6 setting tricks I learned from reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife

MrEmersonWifeMr. Emerson’s Wife
By Amy Belding Brown
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005

Recently, I picked up my copy of Mr. Emerson’s Wife, hoping for a relaxing companion on a lazy, snowy Sunday afternoon. Instead I found a master’s course in using setting to shape your story.

Briefly, Mr. Emerson’s Wife tells the story of Lydia Jackson, who catches the eye of Ralph Waldo Emerson when she attends one of his lectures in her hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The two engage in a lively conversation. Three weeks later, Emerson surprises Lydia by proposing marriage.  The majority of the book focuses on the consequences of Lydia’s choice to marry Emerson. For example, Emerson changes her name almost immediately after she accepts his proposal to Lidian, on the grounds that Lydia was not suitable.

That conversation aptly captures the power imbalance between the couple. Emerson views his wife proprietarily — as a woman possessed of an unusual mind to be sure, but in the end, still an imperfect human being whom it is his duty to perfect. She views him almost as a god — at least at first.

“Lydian?” I thought suddenly of my baptism. Surely he could not know that in giving me a second name, he so vividly reflected that experience. Perhaps it was another sign of God’s imprint on our bond. “It has a pleasing sound. But why?”

“The name suits you, with its twin connotations of musical harmony and beautiful ancient cities. It’s my notion — a thought that struck me after our first meeting, in fact — that your parents misnamed you. Lydia is a common name, after all. And you are the least common of women.”

(Mr. Emerson’s Wife, page 41. Emerson eventually agrees to change the spelling of his wife’s name to Lidian.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Throughout their marriage, the relationship between Lidian and her husband is cordial, but not particularly affectionate. Brown does portray Lidian loving her husband (at least initially), and by the end of the book I believed Emerson loved Lidian to a degree as well. But in the meantime, Lidian is forced to stay by and watch as Emerson develop intimate, possibly romantic, relationships with at least two women, including Margaret Fuller, who comes to stay with the couple for long periods of time.

The young Mrs. Emerson looks destined to lead a perfectly suitable life free of any untoward husbandly affection until she meets Henry David Thoreau, for whom she feels an almost instinctive attraction.  He clearly feels the same for her. The rest of the book focuses on the complications that mutual attraction creates.

Brown uses setting to great effect in this story, as well she ought. After all, she’s writing about two pivotal Transcendentalist writers and the woman who loved them. It would be bizarre if nature didn’t have a starring role.

At the same time, because the setting is so vital to the story, I found myself analyzing the ways in which Brown uses setting to advance her narrative.  I’ve been struggling with how much setting description to include in my own novels, so I was curious to see if I could detect a pattern in Brown’s work.

Here’s what I learned. Continue reading

Posted in Adult Fiction, Book Reviews, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

This picture has not been photoshopped. (Photo: Shala Howell)

This picture has not been photoshopped. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Every year, Chicago dyes its river green in conjunction with its St. Patrick’s Day parade. The tradition dates back to 1962, when Mayor Richard J. Daley and his childhood buddy Stephen M. Bailey decided it would be a bit of a lark to dye the river green to mark the holiday.

This year, they dyed the river on Saturday, so of course, the Seven-Year-Old, her Daddyo, her Uncle Cullen, and I trekked to downtown to check it out.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Related Links:

Posted in Miscellaneous Musings | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Anywhere but Paradise by Anne Bustard

last-list_blog-hop-300x300As I mentioned a week or two ago, in January, EgmontUSA announced that they were going out of business, and that this spring’s list would be their last. I signed up to participate in Cuddlebuggery’s Last List Blog Hop in hopes of offering at least one of the affected writers a little bit of free publicity. 

This review is part of that blog hop.

Page break clip artAnywhere but Paradise
By Anne Bustard
Egmont USA
Release date: March 31, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade (Ages 8-12)

Anywhere but Paradise is a beautifully written middle grade (MG) novel about Peggy Sue Bennett, a 12-year-girl who moves from Gladiola, Texas to Hawaii after her father gets a job in the sugar cane industry.

Aimed at readers ages 8-12, Anywhere but Paradise touches on several important, yet difficult issues, for YA readers: bullying, discrimination, loneliness, and coming to terms with major life changes over which you have absolutely no control.

ABP_jkt_finalSome of the writing may be too intense for younger or emotionally tender readers — I had a lump in my throat from almost the opening pages.  The scene where Peggy Sue has to leave her beloved cat, Howdy, in the quarantine center is heart-wrenching.  Throughout the novel, Bustard uses Howdy’s situation extremely effectively to mirror the struggles Peggy herself is going through.  The parallels are skillful, adding pressure to Peggy’s situation without being purely duplicative.

There is another tough section toward the end of the book, when a tsunami strikes Hawaii and Peggy Sue is separated from her parents. The days of uncertainty while Peggy Sue waits to hear whether her parents have survived are a bit harrowing.

Still, even in the darkest moments of the novel, I never lost hope for Peggy Sue. In fact, I found the ending both deeply satisfying and realistic. Things will never be perfect in Hawaii, but Peggy Sue manages to make a place for herself within this new and gloriously imperfect paradise.

Anywhere but Paradise is a marvelous book, and I look forward to reading more from Bustard in the future.

Disclosure: I received a free kindle copy of Anywhere but Paradise from EgmontUSA via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.  You can preorder Anywhere but Paradise from Amazon here. The book will be available in stores March 31, 2015.

Cross-posted on Caterpickles.

Related Links: 

Posted in Book Reviews, Young Adult Books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Author Interview: Anne Bustard, Anywhere but Paradise

last-list_blog-hop-300x300As I mentioned a week or two ago, in January, EgmontUSA announced that they were going out of business, and that this spring’s list would be their last. I signed up to participate in Cuddlebuggery’s Last List Blog Hop in hopes of offering at least one of the affected writers a little bit of free publicity. 

As part of that blog hop, Anne Bustard, author of Anywhere but Paradise kindly agreed to talk writing, books, and the travails of publishing with me. Be sure to read through to the end for some exciting news about what’s next for Ms. Bustard and the other EgmontUSA Last List writers. 

Page break clip artBostonWriters (BW): Anywhere but Paradise is a beautifully written Middle Grade (MG) novel (with appeal to younger teens) about a twelve-year-old girl who has just moved from Texas to Hawaii, and the many difficulties she faces making those adjustments. Please tell us what inspired you to write that particular story.

Anne BustarAnneBustard_Headshot copyd (AB): Thank you for your kind words, Shala, and thank you for inviting me to this conversation! I love to talk about books!

I was born in paradise and I spent most of my growing up years on Oahu. I collected shells and beach glass with my cousins, celebrated special dinners with my grandparents, strung lei from flowers in our backyard, and took hula lessons once a week, culminating in a recital at the end of each school year.

Life was pretty perfect. Except for school in seventh grade. I worried all year long because an eighth grader threatened to beat me up on the last day of school, a day she and others called “Kill Haole (white people) Day.” Nothing happened to me. But, still.

So, I wondered, what if a reluctant newcomer’s initial entry was wobbly? And I went from there.

BW:  I confess, I had a lump in my throat from almost the opening pages of Anywhere but Paradise. The scene where Peggy Sue has to leave her beloved cat, Howdy, in the quarantine center is heart-wrenching.  And yet I never lost hope for Peggy Sue. In fact, I found the ending deeply satisfying. Could you talk a little bit about how writers can strike a balance between sorrow and hope in their novels?

AB: Can I tell you that while writing those scenes, I had a catch in my throat, too, and maybe a few tears?

For me, the balance between sorrow and hope was an evolution. It came over time, through zillions of drafts and a big aha!

I’m all about hope. So even though I created challenges for Peggy Sue, it was a difficult for me to fully embrace sorrow on the page. When I finally did, I went off the charts dark. Too far off.

The story rested for years. Then, with more input from beta readers, and a big aha! I began again.

I reevaluated what Peggy Sue wanted, what each of the characters wanted. Over time, their wants had changed and/or I finally recognized what they were. I believe that understanding made all the difference.

In that next draft, I got miles closer to finding center. Then, in the revisions that followed, I continued to hone the balance.

BW: Anywhere but Paradise touches on several important, yet difficult issues, for readers — bullying, discrimination, loneliness, and coming to terms with major life changes over which you have absolutely no control. In the end, your book is a wonderful example of how writers can deal with these issues in an approachable, and not moralistic, fashion. What advice do you have for writers who are developing books that touch on similar issues?

ABP_jkt_finalAB: Research is our friend. Read books and articles and interviews. Talk to experts and people who have had these experiences. Ask questions. Listen to the answers and the silences. Ask more questions.

I have found people to be incredibly generous with their time.

Trust that there is a reason you are drawn to stories that touch on sensitive issues. If these experiences come from your own life, journal about them. By hand. If you can, deconstruct them with someone.

Then, as Neil Gaiman said, “Start telling the stories that only you can tell.”

BW: What do you enjoy reading? Which books have inspired or informed your own writing?

AB: A huge stack of middle grade novels is always near by. I can’t be without a book! Right now, that group includes Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai, Wish Girl by Nikki Loftin and an advanced reader copy of Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan.

In the past few years, I have returned time and again to One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, May B. by Caroline Starr Rose and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

I often reread with a single focus in order to study what I am wrestling with. Reading books on craft is helpful, but in my opinion, studying the works of others is even more essential for our education.

BW: You have just endured a major upheaval in your career plan — your publisher Egmont, has just announced they are going out of business and that your book will be part of the last list of books they ever publish. If you don’t mind my asking, what happens now? What are the next steps for you?

AB: There is big news! Egmont recently announced that Lerner Publishing will buy the last list of Egmont books to be published, as well as many of their other titles. I’m ecstatic! This means our books will have a wonderful home with a company dedicated to children’s and YA literature.

As for me, my plans for welcoming Anywhere but Paradise into the world on March 31st continue. They include participation in the Texas Library Association Annual Conference, a book launch party, ongoing social media events, an opportunity to speak at a writers’ workshop, and more.

BW: What are you working on now?

AB: I’m having a super fun time writing a humorous story for slightly younger readers.

Mahalo nui loa, Shala! Thank you very much! I loved chatting with you!

About Anne Bustard: 

Anne Bustard is a beach girl at heart. If she could, she would walk in the sand every day, wear flip-flops, and eat nothing but fresh pineapple, macadamia nuts and chocolate. She is the author of the award-winning picture book Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers). Her debut middle grade historical novel Anywhere But Paradise (Egmont Publishing) will be released on March 31, 2015. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Related Links: 

Disclosure: I received a free kindle copy of Anywhere but Paradise from EgmontUSA via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.  You can preorder Anywhere but Paradise from Amazon here. The book will be available in stores March 31, 2015.

Posted in Author Interviews, Book Reviews, Middle Grade | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Stuff I found helpful this week

10 bits of blizzard therapy from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter (WBUR’s CommonHealth Blog)

A train stuck in the snow during the winter of 1881. Man on top of train provided for scale. (Photo: Minnesota Historical Society)

A train stuck in the snow during the winter of 1881. Man on top of train provided for scale. (Photo: Minnesota Historical Society on Wikimedia Commons)

From the post:

But “The Long Winter” offers, I would argue, the best of all antidotes to feelings that this is a horrible, awful, nasty winter. The trick is to compare our current winter woes not to our usual milder weather but to a dire prairie winter: the kind of winter when young Laura would wake, shivering, to a frigid house buffeted by blizzard, spend the dreary day twisting hay for heat and grinding wheat for the coarse brown bread that was her family’s last remaining food, crawl back into a cold bed and shiver until the shivering itself made her warm enough to fall asleep.

The Path to Deepening Your Protagonist (WritinGeekery)

A detailed roadmap to using your character’s flaws to create a richer reading experience for your readers.

Picking a Juicy Secret to Jazz up your Character (WritinGeekery)

How you can use secrets, big or small, to strengthen your narrative.

(Can anyone else tell I’m thinking about characterization this week?)

Why my new book bombed (The Incompetent Writer)

A post about someone else’s post, but with analysis that I found to be even more helpful than the original post. Confused yet?

Related Links: 

 

Posted in Writing Tips | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Memorable Quotes from somewhere in the middle of a book: The David Liss Edition

From The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss:

“Lucy no longer believed herself destined for anything in particular. Her life had come to feel alien, as though her soul itself were not hers, but a copy so clever in its construction that it very nearly deceived her own body. She had been thrust into a strange existence, and her real life had been lost in the misty past, like a favorite childhood toy whose features she could not recall even while her longing for it remained painful and vivid.”

Honestly, it was hard to pick just one quote from this book. The writing is just so rich. But in the end I went with this one, because I love the images Liss uses to illustrate Lucy’s situation.

Posted in Great Quotes | Leave a comment

Egmont’s Last Published List

anywhere but paradiseVia Writing and Illustrating comes word that Egmont is closing its doors at the end of January, leaving their authors to fend for themselves.

I can only imagine the emotional turmoil these writers are going through right now.

I’m a sucker for fairy tale retellings and stories with mythological and/or literary hooks, so I’ve ordered Ilsa Bick’s White Space and The Dickens Mirror, Valiant by Sarah McGuire, as well as The Shadow Prince and The Eternity Key by Bree Despain. I’m certain these aren’t the only enticing books on the list. Browse through it and show these writers some love.

As Bree Despain remarked on the Writing and Illustrating blog, purchasing these books isn’t the only way to show them love. Reviewing the books on Amazon and Goodreads or simply ordering copies of the book from your local library are all helpful activities too. If you have a blog, you can spread the word about the last list or sign up to participate in the Last List Blog Hop. (You’ll be asked to review a book on your blog.)

In that light — here’s the complete list from Egmont. Most, if not all, are young adult or children’s titles.

BickJanuary Releases

1/06 – Hissy Fitz by Patrick Jennings

1/27 – Tear You Apart by Sarah Cross

February Releases

2/10 – White Space (paperback) by Ilsa J. Bick

2/10 – The Jaguar Stones 4: The Lost City by J&P Voelkel

March ReleasesPatrickJennings

3/10 – The Dickens Mirror by Ilsa J. Bick

3/24 – Odd, Weird & Little (paperback) by Patrick Jennings

3/31 – Anywhere but Paradise by Anne Bustard

April Releasesvaliant

4/14 – The Shadow Prince (paperback) by Bree Despain

4/14 – Burn Out (paperback) by Kristi Helvig

4/14 – Seaborne: The Lost Prince by Matt Myklusch

4/21 – Good Crooks 3: Sniff a Skunk! by Mary Amato

4/28 – The Eternity Key by Bree Despain

4/28 – Strange Skies by Kristi Helvig

4/28 – Valiant by Sarah McGuire

Related Links: 

Cross-posted on Caterpickles. 

Posted in Book Reviews, Chapter Books, Young Adult Books | Tagged | 3 Comments

2015 Reading Resolutions

Cross-posted on Caterpickles

Last year, Reading in Winter got me hooked on reading challenges. Theirs was pleasantly complicated and arranged in a BINGO! format that kept me reading until I had READ ALL THE BOOKS.

This year, Reading in Winter has abandoned their Book Bingo Reading Challenge in favor of a Read Local challenge. Read Local for them means Read Canadian. I like Canadians, I really do, and I have no doubt that Canadian literature is an underappreciated art form. The problem was I didn’t much want to dedicate my entire reading year to it.

Still, I wanted to do something to focus my reading this year. So I spent some time surveying the reading challenges available to me.

There are tons of reading challenges out there. The Goodreads reading challenge is the most basic. Tell them how many books you’re going to read this year, then go do it. I wanted something a little more intentional than that.

There are challenges to get you to read more library books, read more Victorian literature, clear out your to-be-read pile, read more African American/Asian/Latino/women/new-to-you writers. There’s even a reading challenge to see how many different reading challenges you can enter and complete in 2015.

In the end, I made my decision the old-fashioned way. I made a list.

This year I want to:

  1. Support my local library
  2. Give new-to-me authors a try
  3. Support diversity in publishing
  4. Read great writers in the hopes of picking up a good trick or two
  5. Plow through more of my To-Be-Read pile
  6. Have fun

I borrowed Reading in Winter’s Book Bingo Scorecard idea and crafted one of my own that reflected these goals. Every month, I would work toward these goals by reading:

  • One book from my local library
  • One book from a writer I’d not read before
  • One book from a writer of color
  • One book from a Nobel Prize winner
  • One book from my To-Be-Read pile
  • And just for fun, I’m playing Authors A-Z, a game in which you try to read at least one book from a writer with last name that starts A-Z (the goal being to collect at least one author for every letter of the alphabet)

This means reading six books a month. Most months, that’s not a problem. But in months I can only log four of the good-for-me books (like *cough* January), I let myself use one book from that month in two categories. Toni Morrison, for example, is both a Nobel Prize winner and an author of color, so in January, I used her book A Mercy in both places.

I’d rather read six books a month. But then again, stressing myself out over whether I’ll be able to finish that sixth book in a given month kind of undercuts the whole “Have fun” plan.

The Seven-Year-Old liked the idea of collecting authors by their last names so much that she wants to do it too.

I made a scorecards for both of us, because of course I did. Here are mine.

The Good for Me Books

Looks like someone forgot to visit their local library in January. (Scorecard: Mommyo)

Looks like someone forgot to visit their local library in January. Tsk. Tsk. (Scorecard: Mommyo)

The Have Fun! Books

This one is nice because it lets me record the other books I read that don't fit nicely into the "Make Mommyo a better person" categories. (Scorecard: Shala Howell)

This one is nice because it lets me record the other books I read that don’t fit nicely into the “Make Mommyo a better person” categories. (Scorecard: Shala Howell)

Hmm… My reading may be weighted a little heavily toward having fun.

If The Seven-Year-Old ever lets me see her scorecard again, I’ll share it with you too. Through unofficial channels (read: by tucking her in at night) I’ve learned that she’s reading The Little House on the Prairie series at the moment.

Related Links:

Posted in Book Bingo | Tagged | 1 Comment

Memorable Quotes from somewhere in the middle of a book: HEY! That’s my name! Edition

You may have noticed, I have an unusual name. I’ve heard over the years of a few other people named Shala roving around America.  One lives in New Jersey, and has (or had) a furniture store named Shala II in Dallas. I know she lives in New Jersey and owns the store because when I was in high school, I was so excited about seeing a store with my name on it that I stopped in one day and asked who it was named for.

Just this past summer, I came across a yoga studio in San Francisco called Monkey Yoga Shala. When the Chicago winter gets me down, I like to imagine a much cooler and more physically fit version of myself running that studio and living a balmy life in San Francisco.

Sign for Monkey Yoga Shala studio in Oakland, CA. (Photo: Monkey Yoga Studio)

Namaste, y’all. (Photo: Monkey Yoga Studio)

 

But though I’ve run into the odd retail business here and there with my name (and had my name used as nonsense syllables in countless pop songs), in all my years of reading and/or being read to, I have never, ever — not even once — come across a character named Shala.

Until this week. When it happened not once, but twice. Within a few pages of each other.

I’m reading Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer series right now, and in The Broken Eye (Lightbringer #3) two characters named Shala appear.

The first appears in a dream/backstory segment and is fondly remembered by the main character as a middle-aged room slave with so little sex appeal that the main character speculates that his mother has given him the slave to ensure that he remains celibate. Awesome.

Just brings a tear to your eye, doesn't it? (Excerpt from The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks)

Just brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it? (Excerpt from The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks)

The second Shala appears a few pages later and is killed off within eleven words. But what a cameo! That Shala has been driven insane by the wanton use of magic and appears for her death scene completely strung out on poppy.

ShalaSmith

Seriously though, “Smith”? You show a nearly — no, as far as I know completely unprecedented amount of creativity in using the name Shala, and then you pair it with “Smith”? Disappointing. Why not use something more creative. Like, I don’t know… Howell. An incoherent drunken mage named Howell. Yeah. That’s perfect. (Excerpt from The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks)

 

It’s good to be me. Even if it’s not so good to be named after me in a Brent Weeks novel.

Michael doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. He is constantly running across his name in books and is completely desensitized to thrill of seeing his name in print.

Me? I’m a Brent Weeks fan for life.

Related Links:

 

Posted in Great Quotes | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

I read all the books!

See?

BookBingoDoneRather than savor the accomplishment, I’m busily setting up goals (and scorecards) for next year. I’ll let you know what I decide.

Happy reading.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments