Sex

I had a very earnest email from Cynthia with a question that deserves an answer:

I am captivated by the life, struggles, and victories of the characters in your Into the Wilderness series. The one thing I find dissonant and disturbing is this intense and at times shocking elaborate sexual revelation. Being a Christian woman who discerns what to read by God’s directive moral command, it leaves me uncomfortable to say the least. Especially the homosexual endeavor in Lake in the Clouds. I know my option is to put down your books and not pick them back up, but there is a quality to your storytelling that I find enjoyable except for that. Why? include it at all. It seems to me it does not enhance your characters, and without it, these books are appropriate for women of all ages. Just curious.

One of the basic truths about storytelling and fiction, in my view of things,  is this: not every book is for every reader. There are well-written, important novels out there that don’t work for me personally.  I can have objections to a novel that are about style, or approach, or subject matter. Hundreds of critical review praising it to the heavens, thousands of five stars reviews by readers: if it doesn’t work for me, that’s something for me to wonder about and explore for myself. It’s not about the novel. For every novel I come across  I have to decide whether the novel is worth my time.

Cynthia is disturbed by sex scenes in my novels because, as she puts it, they are in conflict with her beliefs as a Christian.  

For me personally, religion is not an issue; my understanding of right and wrong is not founded in any scripture or any faith. I am what is generally called a Freethinker. Wikipedia has a good general definition:

Freethought (or “free thought”) is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and rationalism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or other dogma. In particular, freethought is strongly tied with rejection of traditional religious belief. The cognitive application of freethought is known as “freethinking”, and practitioners of freethought are known as “freethinkers”.  The term first came into use in the 17th century in order to indicate people who inquired into the basis of traditional religious beliefs.

So I have to take religion out of Cynthia’s question and answer it from a different direction: is there any logical, rational reason to omit sex scenes from my novels?

My goal is to tell an engaging story with characters who are as close to life as I can make them. They may face unusual challenges, but in the end they deal with universal issues, things that are common to all of us: simple survival, connections and responsibilities and expectations in relationship to other people and to communities. What makes life worth living, in a more general way.  The way people relate to each other sexually is not a secondary or unimportant element of their lives.

If I write a sex scene, it is because I believe that the scene will contribute to the understanding of the characters.  I don’t write sex scenes to arouse the reader, to titillate or irritate or shock.  Some people enjoy erotica — and there is some beautifully written erotica out there to enjoy, if that interests you — but I don’t fall into that category. In an 800 page novel a handful of scenes that involve sex do not indicate an overwhelming preoccupation with that subject.  

So I write sex scenes for the same reason I write scenes where my characters argue, or laugh, or weep: to tell the whole story. I am sorry to lose a reader because his or her world view requires them to turn away, but I tell the best story I can, and leave this ultimate decision up to the individual. 

after thirty-five years of marriage

source

The Virgin Cure and Professional Curiosity

On International Women’s Day

I’m reading Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure, a novel set in Manhattan in the 1870s.  It’s always a bit of a gamble to read novels set in approximately the same time and place I’m writing about. If the novel is poorly done I can put it aside and forget about it; if it’s well done I’m wracked by curiosity.

The Virgin Cure is extremely well done. The story is about Moth, a little girl raised in the worst slums the city had to offer until her mother sells her to a rich woman to be trained as a lady’s maid. It would be a very short novel if the rich woman treated Moth well and trained her as promised. Or, to quote Jim Thompson: There’s only one plot: things are not what they seem. 

Moth escapes that  bad situation to find a place for herself among the city’s low life, setting out to become a first class thief. This is as far as I have got in the novel, and anything else I could say would be conjecture. The story has definitely kept my interest, but I have to confess that what really makes me eager to read is the historical detail.

It’s professional curiosity that gets in the way of just enjoying the story.  I keep coming across things that take me by surprise, and I have to stop and wonder where McKay found the details. Some of it will be invention, but some of it will be drawn from her research.

So for example, a friend directs Moth to the best fence in the city (the word fence was used then as it is today, someone who will purchase stolen goods from a thief and makes a profit by finding a way to get the stolen item back into circulation).  In this novel the person is Marm Birnbaum, whose Fancy Goods and Haberdashery is located at 79 Clinton Street. 

Because I’m familiar with the period I saw right away that  McKay had based the Birnbaums on Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, a German immigrant who did in fact have a fine dry goods shop at 79 Clinton Street. Marm Mandelbaum and her husband were hugely successful both as shopkeepers and patrons to the criminal element. From a Smithsonian  article very much worth reading: 

Marm didn’t so much join the underworld as tweak it to her preference, treating crime itself as a commodity to barter. No mere receiver of stolen goods, she was, according to the newspapers of her day, “the greatest crime promoter of all time,” the person who “first put crime in America on a syndicated basis,” and “the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime in New York City.” She dealt in plunder of all kinds—silk, lace, diamonds, horses, carriages, silverware, gold, silver, bonds—and could estimate the value of a thief’s swag with a quick and ruthless scan. A large portion of the property looted during the Chicago fire of 1871 ended up in and out of her possession, for a sizable profit. Her own hands, of course, remained unsullied; she cracked no safes, picked no locks, dodged no bullets. A student of the law, she understood that uncorroborated testimony meant little, and so took care to deal with one crook at a time. […]  By 1880, Marm was inarguably the most successful fence in the United States, selling to dealers in every major city along the East Coast and Canada. Over the course of her career, she handled an estimated $5 million to $10 million in stolen property. Dozens of preeminent bank robbers and thieves sought her business, and she mentored those who displayed exceptional cunning. Through Marm’s patronage and connections, Adam Worth became a notorious international art thief known as the “Napoleon of Crime.”

When you’re writing historical fiction you can’t follow every interesting lead, or you’d never finish anything. For McKay this particular minor character was worth pursuing, so I would guess that she sought out every source provided in the Smithsonian article, starting with a thesis:

Rona L. Holub. The Rise of Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum: Criminal Enterprise and the American Dream in New York City, 1850-1884. (In Partial Completion of the Master of Arts Degree at Sarah Lawrence College, May, 1998).

At this point I have to talk myself out of getting hold of this unpublished thesis. It is relevant to what I’m writing, but not relevant enough (or at least, that’s my story and I’m trying to stick to it) to interrupt the flow of writing. To which I have to return. Right now.

Story Prompt: Newes from the Dead

Anne Greene
Anne Greene

Whores of Yore (yes, a catchy title) at Twitter  is stuffed to the gills with crazy interesting historical tidbits having to do with women’s lives and sexuality. The description on Twitter: ‘A catalogue of jilts, cracks, prostitutes, night-walkers, whores, she-friends, kind women & others of the linnen-lifting tribe.’  (18+)’ 

Often the bits posted there are just too good for a storyteller to ignore, as is the case with the life of Anne Greene. If you have been looking for material for a historical novel, this might be it.  It’s true that Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost includes a character based on Anne, but she is peripheral in that otherwise very dense and challenging novel. 

The case is so interesting that there was an 1982 article about it in the British Medical Journal: “Miraculous deliverance of Anne Green: an Oxford case of resuscitation in the seventeenth century” which you can download as a pdf.  

Anne was convicted of infanticide and hanged. The next day when the anatomists were getting ready to start a post-mortem exam, they realized she was still breathing. This was considered a miracle and act of God, and she was pardoned.  Her father saw the possibilities, and once she returned home, starting charging people to come have a look at her. From the BMJ article:

This collection and a subsequent financial appeal on her behalf produced many pounds, which paid the bill of the apothecary, her food and lodging, and the legal expenses of her pardon. Anne Green’s fame continued after her full recovery, when she returned to some friends in the country taking with her the coffin in which she had lain. She then married, bore three children, and lived for 15 years after her famous execution and resuscitation. 

If I were to take this on, I’d start with the day she was revived and the aftermath. I keep wondering what use she made of that coffin. 

Researching Names for Writers of Historical Fiction

I read a lot of 19th century newspapers for all kinds of reasons, but this clip from the NYT (November 1885) is a great example of one of the ways I find names.

NYT November 1885
NYT November 1885

Here we have Giuseppe Giudici who shot and killed Maggiorini Dagahiero, as well as Ling Chun, Ling Yum, Chun Fong and Lung Mow who are all involved in a perjury case.

central reporter title page
Click for full size. Central Reporter. 1886 on cases heard in September 1885.

A word of warning: even the NYT was really bad at getting the names of immigrants right. Maggiorini Dagahiero strikes me as off, anyway, so I see if I can turn up either half of it elsewhere and find that even mighty Google produces  not a single example of the name Dagahiero beyond the one in this very newspaper article. However, Daghiero does come up — in fact, if you search it will bring up a whole story that is in itself interesting.

Death penalty cases were appealed, I assume, automatically, as they are today. This publication provides both details of the crime and the legal ruling. Because the book is long out of copyright, you can download the whole pdf through Google Books or archive.org (my preference). I can almost guarantee that if you sit down to skim through a volume like this, you will find many stories waiting to be told, the majority of them tragic in one way or another. Some of them bordering on the farcical. 

In this case the details just raise more questions, for me at least. 

I haven’t yet looked into Ling Chun and Ling Yum, but I can predict, based on past experience, that it will be next to impossible to get any details. First, because the crime was minor and didn’t involve bloodshed (newspapers then, as now, subscribed to the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ rule) but also because Asian names were so regularly and extremely mangled.

In case you’d like to know more about the murderous baker (the details of the legal appeal are missing):

Appeal to Death Penalty Case
This is a large graphic. Click to open it on another tab, and be patient.

 

Mea Culpa, Mea Cliffhangers

This post is 1 year old.

I hear from readers who are confused or irritated by unresolved storylines in The Gilded Hour.  Specifically two storylines seem to raise the most questions.

  1. The Russo children (where was Tonino, and where is Vittorio?)
  2. The identity of the individuals who were responsible for the deaths of at least six women.

Here’s an email from Nancy. 

Dear Sara I just finished your new book the Gilded Hour. I have a question. On page 696,after looking for a killer through most of the other 695 pages Oscar says, no reasons to give up now, in reference to finding the killer. Then there is not another word in the remaining 36 pages about finding the killer. What???? Who was the killer??? It turned out to be a very disappointing read I must say.

I am hoping for a reply .

This next email is from Sandra, who is also curious, but in more general terms.

Hi Rosina/Sara

I have never written to an author before but I had to write you. I loved The Gilded Hour and was heartbroken to finish it. When I saw on your webpage that “a new series was launched” I assume that means you are going to write more. Whew! I just have to know what happens to all these people. I am in love with them and am imagining futures for each one of them. I want to read more about Anna & Jack, Sophie & Cap, Rosa & her siblings, Ned, Aunt Quinlan, Margaret, Elise. I feel like I know them now so want to follow their lives.

My first thought:  It’s really uplifting to hear from readers, even when they are irritated. It means the story got under that reader’s skin. My second thought: I hate disappointing readers.   Then back to the first thought: These are people who have read the book I wrote and felt strongly enough about it to write to me. That’s good. That’s what I focus on. 

There are only a few things I can say to this kind of letter from a reader: I’m sorry that the story didn’t work for you, and/or:   I’m writing as fast as I can, and I hope that the next novel will both answer your questions, and be worth the wait.

But there’s also one thing I need to say about the nature of storytelling.  As I see it, good storytelling never tells it all.  A well done novel  leaves questions open to be considered and answered by the reader.   So it is true that you haven’t heard in detail about what Tonino went through, and you don’t know where Vittorio is; his adoptive family is gone. You may never know some of those things; in the end they may be for you to decide.

The question about the murders is, of course, far more pressing. Some people raced through the last part of the book because they just had to know who was responsible … And then were disappointed.  Really disappointed. One star irritated.  [Edited to note that this question comes up in the comments, below.] An old friend pointed something out to me that I hadn’t considered: in the mystery genre, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll know who the guilty party is by the end.  I don’t read much mystery, or I would have realized that.  If I had been aware of that expectation, I’m not sure what I would have done differently.

Could I have written a better novel? Certainly.  I doubt there has ever been a novelist who is totally satisfied with a piece of work.  I know a writer with a t-shirt that reads IT’S ALL A DRAFT UNTIL YOU DIE.   It’s the nature of the beast, and still:  I don’t like disappointing readers, and I do hope that when the next book comes out, those I’ve irritated or frustrated will find that the answers they were expecting really were worth the wait. In the meantime, there are a lot of documents about the murders dragged from the archives of the police department, sitting over there at The Gilded Hour  site. You might well figure out the answer to this question on your own. 

Story or Plot?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Craft
This post is 2 years old.

brokenguardrailNote: This is a reworking of an earlier post. I am making an effort (slowly) to gather all the posts about craft into a series.


The distinction between story and plot is a deceptively simple one.

Story: what happened

Plot: the artful rearrangement of what happened in a way that keeps your readers engaged.

A police report is a story told as a series of facts, in chronological order:

August 29 2008. At approximately 10:16am Officer Rodriquez and I were dispatched to the site of an accident on northbound State Route 12, approximately 500 yards north of Exit 15. Witness J.M. Corrigan had called 911 and was still at the site with his passenger, Maria Corrigan, of Tyler. The witness stated he had been travelling behind a 2004 Ford Explorer when that vehicle suddenly veered sharply to the right, left the highway, broke through the guardrail, hit the cement barrier, flipped end-over-end and then plunged over the precipice falling approximately 200 feet. While the witnesses did not see the impact, they heard it clearly.

Witness JMC stated he had been travelling at about 70 mph, as was the accident vehicle. On examination and photographing of the scene we discovered no skid marks. Witnesses JMC and MC both stated unequivocally that the vehicle’s brake lights never flashed.

Multiple fire departments were at the impact site at the bottom of the cliff. The fire had been put out by the time we reached them. Two victims released to the coroner at approximately 11:45 am. No identifying documents survived the fire. The wreckage is still being processed. The case has been handed over to Detective Ann Uribe.

These are the facts, and they are singularly unsatisfying. Was this a mechanical malfunction, or something more sinister? Detective Uribe’s report will not directly address this questions. It will simply provide more facts and raise further questions.

The victims have been identified as Georgia Jackson, age 34 and her daughter Milly, age 3.

Forensics report no immediate evidence of mechanical failure. Preliminary findings from the coroner indicate no alcohol or drugs in the driver’s system. The mother’s driving record was clean. No criminal history. No history of psychiatric illness. The driver was a pediatric nurse at Stanley Memory Hospital. No overt hostilities with coworkers.

Married to Robert Jackson, a pediatrician. The marriage was, by all reports, a functional one without conflict or financial difficulties. One son survives, James, aged six.

Robert Jackson has no document history of drug abuse or any other compulsive behavior. Both father and son were visiting with Robert Jackson’s sister Rayanne and her family in Springfield, and had been there for three days at the time of the accident.

Six weeks ago Milly Jackson was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. According to the doctor treating her, she was responding well to treatment and her prognosis was very good. Interviews with family members, coworkers and friends indicate that there were no overt suicidal gestures. We have been unable to contact the driver’s mother, who is traveling in South America. An interview with her might provide more insight into her daughter’s state of mind.

There are some strong indications here of what might have happened, but we only have part of the story. And still, the facts you do have, the things you know add up to something that won’t let go. You want to know what happened, and why Georgia and her daughter died.

Every novelist will approach this differently, but here’s a method that has worked well for me in the past. My experience is that old-fashioned index cards are the best way to proceed. On each card I enter one fact about Georgia’s life based on what I know already. I lay out the cards in chronological order, and consider. What other events in Georgia’s life are important? As I work, facts and scenes, bits of dialog come to me. Each goes on a card, until I have a chronological accounting of major facts in her life:

1. Georgia Adams is born into a middle class family in a small town.

2. When she is three, her younger brother Michael is born.

3. In grade school she is praised for her meticulous, careful ways.

4. At age seven, her brother dies of leukemia.

5. She gets through high school and nursing school, still careful and thorough in all her work.

6. As a pediatric nurse she is fiercely protective of her charges, who love her. However, she never manages to make a connection to parents.

7. She marries a pediatrician she works with, someone she admires for his skill and perceptive way with children.

8. They have two kids, a boy named James and three years later, a daughter they call Milly.

9. At age three, Milly is diagnosed with leukemia.

10. On a cold February morning, Emma takes her daughter to the hospital for a chemotherapy treatment and everything goes as expected.

11. On the way home, Georgia purposefully drives the car off a cliff.

spellingbeecardNow you’ve got something – but it’s still only in its infant stages. We know the facts, but it’s all very clinical. We don’t have a plot. This is where you start shuffling your index cards, because the truth is, you could start telling this story anywhere. As the characters take on form, possibilities suggest themselves:

Card #6: start with a scene in which Georgia is being peppered with questions by the oblivious and disruptive parents of a sick kid, and she comes close to losing her temper – but doesn’t. She never does.

Card #11: Officer Rodriquez tells his mother the story of the accident. He’s only been on the job for three months, and he’s finding it difficult to cope with such a tragedy.

Card #3: Georgia wins a city-wide spelling be because she is the only fifth grader who can spell intravenous. Her parents are absent.

Card #11: We experience the funeral from Paul’s perspective, or his father’s.

Card #7: From Georgia’s own POV we walk through the house she and her husband are thinking of buying when they are newly married. In her mind she keeps comparing it to her childhood home.

Card #11: Detective Uribe interviews Georgia’s husband Paul.

There are dozens and dozens of possible starting points. Any of them could work, but only one will work best for you.

Column written for and first appearing at WriterUnboxed

You’re wondering why you can’t tell the story from beginning to end. Of course you could do that, but most authors can’t afford to take the chance. You’ve got maybe two pages to hook your reader. You might be able to do that with beautiful prose about Georgia’s childhood home, her mother’s diffidence about having children, the stunted apple tree outside the kitchen window. There is one genre that values prose and imagery and characterization above plot. If you’re hoping to catch the interest of the lit-criterati, that stunted apple tree might be the perfect place to start.

On the other hand, most readers don’t think of plot as a four letter word. They don’t think of it as a word at all. They want a compelling story, and a reason to turn the page. The trick is, finding that starting point.

The index card approach works well for me, because it makes me really think. Once I find the right place to start, I may never refer to my index cards again. Or if I do, I might see how the story evolved in a different direction than I had anticipated.

Best of all, it gives me a way to watch Georgia grow up and turn into the woman who drives over that cliff with her three year old daughter strapped into her car seat. Because I understand how she got there, I can, if I do my job right, make you see it too.