Writing Native American Characters

There’s an author interview I read every Sunday in the New York Times Book Review. It’s a pretty much set in stone list of questions. One question, about what these writers read, gives me glimpses into writing practices of wildly successful writers. All writers read widely in several genres. They have their quirky likes and dislikes. One thing mentioned often is if the Famous Writer reads in the genre they are writing in while working on a book.

Some do, some don’t. I will read mysteries when I write a mystery, so I was relieved to be in good company there. My problem has never been answered in these interviews, but that’s fine, I have a mind of my own and I can figure out that there is one book–There There by Tommy Orange– I should not read while writing the current WIP. At first I thought it was essential I read it, but now I’ve changed my mind.

In my WIP, I have a sprinkling of Native American characters. I don’t have any other reason for this decision other than I see urban Indians in the town I live in. They are lives off the reservation. They are just neighbors. Well, on the surface. Their lives, their grief, their heritage and the prejudices against them go deeper than that, as did the beyond my scope of experience black characters in Lily White in Detroit. With the characters in Lily White, at least I had some knowledge of black culture from my years as a white student at a black college.  

The only truly American Indian person I know is a good friend from my pre-college days. I never thought of Jesse as Indian and he never talked about it. He was just one of us, part of the gang of friends from high school. Then years later he began to embrace his heritage and it came out in subtle (and sometimes blunt) ways. The pow wow he was attending. The regalia he’d wear. His rage over the pipeline that was meant to be built over a sacred burial site. His mixing in Indian words from his tribe in Facebook posts. Reading Tommy Orange’s book right now would certainly give me a much wider perspective of how it feels to be Native in America today. But the question is–why do I need to know for my work in progress?

When I began this book, I was sure I wouldn’t have to deal with race. It’s a tightrope for a white woman to understand what life feels like to any other person, especially if they are from another segment of society, like black or Indian. I finally figured out as I was writing this brand new book that needs so much revising that this writing experience is not the same as writing about a black cop working with a white private detective. I had to know something about black culture just to make my black police detective live on the page. For the Native Americans, things are more removed.

At first I thought I’d do a lot more with the Indian community. I read up on the natives of Florida and the 100 year war fought in Florida over the territory. I still want to visit some of their museums. I have a scene set at a casino and on a reservation in Tampa, where the powerful Seminole tribe thrives to this day. And I can still do all that, do the research and field trips required. But I’m afraid to read Tommy Orange’s book until I finish my own because I don’t want to inadvertently use any of his characterizations. There are 12 Indians and each has his or her own story in Orange’s novel. It seems like I could, without knowing, easily take something from them.

And that would make me no better than my ancestors who took much more from a people who were here in America far longer than my white ancestors had been.


Revision & Research

 

My favorite part of writing is the first draft. It’s like flying on a magic carpet inside my mind. I do not bring my inner critic along. I know she’ll be back for revision, when I need her. I finished that fun first draft in November. December I took a month off to enjoy the holidays. It’s difficult to be a friend when I’m in writer mode. My closest friends understand, but many people don’t get why I am out of touch. Here’s why: I shut myself off for hours every day and come out exhausted, my mind spent. I can do mindless things like cook dinner, sip a glass of wine, and maybe watch an episode Madam Secretary. But I do need time for the magic carpet to land before I’m worth much more than that. Lucky for me, my husband understands.

In November, I saw very few of my friends, as I worked to finish a first draft of new novel. I did take Thanksgiving Day off, but I worked harder than usual the rest of the month. It’s joyful work. I really love that first draft where a story unfolds itself onto the screen from my willing fingers dancing on the keyboard. It’s a party for one, that first draft. But, like all parties, it leaves a bit of a mess to clean up. In December I avoided my messy first draft and saw all my friends, some more than once. I went out to dinner, to parties, to lunch. I shopped and gabbed on the phone. I was the social version of Cindy. I didn’t miss writing because I still got up every day and wrote morning pages which is pen to paper and a habit I love. I do those pages while having tea. It’s a wake up ritual where I sometimes plan my day, sometimes complain, sometimes make a gratitude list. 

Come January, I was ready to revise. I take revision in steps. First there’s the big picture. Is my plot tight with just the right amount of digression to make it quirky but not too much to bog it down? Are my characters fully realized? Is there conflict? Does my murderer have motivation, means and opportunity? Do a few other characters have some of that too? Are any important characters stereotypes without their own personality and flair? Yes to all the above. It happens every time. That’s okay. I figure out which characters need work and the rest of it, too. 

With bad guys, they need to be really bad and their motivation has to be more than “he’s a psyco” ~ Motivation needs to be personal and complicated, like people are complicated. Murder is seldom random. Seldom committed by a stranger to the victim. It happens. But not in my books. I want the killer there in the midst of the characters, hiding in plain sight. The other thing I do with my murderer is write his story of “why” and “how” in his own words. That doesn’t show up in the book, but it helps make the book better, just because I know exactly what the killer knows. I like research, so I bought a few books to help me with the two characters I knew needed work in the new book. The first was my villain who really is not “superbad” as he needs to be. So Sasha Black, I’m counting on you to clue me in.

img_5102The second character I knew I’d glossed over because the reader only sees her once. She’s an FBI agent involved with a main character and I kind of wanted to keep her hidden because I did so much research on police detectives and procedures plus everything about being a PI in my last novel. So I felt like hell no I don’t want to research the FBI. But really I couldn’t have the book I wanted without doing the work. I didn’t have an easy time tracking down any FBI books. I was ready for FBI for Dummies but found this instead. I’ll be reading both of these books and fleshing out these characters as the next step in my revision process.

Funny how a first draft flies for me. I can literally write one in a month. But it takes a year or more to revise that first draft. That wonderfully chaotic and rushing world will change, gain depth, but still keeps its boyant fervor. First drafts take a month, finished drafts take a year. Or more. I love every single part of the process. Even fully rounding a previously flat FBI agent.  

What’s Next?

The writers sit around a kitchen table. There are four of us and we take turns hosting. The host provides breakfast and then we get to work. We are all novelists and have been together for 7 or 8 years. In that time, all our members have published, most of us several times over. And as Bob remarked at Saturday mornings’ meeting, we’ve all become better writers in the process.

Luck played a part in the four of us coming together, because we each have different strengths. It’s helpful that we are two women and two men. Also helpful that our spouses all encourage us in our meetings. Indeed, Tom at one point was working long hours, didn’t have much time to write, and considered quitting the group. His wife would not allow it, telling him he needed us. We are grateful because we need him too.

We have a routine with the coffee and chat at 9 am, then breakfast, then work (we go through a chapter or scene received a week prior page by page). After we’ve finished the critiques, which include side discussions of plot or other big picture things, it’s noon or later. This past Saturday we got into a writerly conversation after the critiques. Basically we went around the table with the question “What’s next?”

When we started only Bob was retired, now everybody is except Tom. We write books, yes, but that’s our pleasure. We are doing what we couldn’t wait to get to. But things have changed through the years and we’re each facing new challenges. Vernie is on the last of her four book fantasy series and she’s near the end. Tom has begun a promising novella, but work stops him from writing as much as he’d like. Still, with each session, he moves the plot forward an inch. Bob is revising an old manuscript we’ve all read before, and I’m revising my St Pete novel. None of have any idea of what we’ll do next.

I know a few things. 2019 will be the last year I’m able to meet regularly with my group. In 2020, Al and I hope to spend six months in Florida and travel, too. We have two houses: one too big and one too small. So we’ll be looking to sell both and buy something just right.To my surprise, I am fine with ending my book writing career, if it proves too difficult to continue in this next chapter of real life. Writing a novel takes several hours a day for several months in a quiet place. I’m not sure I’ll have that when Al retires. He’s worked at the same place for 47 years, so retirement will be a big adjustment for him, too.

I’ve been writing novels for a long time too. Several practice novels and then the published ones. I feel like it’s okay to stop now. I’ve written my share of books. If I include my poetry chapbook and the writing manual, plus this novel I’m going to polish before Al retires, it will be an even dozen. I’m satisfied, ready to move onto the next chapter of my real life. I know writing will always be there, even novel writing, if I want it. I plan to keep blogging and the website will be here. I may write flash fiction and just publish on the website. That’s my idea for “what’s next?” right now.

Anything can happen, and it will. Life is an adventure. Everything I think I know, every plan I ever make, shifts in some ways before it ends. Adventures, like novels, are always unpredictable. That’s the fun of it all.

Free Creative Writing Manual

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I have been wanting to have one of my books on my website in a free PDF format for a long time. I have published ten books and some of them are still under contract with my publisher. That’s fine, I have a a few self-published books and they are mine to use as I see fit. I decided since this site is all about writing, the logical choice is my first book, which is a creative writing memoir and manual.

In this book I was trying to do something that would help my creative writing students, who wanted to write all sorts of things: song lyrics and scriptwriting were the two most popular The way I structured my creative writing classes, my prime goal was to have everyone write a completed project, something that they could publish. And I wanted it to be of their own choice, whatever form. There was no book for that, so I wrote it.

I have no evidence of this, but I believe many writers search around a bit before they find their chosen form. I started with song lyrics and poetry, went on to short stories, dabbled in book reviewing, blogged my heart out and tried again and again to write a novel. So I had some experience in many of my students’ chosen forms. Not scriptwriting, but I had read screenwriting books by Linda Seger because they work for novelists too. I still dip into Seger’s Making a Good Character Great when I need inspiration.

Another thing that helped me teach creative writing was the number of workshops and conferences I’d been to, not to mention all the books I’d read on how to write. There’s a list of the best of those how-to books at the end of the book. The reason I say it’s a “memoir/manual” is because I wove my own writing experiences and some of my writing to use as examples through the book. I covered a lot of ground.

Just last weekend, I was at a conference and mentioned I was putting my writing manual permanently free on my website. She said “That’s the book I need” so I gave her a card. I hope for some of you, this might be the book you need, too. You can find a link to the PDF on the first page and on the book page, too.

Ways to Renew Your Writing Spirit

IMG-4881I am spiritual, although my journey has been interrupted for a few years while I fretted and fumed about the state of the material world, politics, how unloved I felt and what ranking my new novel had on Amazon. These were some of the dark concerns that drew me away from my spiritual practices.

Enter my dear friend and fellow writer, Weam Namou. Weam is many things: a writer, a filmmaker, a journalist, a cable news host, a wife and mother. She is also a teacher and a healer. To that end she organized a spiritual retreat this past weekend. Her program, The Path of Consciousness, brought together many workshop leaders in a beautiful setting for three days of practicing both writing and matters of the spirit. These teachers showed participants how to blend the two. I never knew how to marry spirit and writing, or if I did, I forgot. This retreat was just what I needed.

My day of spiritual renewal started with a vision board workshop with Sonya Julie. I have done vision boards for my novels and vision portfolios for my home and work life. When you are attracted to something, envision it as part of your life. There’s a good chance it will manifest. To keep the vision front and center, have a visual reference. Sonya brought magazines, glue sticks, scissors and colored pens—as well as index cards—for each of us to create a vision card. The card I made in her class became my motif for the day.

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Next class went for a walk in the woods with Patty Shaw. She used the root chakra to help us drop what was holding us back so we could move forward into the new. We stood still before a set of steps that led down into the woods and felt the negative energies we held so tightly inside gather in the root of our body. Then we went down the path into the woods where we dropped the negative energy into the earth where it dissipated. Next we filled ourselves with the good in nature and emerged from the dark path into the light. The was more on this walk but that moment, when I let go of so much negativity, was life-changing.

I didn’t really get how writing and spirit worked together until a sacred experience in meditation class. We did a guided mediation with the third eye chakra (indigo blue) and the sacral chakra (orange). Heather Rae, owner of Little Lotus Wellness Studio in Ferndale, instructed us to envision the third eye and color as the higher creative spirit inside and the lower sacral chakra and color as the birth of creativity. She had us envision passing from one to the next, pouring into and feeding each other.

I did not expect what happened next.

As I envisioned this chakra energy as colors, it began to wind through me and I could see in my mind’s eye that, as the colors met, they blended. It was like I had a circle of energy passing through me and even out into the air. It was amazing. I felt totally refreshed after that. I saw how writing and spirit co-exist.

Weam herself taught the last workshop. I have been journaling for many years. It’s my firmest ritual, and I’ve come to depend on it to ground me at the beginning of every day. Still, my routine had become a bit, well, routine. I was going through the motions but nothing was happening on an energetic, spiritual or even creative writing level. Yes, I was clearing a path, but perhaps Weam could show me how to do more with this beloved practice.

The best advice for me, and I feel it will energize and recharge my morning pages, is that when I notice my writing (this is free writing, so nothing that you’d publish or even share) gets bogged down with negatives, to turn it around with a question. “Why am I feeling so hopeless?” for example. Next, quickly write down ten reasons why you may be feeling less than positive. I have a list. It starts with politics and ends with gender bias with a slab of sexual violence toward women in between. Where do I get all this from? Another list…television, social media, print media, books, conversation. How to heal this negativity? Pretty easy. Limit television news. Choose friends wisely and keep books and media positive.

It has not been lost on me that my biggest obstacle in this life is fear. Fear is also the name of a book currently on my Kindle. I’m not going to put my head in the sand, but I am going to work on balancing my life by being more focused on the spiritual. Spirit is what has been lacking. It’s always been there, but I’ve ignored it in favor of worldly chaos.

One thing Weam said makes so much sense. “Look deeper into your negative patterns of thought. What is in your home? What is on your phone? Your television? What kind of pictures are on your walls?”

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Weam pointed out that there are metaphors for what we need to heal everywhere. For me that’s especially true in my home. I’ve worked really hard to make my home reflect my spirit. But I could do more. So I brought out my crystals and singing bowl from where they were tucked away on a shelf and put them front and center in my writing room. I turned off the television and turned inward. And as I hoped it would, this retreat into spirit has unburdened my soul and renewed me for the journey ahead.