contemporary fiction

Chunka Hunka Burning Love: Chicago

I was looking for an older document and came across a novel I’ve been working on for oh, twenty years or so. Some day I may finish it. But this bit caught my eye, because I’ve been very homesick for Chicago lately.  I actually remember writing this, because I still now get an echo of the raw feelings it evoked in me. 

From Saving Eliza. All Rights Reserved.

It is rush hour when Kate crosses the Indiana border into Illinois. The traffic is fierce, cars and trucks charging over the Sky Bridge like a pack of dogs jockeying for position, nosing each other from lane to lane. All the way up Stony Island houses crouch together like lepers, shedding shingles, asphalt siding peeling in long blackened strips. The heat shimmers above the parking lot of an abandoned grocery store, weeds growing up through cracks in the pavement; in the window of Larry’s Chicken Shack a hand-lettered sign announces that the air conditioning is in working order.

The heat has driven people out onto the street in search of a breeze. They move along in jittery waves, children and men bare-chested, younger women in shorts or bathing suits, their grandmothers in caftans that billow around them like  sails dappled in jewel colors:  emerald, sapphire, ruby, citrine, amethyst. 

Cornell Drive swings around the Museum of Science and Industry and the traffic surges onto Lake Shore Drive, pulling Kate along. It is always at this point that she feels the thrill of coming home, her first view of the lake, slate blue under gathering clouds. A thunderstorm coming; she can taste it in the air already, bright and crackling on her tongue. When she turns on the radio again the voices that fill the car are pure Chicago: vowels shifted backward, consonants soft around the edges, as familiar as the outline of the Loop in front of her.

The traffic canters past Grant Park and Navy Pier. On the Oak Street beach somebody is flying a kite on the wings of the fledgling storm, a sulphur colored smudge against a charcoal sky. Kate rolls up the window at the first lashings of rain, and heads for home.


I’ve got a (novel) fantasy

After years and years of mulling over something I lived through in my twenties, yesterday in the shower, a plot came to me. It was so clear and well formed that it’s quite obvious my subconscious has been working on it behind the scenes since about 1985.

Have I ever mentioned that I love revenge plots?  This has to do with the fact that I have always  taken a peripheral position in just about everything; I’m never with the majority. If I try to be with the majority just for the sake of fitting in, I get heartburn. I am contrary by nature, and yes, I realize this is no big surprise to anybody who knows me or reads my work.  When I get fed up with watching the good guys lose or losing myself, a revenge fantasy is a balm. So for example: imagine a  stage with television cameras focused on two chairs. Dick Cheney is strapped to one of them, hooked up to a (fictional) truth drug, and I’m in the other much more comfortable chair, asking the questions that he must answer truthfully. 

But the revenge fantasy that came to me in the shower is about something in my own life, something personal. It’s so good that the very idea gives me gooseflesh. After all these years I could address something that struck me as unfair and unkind, and make it all come out differently. Not in a happily-ever-after way; I don’t think that would be possible. But there would be significant satisfaction in it, even so.

Basically this would be a novel about the person I might have been, if I had allowed my darker side to rule. But oh, it would be fun to write.

Does that sound like something you’d read, or something you’d run away from? Consider novels like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (the third book in the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series),  Different Class (Joanne Harris), or one of my favorite Stephen King short stories,  “Dolan’s Cadillac” — the audio recording is fantastic, if you have a chance to listen to  it.  And great revenge movies: too many to name.

There are, of course, darker revenge fantasies. Glenn Close, the Fatal Attraction bunny boiler, was seeking revenge and (I would argue) not unreasonably. She just went a little overboard.  

I don’t intend to go that far. Really. Or at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


The reality of the fictional person

Somebody (was it you?) asked if I ever use real people as models for fictional characters. This question ties into the topic of Mayme (of Pajama Girls) that I raised in my last post, but first let me answer it more generally:

No. And, yes. I think it’s fair to say that any character of mine is an amalgam of people I’ve known and people I’ve heard or read stories about. All the raw material in my head comes from somewhere, after all.  So for example, if I’m writing about the trading post in Paradise and the people who bought out the McGarrity family, I think about that on multiple levels: is this an individual or a big family? \Who are the primary characters we’ll see in the trading post? Where did they come from? How do they fit in, or don’t they? And the crucial question: when I close my eyes, who do I see standing behind the counter?

Pajama Girls of Lambert SquareWhen I do close my eyes, there’s a kind of slideshow. The store manager at the grocery store where we shopped when I was a kid (his name was Ray, and he and I had the same birthday, and he always wore a bow tie); a woman named Anneliese who sold me a coat in Austria, she smelled of vanilla and her hands were scrubbed so hard they were a painful shade of red.  A dozen different shop keepers from novels and television shows and movies. And hat is how it starts.

But there’s still the question of whether I ever take a whole person out of real life and just plop them into the fictional storyline. Are there any lawyers reading this? Go away.

Once in a while I have done this, but never for a major character.  That is to say, character x may be based  on person z in that I draw on my experiences and understanding of Z to create X. The few times this has happened (and please don’t ask me to be specific, because you know the lawyers didn’t go away) Z has been a very, very strong personality. And you can read that whatever way you like.

I can tell you about one set of associations, because in this instance, the connection between the real life person and the fictional character is svery loose, and also very positive. The secondary storyline in Pajama Girls has to do with Mayme Hurt, an African-American woman born and raised in the fictional town of Lamb’s Corner. She’s about thirty, divorced, with one daughter, and she lives with her mother in the house where she grew up. She goes to school part time, and she’s a full time employee at Cocoon, Julia Darrow’s shop at Lambert Square.

Mayme’s storyline is about the attraction between opposites, namely between herself and a newcomer to Lamb’s Corner. I’m going to leave it at that for the moment because the point I’m trying to make is this: I’m not African American. I didn’t grow up in a small town in the deep south. I don’t have an ex-husband, and I’m not raising a daughter on my own. So where does Mayme’s character come from? How do I channel her?

This is a rather unusual case, because Mayme is based, in small part, on Monica Jackson. You know Monica’s website? I mention it now and then. She’s an African-American novelist, somebody who is passionate about the things that are important to her and is willing to speak her mind. Somebody with a sense of humor. Somebody from the south, who has a daughter to raise (although I don’t know anything about Monica’s marital status, whether she’s divorced or married or what). I’ve read enough of Monica’s writing, her novels and her weblog, to be able to imagine (and note that word, it’s crucial) her acting and reacting.

So when I was writing Mayme, Monica was in my head.

Does this mean that Monica is Mayme? Absolutely not. Monica may read Pajama Girls and find Mayme completely unbelievable. Of course I hope that’s not the case, but it’s a risk I take — it’s the risk any author takes when they write about any character, real or imagined. Monica may tell me I’ve got the whole thing ass-backwards or that the character Mayme is unbelievable in the way she reacts to one particular event or how she talks to one particular person. There will be something that doesn’t ring true to Monica, and probably other African American women from the deep south.

This is true of every character I write who isn’t a 50 something white woman born and raised in Chicago. Unless I am writing about me, my characterizations are always open to close examination. Which they might fail.

The bigger the difference between the author and the character, the harder it is to get it done right. When the difference is very big, I personally sometimes try to bridge the gap by reading diaries and biographies (especially if it’s a historical character) with the hope that I get a strong enough sense of the character that I’ll be able to channel him or her. When he character is contemporary, I draw on a lifetime of experiences and associations. Once in a very rare while, I draw more specifically on a person I know or have some sense of.

I am taking a chance telling you about the Monica/Mayme connection. I don’t think Monica will take offense, as Mayme is a great character. She may laugh at how wrong I’ve got things, but I’m braced. In fact, I think this whole association happened in part because of her reaction to Tied to the Tracks. She wrote a great review, in which she pointed out that the cast of characters is exceedingly white. True. She also pointed out how hard it would have been for me to write the pov of an African American born and raised in a small town in the south. Also true. Maybe on some level I took that as an artistic challenge. I wanted to see if I could pull it off.  One thing I am sure, Monica will be honest in her reaction.


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Spring-ish things

It’s grey and blustery today, very Pooh-and-the-Hundred-Acre-Wood like. I have all four critters curled up on the futon in my study. Tuck as appropriated the biggest pillow to sleep on. Tuck loves him some pillow. Bunny inches closer and closer to my legs until I find myself perched on the edge, and send him back to his spot. At which point the whole process starts again. The cats sleep on, oblivious.

Lamby cake to be sacrificed at Easter

We don’t celebrate Easter now, but I am always swamped in memories of what Easter was like when I was a kid. The importance of the clothes in pastel colors, and gloves. We wore gloves to church on Easter Sunday, believe it or not, with our bell-like taffeta skirts.  One year I remember it turned very cold on Easter, but we didn’t have coats to match our new dresses and so we ran, shivering, the three blocks to St Benedict’s and then shivering even more on the way home again. I remember a hat flying away on the wind. I remember the pound cake in the shape of a lamb with coconut frosting, called, appropriately enough, lamby cake. I remember jelly beans, which I really disliked, and those neon orange circus peanut candies, which made my stomach turn. And that’s about it. That’s what Easter means to me, unless you want to talk about Lent and the Stations of the Cross.  I have never done hallucinogenics, but those memories seem to me  outlandish and exaggerated and pretty much what it must be like to indulge.

Today we have no pound cake in the shape of a lamb, and I’m not even sure what we’ll have for supper. But it’s warm and cozy in the house and I have lots of interesting things to read (too many, truth be told).

And then this morning a very nice surprise. The Coffee Time Romance people have given The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square a CTRR reward. You can read Kimberly’s review (five coffee cups!) here.

Finally, via Charlotte, a manifesto from people who think like I want to think:


The Cult of Done Manifesto

  1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
  2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
  3. There is no editing stage.
  4. Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
  5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
  6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
  7. Once you’re done you can throw it away.
  8. Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
  9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
  10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
  11. Destruction is a variant of done.
  12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
  13. Done is the engine of more