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,