Archive for the 'Writing Fiction' Category

The Universal Experience

 

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by Juliann Rich

 

GRAVITY, my latest book is not a coming out story. It is a coming of age story. When I asked Kathi from BSB for topic ideas for this blog, she suggested readers might be interested in why I’ve written four books featuring LGBT characters. So I thought about that, and it didn’t take long to figure out that my closest connection to teen culture has been through my son…and my son’s friends…and their friends ~ all of whom gathered around my kitchen table, playing D & D and eating me out of Doritos and Oreo cookies. Just like in the world of GRAVITY, no one needed to worry about “coming out.” Not in my house, anyway. There, they were not “gay” or “lesbian” teenagers. They were simply my son’s friends. And as I had experienced approximately one and a half million years ago when I was a teen myself, they were growing up and falling in love and trying to figure out how not to be flung into the stratosphere since the world had stopped spinning on its axis.

 

So, in answer to the question about why I write what I write, I’m going to share a chapter from my own life. It is my touchstone memory to which I return again and again as I remember how this universal experience we call falling in love for the first time forever changed me.

 

***

 

The first boy I ever fell in love with was named Brian. I was 13, maybe 14, and volunteering as a candy striper during the summer holiday at the hospital where my mother worked as a nurse. I was too young to get a job that paid money, but old enough to volunteer and my mother was determined—even then—that I would follow in her rubber-heeled and white nursing shoes steps.

 

She had my whole life planned out for me and if that fact bothered me at the time, I don’t remember.

 

My body had changed over the previous winter and the pink stripes on my uniform followed all my new and unfamiliar curves. I was still part-child and smitten with the “dress up” aspects of volunteering at the hospital. I was also part-adult and my future was easier to imagine as I pushed my cart with an ice compartment and a large garbage receptacle through the gleaming white hallways. I did, however, hate the hospital’s hair policy, which mandated I wear my hair in a bun since even my tomboyish ponytail hung down my back. I liked feeling older. I hated feeling old. And so every shift I tugged out half a dozen strands from that granny bun and let them fly free.

 

Too many years have passed and I have no memory of whether Brian glimpsed my red-headed rebellion when I walked into the hospital room where his younger brother lay in the hospital bed, his right leg in a cast. There aren’t enough years in one lifetime, however, to make me forget how one glance at him utterly changed my reason for being there. Yes, it was my job to take out the garbage and change the water in the pitcher, but there was one and only one reason to be in that room: to look into his dark brown eyes.

 

“Hi,” I said, blushing. “I’m Juliann.”

 

“Brian,” he told me, and I remember deciding I had a new favorite word. “This is my brother Jace. He broke his leg,” he said, unnecessarily. “Do you work here?” he asked as I crossed the room. I would use the word sashayed because it’s probably a more accurate description, but it’s a stupid word and even now I’m unwilling to admit that’s what I did.

 

“Yes and no.” I opened the curtains though that was not technically one of my candy-striping duties, but sunlight made my hair look like it was on fire and singeing Brian seemed a perfectly acceptable response to the question his eyes were asking the curves of my uniform. I returned his stare and took in all the important details of him: 5’7”, maybe 5’8”; medium build that whispered rather than shouted the presence of muscle; dark brown eyes; hair the color of coal; and cheeks that flushed ever deepening shades of red the longer I held his gaze.

 

“I’m a volunteer,” I finally said. “A candy striper.”

 

Jace attempted to sit up in his bed and winced as the cast dug into his swollen leg. “Your job is to give out candy?” he asked. “Cool!”

 

I laughed which made Brian laugh and I decided the rest of the hospital could live with overflowing garbage cans and stale water for the remainder of my shift. “Sorry, no, but I do have gum.” I reached into my pocket and withdrew a pack of grape-flavored Bubblicious. I popped a piece into my mouth before handing it over to Jace who looked disappointed, which would have bothered me if I weren’t so relieved to know my breath was, if not minty-fresh, at least grape and not garlic scented.

 

My flirting skills were not then what they are now. Neither were Brian’s, probably, and so I emptied the garbage can to the unspoken cadence of one thought that looped through my mind like a broken record: Brian…Brian Who and how am I supposed to find you again in a world filled with Brians?

 

In the end it was Brian who changed the tune I danced to for the rest of that summer and the year that followed by shoving an uncapped black magic marker in my face when I returned from my cart with a pitcher of ice water. The intoxicating scent of ink and solvent flooded my nose and made my head spin.

 

Oh, I knew what he wanted, but I had evolved enough as a woman in the previous five minutes to know the value in making him say it. I placed the pitcher on the swing table that covered Jace’s stomach but left his cast perfectly accessible and looked at Brian.

 

Your marker, buddy, your move, I thought.

 

Something swelled inside my chest and expanded until the last bit of little girl that remained inside me was pushed out by something new. Something mysterious. Something deeply connected to all the other changes that were happening to me.

 

“You’re supposed to write your name,” Brian said as he looked at me with eyes steadier than his hand. “Both your first and last name,” he rushed to add. “You know, so people know who you are.”

 

Rarely, but occasionally, I have been inspired to recklessly fling open the doors to my hidden places where I keep my most private of feelings.

 

This was the first of those moments.

 

I took a step toward Brian and reached for the marker. “If we’re talking about writing on casts, I’m obliged to tell you I’m not bound by any rules,” I said, staring into his eyes.

 

“Huh?” he asked.

 

“There are rules. Lots of them actually,” I admitted. “But I highly doubt there are any stipulations regarding the content of what someone writes on a cast. I mean, it’s not like you can report me to some Official Broken Limb Message Inspector if I don’t write my name, first or last, on Jace’s cast, right?”

 

I stood there, hand still outstretched for the marker, while the realization flooded his eyes. He was hopelessly outgunned in any contest involving words and he knew it. Lucky for me he seemed clueless to the fact that he could defeat my strongest defense with one glance.

 

One smile.

 

He answered by dropping the marker in my hand.

 

“I thought so.” I bent over Jace’s leg just as he smacked a bubble, spraying me with artificially sweet and grape-flavored spit.

 

“Jace!” Brian scolded while I wrote a message that contained seven numbers and two words, neither of which was my first or last name.

 

“Eight, seven, three.” Brian began reading what I’d written, but when he finished with the numbers, I read the words.

 

“Call me,” I said, and then I turned and walked out of the hospital room, leaving Brian to ponder whether or not I’d broken any rules. As for me, I’d stepped into my womanhood, and I didn’t give a damn.

 

***

 

Would it have mattered if Brian had been Brianna? To the world? Yes. This was the early ‘80’s when leg warmers were cool (the first time around) and girls wore off-the-shoulder sweaters and John Travolta was still skinny and if you were a girl into another girl or a guy into another guy, you didn’t talk about it. So yes, had Brian been Brianna, the world at large would have reacted very differently.

 

Hence, decades of coming out stories – including The Crossfire Trilogy.

 

But with GRAVITY I explored the inner experience of falling in love for the first time and discovered something I think I’ve always known. I cherish that memory of the day in the hospital not because I met and fell in love with Brian, but because I met and fell in love with a strange and wondrous new version of myself – one I would spend the next million and a half years trying to understand.

 

Which is what has inspired me to write every single book.

 

That moment. That encounter. That journey.

 

I’ve simply written about it through the lens of the kids who rolled the dice in life and love and left my kitchen table covered in Oreo crumbs.

 

 

~ Juliann Rich

 

 

 

 

 

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Minnesota writer Juliann Rich spent her childhood in search of the perfect climbing tree. The taller, the better! A branch thirty feet off the ground and surrounded by leaves, caterpillars, birds, and squirrels was a good perch for a young girl to find herself. Seeking truth in nature and finding a unique point of view remain crucial elements in her life as well as her writing.

Juliann is the author of four young adult novels: CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE, SEARCHING FOR GRACE, TAKING THE STAND, and GRAVITY (forthcoming in November, 2016). She writes character-driven books about young adults who are bound to discover their true selves and the courage to create an authentic life…if the journey doesn’t break them.

Juliann is the 2014 recipient of the Emerging Writer Award from The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival and lives with her husband and an adorable but naughty dachshund named Bella in a 1920’s brownstone she is lovingly restoring to its original beauty.

 

Her newest novel, GRAVITY, will be released by Bold Strokes Books on November 15th, 2016.

 

Gravity FINASometimes you fly. Sometimes you fall.

A dream at Olympic gold in ski jumping. It’s a dream that’s been the exclusive property of male Olympic athletes.

Until now.

For seventeen-year-old Ellie Engebretsen, the 2011 decision to include women’s ski jumping in the Olympics is a game changer. She’d love to bring home the gold for her father, a former Olympic hopeful whose dreams were blown along with his knees on an ill-timed landing. But can she defy the pull of gravity that draws her to Kate Moreau, her biggest competition and the girl of her dreams?

How can Ellie soar through the air when all she feels like doing is falling hard?

Previous works by Juliann Rich:

The Crossfire Trilogy, published by Bold Strokes Books

 

Caught in the Crossfire 300 DPI    Searching For Grace 300 DPI    Taking the Stand

 

 

 

 

To learn more about Juliann, visit her website: http://www.juliannrich.com.

Slaves of Greenworld

BY DAVID HOLLY

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Slaves of Greenworld Poster

 

The Post

I’m excited to broadcast that Slaves of Greenworld, my latest novel from Bold Strokes Books, is coming out this very month. In fact, I’m brimming over with pride—which is revolting and messy—that I created Slaves of Greenworld. This novel involved complex world-building, mythological invention, and imagining an alien species quite unlike their human invaders.

 

Slaves of Greenworld is SF—science fiction, speculative fiction, and speculative fantasy—and then came the plot and the sub-plots that twist and weave through the narrative.

 

The Plot, Characters, and Setting

Slaves of Greenworld depicts an alien landscape with unearthly creatures, a lurking hostility from an extinct alien species, and environmental dangers. Human versus nature always makes for an interesting theme. However, as is typical in human activities, the greatest dangers to people come from other people. As a result, the most essential conflicts in Slaves of Greenworld involve human versus human, and the fights, skirmishes, and battle scenes in this novel are colorful, sad, glorious, and convincing.

 

Humans settled Greenworld more than a thousand years before the events of this novel take place, and at some undetermined point in that past, humanity lost its technology. No one living on Greenworld knows why they lost their science, nor do most even know that it was lost. Some texts from the old Earth exist, but the Greenworlders don’t possess texts that explain their downfall.

 

Greenworld is riddled with justice, and cruel capital punishment. Of course those are all human institutions, which are abhorrent to the two surviving native species. For reasons unknown to them, Greenworld’s humans have settled into a caste system and slave economy with the xeng, the slaves, being at the bottom (where slaves customarily end up). One of the several plot threads in Slaves of Greenworld involves a violent slave revolt.

 

Just prior to the beginning of that murderous slave revolt, the novel’s narrator emerges naked, after nearly drowning in a stream, only to discover that not only does he not know how he came into the stream, but also he cannot remember his own name or anything of his past.

 

When the narrator encounters Paun, an old and fanatical hermit, something prompts him to declare that his name is Dove, although he cannot imagine why. Paun rescues Dove, and by the next afternoon, Dove is claimed as a young lover by a wealthy woman, Lalayla. It is in her house in Rivertown (see map below) that Dove meets the great love of his life, a male slave named Raret.

 

Raret and others teach Dove about Greenworld’s society, while Lalayla teaches him the basics of commerce. Soon Dove commands a caravan of riches, with Raret as his choice of personal slave. Dove’s caravan must travel to New Marth on the south coast, but along the way, Dove increases his personal wealth and knowledge.

Map of Greenworld

Map of Greenworld

 

Dove and Raret travel together over much of Greenworld, sharing adventures as they seek out Dove’s origins. Along the way they gather friends and enemies, and they are surrounded by intricate webs of treason, trickery, and political intrigue. Dove, Raret, and their companions survive attempted assassinations, judicial malfeasance, and marauding sex slugs (orgasmic but unsexy).

 

Finally, Dove will discover his origins, his true name, and his destiny as this dramatic, sweeping, picaresque SF saga winds to its close.

 

Themes

Cruelty—I don’t like it, so I depict cruel acts as being as repulsive as possible.

Slavery—I’m against it, so I emphasize the ill effects of owning people upon both the owners and the owned.

Love and devotion—I’m all for them, and I show self-sacrifice and enduring affection.

 

Sex

Yes, sex happens. There is male/male sex, female/female sex, male/female sex (though he’s thinking about another male while he does her), solo sex by everybody, and even some interspecies sex (not disgusting, but joyous and contagious, while being ultimately tragic—if I’m not giving too much away).

 

More, More, More

I’d like to talk more about the battles, the courtroom scenes, the prisons and execution yards, the throne rooms, and the conclave, but further description might spoil it. I’d like to describe the lurid encounters and the horrific tortures, the strange and terrible beasts and the wondrous beauty, but those must be enjoyed in reading the novel.

 

In between editing, cutting, and proofing Slaves of Greenworld, I’ve read my own book three times in this past year. And as soon as I get a print copy, I plan to read it again for the pure enjoyment of this story. I hope that you will do the same.

 

David Holly

Happy Valley, Oregon

March 2016

The Allure of Romantic Suspense

BY GREG HERREN

 

“I have no past, I have no future. I have only the immediate present.”

–from Hunter’s Green, by Phyllis A. Whitney

 

 

I was about ten years old when I discovered what was then called romantic suspense, which was a subgenre of the mystery field primarily targeted The Orion Mask 300 DPIto women. The covers of the mass market paperback were very distinct; they usually featured a woman with long hair being blown about in the wind (sometimes in a very long dress) usually looking backward over her shoulder with a fearful expression on her face. There was usually an oddly-shaped, spooky looking tree behind her; a mysterious but attractive man even further in the background, and in the absolute rear of the image was, without fail, a spooky looking house with a light in one of the windows. These books were by women, for women, and about women.

 

“When my aunt Charlotte died suddenly many people believed that I had killed her and that if it had not been for Nurse Loman’s evidence at the inquest, the verdict would have been one of murder by some person or persons unknown; there would have been a probing into the dark secrets of the Queen’s House, and the truth would have come out.”

–from The Secret Woman, by Victoria Holt

 

 

My grandmother had a copy of Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman, which I read one weekend while visiting her while the rest of the family watched football games on television. The book was so well-written and well-done that I began reading every book by Victoria Holt I could get my hands on, and reading her led me to other women writers, all labelled ‘romantic suspense’ novelists. These other women included Phyllis A. Whitney and Mary Stewart, among others; but those three were by far and away the best.

 

“Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal.”

–from Airs Above the Ground, by Mary Stewart

 

I’ve always been a big reader, devouring every book I could get my hands on. I also wanted to be a writer from the earliest time I can remember—and usually, when I found a genre I liked I wanted to write in that genre. My first attempts at writing were my own versions of the Hardy Boys/ Nancy Drew type mysteries for kids; I think the first one I tried writing was called The Secret of the Haunted Mansion. (Not terribly original, of course, but I was only eight.) When I discovered romantic suspense, I wanted to write it as well. The majority of the books were written in the first person, always from a woman’s point of view, and certainly there was an element of romance in them. Victoria Holt’s novels were more patterned after Jane Eyre; the first half of the book was usually the life story of the heroine, before she found herself either married or involved somehow with a man whose affections she wasn’t sure of; in Menfreya in the Morning, Harriet was a wealthy heiress who was plain and had a clubfoot. Once she was married to the lord of Menfreya, she was never certain whether he really loved her or whether he married her for her money. Holt’s novels were also often set in Cornwall, and often in the nineteenth century.

 

“I often marveled after I went to Pendorric that one’s existence could change so swiftly, so devastatingly.”

–from Bride of Pendorric by Victoria Holt

 

 

I found myself preferring Whitney to Holt. Whitney’s books were often set in some foreign location (St. Croix, Cape Town, Norway, Istanbul, Athens) and Whitney always included a lot of local color and history in her books, which made them even more enjoyable to me. I often felt, though, that her heroines were a bit on the wimpy side, despite the adventures they were having. Her books often featured a strong woman who served as the antagonist to the heroine; sometimes being married to the heroine’s true love (Columbella, Lost Island, Woman Without a Past) and often, the story had to do with secrets from the past coming out to haunt the present (Listen for the Whisperer, Silverhill, Spindrift, Domino).

 

“It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it.”

From The Moon-spinners by Mary Stewart

 

I never forgot these books or their authors; I often go back and reread them and marvel at how well they are plotted, the richness of the character development, and the strength of the first lines. I have always wanted to write one, to try my hand at romantic suspense and follow the basic template—another mystery writer explained it to me as “Two love interests; one a bad guy and the other a good guy. Which is which?” This is overly simplistic, of course, but when I started plotting The Orion Mask, it really came in handy.The Orion Mask 300 DPI

 

“Now that I have reached the mature age of twenty-seven I can look back on the fantastic adventure of my youth and can almost convince myself that it did not happen as I believed it did then.”

–from On the Night of the Seventh Moon by Victoria Holt

 

 

Another popular theme in Whitney’s work—and one I sought to emulate in The Orion Maskwas reuniting of someone, practically a stranger, with a family they’d never known. The reason the heroine had been separated from her family always varied (in Silverhill, her mother had been banished from the family estate and cut-off; in Woman Without a Past she had been put up for adoption; in Listen for the Whisperer she had been given up by her mother and raised by her father; in Domino, her father removed her from her mother’s family) but the drama of someone coming back into a family group after years away was something I really wanted to explore.

 

So, I created Heath Brandon, a young gay man in his early twenties who is working full-time to put himself through college. When he was thirteen, he found out (by accident) that the woman he believed to be his mother was actually his father’s second wife; his mother had committed suicide when he was very young and his father took him away from Louisiana and his mother’s family. His mother’s family is wealthy, and so every once in a while he would fantasize about reuniting with them and getting help with school. He is at work one night when he is approached by someone who not only knows who he is but has a lot of information about Heath’s family back in Louisiana—and more information about his mother. Soon, Heath is on his way to Louisiana to meet the family he never knew…and discovers that there are a lot of secrets being kept in the family mansion.

 

And Heath learns the hard way to be careful what you wish for.

 

The Orion Mask 300 DPII had a lot of fun writing The Orion Mask, and I hope people will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

SEARCHING FOR CELIA

BY ELIZABETH RIDLEY

Searching for CeceliaSeeing one’s novel published is always thrilling, but I am especially excited that Bold Strokes is releasing my new mystery, Searching for Celia, this month because it took 18 years to get it published. No, really—18 years. A lifetime. Or at least the length of a childhood, and that can seem like forever.

 

When I started Celia back in 1997, the world was a different place. The Internet was still in its infancy, and there was no social media. Pre-9/11, we still got to keep our shoes on at the airport, and the name “Kardashian” was known only as OJ’s lawyer (ah, the good old days).

 

When I started Searching for Celia (then known as Celia Frost), my second novel, The Remarkable Journey of Miss Tranby Quirke, had been published by Little, Brown in the UK and my third novel, Rainey’s Lament, was scheduled for publication in 1998. I was living in London, in a studio flat in Hampstead, writing full-time. I was young, single, debt-free, carefree, on top of the world.

 

My then-agent and editor were excited to see my follow-up to Rainey’s Lament. When I handed in the first six chapters and synopsis of Celia Frost in early 1998, they responded very positively, and we seemed to be on track for publication in 1999 or 2000.

 

But…(and there’s always a “but”) then Rainey’s Lament came out in May 1998. The reviews were generally positive. But sales stank. Like, really stank. To this day I don’t know the actual numbers, but I imagine sales were less than half what the publisher had anticipated. And suddenly, Celia Frost was in jeopardy. My agent explained that my publisher couldn’t justify sinking more money into another of my books with sales so poor. Moreover, he warned, it was unlikely any publisher would ever invest in me again. But he still saw Celia’s potential and advised me to finish the book and let him submit it under a pseudonym, so he could pitch me as a young, unknown author with a debut novel. I considered his suggestion, but the book wasn’t near finished, and without money from a book deal I couldn’t stay in London. (I never had a work permit; I was there on a writers-and-artists visa, which meant my only income could come from publishing deals and book sales).

 

Devastated, I moved back to Wisconsin to start again from scratch. I felt like an utter and abject failure, wondering if I’d ever be published again. Back home, I started a freelance editing, critiquing, and ghostwriting business, The Writer’s Midwife, which I still run today. But Celia Frost stuck with me, even if only as a whisper on my creative consciousness. From 1999 to 2001 I rewrote the book three times and approached dozens of agents, finally securing a top New York agent in 2000. Celia had morphed over time and the version I had then was set 50/50 in Wisconsin and London, and involved the main character, Dayle, investigating a white supremacist group in northern Wisconsin who were implicated in Celia’s disappearance. And Dayle’s “interesting character quirk” was that she raised show rabbits. (Seriously. And I wonder why that version didn’t get published?)

 

The agent submitted the manuscript to 25 major publishers. And, one by one, all 25 said “no.” Some hated it, some “liked but didn’t love” it, a few really liked it, but there was always a reason why it just wasn’t quite “right” for them. One publisher said Edwina, Celia’s ex-girlfriend, should be “Edwin” and Dayle should have a romance with him; one claimed no one would read a novel with an author as protagonist, some said the book was too character-driven, others said too plot-driven, but most believed the story of the relationship between two women, from friendship to love and back to friendship—just wasn’t “big” enough or commercial enough for a large mainstream readership.

 

In 2001 my agent advised me to dump Celia and try something else. I ended up writing another novel, Dear Mr. Carson, published in 2006, but I never completely gave up on Celia. I knew there was something of value there; I just had to keep digging until I found it.

 

In 2005 the TV show 24 inspired me to try a “real-time” structure for the novel, setting it entirely over the course of a single day, with each chapter representing roughly an hour in Dayle’s life. That seemed to breathe new life into the project, and I was optimistic that this was “it,” but then another project took precedence, a nonfiction memoir about me exploring Scandinavia’s most depressing tourist destinations. Alas, the fourth agent of my career (long story) submitted that memoir to more than 20 publishers, and all 20 said no.

 

In 2009, I returned to Celia determined to publish it at last. That rewrite took five years (mostly keeping the “chapter-per-hour” structure; happily jettisoning the rabbits and Neo-Nazis.) By 2014 I knew that Bold Strokes would be the perfect home for the now-titled Searching for Celia and I was thrilled when they accepted the manuscript right away, for publication this June.

 

I don’t see my story’s message as being that perseverance always pays off. Indeed, I can look back at projects that I wish I had abandoned earlier. My message is more that you’re ready when you’re ready, but you can’t always know when that will be. A project, whether it’s a creative work or a personal project of some sort, has a genesis and a journey and a destination all its own, invisible to its creator until the final piece slots into place, and only then can you step back and say, “Ah ha! This is what it was meant to be all long.”

 

-#-

The Characters I Write

By Alan Chin

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My career as a writer had been occupied in writing about characters who don’t fit into the social patterns. Most of my protagonists are gay men, but not all. These characters are very varied; some don’t fit in because of sheer defiance, some because they are terrified of society, some are simply scandalous. There are some, however, who have such a high degree of integrity that they don’t fit in anywhere in a world tainted by corruption.

 

The one thing they all have in common is that they are outsiders. They have many voices, and all sing, some loudly and some whisper, against the social norms. They are people who have few friends, yet value absolute loyalty to the personal relationships they find, they cling to those relationships as the plot darkens and they must fight to save themselves and the people that matter to them.

 

E.M. Forster once said: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” This, I believe goes to the heart of my outsider characters that I try to create. I’ve always regarded loyalty to friends and loved ones as going beyond admirable to heroic. It represents the best qualities of the outsider.

 

I write about outsiders because I believe the outsider is, should be, really, one of the most socially valuable people in the whole community. Because he/she often, more often than not, challenges the social norms, doing what he/she thinks is right, rather than what’s accepted or easy.

 

Admittedly, I’ve always felt myself to be an outsider, and not by choice. So that by creating these characters, I’m questioning my own experience, what I am and what I am becoming. I create these characters and plots to find out if there’s meaning in the external world for me, and then, I suppose, if I decide that there isn’t, to impose a meaning of my own.

 

There are as many reasons to write and create characters as there are writers, but I’m explaining what I feel motivates me as a writer, and that is my own experience. I take those different experiences and mold them into a real constructed, contrived novel or short story which has a plot played out in action and also a philosophical plot which either proves or disproves a question, which it the story’s main theme. It has motifs as in a symphonic work, and it comes to a conclusion. But at the heart of that plot are the main characters, and I tend to paint a detailed portrait of these characters. And within the heart of these characters lies the soul of the outsider struggling against society for ideas they believe are truth and just.

 

 

Buddhas Bad Boys

Trigger Warning

by Victoria A. Brownworth

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Photo Credit: Maddy Gold

As I write this, America’s most reclusive author is in the news. No, Harper Lee didn’t die, although she is 88. Rather, she found the novel she wrote prior to her iconic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” in a box. Titled “Go Set a Watchman,” the book will be published on July 14–Bastille Day. It is already #1 in books on Amazon, despite not even being published yet. She’s that legendary.

Every author hopes her book will be a best-seller. But not all authors want to be in the public eye. Lee has kept an almost secretive profile in the 55 years since the 1960 publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

I’ve been a journalist for 30 years. Journalists are notorious for not being known until something goes wrong–witness New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, The New Republic’s Stephen Glass or currently, Brian Williams, News Anchor and Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News, all caught in lies about their reporting.

Pulitzer Prizes–the top journalism award for reporters–are awarded every April. I have been nominated for the award myself several times, for both reporting and commentary for my work at daily newspapers. It’s an honor–I have also won numerous other journalism awards–but I am very aware that there are few Americans who are not themselves in the newspaper business, who can name any reporter who has won a Pulitzer or one of the other top awards.

Reporters who are focused on doing their jobs like I have done all these years rarely make the news. Our lives are not written about unless we write about them ourselves. You are taught from day one by your editors to keep yourself out of the story, to be objective, to not insert opinions into what you write.

In my new novel, “Ordinary Mayhem,” I wanted to write about the complexity of being a journalist who has reasons–complicated reasons–for being reclusive. I also wanted to write about how stories get told and the impact those stories have on the reporter herself–in this case Faye Blakemore, my main character.

This novel began as a short story in “Night Shadows,” edited by Greg Herren and J.M.Redmann. Some stories take on a life of their own and this one did that for me. The story was a success–it won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012, where I was listed right after Stephen King. But I knew when I was writing it that the story wasn’t over. I needed to know more about these characters, especially my central character, Faye, and I needed to know how Faye got to be who she was. I also needed to hear her voice–in the short story she is somewhat distanced from both the reader and me, the writer. In the novel, I can hear her clearly, see her clearly. And I am terrified for her.

We talk a lot about trigger warnings these days–everything seems to come with one, as if we have somehow all become too fragile to live in the world without covering our eyes or ears. Faye’s all about triggering her audience. She wants them to know what she knows–that the world can be a terrible, grim place filled with mayhem. She wants them to know that daily life is often covering up “ordinary” mayhem, notably the violence against women that impacts one in three women worldwide. One in three who will be a victim at some point, of male violence. Wherever Faye goes, that violence is hovering nearby.

That reality is the real trigger warning and the one Faye lives with. It’s one I have lived with myself over my years as a reporter. When you cover stories that touch you deeply or that remind you of your own most terrible experiences, some acutely harrowing, that line of objectivity blurs badly. That’s what happens for Faye, it has at times happened for me.

When you cover stories that are just horrible, they impact you, hard. You can’t explain that to people who aren’t on the front lines–sometimes literally–because they haven’t experienced what you have experienced. And that’s what happens to Faye. She’s on the front lines all the time and there is no respite from the reel in her head. Not just the photographs she’s taken, but everything she’s seen. The pink mist that sprays over everything when a car bomb goes off, for example–that’s the liquifying of human bodies. That mist gets on Faye–literally and metaphorically–and she can’t wash it off.

Ordinary Mayhem 300 DPIThere are horrifying scenes in “Ordinary Mayhem,” but there are no supernatural creatures. Everyone is real–which makes the horror all the more intense. There is nothing in this novel that I didn’t cover myself as a reporter or that I didn’t write about in some way. Conversely, while I feel I know Faye and know her well, she is not me and I am not her.

Which is a good thing, because blur that line too much and, well, ask Brian Williams.

While I was writing this book I would read sections to my fiancée. I write at night. It’s quiet, it’s atmospheric. I love the night and stories come to me then with clarity I don’t get during the day when I am doing journalistic work on deadline. Writing fiction and writing fact are so very different.

My partner would be lying in bed, reading, ready for sleep and I would say, “Let me read you this.” Over the years we have been together I have often read her pieces that are difficult–I want to be sure everything works. But as I read her more and more of “Ordinary Mayhem,” she would say to me, “Should I be worried that you wrote these scenes? That you came up with these ideas?”

After a while, she didn’t want to listen. “I have nightmares about these things, the things you have written, “she told me. “I’ll read it when it’s finished. Maybe.”

It is easier to read about zombies or vampires or the paranormal than it is about what we are capable of doing to each other at any given time. We know those things–zombies, vampires– aren’t real. We know there aren’t revenants. We know we are safe from the undead.

But are we safe from the men who come in the night and break down the door and kill everyone they find, and kill them horribly by torture and inhuman acts? No, we are not. In fact, sometimes those people are members of our very own families.

That is the story I wanted to tell–the story of the trigger warning, the real one, the one our bodies evolved over millennia to include, the one where the hairs go up on our necks and our hearts start to race and our skin flushes and we feel a little sick. I wanted to tell the story of what makes that happen. And I wanted to tell the story of how and why it happened to Faye. I wanted to layer the mayhem she covers for her job with the mayhem that is happening in her personal life. I wanted to show how isolated she was, but also how she reaches out to other women for solace.

As a journalist, I wanted to invite you into the story and how it is told. As a reader, I wanted to know what came next. As a lesbian, I wanted to know how a woman like Faye found someone–anyone–to be close to. And as a novelist I wanted to put those things together and make a story that you could peel back, layer after layer, and still not be certain if what you were reading was true or the hallucinations of a mad woman.

That mad woman might be Faye or it might be me. You will have to read “Ordinary Mayhem” to find out..

Ordinary Mayhem 300 DPI


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