Magnolia City

Madre, dearest

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When I was undergoing three years of deep, intensive psychotherapy with a gifted psychiatrist in Toronto, Dr. Monte Bail, one of the books he gave me to read was Alice Miller's best seller, The Drama of the Gifted Child. This book made me aware of the prevalence of narcissistic disorders in our society, and the damage done to children by these kinds of self-centered mothers.
    

As I worked on developing my historical novel, Magnolia City, I realized that I wanted to create a portrait of such a mother in Nella Ardra Allen, the matriarch of the Allen clan, descendants of the founders of the city of Houston. She raises her daughter Hetty, the protagonist of the novel, as the perfect Houston socialite, a Southern gentlewoman being groomed to marry the scion of the Splendora oil fortune, Lamar Rusk. Hetty takes on the roles that have unconsciously been assigned to her: guardian of her younger sister, savior of the family's honor and fortune. Nella’s narcissistic equilibrium depends upon her daughter behaving in a certain way. But when Hetty meets an alluring stranger and rebels against her mother’s wishes, she experiences a devastating abandonment that leaves her feeling hollow and confused.
    

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Avoid flimsy fiction!

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I use a lot of construction metaphors when talking about writing novels, because I think structure is an important element of good narrative. I once read that “Writing is the manual labor of the mind,” and I thought, “Oh yeah!” I remember penning a letter to my aunt after finishing a huge section of Magnolia City: “You’d think sentences were made of lumber, dry wall and nails, so exhausting is the struggle to be articulate.”

One important element of this is the scaffolding that good research can bring into your work. I have found from experience that if I try to write a scene before I’ve done enough research, the scene will feel like it’s built out of veneer instead of real wood. It will feel generic and pasted together hastily. Good hard facts and details authentic to the period are what’s needed to bolster the story and give it strength.

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Introducing INKBLOTS

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Hey there — writers, readers, fans and fellow bloggers. If you’re interested in analyzing the Fine Art of Fiction, take a look at my new Writer’s Blog. I’ll be doing monthly updates on my novel-in-progress. Allow me to sling a little ink here as I reveal the secret life of a novelist at work. There will be agonies, ecstasies, suicide notes and spilled coffee. Be prepared for a rare glimpse behind the scenes as hidden patterns emerge out of a writer’s inkblots, those messy scribbles that turn into first drafts that turn into second drafts that — through some kind of mysterious alchemy — turn into polished pages and chapters. And finally . . . The Book.

We all know how an inkblot can suggest a story and reveal deeper psychology — or perhaps it’s a stain on a wall, a scent, an overheard conversation, a memory from childhood. A smell, such as peppermint or bread baking, can unlock the whole Rorschach of a writer’s memory, leading to a masterpiece such as Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. You never know what’s going to spark an idea, but it’s all a projection of the writer’s self into the world he is creating. Novelists must first dream their books into being, and then somehow that world of shadows becomes imprinted into the words on the page which, when the reader opens it, can swell into life magically like those Japanese paper flowers you drop into water. Fiction, at its best, is a dream in the mind of the reader.

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Cluster luck . . .

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In the midst of writing my historical novel Magnolia City, I hit a real roadblock. I was royally stuck for weeks. I had to write a scene where all my major characters attended a formal dinner party at Bayou Bend, the home of Houston’s leading hostess, Ima Hogg (a real person). When my characters sat down together at the dinner table, there were so many tensions and undercurrents clashing together, that my mind short-circuited. I couldn’t sort it all out to begin writing the scene. Day after day, I stared at a blank piece of white paper.

Then I opened my copy of Writing the Natural Way by Rico and decided to try one of the “magic keys” to getting in touch with my “secret reserves of imaginative power.” It’s a technique called Clustering, and is one of the best tools a lucky writer has at his disposal. This was a favorite in my workshops at the Rabbit Hill Writers’ Studio. What is Clustering? “A nonlinear brainstorming process akin to free association.” You start with a nucleus of some sort, the main thought or idea you want to expand upon. In my cluster, it was simply “formal dinner party.” Around the table, I arranged the place cards, and then clustered each one of my characters in turn as if they were a bunch of grapes. What were they thinking? Would did they want to say?

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Don’t substitute generic . . .

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As the director of the Rabbit Hill Writers’ Studio, one of my jobs was to diagnose problems with my student’s stories. Not as easy as it sounds. Often, a member of the class would produce a “nice” piece that just didn’t grab me. This would happen over and over. I finally figured out what was wrong:  the writing was generic. It lacked those good solids details that bring a piece to life. I would read sentences like this: “A car was parked under the tree.” It’s hard to visualize this. What kind of car? What kind of tree? The mind reels. “Her Jaguar was parked in the shade of a willow tree,” is a much different picture than “A muddy pickup was parked under the scrub oak.” Do you see how just adding in a few significant details brings these sentences to life?

If fiction is “a dream in the mind of the reader,” remember that dreams depend very much on details. Dreams aren’t abstract. If you’re being stalked by a tiger in a dream, it’s not Blake’s poetic “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,” but a bloodthirsty predator who claws your arm and snarls right in your face. You can smell his bad breath.

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The writer’s split personality

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One of the first exercises I did in my workshops at the Rabbit Hill Writers’ Studio was to have my students separate out the two parts of their nature. As As Dorothea Brande says in her wonderful little book Becoming a Writer: “Every author is a very fortunate sort of dual personality, and it is this very fact that makes him such a bewildering, tantalizing, irritating figure.”

So it’s all right for a writer to have a split personality — in fact he/she should cultivate it. I always had my students personify their two sides: the Creative Artist and the Critic. I named my two sides and even wrote scenes where they interacted with each other. My Creative Artist is Kyle Marin, which means “temple of the sea.” He’s a pearl diver who knows how to open oysters to find the treasures inside. He lives on the beach, and is wild, unkept, unshaven, shaggy, with sun-bronzed skin and callouses on his feet from never wearing shoes. He doesn’t speak much but dredges up uncanny things out of the depths. He’s always tracking sand into my studio.

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How to write “choice fiction”

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I am grateful to all the readers who have taken time to give Magnolia City a review on Amazon. I have collected almost 70 already, many of them awarding the novel 4 or 5 stars. One of the recent reviews which I really treasure reads: “Texas oil in the 1920s is the basis for this story. It is about the choices we make in life, whether right or wrong, and where those choices can lead.” When I read this, I thought, “Yes! Someone gets it!” Someone understands the scaffolding that I was trying to build under the elaborate trappings of my book.

One of the dangers that face novelists is to end up with a passive protagonist. The main character becomes a victim of fate, or coincidence, allowing life to happen to him or her without doing anything to bring about the developments in the story. This doesn’t make for a very dramatic narrative —- what I like to call “choice fiction.” The root of the word drama comes a Greek verb meaning “to do, to act.” We want to see our heroes and heroines stepping into action and being thrust into the dilemmas that those actions bring about. Someone who drifts through life isn’t very interesting to read about.

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I found the Field of Dreams!

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I just returned from my book tour of Texas and had the most miraculous experience while there. I had promised my wife that she would see huge fields of bluebonnets in bloom, but everywhere we went, we only saw patches of them beside the road. There’s been a drought in parts of the Lone Star State that has affected the germination of wildflowers.

Bluebonnets can only be found in Texas in the whole world. They are site specific and need just the right conditions in order to grow. Members of the lupine family, they are pollinated in a rather magical manner:  the petals open when the bee alights on them, then the top turns from white to magenta to show that its pollen is no longer fertile. Livestock and even deer won't eat them because the lupine alkaloids are toxic to them, so the flowers flourish unmolested for weeks in April. The Texas writer, J. Frank Dobie, had this to say about them: "No other flower --- for me at least --- brings such upsurging of the spirit and at the same time such restfulness."

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Magnolia Cité

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I was in Paris in March and visited one of my favorite places in the world, Shakespeare and Company, the famous English-language bookstore on the Rive Gauche, the Left Bank. It sits right opposite Notre Dame and has a priceless view of the île de la Cité. Inside, you will find “a winding, twisting, climbing labyrinth of books,” as the new owner Sylvia Whitman describes it, “a refuge for book lovers, a shelter for writers.” Sylvia is the daughter of George Whitman, who opened the store in 1951. This has always been the expat heart of Paris, and still gives you a musty whiff of its long literary history. The original Shakespeare and Company, in a different location, was the hangout for the Lost Generation: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot. There, James Joyce’s Ulysses was published, there many writers lived and worked.

While I was in Paris, I made several visits to the store, bought lots of books, got to know some of the staff, and had an interview with the man in charge of “acquisitions.” I presented him with a copy of Magnolia City. He took one look at the cover, said it was “very well done,” and asked what distributors my publisher used in Europe. A few days later I got an email affirming that he had decided to add Magnolia City to his shelves in May.

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The metaphor unlocks the meaning

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Is it a butterfly landing on a branch? Or a flower blowing in the breeze? Is it a baboon?  Or an orchid with the face of baboon? Nature is full of these correspondences, and a good writer will dig deep to find the metaphors that lie at the root of his story. Aristotle thought highly of this skill, saying in his Poetics:  “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor; it is a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.”


But exactly what is a metaphor? More than just a figure of speech, a metaphor is a comparison by which the writer uncovers a hitherto-unseen resemblance between two unrelated objects. In her story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor describes the mother as having “a face as broad and innocent as a cabbage.” This is a skillful metaphor because a face and a cabbage are entirely different objects, but how brilliantly the comparison illuminates the theme of rural gullibility that drives the story to its tragic climax.

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How to X-ray your novel

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I don’t like applying the word “plot” to novels, unless you think of it in the surveyor’s sense of measuring off a section of land. Then you get into topography, and that’s the real secret of writing riveting fiction. A book that you can’t put down usually takes you on a roller coaster ride up and down a series of dramatic peaks, the tension rising until you reach the Magic Mountain of the climax.

I’m struggling with this territory now as I rework an old draft of the sequel to Magnolia City, called The Tibetan Magic Show. It tells the story of Hetty’s children in the 1960s. I now realize that the problems with this older novel spring from its spineless plot. Youthful posturing instead of good posture. Many novels suffer from a kind of osteoporosis — weak bone structure. They are flabby, and can’t really stand on their own. A skeleton for a novel should look a bit like the Himalaya Mountains, with Everest as the climax.

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In the last twenty years, there’s been a movement toward revisionist Texas history. As cited in articles such as “Forget the Alamo” from Texas Monthly Magazine, a young breed of scholars is changing the way natives look at the Lone Star State. These social historians try to recreate the details of everyday life, rather than celebrate the traditional heroic myths.

I’ve tried to do the same thing with my hometown of Houston. In place of the honky tonks of Urban Cowboy and the tough ranchers of Giant, I present to you the denizens of Courtlandt Place. They practiced a more formal, Edwardian style of southern etiquette, which lingered until World War II. Within the gates of their “private place,” there was an elaborate ritual for meals, including formal dinner dress and a butler who waited behind a screen to be summoned for service. Think of it as “Downton Abbey meets Dallas.” These were sophisticated people, cotton and lumber barons who summered in places like Newport and often took the Grand Tour of Europe.

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What style shall I write in?

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I ran a creative writing workshop for ten years called the Rabbit Hill Writers’ Studio. That’s where my novel Magnolia City was developed. The feedback of other writers is invaluable when you are working on a manuscript. It really helps you self-correct as you go along. Just as you can’t see your own face unless you look into a mirror, so you can’t perceive the “persona” of your own writing unless it’s mirrored back to you by other writers.

One of the questions my students invariably asked me was, “How do I know what style I should write in?” Often their work was derivative as they attempted to copy the expressive content of their favorite authors. They talked about style as if it were something they could go out and purchase, like a set of new clothes. What they didn’t understand is that style is not something that can be added to a piece of work. It is the work.

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I owned a piece of Hemingway!

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duncan-aldersonI did a rather drastic thing in my forties. I walked out on a teaching career to become a writer. “Leap and the net will appear” was my slogan. After twelve years teaching English at the Toronto Waldorf School, I decided to move downtown and take up the bohemian life. When I spoke to my real estate agent, he said, “Well, Hemingway’s apartment is for sale.”

To make a long story short, I ended up purchasing this piece of literary history!  What better place to start my career as full-time writer? There was even a plaque on the building which read: “American-born Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), internationally renowned author, lived in this apartment building, 1597-1599 Bathurst Street, in 1923-24, while working as a journalist for the Toronto Star.” His apartment (and mine) was the penthouse in the left tower, as he said he could look out over the Cedarvale Ravine where he enjoyed riding on horseback. He wrote to Gertrude Stein, describing it as “a corker of an apartment.” And it was. There was a lovely sunporch off the master bedroom that looked down on the trees. As I renovated the space, I fantasized finding a faded typewritten manuscript hidden in the walls because this was the period when he started writing short stories. As I sanded down the woodwork, I imagined that Hemingway’s very sweat was mingled in the dust.

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houston-flapperOne of the first questions people always ask me is, “What inspired you to write this book?” A Mona Lisa smile appears on my face, and I shift into my enigmatic mode. I usually say, “Why, from Bestsubjectsfornovels.com. It’s a great website. And quite reasonable. They even have a three-for-the-price-of-one special on trilogies.”

The truth is closer to what Flaubert said: “We do not choose our subjects. They choose us.” A novelist doesn’t have to search for a subject. It already exists. Inside him or her. To be “original” means to go back to your “origins.” What Henry James liked to call the donnée, from the French for “given.” What has life given you to write about? Go there. Find that inner core, that donnée, and work outward from there.

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When a writer becomes entitled

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b2ap3_thumbnail_549070_562643820442674_785402469_n.jpgFinding the right name for your novel can be tricky. It’s really part of the text and can be just as important as that first sentence. In my last blog, I suggested that every novelist must find what Henry James liked to call the donnée, from the French for “given,” what life has implanted in you. It lies inside. The same is true of the title. The concept of your book carries within it the right name. It is often hidden inside the manuscript, in a phrase or clause, and can be winnowed out by a good editor.

People wonder why Magnolia City was on my list of possible titles for a book about Houston, Texas. It makes them think of the Deep South. But as I delved into the history of my hometown, I discovered many surprises. The biggest one was that Houston’s historic nickname was “the Magnolia City.” This may seem odd until you realize that during the period my novel is set, the 1920s, Houston was still a gracious bayou town, steaming at the edge of the Old South but awash in the new money of Spindletop oil. The city didn’t get varnished with the Western Myth until the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo kicked off in 1932. Before that, there were no cowboys or Indians in Houston’s history.

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