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Margaret Ann Spence > BLOG > My Writing

The Art of Fiction

Until I started writing novels, I did not realize this. Fiction is made up. It is not autobiography.

I was reminded of this the other day when a friend asked if I had had the experiences I describe in my books. And again, when at a book festival recently, a panel of authors was asked the same question.

No, a panelist replied. I am not a suicide bomber. (One of her protagonists.) No, I replied to my friend. But I had a caveat. When one gets to our age, we’ve had so many experiences, read of so many bizarre situations, have come across so many weird circumstances in the lives of those we’ve met, that “experience” may not be personal, yet it gets immersed in a writer’s thoughts.

How does a writer come up with an idea for a novel?

Camilla, in my novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, is the daughter of a physician who is also a clergyman. I did not know one could be both, but in England, where Lipstick is partially set, it is possible. A few years ago, I met a man who held both jobs simultaneously. What kind of person, I wondered, would choose two professions which embodied so much power over others?

And what, I wondered, would it be like to be the daughter of such a man? How could a daughter ever measure up? And how easily she could be shamed.

So Camilla was born, her conflict driven by the impossible demands for perfection by her father. Worse, her adult life was shadowed by his disapproval of her teenage love affair, making future relationships difficult. How Camilla comes to true adulthood by learning that her father was himself flawed, and therefore able to be forgiven, is how the story plays out.

On May 6, I was delighted to learn that Lipstick on the Strawberry was a finalist in the 2019 Eric Hoffer Awards. The award highlights excellence in books published by academic, small press, and independent publishers, including self-publishers.

Now on to the next book, which is in the revision stages! That too, started with an idea, and then characters who would not let me alone. More on that in future posts.

Indigo

As part of my foray into the natural world for research for my new novel, the other weekend I learned all about dyeing with colors derived from plants.

I attended the “Indigo Colloquium” at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden.

Why indigo, I wondered as I signed up? What is it about that particular color that attracts such interest?

Turns out indigo is the color of denim. And since over a billion pairs of blue jeans are sold every year, how they are colored is important commercially and environmentally.

Coming at the subject from a level of complete ignorance, I learned that weekend that many plants throughout the world produce the color blue. Remember woad? If you were taught history in the dark ages as I was, you may remember that the Celtic warriors who opposed the troops of Julius Caesar when he invaded Britain terrified the soldiers because their faces were painted a fierce blue from the woad plant.

Woad (isatis tinctoria) is now considered an invasive weed in California. But it can be grown in home gardens to produce the blue dye.

Indigo, however, produces a stronger blue. Hundreds of different plants producing the color indigo are grown throughout the world, and the most popular for dyeing is persicaria tinctoria, otherwise known as polygonum tinctorium. The common term is Japanese indigo.

Indigo is a dye that adheres to the textile without the use of mordants. That’s a fixative produced by alum,iron, copper,or tannic acid often mixed with an acid like vinegar. For that reason, working with leaf-based indigo is safer for the home dyer.

I love the idea that over hundreds if not thousands of years, people have experimented with creating gorgeous color from plants that grown nearby. The process is a series of chemical reactions to release the color from the plant. For the home dyer, this involves heating the harvested leaves in a pot of distilled or rainwater to release the indican in the leaves, and adding a base such as baking soda, washing soda or ammonia to increase the pH to 8 or 9, which helps the hydrolysis of the indican to produce the molecule indoxyl. Then air is introduced to the mix, allowing the indoxyl to combine with oxygen to produce indigo. Finally, in order to make the color water soluble the mixture is reduced over heat with the addition of thiourea dioxide (helpfully available from the drug or craft store as Rit Color Remover). Add your previously wetted fabric to the dye for up to fifteen minutes, lift out carefully and hang to dry. The exposure to air makes the dye color fast and produces the final blue.

The color changes in the dye-in-process are fascinating. The flowers of the plant are actually pink. The composted or heated leaf brew is reddish-brown. Adding the alkali produces a yellow color, and agitating it to add air turns it to green. As the reduction process happens, and you add your fabric, your textile appears yellow green. Taking it out of the dye bath and hanging it up exposed to air turns it first turquoise, then indigo blue.

Indigo can also be produced synthetically. However, this is a petroleum based product (from benzene) and so toxic that synthetic indigo dye is no longer produced in this country. Most of the jeans sold in the world today are colored with synthetic dye made in China.

Some researchers have created a microbiology-based indigo by gene transfer from persicaria tinctoria into ecoli. It may be commercially viable in the future, but so far indigo manufactured through microbiology has not proven cost-effective.

But for now, there’s an opportunity for the revival of dyeing with natural sources of indigo to become a real alternative to synthetic dyes. If enough farmers can be persuaded to grow the indigo plants so that minimal dye batch sizes of consistent color are produced, then clothes manufacturers will be interested.

That’s the hope anyway.

In the meantime, I now know how to work the process of cloth dyeing into my story, in which there’s tension between old ways of doing things as rediscovered by a group of ageing hippies in Northern California, and the encroaching modern world. Can the old be made new again? As I learned, that is very possibly fact, not fiction.

Snow Days

Winter has much of the nation still in its grip. My many years in Boston, where snow and ice slushed and slicked the city till well into March, inspired the snow scene in Lipstick on the Strawberry. In this excerpt, my protagonist, Camilla, has just had a disastrous date.

I took the train to my stop and scurried down the two blocks to my apartment building. Dirty mounds of ice lined the street, partially obscuring the fire hydrants, so I panicked for a second about the possibility of fire in my neighborhood and wondered how quickly firefighters could knock off the ice to open the flow of water. I stumbled and nearly fell as a rocky mound impeded my way, ruining my dress shoes as I clambered over it. Trembling as I fitted the key in the lock, I slammed the door behind me and leaned against it, breathing heavily. In a few seconds, my hands and feet began to sting as the blood vessels expanded in the warmth of the foyer. Pain needled my extremities, then seemed to extend into my brain. Tears sprung into my eyes, and I knew I would just have to endure the agony until it passed.

Those needles in the fingers and toes I remember so well. While the snow scene might represent Camilla’s mood at the time – alone, frozen, frightened, – a month or so later she’s in a garden.

A gentle breeze carried the sweet scent of grass as the air warmed around us. Across the green lawn, a cherry tree spread its arms wide, clothed in a crinoline of the palest pink blossoms. Renewal. It could happen. Did.

Redemption. Another chance. All along, under the frozen earth, the ground is being prepared for warmer days, better times. Blossom will hang from the trees like confetti. It will happen.

February holds the promise of spring. Savor the cusp of the season with a book. Lipstick on the Strawberry is on sale for 99¢ through March 1.

Lipstick on the Strawberry-

Kindle Edition
iBooks Edition
NOOK Edition

Women’s Fiction: The Power of Sisterhood

The Women’s Fiction Writers Association is a nation-wide, online group offering connection, classes, critique groups, and other helpful programs for authors. It also offers two annual competitions: The Star Award for published books of women’s fiction, and the Rising Star Award, for unpublished novels. Last year I was a judge for the Rising Star Award and enjoyed it so much that I volunteered to judge this year’s Star Award. It’s a lot of reading, but that’s what I do.

This week, I’m teaming up with two other Arizona based members of WFWA to offer a 99¢ ebook sale of our books. My novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, is on sale through March 1, and Susan Haught’s and Katie O’Rourke’s books will go on sale February 19-25th. I’ll interview these writers this week on my blog.

Happy reading!

Some Thoughts on Strawberries

Lipstick on the Strawberry – the ebook: 99¢ Valentine’s Sale!


Maybe it is its red color, but I associate Valentine’s Day with the strawberry. The taste, a combination of the sweet and the tart, might be a truer metaphor for relationship than gooey chocolate.

Toward the end of last year, I planted strawberries. Previously they had done well when planted in a pot, but this new year’s bunch appeared slightly chewed by an inhabitant of the in-ground bed. The insect abandoned the fruit after a couple of munches. Served it right for not waiting till it reached full, juicy ripeness.

My photo shows the strawberries in their bed, ripening. In my novel, Hannah, a food stylist hired by my catering protagonist, Camilla, startles her at the job interview by seizing a lipstick and swiping an unripe strawberry with it. I wrote the scene before I had a final title for my book. But, I realized, this is a metaphor for the story. The perfect exterior is a façade, hiding something not quite so ideal underneath. That’s what Camilla finds when she goes home for her father’s
funeral, meets her first love, and tries to mend bridges with her distant, diffident siblings. Her father’s rejection of her as a teenager led to a lifetime of self-doubt, but his death uncovers secret after family secret.

The ebook sale of Lipstick on the Strawberry starts Friday, February 15th (I know, the day after Valentine’s, but my publisher always has sales start Fridays). I hope you’ll enjoy my bitter-sweet story, as you savor whatever Valentine’s has in store for you.

And in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day on Thursday, I’ll be publishing some strawberry recipes from Camilla’s recipe index. Enjoy!

First Anniversary Sale!

Ever since I was a kid who wrote a “novel” in a blue exercise book, complete with hand-done drawings, I wanted to see a book of mine in actual print.

Last summer, that happened.

It was an amazing feeling to see Lipstick on the Strawberry in print, with its gorgeous cover, designed by Debbie Taylor of The Wild Rose Press. Thanks to everyone who has been so supportive, have written reviews (so important to authors) or have written me a personal note.

I’m especially tickled by the fact that though I consider women to be the book’s target readers, a number of men have commented on how they enjoyed it. They even liked the recipes!

To celebrate the anniversary, the e-book is on sale from August 17-31!
ONLY 99 CENTS!


The Wild Rose Press

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

iBooks (Apple)

My Favorite Books of the Year

When I launched this web page it was an exploration. As an unknown author myself, I began to notice how many really good books were published with very little attention. Many of them were by women. I also began to notice how many really famous women writers got their publishing start (which is different from starting to write) at a relatively advanced age. For all the wunderkind, there are many more writers for whom life experience forms the building blocks of a literary career.

So I began to review books by relatively unknown women. As a way to help this community,
and as a way to help my own writing. Writers are always avid readers.

Here are some of my favorite books from 2017, reviewed in these pages:

News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Reviewed in August, this book tells the story of the return of a Texan white child from her Kiowa captors from the point of view of the middle aged retired army officer who’s tasked with returning her to her family. Among the fascinations of this book is the author’s choice of point of view. By choosing that of a well-traveled adult who has experienced war and the rapid changes inflicted on the so-called Wild West, Jiles allows the reader to reflect on much more than the child’s experience.

Also in August, I reviewed The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson. In the summers of 1888 and 1889, the Lintvayov family, doctors, teachers, devoted to one another, rented out a guest cottage on their prosperous Ukrainian farm to the Chekhov family. One of the daughters, Zinaida, blinded by a brain tumor, fell in love with Anton Chekhov, and their daily conversations, recorded in Zinaida’s fictional diary, become the linchpin of the novel.

Addressing the translator’s difficulty of getting across meaning through the barrier of time and language, and the publisher’s task to disseminate the writer’s vision, this book is also an elegy for a moment in history, for a slower, more natural world, for the need for connection, for literature as the pathway to understanding our fellow human beings.

Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King. The ancient world happens to be a nerdy fascination of mine. I even have a book of recipes from imperial Rome. So it was with delight that I picked up Feast of Sorrow, a debut novel by Crystal King. King includes recipes (flamingo tongues anyone?) in this story of Thrasius, the celebrity chef of Marcus Gavius Apicius. A slave to the patrician Apicius, it could have been Thrasius who actually wrote the famous first cookbook. Reviewed in May.

My own literary highlight of the year was of course, the publication of my novel Lipstick on the Strawberry, in July. I’m so grateful for all the positive reviews and comments! On to the next book in 2018.

Wishing everyone a happy New Year!