“Natalie” Meet “Stéphane”

English Natalie and French Stéphane have been mentioned here just once before, and then only while discussing someone else. I’d not included them in my characters’ summaries. They deserve further explanation.

“Stéphane” is a cobbling together of views I’ve heard out of a variety of Frenchmen over the years. One sample in Passports:

As Natalie focused on Isabelle briefly, Stéphane observed, smiling, “You know, James, a friend of mine works in a big medical research place. You know the language the Germans and Japanese and French and Americans and others speak at work? English! In Paris!” He laughed.

He owes his looks mostly to a one man I’d met a couple of times in Paris. His confident, friendly, outgoing demeanor, and excellent English, come largely from that real man as well. Here’s another bit from an exchange with James:

“My parents used to bring us on holidays to France,” Natalie explained. “Isabelle probably told you I met Stéphane in London. I thought, ‘Oh, not bad for a Frenchman!’”

Stéphane kidded Natalie in turn. “And I thought you were attractive for an English girl!”

“Natalie” comes to us primarily owing to inspiration provided by an English undergrad I knew while working in a Long Island college in the 1990s. Stick thin, thin blonde hair, huge blue eyes, and seemingly always smiling, she greatly enjoyed studying in the U.S. She knew she was exaggerating about England, yet joked to me once in her rather Sloaney accent, “Oh, it’s always raining, and everyone always has a cold.”

She was also a Francophile. And she spoke French well; but she voiced frustration French people she knew were always on at her to speak with them in English because they wanted to work on their own English with a native English speaker. I get that point in too, when Natalie greets Isabelle and Virginie at the door to Isabelle’s fourth floor apartment:

“That’s some walk up,” Natalie replied, breathing heavily. “May we speak French? I always need the practice.”

“I was hoping we could speak English,” Virginie answered in English. “I need the practice. Isa does too!”

I once asked her, “Why are you here in New York and not Paris?”

She replied, “My father’s company sent him here. Ah, but if they’d sent him to Paris?” [A broad grin and mischievous wink followed.]

A certain “class” of the English tend not raise their voice during an argument, or when angered; instead they become cooler and cooler. She fit that stereotype. Here’s one sample of how I portrayed and fictionalized that aspect of the character: Natalie quietly complains to Isabelle about her cousin Maddie’s American roommate’s appalling behavior during summer school in Italy:

“She managed to get a part-time job in a club,” Natalie continued. “Maddie says she’s sure the girl’s got no work visa, so it must be an illegal cash job. She comes home with losers and smokes cannabis with them too. Bible-waving Americans think Europeans have no morals? A load of old tosh.”

Fictionalizing an Anglo-French couple having met in London and now living in Paris was aided by my encounters with several French in Britain. One person in particular unwittingly helped: a Frenchwoman in an Anglo-French marriage. “Simone” and I worked together in London for over five years.

Flags of France (l) and England.

Flags of France (l) and England.

We had lunch a few times only the two of us. (It was normally a small mob.) I always hate talking shop over lunches. So when provided with any one-on-one opportunity, I usually sought to get her to share a bit about her life in France.

In turn, she’d sit in the pub with her glass of red wine (seriously; but never mind about that), and angle instead to talk with me mostly about England and us foreigners living in the country. She once observed wryly, “I came to London to get a Ph.D. I ended up with an English husband, and no Ph.D.”

Unsurprisingly the U.S. normally also came up. She had visited America – Florida – only once, and had never been to New York. Nevertheless, she knew a great deal about the country, and was intensely interested in it. Maybe that was why hearing details about my life back in New York was also of interest to her?

Take a wild guess. Which of us regularly prevailed when it came to the choice of pub lunch conversational topics? Hint: it sure as heck wasn’t me.

In writing these novels, I’ve come to feel the entire concept of “fiction” could itself be termed “fictional.” F. Scott FitzgeraldErnest HemingwayHow many others? Locales may be altered, names are changed, individuals blended together, facts rearranged and repositioned so they best suit a narrative, but novelists certainly derive characters and plots from their own real life experiences.

I readily admit, I have. ;-)

__________
See related:
Quick Take 8: (Our Leading Lady) “Isabelle”
Quick Take 7: “Maki”
Quick Take 6: “Mark”
Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)
Russians
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”

“How was your day, dear?” (I Wish I Could Tell You)

In an early post – when I had so few popping by, I suppose I was posting then mostly to myself ;-) – I had written that I did not really feel lonely or isolated while writing. In other jobs, I had long been used to working without close supervision. I had also often worked from home too, so the lack of an outside office and colleagues was not unusual for me.

What has become an issue in the last year is I’m realizing I spend a great deal of time alone in my head with my story in a way that no one – not even my wife – fully understands. I find that at the end of a day I can’t really offload about what I’ve done, or what’s proving a challenge. Others aren’t really all that interested (and that’s not unreasonable of them) in listening to me recount it.

Free Stock Photo: Red F1 help key on a keyboard.

Free Stock Photo: Red F1 help key on a keyboard.

Example: I spent much of yesterday working quietly at my desk. I was satisfied with what I had achieved by the time I’d called it quits. Yet sharing that in any depth was simply not possible.

“How was your day, dear?”

“Fine. I got lots done. I think I’ll pour myself a Vodka and Coke.”

[What I'd give to sit down with that drink for a while and really tell you. I'd explain I wrote more of that strange love scene that's been driving me bonkers. I also came up with what I believe is a telling (and in its way amusing) exchange at U.S. immigration, and then at baggage reclaim, at JFK. I'm thinking a Gulf princess could be involved too. Much tougher was I also got more written on characters' reactions to an illness, which I'd drawn from the true death of a relative, and which is also why I found myself fighting back real tears as I wrote.... and which is also why I seemed a bit grouchy when you'd asked me something totally unrelated to that which I was immersed in at that very instant. I'm sorry. And, God, there's always Kam. Straining to produce something worth unexpectedly dedicating to her memory is wearing me down emotionally. I get one shot at this. If I screw it up, I don't get another chance.]

If you write, you have your own personal burdens and perhaps similar feelings. So I’m finding this blog useful. After all, I just told you that…. which I’d told to no one I see in person.

A finished product may eventually impress readers, but it can be difficult to share the in-progress ups and downs that are inevitable in actually getting there. I believe I would’ve benefited from having a site like this during the writing of the first book in 2013. For this year, for its sequel, I know it’s an invaluable outlet on which I can blow off some “How was your day, dear?” steam: no matter what, I can at least tell you.

Thanks for following and reading. :-)

Avoiding The Cringeworthy

Writing romance that fits properly into a tale? A relationship that comes across as genuine? One which doesn’t read as corny and silly, thus causing a reader to roll eyes? Especially where sex is involved?

Doing that is massively difficult.

Don’t believe me? Don’t you sit there guffawing. Try it. Go away and compose even a few paragraphs, come back to me and tell me you didn’t cringe in abject embarrassment at what you’d produced as a first sincere effort.

Given that reality, how in heaven’s name did someone else we’ve heard of ever seriously write, uh, uh…. Never mind. I digress. ;-)

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a red heart and I love you text.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a red heart and I love you text.

Yesterday I had one of those days. The literary agonizing (type, delete, think a bit, type feverishly again, alter, delete, type more, re-read, consider throwing the PC out the window, etc.) that stems from wanting to see two important characters have an intimate relationship? Yet in the gut also not really wanting to see that happen?

Okay, friends, what are we going to do today?” Yes, and what a headache I had by mid-afternoon from staring too long at the PC screen trying to figure that out. I needed Tylenol. I flicked through the pages and found myself thinking, “Not bad. It needs more tweaking. But, God, I just don’t know about this.”

Nothing like trying to seek to escape a novelistic corner into which you’ve willingly painted yourself. Welcome to the world of the writer. I must be nuts.

Then again, of course we all know romance is often a bit corny and silly in our real lives, isn’t it?

I’m back at it again. I posted this because I needed a break…. again. No sign of a headache again, though; but give it time. Today’s still young. :-)

If Only Liz Hadn’t Forgotten An Umbrella

We all know The Great Gatsby. It is rooted in a variety of its author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s experiences. Fitzgerald’s writing in general revolves mostly around the rich, decadence, and insanity.

“He wrote what he knew,” my wife noted as we discussed him. He had also lived for years in France, and had naturally once been an aspiring author. In Babylon Revisited we encounter essentially still more Fitzgerald autobiography wrapped up as fiction.

After his death, “Babylon” was adapted into the 1954 film, The Last Time I Saw Paris. We happen to have bought “The Last Time” among others in a DVD old film series, but had never actually watched the movie. Last night, on impulse, my wife suggested with a grin, “We need to, in honour of my mum and aunt.” So, at long last, we did.

A personal observation on U.S. expat stories. I find solid non-American characters are vital when a tale is set outside of the U.S. Otherwise what is the point?

Again, though, we have to remember this is based on Fitzgerald’s life, and I am not an authority on that. What we do see on screen is that this film is almost all Americans – except for brief appearances by Eva Gabor and Roger Moore (yes, really). Although it’s Paris, the French seem mostly for background. They hardly register as actual people, doing little other than uttering a few French words and providing necessary “local color” to remind us it isn’t London, or…. Sacramento. Save for George Dolenz, who plays the thoughtful, French brother-in-law, and the bartender (it’s a Fitzgerald adaptation so there is drinking throughout) and some individuals doing their jobs (doctors, nurses), there don’t seem all that many French in Paris.

So this film didn’t have to be set in Paris really. It could’ve been most anywhere. That said, here’s the crux of the tale, including certain of my own, uh, personal “margin notes.” Who needs Wikipedia?

***** WARNING: SPOILERS *****

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Soooouper Geeeeenius

We’ve had three mice infestations during the last year. They love the inside of our boiler, which is down in our crawl space. Typical Catskills. Typically rural.

They slip inside it through the outside fresh air intake, which is about 12 inches off the ground and only a few inches above a naked pipe, from which we suspect they can easily reach up to get to the intake. After the first time, I put a window screen mesh over the intake; but they nibbled through that. After the second, I jammed steel mesh into the intake opening; and they wiggled around that.

After the third, the other day, the propane company technician who cleared them out suggested dryly, “Ya need a cat.”

The in-laws' cat, caught making himself comfortable on the cooker top. London. [Photo by me, 2013.]

The in-laws’ cat, caught making himself comfortable on the cooker top. London. [Photo by me, 2013.]

Now there’s a high-tech solution for you. Except we can’t have a cat. We are in the U.K. a lot, and my mother detests cats and would never visit us.

“Maybe we should get a cat,” my wife joked.

The mice have done no major damage thus far, but we suspect it’s only a matter of time. So I’ve finally had enough. No mice are going outsmart Wile E. Nello.

I’ve constructed a multilayer defensive system. Please don’t call it my personal Maginot Line. Just don’t:

My anti-mice effort. [Photo by me, 2014.]

My anti-mice effort. [Photo by me, 2014.]

Its basis is two layers of 1/4 inch gap steel mesh tacked to the house around the entire intake/out vent. (The opening you see is the out vent; the fresh air intake opens on the reverse side.) I jammed layers of gorilla tape into all gaps (no matter how small) between the mesh and the house siding (which is not flat of course). A board below blocks a horizontal pipe that the critters may use as a “step up.” I even placed a blocking piece of metal next to another pipe, to the left, from which they might be able to jump across.

When my wife saw the finished product – which took me a couple of hours to construct – she declared, “You’re wasted writing books!”

“Oh, yeh,” I replied, “and at some point an anvil will probably come down on my head.” 😏

Sense Of Place

Yesterday I received a Facebook message from my wife’s friend in Bristol; her husband is writing a novel. He had a question for me about New York City. Specifically he wanted to know something about Brooklyn.

You remember him? I wrote about him a few months ago. He’s the guy who’ll probably get a film deal after selling like, urr, a gazillion books…. and I’ll sell, uh, quite a few less. ;-)

I was startled he had a question about anywhere in the U.S. I say that because he has managed, without ever having even once set a foot in the U.S., to write vividly about life, people and places in the country. Everything he knows about the U.S. he has picked up from books, TV, films…. and, uh, me.

Amazing how some manage that. But I find there is also nothing more satisfying and useful than having walked the ground in the places you are using – or even just think may use – as story background. Doing that imbues a tale with a much more rooted “sense of place.”

Pope Francis passing by at an audience in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican, September 2013. [Photo by me.]

Pope Francis passing by at an audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican, September 2013. [Photo by me.]

I was unsurprisingly pleased (to be honest, ecstatic is a better word) when one of my readers wrote me that she enjoyed my detailing a Paris neighborhood where she had lived. She said it brought back happy memories. That I had been there myself definitely made a difference: I don’t know if I would have been able to write about it quite as I had if I had never been there in person.

Yep, umm, just like our pal Ernest Hemingway. ;-)

“You fascist!”

….No, no, no, the post title doesn’t mean I’m calling *you* (friendly reader/ visitor) a “fascist.” Please don’t misunderstand. I used it because that (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) accusation is hurled in Passports during a morning, uh, “friendly exchange of views,” between Isabelle and Uncle Bill at Bill’s Rhode Island coastal cottage:

Next Bill called to the dining room. “Isabelle, toast and eggs?” Unexpectedly, he expanded the menu choices. “Want anything else? If you were being polite last night, don’t be. This is a continental house. Feel free to smoke.”

Despite being unsure if she had again misunderstood Bill’s English, Isabelle nonetheless dived in.

“White coffee and toast please, Uncle Bill. That will be lovely. Thank you.” Both feet on the floor now, she crossed her legs and pushed aside hairs hanging down on her forehead. “And so you know,” she added, “I don’t smoke. You think all the French are the same? We all smoke?”

“Well, all the French I know seem to smoke like chimneys,” Bill maintained as he advanced to the table and chose the seat across from her. Next he changed conversational topic mid-paragraph as he often did. “So what about that Mitterrand? He’s done over there soon, isn’t he? Who’ll be the next president?”

James sat on a longer side of the slightly rectangular table, between them, as if positioned inadvertently to referee. Taking some toast, he joked, “Uncle, you been watching the news on public television again?”

Isabelle responded from across the table without hesitation, “Balladur or Chirac, of course.”

Pouring orange juice, Bill questioned, “Who?” He moved the toast plate closer to Isabelle. “Please, have some more. You know, I sensed it last night. You’re a Gaullist. You fascist! Gaullists hate Americans!”

“No, they don’t,” she answered softly. “They love France. It is the Socialists who hate Americans. Mitterrand has been a disaster for France.”

Bill smiled broadly and looked over at James sitting to the side. “Nephew, you sure can pick ’em.”

“Okay,” Isabelle began to question Bill mockingly, and a bit flirtatiously, “who should be President of France, as you sit here, great American writer, judging the world from, ooh, what little state is this again? Uh, Delaware? I forget.”

Bill lobbed a calculated grenade at Isabelle. “Whoever the Socialist is. We need socialism in the U.S.”

“Bah!” she dismissed that out of hand. “You have not lived under socialists. I know communists, yes, but I do not want them to rule France. You have been with Spanish writers and Cubans. They do hate America. I bet they are communists. We thanked God that Mitterrand had to spend so many years sharing power with Chirac.”

Ignoring her charges, Bill went another route. “God? I thought young Europeans today were a lot smarter than our Bible-thumping Americans?”

Isabelle was at a loss. “Aren’t you Catholic like James and your family?”

Taking a breath, he explained, “Right. You know, Isabelle, I think of myself as a Unitarian.” Seeing her appear to go blank at the word, Bill appended, “We believe in sort of everything.”

Isabelle was underwhelmed. She knew what a Unitarian was. “But do not Unitarians believe in God?” she grilled him pointedly while grasping her coffee mug. “And to say one believes in everything is to hold nothing sacred.”

Bill pronounced, “Nephew, she is definitely French!”

James complained, “Uncle, I didn’t think I was in this breakfast debate?”

Had enough? As James has? What? You mean that back and forth didn’t cause you as a conservative to turn socialist, or vice-versa?

I follow many of you who are also authors – or musicians, or actors, or you travel blog, or you’re interested in cultural issues, or you’re just sharing thoughts with us. It should go without saying I’m flattered if you follow me. In organizing my followings here deliberately along mostly “apolitical” lines, WordPress has become for me a welcome island of friendliness, learning and calm compared to much else out there in major media.

As we know, nothing exists in isolation. In recent days I’ve been surprised by several generally “non-political follows” who’ve suddenly taken to mounting Everest-height soapboxes. They’ve filled posts with barrages of heavy-handed political invective. (That’s being “charitable” in describing the content. I could use stronger language.)

If you wish to read diatribes from those who support your “worldview” (whatever it is), it is usually easy enough to find out there. Follow a few of the crazies on Twitter. Or just click over to commenter cesspools that are found on sites like CNN’s.

In a friendly Twitter exchange I had had with a CNN.com producer about so many of the incredibly nasty online comments, he noted that he simply tells op-ed contributors not to read the comments below their pieces. Can you imagine? Yet it’s easy to understand why: the bigotry and viciousness some spew via keyboard is appalling – and, one has to believe, mostly also from those who would likely never be so rude to someone’s face.

Free Stock Photo: The White House in Washington, DC.

Free Stock Photo: The White House in Washington, DC.

I know I have on occasion blogged here on somewhat contentious issues. Amanda Knox, Devyani Khobragade, and immigration, immediately come to mind. But when I do, I try to do so with moderation, within the framework of my own knowledge and experience, and while remembering my self-imposed guidelines for this blog. (See the top banner.)

Civility and respect: where have you gone? If you want to scribble vitriol online, of course you are free to do so; but I did not follow YOU to read that. I firmly believe that chest-thumping, name-calling, and jumping up and down usually wins no friends who don’t already agree with you, and rarely changes minds.

Thinking To Ourselves

I haven’t shared a “sneak peek” into the in-progress sequel in a while. So, I thought, why not? As with previous “peeks,” this one may make the final novel after a cleaning up.

[***** Warning: STOP here if you have not read Passports, think you might, and care about "spoilers." There is a pretty large "spoiler" below in the next paragraph, as well as several in the "sneak peek." *****]

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It’s Not A 40 Hour Week

The more book you write, the more you need to remember, and the more you have to keep together. Working through the first sequel, I’m juggling several families, as well as multiple locations in three countries: the U.S. and France again of course, and this time Britain too. Subplots blend together, or they may not. I have to keep personal histories straight. I need to keep the timeframe in mind.

Because I’m writing a “real world.” I suspect penning fantasy is easier in at least this respect: you may always make up something magical to move a story along. But, as I like to joke, I have no vampires, so the story must not only be compelling and break new ground, but it must fit into its historical locale (the mid-1990s) and ultimately read “believably.”

Gee, what could be easier? But before I wrote any of it, I had already outlined broadly what would happen all the way to the end. I had summarized for myself in a Word document where I wanted the story to go and how it would get there. It was not unlike a builder framing a house.

* * *

After that framing, I began constructing the interior – which is where I am now. I’ve got about 75,000 words. Some will definitely be changed, and some seem likely to stay as is; but I’m not nearly finished yet.

I regularly re-upload the manuscript-in-progress in .pdf to an “e-reader.” Last night, I had been re-reading a section I’d written, oh, at least two months ago. I realized I had actually forgotten lots of the story details in that part of the book.

Re-reading in a detached manner after an extended interval has its creative benefits. I found myself doing what I always do, thinking: “Oh, that’s good! I wrote that?” as well as, “Geez, that’s a bit amateurish. You aren’t 14 years old. That’s getting the chop!” I also had some pangs of concern: “Hmm, am I going overboard with that sex scene? Remember women friends will again be reading this!” ;-)

How my real life novelist uncle would laugh at me. In Passports, I’d slotted in a fictionalized tribute to him that stemmed from an actual conversation I once had:

“You should write something,” she prodded him. “Your uncle could help you.”

Distinctly uneasy with that recommendation, James discounted it. “What he writes isn’t what I like to read. I couldn’t write what he does. I remember my grandmother once telling him off about the sex. ‘Where did you learn stuff like that?’ she yelled.”

“Hmm, yes, I agree with her from what I have read,” Isabelle smirked. “I think your uncle has learned many things a mother would not want to believe her son knows. It does not matter how old he becomes!”

It is sneaky dropping bits like that in, I know. But, hey, Ernest Hemingway would! ;-)

* * *

So I smiled to myself when I noticed Author Alliance tossed this out the other day for the consideration of “Twitterdom”:

image

Seriously? I was struck immediately with that being – for me, anyhow – impossible to answer. It was – also for me, at any rate – borderline silly. I tweeted back, “How long is a piece of string?”

Writing is not just the mechanics of pre-organizing the book, and then the typing, and the occasional extra research, and the editing. For me, writing these novels is all-consuming. They occupy and fill my mind.

They have become LIFE – which they should be if they are to be “alive” for future readers. Even when I’m not physically sitting in a front of a PC writing, I may well be thinking about what I will be writing, could be writing, or will change. How do I possibly note all that on a timesheet? ;-)

Oh, and Happy Bastille Day!

Upstate New York’s Guillotine

July 14 is “Bastille Day.” Saturday, the Rockland County village of Piermont commemorated it. A photo gallery from LoHud newspaper captures some of the event, including its display of the French Revolution’s most enduring and infamous symbol:

image

In stumbling on that photo while clicking through, I found it jarring and somewhat off-putting to see even a fake guillotine on a street amidst a party atmosphere. I suppose sticking your head into one is now considered a lot like allowing yourself to be locked into “the stocks” or “the pillory.” The real guillotine, though, was assuredly a heckuva lot more final than those.

The article led me to recall this I’d written back in March:

….when it comes to the Revolution, non-French are best advised to be cautious before shooting off their non-French mouth about it among French new acquaintances. Probe a little first, and make sure of where everyone stands, before you take to proclaiming how the Revolution was “fantastic” and that Robespierre is sadly misunderstood.

Years ago, a French inspiration for one of my characters told me, point blank, that she was never pleased when Bastille Day rolled around. To be clearer: she despised it. And why did she feel that way?

“They cut off my ancestors’ heads,” she seethed.

In 1789, the Revolution had begun seeming to be much like the American Revolution, causing Americans there at that time, such as Thomas Jefferson, to applaud it. However, he departed for home within a year, and other Americans in France looked on in horror as the Revolution descended into a chaotic, bloodthirsty mess. It did not produce many “heroes.”

Indeed, another French character inspiration pulled me up squarely on this suggestion of one perhaps vaguely arguable “hero”:

“Napoleon was a butcher, like Hitler,” she decreed.

Okay, I’ll be quiet now. And there were absolutely no George Washingtons. So while it has become France’s “national day,” underneath it all a disquiet remains: “Bastille Day” is not quite the “unifying” holiday in France that the “4th of July” is in the U.S.

After U.S. independence was recognized by Britain in 1783, those Americans who had opposed it often emigrated to Canada or other British territories, or even to Britain itself. (For example, one of Wellington’s officers killed at Waterloo in 1815 was a New York-born DeLancey, whose prominent family had opposed U.S. independence.) Or they simply stayed in the new U.S. and reconciled themselves to it – and they were allowed to do so. There were not thousands of executions of American “counterrevolutionary” loyalists who had supported remaining part of the British Empire.

The guillotine strikes me as similar to the electric chair. Or maybe I’m just too sensitive? I suppose 220 years since the Terror is deemed enough time to have passed for the guillotine to be confined safely to the realm of Renaissance fair-style history.