Writing Carries Metamessages. Are You Aware?

The January-February issue of Smithsonian included a two-page spread about books whose heroines changed lives. “The bravest and brainiest girls in literature have been breaking the rules for 150 years.” This resonated with me. Consider the metamessages contained in works of fiction.
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
You may recall that I recently blogged about fantasy fiction. At the urging of my 13-year-old granddaughter, I agreed to read the Sarah J. Maas Throne of Glass series. It’s fantasy fiction, complete with diabolical evils, biologically created monsters, witches, Fae heroes, magical powers, and a driving determination to save the world. The female protagonist is a trained assassin.
throne glass maas
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
After I finished the series, I talked with my daughter about the metamessages her daughter was likely absorbing from this series. Here, in no particular order, are the points I raised.


—Women can be as strong, capable, super smart, and evil/vicious as any male.
—Men can/should follow a capable woman leader.
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
—Men can/do admire/love women who are smarter/more capable than they are in at least some ways.
—There isn’t just one person to love. If you lose a love, you can love another.
—The person one loves in youth or in a certain circumstance isn’t likely to be the love of one’s life/soul mate as an adult.
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
—Former enemies can become allies or even friends.
—Men and women can be allies and friends even without a love interest.
—Sex should be a loving act, intentional rather than just happen.
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
—One can go through some really shitty situations and thrive later.
—Those who are different (witches, Fae, etc., in this series) are accepted or not based on behavior.
—Good people can do bad things or make mistakes.
—Life circumstances are powerful. Bad beginnings can be overcome.
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
On the other hand, not all the messages are sterling, feminist, humanist values.
All heroines and heroes are gorgeous! And usually have special/magical powers.
The ends justify the means.
Violence is a way of life.
[Source: Goodreads]
[Source: Goodreads]
No doubt Maas intended at least some of these messages. But all of them? Sometimes readers see things in my work that I didn’t plant intentionally. Bottom line: As a reader AND/OR writer, be aware of the metamessages in literature. What seeds are you planting? What “truths” are you absorbing?

Creative Nonfiction = Literary Nonfiction = Narrative Nonfiction

naked drunk writing adair lara
I bought this book recently because I’ve enrolled in Creative Nonfiction, a class that begins later this month at the VMFA Studio School. I haven’t taken a writing class in years, but why not?


Once upon a time I took a class with a title something like “Writing Memoir Using Fiction Techniques.” It was a great class. And now there is a whole genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives written to entertain. There’s quite a good Wikipedia essay about it, and/or you can check out www.creativenonfiction.org.


Once I started thinking about it, I realized how much of my pleasure reading is some version of creative nonfiction.


Dean King is a Richmond writer who is a master of the form. He brings history to life, whether he’s writing about a shipwreck off the coast of Africa in 1815 or the legendary American Hatfields and McCoys.


Three of my other favorites are Bill Bryson, Charles Panati, and Mary Roach.


Charles panati books
Each is an educator in his or her own fashion. Panati gathers fascinating bits and pieces, often organized around quirky themes.


mary roach books
Mary Roach researches current themes and issues, including their historical roots and cross-cultural connections. And she’s humorous!


bill bryson books
Bill Bryson varies between historical research (e.g., Mother Tongue) and personal experience (e.g., A Walk in the Woods).


And then there are the personal adventure stories. The first of these I read was Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille about living alone in the Adirondacks, isolated by winter.
woodswoman anne lebastille
The next creative nonfiction book on my agenda will probably be Wild (2013) by Cheryl Strayed. Obviously, I don’t jump on the lists of just published books! But I expect a thrilling read.
wild cheryl strayed
Bottom line: Creative nonfiction can be as varied as fiction. And why not try writing a genre I so enjoy reading? I’ll keep you posted.

Read This Book!

meatballs people gary sotomeatballs people gary soto
It’s a fast, pithy read. The book is small enough to carry virtually anywhere: 6” x 4” x 3/8” and 141 pp. and every one of those pages has a lot of white space.


read book meatballs people gary soto
According to Soto, “[Proverbs] don’t take effort to read. They are not riddles or cagey games, but do require an ‘aha’ moment.” Here are some of his proverbs I especially like.


If you plant a garden
Get ready to weed
You become corrupt
In increments
In love with his baritone voice
The politician
Believes what he says
A backbone
Is more useful
Than a wishbone
As Soto so aptly observed in his preface to this book, “Also, proverbs, in all languages and over the centuries, are quips that speak of our human nature.”


Gary Soto is of Mexican-American heritage. His work has taken him from the fields of the San Joaquin Valley to his literary life in Berkeley, California. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley and at University of California, Riverside. You can read about his awards and achievements in Wikipedia and visit his website at garysoto.com.


gary soto 2001 national book festival
Gary Soto’s literary oeuvre is as varied as it is extensive, including 14 poetry collections, 21 books for children/young adults, a series of children’s picture books in Spanish and English featuring a cat named Chato, 8 memoirs, 1 play, 2 films, and 4 edited volumes.


gary soto meatballs people
Meatballs for the People: Proverbs to Chew On (Red Hen Press, 2017) can be found in the poetry section.


“You can always spot bright people. They are reading a book.” Gary Soto.

Armchair Tourism Made Easy!

Great books have been set in every state—and the District of Columbia—and there are numerous sites out there that will tell you what they are. I’ve chosen three recent ones and summarized them for you here.


Reader’s Digest sought to identify the most iconic book set in every state. They note that “Literature is often a source of state pride, with a vast array of novels set in and around each of the great 50 states. With this list, you can tour the entire country—without leaving home.” These iconic book choices are indicated in the following list by RD.
Business Insider scoured the internet and surveyed colleagues to round up the most famous book that takes place in each state in America. Their choices are indicated by BI.
Travel & Leisure compiled a list of the best books based in every state and DC. They “selected the best books based in every state by looking for titles that almost use their state as another character. The setting is so deeply entwined with theses texts, the story couldn’t even exist in another place or time. In the listings below, their choices are designated by TL.
to kill a mockingbird harper lee
Alabama: RD, BI, TL all chose To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harper Lee.


Alaska: RD, BI, TL all chose Into the Wild, Jon Krakaur


jon krakauer into the wild
Arizona: RD = Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy; BI = The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver; TL = Here and Gone, Haylen Beck


Arkansas: RD & TL = I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou; BI = A Painted House, John Grisham


California: RD & BI = East of Eden, John Steinbeck; TL = Big Sur, Jack Kerouac


stephen king the shining
Colorado: RD, BI, TL all chose The Shining, Stephen King
Connecticut: RD = The Stepford Wives, Ira LevinBI = Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates; TL = White Fur, Jardine Libaire


Delaware: RD = Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk; BI  = The Saint of Lost Things, Christopher Castellani; TL = A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin, Karen Hesse
Florida: RD = Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston; BI = To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway; TL = Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo


gone with the wind margaret mitchell
Georgia: RD, BI, TL all chose Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell


Hawaii: RD & TL = The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings; BI = Hawaii, James Mitchner


Idaho: RD = The Stand, Stephen King; BI = Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson; TL = The Sheep Queen, Thomas Savage


Illinois: BI & TL = The Jungle, Upton Sinclair; RD = Divergent, Veronica Roth


Indiana: RD = The Fault in Our Stars, John Green; BI = The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington; TL = All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven


Iowa: RD & BI = A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley; LT = The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller


Kansas: RD & BI = The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum; TL = In Cold Blood, Truman Capote


Kentucky: BI & TL = Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; RD = Beloved, Toni Morrison


Louisiana: RD & BI = Interview With the Vampire, Anne Rice; TL = The Awakening, Kate Chopin


Maine: RD & BI = Carrie, Stephen King; TL = The Cider House Rules, John Irving


Maryland: RD = Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brashares; BI = Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler; TL = The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler


Massachusetts: RD & BI = Walden, Henry David Thoreau; TL = The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne


Michigan: RD = Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides; BI = The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides; TL = Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell


Minnesota: RD & BI = Main Street, Sinclair Lewis; TL = On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder


Mississippi: RD = The Help, Kathryn Stockett; BI = The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner; TL = Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor


Missouri: RD & BI = The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain; TL = The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain


a river runs trhough it norman maclean
Montana: RD, BI, TL all chose A River Runs Through It and other stories, Norman Maclean


Nebraska: RD & TL = Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell; BI = My Antonia, Willa Cather


fear and loathing in las vegas
Nevada: RD, BI, TL all chose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson


New Hampshire: RD & BI = The Hotel New Hampshire, John Irving; TL = Frindle, Andrew Clements


New Jersey: RD = Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume; BI = Drown, Junot Diaz; TL = The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz


New Mexico: RD = Brave New World, Aldous Huxley; BI = Red Sky at Morning, Richard Bradford; TL = The Green Sea Glass, Ellen Klages


New York: RD & BI = The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald; TL = A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith


North Carolina: RD & BI = A Walk to Remember, Nicholas Sparks; TL = The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks


North Dakota: RD & BI =The Round House, Louise Erdrich; TL = Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Larry Woiwode


Ohio: RD = Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Small Town Ohio Life, Sherwood Anderson; BI = The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace; TL = Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng


Oklahoma: RD = The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton; BI = Paradise, Toni Morrison; TL = The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck


Oregon: RD = Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, Cheryl Strayed; BI = One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey; TL = The Jump-Off Creek, Molly Gloss


Pennsylvania: RD & BI = The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold; TL = Maniac Magee, Jerry Spinelli


Rhode Island: RD = She’s Come Undone, Wally Lamb; BI = My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult; TL = The Witches of Eastwick, John Updike


South Carolina: RD = Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison; BI = The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd; TL = The Summer Girls, Mary Alice Monroe


South Dakota: RD = Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder; BI = A Long Way From Home, Tom Brokaw; TL = The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, Ann Weisgarber


Tennessee: RD & BI = The Client, John Grisham; TL = The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris


Texas: RD & BI = No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy; TL = Holes, Louise Sachar


Utah: BI & TL = The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff; RD = Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer


Vermont: RD & BI = Pollyanna, Eleanor H. Porter; TL =  All the Best People, Sonja Yoerg


Virginia: BI & TL = Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Patterson; RD = Flowers in the Attic, V. C. Andrews


Washington: RD & BI = Twilight, Stephenie Meyer; TL = Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson


Washington, DC: BI = The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown; TL = Lost in the City, Edward P. Jones; RD did not list DC


West Virginia: RD = Freedom, Jonathan Franzen;  BI = Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor; TL = The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls


Wisconsin: RD = The Deep End of the Ocean, Jacquelyn Mitchard; BI = Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder; TL = A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick


Wyoming: RD & BI = The Laramie Project, Moisés Kaufman and Members of the Tectonic Theater Project; TL = Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx
armchair tourism made easy
So, what say you? Are these the books you would choose for your state(s)?

New Genre for the New Year

new genre new year maas

I was about to start this blog by talking about how I’ve never been a big fan of fantasy—but then realized I should say more truthfully that I’ve not been reading fantasy recently.


new genre new year lang book spines
I went through a period some decades ago when I read fairytales. I sought out the non-Disney versions—for example, Cinderella in which the wicked stepsisters cut off their toes or heels in order to try to fit into the glass slipper. Do fairytales count? YES! If you google “fantasy” (besides fantasy football) you’ll get links to science fiction, speculative fiction, fairytales, anime, science fantasy, legend, and horror, animation, myth, manga, cartoon, etc.
new genre new year alices adventures wonderland through looking glass
Fantasy is a genre of fiction set in a fictional universe, often—but not always—without any locations, events, or people referencing the real world. Its roots are in oral traditions, which then developed into literature and drama. There was a time when my husband and I read aloud to each other from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, sometimes laughing so hard we could hardly read.


new genre new year ursula le gun
And Ursula Le Guin counts! She was a favorite during my science fiction phase.


new genre new year harry potter
More recently, I really didn’t appreciate Harry Potter, though recommended by my daughter and granddaughters. (I know: shocking!) However, during a recent visit, these same granddaughters (now 13 and 10) gave me new recommendations.


new genre new year wings books
The younger one has read all ten volumes of  Wings of Fire. This is her favorite series. Dragons are big time. But she also recommends Monstress by Marjorie Liu (author) and Sana Takeda (illustrator).
new genre new year monstress
This is like a hardbound comic book, so quite a fast read. Is this different from a graphic novel? (Kindle references comiXology. Who knew?)


new genre new year
The books in this series are set in 1900s Asia and tells the story of a teenage girl who struggles to survive the trauma of war. She shares a mysterious psychic link with an enormously powerful monster. Both the girl and the monster are transformed by this connection.
new genre new year sara maas throne glass
The 13-year-old’s absolute favorite author is Sarah J. Maas. Maas is a NYT best-selling author of the Thrown of Glass series. In this series, a beautiful young assassin is the protagonist. She’s a bit like a female James Bond in terms of abilities that border on superpowers. She has a tragic past that garners sympathy, beauty and honor that make her appealing, a temper and murders to make her flawed. Maas uses great visual imagery. And the stories involve mysteries of the dark powers and lost magic. Throw in an arch enemy and two love interests, and what’s not to like?


new genre new year maas
mass new genre new year
She currently has 3 books in a second series and at least the beginning of a third series. Catwoman: Soulstealer (DC icon series) is due out in August of this year.


new genre new year catwoman sarah maas
Bottom line: Revisit some version of fantasy in 2018. Whether classic or modern, dipping into an alternate world broadens one’s thinking.

Top Literary Posts About 2017

top literary posts 2017

It’s the end of the year, which means everyone is posting their “Top ___ of 2017” lists. Among them, of course, are the lists for readers. After seeing these posts left and right, I’ve collected a few to make a masterpost. Enjoy!

And, as an added bonus:

Whatever your “reading about reading” preference, make it a goal to make 2018 a great year for reading!

Wanted: A Book You Can Put Down

It’s almost a truism that “I couldn’t put it down” is about as high praise as a book can get. And yet, it might not always be the highest recommendation!


wanted book can put sinco christy esmahan
Right now, I’m reading Sinco: A Love Story Set in Spain, the second book in the Cantabria American School series. Bueno, the first book in the series, was part of my reading for Spain. I wrote about it after I returned.
[Source: Amazon]
But back to Sinco. The characters remain the same as in Bueno, with all their individual concerns, fears, and grudges. Some characters are brought to new prominence, others have faded a bit, but the point is, it is a smooth continuation of the plight of struggling young first-time private school director Harvey Jones.


His nemises at the school have nicknamed him Sinco because when Jones is pronounced in the Spanish way, it becomes Sin Cojones. These enemies are becoming ever more vindictive and plotting.


The book is funny, full of human foibles, and steeped in Spanish culture. It’s a good read.


And I can put it down at any time! Indeed, I’ve done so several times times recently. And this is a good thing! This is a hectic time for me—as for many—so I treasure a book I can pick up for a few minutes or an hour, put aside, and not struggle to get back into the story when I pick it up again.


For your holiday reading pleasure, I recommend Sinco, a book you can put down!

Thankful for Books—

—AND THE ABILITY AND TIME TO READ THEM!  Although the book mentioned here are Thanksgiving themed, they are good reads any time.


Thankful for books thanksgiving turkey
Murder and mayhem. Janet Evanovich has three Thanksgiving themed mysteries: Thanksgiving, Foul Play, and The Grand Finale. Apparently Evanovich knows the potential of holidays for drama!


Also, Thanksgiving Angels: A Mercy Allcutt Mystery by Alice Duncan.


For more options, click here!
thankful for books thanksgiving
Otherwise, here are some suggestions from Goodreads readers.
  • Thanksgiving Night by Richard Bausch
  • The Ghost at the Table: A Novel by Susanne Berne
  • The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
  • A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler
  • Thanksgiving by Michael Dibdin
  • A Thanksgiving Miracle by Wells Earl Draughon
  • The Thanksgiving Virgin by Charles Haas



thankful for books turkey
  • An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving by Louisa May Alcott
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
thankful for books silver turkey
BOTTOM LINE: Be thankful for online searches, for you can find Thanksgiving books for all ages and genres!
thankful for books happy thanksgiving

Two Novels Set in Spain

By the time you read this, I will be in Spain—and maybe I will have read these books by now. But I bought them for the trip and I’m writing this before departure, so I’ll tell you why they’re with me (on Kindle).


sedella story spanish village
[Source: Amazon]
Sedella: The Story of a Spanish Village by John Hardy is (according to its Amazon blurb) “a romantic historical novel about an Andalucian village, from prehistoric times to the present day… Each of the historical chapters is in two parts. The first part is a fairly factual account of the relevant time, though some of these facts may be slightly altered in time, etc., to fit the story. The second part of the chapter is a story set around these historical events.” Two things drew me in: historical novel and romance. It should be light reading plus a little education.
bueno christy esmahan
[Source: Amazon]
Bueno: A Love Story Set in Spain by Christy Esmahan made the cut because (1) it has a 4.5 out of 5-star rating; (2) it has food scenes; (3) the protagonist is a teacher; and (4) it’s a romance—which promises, light reading and a happy ending.


I’ll let you know how they turn out!

Reading in Bits and Pieces

cave dwelling vegan quaker slavery
I’m always in the midst of one book or another, but I’ve recently come to appreciate all the rich reading out there that comes in small portions.


For example, the September issue of Smithsonian Magazine included an article about Benjamin Lay, “The nation’s first radical abolitionist [who] was one of the most dramatic outspoken figures of the 18th Century.” After I got over my surprise that Quakers ever owned slaves, I was truly impressed by the ways he sought to call attention to the hypocrisy of Christians who embraced the Golden Rule but owned other human beings. He could have put P.T. Barnum to shame for showmanship! Read it if you can.


mystery most historical virginia mysteries
I’ve now published three short-story mysteries set during the (American) Civil War. L—R, The Tredegar Murders, Death Comes to Hollywood Cemetery, and War and Murder at Nimrod Hall. So it’s no wonder an article in the summer quarterly issue of Military Images caught my eye.
deaf prince art war
Although the article is primarily a biographical sketch of Prince de Joinville, it also mentions other prominent figures who fought in spite of deafness. “Deafness did not deter men from serving as combatants and noncombatants on both sides of the Civil War.” So, we can often find information on some seldom-considered aspect of a well-known event…
all female motorcycle club mission lynchburg
…or a seldom-considered aspect of a familiar pastime. Such is the case with last Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch article on a current all-female motorcycle club in Lynchburg. Such articles are natural prompts for fiction writers.


Many membership organizations send out periodic newsletters or magazines. The Bath County Historical Society recently printed a copy of a 1916 receipt from The Homestead that puts 100 years of inflation in perspective!


virginia hot springs company
Meanwhile, Intelligence Report  (published by the Southern Poverty Law Center) published articles on racism in the Mormon Church as well as the return of violent black nationalism. Such articles are full of information and examples that can be of use to writers.
The same is true of articles on health care and wellness—and such articles can turn up anywhere, from alumni magazines to The New Yorker!
Did you know that there are dentists who make house calls? Have you ever given a thought to why such a specialist might be needed? Read this article and share my newly acquired enlightenment!
invasion equation
One of the joys of some New Yorker  articles (such as this one from the September ll issue) is that the opening paragraphs give no clue to where the article will end up. “The Invasion Equation” begins with the clarifying of Lake Michigan’s waters and the invasion of two types of mollusks. The tie in between the opening and the discussion of cancer’s metastases is that “An aggressor in one environment is a placid resident in another.” If you’ve had cancer, know someone who has had it, or are just plain curious, this article’s for you.
reading bits pieces how save seeds
BOTTOM LINE: Articles can give quick and easy access to information, ideas, and examples useful to writers—not to mention enhancing dinner table conversation!