Exploring Peru with Book Talk and Authentic Cuisine

Natalia-Sylvester 2Each year, my church's youth group works to raise funds for their mission trips, and I try to help when I can. Since the group is traveling to Peru for their mission this summer, I just had to get my friend and fellow author, Natalia Sylvester, involved.

Natalia was born in Lima, Peru and came to the United States at age four. Her debut novel, CHASING THE SUN, is set in Lima during a time of civil and political unrest, and was partially inspired by family events. Natalia has a generous and fun spirit. When I told her that I planned to assemble a Peruvian-themed Book Group basket featuring her novel for the annual Youth Mission Dinner Fundraising Auction, she was thrilled to contribute a personal touch.

 

Natalia basketFor those who won’t be able to join the youth on the Peru mission trip, they can explore the distant culture through Natalia’s evocative novel. The Book Group basket includes:

  • 2 hardbound copies of CHASING THE SUN, signed by the author
  • A personal note from the author
  • Skype session with Natalia when the book group meets to discuss the novel
  • Favorite Peruvian recipes from the author (3 handwritten recipe cards signed by Natalia!)
    • Seco de Res — cilantro beef stew
    • Picarones — sweet potato doughnuts
    • Chicha Morada — purple corn drink
  • Several recipe ingredients imported from Peru
  • $40 Target gift card (to buy more books or goodies for the book group meeting)
  • 2 additional signed bookplates

Paradise Valley United Methodist Church (PVUMC) has an enthusiastic and active group of high school-aged youth. In the past, they have traveled to Mexico and the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona to lend a hand and share their faith. They have also served communities in Phoenix, Denver, San Francisco and Booneville, Arkansas during summer missions. This year’s fundraising dinner and auction will be held February 28, 2016.

You can visit the PVUMC website if you would like to learn more and if you would like to make a donation to help support youth missions.


Video Blog: Revising Your Novel

DNRS2014

Photo by Kevin S. Moul

Recently, I sat down with the folks at ASU’s Piper Center for Creative Writing to talk about writing and revising, and the challenges and joys of writing historical fiction.

Click links to view previous segments of the interview: 

Part 1   ~   Part 2   ~  Part 3  

Here is the final video in the 4-part series.

Question 4:  What is your revision process? 

 

 

 

 

 

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Video Blog: Creating Authentic Voice When Writing Dialogue

Recently, I sat down with the folks at ASU’s Piper Center for Creative Writing to talk about writing and revising, and the challenges and joys of writing historical fiction. Here is part 3 in a 4-part series from that interview.

Question 3: How conscious are your choices regarding language and diction? How do you use it to create the right tone in your work?

 

Part 1   ~   Part 2   ~   Part 3   ~    Part 4 

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Video Blog: Layering Facts into Your Historical Fiction

DNRS2014

photo by Kevin S. Moul

Recently, I sat down with the folks at ASU’s Piper Center for Creative Writing to talk about writing and revising, and the challenges and joys of writing historical fiction. Here is part 2 in a 4-part series from that interview.

Question 2: What challenges are particular to writing historical fiction? What inspires you about these challenges?

 

Part 1   ~   Part 2   ~   Part 3   ~    Part 4

 

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Video Blog: Writing the Tough Scenes

Recently, I sat down with the folks at ASU’s Piper Center for Creative Writing to talk about writing and revising, and the challenges and joys of writing historical fiction.

Here is part 1 in a 4-part series from that interview.

Question 1: In terms of technique, what is your most difficult writing challenge and what do you do to overcome it?

 

 

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Part 1   ~   Part 2   ~   Part 3   ~    Part 4

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On Generosity, Gratitude and the Writing Community


Writers often lament how much competition there is in this business. They want to become published, yet they fear doing so will be like diving into a shark tank of rivals. They’re looking at it all wrong. Being a writer is more like being adopted into a loving family that will champion and support you, always.

I recently embarked on a small fundraising effort for my church’s youth group. Each year they host a dinner to raise money for their summer mission trip, and items are solicited for an auction. As an author and someone who loves to read, I thought it would be cool to assemble a basket of signed books to auction off.

After church one Sunday, I went to my computer, composed a brief email and compiled a list of authors to approach with my request. A few were authors I had met at writers conferences or who I knew personally. Some were people I had “met” only through social media. Quite a few were big-name authors who didn’t know me from any other chump asking them for a freebie. I explained that I was reaching out to fellow authors for donations. I described the enthusiasm and generosity of our church youth, where they were going this summer, where and how they had served their community in the past. And I asked for one signed book.

You should know, before I continue, that authors are often asked for free books. Quite often, actually. We’d love to say yes to everyone, but it just isn’t possible. We receive a limited number of copies from our publishers, and after that we have to buy our own books just like everyone else does. Heck, even our shipping costs can really add up.

So, I wasn’t expecting a huge response. I thought that if I emailed about 35 authors, I might be able to collect 10 or 12 books to fill a nice basket. I thought wrong.

IMG_5676The response was overwhelming. Twenty authors replied enthusiastically. They ran the gamut from debut novelists to New York Times best-selling and award-winning authors, including the American Book Award, Orange Prize and Pulitzer Prize. They were happy to contribute, delighted to have been asked. Several donated multiple titles. Many included personal notes of encouragement and support for our church youth and their mission to help others.

All told, 30 signed books were donated, enough for three auction baskets (children’s books, novels and nonfiction/memoirs) with an estimated retail value of more than $500. All proceeds from the auction on March 30 will go toward the Paradise Valley United Methodist Church 2014 youth mission trip to Booneville, Arkansas.

It’s difficult to express the full measure of my gratitude. I’m grateful for the book donations, of course. Yet, I’m even more grateful to be part of a community of writers who help one another, without a moment’s hesitation. This fundraiser is just one example. I have dozens more stories about ways in which fellow writers have helped me without expecting anything in return — by featuring me on their blogs, by recommending my novel to friends, by consoling me through countless queries and rejections, by sending an occasional note of encouragement, by emailing feedback on a rough draft or by offering advice for a perplexing research challenge.

Perhaps the best way to express my gratitude is by paying it forward, by championing and supporting other writers when they ask for my help, and even when they don’t ask.

Below is an alphabetical list of the authors who contributed to the PVUMC youth mission auction. Please join me in thanking them for their generosity by visiting their websites and  perhaps by sending a brief note of gratitude, buying a book or posting a review.

Jon Acuff: Start: Punch Fear in the Face (nonfiction)

Jody Hedlund: The Preacher’s Bride (inspirational historical romance) 

Beth Hoffman: Looking for Me (fiction) 

Charles Krauthammer: Things That Matter (collection of essays and writings) 

Mike Lawson: House Blood (spy thriller) 

Lee Martin: Such a Life (memoir) 

Jenn McKinlay: Read It and Weep, A Library Lover’s Mystery 

Sarah McCoy: The Baker’s Daughter (contemporary/historical fiction) 

Laura Munson: This is Not the Story You Think it Is: A season of unlikely happiness (memoir) 

Jolina Petersheim: The Outcast (a modern retelling of The Scarlet Letter

Rebecca Rasmussen: The Bird Sisters (fiction) 

Jewell Parker Rhodes: Sugar (middle grade novel) 

Erika Robuck: Call Me Zelda (historical fiction) 

Timothy Schaffert: The Swan Gondola (fiction) 

Lisa See: Dreams of Joy (historical fiction) 

Rachel Simon: The Story of Beautiful Girl (fiction), Riding the Bus with My Sister (memoir) and Building a Home with My Husband (memoir) 

Conrad Storad: 6 desert-themed picture books (including Don’t Call Me Pig, Rattlesnake Rules, and Desert Night Shift

Natalia Sylvester: Chasing the Sun (fiction, special advance copy, releases June 2014) 

Barbara Anne Waite: Elsie, Adventures of an Arizona Schoolteacher 1913-1918 (nonfiction) 

Ann Weisgarber: The Promise (historical fiction) and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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PVUMC book donations

Novels, children’s books and memoirs/nonfiction titles fill three decorative baskets for the PVUMC youth mission fundraising auction.

Winning the What If Game

 

Phoenix Zoo, 1973

Daddy, what if the bridge breaks and the alligators eat me? My dad, brother and me at the Phoenix Zoo alligator exhibit, 1973. (Mom stayed on solid land and snapped the picture.)

All throughout my childhood, my parents had a mantra they’d
say to me when I’d get worked up and worried about the future. “Nothing
happens until it does.” It’s ironic, because they worried about things all
the time and still do. It’s sound wisdom, though, and I make a daily effort to
embrace it. It’s especially salient for fiction writers when it comes to the
“life” portion of “the writing life.”

As writers, we love to play the “what if?” game.
We’re relaxing at the coffee shop or waiting in line at the post office or pulling
into the parking lot at the day job. Then it strikes. What if that guy who just
bought a vanilla latte is secretly in love with the barista? What if the woman
in line ahead of me is about to learn she has an incurable disease? What if the
people sitting in that parked car are plotting to overthrow the government?

It’s how good ideas and compelling fiction are born.

We writers get so practiced at playing this game, that it often
invades our writing pursuits in less-fun ways, too. What if I spend years
writing this novel and nobody reads it? What if I pour my heart into this book
and then somebody else publishes one just like it before mine is complete? What
if my writing sucks?

Sure, all those things could happen. Absolutely. Or not. Nothing happens until it does. Don’t let
the fear of failure paralyze you or even slow you down when it comes to chasing
your dreams. Just write. Write the best damn novel or short story or magazine
article or poem or (insert your dream here) that you can. Study the craft.
Enjoy the process. And see what happens when it does.

Start asking yourself more positive questions. What if I
spend years writing this novel and everybody loves it? What if I work hard on
this novel and people say it’s one of a kind? What if my writing shines?

One of my favorite quotes is from prolific
writer and New York Times bestselling
author Laurence Shames. He said, “Success and failure. We think of them as
opposites, but they’re really not. They’re companions.” He’s spot on. Every
day, I write something. Every day, I fail at it. And, every day, I improve as a
writer. I see my shortcomings. I revise my prose. I succeed.

Here’s a “what if” question for you, one you can
print off and pin on your wall. “What if I work hard on this novel and I learn
something important about writing, about myself and about life?”

What if, indeed. 

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Giving Thanks for Great Books

My reading each year is an eclectic gambit. Books include a blend of new
and classic fiction in multiple genres, as well as tomes on the writing craft
and research for my historical novel-in-progress. Of the 20-plus books I read
in 2012, a handful stand out as exceptional and unique. I highly recommend the
following books. They are great reads and would make great holiday gifts for
the readers in your life.





Light Between OceansThe
Light Between Oceans

A stunning debut by this
Australian novelist. The Light Between Oceans grabbed my attention from the
opening pages and held it until the very last. By page 100, it was
unputdownable and I finished reading it in a day or two. It's a uniquely
crafted story about love and loss, grief and anger, right and wrong — and
about how difficult it can sometimes be in life to draw a clear line between
any of them. The book was beautifully written, and the supporting characters
were just as compelling and important as the main characters.



Snow ChildThe
Snow Child

This story and its
characters lingered in my thoughts for days and weeks after I finished reading
it.  I loved it. It's sad and sweet and
magical and lush. This story pulls at your heart in so many ways. The author
does an amazing job of developing the characters so that you get to know each
of them, and grow to love them. I didn't want the book to end, to say good-bye.
Ivey' description of the 1920s Alaska wilderness is also amazing and the novel
is worth the read for that alone.




Night CircusThe
Night Circus

Captivating! This book was
great fun to read. Intriguing and vivid, beautifully told story. Complex and
richly layered with many interesting characters, yet an easy read. Pure
entertainment.



Tree in BrooklynA
Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I had been meaning to read
this classic coming-of-age story for years, and I'm so glad I finally did.
Completely fell in love with young Francie Nolan and her family, immigrants who
strived to make a better life for their children in poverty-stricken Brooklyn
in the early 1900s. Heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time, this book had
me both smiling and fighting back tears many times. As I reached the final
pages, I slowed down my reading, because I just didn't want to say good-bye to
the characters.


Artists WayThe
Artist's Way

A thought-provoking read. The
general idea is that we all were created and thus we all have creativity within
us yearning to be expressed. We are all artistic in our own way, and when we
allow ourselves to express that we are happy. If you've ever dreamed of doing
something creative (whether it's ballroom dancing, painting your living room,
writing a novel, or knitting a sweater), you owe it to yourself to just do it.
"Stop telling yourself that creativity is a luxury." Or that it's too
late or not practical. Allow yourself to let go and do what you want to do, and
learn to ignore the well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) naysayers and devil's
advocates. Don't worry about whether your art is any "good." Leave
that to whatever higher power in which you believe. The simple act of
"doing" will lead to good things.



Leopold bioAldo
Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire

This was an interesting
biography of a man who inspired generations of conservationists. Fabulous
research for my historical novel-in-progress about the Dust Bowl.

 

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The Sound and the Worry

The Writer cover Oct 12In
an essay for The Writer magazine, I
share my thoughts on the meaning of “voice” and how those thoughts evolved when
my historical novel was made into an audio book. Scroll
down to read the article, or click here to read the PDF.

Check
out the trailer for the audio book release of All Different Kinds of Free on YouTube.

Visit
Audible.com to hear a short audio sample from All Different Kinds of Free.

 

The
Sound and the Worry  

A
novelist struggled with her character’s audio book voice, until it brought the
story to life
 

by
Jessica McCann

Writers
love to talk about voice, don’t we? We’re obsessed with it. It’s a key element of
any written work and, arguably, the most important element of fiction. And
authors seem to speak of it in the most earnest and whimsical ways. “I write
only because there is a voice within me that will not be still,” poet Sylvia Plath
wrote. Science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury once mused, “I wake early and hear
my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of
bed to trap them before they escape.”  

Voice
also refers to writing style. It’s the words an author chooses, the way she
strings those words together, how she says what it is she wants to say, that creates
voice.  

When
a novel is produced as an audio book, this literary term gains a more explicit
meaning—it becomes an actual voice. How does it feel for a novelist the first
time you hear your writing being read aloud by someone else? For me, it was
disorienting and a little weird.  

My
publisher had contracted a professional voice artist to read my debut historical
novel as an audio book and, of course, I was thrilled. Yet, when I listened to
the first sample, it was strange to hear my main character speaking to me in a
voice that was different from the one I had been hearing in my head.  

The
novel, All Different Kinds of Free, was inspired by a true story, and I
had worked hard to create an authentic voice for the main character and
narrator, Margaret Morgan. An educated, free woman of color in the 1830s,
Margaret was kidnapped, along with her children, to be sold into slavery.
Labeled as a runaway slave, she fought against all odds to prove and regain her
freedom. My goal was for her voice to be both strong and vulnerable, equally
wise and naive, sometimes despondent and yet always hopeful.  

I
had read the complete manuscript maybe a dozen times as it went through the
many phases of revision, copyediting and proofreading that led up to
publication. A few times, I even read it out loud. It had a certain cadence in
my mind, a certain timbre and tone.  

It’s
not that the voice artist had done a poor job of reading it. On the contrary, Mia
Bankston’s
portrayal of Margaret was expert—warm and endearing, at times
gripping and heartbreaking. Still, it wasn’t exactly the voice I had come to
know in the roughly 10 years it took to research, write and publish my book.  

The
shock of listening to that first audio sample was similar to the shock of
receiving the first round of serious edits on a manuscript. It’s a punch to the
system. Sure, you’re expecting it. You think you’re ready for it. But when the
blow lands, it still knocks the wind out of you.  

From
what I’ve read, it’s not unlike the feelings experienced when novels are optioned
for film. As a new author, I had read a handful of articles about book-movie deals.
(We all dream of it, don’t we?) They were cautionary tales about how much your
book may change— characters may be added, plot twists removed or entire endings
rewritten. It makes sense. Film is a different medium with different rules.  

With
an audio book, however, the voice artist reads the novel exactly how it is
written. Every contraction stays put, every comma in its place. Nothing changes.
Yet, somehow, it’s still different. My initial email to Bankston was
professional, something like, “Thanks for sending the sample. Can’t wait to
listen to it. I’ll let you know next week if I have any feedback.” Even as I
clicked on the send button, my stomach was in knots. Would I be able to provide
constructive, rational feedback?  

I
let a day or two pass. I tried to occupy my mind with other projects, while I
nursed my literary laryngitis. Then I gave myself the same advice I always do
when I’m feeling the sting of edits or the weight of a tough project. Get
over yourself, Jessica.
I took off my spiffy, new yippee-I’m-a-published-author
hat and put on my weathered professional-freelance-writer-and-editor hat. And I
listened to the audio file again with fresh, objective ears.  

I
paused the recording at times, jotting down general thoughts and noting places
where the pace felt a little fast, where certain phrases or words needed more
or less emphasis, and when I felt the voice artist hit a comfortable stride. Bankston
had an expert way of changing her voice to reflect different characters in
dialogue. There was also a sincerity in her narration, a quality that made
Margaret feel genuine and alive. The more I listened, the more comfortable I
became with Margaret’s new voice and the way Bankston brought her to life.  

Bankston
and I corresponded a handful of times. I shared my feedback, and she listened
to it. She shared her thoughts, and I was impressed by her professionalism.
Several days later, she sent an edited recording of the original sample. It was
perfect. At that point, Bankston set about the task of recording the entire
book, and I plunged back into my own work.  

Still,
the idea of voice nagged at me. Writers aren’t the only ones obsessed with it,
after all. I defy you to find any interviews with editors or agents that don’t
include some sort of quote about their desire to discover an author with a distinctive
voice. What does that really mean, anyway?  

“By
voice, I think they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a
unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that
enriches an author’s oeuvre,” wrote literary agent Donald Maass in his book Writing
the Breakout Novel
.  

Bestselling
author John Grisham frames it in broader terms: “In life, finding a voice is
speaking and living the truth. Each of you is an original. Each of you has a
distinctive voice. When you find it, your story will be told.”  

Ah,
yes, the story. Voice empowers story. And isn’t that the most critical element in
all writing?  

How
many books have you read in which the writing, the language, the voice all
dazzled you, and yet the story itself somehow fell flat? The books that stay
with me the longest are, in fact, the ones that have both a distinctive voice and
a compelling story.  

“Writing
isn’t just on the page,” asserted Donna Jo Napoli, a prolific children’s and
young-adult author. “It’s voices in the reader’s head.”  

In
the case of audio books, it’s also a voice in the reader’s ears—the voice that tells
the story in its distinctive way.

###

Originally published
in The Writer magazine, October 2012


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