Monday, July 29, 2013

Books I Read in April and May

Claude and Camille: a novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell

This is a romantic story about the famous nineteenth-century painter, Claude Monet, and the love of his life.

I enjoy reading novels about artists and their struggles, both with their work and with building a name for themselves. The romance added a wonderful layer to this novel. If you enjoy Susan Vreeland, you'll probably enjoy Claude and Camille.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Screwtape is a devil who writes letters of instruction and encouragement to his nephew, Wormwood, who is trying to condemn a man's soul.

C.S. Lewis is a genius. He has a way of explaining his ideas of what makes a good Christian that is solid and resonating. It really made me think about who I am and I recommend it to anyone interested in self-improvement.

By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

Luis de Santangel is a conversos -- a Jew who converted to Christianity -- which is a dangerous enough position to be in during the Spanish Inquisition. When he becomes drawn to the religion he abandoned and then falls in love with a Jewish woman, he puts his very life at risk.

I've always been fascinated by dystopian literature, and what I found most striking about this book is that it had so many similarities to dystopian worlds, except the events actually happened. Not only is this book fascinating and, frankly, horrifying, but it raises some interesting questions. Definitely a good read.

Mama Lola, a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown

I met Mama Lola in New Orleans during the Halloween Voodoo Festival. (She was the one who told me she was called of the spirits when her mom found her eating trash in a dumpster. The book retells the story in a way that makes a lot more sense.) While this book is structured somewhat haphazardly, which makes it difficult to use as research, it gives an in-depth view into voodoo that I haven't seen before and answered a lot of questions I had about this mysterious religion. Everyone researching voodoo should include this book on their to-read list.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Infinite Importance of Keeping a Notebook

I have so much to say about the importance of keeping a daily notebook that I don't know where to start. If I had to choose one thing that has contributed the most to my current state as a writer -- taking into account school, parental encouragement, and even my computer -- I'd choose my notebook.

(For ideas on how to effectively use a notebook, scroll down.)

It all started when I watched the movie PHENOMENON with John Travolta. That movie changed my life. Up to that point I had kept journals: records of my life experiences. Such journals are important, but the main character in this movie did something different. He was bursting with so many ideas that to keep from going crazy, he wrote them all down in notebooks.

My eyes opened to new possibilities. What if instead of keeping a book solely for recording my experiences, I kept a book meant for every thought I have? It wouldn't be weird for me to write a poem, an idea for a recipe, or a knitting pattern in the same notebook. There would be no limits. 

My experience with notebooks continued when I took a Think Like da Vinci class in school. The teacher had us keep a notebook of such thoughts and ideas. (We were of course encouraged to write in it backwards, just like da Vinci.) There were no requirements except one: every day, we had to write down a question. It had to be a question no one could answer, such as how big is the universe, how do animals express sorrow, why is 42 the meaning of life, etc.

That class helped me use my notebook to stretch my mind, to train myself to think abstractly and constructively. It became not just a receptacle for thoughts, but a way to create thoughts that might be useful later on.

My third experience with notebooks happened only a few months ago. I had stopped keeping a notebook when I went to college and for some reason never picked it up again. As I struggled through my most recent bout of writer's block, a friend recommended I read THE ARTIST'S WAY by Julia Cameron. 

In THE ARTIST'S WAY, Julia Cameron suggested writing "Morning Pages" every day before doing anything else. This applies to everyone, not just writers. Your morning pages can be anything you want. They can be profound, or crappy. It doesn't matter. The point is to use them as a focal point before starting your day.

I can't begin to tell you how helpful my Morning Pages have been for me! Since I write from home, it's very easy to get distracted. When I write in my Morning Pages, my entire day becomes much more focused and productive. It's something you have to see to believe, so rather than try and convince you, I highly suggest you give it a try and see how it can effect your life.

Perhaps you see the value of keeping a notebook, but you don't know how to start. Here's a list of things you can write in a notebook:

  1. Goals. Include your plan for reaching those goals, your progress, and any challenges you encounter.
  2. Observations, about your surroundings, people, life in general, or yourself.
  3. Ideas. They can be career-related, but they can also be ways to improve your hobbies, your surroundings, or even economics and politics.
  4. Questions. Try stretching your mind by asking thought-provoking questions that aren't easy to answer.
  5. Thoughts. Your journal isn't the only place to write about yourself and your life.
  6. Intense Emotions. Sometimes I need to dump how I feel onto a piece of paper, but I don't want the emotions to clutter up my journal. A notebook is a great way to clear my head.
  7. Opinions. Whenever you get fired up about something, whether it be political, social, economical, religious, or whatever you feel passionate about, you can make your argument in your notebook.
  8. Lists. I love keeping lists of all sorts of stuff: things I'm grateful for, songs I'm going to sing to my kids, places in the world I want to go, my favorite books, pet peeves, etc. 
  9. Plan for the day, including how you feel about that plan (excited, overwhelmed, anxious). This is a great way to focus before starting the day.
  10. Poems, snippets from your novel, plot outlines, or anything writing related that's too raw to go into the computer just yet.
  11. Quotes you hear or read that inspire you.
  12. Writing exercises. 
  13. Garbage. You don't have to create anything worthwhile in your notebook; you just have to create.
Do you keep a notebook? What do you write in it? How has it helped you?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Audio of the Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction Panel

I'm excited to share with you the audio to the panel I moderated at the 2013 Historical Novel Society Conference on Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction, recorded by VW Tapes Conference and Seminar Recording.

In this video, we discuss the authors' works, how to make a religion authentic when you can never fully understand it, when it's appropriate to criticize other religions, how to keep from offending readers, and much more. The author's speaking on this panel are:

Kamran Pasha, author of Mother of the Believers and Shadow of the Swords.
Mary Sharratt, author of Illuminations and Daughters of the Witching Hill
Stephanie Dray, author of Lily of the Nile and Song of the Nile.

Since I'm an unpublished writer-in-the-making, participating in this panel is probably the coolest thing I've ever done. No matter how many panels or signings or book readings I will (hopefully) do in the future, I will always be the most proud of this.

If you would like to listen to more panels at this conference, you can purchase them here


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Video of the HNS Conference Costume Contest!

I am soooooo excited that someone recorded this and posted it on YouTube! Being a pregnant Vestal Virgin in a historical costume contest was a major highlight of my trip to Florida.

Sadly, the video won't upload to this post for some reason, but you can follow the link to it by clicking here.

The entire event was fun and definitely worth watching -- Gillian Bagwell was a hilarious MC and I especially loved the deaf medieval princess and the Frieda impersonator. My part starts about two minutes in. 

You'll notice I didn't expect the entire skit to be funny. Whenever I mentioned "modesty" and "chastity," everyone got a big kick out of it. I'm not sure why they liked it when I said my shoes were made from the skin of sacrificed animals, but maybe weeks from now I'll suddenly understand the joke and feel dumb for not getting it sooner.


Monday, July 1, 2013

It's Not About the Money, and This is Why

I love to knit. I learned how when I was a kid and I was so bored in church that the only thing I could do to entertain myself was watch a woman next to me knitting. She offered to give me lessons, and I've been doing it ever since.

For Christmas last year, I made my husband a blanket that is easily my best work. He had made me a fleece BYU blanket when I graduated but couldn't find a fleece MSU pattern he liked for when he graduated, so I made a blanket myself. 

As I painstakingly stitched every MSU signia into the knitting (watching Doctor Who and Downton Abbey the whole time), I thought to myself, "If Andrew ever doubts how much I love him, he can just look at all the work I put into this blanket."

When he unwrapped his gift Christmas morning, everyone in his family ooed and ahhed over it. I swelled with pride. Then they all gave me the same suggestion:

"You should sell these!"

To which I replied emphatically, "NO!"

Considering how much time I put into that blanket, if I charged as much as it was worth, no one could afford it. The fun part was designing something new; if I made the same project over again, it would feel less like an art and more like a craft. Most importantly, I made it because I love my husband, not because I love a customer.

If you take away the artistic expression and the love attached to that blanket, it isn't worth making. Not even for money.

It's the same way with writing novels. Someone once said novelists should never calculate how much money they make per hour because it's too depressing. Sure, we all would like to make money eventually, but most of us work tirelessly on our novels with no surety of a reward.

I used to think I could write for other people if my noveling career didn't pan out. Perhaps I'd be a freelancer, a ghostwriter, or a journalist. But writing for other people would never make me happy. It's not about the career, and it's not about the money. It's about the thrill of artistic expression.

And it's about the love.
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