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Friday, November 4, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Role Models

Last week I honored the "good guys" who have surrounded me since birth. This week I want to send a shout out to mentors and role models.

One of the first I recall was a young woman whose name I can't remember, although I distinctly remember her face. I was a 17-year-old freshman taking my first English class. She wasn't much older, but much more mature. While good stuff in my world was "cool" or "neat," she found poems "delightful" and stories "charming." It was a paradigm shift: I was in the adult world now. I became more conscious of my vocabulary and word choice.

Eloise Bell and Louise Jensen were two of my role models for teaching. I encountered Eloise during undergraduate study and Louise in my graduate program. Both taught me techniques for reaching students inductively and both infected me with their passion.

A lovely lady named Nancy taught me how to teach my peers with the appropriate mix of confidence and humility.

When it comes to my writing, I've always said that when I grow up, I want to be Debbie Macomber. Debbie, bless her, has encouraged and mentored my work. She gave me a quote for my first series of romance novels (with Avalon) and is still doing creative things with her work that often inspire me to do better and achieve more.

Besides the people who raised me, I've been blessed to have some lovely, inspiring people in my life. I am grateful for each of them.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

No Villains Here

Since I usually prefer to write the sort of story where "everyone is in the right," I seldom employ villains. I do have one in a current Work-in-Progress, but since it's a mystery and since sharing the villain now would ruin the whole plot, I'm going to avoid the problem.

Instead I'm sharing a sequence from A SECRET FAMILY RECIPE. In this scene, Karen, a 40-something wife and mother, is musing about her husband's two aunts, in their 70s, who have come for the funeral of their mother:


For a moment I just thought about the two sisters. They seemed about as different as two women could be – Lenore petite and dainty, sophisticated and refined, a celebrity in a large and glittering world. Shirley was both taller and heavier, a solid Mormon mom little known outside her own small circle of family and friends. Each of them could have plenty of reason to be jealous of the other: Lenore had achieved remarkable and enviable successes, even being introduced to most of the world's remaining royalty. Yet it was Shirley who had borne and raised the family that Lenore had always wanted. In fact, she'd once confided to me, early in my acceptance into the family, that she'd give up the world of ballet in a moment if she could meet the right man and have a baby. It had never happened for her, despite her having so much to offer.

So the two of them could have been enemies, consumed by envy of one another. Instead they were the primary support for each other and, obviously, dear friends. I reflected they had much to teach the rest of us, and I hoped the pieced-together Burnett clan could benefit from the calm strength I felt in their bond, their mutual support.

If all of us who "could have been enemies" could instead become mutually supportive, it would be a better world. Hmmm... That sounds like a plot for the next book.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Creating Believable Villains

First, and so appropriately, let me wish you a Happy Day of the Dead. The Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico in conjunction with All Saints' Day on November 1 and All Souls' Day on November 2. For those who celebrate it, it's something of a Halloween on steroids. If you are so inclined, put out food and drink offerings for your departed friends and family and enjoy sharing a picnic with them all.


This week's web review takes us to the Horror Factor web site for a psychological exploration of villains and "The Other" by Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD. She too favors the complex villain, not as easily explained away as some monstrosities. (Freddy Krueger, anyone?)

Her article is called "The Other in Fiction: Creating Wonderfully Wicked Villains." It would make good required reading for anyone who wants to write horror, or even for the less horrific plots found in mystery and detective stories.

Have a good look at it and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Happy Day of the Dead

Happy Day of the Dead, everyone! Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico in conjunction with All Saints' Day on November 1 and All Souls' Day on November 2. Think of Halloween on steroids. If you are inclined, put out food and drink for your departed friends and family and enjoy sharing a picnic with them all.

This lesser known holiday (practically unknown for most Americans) is a joyful, upbeat festival for those who know it as part of their culture, complete with sugar candies in the shapes of human skulls or skeletons, picnics in cemeteries and bright colors. Still it seems macabre to those who haven't grown up with the concept, and because it's an unusual, macabre day, the Dia de los Muertos makes an excellent background for setting up unusual and macabre events in your fiction.

I recall how surprised I was when I realized Tennessee Williams was making oblique references to the celebration of the dead in "A Streetcar Named Desire." In Scene Nine, just when things are really getting bad for Blanche, an older Mexican woman, dressed in mourning, appears in the street, selling "Flowers. Flowers for the dead." Blanche reacts with horror because the woman is announcing her fate -- in fact, the fate of all of us, and death is what Blanche fears most.

The arrival of the Mexican woman and the brief mention of the Day of the Dead serve as foreshadowing for what will soon happen to Blanche. We don't have to take our books to Mexico in order to make the same kinds of subtle references that Williams has made.

Let's hope we can use them as well.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Enter the Villain

Let me start by wishing everyone a safe, sane and happy Halloween! It may not be my favorite holiday, but I hope you'll enjoy it on my behalf. :-)


In an earlier post I mentioned the fact that, as Tami Hoag put it, "Psychopaths are People, too." Indeed they are. In fact the trend in recent comic book translations to the silver screen has been to do away with bad guys who, like Richard III, are simply "determined to prove a villain." The new, improved bad guys are damaged souls who have turned their pain into pathos and their pathos into heartless victimizing of others.

Now even the James Bond franchise is adopting the trend. As a recent article by Tim Grierson puts it, "the Bond producers have really shied away from the cheesy, eccentric villains that started popping up during the Roger Moore years. Instead, there's been an emphasis on respected, foreign-born actors who can portray a stripped-down dark side." Oscar winner Javier Bardem has been signed to play the wounded villain in the twenty-third Bond film, opposite Daniel Craig, who has played a reinvented Bond in recent installments of this 50-year-old franchise.

As Grierson puts it, "If Bond movies are only as good as their villains, then having someone of Bardem's stature certainly can't hurt. In fact, in some ways he's a real change of pace from your usual Bond baddie."

I have suggested, and I'll say it again, that any person-vs-person conflict that depends on a bad guy is only as good as its villain is bad. Now let me add that to make for really fine fiction, whether in books or movies, the villain must be both bad and believable, motivated by real human drama in his (her) own life, someone we can care about or admire a little, even while reeling in revulsion and horror.

In other words, these villains are people, too, and the more believable we make their nastiness, the stronger our stories will be.