Books, Prose, and Conversation

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Black Belt, 1934
Archibald J. Motley Jr., Black Belt, 1934. Oil on canvas, 33 x 40.5 inches (83.8 x 102.9 cm). Collection of the Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

One thing I’ve been pondering as I work on two different MSS is the hows and whys of social change, and how people of the day responded to them. Looking back at the Harlem Renaissance, or even the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement in Edwardian England, we can easily pinpoint this style happened in this year because of XYZ. We are able to say “Important Writer/Artist was saying this to another VIP here after ABC.” It’s all very self-conscious of the past and whose work we consider influential and game-changing, but what was the every day life like for the people in the thick of modernism?

I finished Everybody Behaves Badly by Lesley M.M. Blume last week, and was left incredibly curious about Hemingway’s belief that he was going to change literature with his first novel. Was his assurance more than simple arrogance and self-congratulation? Was 1920s society really clamoring for something new and different? What if his book bombed? (There are plenty of now-forgotten modernist novels published at the same time)

Since my primary WIP is set during the Harlem Renaissance, I’m reading copious amounts of poetry, essays, short stories, fiction, plays, and artwork produced by the leading figures of the New Negro Movement, not simply for research but to understand the conversations between their creators. I am also listening to blues and early jazz, and reading newspapers to find connections between the creatives and the common people in Harlem since, after all, the movement was dominated by the educated, somewhat financially secure Harlemites.

But in general, I’m trying to figure out the actual conversations of my characters as they move through the 1920s. Would it be pretentious, precious, and self-conscious for them to espouse what was going on right now? (And the swiftness with which new ideas are exchanged in 2016 is something to consider when reflecting on the speed of the past) Would over-awareness seem like info-dump? Would holding too much back make the characters formless and opaque?

I’m still working on this.

On Melodrama vs Drama and Downton Abbey

melo·dra·ma noun ˈme-lə-ˌdrä-mə, -ˌdra-

a work (as a movie or play) characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization

Merriam-Webster

dra·ma noun ˈdrä-mə, ˈdra-

a composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance.

Merriam-Webster

I am contemplating these two words as I write my Bledington Park trilogy and as I muse on Downton Abbey. Having watched all of season three as it unfolded in the UK, I can say that the “plot and physical action” has overtaken the characters by leaps and bounds. I gnash my teeth, grow frustrated, and roll my eyes over some of the implausibilities of certain plot twists (Matthew’s sudden windfall anyone? And sweet, selfless Lavinia somehow writing a letter on her deathbed absolving Matthew of his perfidy with Mary? Ha!), yet the method of Julian Fellowes’ madness–his sheer genius, in fact–is that he still manages to “portray[s] life [and] character” and “tell[s] a story…involving conflicts and emotions” within the over-the-top melodrama. The little moments, like Carson’s little song and dance over the positive report from Dr. Clarkson during Mrs. Hughes’ cancer scare, or Edith’s happiness over the hustle and bustle of Downton finally being all about her, or even Violet’s quips, all braid themselves together to make you care about the characters even when they’re being put through a contrived and hackneyed wringer.

Though Bledington Park is not a romance romance, that is the writing community I know best, and I must admit that sometimes the critical voices calling for more realism, more seriousness, more gravity, more anything that does not feed the stereotypes of romance readers as sex/man-starved, cat-owning, bon-bon eating repressed housewives and spinsters, can be smothering. Especially when I read books touted as flouting those stereotypes and conventions and find them too careful, too safe, too self-conscious (but perhaps my reaction is because I come to the books with the burden of “This is different!!! This is quality!!!”). I definitely like a bit of realism, a bit of gravity, and a bit of boundary-pushing in my romance reading, but I don’t want to give up the thrill of the drama–or perhaps even the melodrama–that takes my breath away, makes me teary-eyed, or makes me angry. So perhaps writers should not be shy of letting the plot take the characters for a ride, or worry about angering or frustrating readers, and perhaps you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel to write quality fiction–perhaps at the end of the day, our concern should always be with writing great, unforgettable characters.

On Writing Difficult Heroines

Actually, it wasn’t until I began paying attention to book blogs and in-depth discussions of the romance genre that I realized there was such a thing as a “difficult heroine”. My method of crafting a book typically begins with a character and a situation, sparked either by something that intrigues me (a movie, snippet of conversation, fandom discussions of characters, etc) or by an interesting real person I’ve stumbled across during my non-fiction reading or on Wikipedia. So when I do the brainstorming, plotting, structuring of the book before I sit down to write, my primary concern is to write interesting heroines and heroes who compliment them, and my enjoyment of history usually means I try to make my characters match the texture of their backdrop to make my writing and reading experience much richer (so I’m not afraid to write a heroine who might initially be anti-suffrage or indifferent to the cause! *g*). In the end, I am committed to writing characters–and heroines, especially–who are like real people, not placeholders one can easily step into and then slough off once the book ends.