Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Shout Outs

This is a sincere shout-out to Yasmin Coleman, Founder of Apooo (www.apooo.com) and to Cyrus Webb, President and CEO of Conversations Book Club and the host of Conversations LIVE! talk radio show(www.authorsden.com/cawebb and www.thebestbookclub.info) Yasmin and Cyrus interviewed me this week about Yellow Moon-but this post is not about me, it's about them. They are the new generation of griots-using the power of the web and words to create loving communities. They are also creative, smart, and entrepreneurial. Blog talk radio, I never knew about it-okay, I'm slow.not at all technologically hip. But I am a new fan.

Forget me, you should hear their podcast archives of wondrous writers! Oh, my gosh-they have a who's who of famously old and famously new writers. (In my view, anyone who writes a book is FAMOUS as in esteemed and illustrious.)

Yasmin and Cyrus are a bridge between authors and readers. That's cool.
More importantly, they are both warm-hearted people who are spearheading literacy and engaging people's hearts and minds. Check out HipHop and Books (http://www.hiphopandbooks.com) Cyrus blends fine music with his interviews-he started our interview with Jermaine Hawthorne's song, "Midnight Storm." Just hearing the eloquence of the song moved me to tears-reminded me of the power of faith and the power of music to move souls. This is part of our African-based faith tradition and why the jazz men are so important in Yellow Moon. But the music was Cyrus's gift to his many listeners-a special gift to me. The music celebrated Jermaine's gifts. But it was the "sharing," that makes Cyrus so special. A true, new age griot.

On Yasmin's show, I felt as if I was in the living room with my sisters. Phyllis, JD, Dera all called in, and they were wonderful and supportive. Yasmin's spirit reached across the telephone line and touched me. I was laughing-no, giggling. Her griot power makes a community that is both intimate and familiar. All we needed was food to make our evening get-together complete!

How can anyone ever be lonely with APOOO (it stands for A Place of Our Own and grammatically should be APOO but Yasmin likes APOOO better) and the Best Book Club communities. Check them out. Yasmin and Cyrus are the artists in the house! They are also community servants, wise storytellers and people I hope to keep in my life as friends.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Writing Lessons: Creating Character, Part 2

Sometimes, it takes awhile to know and understand your character. Yet, understanding is critical to loving your character and making your character believable.

Today, I was working on HURRICANE LEVEE BLUES — and I had an “ah-hah” moment. This is the third book I’m writing about Marie Laveau’s descendent, Dr. Levant, yet, today, I discovered something new about her.

Characters are like people! You think you know them—then, all of a sudden, they do something, say something shocking or surprising!

Getting deep into the bones of your character can be fun, intriguing. I especially love it when characters don’t do what I’ve planned as an author—like Anna Douglass in DOUGLASS’ WOMEN. I didn’t know she was going to invite Frederick’s mistress to tea!!! I was shocked.

Before characters start living on their own—telling YOU what to write—you, as the author, must begin with the basics.

What is your character’s name? Tamara? Tamara is far different from a Barbara, a Lorraine or a Lanesha. Jerome is unlike a Terrence, a Bobby, or a James.

A name makes a character real. So does history. Write down details about your character’s past—when and where was she born? What are her parents’ names? Is she the only child, eldest child, or baby of the family?

Write down details about your character’s current life—is she married? Does she practice a faith? What’s her profession? Hobbies?

What is her typical day like? Chances are you’ll be writing about an untypical day—so you need to decide what your character normally does. On Thursday, does your character eat at Jones’ Deli? Does she take a bus ride with three transfers to work? Think of all the interesting things that could happen if the Deli was closed or she missed her bus!

What does your character look like? Don’t list details as if you’re writing a police report. What features, mannerisms make your character recognizable, unforgettable.

Visualizing your character—knowing their normal patterns, habits and history all set the stage for you, as a writer, to disrupt and turn their story-lives, upside down. That’s when your real tale begins! Your characters will change and evolve—don’t worry, let them. But, create your starting point. Breathe first life into your characters.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

After Hurricane Gustav

Hurricane Gustav did not blow the house down! I'm so relieved. I prefer my drama in literature, not in life. But that's not possible, is it? Literature is a mirror of life and I've found that writing has often helped me deal with so many issues and struggles in my life. When there has been a death in the family, when I've been lonely...when I've wondered about the meaning of life.

Writing--all kinds, not just fiction writing, opens a space for the soul to reflect. Whether published or not, I know I'm a better person, because I write. Putting words on paper or on a computer screen is so affirming. Just like life. Even after Hurricane Gustav, the sun still shone in the sky and I know, somewhere, a bird was singing.

Affirmations are everywhere.

I'm so glad to be alive. Another hurricane--natural, psychological, or emotional--may come tomorrow. But the power of language stays with me.

It's 5:30am and all is well in my small world. I've done some writing and I feel more peaceful. My teenage son surprised me by coming downstairs for a cup of tea. Immediately, I worried.

"Why are you up so early?"

"Howard's End. I need to finish reading it for class."

Ah, there's something sweet here--our three cats and dog are asleep. My husband is still asleep. It seems like the entire, still dark world, outside, is asleep. Yet, inside, the two of us--mother and son--are paying attention to words, literary drama.

I'm going to make blueberry pancakes. A growing boy needs food. What's more life-affirming than this--being a writer, being a mom--and, knowing that, for now, all hurricanes are at bay.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Hurricane Gustav

My heart is breaking. Two million people are fleeing from he path of Hurricane Gustav. The NY Times headline and photos are frightening.

In 2005, VOODOO SEASON, the first in my contemporary voodoo mystery series, was published the day the levees broke in New Orleans. YELLOW MOON has just been released and I feel like its déjà vu.

Coming home from the Dallas Tuliasoma Bookfair yesterday, I saw the weather charts--all red, blue, and searing white and yellow. This morning, I literally work up to the newspaper--my husband brought the paper into bed (since it a lovely holiday morning--our little Jack Russell, Leia, is sleeping between us and Griffen, out baby cat, is sunning in the window). But as soon as I saw the front page of the NY Times, I got sick. It is not a lovely day for the citizens in the Gulf Coast area.

Hurricane Katrina changed my entire assumptions about my mystery trilogy. Most of you know me as an historical fiction novelist, and so you know how I weave history into my stories. VOODOO SEASON has history--of the New Orleans quadroon balls, the inherent racism and sexism inherited from the slave trade, and the legacy of Marie Laveau. But, it was fundamentally a "paranormal mystery"--or some say, a "police procedural."

YELLOW MOON, the second in the trilogy, published August 19, is being labeled by some as a "mystery horror" novel. You know why? Because I wrote YELLOW MOON knowing that in the third book, HURRICANE LEVEE BLUES, Katrina was coming. I just didn't expect Hurricane Gustav, too.

Life-real events-have changed my art. But those events are rooted in the history of Louisiana which I've been studying since I started my historical novel, VOODOO DREAMS.

YELLOW MOON doesn't simply follow mystery writing conventions; it isn't all plotting, but, it, especially, embraces more history, explores the nature of evil, for it is the bridge to my condemnation in HURRICANE LEVEE BLUES for all that happened in 2005 and that may be happening again now to fellow citizens in New Orleans.

Yes, there are natural disasters but unnatural responses.

I don't know why I started writing about the descendent of Marie Laveau, a nineteenth century voodoo queen now. Publishers have been asking for a sequel for fifteen years. Finally, one day, I thought I could jump ahead to the twenty-first century and write about a smart, sexy woman who is an ER doctor, discovering her ancestral heritage from Marie Laveau and voodoo. Have a little fun with the book, a little sass. Did I tell you my protagonist was a doctor in Charity Hospital? I'm sure you all know that Charity wasn't evacuated for days--and became a hell for some of our weakest and sickest citizens.

Real events have intruded on my writing and I feel as though Laveau is laughing--saying--"un-hunh, you thought you were writing a simple mystery tale." I should have known that there is nothing simple about New Orleans and its history. Yes, HURRICANE LEVEE BLUES will be a mystery, with spirits, voodoo-gods....but it'll also be historical, demonstrating how choices, centuries ago, led to the disproportionate devastation of the African American community in New Orleans. HURRICANE LEVEE BLUES will take all my skills to show the pain of so many social injustices...and the after-effects of environmental racism.

Once again, my writing, I feel, is breaking and crossing genres. Once again, I'm scared that I might not be able to tell the story right. I'm proud of VOODOO SEASON and YELLOW MOON. YELLOW MOON, in particular, just like my character, Dr. Levant, grew, becoming more complex as fiction/history blended and bled into the present-day. Yet, HURRICANE LEVEE BLUES is a bigger, super horrifying book, because of the aftermath of Katrina. I hope that I get it right. Already, it is demanding all that I can give.

Hearing about Hurricane Gustav, I feel helpless. I'm hoping the damage won't be great--that no one will die--or be hurt. The Gulf is NOT recovered and I feel it is so sad that people are being traumatized again.

As citizens, I know each of us is committed to helping fellow citizens. I've seen it--and I know there will be a similar outpouring of love for a post-response to Gustav.

But, I'm also a story-teller. A story-teller writes. My voodoo series is becoming its' own hurricane. With words, imagery, plotting and character, I'm trying my best to remind us all that environmental justice is a right deserving of us all.

With hope,

Monday, August 25, 2008

Writing Lessons: Creating Character, Part 1

Love all your characters.

There is no “story” if readers don’t care about your characters. Before a reader will care, you need to feel passionately loyal to each and every one of your characters. Even a character who abuses and hurts others needs to be loved enough to be understood.

In Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Cholly Breedlove is the perfect example of a despicable character who is rendered compassionately. Drunk, alienated, overwhelmed by his own self-loathing, Cholly rapes his daughter. Confusing the image of his daughter’s foot with a happier memory of loving his wife, the horrible, incestuous touch occurs. But his motive was to touch her tenderly.

Even as readers hate Cholly, hate the brutality of his actions, they also feel sympathy because Morrison, in prior scenes, has shown Cholly, as a child, abandoned by his mother and later rejected by his father; shown Cholly being forced to perform sexually under the flashlight glare of racists who damage his innocent first love; shown how money worries, falsely romantic movies, and a punitive religion drove a wedge between the love he and his wife once shared. Cholly, a “burnt-out, black man,” can’t “breed love” because society, over a lifetime, has poisoned his life’s soil. He has no nurturing, sustaining love left to give. When Cholly rapes, we won’t, don’t excuse his actions, but we do mourn for him as well as for his daughter. Because Morrison cared enough about Cholly to understand him fully, she reveals him with powerful empathy.

Human behavior is complex; it is the writer’s journey to explore the human heart and in doing so, you have the pleasure of discovering more about your own heart and revealing your insights through characters. It is this fundamental sharing between writer and reader—of thought, feeling, and action that gives fiction its power and force.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie, in talking of her dying love for her husband, Jody, says “she wasn’t petal-open anymore with him.” Characters may love, hate, be spiteful with abandon, but a good writer always remains “petal-open.” If you no longer “love” your characters or feel compelled to write about them, then stop. Without love, you are almost certain to write flat, one-dimensional characters.

My Best Advice: Approach your characters as human beings. Make then complex, vulnerable, and imperfect---whether your characters do good or ill or both, readers will recognize them for who they are--reflections of our humanity.

Isn't that why we read--in part, to discover ourselves in fictional mirrors?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Dear Readers,

YELLOW MOON—is born. Every time I write a novel, I wonder whether readers will like my baby. A writer can spend months, years working on a book—be absolutely in love with a project—but it has only a half-life until the connection is made with readers. Sometimes, I wish I could be a fly in the room as readers read my work. While it always bothers me when a reader doesn’t like a particular novel—(I can’t help but feel that I’ve let a reader down!)—I also always reply, “If you don’t like this novel, try another one!”

I pride myself that my books do embrace a range of styles and themes—historical fiction, mystery, magical, spirit-filled tales, religion, womanist affirmations, and a call for peace, racial and ethnic harmony, and, I hope, much, much more. All my stories are written from a wellspring of passion and a belief that words can be both powerful, inspiring, and downright fun.

Just as writers and books are unique, so are all people and their preferred reading tastes. What matters is that we all share a love of stories, and that there are infinite story possibilities that can entertain, engage, and educate us.

I can promise this: for every book I write, I try my best. Every book, I seek to stretch myself as a writer. I am not biased for or against any genre—to me, it is fun to write a literary fiction, a mystery thriller, then, next a memoir about my grandmother who raised me on oral stories and a blend of Christian and African-based spirituality.

I am thrilled that so many people are turning to writing—whether self-published or not, the act of writing can be cathartic, but, most importantly, loving of one-self and of the worldwide community of readers.

Cheers, my friend. In my next blogs, I’ll talk about the writing process. Besides being a novelist, I love teaching creative writing.

Above all things, I love being a woman, a wife, and Mom.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Mothers and Daughters

Dear Readers,

I sometimes think I wouldn’t have survived without my imagination. My mother abandoned me when I was an infant and my father and grandmother raised me. My father was gone for long hours, working as a butcher. My grandmother worked hard, too, cleaning, cooking, and caring for me, my sister, and my cousins.

But grandmother loved stories—told dozens of them…and almost every afternoon, after school, while she did the ironing, we watched the 4:00 pm movie. Bette Davis, Lena Horne, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and more. Together, we escaped into imagination. Watching our small black and white TV screen, listening to Grandmother’s oral storytelling, we escaped, disappearing into worlds where we weren’t poor, ill, and beset by racism and life’s problems. I write about my grandmother in PORCH STORIES, and it is not an exaggeration to say grandmother saved my life with stories and her wondrous imagination. She gave me my profession, but, perhaps, more importantly, she gave me a coping mechanism.

Why did my mother abandon me, my sister, and father? The answer is complicated. But as a child I dreamed stories in which I was loved and very much wanted. When I was scared, I made up heroic tales for myself.

Last Friday, my twenty-year-old daughter’s apartment was robbed. She is safe! So is her cat! But after only six days in her first apartment ever, she had everything stolen from her. I immediately flew out to support her and to help move her to a safer apartment and replace some of her needed items (like a computer! A cat carrier!).

My daughter is fine. Strong. Resilient. But, at night, after working to assist all day, I found myself curled up on the floor on a slim mattress pad, exhausted physically, but dreaming, spinning stories. I thought of my work-in-progress on HURRICANE LEVEE BLUES, my new children’s novel, NINTH WARD. But I also dreamt up an entire new novel—jotting notes and feeling powerful emotions about being a mother.

For obvious reasons, the mother-child relationship is so important to me. I am still traumatized that someone robbed my daughter—that she could have been hurt. But I now understand better than ever, that I tell stories to ease my own fears and sadness and to create worlds where I am in control. Mothers never leave their daughters. Justice prevails. Strong, good women are appreciated by society, friends, and lovers.

My imagination is now in hyperdrive. Children grow and truth be told, us, parents, can never protect our children from everything. So, alone, after I’ve tried to be the best mother I can, I dream, I imagine, I write.

I am coping with the real world—with real problems, by pouring my passions into narrative. I guess as long as I’m alive, I’ll keep writing stories. But now I understand better than ever how stories help me destress, help me live a more productive life.

My daughter is fine and I can’t help but smile, for my daughter is a writer, too. When trials come her way, maybe, like her Mom, she’ll not only deal with them but also create worlds of imaginative power.

Love to all of you…the whole wide world,

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Dear Readers,
Welcome to my updated website. I hope you like it!

I'm very excited about my new book, YELLOW MOON. I will start touring in August in St. Louis and Dallas and then onward to Denver, Seattle, Chicago and many more cities. (Check out the event calendar for the latest up-to-date information).

I sincerely hope I will get a chance to meet some of you in person. I have very much appreciated your support over the years.

Don't hesitate to email me with questions. I'll address them personally via email or through my blog.

In YELLOW MOON, a new Marie Laveau adventure begins--I hope you enjoy it.