J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."


July 2014

So, there’s this thing called language……

………and it has far more to do with story than how any one particular character speaks. Language, more than anything else in the written form, sets the tone and brings to life the world within each book.

I found myself pondering language and its importance while reading a book that, with the exception of a handful of words describing articles of clothing, could have been set in the 21st century. The time period is in the Regency era. I had no clue about the When of this story and it took an entire chapter to figure it out.

And there’s the point. I shouldn’t have had spend any time trying to figure it out. I should have known from the first page that what I was reading was set in a time far removed from my own, where modern conveniences hadn’t been thought of, let alone invented. Given that the role of women was severely limited up until the last century (though in some parts of the world, that is still the case) and, therefore, her value equated solely with her virginity, the emotional stakes should have been higher.

Did it matter that the novel in question was erotica? Nope. I’ve read historical romances with equally (and also better written) steamy scenes. I’ve encountered similar problems in other genres, though not as severe. What separates good from excellent is how one handles the language, particularly if writing a period piece.

From the very first word, language should inform the reader about the world they are about to enter, whether it’s Regency England, Ancient Greece or Egypt, or featuring scientists in another part of the galaxy.  Language is that important in determining time and place.  It can make the difference between a successful story and an unsuccessful one – either drawing you in to know more or throwing you out entirely.

Which experience would you prefer while reading?

So, I’m having a lot of fun………

…….with this little project I’d started recently. I’d been contemplating writing in a genre that was outside of my comfort zone for a long while and now it’s finally begun.

I have settled on a time period (the Roaring Twenties) and specific settings (speakeasies, bootlegging), as well as location (Long Beach, CA) and music (Ragtime and Jazz). I’m reading some history about the period, listening to music of the era and poring over photographs, thanks to Google Images and old news articles. I’ve found a couple of characters, the hook to get it started and names that reflect both character and theme.

Sounds like a historical novel of some import, right? Well, no, not really – the genre I’m trying on for size is erotica. I know, I know…… why am I putting so much time and energy in researching and creating background and structure in a story that is typically about one thing – sex? And lots of it?

Because that’s how I roll.

Well, that and because I also believe that erotica is more than just the hot sex – for me, it’s all about the foreplay and the sensuality of the environment, clothing, body language both bold and subtle. It’s about connections between the two lovers – emotional, intellectual, spiritual. In order to know all of that, I have to get to know the characters.

And to know the characters, I have to know the world they inhabit. Thus, reading books on the time period, listening to that era’s music, reading its literature and seeing what it looked like as it was lived.

And guess what? I’ve just written a scene that is fun and flirty and hinges entirely on the characters themselves and how they view each other. It is tantalizing and sexy and utterly delicious.

Much like word play. And creme brulee.

So, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in my novels……..

……..and they seem to be reflecting major events that occurred in my life. I’m sure I’m not unique to this revelation and I’m also pretty sure that I won’t be the last writer to experience this strange bit of self-realization. Sometimes, I write things in my stories that later come true, but that’s another blog altogether. There’s a saying about life imitating art. This is about how life influences one’s art.

This is a fairly long post, so bear with me.

In my first novel, ‘Secrets & Howls: A Wolf’s Head Bay Mystery’, Marita ‘Marty’ Brye moves home after many years away. Not such a big deal, I know – everyone moves, either away from or back to the town/city they started out in. But moving, whether in fiction or in real life, is a catalyst for change. Big or small, slow or fast, change is always happening. In ‘Secrets & Howls’, change wasn’t just about trading one place for another, but about inner and physical change. Marty’s catalyst for moving home was to finally lay her mother’s ghost to rest, but she ends up uncovering secrets about her family and her town that dated back over a hundred years. I wasn’t making such profound discoveries in my own life, at least, not consciously, but like Marty, I also traded one city for another and in the process, was put on the path to find my inner strength.

Which brings me to ‘The Pike Horse: A Literary Cousins Mystery’. This one was a far more personal and a much darker story than I had originally intended it to be. I had wanted a fun cozy mystery, I got deeply unsettling. Like Marty Brye, Josie March had also moved home or, as she more accurately perceives it, she ran away from a toxic situation that ends up following her. What she doesn’t foresee is that the one is a precursor of sorts to another, far more dangerous encounter that tests her mind and spirit. So this novel is about something traumatic that happened and succeeding stories about Josie will follow her recovering from it and finding herself again, just as I and thousands who endured such trauma has before her. It was also a novel that became a way to purge and release, a catharsis, if you will.I’m sure there’s a saying of some sort, one that warns that monsters lurk under safe and familiar faces, but I can’t recall what it is.

And in ‘Much Ado Over Murder: A Hey! No Problem! Mystery’, there are old friends re-connecting and old loves finally opening up. As I was writing this novel, I kept encountering heart themes. I lost a heart charm and, in the process of developing portions of the novel and expanding on several plot threads, I kept seeing open heart surgery imagery. There were many other such blatant images popping up and I ultimately realized that I was writing a love letter of sorts – both for the characters, Alexandra ‘Al’ Hitchcock and Jack Taylor, as well as for the kind of relationship I want for myself. The original version of this story had Jack and Al part ways in a not so friendly manner. I was never entirely satisfied with this, because, while it read and wrote well, it didn’t suit the characters. It wasn’t true to who I knew them to be (and I should know, since I’d been writing about them for more than a decade). In the published version, they still part company, but on loving terms, with love confessed and hope for the future. I know what’s happening with them, but they’re not ready for the telling.

So, that brings me to my current Work In Progress. This one is a paranormal story about Cadence Galloway, a woman who can talk to ghosts. She’s a bit of a loner and a hermit by choice and generally keeps others at a distance, not trusting them more than necessary. Upon landing in a small coastal town (about thirty miles north of Wolf’s Head Bay, not so coincidentally), she is suddenly finding herself making new friends among the living and finds she has actual ties to the community she landed in. While the potential for romance is clearly indicated, I’m two-thirds of the way through and nothing’s happened. Which, to me, seems odd, because I usually know before page 100 if there’s going to be some Cupid activity going on. I’m not too unhappy about this, because I’ve realized something else far more important – this is where I am, in my life. Not needing the romance or the relationship, but fully aware that the potential is there. I’ve also been something of a hermit and now, instead of keeping people at a distance, I’m coming out of my shell and making new connections and interacting with Life. And instead of talking to ghosts, I’m exorcising them. It’s a lot harder than you’d think and it does cause some anxiety, especially if it’s brand-spanking new to you.

So, what’s the point of this particular blog? Well, each poem, story, novel, whatever that is written reveals a great deal about the author. What the particulars are is known to the author herself (or himself) and you may never know them. When I write, I throw everything and anything I can think of into my stories (so far, no kitchen sink has been thrown in, but a broken coffee maker has). Even Stephen King put himself into his own story (The Dark Tower series), incorporating the accident that nearly killed him to continue the tale of Roland and his ka-tet.

However, I can only speak for myself when I say that just about everything I write has some basis in my life. My stories reflect where I’ve been, what I’ve experienced and how I view life and the people I meet. More importantly, I feel, they’re also starting to reflect my progress – as a writer and as a person.

Art, no matter what the medium, allows us to explore our inner selves and, hopefully, we can also find ourselves there, too.

Where does one get story ideas? Well…….

…….story ideas come from a variety of places – a half-heard conversation, a funny incident with a dog, or a knock on one’s door. Take this, for example.

A couple of years ago, while enjoying a day off at home, I heard the doorbell ring.

A police officer had stopped by to report that a 911 call had been received from my house.

“You’re kidding,” said I.

“No, ma’am, I’m not,” said the officer.

“Well, there hasn’t been an active landline at this address for three years,” said I, amused.

“Well, you’re going to have to call the phone company about it.” And the officer gave me the number in question.

So I called the phone company and informed them of what had just happened. The woman who answered didn’t think it was one of their numbers, but transferred me to a technician named Vince.

I told Technician Vince what happened.

“Well, that’s one of our numbers,” he said, “but it’s not active.”

“What do you mean?” says I.

“Let me put it this way,” said Technician Vince. “If you were calling to install a landline phone in your house, this is the next number in the queue that would be assigned to you.”

I pondered this. “So, you’re saying that the police got 911 called by a ghost number?”

Technician Vince laughed. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“Well, now, this is just plain weird,” I said. “Because the irony is, I’m watching ‘Ghost Whisperer’ on TV.”

Much chuckling on both sides ensued.

True story. I have the phone number in my box marked Story Ideas.

So, I have this horse…….

…….and, as happens on occasion, I pondered Life, the Universe and Everything with Best Bud Mare and came to this conclusion.

Me: You know, the only thing better than being surrounded by horses and good friends is being surrounded by books.

Best Bud Mare: Yup, this is true. (pause) What’s a book?

So, I’ve been working on a project……

……….that is so far outside my comfort zone that it makes the Andromeda Galaxy look like it’s just a stone’s throw away from Earth and easily reached via space shuttle.

Ironically, it’s become by far the most fun to write and, rather than write it strictly on my computer, I’ve gone back to old school methods and am writing in long-hand. Although I’ve only written about four or five pages (most of it exposition as I work my way into it), the catalyst action for the lead character has been re-written to suit her last name (Falls) and her subsequent journey of self-discovery has begun.

There is a kind of magic to writing in long-hand.  – the feel of the pen in my hand, the way it traces out words on paper, the way letters emerge and link together to form words, how the paper makes a crinkling sound with the weight of those hand-written words.

Of course, the downside is that when you write by hand, cramps in fingers and palm will ensue. I suggest ice wrapped in a towel to relieve the pain.

So there is an interesting dichotomy here – the magic and comfort of writing in long-hand and the act of tackling a genre that is outside my comfort zone. Rather than the removed medium of a pixelated Word document on a computer, using pen and paper creates a more immediate experience with the story (and lots of scribbled notes and corrections in purple ink in the margins as I go along).  I suspect that there is a subconscious point to this particular choice of writing method and the story itself, but I’m content to allow it to reveal itself on its own.

And, given the need to create heightened sensations in this project, it’s more than appropriate to revel in the sensuality of ink revealing itself on paper.

So I have a beef with a line in the film ‘Julie & Julia’ (2009)…….

So I was watching the film, ‘Julie & Julia’ (2009), featuring Meryl Streep as the fearless Julia Child and Amy Adams as Julie Powell.
I love this film – it has Meryl Streep, it has food, it has France, it has a perfectly charming cat and, as a bonus, it has New York. This film, through Amy Adams’ character, always inspires me to want to take Julia Child’s ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ and devour the desserts (which is not always a feasible endeavor, albeit it would be a tasty one).
I enjoy watching the various mishaps Julie Powell (Adams) endures as she works to discipline herself into finishing what she’s started (for those who haven’t yet seen the film, Julie Powell has challenged herself to cook through Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year and keeps a blog about it). And Julia Child’s evident joy in all things French is translated to perfection through Meryl Streep’s brilliant performance.
This, however, is not a movie review. This is about a specific line that is used in the film that never fails to annoy me, as a writer, an indie author, an author-preneur. I’ve read the book, but it’s been awhile and I don’t recall reading that particular line (and if it is in the book, it probably annoyed me there, too).
What’s this line, you ask?

“You’re not a writer until someone publishes you.”

This, for me, is the single worst line in an otherwise enjoyable and above-standard film that features women in leading roles (their husbands are in the supportive role, which is quite rare).
If you keep a journal, you’re a writer. If you jot down poetry on random pieces of paper and keep them collected in a folder or notebook, you’re a writer. If you write songs, plays (stage or screen), short stories, novels – guess what, friends and neighbors? You’re a writer.
How do I know this? Because writing is an act – it is not a status, it is not a label, it is not qualified as such because it has been viewed by the outside world.
Writing is a deeply personal act – it is the conscious and the subconscious working together to weave imagery into word-form. Sometimes writing is about purging whatever is festering in one’s heart. Sometimes a character or two demand that you take them out and do something with them.

Or it’s something else entirely.

Whatever the case, if you are putting pen to paper and producing words because you are driven to do so (because to not do so is to deny that creative spark a chance to express itself), you are a writer.
And when there are days (and there are these dull days) when the urge to write is non-existent and yet, you still push through and get words out (and they may be terrible words, it happens, don’t stress, that’s what re-writing and revision is for), you, my friend, are a writer.
So, to go back to that line again and put it in a little bit of context – Julie (Amy Adams) is complaining that she could write, she has lots of ideas (her exact word is thoughts).
This is all directed at her husband, who is, rightfully, pointing out that she does write, she wrote a novel.
To which she responds, “Half a novel. No one wanted to publish it, anyway.” And then the offending line, “You’re not a writer until someone publishes you.”

And that’s where she misses the point – no one will publish your book if you only have half a book. And they won’t even look at it if it hasn’t been written. Because the only difference between a writer who is not published and a writer who is published is a contract from a publisher.

Writers write. Always.

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