Downton Abbey and a list of possible plot complications for romance

My friend Robert told me about Downton Abbey when I was visiting California in January and I finally started watching it about 3 weeks ago.  Since that time I have been repeatedly sneaking off to watch, sometimes in bits as short as ten minutes.  My favorite characters are Mrs. Hughes, Violet Grantham, Lord Grantham, who plays the “straight man” amidst the chaos, and of course Thomas.

But I’m not “wasting time watching TV,” I’m enjoying myself while developing my fiction skills.  The writer of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, has developed some interesting dramatic twists to drive the story’s plot forward, and aspiring writers can benefit from watching it all unfold.  In particular, the roadblocks hit by the show’s romances are many and varied, a regular laundry list of potential complications for literary lovers:

  • a man who’s married to an insane woman wants to marry again but can’t get a divorce.
  • a woman has a secret past which no one can know
  • political differences
  • family dislikes/disapproval
  • money problems
  • interlopers who get tied up with characters who don’t really love them but can’t seem to say so
  • mismatch related to gender/sexuality.
  • people who won’t take no for an answer
  • fear of failure
  • poor character/lack of self control — as in the dinner guest who just says awful things again and again
  • self doubt/fear of the relationship failing
  • parental consent
  • religious differences
  • differences of social class
  • health problems
  • tragic, untimely death

So many types of complications for romances. In my own WIP, I am dealing with a struggling romance of my own:  will Gemela honor her objections to dating Carl, who was the boyfriend of her best friend but is now free since the BFF has been killed in a car accident, or will Gemela yield to her attraction, despite his alcoholism?

A writer must concoct setbacks and delays for those characters who, the writer already knows, belong together (in fact, characters who belong together seem to me to be much more common in fiction than in real life, but that that’s another story).  After all, if romance happens quickly and naturally in real life, it’s magical.  But in fiction, it’s boring.



Writing is a one-way mirror


pexels-photo-302440.jpegI’ve been thinking lately about the famous artists I follow, in both writing and music. They attract admirers, like myself, who believe they have an understanding of the artist, but in fact, we don’t actually know these people. And what is it like for the famous artist, with so many admirers who don’t actually know what’s going on inside, even though they think they do?

The Katy Perry movie delineated in careful detail the strange perspective of fame, as she struggled to maintain a positive personae on stage while experiencing exhaustion and marital breakup behind closed doors.

Garrison Keillor returned repeatedly to this theme, in works such as “Your book saved my life Mister” and “Meeting Famous People,” in which he writes of the strange experience of being known by everybody but knowing no one.  It’s not, looked at that way, particularly enviable, somehow.

Just this morning it occurred to me, that writing is like a one-way mirror. The readers can see in to the writer, but the writer cannot see back out to understand the readers.  That puts writers at a disadvantage. We have only our own lives and processes to draw from, and then we throw them through the one way mirror and if they resonate, people think they know the truth about us and our world.  They may or may not, but one thing is sure, which is we don’t really know them, and it seems to me that this can put writers at a disadvantage.


Let’s Get Creative: Free Writing

pen-writing-notes-studying.jpgThis: Let’s Get Creative: Free Writing.  is from Sarah in la-la land. This freewriting is another way of  naming Morning Pages, a technique from The Artists Way where Julia Cameron has you write 3 pages of text about whatever comes to mind every morning. I do this, somewhat.  I journal most days and if I don’t go to work that day I try to make three pages.

Sara’s musing does link with something I have been wondering about with my journals. My journals are what I think of as “one use writing.” Because I only sometimes re-read the entries. Does my writing have any use if I never look at it again? This is like asking if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound. It makes a sound, but does it make a difference?

Of course I know the answer. All that journaling is practice for The Real Thing. As in my novel, my essays, my blog posts, the dreaded query, whatever I have as a WIP.  Ask a basketball star if he can afford to skip practice. As Stephen King once wrote in his essay Everything You Need to know About Writing, “only God gets it right the first time.” The rest of us have to practice.

No Cowboy Boots Please

cowboy boots 2Years ago a friend was asking me why I didn’t date guys I met at the stable, and I said, “Those cowboys, no.  Like the guy whose horse is two stalls down, he’s an ex-con.  Served eight years in prison for killing someone in a barroom brawl.  I don’t know what the rest of the guys at the barn did.  But … no. If he’s wearing cowboy boots, just no.”

At the barn where I keep my horse today, there’s an old ranch rodeo cowboy named Matt who pretty much knows everyone and everything, and he tells stories. He’s a U.S. army vet and he’s over 60, married and retired, so I don’t worry about stopping to chat with him. 

He was in the feed room yesterday and I mentioned how cowboy boots are popular, even with five year old kids.

“Well, yeah, them cowboy boots,” said Matt.  “You know, there’s something ’bout cowboy boots. A lotta the guys who wear them things, they like to, you know, take a little walk on the wild side.”

He said he knew of a woman who learned this the hard way.  “Yeah, her name was Clarice.  A right pretty girl, she was married to a cowboy, and he was wild.  Well, he did the bar scene, he ran around an awful lot.  They had two little kids.  It was too bad.  So finally come to find out they’re getting divorced. I said Clarice, how you get yourself around to that?  And she said ‘I’ve had it, and what’s more, I never want to see another pair of cowboy boots again.”

“So years went by, and later, I was in Target and I came up to the line and there was Clarice. And she had this nice looking feller with her, a tall guy, so I was looking down, trying to check his feet, to see what he’s got on and he’s wearing them hush puppy type shoes, you know, office shoes.”

“And she sees me looking down and told me, ‘No I didn’t forget, I had said to you before, no cowboy boots.” Today, Matt laughed as he said it.  “No cowboy boots.”

I had learned through observation, while Clarice had to do the hands on demonstration.  But we had come to the same conclusion.

No cowboy boots, please.

Keeping the saw sharp for writers

I loved this post which reflects on two main issues.  The first is the effect of technology on what Douglas Adams called “your working thinkers,” in other words, us.  The evidence is flowing in, from books like The Shallows, that the web and the cell phone actually change how we think, and not into something rich and strange.

The second issue is trying to do something about this effect.  Seven ways to sharpen your mind’s saw and be a better person.  I enjoyed this post and hope you will too.

The dumbs can hit working authors harder than anyone. …The very act of sitting in front of a monitor all day to write can be damaging to our brains. Not only that, it increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity. So, how do we beat the effects of extended computer use? How do we overcome “the dumbs?”

via Writing: 7 Ways to Cure the Dumbs — J. A. Allen

Should I still be writing YA fiction?

As I went to writer’s workshop on Monday, I had some trepidation.  I had to meet new writers, comment intelligently and simultaneously helpfully on their work, and then share something from my own work in progress.  And as I walked across the parking lot, I wondered to myself:  why are you writing YA novels anyway?  I mean, lots of people are writing about adults.

Is this some kind of sign that you’re spiritually or emotionally immature?

Well, I’ll tell you.  When I was a teenager, 16 years old, actually everything went wrong very suddenly.  It was a kind of self-separation, where I had started with a normal, integrated view of myself, my family, and my world, and in the space of 18 months my home was gone, my family was gone, and I knew no one I could trust.  I had lost any footing I could feel was a safe and secure possession, even my own integrity, and in that free falling period of 1982 and ’83 all I had was a ratty boyfriend who turned out to be … well, I don’t know how to put this.  A bad person, okay?  He was bad.  And a small allowance with which I was expected to attend college.  And with that I was told to remake myself.

No I didn’t do a very good job.  It took me until I was 25 to even begin to live appropriately (some in the family say it took much longer) but this means that I always want to go back to teenagerhood and Fix the Problem.  I keep thinking that if I had just made different choices, everything would have been different.  And so, on a couple of occasions, I started writing novels about young women who transcended similar circumstances more successfully than I.

Sometimes I tell my own kids, “I’m really still 17 in my heart,” and they don’t understand, but when you’ve had a severe trauma, it can happen.  You can feel this need to go back, to relive, and to fix.  And that’s why, I think, I’m still writing a YA character and novel.


In Which Scarlett and I Discuss the Next Artist’s Retreat — and realize that we have about as much Chance … 

Of being selected for something prestigious, like Rabbit Island residency, as, say, a rabbit. We had so much fun and got a lot of good ideas on our Artist’s Retreat in Morro Bay last week, so Scarlett and I are discussing doing it again.

The first thing I thought was we could try was to apply for an opportunity I saw on, Rabbit Island Residency, where you can go and stay for ten days or longer on a remote island where there is nothing but a small kitchen/efficiency apartment style building and 92 acres of the Great North Woods.  Surrounded by Lake Superior.  The idea is, if you need to get away from it all to create something, at Rabbit Island, you’re away from it and then some.

We researched it a bit.  But Scarlett didn’t think it would work.  “They’ve got people coming from all over the world to do this, Mom,” she said.  “Their website says that they got 240 applications last year, and they’re expecting more this time.”

My thinking:  240 applications for the opportunity to camp in a remote campsite and figure out a way to do art without electricity?  Wow.  It can’t be the convenience, or the unusualness of the setting, I mean, uncharted wilderness is available lots of places. Perhaps it’s the prestige.

“Two hundred and forty applicants!  Well, maybe we’re working the wrong side of this equation.  Maybe we should start a artist’s retreat ourselves, perhaps using the teeny tiny house at Joe’s place as base camp,” I said.

Scarlett wasn’t sure. “Well how is that gonna work, there’s no room for anyone else in the teeny tiny house?”

“Maybe we could find related lodgings and all meet in the big firepit area at designated times.  Maybe Joe would allow us to have a tent or two, also.”

Scarlett considered this.  “He did say we’re welcome to come back …  but we’d have to approach the topic carefully.”

I agreed.  “And look, Scarlett, we’ve gotta keep this a secret.  No way do I want our writer’s retreat becoming prestigious enough so that we have to wade through 240 applications.  How about if we just invite people we know who also write and do art and just have everyone split the cost?”

“Yeah but then how are we gonna become famous?”  She was asking the obvious.

“That’s gonna be difficult no matter what.  The joy is in the work.”

And Scarlett has to agree with that.