Writing: Use of scenery

My usual daily scenery, outside of my personal living space, encompasses New York City. I think of tall buildings, well spaced trees, cars and people- lots of them. Digging deeper as a writer encourages me to ‘experience’ in a very different way.

The subway system is rich for description. It’s teeming with live specimens including the occasional rodents who grace the tracks and platform waste receptacle. This is of the grosser variety of life for most. I, on the other hand, have an entirely different set of sights that I’ve been encouraged to use in my scene writing.

The young women who flip, toss, and pick their lustrous sands- yes, some to the point of pulling, also known as trichotillomania, are high on my list of daily contextual experience. The male who obviously spends time in the gym, who boasts a trim bod in gray pants and sky blue shirt with the perfectly rolled up sleeve, and darts in to grab the seat before us more elegant elder ladies have a chance to is also high on my list. They compete with the young lady, whose skimpy slip-like dress  outlines her apple bottom cheeks, that stands not three inches from my nose. All of these  vy for inclusion into my novels but somehow these are descriptions of persons in my environment that I prefer to extinguish from my awareness and they may never make it into one of my novels.

An early scene in my first novel Covering the Sun with My Hand has Julia Acevedo enjoying her morning jaunts with Victor on the IRT line. The magnetic pull between them was amazing and fresh for these young lovers. All she could see were the signs above the windows and the doors. Her attention was entirely focused on Victor except for the moment that a poster of the then popular Miss Subway caught her eye and her pathos. This is an early foray into Julia’s thoughts and how she viewed the world. Her question of “what do others think” here is preliminary to the ground work and backstory for this protagonist. This type of writing is so much more important to me than the details of other riders’ peculiar and jarring habits.

How do you use scenery in your writing? If you don’t write, what sort of scenery do you like to read?

Writing: developing minor characters

A writer not only develops a protagonist and antagonist, they spend a lot of time creating environment, credibility in terms of space in time, but also minor characters and their backstory,

In Nights of Indigo Blue, Daisy Muñiz’s Dad is named Octavio. It would be easy to keep the level of information simple. That’s important to the novel because we don’t want to detract too much from Daisy. But Octavio is rich with possibilities of, at some point, becoming a major player in the series. Octavio Muñiz is a Viet Nam veteran and he continued to suffer from the throes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder until something changed in his relationship his daughter and he finally agreed to get help.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is an illness that occurs for some people who have experienced one horrific traumatic event or a series. While we tend to think of major instances like wars or terrorist events, PTSD can also be suffered by persons who have lived having to cower under their beds when gunshots ring out in their neighborhoods or by witnessing the life of a mother who is in a domestic violent relationship. People have different levels of capacity for tolerating certain events so while one person may not be affected, another may need intensive therapy for healing.

All of this may seem to be on the outskirts of developing a storyline for a ‘cozy mystery’ but all characters should have depth. How much is revealed to the reader is up to the writer, to the story, and mostly, to the character!

Writing: developing a storyline character

A couple of people have mentioned to me that I wrote this current novel, Nights of Indigo Blue, rather quickly in that it’s been only two years since Covering the Sun with My Hand was published. It may appear to have happened fast but the truth is that the protagonist, Daisy Muniz, stepped onto my pages about eight years ago.

During an introductory creative writing course, the adjunct faculty member provided a prompt to the small class. She told us to pick a children’s tale and create an updated story using its bones and so Daisy was born.

I chose to use Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I met Daisy as she laid in the “hard” bed. Her boyfriend Lou made life miserable for her. She smoothed the  edges of hardness off with Harvey’s Bristol and whatever else she could get her hands on until finally she climbed down off the unforgiving mattress. While working in a bar, Daisy spent many an evening bumping soft body parts with Letty. Those pretty white teeth were revealed whenever Letty smiled at her, which was often. Daisy found that bed a little too soft and eventually set out to make her own bed. With a little nip and tuck of the sheets, Daisy created a life that she could nestle into that was just right.

In this Daisy incarnation, she is still fending off the ghosts that permeated the first bed until she woke up. Letty is now one of her best friends and not a love interest while still indulging Daisy with unconditional love. Daisy is still working on her character defects and stumbles onto mischief and mayhem at a regular pace.

My desire to spit books out has yet to happen. Writing is becoming a bit easier but I still depend on the characters to tell me what’s next. I hope they never stop whispering in my ear. They’ve gone from paper personalities to becoming friends of mine.

Writing: The cozy mystery

Cozy mysteries are the ones that I grew up reading. They are the ones that were dependable. I knew that the protagonist would usually be a woman. She would be a general busybody  and I’d either love her and want to be like her or she’d irritate me. Either way I wanted to read more.  Suffice it to say that either way, I was glad that there was usually another few “mysteries” in the queue that I couldn’t wait to crack open. Cozies are like crossword puzzles. They tax my brain but not so much that I get a headache. They are relaxing, engaging, and have enough twists and turns in the plot to keep me reading.

More familiar cozies, due to television and movies , were Murder She Wrote, the Ladies Number One Detective Agency that is stationed in Botswana, and of course, the Agatha Christie series. Some of my first best friend amateur sleuths were Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. These mysteries are usually of the gentle type, there is love and romance and usually no profanity or anything of the hardcore nature. This allows for more of an audience to enjoy including YA and Middle School readers. Yes, I was that kid that read Agatha Christie novels in the fifth grade. Who doesn’t love a fun and quick read? Believe me, as a writer I can definitely delve into intrigue, espionage, and complexities that make the hair stand up on the back of arms- but not all the time.

A few years ago, a character introduced herself to me. Her name was Daisy Muñiz and she had all the stuff of an amateur detective. She has been living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, thanks to her besties Jose and Rubio, and she has somewhat of a troubled past that she is working through one day a time to change.  I was glad she came to me to write her tales of mystery because I never really had the experience of truly enjoying the antics of a Latina sleuth in the cozy mysteries I’ve read. She’s young, but not so young that she doesn’t have some skeletons in her closet. Daisy would give you the shirt off her back but hopefully she’s paid up her credit card bill and the shirt is hers to give away. Her other best friend, Letty, who knows her  since high school will tell you that while Daisy does put her foot in her mouth sometimes, she has a heart of gold. Detective David Rodriguez is just getting to know about that heart of hers.

Daisy’s first mystery, Nights of Indigo Blue, will be released by Aignos Publishing Inc. at the end of September of 2015. I plan to have book launch for her in NYC at La Casa Azul Bookstore on September 25, 2015. I can’t wait for you to meet Daisy- she’s a bit awkward, affectionate, and awesome! See you there!


Go ahead, boast!

There’s something that tells me to keep my volume on low and try not to attract too much attention. Do a good job and your reward will come one day (we hope) even if it’s in the next station during the afterlife. The idea of not celebrating or talking too much about your good thing is advised because something awful will probably come around the bend. My backstory was one that if one laughs too hard that they will end up crying and not in a good way.

Culturally and traditionally, as a Latina who came of age during seventies feminism, I sometimes have to check myself when I have reactions to how things go today.   Anyone of my peers knows that to wear a red dress or red lipstick was not approved by the generation before me. Risking one’s reputation as a vixen might surely compromise future good husbands or some such nonsense. Going out to clubs was often seen as something only a harlot would do. But many of us did and when I look around I see that we’ve forged lives of which we are proud.

That is just a sampling of the foundation that is under my feet. This means that  when I turn my volume on high I feel the grumblings of my past. I’m sometimes shocked at what others do as they create their brands as authors and then I laugh thinking ‘hey, I need a little of that hubris or pride.’ It’s taken me a lifetime to get to this place where I write stories of characters who interchangeably wear white hats and black hats, where what you see isn’t entirely what you get.

That’s one of the thrills of writing- getting out of one’s comfort zone. If I could do it in real life no matter what my history is then I can do it on page. Slowly, my wings are spreading and I’m allowing the true me to be channeled through me. I always love the backstory but it’s not the current story that’s clamoring to be told. So, go ahead,  people, boast, brag, be who you are, it helps me be me.


Writing: the challenge of ego

People who are familiar with recovery terms know the phrase ‘Drop the Rock.’ Surrender, Let Go and Let God, and similar sayings amounting to the same ideology. I translate them to the idea that someone knows better than me, it could be my Higher Power or a five year old, and I could learn something simply by listening. My ego is heavy and it would stead me well not to drag it everywhere I go, especially in my writing.

I read a Facebook post recently to the effect of how we shouldn’t applaud writers or artists because of their backstory. Their product has to be, at the very least, good. Someone else chimed in, shouldn’t they be encouraged like we do for a five year old? I don’t think so.

If my five year old grandson shared a poem or a painting I’d be head over heels enthused. I don’t think it would occur to me to critique it. I’d lavish praise and probably not stop to think whether chartreuse goes with pink. 

When an adult shows me work I go into a very different mode. I do a thorough critique. I’ve been in groups where writers are horrified at any suggestion to change. They believe the work they’ve submitted is the best and cannot be improved. I’ve felt devastated in my earlier writing experiences by suggestions from others. Some I took with a grain of salt and others I worked at painstakingly. I hope the result is that my work improved.

We do a disservice by pretending things are good because we like a person. Wouldn’t you want to know if your hem was in need of repair? A couple of stitches go a long way. My first unpublished novel that stars ‘Daisy Muñiz’ needed lots of work. It wasn’t accepted for publication although my beta readers loved Daisy and the idea of an awkward, curious for life, ‘detective by default’ character. 

I hammered away at creating Nights of Indigo Blue: A Daisy Muñiz Mystery. It’s a ‘cozy mystery’ and not something I envisioned doing in the early days of my writing. With suggestions from others and allowing myself to ‘drop the rock’ a whole new vista emerged before me. 

Like anyone, I gladly receive praise but also take in the sometimes harsh advice of others and like to think my ability to weave a good tale is improving because I do.

Now, drop the rock and get to your creative work. It’s waiting for you.

Writing: more of the character, less of me

I just finished reading the novel, Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. I have to admit I only closed the book when I absolutely had to get off the train or my eyes shut against my will at night. The book was that good. At the end, I decided I may not like the writer. Wait, I had to check myself. Not like the writer? That’s crazy talk for what’s been going on in my head as an author.

Recent discussions with my friend, fellow author, Manny Melendez, had him reminding me there’s a big difference between an author, an author’s persona, and the characters who beg us to put them down on page. Manny’s not a murderer. A woman poet I know who portrays herself as a thug, isn’t- I think! I wasn’t Julia Acevedo, the protagonist of my beloved, Covering the Sun with My Hand. There’s a magic to telling the story as the characters want it told. The story is their experience not mine. It is weird to have people nod knowingly at me asking if “Covering…” is my memoir. No, it’s not in a million different ways. I know that writers are not their characters unless they brand their work- memoir!

This leads me to my novel, “Coney Island Siren,” that’s nestled in this computer somewhere. This novel is beyond me. It’s not beyond the characters who live in a surreal, sometimes drug hazed, very gritty reality based, non-comedic, somewhat erotic, definitely not a memoir of mine type of book. I’ve been gifted by the story by a couple of pretty intense muses. Where they came from I don’t know, but they are there. I had a tarot reading last summer, the reader told me, “Don’t let that character get into your head.” Well, I have to admit I was struggling there a bit.

I worry about a lot of things. One of those things is that my readers may think I’m an abusive jerk who takes advantage of his almost unformed, while quite informed partner. It’s not his fault she goes back for more. It’s not mine either. It’s the character’s. So, for today, thank you, Gillian Flynn, for writing the book. If it’s your memoir, please stay away from me. If not, I applaud you!

There, enough said, to be continued…

Writing: Responsibility

‘Say what you mean and mean what you say’ is something that I learned a while back. I’m not one of those people that talk just to talk and to hear themselves speak as their chests swell with pride at the sound of their voice. That bores me, annoys me, and, sometimes, almost antagonizes me. That is when I stop listening or reading in the case of the written word.

We are blessed, in this country, with the right to say what we feel and what we believe. It’s important to me to use this right, this responsibility, in a learned way. My voice may be silent or my pen not flow across the pad until I am pretty certain of facts and what my motives are in speaking or writing things out.

I recently had a talk with a prospective agent and told them about my new project that is a story about intimate partner violence. Afterward I had a wave of share shame and thought, well, maybe, I can lessen the rawness of the scenes, maybe just a little rough, maybe not rape between a couple who stands side by side in the world together as they face the world. Maybe people would think this is too intense. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

My writing is my gift. With that comes responsibility to do the right thing. If I accept the gift of writing stories I must be loyal to the stories. I may sometimes be uncomfortable or embarrassed or feel shame. Wow. It’s just a story! No, it’s not. The back of my business card says, ‘A life is a story told…’ I must honor that.

The world I live in is riddled with violence, fear, anger, and hate. Without a solution, where do we go? I hold out for peace, I pray, I meditate, I am respectful of the person standing next to me. I hope that I am a healing, light force on this planet. Writing or speaking out about the hard things will be how I move forward in the solution of the pain that is etched on the faces I see and the words I hear. Awareness leads me to action and to responsibility in using the gifts I have received.

For today, I will write and pray for those who are in pain.

May you walk in beauty…

TVarela-business card

Writing: waiting for the story

There are some authors who believe that writing is therapy or bloodletting; basically turning it into some form of catharsis or other. We’ve all seen the memes that warn not to piss a writer off because you will be in their next novel or that the writer has opened their veins while writing a particular piece. I’ve gone to therapy for that stuff and only let the lab technician draw blood for my annual check-ups. That doesn’t mean that my stories and many others I read don’t capture the essence of life itself, it just means that we are storytellers of maybe a different kind.

This morning, as I washed the breakfast dishes, I had the image of a young girl and her mother talking in that strained way adolescents and moms often have. I saw the rambling house they live in that was the shell that encapsulated said girl’s profound loneliness. A few moments into this reverie, I remembered a story I began writing a couple of years ago that went into my ‘silent file.’ The characters, it seems, are no longer silent but beginning to tell me the rest of their story. I know I have the original piece in one of my handy flash drives on my desk somewhere.

This is how Covering the Sun with My Hand was written. It started out as “The Eviction” and didn’t go anywhere until I put it away awhile and the protagonist, Julia Acevedo, woke me up here in this same house. It was on another morning that I was feeling serene and all right with my world and what I do in it. I’m not angry with my mother, or my children. I’m not proving anything today. I just am, just for today. I may be those other things tomorrow but today I’m not. I think this is why the story and the main characters are reaching out to me again. I think that I’ll temporarily name this one, “Just before the Miracle,” because that is how I’ve experienced the process of storytelling- waiting for something that might all ready be happening. I’ll keep you guys posted. I’m going to dry the dishes now.

Writing: more than just writing

November? What happened to October? September is the last time I posted here. I’ve thought about creating a newsletter that would consolidate all the news, events and literary activities that I was involved with during Hispanic Heritage month. I wax and wane about blogging. It’s somehow been great for my novel writing. It helps- just as taking out time to strength train does wonders for my running. I like to keep in touch with the people that I share my stories with and the ability to go back and check my changes and process are other reasons to keep coming back.

The literary events I took part for Hispanic Heritage Month were plentiful and fun! This authorship thing has taken on a life of its own. Social media is excellent but face to face dialog with real people in real time can’t be beat.

I started out by doing a talk for the NYC Chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses on culture and mental health utilizing ‘narrative humility’ as a framework for care provision. What a great group of nurses! Reuniting with the organization has been rejuvenating.

Next, I was the featured author at the Latina 50 plus foundation luncheon held at the East Harlem Café. I was honored that the organizations founder, Maria Aponte invited me to speak. After I spoke about the process of becoming a published author after the age of fifty, I was moved by the stories that were told by the deeply courageous women at the luncheon. This is one foundation I am happy and proud to lend my full support to Latinas over 50, my cohort, in their quests for education and further life progress and development is awesome. By the way, the food was delicious!

The last event I attended for Hispanic Heritage month was as a guest on a panel for Colgate-Palmolive that discussed issues faced by contemporary Latino authors. The other panelists included Matt de la Pena and Luis Jaramillo. This lively talk was moderated by Josy Gallagher of Las Madrinas, yet another powerful organization. Thanks to Aurora Anaya-Cerda for the coordination of this event. The audience interest and participation was great. What especially came to mind was the direction provided by my muse and how important it is to allow a story to unfold without too much tweaking. To be a good writer, I need to listen!

All of these events were woven into my hectic work schedule. Another unplanned job change landed me, willingly-although I’m not sure that counts with my HP- at a shelter for mentally ill women. I worked there briefly in the past and when I found that there was an opening, I jumped at the chance to return to this refuge of hope.

Whew! What a couple of months! I know one thing, we are all so busy doing what we can with the gifts we’ve been endowed. One of my favorite moments was unexpectedly meeting up with an acquaintance in Midtown Manhattan after work one day. She introduced me to her sister as an “author I met during dance class.” Yes, I guess that would be me. Nice!

I think I can forgive myself for not posting since September. Until we meet again…