I’ve launched an email newsletterand monthly giveawayto shine a spotlight on reading, writing and life. It will feature content that isn’t on my website (so be sure to subscribe even if you follow my blog), highlighting interesting books and articles, writing tips and inspiration, motivational quotes and ideas, and more. Plus, every month one newsletter subscriber name will be drawn to win something fun and bookish (like a bookstore gift card, signed paperback, audiobook, journal, etc.).
Paulette Jiles has secured her place among my list of favorite authors with her latest novel, Simon the Fiddler. Set in Texas, 1865, the book paints an evocative picture of life in the young, rough-edged state at the conclusion of the Civil War. It tells the tale of 23-year-old Simon Boudlin, an ambitious Kentucky fiddle player, and “the ragtag band of musicians with whom he travels ,” as well as the lovely Irish immigrant who captures his heart.
I loved Jiles’ novel News of the World for its economy; it’s similar to John Steinbeck’s OfMice and Men (one of my all-time favorites) in the way it delivers richly-drawn multi-dimensional characters and a dramatic story with so few words. Both are slim novels – at roughly 200 pages each in their first edition hardcover formats – that pack a powerful punch.
Simon the Fiddler captivated me for different reasons. It could have been equally potent at 200 pages. Yet, Jiles flexed her descriptive muscles, filling another 150 pages with details of time and place, poverty and longing, music and love. While some readers may be put off by her lyrical and often lengthy description, I was transported. It was an unhurried deeply-satisfying read packed with fully-realized, endearing characters.
In describing Galveston immediately following the Civil War, Jiles wrote, “The lamps in the saloons burned coal oil or whale oil, the beams overhead creaked in the wind of the Gulf, the streets were incandescent under the gas lamps. Sometimes bats streaked through the white light, moths danced in a city of seagulls and scarred buildings.”
Simon loved music and hated cities. He dreamed of owning land near a river.
“There would be a spring of clear water and around it great pecan trees, deer would bed down in the post-oak mottes at night. Wild horses would tread the smoking earth in dimly seen caravans, the breath of the great brown buffalo drifting white in the winter air.”
These are just two examples from a book brimming with evocative description and a strong sense of place, which secured its 5-star rating from me. If you enjoy historical fiction that immerses you in expressive, detail-packed passages that make you slow down and go back to reread them, pick up a copy of Simon the Fiddler. If you prefer a faster-paced read that stirs emotion, News of the World is a fabulous choice.
* If you decide to purchase either of Jiles’ novels, check out Bookshop.org at the links below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.
Novelist Susan Vreeland said, “Historical fiction makes us feel. It presents to us a truth more human than what history books present.” Wise words. In the spirit of that statement, the following historical novels show the human side of history exceedingly well. They make us feel.
The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon
One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction is the genre often takes tired, forgotten history and gives it new life. My latest, non-writing project has done the same.
We recently moved my father-in-law out of his home and into a memory care facility. My in-laws had a great deal of lovely antique furniture – the real deal, hand-crafted pieces, made of solid wood. Many of the items had specific memories linked to them by different members of the family. Each of us seemed to want different pieces, and moving the tables, beds, dressers and cabinets into their new homes went smoothly. The items that held no sentimental value were donated. We all seemed to take some comfort in knowing the furniture would be put to practical use and given new life by other families.
As my husband and I walked through the empty house for one of the final times, all that remained was the grandfather clock. My in-laws brought it with them from Illinois when they moved to Phoenix roughly 46 years ago. Dad had owned a pharmacy in Rockford, where he also sold grandfather clocks (why he sold clocks in a pharmacy will probably always remain a mystery to us).
As they prepared to move the family, one clock remained. So, it became a focal point in the new McCann household. Then history repeated itself, one clock remained. So, it became a new focal point in our home – beside the desk where I write every day.
Unfortunately, the clock was broken. My father-in-law had tried many times to get it fixed. But the grand old timepiece was just too tired. Its steady tick-tock and quarter-hour chimes had been silent for years. Both my husband and I love the clock. We always have. Still, it felt strange having the old man standing dormant in our home.
Then inspiration struck as I was perusing internet photos of bookshelves and libraries (yes, that’s a thing). I ran the idea past my husband, and he approved. My mother-in-law and I had shared a love of books and reading. Both she and my father-in-law were immensely proud and supportive of my writing career. As such, we believe they would have approved, too.
I carefully removed and packed away the clock, weights and chimes. I measured and installed shelves. Then I filled the grand old gentleman with books by some of my favorite authors. I also shelved copies of my own novels. If inanimate objects can hold memories and feelings, I hope this new life has made Grandfather happy. The transformation has definitely had that effect on me.
No vacation is complete (for me, at least) without a visit to the local bookstore. A few weeks ago, during an escape to the cool, clear air of the Colorado mountains, I wandered past Next Page Books & Nosh on Main Street in Frisco. It was love at first sight.
Window signage beckons with “books, cards, beer, wine, tea, coffee, food, friends.” The door is propped wide open. What more invitation does a person need? How about a friendly dog to greet you at the door? Yes, a person needs that, and Next Page delivers.
The store has a wide selection of books, a bright and welcoming children’s section, a sparkling well-stocked café, merchandise from local artisans, and a friendly, helpful staff. All that is lovely. Yet, what impressed me most about Next Page is how completely it embraces its community. The establishment hosts events nearly every day in the shop’s inviting “living room,” from monthly book club get-togethers and weekly crafts/stories for the kids, to happy hours with live music and author signings with New York Times best-sellers like Eleanor Brown (who I missed meeting by one day – curses!).
Next Page has set a high bar for indie and chain bookstores alike. Since I had already purchased a (ridiculous) number of books before my vacation, I bought a Next Page t-shirt and a stack of note cards featuring gorgeous images of Frisco by local photographer Carrie Michalowski. I hope to visit Next Page again in the future. In the meantime, I will stay connected to them online and encourage all bookstore enthusiasts to do the same.
Books on the Subway is like a library on the go. Created by self-proclaimed book lover, Rosy, it helps shatter the boredom of a long commute and introduces people to a variety of books. I’m so excited to have my novel, All Different Kinds of Free, now traveling the rails. Pick it up and read while you ride. If you love it, take it with you and finish reading it. Then bring it back to the subway for someone else to enjoy.
You can follow Books on the Subway on Facebook, Twitter and official blog. And if you take the subway in New York, your next great read might just be waiting for you underground.
It’s possible I’m becoming an Australian author fangirl. Several of my favorite reads in the past few years, it recently dawned on me, are written by Australian authors. Two are set near an Australian coast just after World War II. Two others are set in different countries and different centuries. All are historical novels, masterfully written. They’re lush, lyrical, descriptive works that delve deep into the minds and hearts of their characters. They’re all a bit dark (one incredibly so) and a bit heartbreaking. One in particular made me sob so fiercely I had to pause reading to compose myself.
Is it simply a coincidence these four books captured my attention and lingered in my mind for months, even years, after I read them?
Or is there something unique in the way Australian authors approach fiction writing?
I don’t know the answer. But, I do have a profound urge to travel to the land down under and see if there is perhaps something in the water that cultivates such talent. I aspire to write books with such heart and soul and magic at these.
The following links will take you to my Goodreads reviews:
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.
novelist struggled with her character’s audio book voice, until it brought the
story to life
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
yes, the story. Voice empowers story. And isn’t that the most critical element in
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.
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.”
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.
I’m so happy to be a guest author this week on Women’s Fiction Writers blog, talking about the line between fact and fiction in historical novels, how women’s fiction can be found in many genres, and more.
Created by author Amy Sue Nathan, WFW is the go-to blog for the craft and business of traditionally published women’s fiction. It features interviews and guest posts by published women’s fiction authors and tips on writing, editing, publishing and the writing life. Please stop by and share your thoughts.