Monthly Archives: May 2015

What Would Lola Do?

I’ve been retired and living in Tacoma for nearly a year now. The most challenging aspect of starting this new chapter is making new friends. During my many years of teaching on military bases in Germany, I was thrown together with my fellow Americans, (why do I hear Richard Nixon’s voice saying that phrase?) and we formed a tight-knit little community—especially the teachers and their families, who didn’t quite fit in with the military folks. Here in Tacoma, I’ve tried out various activities: the gym, some volunteer teaching, a dance class, a writers’ critique group, and even a wine-lovers’ club. I’ve met some fascinating people, and we’re blessed with friendly neighbors, but making new friends takes time, especially in a place where most people are not newcomers and already have a full dance card.

That’s one thing I love about writing fiction: I’d like a circle of fascinating friends to hang out with, and I can easily create such people on paper. The fictional town where my current novel takes place is populated by quirky, artistic, bohemian types—just the sort of neighbors I’d like to have here. Of course, the character with whom I’m spending the most time is Lola, my protagonist. She’s fifty-three, a divorced mother of two who’s worked as a high school teacher of French and English while supporting her children. Now that both children are launched, a small inheritance and a bit of good luck have allowed her to retire early and move from Fresno to a coastal town in Northern California. Other than her former career and the color of her hair, Lola and I don’t have much in common, but she has many characteristics that I aspire to. (To which I aspire, if you insist.)

  • Lola is flamboyant—not because she’s looking for a reaction from others, but because she’s an interesting person and must express herself. Wearing flashy, bohemian outfits brings her joy, as does belly dancing.
  • Lola is fascinated by people, all sorts of people.
  • She’s open to, even eager for, new experiences. She’s game, a good sport, will try anything once.
  • She has a good eye for opportunities. For example, she’s always wanted to live in a cute little cottage near the ocean, and when the opportunity presents itself, she pounces on it.
  • Lola is artistic. She needs a daily infusion of beauty, and creates beauty in her home, wardrobe, and adornment. She also gets out into nature, goes to exhibits and performances, listens to interesting music while doing her chores…
  • She refuses to be bored. There’s always something interesting to do, and she’s the first one to find it. (That’s you, Diana.)
  • She’s not a show-off, nor is she competitive. Lola loves applause, but she doesn’t need to hog the spotlight, and she’s happy to applaud others. After all, people are fascinating.
  • Lola is generous, but seldom self-sacrificing. She knows that no one will ever care as much about her happiness as she does, and that’s as it should be. She cheerfully takes responsibility for creating the life she wants, and she’s comfortable saying “no” when others’ demands become too intrusive.
  • She sprinkles her day with little treats. She stops to smell the roses, listen to the birdsong, drink lemonade on the porch.
  • She’s a good hostess. She enjoys creating occasions and sharing them.
  • Finally, Lola is completely comfortable with her age. She had a grand time being twenty, thirty, forty, and she plants to have a grand time in her fifties, sixties, so on, as far as life takes her.

I’ve enjoyed spending time with Lola. Here’s to following her example, and to meeting some real-life Lolas.

But I don’t want to write YA!

Now that I’m committed to the writing life, I read many interviews, articles and books about the publishing industry, as well as how-to articles and books aimed at new authors. And it seems that most of them have to do with YA fiction. Well.

A quick definition, for those of you not tuned-in to these genres: (Why would you be, unless you’re a teacher, librarian, or trying to get your fiction published?)

“Middle grade” fiction is written for readers aged 8-12, or thereabouts. Think middle school.

“Young adult” fiction is written for teenagers, aged 12-18-ish. The protagonist is in this age range.

“New adult,” a more recent designation, is written for actual young adults, ages 19-25, with a protagonist in this age range, and deals with typical problems/issues faced by people in this stage of life.

Well, YA fiction is hot, and everyone seems to be writing it. OK—not everybody; my local library still stocks plenty of novels written for adults, with adult protagonists and adult themes—but a random sampling of interviews with literary agents and new authors could lead a writer to believe that writing YA is the thing to do, the key to getting published.

Here’s the thing: I’m sick of teenagers. I taught high school for twenty-six years, and while I became quite fond of some individual teenagers, I don’t want to make that age group the focus of my life again—ever. It’s an interesting, important life phase, but not as interesting as what comes after. I mean really—if you’ve spent much time in the company of teenagers, you can predict pretty accurately the stupid things that they will do on their path to adulthood—a destination that some never reach, alas. The current literary romancing of this awkward, schizophrenic, excuse-making, paranoid, self-centered, peer-obsessed, pimply, sweaty phase of life—I don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong; from a parent’s and teacher’s point of view, I’m glad that teens have so many high-interest novels to choose from, because it’s a struggle to get many of them to read, absorbed as they are with less-demanding forms of entertainment: movies, TV, internet, blogs, podcasts, manga, comics… None of these requires the intense brain involvement that is required by a novel. Most of our teens’ thinking and imagining is already done for them by modern entertainment media, and too few teens are inclined to think critically without prodding. So writers like Walter Dean Myers, who make readers of non-readers, are heroes in my estimation. YA novels are a gateway drug to adult novels.

But here’s the thing: I’m not a teenager. I’ve learned so much since then that I have no wish to return to that limited point of view. To tell the truth, I’m most interested in people my own age, but I think the best stories are populated with characters of diverse ages. My current protagonist is around my age, and the main conflict is between her and her young-adult (not teens, twenties) daughter. The other characters range in age from six to seventy-five. That’s what real life is like: communities made up of diverse ages. It’s the nature of teens to focus intently on their age group, but with maturity comes an understanding of the value of people of other ages. Teens alone just aren’t that interesting to anyone but teens.

Un Experimento Culinario: Carnitas de Cerdo

So far, on this blog I’ve shared only recipes that offer creative ways to use up leftovers—but this culinary experiment turned out so well that I wanted to share it with you.

I was looking for a big beef chuck roast to make shredded beef burritos for our class Cinco de Mayo party, but wow! Who knew beef was so expensive? So I went to the Grocery Outlet and found a five-pound pork loin roast. Surely I could do something with this, right?

I perused several recipes for Mexican-style shredded pork and determined that I was heading in a carnitas direction. This recipe combines the suggestions of several online recipes.

The pork was pretty lean, so I coated the bottom of my lidded roasting pan with about 2 Tbs. olive oil. Then I rubbed the pork with:

  • 1 ½ Tbs. salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbs. dried oregano
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • ½ tsp. chipotle chili powder

I placed the pork in the roasting pan, fat side up, and added

  • one white onion, pretty large, coarsely chopped,
  • 2 Anaheim chiles, cut into strips
  • 4 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

I poured around this

  • one cup of orange juice
  • one cup of water

and put it into a preheated 350 degree oven with the lid on.

Two hours later, I took off the lid, basted the meat with the juices, and continued cooking for another hour and a half, basting every 20 minutes or so—mostly because that makes me feel important. I kept poking it until I was sure it was soft enough to shred.

After the meat cooled, I shredded it with two forks and mixed in the juices from the pan. At first, it looked like there’d be too much liquid, but the meat soaked it right up.

For our Cinco de Mayo party in Spanish class, I served this with flour tortillas, fresh cilantro, purchased salsa verde, and Mexican queso fresco. ¡Estupendo! The shredded pork would also be great for tacos, enchiladas, over rice…or just random forkfuls snatched whenever passing the fridge. ¡Buen provecho!

Is Real Life Too Boring?

I’m in the process of submitting queries for my first novel while revising my second. It’s interesting to see the similarities between the two: both protagonists are redheads (as am I, thanks to henna), both are/were teachers (ditto, no henna involved), and both divorced (yup) and optimistically starting a new chapter in life. (That’s me again, though my new chapter is not a solo act, since I’ve recently married a wonderful man.) Other non-autobiographical similarities: both protagonists are visited often by a neighbor’s cat. A few cats regularly scoot through my back yard, but they never stop for a visit­—quel dommage.  Both novels involve frequent injections of a foreign language too—one German, one French. I’m studying Spanish now; will my next story be spiced with Spanish phrases? All writers have heard the old chestnut “Write what you know.” I didn’t set out to do that, but I certainly have filtered these two non-autobiographical stories through a thick layer of my own favorite things.

At my most recent critique meeting, a few readers suggested that Lola, the protagonist of novel #2, be placed in a more adventurous, challenging, unusual situation. Basically, Lola retires early from teaching (me again) and, having launched her two children, moves to a charming, hippie-dippy town in Northern California where she attempts to live the artistic, indulgent life she’d imagined for herself during the hard years of single-motherhood. Of course, complications from her past pile on, making this new life increasingly difficult, and sending her off in a new, unanticipated direction. There’s a bit of romance too, but no dead bodies this time, though I think Lola would make a good amateur sleuth for future cozy mysteries. The story is lighthearted, humorous, and full of quirky characters—the sort of people I’d like to meet more of in real life. Lola’s relationship with her grown daughter is central to the plot.

Anyway, the question was raised as to whether this scenario is exciting enough to sustain readers’ interest. Why doesn’t Lola move overseas? Why doesn’t she become a spy, or do something that places her in a life-threatening situation?  Hmm. I must keep in mind that most members of my critique group are writing science fiction/fantasy, with futuristic military campaigns, volcanic eruptions, queens with magic rings who struggle to understand their hereditary powers, and so on. Now, I enjoy these sorts of stories, but I’m most interested in stories about plausible people in plausible situations—realistic fiction, as well as memoir and historical fiction. I find people fascinating, and I enjoy reading about the real-life (or believable) adventures in the real world. People I can relate to struggling against the sorts of obstacles we all face in life? Fascinating, touching, inspiring. People learning and growing and pushing their limits? That’s great stuff—tell me more. People struggling to love, understand, connect with their fellow humans? Marvelous. I don’t find real-life stories a bit boring.

This reminds me of a writing assignment I used to give to my ninth- and tenth-grade students: What’s your definition of a hero? Write about a real-life hero, either someone you know or someone you know of. I got many touching tributes to parents, grandparents, coaches, soldiers, firefighters… But many of my students (usually boys) just couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept of a hero who didn’t have superpowers. To them, a hero is an unrealistic, cartoon character who flies, who can hurl flames or become invisible. And I find that incredibly sad—some of these kids were so grounded in speculative fiction that they find the real life around them boring and not worth contemplating.

Realistic fiction or speculative fiction? Chick flicks or Shoot-em-ups? Is a movie without explosions worth watching? Are the struggles of human beings to understand each other and connect with other humans enough to sustain a reader’s interest? They can be. Movies I’ve recently loved include Nebraska, The Judge, and This Is Where I Leave You, all of which center around the difficult relationship between a parent and child—which is the core around which my second novel revolves. Women’s fiction is a genre that centers on relationships, and there’s a large readership for those sorts of stories.  And frankly, I’m bored to death with stories about zombies, werewolves, and post-apocalyptic dystopian muddles.

But at their core, both realistic and speculative fiction are about the human condition: fear, doubt, isolation, connection, envy, scorn, ambition, and so on. Explosions or no explosions, that’s what it’s really all about.