In Praise of Rereading

praise rereading dorothy sayers
For decades my escapist reading—with few exceptions—was mysteries. Once you know who did it, what would be the point? The one exception for me was Dorothy L. Sayers.  My motivation for rereading the Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries was to discover the early clues and figure out how she built to the big reveal. But I also discovered that Sayers’ characters—clear, distinct, and appealing—grew and developed.


I seldom read non-mysteries then, and rereads were even rarer. Two of those exceptions were Austen and Mitchell. They both were mirrors reflecting a period in history and characters that reside in real people, regardless of historical period.


praise rereading diana gabaldon books
Not too long ago I read and then reread Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I reread because this is a far ranging saga. By the time certain characters play a major role I’d lost track of earlier cameo appearances. On rereading, I could appreciate how intricately interwoven the people, places and events were. Having written only two books with repeating characters (Dark Harbor and Tiger Heart) I marvel that the details didn’t trip over each other, that they didn’t contradict themselves, and that the characters matured (as opposed to changed).
new genre new year maas
More recently I read Sarah J. Maas’ series Throne of Glass. And now I am rereading it. Partly that’s because of the great experience rereading Gabaldon. But in addition, Maas has created a whole new world. As fantasy fiction, she’s created a new physical world, but also new history, new creatures, and new personal powers. The first read familiarized me with these aspects of the series. Like Gabaldon, Maas has characters who grow and change over time—but her timeframe is much more compacted. And as a series targeting young adults, I became very aware of the meta-messages inherent in the plot and characters.


winston graham books
My experience is that rereading a series is especially gratifying. Perhaps it should be required—in the interest of fully appreciating the author’s creativity and craft.


I’ve now committed to reading A Wrinkle in Time between now and March 9, prior to the movie premiere. It was touted as a reread. For me, it will be a read. My youngest daughter has read it many times. Her older daughter has read it. Her younger daughter received it for Christmas but hasn’t read it yet. Could I resist such a recommendation?


And the best part is, this is the first book in a series. There may be more rereads in my future!


Bottom line: Reread a favorite you haven’t read for several years. Is it as good as you remembered? Better? Different? Let me know.


Wrinkle Re-Read

Besotted With Books

king james bible
[Source: Christian Post]
I did not grow up in a book house. In my earliest years, the only volumes we owned were a huge two-volume pictorial history of WWII and several Bibles. Dad subscribed to Field and Stream and Mom subscribed to True Confessions. So I wasn’t exposed to children’s books till I was in school and able to read for myself.


little mermaid hans christian anderson
[Source: Booktopia]
The first book I remember reading was The Little Mermaid.  I read it for two weeks, the amount of time we were allowed to keep books from the county bookmobile. Every time I read it, I wept. To this day, one of the reasons I love books is their ability to engage my emotions. The rule for the bookmobile was two books per visit, but I had a note from my teacher allowing me to take out as many books as I wanted. Every two weeks I walked home with all the books I could carry between my fingertips and my chin.


A second book I remember vividly was a world geography book. I can still see the image of an African village. That section fascinated me! Everything from the jungle, to the half-clothed bodies to the strange looking houses to the jewelry. And that’s a second thing I still love about books: they can take me places I’ve never been and expose me to people unlike myself.
besotted books fairy book collection
At one point I was obsessed with fairy tales. This started with a book in my grandmother’s house. These were the old version of tales intended to teach morality lessons, often with terrifying consequences for the evil characters—not the prettified Walt Disney versions with their cookie-cutter princesses. For example, in attempting to fit into the glass slipper, one of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters cut off her heel and the other cut off her toes. One thing fairy tales taught me was the willing suspension of disbelief that allowed me to embrace fantasy, magical thinking, and other things unreal.
Around what would now be called middle school, I became enamored of two heroines. For some reason, I was never drawn to Nancy Drew. Instead I was drawn to Ruth Fielding, an early twentieth century girl from a poor family who had a scholarship to a private girls’ school and Cherry Ames, starting with her first year in nursing school. Both were lively, and somewhat unconventional, often breaking rules for the greater good, etc. So, another function of books in my life was exposure to role models I saw nowhere in my real life. I still love series in which the characters grow and develop over time—Diana Gabaldon, for example, over Patricia Cornwell.


besotted books Diana Gabaldon book series
Although I did not realize it at the time, books taught me that the same situation or event could be seen differently by different participants. Before I started writing, I don’t remember ever hearing about point of view, let alone thinking about it. But the fact is that books showed me, indirectly, that not everything was as I saw it.


besotted books bad medicine robert youngston ian schott
Books serve multiple roles in my life today: escaping down moods, relaxing, laughing. One of the best is leaning something new. My most recent acquisition in this realm is A Brief History of Bad Medicine, which deals with the strange but true history of quacks, weird surgery, and medical disasters. But, you will recall, I’ve also mentioned Bill Bryson, Mary Roach, and John McPhee as leaders in creative nonfiction. I might add Richmond writer Dean King to that list.


besotted books skeletons zahara dean king
So, tell me. Why do you read?

Interested in learning more about writing? Join me at Agile Writers for my class on Write Your Life: Memoir and Memoir-Based Fiction. For more information, visit the Agile Writers website.
Vivian Lawry Agile Writers

Beware Head-Hopping

We all know about Point of View. It’s the narrator’s position in relation to the story being told.


With the objective POV, the writer tells the story entirely with action and dialogue. S/he never discloses anything about thoughts or feelings, leaving it for the reader to infer these from the dialogue and action.
In my experience, writers more often choose to get inside the head and heart of one or more characters.


The closest POV is when the narrator is “I.” I struggled to speak around the lump in my throat. My heart thundered painfully in my chest. I planned the meal carefully, including all of Dad’s favorite dishes.


A step more distant is the third person POV—he, she, or it felt, thought, planned, reacted…


And then there are stories with multiple POVs—not that there’s anything wrong with that! But it is risky. Authors who do it well clearly lead the reader from one head to the next. One good exemplar is Diana Gabaldon. When she’s writing from Claire’s POV, it is first person. Everyone else is third person, and these shifts are typically by chapter.


The danger is changing POV within scenes. For example, a couple argues intensely and the writer tells the reader what each is thinking and feeling. Why is this a problem?


The challenge is to be consistent when two POV characters are in the same scene. It’s incredibly easy to accidentally give the non-POV character fleeting thoughts or feelings.


Head-hopping is jumping from one POV to another quickly, with no warning to the reader. It makes the story feel choppy and can be confusing.


Doing it right means signaling the changes to the reader by chapter breaks or the ubiquitous *** that signals something is changing. The writer sticks with  any given POV for the duration of the chapter or scene.


And one last consideration: Readers typically identify with the POV character—whether “I” or a third person “s/he.”  With multiple points of view, the reader may have difficulty deciding who to root for. And the more POVs included, the greater the difficulty.


Bottom line: handling multiple POVs effectively is a challenge, and avoid head-hopping, always!

Without Books, TV Would Be Barren

top ten tuesday
Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, they provide a prompt for bloggers. Today’s prompt is TV-themed.


We tend to think of TV as something totally separate from literature. Not so! If you’ve enjoyed any of the following on TV, consider reading the books they are based on.



[Photo credit: Goodreads]
Poldarkbased on the Poldark Saga books of Winston Graham


boardwalk empire
[Photo credit: Goodreads]
Outlander, based on the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon


diana gabaldon outlander
[Photo credit: Tripping Over Books]
Pride and Prejudice and other series based on novels of Jane Austen


masters of sex
[Photo credit: Amazon]
Sherlock and Elementary based on the Sherlock Holmes books and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Bones based on Deja Dead and others in the Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs


kathy reichs deja dead
[Photo credit: Goodreads]
Game of Thrones based on A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.



Here’s a thought: Whatever your TV passion, check it online for possible roots in books. You might find an author you love!

Writing to Feed Your Soul

Although some people write to put food on the table, more write to feed their souls.

According to an article by Alison Flood of The Guardian, a 2014 survey revealed that 54% of “traditionally-published” authors and nearly 80% of self-published authors earn less than $1,000 a year. In this same survey, only a minority of respondents listed making money as “extremely important”—around 20% of self-published writers and 25% of traditionally-published authors.Overall, Flood concluded, “Most authors write because they want to share something with the world or gain recognition of some sort.” Clearly, most writers aren’t in it to put food on the table.

The joys of writing to feed one’s soul can be summarized in the word freedom.

  • Free to write on your own schedule.
  • Free from worry about sales covering the advance.
  • Free to write in any genre, not just the one(s) that sell best.
  • Free to ignore industry guidelines/standards for works of a certain genre, such as page length, structure, and language.
  • Free to switch genres or to write in many genres.
  • Free to write a series with a different protagonist.
  • Free to write anything and everything under one name.
Many big-name authors (i.e., those who make a lot of money writing) find themselves limited in the previous three freedoms. The reading public wouldn’t let Arthur Conan Doyle kill off Sherlock Holmes. Many authors write under more than one name. Search online under “famous authors who use multiple pen names” and go from there. Some authors do so to reinvent themselves—e.g.Stephen King/ Richard Bachman, J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith. Some use different names for different genres—e.g., Jenna Peterson writes historicals but uses the name Jesse Michaels for erotic romance.  Other multiple-name authors include Dean Koontz, Richard Matheson, Joyce Carol Oates, Agatha Christie, C.S. Lewis, and Isaac Asimov. There are more.

  • Free to mix several genres in the same work.
  • Free to label oneself or not.
diana gabaldon
Diana Gabaldon [Photo credit: Andreas Pavelic]
Diana Gabaldon started off writing to feed her soul—in my opinion! She says that she wrote Outlander for practice, to learn the craft, with no intention of showing it to anyone. Not only did she write an impossibly long book (by industry standards) but she mixed romance, adventure, history, time-travel, and magical elements.

diana gabaldon outlander series
The Outlander series [Photo credit: Tripping Over Books]
For an excellent, thoughtful essay on blending genres, read Joyce Dyer’s “What’s on Your Mind?” recently published in The New York Times.

joyce dyer what's on your mind
You can also read over seventy comments on this piece online. She starts with a discussion of how writers’ brains work and moves on to the limitations of genres.

When you write to feed your soul, the only real requirement is that you write.

Beach Reads vs. Reading at the Beach

Gone to the Beach lifesaver
Recommendations for great beach reads are everywhere, every year; they start in the spring and are often ongoing. Amazon gives us “Superbly Good Beach Reads” while Barnes and Noble more modestly lists “Beach Reads”—totally disinterested advice from both, of course! Real Simple gives us “The 20 Best New Paperback Beach Reads.” The Huffington Post published other people’s lists, including one from The Oprah Magazine. Refinery 29 has “Beach Read Books.” Bustle has “31 Beach Reads for Summer 2016, Because Vacation Should Be Filled With Incredible Stories.” In 2016, POPSUGAR recommended both “Summer Books 2016” and “Beach Reads for Women.”


Many lists seem to presume that women are the readers, because most of these lists appear in magazines targeted to women: Cosmopolitan, “Beach Reads for Summer 2016”; Redbook, “Best Summer Beach Reads of 2016”; Women’s Day, “28 Summer Beach Reads 2016.”


I’ve always loved the beach and books—but I’ve never bought a “beach read,” and didn’t this year. I’m rereading Diana Gabaldon.


Voyager Drums of Autumn Diana Gabaldon
I finished Voyager and started Drums of Autumn. Given that these are big, fat books, I didn’t take them. I took my Kindle, instead. For the reasons why I chose these reads, see my earlier blog on “Loving Diana Gabaldon.”

Am I alone in reading at the beach without advice?

I recently shared a beach week with 9 other people, ages eight to eighty-five. Some brought multiple books, but none of them brought a book specifically bought for the beach! Here, in no particular order, are their books and their comments on them.


Tim Johnston Descent
“I like macabre books. They hold my attention. I wanted to read The Girl on the Train but this book is better. A girl disappears when her family is on vacation in the Rocky Mountains.”
Lila Marilynne Robinson
“I brought Lila by Marilyn Robinson, a book I bought the last time I was in Denver. She writes with surprising details about surprising events that call attention to the uniqueness of the most ordinary people, their inarticulateness. Yet somehow she brings out the intensity of their inner lives.”
Earth Works Nancy R. Hugo
“I love flowers and Nancy Hugo writes about her gardening experiences in a very down-to-earth, witty way. She makes me feel like I am with her in her garden.”


“I brought Killing Reagan but I was out shopping and found a mystery by a local writer that sounded like a good read, about being set up by a friend with cyberspace and assault rifles and, of course, a woman was involved. The author is Bruce Wilkins and the book is The Count of Cape Hatteras.
The Fiery Cross Diana Gabaldon
“I’m reading The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon. As part of my 2016 Reading Challenge, I am supposed to re-read a book I previously abandoned. I struggled with this, the fifth in the Outlander series, when I started it a few years ago, but my interest was recently renewed by the TV series based on the books. I have found that I am more engaged in the book this time around and I am glad I picked it up again.”


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows J.K. Rowling
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows is the seventh and last book in the Harry Potter series that I started in May, abandoned, and then started back up in late June, because I had nothing new to read. I have noticed that as the books go, it develops a more grown-up sort of writing, and the type of art on the covers changes as well. On the first book the cover is cartoon-y and on the last book it’s much more… ‘Sirius.’”


daily reflections aa members
“The only book I brought was the daily meditations. I gotta keep up with the program, but the beach is for sun and water, not books!”


One True Thing Anna Quindlen
One Time Thing by Anna Quindlon was recommended to me by a friend, I think because it’s about transformation. I like that it starts off with the narrator in her hometown jail and then regresses back to the events leading up to her relaxing gratefully in that cell. The way she illustrates courage, suffering, and everyday acts of love. . . the ingredients for the shifting bond of mother and daughter are beautiful. Anna Quindlon is an excellent storyteller who has managed to hold my attention.”


Italian language learning books
“I brought Buongiorno Italia! in a foolish attempt to learn enough Italian to use it on a trip in September. But really, my motive was because I like languages. Italian is beautiful to speak. I have picked up phrases that I memorized listening to opera records at age twelve or thirteen and didn’t understand. Right now I am working on the auxiliary verbs and verb endings. What fun! I need oral practice and a better memory.”


Young Avengers The Secret Zoo
The Young Avengers is about superheroes. I’m reading The Secret Zoo instead. It’s about a girl named Megan who went missing and her brother and his two friends go looking for her. What’s special about the zoo is that the animals are able to get out of their cages and lead Megan’s brother and friends to a secret part of the zoo. And along the way Megan’s brother finds pages of Megan’s notebook that have clues on them.”


Gentle Yoga with Great Benefits Anna Shapiro
“My yoga teacher had surgery early this summer and won’t be back till September. I just wanted to hold my ground. Does looking at the pictures count as reading? If so, it’s a great read!”
When my younger granddaughter was singing nonsense, her older sister said, “That’s not a song!” The younger one said, “If I sing it, it’s a song!” To paraphrase: if you read it at the beach, it’s a beach read!

What Writers Can Learn From Diana Gabaldon

learning from Diana Gabaldon
Last Friday I posted “Loving Diana Gabaldon.”  It was general praise and admiration of the sort you might expect from that title. Today I want to cite some specific ways that writers would do well to follow her example. In particular, I will focus on vivid language. We have all heard or read that we should use fresh, vivid language and strong verbs. Here’s how.


For one thing, Gabaldon is a very sensory writer.

She uses all the senses, and often more than one in the same sentence or phrase. I notice particularly that she uses smell more often than most.


 The following line is made stronger by the unexpected juxtaposition of “smelled delectably” with road dust and sweat.
He smelled delectably of road dust and dried sweat and the deep musk of a man who has just enjoyed himself thoroughly.
Delectable is more expected here, but overall very concrete and specific.
The smell of cut, dry hay was mingled with the delectable scent of barbecue that had been simmering underground overnight, the fresh bread, and the heady tang of Mrs. Bug’s cider.

More sensory details

. . . swept me into an exuberant embrace, redolent of hay, horses, and sweat.
Would I wake again to the thick warm smell of central heating and Frank’s Old Spice? And when I fell asleep again to the scent of woodsmoke and the musk of Jamie’s skin, would feel a faint, surprised regret.
It [cider] was wonderful, a dark, cloudy amber, sweet and pungent and with the bite of a particularly subtle serpent to it.

She describes a white marble mausoleum:

. . . a white smear on the night…

Note strong verb and simile.

. . . his skin shivered suddenly, like a horse shedding flies.
. . . it [hair] was writhing off merrily in all directions, à la Medusa.
Her description of the hair is so much fresher than “flying out in all directions.”
. . . kissing me with sun-dusty enthusiasm and sandpaper whiskers.
. . . the lines of his face were cut deep with fatigue, the flesh beneath his eyes sagging and smudged.
. . . I was sloshing back and forth to the kitchen, kicking up the water so it sparkled like the cut-glass olive dish.
. . .they poured into the dooryard, bedraggled, sweat-soaked, and thirsty as sponges.
. . . with thin grizzled hair that he wore strained back in a plait so tight that i thought he must find it hard to blink.
. . . [bread pudding with honey] bursting sweet and creamy on the tongue…
 This simile is much fresher than sober as a judge!
. . . sober as a sheep at the time.
We climbed through a stand of quivering aspen, whose light dappled us with green and silver, and paused to scrape a blob of the crimson from a paper-white trunk.
She merely smiled at that, wide mouth curving in a way that suggested untold volumes of wicked enterprise.

Gabaldon reveals emotions exceptionally well.

[Food] had formed a solid mass that lay like iron in his stomach.
…the last of the whisky lighting his blood…
Fear snaked up her spine…
…felt his bones strain in his flesh, urgent with desire to hunt and kill the man…
…goosebumps of revulsion rose on my shoulders…
…a small uneasy feeling skittering down my backbone…
…my mind felt soggy and incapable of thought…
…comforted by the fleshy, monotonous thump [of his heart]…
…a rich tide of color surged into her face…
In A Breath of Snow and Ashes, Gabaldon writes a scene in which Claire is telling Jamie how a hoard of grasshoppers caused her to burn a field of ripe barley. I found it stunning. Here are some of the vivid images from that scene.
Diana Gabaldon quote, flew up like sparks

Advice to Writers

Pick up any book by Diana Gabaldon, read any ten pages, and learn from her language!
Diana Gabaldon Outlander Series, The Fiery Cross

Loving Diana Gabaldon

Loving Diana Gabaldon, photo by Adam Austin
Yesterday I finished reading the fifth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series—The Fiery Cross—for the second time.
The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, book five in the Outlander series
The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon


This is the one that begins in 1770, with Clare, Jamie, et al., in North Carolina—embroiled in the War of Regulation, early conflicts preceding the Revolutionary War. As with all the Gabaldon novels, it is an intriguing blend of romance, adventure, time travel, and history, with touches of the supernatural and—for want of a better word—magic. At 979 printed pages, it’s also typical Gabaldon length!


Apart from Virginia Is For Mysteries Volume II authors, Gabaldon is the only fiction writer I’ve read in months. A fellow writer at Nimrod Hall last summer, Frances Birch, was reading one of the novels and recommended it. I love series, and so when I returned home, I ordered the Outlander series on Kindle.


First I read all eight of what Gabaldon calls “The Big, Enormous Books that have no discernible genre (or all of them).” Then I started over, this time including what she calls “The Shorter, Less Indescribable Novels that are more or less historical mysteries (though dealing also with battles, eels, and mildly deviant sexual practices),” as well as “The Bulges—These being short(er) pieces that fit somewhere inside the story lines of the novels. . . These deal frequently—but not exclusively—with secondary characters, are prequels or sequels, and/or fill some lacuna left in the original story lines.” These quotes, and the reading order I followed, are on Gabaldon’s website under Chronology of the Outlander Series.


Why spend so much precious reading time on one author—let alone rereading such tomes? I reread very few authors—the exceptions being Jane Austen, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Edgar Allan Poe. But Gabaldon has mastered the combination that hooks me: intriguing, convoluted plot twists; fresh, vivid language; fascinating characters; realistic details; and emotional appeal. I could go on, but you get the idea.


Then I picked up The Outlandish Companion and became fascinated by the woman herself.


The Outlandish Companion by Diana Gabaldon, a companion book in the Outlander series
The Outlandish Companion by Diana Gabaldon


Gabaldon holds a B.S. in zoology, an M.S. in marine biology, and a Ph.D. in ecology—all of which, I believe, add richness to the amazing amount of natural history that permeates her writing. Her varied career included “butchering” seabirds, “torturing boxfish,” and writing Fortran programs to analyze the contents of bird gizzards. But the deep-seated urge to write fiction never died. It reminds me of myself, who tried my hand at poetry, humorous plays, etc. in high school but never wrote fiction again till after more than twenty-five years as a psychologist and academic!


The Outlandish Companion, Volume 2 by Diana Gabaldon, companion book in the Outlander series
The Outlandish Companion, Volume II by Diana Gabaldon


As a writer, I am amazed that Gabaldon can write such intricate plots. She has a cast of thousands—figuratively speaking. In actuality, it’s merely scores! But she manages to make characters individuals. They often disappear for a bit, but come back vividly—and still very much as they were—often as things go from bad to worse for the main character(s). She is able to cue readers to remember the character and/or relevant event without being boringly repetitious. Her historical research seems impeccable. And she has absolutely mastered flashbacks!


I admire Gabaldon for breaking all the rules. She didn’t “learn” to write fiction; she just did it. She paid no attention to genre constraints, page counts, or how she “ought to” go about it. She doesn’t start at the beginning and she doesn’t know the end when she starts. Perhaps that’s why her writing seems so fresh.


My advice to readers and writers

Get involved with Diana Gabaldon! Read her fiction, go behind the scenes in the Outlandish Companion volumes, and visit her online.
Outlander: Ep 201 - Through A Glass, Darkly
Outlander: Ep 201 – Through A Glass, Darkly
You might have heard that Starz made a television series of Outlander. Season two begins tomorrow, April 9th, with “Through a Glass, Darkly.”  It’s inspired by the events in the second book, A Dragonfly in Amber. There are lots of events going on to celebrate the books and the new series. For a short time, you can watch all the first season’s episodes for free. But I still recommend reading the books.
Diana Gabaldon at Drover's Pass in Scotland. Rothiemurchus Estate. Photo © Barbara Schnell.
Diana Gabaldon being blown over the Drover’s Pass in Scotland. Rothiemurchus Estate. Photo © Barbara Schnell. Photo shared from Diana Gabaldon’s website. Click here to visit Diana online.