Monday, November 28, 2011

Who is the Patron Saint of your story?

“Personally, I like to start with the patron saint of whatever it is...
The patron saint of this story is St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), because it all sort of started with a robbery and the first saintish thing he ever did was a robbery. He stole some cloth from his father and gave it to the poor. There is a patron saint of actual robbers—Dismas (first century)—but I'm not an actual robber. I was only trying to be good.”
--from Millions, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (a.k.a. One of the best middle grade novels ever written)

Even after reading the brilliant story that the line above is taken from, I never really thought about my stories having patron saints. I'm not sure why. Like Damian from Millions, saints were part of my everyday life growing up, and still are. I still annoy St. Anthony with the little “Look around” poem until he helps me find what I'm looking for. I pray for St. Lucy's intercession when my eyes hurt and for St. Lawrence's when I get burned. (I don't pray to him when I'm cooking, because somehow that seems a little insensitive.)

by Bastien-Lepage
But my books have been on their own. (A pretty prideful thing on my part, now that I think of it.)
Until a few days ago. I've been working on my French Revolution story, about a young girl from France, who is a skilled horsewoman, who dreams of things greater than the life set ahead of her, and who—of course—rides in to save the day at the end. (Here's a spoiler for you—the day will always be saved at the ends of my books. I will never, ever write an unhappy ending.) I want the book to explore the idea of what nobility is, finding truly noble persons in unlikely places.

Now, my MC, Juliette, lives in the tail end of the eighteenth century. But for some reason, ever since I started writing the story, a girl from a few hundred years before kept popping up all over the place in my life: St. Joan of Arc. Nothing against St. Joan, but I never thought of her very often. All of a sudden, though, I see paintings of her all over, a friend asks me if I've read a book about her, she's mentioned in random conversations with me.

by Mucha
She had to kind of hit me over the head until I realized, “Oh, wow. I think St. Joan of Arc wants to be the patron saint of my book.” She's French. Rode a horse. Kicked butt. And if anyone could tell you about nobility having little to do with your bloodline, it was she.

So it's official. I printed out pictures of those random paintings of St. Joan and pinned them up on my inspiration board. And every morning I start my writing with a quick prayer, that she'll keep on praying for the grace I need while I write. It's really nice to have a partner.

What about you? Have you ever entrusted your writing to a certain saint? If you're looking for ideas, here's a list—you'll be surprised by what you find...and by the sense of humor whoever came up with these things had.

Or if you're looking for a patron of writing in general, here are a few to get you started:
St. John the Evangelist—for obvious reasons.
St. Lucy—I don't think St. Lucy ever wrote much, so I think the fact that she was made patron of writers has something to do with her name meaning “light,” as in, “illumination,” the goal of all great writing. Or someone thought that writers would get a kick out of the way she's portrayed in art by carrying her poked-out eyeballs in a cup. I mean, if Stephen King prayed to someone, it would be her.
And then there's my favorite not-officially-named-patron: Blessed John Paul II. Before (well, and after) he became a priest and the Pope, he was a writer, poet, and playwright (actor, too!). A saint who wrote fiction is hard to come by, so I say we snatch him up to intercede for us.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Slightly-Dramatized Story of the Mayflower and Things for which I am Thankful

Once upon a time, a boat-ful of intrepid men and women fled the religious persecution of Europe to find freedom in the New World. (I won't digress about the religious persecution and bigotry they brought with them...History books clean these things up so nicely.)
On one stormy day, John Howland, an upright young man much respected by his fellow travelers, fell into the icy waters of the Atlantic. Only the quick thinking and brave actions of his shipmates saved him from perishing in the waves.
I like to imagine that Doctor Samuel Fuller, perhaps with the aid of his clever 12-year-old nephew Sam, helped to restore John to health. Perhaps John and the young Sam formed a fast friendship, perhaps John stood by Sam's side when his parents died in the illness that ravaged the boat that winter. Maybe they knew even then that fate had brought them together.
Hundreds of years later, Sam Fuller's many-times-great granddaughter met a young man named Mark Hough in the gardened walkway next to their church. Immediately she was drawn to the rich timbre of his voice, his friendly face, his honest, kind smile....traits, just possibly, that he inherited from his many-times-great grandfather, John Howland, who once narrowly escaped death after he fell off a boat.
The girl, whose name is Faith, is very, very grateful that he was saved.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day tomorrow!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Best. Research. Ever.

On Saturday, we visited the Met. Do those words alone begin to convey the awesomeness of my weekend? True awesomeness. I can't count the number of times a beautiful piece of art had me breathless with awe.
One of the reasons we visited was so that I could do some research for my new book. To give you an idea...
The title of my story is (at the moment--you know how these things change) Cirque des Secrets: a Tale of Revolution. The main character, Juliette de la Marche, flees the gilded cage of an arranged marriage to join the performers of Astley's Amphitheatre in London; but when the Revolution threatens her family's lives, she must use her unique skills and risk her own life to save them.
As I'm sure you guessed, I did lots of hard work at the Met, looking at things like this and getting the feel for my character's life:

Juliette looks a lot like this...though she prefers riding her horse to drawing.

Before her family's Paris hotel (mansion) was burned by revolutionaries, Juliette shared a bed like this with her sister Angeline.
The man in this painting by Jacques-Louis David soon after lost his head to Madame Guillotine...a fate which endangers Juliette's family, too.

These soft blue walls are very soothing after a long day riding and trying to (not) socialize with a certain foppish and sycophantic baron.
 And as if a day at the museum wasn't good enough, we spent Sunday visiting with my dear, dear friend Sister Emily, who is a novice with the Daughters of Saint Paul in Boston. We've been "bosom friends" since we were nine...even then we dreamed of being writers! Now she works in the children's editorial department of Pauline Press. I hadn't seen her in person in over four years, and the visit was very good for my spirit. I am so grateful for friendships formed around things that will never fade.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Poetry Friday: L. M. Montgomery

I think Poetry Friday's going to be a regular thing around here. I never seem to have time to write my own posts by the end of the week!
So here, by my oh-so-dear Lucy Maud Montgomery, is: "By an Autumn Fire." (Because that is where I will be in a few minutes, getting some cozy last-minute work on my novel done while anticipating a weekend that should be wonderful, but won't leave much time for writing.)

Now at our casement the wind is shrilling,
Poignant and keen
And all the great boughs of the pines between
It is harping a lone and hungering strain
To the eldritch weeping of the rain;
And then to the wild, wet valley flying
It is seeking, sighing,
Something lost in the summer olden.
When night was silver and day was golden;
But out on the shore the waves are moaning
With ancient and never fulfilled desire,
And the spirits of all the empty spaces,
Of all the dark and haunted places,
With the rain and the wind on their death-white faces,
Come to the lure of our leaping fire.

But we bar them out with this rose-red splendor
From our blithe domain,
And drown the whimper of wind and rain
With undaunted laughter, echoing long,
Cheery old tale and gay old song;
Ours is the joyance of ripe fruition,
Attained ambition.
Ours is the treasure of tested loving,
Friendship that needs no further proving;

No more of springtime hopes, sweet and uncertain,
Here we have largess of summer in fee­
Pile high the logs till the flame be leaping,
At bay the chill of the autumn keeping,
While pilgrim-wise, we may go a-reaping
In the fairest meadow of memory!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fess up: what genres do you write and read?

Little post today, as I'm catching up from a few crazy days.
Since I don't have much time to write, and since one of my favorite things about blogging is learning about other writers and readers, I'll let you do some of the work. :)
So...what genres do you all write--and why do you love that genre?
And are they the same genres you read the most?
As you know, I write historical fiction--which happens to be my favorite genre to read. Oddly enough, another favorite genre to read--though I've never written any--is dystopian.
Or maybe it's not so odd. My newest WIP centers around the world of the French Revolution. The more research I do, the more I realize President Snow of The Hunger Games had nothin' on Robespierre and Napoleon.
Hmm, maybe from now on I will tell people I write historical dystopian novels...

Friday, November 11, 2011

Poetry Friday for Veterans' Day

Because some of our veterans were and are poets, I'd like to share this poem by my dear Joyce Kilmer--himself a soldier who died fighting in the First World War. The poor man is much maligned by all the school children who were forced to memorize Trees but didn't ponder its meaning...but he also wrote many poems, such as the one that follows, which contain profound insights into the heart of an artist.


(For Eleanor Rogers Cox)

For blows on the fort of evil
That never shows a breach,
For terrible life-long races
To a goal no foot can reach,
For reckless leaps into darkness
With hands outstretched to a star,
There is jubilation in Heaven
Where the great dead poets are.

There is joy over disappointment
And delight in hopes that were vain.
Each poet is glad there was no cure
To stop his lonely pain.
For nothing keeps a poet
In his high singing mood
Like unappeasable hunger
For unattainable food.

So fools are glad of the folly
That made them weep and sing,
And Keats is thankful for Fanny Brawne
And Drummond for his king.
They know that on flinty sorrow
And failure and desire
The steel of their souls was hammered
To bring forth the lyric fire.

Lord Byron and Shelley and Plunkett,
McDonough and Hunt and Pearse
See now why their hatred of tyrants
Was so insistently fierce.
Is Freedom only a Will-o'-the-wisp
To cheat a poet's eye?
Be it phantom or fact, it's a noble cause
In which to sing and to die!

So not for the Rainbow taken
And the magical White Bird snared
The poets sing grateful carols
In the place to which they have fared;
But for their lifetime's passion,
The quest that was fruitless and long,
They chorus their loud thanksgiving
To the thorn-crowned Master of Song.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Voice, art and spirit

On Saturday, I had the wonderful opportunity to hear editor Cheryl Klein speak on “Voice” at the New Jersey SCBWI Craft Day. As I've just started a new work in progress, the timing couldn't have been better; I've been playing around with different persons, tenses, levels of humor, and so on—but seeing the element of voice clearly portrayed in Cheryl Klein's signature analytical style was just what I needed. If you haven't read her book, Second Sight, I highly, highly recommend it.

Voice is difficult to define, I think, because it is largely intangible. We see voice as the trademark of an individual writer—the personality, form, point, thematic elements, etc. that combine to the show the truth of the work in a way peculiar to one human being. Looking at it that way, every artist in the world must find their own voice—their way to show their unique spirit in their art.

In painting, for example, given the same topic, the same medium with which to work, three different artists will create three different paintings. Consider these versions of the Madonna and Child with St. John:


Jacopo del Salleio


Composers, too, must find a way to show a truth while being true to themselves. Here are a couple variations on the theme of “night”:

I find that looking, and listening, to other forms of art helps me define what I want my own art, in writing to be. Like the Bouguereau painting, I want my writing to be clear and haunting—sophisticated and innocent at once. Like Chopin's nocturne, I want to achieve a beautiful simplicity, growing tension, and phrases that linger. Like all the pieces of art I shared, I want my art to be carefully crafted in order to share truth through beauty.

If you could compare your writing style to one composer or artist, who would it be?

Monday, November 7, 2011

You should keep a journal...

...because someday you will have something to laugh over.
I recently came across my sporadically-kept childhood journal, from when I was 10 years old. I moved around a lot as a kid and wrote so many letters to friends that I never had the strong desire to bare my soul to a diary. However, amidst the records of basketball game scores, there was one gem:
"Dear Diary,
Today I folded a load of laundry for Mom. Did I ever tell you I love folding laundry?"
You're right--this picture is totally unrelated. But it makes me smile!
Seriously, though, I've recently started journaling again, and I've found it to be an excellent practice to keep my writing muscles limber. Sometimes all I write about is cute things my kids said that I want to remember, like, "Lucy: Well, I would tell you the truth, but if I told you the truth you would make me sit in the corner for a really really long time..." or reflections on daily life, like, "I hate folding laundry!" :)
But just getting pen to paper for a few minutes makes it easier to put fingers to keyboard later. On a rare occasion it will give me a really good idea that will make its way into a manuscript.
I confess I'm still having difficulty with the "every day" aspect that journaling implies. (Fellow etymologists will recognize the "jour" in journal from the French for "day".) Any advice?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The (not so) good old days of research

I have fond memories of the days when “research” meant a trek to the library with an extra-durable bookbag over my shoulder... browsing through the reference section... getting distracted or inspired by related, but not quite pertinent titles along the row... coming home to sit down to a cup of tea, a notebook and pen, and a stack of knowledge.
Nowadays, I usually just open my laptop.
That's not to say I don't miss the old way. So, yesterday, when I needed to find a book on everyday life in eighteenth century Europe, I decided to resurrect a past way of life. The sky was the brightest of blues against the remaining orange and red leaves on the sugar maples; my daughters were in cheerful, singing moods; I was full of energy. After packing a four-year-old, two-year-old and four-month-old into their carseats, my energy had only dimmed slightly, and we set off for the library. All three of us who are currently verbal sang, “We're going to the library!” in a made-up tune and the random harmonies two-year-olds singing always seems to create.
The one thing I dislike about our local library is that it doesn't have a parking lot. And apparently most of my neighbors had been similarly inspired by the weather, because there wasn't a single spot to park near the center of town. This didn't deter me—like I said, the day was beautiful, and I had come prepared with my baby sling and super-duper double stroller. I got the toddlers packed into the stroller, baby into the sling, locked the car. Forgot my diaper bag. Unlocked the car, got the bag, set down the street.
In the library, I was faced with a decision: try to keep two kids in control in the reference section, or try to wield a double stroller through the narrow aisles. I opted for the second choice...shortly regretted that when I realized that the aisles are incredibly narrow. So I sort of squeezed the stroller into one end of the 900's, sprinted around to the other side and met up with the end where my two-year-old's feet were kicking wildly.
In a New England library, there is no shortage of books on America in the eighteenth century. They don't seem to care about Europe so much. Although I found plenty to interest and distract me about other regions, other time periods, and random fascinating figures—some of which were provided my the two-year-old who just didn't take the “Don't. Pull. Books. Off. The. Shelf.” warning to heart—I couldn't find a single book pertaining to what I needed.
So we strolled to the children's section, piled out of the stroller, played for half an hour...tried to get everyone back into the stroller, only to meet arguments that they had “met a girl named Rose who needs someone to play with! She's two years old, just like Zoe!” So we gave Rose a few more minutes while my energy decreased proportionate to my children's energy increase.
Finally we were packed back up and on our way back to the car. Suddenly that lovely bright blue sky seemed a trifle too bright, and the orange leaves started to hurt my eyes. After the girls were buckled in, I began to fold up the super-duper stroller to fit it in the trunk. And I quickly realized that I don't know how to fold up the stroller—this was the first time I'd used it by myself, and somehow my husband always seemed to do the folding the other times. I squeezed the red button, the stroller collapsed—but the drink tray in front was still poking up when I tried to get it into the trunk. In a moment of inspiration I remembered, “Oh, yeah, the tray has to come off first!” but all my efforts to pull it off were unsuccessful. I tugged, yanked, pushed—stomped down on the frame while pulling the tray upwards—nothing worked. I began to get funny looks from people in passing cars, while I grumbled to myself that at least someone was entertained by this. The baby and the two-year-old were crying impatiently, and I felt that I wasn't far from such a reaction myself. I got to my knees in front of the thing, ostensibly to look at it more closely, but actually to beg God to help me figure out the blasted machine before all three girls were screaming.
Oh, look, a lever. Ten minutes later we were back home, girls were calmed, and a big glass of water did a great deal to help my pounding head.
I opened my laptop. A quick Google search for “everyday life eighteenth century europe” met with over 59 million results. One of the first was a book, which I quickly requested through inter-library loan, so that next time I just have to get the stroller up to the front desk.
This Thanksgiving I will remember to say a little prayer of thanks that the good old ways are not the only ways.