Monday, March 16, 2015

Research: Two Wars, Three Romances in A Touch of Stardust

Just finished listening to A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott.  I snapped it from the library shelf because of the picture of Carole Lombard on the cover and was delighted to find out that it centers on the making of Gone With the Wind.

Although the novel is a romance (well, three romances actually: Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, and that of the heroine, Julie Crawford and Andy Weinstein), it also anchors the reader in the late 1930s with some history.  
  • General History: Two wars, the Civil War and the Second World War as well as the US and Hollywood’s attitude toward Jews and African-Americans, Hitler’s build-up of arms and campaign against non-Aryans and Jews, and America's general attitude toward women
  •  Specific History: The movie industry, popular music, clothing, slang, social mores including attitudes toward premarital sex.

This is all good stuff for me as I try to get my mind into the late 1940s. Yes, they're different eras – a world war of difference – but reading the novel has brought up some questions I need to investigate further.  How much did Hollywood and American change in their attitudes toward Jews, African-Americans, and women in those ten years?  

I think I know the answer, at least for women.  Rosie the Riveter proved to men and women alike that females were capable of doing much of the work that was traditionally done by men.  The Civil Rights Movement gained strength slowly after the war, but eventually grew into a powerful lobby against Jim Crow laws and inequality. To quote Sam Cook, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”  As for Jewish refugees, their lot during the war and just after war, revealed the high level of Anti-Semitism in America and other western countries. However, awareness of the Holocaust began to influence younger generations and some of that prejudice lessened. 

My characters, Billy Eastlake, Ambie, Alma, who are key to the prequel lived in the world when change was on the cusp but still far into the future.  Reading Alcott’s book has suggested to me that, as she revealed the prejudices of the time in A Touch of Stardust –  I need to consider adding new characters who will do just that.  I'll need to do more than this little bit of research.

As for the specific history gleaned from this book I've taken notes.  I have no intention of copying any of this - clothing, music, slang of the forties is just a Google away.  Rather it is  the feel of the era of the 30's I've come away with and it is this same experience  of time and place that I want to create for my readers. And yes, I'm aware that it is fictionalized history.

About A Touch of Stardust as posted on Amazon:

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Dressmaker comes a blockbuster novel that takes you behind the scenes of the filming of Gone with the Wind, while turning the spotlight on the passionate romance between its dashing leading man, Clark Gable, and the blithe, free-spirited actress Carole Lombard. 

When Julie Crawford leaves Fort Wayne, Indiana, for Hollywood, she never imagines she’ll cross paths with Carole Lombard, the dazzling actress from Julie’s provincial Midwestern hometown. 

The young woman has dreams of becoming a screenwriter, but the only job Julie’s able to find is one in the studio publicity office of the notoriously demanding producer David O. Selznick, who is busy burning through directors, writers, and money as he films Gone with the Wind.

Although tensions run high on the set, Julie finds she can step onto the back lot, take in the smell of smoky gunpowder and the soft rustle of hoop skirts, and feel the magical world of Gone with the Wind come to life. Julie’s access to real-life magic comes when Carole Lombard hires her as an assistant and invites her into the glamorous world Carole shares with Clark Gable, who is about to move into movie history as the dashing Rhett Butler. 

In the ever-widening scope of this story, Julie is given a front-row seat to not one but two of the greatest love affairs of all time: the undeniable on-screen chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett, and offscreen, the deepening love between Carole and Clark. Yet beneath the shiny fa├žade, things in Hollywood are never quite what they seem, and Julie must learn to balance her career aspirations and her own budding romance with the outsized personalities and overheated drama on set. Vivid, romantic, and filled with Old Hollywood details, A Touch of Stardust will entrance, surprise, and delight.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Research Begins: What Came First

My suspense novel, What Came Before, came out first online at Every Day Novels as a serial, seventy chapters a day, five days a week, from March to June in 2014. It then became available in trade paperback and in Kindle format. Almost a year later, I’m beginning work on the prequel which will be set in the late 1940s Los Angeles and in the fictional town of Beauport, Louisiana which means I have some reading to do. 

I did quite a bit of research for WCB, exploring both the mid-1900s as well and the timbre of the times in 2000s in terms of the African-American experience, but I focused my book on a middle-aged, middle-class white woman who bears an uncomfortable resemblance to me. 

This made my job easier because I could reference my thoughts, experiences, and observations and use them as I deemed useful to the story.  I warped and exaggerated those experiences and similarities – my own life being undramatic.  However, I tried to keep the emotions real, taking from something I went through and using how I felt as my resource for how my characters might feel. As for my African-American characters, I had to ask questions, read books and articles, watch documentaries and movies, and observe and extrapolate and hope I could get it right.

Now I need to go back and research the same subjects, Hollywood, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, the movie business, Jim Crow laws, African-American history, Latino history, and the era of the mid-19th century.  I went through my bookshelves and found some of the references I’d collected and will share some of my notes from this research as I work through it.  I'll also reference movies etc.  and what I learn from them. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

What Came Before First in Best Mystery Novel Poll

What Came Before won first place for Best Mystery novel in this year's Preditors and Editors poll !!!! Thank you so much to everyone who voted for my novel!!! I really appreciate the time and effort!! Hooray. You guys are the best!!! 

Standings for Mystery Novels

1. What Came Before, Gay Degani, Every Day Novels,
2. Murder on The Seine, Nancy Curteman, Solstice Publishing,
2. Hanging by a Hair, Nancy J. Cohen, Five Star Publishing,
3. Dana Marton, Forced Disappearance, Montlake,
4. Conviction of Innocence, Chet Pleban, Gypsy Shadow,
5. Deadly Puzzles, Terry Odell, Terry Odell,
6. Ripped in Two, AJ Kohler, Solstice Publishing,
6. Calculation, Steve Marini
7. Sticking Point, Susan Whitfield, Amazon,
8. Island Charms, Sharon McGregor, Whimsical Publications, LLC,
8. A Death in the Hills, Paul A. Barra, W&B Publishing,
9. Dr Chandrix Dies, Christopher D Abbott, Amazon,
10. Secrets, Lies & Homicide, Patricia Dusenbury, Uncial Press, 


What Came Before, Gay Degani, Every Day Novels

The comments below are from those who voted for this entry. 

Gay Degani's 'What Came Before' gives the reader interesting characters in a well-written novel of much mystery. I highly recommend this book.

A very visual writer, a delight to read.

I have followed her writing and love all her work.

A quick read, 'What Came Before' left me hungry for more! Degani knows how to bring characters to life and care about what happens to them. I look forward to reading more from this author!

Loved the short snappy chapters and zippy pace of this novel.

Great debut novel. T

This a fast-paced entertaining story that combines elements of a good police procedural with a family mystery. It has great pacing. The main characters are well-drawn and believable. I cared about Abby and Mackenna and I kept turning the page to find out what happened. It’s a good story.

A fast-paced murder mystery and a great character-driven story.

This author kept me on the edge of my seat and surprised me at every turn! A great read!

Monday, December 08, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion, but it's Time to SHOP!!

With Christmas so close, I decided to make another push because I think WHAT CAME BEFORE is a perfect choice as Christmas gift for anyone who likes mysteries, novels of suspense, or family sagas (well, of course I do! I wrote it and want you to buy it, love it, and gift it!!)

Here's what a few people have said about the book:

"...a gripping story that forces Abbie to come out of her shell and embark on a journey in which she'll confront her greatest fears, a journey that will ultimately uncover the truth about a secret love story that rocks Abbie to her core, as she comes to finally understand, accept, and believe in herself." - Syrie James

"I loved the premise, the fast pacing and the characters. It was a wonderful read that never insulted the readers' intelligence. Looking forward to Gay's next tale. BTW-I'm passing this on to my 14 year old granddaughter who will get hooked early as I did." - Paul Beckman

"Gay Degani’s debut novel is a force of nature. The author has been honing her craft by writing flash fiction for a few years. She is a master at getting quickly inside the head of a character and taking us on a journey we won’t soon forget. What Came Before is just such a journey." - Gayle Bartos-Poole

"This book has terrifically drawn characters, and plot that unfolds into more plot, giving the novel a textured ongoing presence till its very end. Loved this book! Most highly recommend!" - Susan Tepper

"To hold my attention, a book must first grab me. But then the writer must sustain the suspense and action until the last page. I must care about the characters and what happens to them. When an author can do that I know I have someone I need to follow. Gay Degani is such an author. Hand's down a masterful debut!" - Raul Melendez

"I loved this book. Here's why: What Came Before relies on more than a murder mystery to keep readers turning the pages. In addition to fast pacing, a clever plot and complex relatable characters, this novel offers glimpses into societal expectations and racial restrictions during the 1940s and 50s--all written in smooth, beautifully-rendered prose." Sue Ann Connaughton

"This a fast-paced entertaining story that combines elements of a good police procedural with a family mystery. It has great pacing. The main characters are well-drawn and believable. I cared about Abby and Mackenna and I kept turning the page to find out what happened. It’s a good story." - Len Joy

"...there is nothing hasty about Degani's character development, nor the authenticity of her interactions, nor the complexity of her plot. There are many layers here, and many open-ended questions--about race, celebrity, neurosis, the place of a woman in her family and the larger world, logic versus assumption... And on, and on." - Susan O'Neill

"This stunning novel from veteran Gay Degani is nothing less than fantastic!...The darker mysteries and pathos are balanced with subtle humor throughout. Degani has given us a novel that speaks to the present time in which we live, and resounds with this inner question we all might ponder: WHO AM I?" - Robert Vaughn

"Fast-paced and sharply written, with unforgettable characters, this novel by Gay Degani will grab hold and not let go. A terrific read!" - Kathy Fish

This novel is an unraveling narrative of red herrings and second guesses, with twists and turns of plotline that keep you turning the pages. What Came Before is a detective story that is both engaging and enthralling, populated by vivid characters portrayed with a deft and precise prose. - Literary Fiction Book Review 

Degani's affable debut, a suspenseful novel about mothers and daughters, aims to be thrilling, socially relevant and heartwarming all at once. - Kirkus Review

To go to the Amazon page (seen below) to purchase, click HERE!!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Complex and Compelling: Bonnie ZoBell's "What Happened Here"

This review is followed by an interview with Bonnie ZoBell.   Scroll down to view the interview first.

Bonnie ZoBell’s novella,“What Happened Here,” opens her collection of the same name, and her first page description of the PSA Flight collision with a Cessna in 1978 over the city of San Diego anticipates a collision of characters, the breaking up of relationships, the falling down of spirits—the kind of tragedies that permeate the stories that follow. What else is revealed is how such calamities, large and small, are endured and overcome with love and kindness.
 “The explosion was instantaneous—an enormous fireball whooshed into the sky, a mushroom of smoke and debris. Scraps of clothing leaped onto telephone poles, body parts fell on roofs, tray tables scattered across driveways. Airplane seats landed on front lawns, arms and legs descended onto patios, and a torso fell through the windshield of a moving vehicle.” 
Each of the eleven pieces (ten stories as well as the novella) take place in that North Park neighborhood of San Diego around thirty years after the PSA jet crashed into the ground. The ghosts of those who died linger in the shadows, behind palm trees, along the streets at dusk. The macaws who also haunt the area as they chatter and soar add a hopeful counterpoint.

The lingering impact of disaster impacts three specific characters in the novella: Lenora, a woman struggling to find herself after years of feeling discounted and unloved, her husband John who battles the “monster” of manic-depressive disorder, and their neighbor, Archie, who is the most obsessed with the crash even though he was not present for the disaster which took place years before. The author does a lovely job of showing the precarious state of the newly married couple’s relationship through references to Lenore in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” as John woos Lenora.

The raven and the macaws seem to represent the contrast of the blackness of a monster against the bright hope one can find in life. That hope comes from Archie, the complaining neighbor, who in the end manages to reach John in his depressive state in a way Lenora cannot.

In the second story of the collection, the eponymous Uncle Rempt, brings hope to Susan who is trapped in a narrow, constricted life. “Bloodstone.”
He folded it into my hand. “You need to keep the thing, sweetheart, living with that brother of mine. …The stone of courage, they say. Destroys the wall of prisons, opens all doors.” 
Like the North Park,macaws,Uncle Rempt, in his “Area 51” written in metallic silver on his t-shirt…his blue velvet jacket,” is full of color. He even sleeps “in the store room with a bunch of colored glass.”

One of the strongest pieces in the collection is “People Scream.” The shriek that shatters the calm one Wednesday night at the Center for Life haunts both the receptionist Heather and the story itself. She is filled with self-doubt—perhaps even self-loathing—and it feels inevitable that she works where other self-doubters, those who have turned to addiction, have come to recover. She works here for the wrong reasons--to meet men--and she’s come to the wrong place. Of course, she does meet them, including Wally, including the homeless drunk in her car.

Again the yin/yang of tragedy and hope finds its way into Zobell’s work. What Happened Here is rife with unhappy women who stick to their broken men and a few who hide from them like Lolly in “Rocks.” Yet these women are to be admired for their grit, their ability to forgive.

Hope and tragedy seep together in this group of stories, creating a kind of sunrise or sunset with macaws winging toward the reader or away. Zobell pens a line in her piece,“This Time of Night,” that sums up her work in general: “The evening is as close as it can be to darkness while still being light.”

Press 53 published Bonnie ZoBell's connected novella and stories, What Happened Here, in February 2014. She’s won such honors as NEA, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, and the Capricorn Novel Award. She received an MFA from Columbia University and currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College. She is an Associate Editor at The Northville Review and at Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her collection The Whack-Job Girls (Monkey Puzzle Press) portrays a posse of women who don't fit in or are deeply disconnected from society with dark humor.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Stroking the Details to Deepen the Story

Reprinted from Flash Fiction Chronicles article dated January, 2011

One of the comments that is difficult for many of us to come to grips with is when someone tells us our stories are not deep enough or that we haven’t given the reader enough to go on. I used to think: we’re talking flash here, micro flash, hint fiction, short shorts!  How am I supposed to “go deep?”

But for something to resonate, it must have context.  Readers want to feel empathy with the main character—or some kind of emotion for the main character—even if it’s distaste.  The question is, how does a writer do that with a limited word count?

Details not only set up time and place, but also suggest a back story, the circumstances, or even a trait or two of the main characters.  Specific details also anchor the story for the reader, giving them something to visualize while reading on to find out what happens next. Context and empathy come about through concrete, specific details that immerse the reader in the writer's world.

A lake and two small boats give
context to Munch's painting
I’m not suggesting there's any need to describe an entire room or tell the reader the exact time of day, but rather to stroke in a detail much as a painter might do.  If you examine a painting closely, you may discover that the person in the background is just a line squiggle with a touch of brown at the top to suggest hair and a swish of red to suggest a skirt or as in Munch’s The Scream: two small boats in lake.

The man screaming in the foreground of the Munch painting is alone while behind him there are two figures on the road and two boats on the lake.  I have no idea what the artist had in mind, but for me, this structure and detail suggests a strong fear of facing the world alone or facing death and because these details are behind him, he has no hope.

These details do not need to be written into a piece immediately in the rough draft--get the story down first--but can be added in the revision stage of the process once the writer understands what details will best serve the story in a thematic way

So detail, if carefully chosen, can suggest setting, foreshadow events (remember Chekov's gun), as well as deepen character, and underline theme.

Here’s an example:

Water drips from icicles outside the kitchen window. Clear skies glisten through dirty glass panes. I’m pouring my first cup of coffee when I hear snow sliding down the roof and know it’s time to call Carissa.
This image sets scene as well as mood
This is the opening to my story, “Spring Melt.” It’s a stroke like a painter’s stroke.  The whole house isn’t  given, not even a whole kitchen,  just the suggestion of a house because it has a kitchen, dirty window panes, and a sloping roof.  There is a sense that winter is passing into spring and that brings the narrator to a decision to call some woman. It’s a specific image to carry the reader into the next paragraph, but also to give the story context and later, a thematic pay-off.

Details should be as carefully chosen as anything else in a story.  Which will enhance the character and hint about what could happen next? Physical appearance often dictates personality.  A woman who has always been admired for her beauty may never feel compelled to grow artistically or intellectually, and therefore has little to talk about except hairstyles and Botox. This narrowed point-of-view could, in turn, bring conflict to a piece about marriage or best friends or wherever the writer wants to go.  

Showing tension between characters through dialogue becomes easier when there is a trait or detail in the story that sparks deep feelings.  Here's a brief exchange between Anna and Matt from “She Can’t Say No” to show how this can work.

…Alone at the table, Matt asks Anna how she knows his friend, Kerrick, a fast-track kind of guy, gel in his hair and Hugo Boss shoes.  
“I met him once,” she says and smiles. When she smiles, the scar on her upper lip whitens. Sometimes when he wakes up alone in the morning, thinking of her, the word “harelip” pops into his brain. He’s hinted to her about childhood operations, bringing up tonsillectomies, appendectomies, avoiding the words “quadrilateral mirault flap,” but she says nothing.  
Looking at her mouth now, he can almost feel its slight ridge on his tongue. He coughs. “And?”  
"And what, Matthew?”  
“You were flirting.”  
“I know.” She slips the side of her naked foot along Matt’s calf and tucks it behind his knee. “I’m sorry.”

People in stories don’t always have to agree and when they don’t, they argue, and when they argue, they bring up old grudges, other disagreements, and reveal who they are and what’s important to them.  In the example above, the relationship between the two characters is revealed by how Anna parries Matt’s jealousy.  It’s not a fight, but it’s still a moment of revelation.  Then Matt remembers how it feels to run his tongue along the scar on Anna’s mouth telling us that although he is jealous of her past with men, he’s also aware of her affect on him. The detail of her scar makes this scene more interesting and deepens the emotional risk for both characters.

Sometimes a story may work without specific detail, but going deeper can often be as easy as changing a word or two, adding a line, using a bit of dialogue, or throwing in a specific detail that gives the reader context for the unfolding events like Anna’s slipping her naked foot behind Matt’s knee. She has the power and he knows it.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Giving Context to Structure

Reprinted from an article that appeared in Flash Fiction Chronicles in June, 2009

Content, structure, and language work together

No one element can make a story work. Many writers use a series of steps—brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revision, editing, and proofreading—to juggle content, structure, and language. The order of each step is a matter of choice and fluctuates with story ideas. Here is my preference:

  •  To create content: brainstorm, free-write, draft a first draft
  •  To apply structure: outline first draft, then draft second draft
  •  To perfect language: revise, edit, and proofread

Content refers to the subject matter of a story

Allow the story to blossom
The who, what, when, where, and how of a specific idea.

A character (the protagonist) finds himself in a difficult situation at a certain time and place and must deal with that situation. 

How the protagonist deals with the situation depends on the protagonist’s wants, character, and the nature of the obstacles he must overcome.

Content provides the “story question or problem” that propels the protagonist through the plot and ultimately reveals a universal theme, a jolt, an epiphany, some small observance of life.

Content evolves from a premise, notes, a rough draft, research, observation, plus the attitudes and concerns of the writer.

Structure refers to the basic organization of a story

Unfold the story for maximum effect
Just as a play is divided into three acts, most stories have three main segments.

The opening (Act 1) gives a story focus and meaning by providing the premise, setting, and tone of the story as well as hints at the nature of obstacles the protagonist will face.

The main body of the story (Act 2, which I like to split into 2A and 2B) focuses on the protagonist’s actions to resolve the story problem.

The conclusion (Act 3) reveals the results of the protagonist’s struggle and infuses that struggle with meaning.

Each segment of a story has a similar structure: the overall story as well as each chapter, each scene within the chapter, each beat within the scene

Structure also involves other devices such as set-ups and pay-offs, sub-plots, and the shaping of structure specifically to content.

Structure evolves from outlines, note-taking, drafts or a combination of the three.

Language refers the diction and style used to express a story’s idea

Choose precise language
Diction refers the specific words that are chosen.

Style refers to how those words are combined, the order, the length of sentences and includes the use of literary devices such as metaphor, symbolism, and allusion.

Grammar keeps writing clear and understandable.

Language evolves from revision and rhythm.

Process is what brings these three basic components of composition together

The rough draft is about content…making it up. The second draft is about structure…making sense. The third draft is about language…making it clear. The fourth draft is about perfection…making it publishable.

Actually, the steps to the writing process bleed into each other like ink dropped from a leaky pen over one spot. The blotches don’t land in exactly the same place, but they seep beyond each other’s borders, and create a new kind of art.