Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Let's Do Away With Literary Snobbery by Wendy Tokunaga

Karin Gillespie, fine writer and founder of Girlfriends Book Club (the original Girlfriends Cyber Circuit) wrote an excellent piece for The New York Times (!) called A Master’s in Chick Lit (you can read it here.) It describes very well the literary snobbism she encountered in her MFA program and how she came to realize how important it is to “embrace the gifts that enticed us into being writers in the first place,” no matter what the style.

I was lucky. I never felt much snobbery from my MFA program (I graduated in 2008), and felt that the teachers mostly encouraged us to write well, no matter what we were writing about. As one of the comments on Karin’s article stated, there should be no war between “literary” writers versus “genre” writers, as literary is simply just another genre.

I wasn’t so lucky when it came to planning bookstore appearances when my debut novel, Midori by Moonlight, came out. While I was lucky to snag appearances at the huge Union Square Borders in downtown San Francisco and the well-known indie bookstore Book Passage in Marin County, I also wanted very much to appear at my town’s largest independent bookstore, which had supported a number of local authors. But when I showed up with book in hand, naively assuming that I’d receive an enthusiastic reply from the owner, he took one look at the cover and said, “We don’t usually showcase these types of books.” He hadn’t read the book, but he seemed to know it wasn’t worthy of his time or space. Needless to say, I didn’t end up appearing there, but luckily found a new store in town that didn’t feel the same way.

In the novel writing classes I teach I always try to expose students to all different types of good writing. Along with excerpts from National Book Award winners, I also feature chapters from “commercial” best sellers. The first chapter of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a textbook example of how to write an effective beginning of a novel no matter what your style, but there are always students who balk and say they don’t read “those types of books.” Once they read that chapter, though, they are full of praise and I challenge them to write something as good for their novel’s Chapter One.

Literary snobbism is mainly based on insecurity. When Norman Mailer and his wife Norris were
about to leave for a trip, she was packing a novel by fantasy writer Mary Renault to read on the plane. Mailer told her to leave the book at home: “I can’t have people seeing you reading things like that!” It’s all about image and perception; many people feel the need to be “intellectual” and “well-read.” And if they do indulge in novels that don’t meet these “standards,” these books are referred to merely as “guilty pleasures.”

It’s time to put a stop to literary snobbery. I’m not telling readers that they can’t have their own tastes and no one is saying that you have to read and like everything. But enough with the criticism and the noses held up in the air. Writers care and work hard on their novels, no matter if they’re Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling. We can learn from and enjoy all different styles of writing and no one should have to think that reading a particular book on the subway will make them either “look bad” or “look smart.”

Find me at:
Twitter: @Wendy_Tokunaga

I’ll take Paris, almost every time… by Jacqueline E. Luckett

Setting lends authenticity to our writing, and readers feel it. It makes the reading and writing experience whole.
Notre Dame

Often one of the first questions I’m asked when I speak about my second novel, Passing Love, is, “Why Paris?” Of course, the smart aleck in me always replies, “why not?”

Seriously, why not choose a setting you love, are fascinated with or curious about?  Why not choose a place that you can turn into as great a character as those who walk through it? Why not choose a setting your character hates and try to convince her that she does? It makes you, the writer, happy and excited to face the computer from one day to the next.  

I’ve always loved France, the country and the language. I’m sure my Francophile nature has everything to do with my name. So, you could say the location came to me quite naturally. I love my hometown, Oakland, and the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area, too, and I include those settings in my work. All of these places are where I feel comfortable and so writing about them feels natural to me and, by extension, to my readers.

A Paris passage--an original mall
As I wrote about my characters’ first visit to Paris, I recalled the energy and beauty of the city, the awe that came with the first time I saw the Eiffel Tower glowing at midnight. I wanted my readers to experience what that setting felt like. Paris was an important fulfillment of a dream for one of my characters and for another it was a contrast to life in the pre-World War II south.

Setting gives a character a way to maneuver through everyday life. It can weave its way through a story and move a character forward. It wraps around story, so that the reader nearly has a three dimensional experience. Setting doesn’t always require tons of detail. But, if your character is losing bits and pieces of her clothing as she descends Rome’s Spanish Steps, you might want to write a lengthier description just so we understand what will happen when she gets to the last step.  

I'm not sure when "the muse" will take one me or a new character back to Paris, but I know that regardless of setting, I'll try to bring readers into the story so that they understand where my characters are and the challenges setting can present. If I do this well, by the time they reach the end, they’ll feel satisfied--or ready to buy a ticket.

Jacqueline Luckett is the author of Passing Love and Searching for Tina Turner. She admits that for the sake of “authenticity,” she’s traveled to Paris many times and is positive that there is more for her to learn about that wonderful setting.

All photos are copyright, Jacqueline Luckett, 2014.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Setting Tattoos the Character

By Barbara Claypole White

A few years back, I was fortunate enough to do a workshop with Stephen Barr of Writers House. He talked about conflict born of setting, about how setting can complicate, ruin or create a sense of safety in your story. And then he said something I will never forget: The setting tattoos the character.

This has become one of my writing mantras. (In case I ever need reminding, it’s scrawled on a neon
pink Post-it note attached to my pin board.)

The inspiration for my fiction has two sources: I’m a woodland gardener in the forests of North Carolina and the mother of a brilliant young man who battles a crippling anxiety disorder—with courage and humor.
In my mind, my son’s struggles are transformed into an image of light coming through the trees. The heavily forested land surrounding our home is a place of deep shade and dancing light. It echoes with the past: there’s a historic trading path worn smooth by Native American moccasins, an abandoned family burial plot and a tumbled down homestead that’s surrounded by daffodils every spring. We have hawks and venomous snakes, woodpeckers that rat-a-tat-tat constantly and indigenous, carnivorous plants. This place of danger, hidden beauty and forgotten memories has been whispering to me for nineteen years. It’s also the setting for my second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, which was published in January by Harlequin MIRA.
The title is a reference to my favorite time in our forest, that magical almost spiritual hour at the close of day called the gloaming. The birds call each other home for the night, the shadows grow long and the sinking sun hits the treetops so they blaze gold. For me, that light flickering between the leaves epitomizes hope, which is a recurring motif in the novel.
THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR is a story of light shining through the trees. My characters come from two broken families each fighting unwanted memories and invisible disabilities—severe grief and clinical depression. Yet their coming together brings healing.
Much like the wild honeysuckle and poison ivy on our land, the forest is woven through every aspect of this story, through every plot twist. It has tattooed each of my characters in different ways—some good, some bad—becoming an integral part of their past, present and future. The fate of each character is played out through his or her connection to the land.
THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR is also my love letter to my little corner of the North Carolina forest. When the Southern independent booksellers chose it as a winter 2014 Okra pick, they were recommending it as Southern fiction. They were endorsing THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR as a novel about the Southern landscape.
A setting is more than just a backdrop. It provides a rich opportunity to deepen your story and add layers to your characters. When a setting whispers, I urge you to listen.

Barbara Claypole White is the author of THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt, which won the 2013 Golden Quill for Best First Book. THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, which was chosen by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) as a Winter 2014 Okra Pick, is the story of two broken families coming together to heal in rural North Carolina. Visit her at, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

By Laura Spinella

As readers we travel to places, visiting people we may never meet in everyday life: Huck on the Mississippi River, Scout in fictional Maycomb Alabama; moving east, we can venture all the way to a semi-fictitious West Egg and the iconic Jay Gatsby. The wind blows, the page turns and you’re in Mr. Darcy’s rural Longbourn, England during the Napoleonic Wars. From there, catapult a couple of centuries, never leaving the Motherland, and you may find yourself at Hogwart’s academy of wizardry.  Setting is to a novel what bees are to flowers.
Setting is one of my favorite elements in novel writing. Unlike those pesky characters who require invention, revision, and often a bottle of gin to get them in or out of my head, the place where I choose to drop my protagonists, antagonists and minor players feels more like the comfy hammock where we all come to rest. It’s also one of my favorite book club questions: “Why did you decide to set your novel in…” I think a good answer is as layered as the plot in a book. In BEAUTIFUL DISASTER, I tend to insist I chose Athens, Georgia because of its eclectic atmosphere. In truth, I suspect the setting chose me. While the story could take place on the campus of any large Southern university, UGA is the one I could describe in detail.  From a pragmatic standpoint, it makes perfect sense.  That said, it was hardly the rationale and certainly not my motivation for the setting.  BEAUTIFUL DISASTER is a love story, and while the tale does not mirror anything that happened in my life, the emotion tied to the main characters, Mia and Flynn, draws upon my days spent in the Classic City. In this case, the setting was a direct line from my vein, and for whatever it was worth, I used it until I could not kick it any harder.
            After all that angst, PERFECT TIMING was an emotional reprieve, and my approach to setting was quite the opposite. I use multiple locations for this novel: Boston, Las Vegas, California, and Long Island, although the back flap and my publisher will insist it’s another Southern set novel. True enough; the bulk of the action does take place in Catswallow, Alabama, although you do have to give a rock star and his story space—hence the additional hot spots. However, it’s the Deep South setting that seems to resonate. Not long ago, a reader emailed, curious to know why a Google search produced only PERFECT TIMING references to Catswallow, Alabama.  The woman was adamant that she once knew somebody from there. *sigh* My motivation for dreaming up Catswallow was twofold. It’s a small Southern town that, in part, perpetuates small-minded ideals. First, I did not want to take license and put labels on any real place—though surely they exist. Secondly, and perhaps more important, I wanted the reader to see only what I painted on the canvas. But as the email from my reader proves, try as you might, setting is subject to interpretation.
        Surrey, Massachusetts serves as the physical location for my current WIP. Like Catswallow it is fictitious, although I believe Surrey is representative of larger towns on the outskirts of Boston. When I think about setting in this book, I don’t focus as much on the real estate as I do the smaller scenery, namely a newsroom where much of the action occurs. Maybe that’s because the novel’s main character, Aubrey Ellis, grew up in a carnival and led a wandering gypsy life. It’s an important element in the story and almost as critical as Aubrey’s improbable gift—in addition to her precarious past, Aubrey also speaks to the dead. As I write and rewrite this story, I find that the setting has evolved from a place to a person. It’s not so much about the where Aubrey lives, but the person that makes her most comfortable with her extraordinary gifts.  Like Aubrey, I too am learning. As I close out this revision, I find that I have, once again, imagined a setting that surprised me for reasons I did not consider when I first typed “Chapter One.”  It’s interesting when it comes to books, whether you are the reader or the writer, the places you’ll go.    

Laura Spinella is the award-winning author of Beautiful Disaster and newly released Perfect Timing. Visit her at    

A Love Letter to Cleveland

No matter how I do this, it isn’t going to come out right. You’re going to think I hate Cleveland. But that’s not exactly true. I think of it, mostly, with fondness.

That said, let’s get the jokes out of the way first. Here are two, mostly safe for work, videos that you have to watch. I promise it’ll take two minutes of your time.

So that’s Cleveland in a very tiny nutshell.

Next year I’ll publish the first two books in the Casey Cort series, Qualified Immunity, and Under Color of Law which take place in the early part of this century.

When I started to write my first book (why my first book is coming out last is another entire blog post), I had only left Cleveland and it was fresh in my mind. The post industrial city had a lot of qualities that make it an excellent character. As you may have noticed from the videos above, the city suffers from economic depression, gray, gray weather, and a lacking sense of humor.

But my books take place in the past, so I’m writing about a city that doesn’t exist anymore. For better or worse, it has moved on. And what was true in 2003 isn’t true today. I’m doing my best to stick with my vision of the city as it was then. But we all view places through different lenses and I worry that the corruption and damaged legal system my heroine faces will come across like I’m setting the Cuyahoga river on fire a second time. But that’s not the case. It’s sort of like writing about the 1970s in New York City. It was a lot awful, but it was a little great, too.

Did I like going to economic summits on the city's problem of hemorrhaging college graduates? No. Did I like watching news reports of elected officials going to jail? Not really.

But I did I love going to the art museum and seeing Lucy at the Museum of Natural History? Absolutely. The best art exhibit and best play I’ve ever seen happened right there at the Cleveland Playhouse.

In fact, Casey Cort is one of my favorite heroines, a little heavy, a little plucky, a lot of fun—to write. She’s facing her thirties and it’s an uphill battle. Cleveland is the perfect setting for a book with a heroine seeking redemption. Little victories are more rewarding when you have to lean against a stiff Lake Erie wind to get them.

Sylvie Fox is the author of The Good Enough Husband, another book about a heroine in dire need of redemption. But at least this one's mostly set in sunny Southern California.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Where I'm At

by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

This cycle at GBC we're talking about settings.

In terms of setting, the books I've had traditionally published break down as follows:

CONNECTICUT: A Little Change of Face; Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes; Crazy Beautiful; Angel's Choice; Secrets of My Suburban Life; Me, In Between

MASSACHUSETTS: Little Women and Me

ENGLAND: The Thin Pink Line; Crossing the Line; Vertigo: The Education of Bet; The Twin's Daughter

ICELAND: How Nancy Drew Saved My Life

LOCATION UNKNOWN: The Sisters 8 series

When I look back on this, I realize there was no big advance planning in any of it. It was more that I would get an idea for a book and the voice combined with the concept would dictate setting. Plotwise, the books I've set in England could have just as easily been set in the U.S., save for one small thing. When you choose a setting, there's so much more that comes with it than just location. There's all the nuances of accents, tone, cadence, even word choices. If you're writing a contemporary comedy, as a rule, people in the U.S. don't get gobsmacked or feel knackered, and they certainly never say "You stupid cow!" to insult someone, not unless they also want to provoke a bout of anorexia.

There was a lot of deliberation behind my choice to set How Nancy Drew Saved My Life in Iceland. I wanted my heroine to become the nanny to an ambassador in an unusual place; I wanted it to be far away and completely isolated; and I'd been to Iceland.

Similarly, it was a deliberate decision to never identify just where it is The Sisters 8 live. Like the prologue in Book 1: Annie's Adventures says: "And where was this magnificent stone house? Why, it might have been anywhere in the world - even right next door to you - so why quibble? However, if there were octuplets in your class at school, you would probably have noticed by now, so perhaps that's not the case."

The books I've set in Connecticut are mostly set in Danbury, where I live, although occasionally I use other towns. Of course I change things to suit my own purposes. Every time a reader asks if there really is a bar here where a person can shoot pool that goes by the name of Chalk Is Cheap, I have to admit that, sadly, Chalk Is Cheap only exists in my mind.

When you get down to it, I suppose it all comes down to my mind, really. As a writer, it's all about going to the places - physical and emotional and conceptual - that I'm most interested in going to at the time. And I'm the same as a reader.

I love reading books that take place in different states and regions in the U.S. and I love books from other countries, Some of my favorites, by location, from the past year?

SCOTLAND: Gods and Beasts, by Denise Mina

DENMARK: A Conspiracy of Faith, by Jussi Adler-Olsen

NORTH DAKOTA: Let Him Go, by Larry Watson

ENGLAND: The Hive, by Gill Hornby

NORWAY: Police, by Jo Nesbo

FRANCE: The Mouse-Proof Kitchen, by Saira Shah

SPAIN: Mr. Lynch's Holiday, by Catherine O'Flynn

PORTUGAL: The Two Hotel Francforts, by David Leavitt

MINNESOTA: Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger

So how about you? What's your favorite setting to write about? What's your favorite setting to read about? Or what's the name of a really great book you've read that has a strong sense of place?

Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of a bunch of books for adults, teens and children. Visit her at, check out The Sisters 8 at, or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBaratzL