Celebrating Southern Writers: Sally Whitney

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the many benefits to me of this blog is the opportunity it provides me to  celebrate  the successes of fellow southern women writers.   I am delighted to  showcase  Sally Whitney’s  latest book, Surface and Shadow, just released today.

A few weeks ago, I asked  Sally to share some of her thoughts about being a southern writer and in particular, what inspired her latest book.

What gave you the idea for this novel?

 I can’t say that anything gave me the idea for this novel. The idea just seemed to grow. Strong women have always been my favorite characters in novels, so I knew my novel would have a woman as the protagonist. I think women have a hard time being strong because for many years, expectations and requirements have been set against them. Too often, women have to show strength in defying cultural norms before they can be strong anywhere else. I wanted to show this personal battle within my protagonist. I’m also interested in North Carolina cotton-mill towns, partly because very few of them still exist. I put the woman in the cotton-mill town and asked “What if?” And the story grew from there.

 Why did you choose to write about the South?

 The South chose me. Place is very important to my fiction. Often with short stories I get a sense of place before anything else. I see a backyard vegetable garden baking in the mid-summer sun. Or a front porch sagging under the weight of family generations who have traipsed across it. With Surface and Shadow, I saw the narrow main street of a small town with its decades-old store fronts and a mysterious aging farmhouse partly obscured by trees and flowers.
Always the places I see are in the South, usually in North Carolina. And it’s not just the physical places that draw my thoughts in that direction. It’s a sense of mystery and wonder, history and hope, darkness mixed with light. When I was in graduate school in New Jersey, I tried to write about a woman living in New Jersey, but my professor told me to “get that woman back down south where she belongs.” He knew where my imagination lives.

 What do you think are the greatest pitfalls to writing about southern women?

 Number one is falling prey to stereotypes. We all know them. Southern women have been caricatured in books and movies and jokes since such means of communication began. But avoiding stereotypes and still conveying some of southern women’s significant characteristics can be tricky. Stereotypes, like caricatures, have some basis in truth. While southern women are not as hung up on social niceties and proper etiquette as they’re often portrayed, we do expect people to be kind to each other. Good manners are nothing more than being considerate of other people. We are not simpering, obedient belles trying to please the men in our lives. We do not go to college just to find a husband. We are independent women, but we often find ways of exerting that independence that are more persuasive than combative. We like men, and generally love a few of them, but they aren’t required to help us lead fully developed lives.

 What do you think defines a “southern writer?”

 Although southern writers are often defined by where they live, I think they’re more accurately defined by the books they write. My favorite contemporary southern authors, including Lee Smith, Joshilyn Jackson, Tom Franklin, and Fannie Flagg, tell stories of passionate people caught in difficult circumstances, not necessarily unique to the South, but certainly influenced by southern culture, climate, and geography. In Jackson’s gods in Alabama, for example, the great respect many Alabamans hold for football plays an important role. In Franklin’s The Tilted World, which he wrote with his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, the roaring force of the southern Mississippi River is a major character. Heat is often one of my favorite characters in stories by southern writers. Although other parts of the United States can be hot, there’s no heat like southern heat. And heat can make people do crazy things. Southern writers understand the South and its people with all their beauty and their flaws. They know the strong ties between the people and the land and the climate. Their stories could not take place anywhere else.

For more about Sally Whitney and her work, see this blog, May 1, 2015.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UNSOCIAL MEDIA

 

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Early in my writing career, I became infatuated with writers’ social media.  It was huge!  It was exhilarating. There were blogs, magazines and chat rooms, forums, workshops and videos.    My email inbox soon overflowed with book reviews, conference and workshop announcements, writing contests and calls for manuscripts. Lists of “must-haves” “can’t misses,” “to-do” and definitely NOT “to-do”s’ arrived in droves from agents and publishers.

Every serious writer has a “platform”, I discovered.  So I built a website, set up an author Facebook page, a Twitter feed, joined Pinterest, Instagram, Tumbler and LinkedIn.  But this was only the barest beginning, I soon discovered. My blog and Facebook page had to be current and trendy, my  “tags” had to be carefully selected to  “drive traffic”to my sites from the top search engines.  My social media sites must be regularly monitored, “likes” reciprocated, posts updated, tweets returned, comments enthusiastically answered; all this to ensure visibility for agents and publishers.  My Facebook news feed was endless. Tweets constantly scrolled past my web browser.  My “Platform” had morphed into a demanding monster. Social media had become unsocial.

It was impossible to sort through this avalanche of information, much of which was redundant and/or contradictory.  One source insisted outlining is necessary,  another advised  simply to start writing.  There were advocates of starting a novel at the end, the beginning, or the middle.  Some said that a writer that doesn’t achieve a respectable word count  per day is not serious; others emphasized the importance of  reflection.   There were  videos and workshops on “scaffolding,” “POV”,  “Pillars,” “Devices.”   The jargon alone was intimidating. Everyone professed to be an authority.  How could I know who to trust?  And assuming I actually managed to write a novel in the midst of this confusion,  could I get it published?   Is my theme “hot” and trendy enough? Does it address the right target audience? Should I e-publish? Blog my book? Tweet it? Get an agent? If so, how do I choose one. Can I afford it?

I was lost in a byzantine social media maze. What began as fun and exciting had become a chore. In the odd moments I found to write, I found myself posturing; trying to appease the writing and marketing gurus now residing full-time in my head. I began to question everything about my story, it’s structure, the POV, the characters, setting and time period.  I suspected I should drastically revise the manuscript or trash it and start over. Or.. Maybe I wasn’t a writer after all.

I had lost my voice.

The suddenly one morning, I work up unable to speak.  Although I wanted to continue to  compulsively push ahead,  now I  had no choice but to stop and listen.  The timing, along with the absence of other symptoms led me to suspect a connection between my physical and writing voices. Perhaps they both needed time to heal.

WalkinwoodsrevSo I “unplugged.”   I took naps and long walks  with Jake, my Boston Terrier. I journaled, listened to music, and visited friends. And I read books. Biographies, historical fiction, literary classics, modern novels, mystery, fantasy, non-fiction, books by great writers and poor writers. The Kindle store loves me. And gradually my voice returned, physically and figuratively.

I love social media. It’s given me writing buddies, mentors and a wealth of information.   The internet is an invaluable resource.  Writing seminars, workshops and online magazines are delivered directly to my laptop. There are online proofreading and editing programs,  templates for story writing and outlines for character development. Google or Siri can answer almost any question I can think up. These are powerful tools, unheard of as recently as a decade ago. But any powerful tool can also wreak havoc. I’m only a click away from the maze I just escaped.  So I identified a few sites I have grown to trust and respect and “unsubscribed,” “unfollowed” and “un-liked”  the rest.   And so far I have resisted the temptation of clicking on every flashy new  site.  So far. ….

And I’m back to  my story.  After all, I’m the only one that can write it.

The “Write” Word

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“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Mark Twain

 

 

There are many reasons I should not write. It is hard work and it takes a lot of my time.  Closeted in my “woman-cave” bent over my computer,  I become unavailable to friends and family, my exercise program crumbles, meals are hastily thrown together, my sleep is interrupted.   And worse, I willingly put myself  in the path of constant rejection.   So why write?

I write because I love to write and I love to read.  I love everything about books: the covers that promise hours of enchantment, their heft in my hands, the sweetly musky smell. I love  rows of
books stacked neatly on bookshelves.  I love remembering first book, its colorful pictures,  the images-17delight of  learning to translate the symbols on the page into words that conjured fantastical thoughts, faraway places, exciting ideas.  I find comfort in bookshops and libraries.  I love being surrounded by books and by people who love books.

I learned to love writing from my heroes;  Mark Twain, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stegner, Maya Angelou, Anias Nin, Jon Hassler, Amy Tan, Elizabeth Berg, Richard Russo, Barbara Kingsolver…and so many others.  Their words drew me in, not moralizing, prideful words, but  awkward stumbling words,  anguished, hurting words that gave voice to my feelings.  Thrilling words, words pulsing with danger. Angry words, hateful words.  And words pregnant with joy, melodic with peace and love. I loved them all.   Their words opened new worlds to me,  urged me to revisit old ones, challenged my beliefs, made me laugh and sent tears streaming down my face;  told me who I was and showed me who I wanted to be.

I love everything about the  “Worddom” and I want to be a part of it.  I want to provide a link in the wordchain to our children’s children and their children’ children.    I want them to know my stories and my truths. It is why  I compulsively, painstakingly, rummage through dictionaries, thesauri and lexicons for that one word that compels the reader to feel the emotion, see the landscape, love the character, believe in her.  And once retrieved, it is why I must measure its texture and its heft in my mind,  imagine its hue, hear its sound.  It must tell the truth.

This kind of writing does not come easy for me.  By nature, a curious soul, I am easily distracted by  the  “busy-ness” and business of writing;  intimidated by the daily deluge of blogs, posts and tweets, hawking elite and pricey workshops, conferences and retreats where I am sure to optimize my platform and craft a best-seller.  And  above all, I am admonished to devote large mark-twain-391120_640blocks of time daily to write, regardless of how inappropriate,  to write anything at all, no matter how nonsensical and vapid,  in order to attain my daily  “word count”.   Oddly, there is little in this daily digital tirade about the art of reading or the craft of writing.  I wonder what Mark Twain’s  reaction would be.  Somehow I don’t see him worrying about his Twitter account.

But, this is the digital age, after all,  and I acknowledge its importance as well as the need for marketing.  I maintain a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.  I read blogs.  I subscribe to writers magazines and attend a few workshops.  All of this is helpful and entertaining.  But  I have decided to spend what time I have to reading and word-smithing.   If this brings my truth to the written page, and if my words touch the hearts of a reader or two, it will be enough.

 

 

RealSouthernWomen redux

                                                                                                                                         

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Welcome to my blog.  Exciting new features have been added.

In Southern Showcase, Southern women writers will share their experiences about life in the South.

Real Southern Women will present  true stories of  famous and not-so-famous southern women.

The News from Sugarmill Junction will transport you  back in time to experience life in mid-twentieth century,  small town Louisiana from the perspective of its citizens.   Look for the first installment soon.

I hope you will enjoy the stories and add your comments to our discussion.

Writing the real stuff

Mysterious Unknown Angela Marie HenrietteI write about southern women in the decades from the Civil War up to the advent of civil rights,  and let’s face it, that was a deeply troubled period in Southern history.   So  when one of my favorite characters loses her way  in one of the many conflicts and controversies, I want to rescue her,  to keep her strong,  to make her story prettier than I know it really was.  I love these women!  I want everyone to know how wonderful they are.  What if I get hate mail?  What if my friends desert me? What if my family thinks I’m disrespectful of them?  Maybe just skip the hard stuff.  Write a feel-good story.

Of course, this is the worst kind of hypocrisy.  And just the kind of platitudinous nonsense about the South that I rail against to all my friends who will listen.  What’s more, it’s insulting to  readers to assume they would prefer a one dimensional character to one who is flawed, who hurts, who is real.

Writers don’t talk about this much, so maybe I’m alone in balking at dragging my favorite characters through the literary mud.   But just in case,  when the story takes you to a painful place, like me, you find yourself staring at the blinking cursor and hovering over the backspace, I say,  let’s suck it up, hit the spacebar and tell the truth.   We owe it to our characters, our stories, our readers, and most of all, ourselves.

Artwork by Angela Marie Henriette 

Writing Process Blog Tour

I’m excited to participate in The Writing Process Blog Tour.   It works like this.  A writer answers four questions about her writing and then hands off the baton to two more writers, who do the same.   It gives us a great chance to meet new authors and to visit their blogs

Mary Adler (aka M.A. Adler), member of SheWrites and author of the mystery,  In the Shadow of Lieshttp://amzn.to/1pC4LyK handed the gavel to Marylee MacDonald and Marylee handed it on to me.  Marylee is the author of Montpelier Tomorrow, http://amzn.to/Y76mBe a literary novel about a mid-life mom, Coleen Gallagher, who gets sucked into becoming her dying son-in-law’s caregiver but soon discovers that the dying man isn’t noble and she can’t go on being Superwoman.

You can find out more about Marylee on her Authors Guild website, http://www.maryleemacdonald.us or visit her blog on Goodreads. http://bit.ly/1rJQstN

Here are my answers to the four questions

What am I working on?

I am writing  a novel based on the life of a woman in rural N. Louisiana in the years just after the Civil War.  It is fiction, but many incidents and characters are based on real-life experiences.   This is a large undertaking requiring a great deal of research, so in the meantime, I blog about the lives of women in rural Louisiana.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My challenge, like that of all writers of historical fiction,  is to create authentic characters and place them in historical context in such a way that modern readers identify with and care about them.  My work is somewhat unique in that little is known about this  group of women.

Why do I write what I do? 

The voices of these women have been little heard, if at all.  My hope is that my work can shine a light into the shadows of their heroic lives.

What is my process

I set aside time for writing every morning.  However my best writing is done when I can devote a block of time, at least a  day or two,  solely to writing.   I do my best work when I feel as though the ideas are coming through me and not from me.  I’ve never had anything usable result from forcing myself to write.  If I don’t feel inspired to write, it’s usually because I’m not listening.   I may need more research,  quiet walks in the woods, or just to read some really good writing.  My Goodreads reading list is indispensable for those times.  Once I am awake to them again, my characters begin chattering among themselves, often at maddeningly inappropriate times.  I don’t worry too much if I can’t get to a notebook to write it down;  if they really have something to say, they’ll be back.

Now for next week’s lineup:

PATRICIAN McCARTHY

Patrician McCarthy is the first Mien Shiang expert to translate this ancient art and science for the mainstream American public. She founded in 2000 The Mien Shiang Institute in Santa Monica, Ca., to teach the Taoist techniques of Medical Facial Diagnosis and Face Reading, and Taoist Five Element theory.

For nearly 30 years she has taught the powerful implications of Face Reading and the Taoist Five Elements to medical practitioners, lawyers, Olympic athletes, and corporate CEOs and their teams from Procter & Gamble, The Gap, Mattel, Inc., KPMG and other Fortune 500 companies.

In conjunction with the renowned Yo San University in Los Angles, CA., she established the first Medical Certificate Program in Mien Shiang, as well as the first Medical Certificate courses in Environmental Medicine (Feng Shui).

Connect with her at

Blog: http://mienshiang.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/patrician.mccarthy?fref=hovercard

MARILYN BOSTICK

Marilyn Bostick is a writer of riveting dark romantic fiction and Sci-Fi.  Her enthusiasm for telling tales was cultivated by years of reading Stephen King, Dean Koontz, J.D. Robb, and Ben Bova.  Armed with a flashlight beneath bed covers or in the comfort of a recliner, she became acquainted with the characters that would haunt her for a lifetime.  Marilyn’s unwavering creativity challenged her to refine her writing, and it was that passion that kept her motivated to achieve her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing for Entertainment at Full Sail University, Winter Park, Florida.  The tools she learned at the University cemented her resolve to perfect her craft and to bring her descriptively compelling stories to the next level. Her short stories Time and Revenge were published in Full Sail University’s magazine the Aviator. Time was published in the fifth issue on May 29, 2012, and Revenge was published in the eighth issue on March 4, 2013.

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Website http://www.mtbostick.com