their fresh promise of opening comforts me––I always miss the frolic and red of put-away Christmas. It’s a new year. Without my realizing it, I placed something in my new year life that is already blossoming. What hope for me. I no longer believe in the resolutions I used to make––too many of them broken. I know without a doubt a year may bring sorrow and challenge as well as joy. But I can watch the paperwhites open.  (I’m a sucker for blossoms….once I saw the paperwhites were going to take, I explored around to see what else was there. The Christmas cactus, always late, had budded tips, one or two grown to near blossom stage. And I opened the front door and saw a cameilla bud still tight and small, but its color showing––impossible that the many petaled beauty that will emerge can all be in that bud, but it is. And one rose on the climber offers butter yellow sweetness.)

It’s the promise in buds that I love so much….particularly if I know the flower that will unfurl. I wonder if God feels like that about us.

What’s your new year paperwhite?