Book Review of The Duchess by Susan Holloway Scott

The Duchess

The Duchess

I love good historical fiction.  But writing one is a delicate balance.  Too much history and you might as well read a biography.  Not enough history and it’s basically a romance.  But Scott found a perfect balance with The Duchess.  She did her research well and correctly follows the history of the day without much embroidering for literary merit. Instead of piling on pages of historical background, she skillfully weaves it in between narrative and story line.

I enjoyed this book very much.  She captured the fiery and feminist Sarah Churchill’s temperament and made her character come to life for me.  She skillfully takes us through four different monarchs with colorful details that make the world of Restoration England tangible.

While many know the story of Charles II and the Restoration, then later the ousting of James II by his own daughter, Mary Stuart and her husband the Dutch William of Orange; less is known about Sarah Churchill and her ascent from a penniless child to Duchess of Marlborough and the richest woman in Europe.  Despite her sex and rank, Churchill was able to skillfully maneuver herself and her husband into two of the most coveted spots in England, Captain General of England and Mistress of the Robes.  They also received many other titles, high annual incomes, multiple homes, and honors. As favorite of the Princess Anne, later Queen, Sarah was able to have a voice in the government, though unofficial, in a time when women’s opinions counted for less than nothing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book by Scott and immediately purchased her next, The Royal Harlot, staring Barbara Castlemaine, another strong minded Restoration woman.  Susan Holloway Scott also writes under the names Isabelle Bradford, and in addition to her books, co-blogs Two Nerdy History Girls along with Loretta Chase.  Check out her books and her blog.  You won’t be disappointed!!

Gorgeously Flawed

What a phrase: so much more poetic then categorically perfect. Flaws tell a story. Flaws show me life well lived, well loved. These hands featured below tell me a story.  They belong to an artist, a woman who worked hard her whole life.  She was a woman who cried and laughed without hesitation; and let herself be vulnerable to all the hurts that are out there for us to feel.

Louise Bourgeois, 2010

Louise Bourgeois 2010

These hands, these vein ridden, arthritic, sun spotted hands belong to French artist Louise Bourgeois. Born in 1913, Louise was the daughter of Parisians couple Josephine and Louis. Together they ran a tapestry restoration workshop. Early on, Louise showed great promise in the workshop and was utilized to help draw missing elements depicted by the tapestries. Louise was a gifted student, but her art was greatly affected by her father’s affair with the family governess. This deeply troubling and ultimately defining betrayal remained a vivid memory for the rest of her life. Coupled with abuse from an indifferent father, she learned quickly to keep her own counsel.

She began to study Math at the Sorbonne at a young age, but upon losing her mother young, switched her field of study to art. Her father was outraged and refused to finance her education, forcing her to seek scholarship elsewhere and take classes only when she could afford them.

If her early work shows a focus on painting and print work, the 1940s show a shift towards sculpture. Marrying American art historian, Robert Goldwater, provided her with a reason to move to New York. A gap in 1950s and 1960s show a break from art where Bourgeois immersed herself for a time in psychoanalysis and she came back in 1964 with a new aesthetic. Instead of the wooden totems from earlier exhibitions, she presented strange, organically plastic sculptures.

By alternating between forms, materials, and scales and veering between figuring and abstraction became a bigger part of Bourgeois’s vision, even as she probed the same theme: loneliness, jealousy, anger, and fear. In 1982 Bourgeois took center stage at MOMA.

Louise Bourgeois died in her home in 2010 at the age of 98. She said, “Art in a guarantee of sanity.” Bourgeois used her art to work through her abusive childhood. She looked deep inside and found her story.  Credited with founding the so-called confessional art.  Louise lived her life and her art through a lifetime in introspection and vulnerability.  Louise lived a genuine and gorgeously flawed life. Her hands tell her story.

What story do your flaws tell?  Join us here www.queenauthorsquest.  Register at the bottom of the page and give an email and a user name.  Wordpress will send you a link to add a password and you can log in from there.  You will get weekly reminders when I post.  Don’t be shy, I love new members!!

Working on Sleep II

Working on Sleep II

Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois

 

Author Spotlight: Elijah Burrell

The Skin of the River

Happy Spring everyone!  I’m pleased to introduce you to my favorite new poet, Elijah Burrell.  I was fortunate enough to meet Eli while our respective spouses were in their pediatric residencies and we bonded over a love of writing, music, and our young daughters.  Since those days, Eli has gone on to complete his MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and has been published in multiple literary reviews, before publishing his own anthology, The Skin of the River.  He currently teaches creative writing and literature at Lincoln University.  Burrell received the 2009 Cecil A. Blue Award in Poetry and the 2010 Jane Kenyon Scholarship at Bennington College.

Have you always known you wanted to be a writer? Was it always poetry for you?

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a writer. As soon as I could read, I started writing my own adventure stories. I wrote comic books and song lyrics. I spent summers at the local community radio station writing and producing radio plays and skits. It wasn’t until I started thinking pretty seriously about girls that I began writing love songs and poems. We didn’t read a lot of poetry when I was in high school, but I immersed myself in it during college. Couldn’t get enough. It got to the point when I was reading one or two books of poetry per week. I was like that speaker in the Mark Strand poem “Eating Poetry.” In graduate school, I kept up the same pace—long hours in the bookish dark. I fell for all kinds of poets. Poetry stuck. 

 What inspires you more, the world around you or the feelings inside?

I’m inspired by all of it. I think, to a certain extent, all writing comes from within. Writers must choose how best to deliver their ideas and memories to their readers. I have entire notebooks full of images, words that rhyme in interesting ways, and bits of language I’ve picked up in “the world around me.” The poem takes shape when I gather each of these sundry elements and try to stir them together. I’m always trying to notice things around me. Equally important, I try to navigate my own internal terrain the best I can. I work on my cartography skills every day. It’s a strange place.

 You’re a busy man – husband, father, professor – how do you find time to write? Do you set time aside, or write when the mood takes you?

It’s almost impossible for me to maintain a regular writing schedule. I either try to write late at night, when everyone has gone to bed, or through irregular daytime eruptions of output. It would be fantastic to wake up, pour a cup of coffee, and sit down to a clean desk and a blank page each morning. That seems to be the romantic perception of a writer’s existence. I’ve come to grips with reality that, in this stage of my life, that’s just never how it’s going to be for me. I’m not complaining.

 What is your editing process like?

Every poem in The Skin of the River endured numerous revisions and rewrites. I’m one of those poor fools who never think the poem is finished. I find myself reading some of the poems from the book aloud, out in the world, thinking I’d like to change them still. One time I heard Donald Hall tell a crowd of writers he revises each of his poems over a hundred times. I do anywhere from a fifth to a half of that. If I look at the same poem too long, I start getting itchy.

 How do you fight writer’s block?

I’m going to say something wildly unpopular. I don’t believe in writer’s block. Someone smarter than me once said you don’t see carpenters complaining about carpenter’s block. I’m building things when I write poems. I put on my metaphorical tool belt and go to work. Maybe I think that if I keep telling myself there’s no such thing as writer’s block, I’ll never suffer from writer’s block. 

 What advice do you have for other writers?

I’ll give two pieces of advice that will seem very obvious. First: Write. There are so many distractions all around us. Most of them come from some bright screen—a television, a computer, a phone (oh, the phone). Unplug those distractions, take a deep breath, and just start writing. Seems easy, but it’s not. Second: Read. I’ve yet to meet a great writer that never reads. 

The Skin of the River is a collection of poems that evoke a feeling of childhood summers in the south.  Burrell’s words flow like a conversation with an old friend.  Pick up a copy today at amazon and discover a whole new world of modern poetry!

Sorry for the Interruption

I’m back!  Sorry guys, I had a Crohn’s setback and have been in the hospital for the last week.  After careful consideration, I decided that pain medication and social media do not mix well.  But I’m back home and trying to climb back in the saddle, writing-wise.

This one really took me by surprise.  I was in such a good stride after the conference.  I was motivated and inspired, I had queries out, and was waiting for replies.  I was writing daily and making great progress with my new novel. And then, BAM – hospital time.  A week of pain and the swirling haze of narcotics, and my mind is reduced to mush.   And now I’m facing a possible liver complication.  How do I pull myself out of this and get back on my path?  I don’t really have an answer for that question.  For now I’m just putting fingers to keyboard and hoping something comes out.  But I will not give up on my dream.  Crohn’s has moved somethings out of my reach, but it will not take this away from me.

Join me next week, for an interview with my favorite new poet, Elijah Burrell.  Check out his book A Skin of the River on amazon.  Thanks for reading!

Writing Emotions: Being Vulnerable

Yay, it’s Tuesday.  Except not yay here in the south, because we’re about to get slammed with yet another winter storm. That means picking kids up from school early, driving through ice, being stuck inside for days on in, etc.  It’s time for Spring, I say!

On a  happier note, I would like to say how surprised and happy I was to see so many people register for my blog last week.  I was starting to worry that no one was reading except my husband and my mom. So thanks guys, you made my week!

Today I want to talk about writing emotion.  Not because I’m an expert by any means, but because I think it’s interesting to hear how different people go about writing emotions in a book.  In order to make your readers feel something for your characters, you have to make their emotions feel real.  You have to create characters and situations that people can relate to, and those can fall flat if the emotions you are writing about don’t feel authentic.

To make emotion feel authentic, I have to let myself be vulnerable.  I have to use my own emotions and my own pain to paint my characters’ pain.  I don’t mean that my characters are little versions of myself who speak and act like me.  I simply mean that anyone who creates uses their own experiences – good or bad – to help give their own creation life.  For example, the physical pain that I feel with Crohn’s disease doesn’t mean I understand what it’s like to be a victim of abuse, but I have an idea of what it’s like to endure something you cannot control, that causes you harm.  I don’t know what it’s like to have lost a child, but my miscarriages give me an idea of the pain that would cause.

That’s part of what makes writing so hard.  You have to bring those emotions to the surface, explore, and understand them.  If you cannot understand and suffer with your characters, how can you expect your readers to?  While I was stuck in the airport a few weeks ago, I was daydreaming about what memories or feelings from my teenage years still cause a reaction.  I remember that to me the two most painful emotions as a tween and teen were unrequited love (or “a crush”) and the feelings that everyone you trusted and called friends were growing up and experiencing things that you could not understand.  These things still leave a hollow feeling in my middle when I think about the pain they caused my younger self.  I was a late bloomer, and was frequently the one still caught up in childish emotions and concerns, while my peers had moved on to relationships and feelings that I was not yet able to understand.  It left me with the feeling that perhaps something was wrong with me.  It was a very lonely feeling.

Those are the feelings to take out and explore.  The memories that still, twenty years later give you pause.   Those are the emotions that will fill your writing, your art, your acting, etc with true emotions. When the emotion is real, it feels genuine.  And that’s true art.

I would love any feedback.  How do your emotions, pain, and memories color your art or your life?  Can you name books or movies where the emotions feel genuine as opposed to false?

My Novel

When I tell people that I’m a writer, one of their first questions is always, “What’s your book about?”  That’s a hard one for me because, as it turns out, I suck at summarizing.  Last week I went to a writing workshop in Seattle and was fortunate enough to get to pitch my novel to an agent.  Guess what, pitching is basically summarizing your novel.  Bummer.  Luckily, I pitched to a fantastic agent who managed to understand all my floundering about and she liked my story.  She asked to see the full manuscript, which is a great honor for me.  Doesn’t mean I’m getting published, but it’s a step.

So, point of all of that rambling is that I’m trying to get better at summarizing.  My current novel, WITHIN, is a YA Gothic Fantasy.  What that means is its a Fantasy book for Young Adults (although adults can read it too, I happen to love YA books) and it’s set in the Victorian Era, hence the word Gothic.

LUCY GELLING is a seventeen year old girl completely isolated from the outside world of Victorian England.  Her adopted family fell into disgrace with the Prince Regent, and now lives in seclusion on the Isle of Man.  When JAMES stumbles up the path to her Manor, he is under the impression that it is abandoned and is intending to use it as a hideout.  He is trying to outrun a horrible secret that could see him hanging at the end of a noose.  Lucy takes a chance and promises to hide James, even though he won’t share the details of his past.

Both lonely, they quickly become friends and begin to develop feelings for each other.  James reveals that he is hiding because he killed a boy who was tormenting him at school. Lucy accepts this and shares her secret; she thinks she’s being haunted.  She has nightmares that leave her with injuries on waking, and is followed at night by shadows that belong to no one.  She has shared this with her family, but they tell her that she is imagining things.

One night she feels compelled by a strain from a violin and in following the sound, sees death’s head with glowing eyes staring at her from an abandoned room.  Terrified by the sight, Lucy convinces her nanny to tell her something of the family’s history.  She learns that they are not the people she thought they were, but in fact have pasts littered with secrets, lies, and bodies.  But even the nanny will not tell Lucy of her birth.  James promises to help her find the truth of her past, but the harder they look the more frightening things get for Lucy within the Manor.  An attempt on her life finally opens her eyes to the truth; someone or something is out to get her.

James promises to take her away from it all, but can she leave without learning the secrets that her family are holding so close?  As the Manor walls begin to close in on her, Lucy may learn that the truth is the most frightening thing of all.

I am currently in the process of querying agents about WITHIN, which means I am looking for a literary agent to represent my work.  I will post excerpts from this and my other works here on my blog.  Hope you like my summary.  If you like my blog, please be kind and register.  That way you get emails whenever I post a new blog and you get to comment.  Just scroll down to Meta and click on register.  You will put in a username and an email and it will send you a link.

Thanks for reading!

Harper Lee and Today’s Readers

To Kill a Mockingbird was published forty-five years ago.  This year Harper Lee, age 88, will release the sequel that no one expected.  Unquestionably it will be well written, interesting, and probably, if not as important as her first, at least a well recognized piece of literature.  But Go Set a Watchmen will be published into a very different world than To Kill a Mockingbird.  Now, I’m not saying that this story is no longer relevant, far from it.  I’m simply curious to see how today’s readers receive and perceive Lee’s work differently now than how it was perceived in 1960.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a book about racial injustice and the end of childhood innocence.  Lee has been quoted as saying that the book was inspired by events in her own life, most importantly on an event she witnessed in 1936, as a ten year old child.  The novel received a Pulitzer Prize, and though far from being the only novel tackling the race issue, it is probably the one most read.

In 1960, Brown v. Board of Education was not even a decade old and segregation was dying a slow death.  The Civil Rights Movement was in the forefront of politics and nearly everyone had a heated opinion.  Into this hotbed of controversy, Lee published her novel that told the story of Scout, a young girl living in the South.  Through her eyes, Lee shows a small town where white men are believed and protected, even when the evidence against them is overwhelming.  We felt Scout’s horror at the outcome of the trial against Tom Robinson.  As her childish belief in the system of justice and in her father’s power are destroyed, we too were disenchanted with the system that would condemn an innocent man simply because of his skin color.

Now, those are the emotions that I felt reading that book in the early nineties, a time where segregation was an abhorrent tradition that ended long before my birth.  I can well imagine that not everyone had that reaction when first reading this book in the sixties.  But it was well received and I believe it aided the Civil Rights Movement.

Fast forward to July 14, 2015 and we will read Go Set a Watchman for the first time.  I don’t know much about this book except that it features the same characters and is narrated by Scout as adult, visiting her father in her hometown in Alabama.  That town was plagued by prejudice in 1960, will anything have changed?

Though far from perfect, we have come far on the issue of racial injustice, but America still suffers greatly from prejudice.  Daily, people are bullied and persecuted for having different skin color, beliefs, or life styles.  Will Lee tackle any of these issues in her book, or will she simply use it as a platform to show us where Scout, Atticus, and possibly Boo Radley are in their lives?  Knowing Lee for the fearless writer that she is, I tend to think that once again, the earth will move.

What do you think?  Will Harper Lee pull out another Pulitzer Prize?  How do you think readers today differ from To Kill a Mockingbird’s generation?

Inspiration – Where Does It Come From?

I’m inspired today.  Does that mean I woke up from a dream that gave me a great idea that I just had to jot down?  Nope.  Did I read something amazing that inspired me to be a better writer? Wrong again.  Although both of those things occasionally happen, it’s not the norm.  Most mornings I wake up and it’s a marathon to get the kids up and dressed and off to school.  Then I come home and there’s a mountain of work for me here too.

Even though I’m home all day, there are a million things that take up my time.  Cleaning, cooking, running errands, volunteering for the kids’ endless activities, third grade division homework – it’s a wonder some days that I have time to shower (some days I don’t bother – shh).  I could easily go days or even weeks without making time to write.  But that is exactly what I have to do.  I have to make time to write.  I have to sit down at the keyboard and decide to write whether I’m inspired or not.  And most of the time it’s not.  I might feel like crap, I have my mind on other things, or I might feel self conscious and think I’m wasting my time trying to be a writer.

But a funny thing happens when I sit down and make myself write.  My fingers fly across the keyboard and a story begins to flow.  Sometimes it’s magical, but most of the time it’s a lot of crap with some good stuff thrown in.  But that’s what the delete key is for.  And that crap is helpful, it gets you moving and helps fertilize your mind for the brilliant ideas that come next.  Amazing things happen when you feed your art.  On that note, there is a book you should check out.  It’s called The Artist’s Way, and it’s a little cheesy but it’s about feeding your creativity.  It can help you to become a better artist or even just to add more creativity to your daily life.

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Living in a Bubble

I’m back.  I took a small break from blogging, writing, and pretty much everything last week.  My joints were swollen and red, and it hurt to even try to make a fist.  It’s part of Crohn’s for me.  Three years ago, after my son’s birth, the Crohn’s spread from my intestine into my joints.

I mention this not for sympathy, but to get you into my frame of mind.  When I hurt, I shut down.  I crawl into myself and close everyone else out.  It’s my survival mode.  And suddenly, out of nowhere that black cloud of depression descends to hang over my head, threatening to suffocate me.  Luckily, I was able to get out from under it quickly this time, and I’m up and moving again.

It’s amazing how quickly I can go from up and moving, happy and active to curled in the fetal position in bed.  It’s frustrating and it seems after twenty years I would have better coping skills.  But the truth is, shutting down is how I cope.  When I hurt, it hurts my family.  So, I shut them out of it, best I can.  Living in my little bubble I feel somewhat safe.  And when the pain recedes, I write.  It helps me breath fresh air back into my life and reorient myself as a person.  It keeps me sane.

I know a lot of people suffer from daily pain.  Whether it be back pain, joint pain, headaches, or stomach, daily pain can drag you down to a bad place.  It’s hard to cope with your daily schedule, work – parenting, etc – when you’re fighting a battle against your own body.  Even if we retreat to our bubble for a time, we cannot remain there.  That’s not life.  How do other people cope with pain and illness?  What brings you back to normal?

Creativity – the new Antidepressant?

I tend towards depression, always have.  It’s not surprising, I have a chronic illness (Crohn’s disease) and a lot of the medication I take causes depression.  In addition, when I’m in pain, I’m depressed.  But we all deal with depression in some form or fashion in our lives.  Whether it’s after a tragedy, during a difficult time in our lives, after a setback or failure, or even simply a blue day because of the weather.

I take medication for depression, but I’ve learned that there is one surefire way for me to deal with the blues – to write.  On days where I spend time writing, adding pages and chapters to a current book, or rewriting what I’ve already written, I have a general feeling of well being.  I feel balanced and in control.  I’m more patient with my children and husband, and I’m more likely to get things done around the house.  On the other hand, if I ignored my writing, I’m cranky and short with everyone.  I go to bed feeling like I got nothing accomplished, even if I cleaned the house or finished a to do list.

Writing has become necessary to me.  It’s my lifeblood, it’s my passion.  It lifts me up and makes me a better person.  This seems to ring true for a lot of creative people I know.  What is your passion?  Do you feel better after an afternoon creating?  Do you feel like you’ve accomplished something?  If so, we may have discovered a way to get us through the cold months of winter, when tempers are short and moods are low.

Comment and tell me how you fight the blues.  Or about a time when you fought depression and won.  Are you fighting depression now?  Message me, I’ve been there.