Tag Archive for: Margaret Mitchell

Fun & Name-Games

By Laura Spinella
Imagine if Dickens had penned Otto instead of Oliver, or Jane Austen
found herself smitten with Doolittle before Darcy ever crossed her mind.  Would these grand works of literature have
been influenced by something as basic as a name? Fast forward to modern times and
it’s clear that name choice is no less critical. Had Margaret Mitchell been in
more of a Susan mood, Scarlett might
not have resonated in quite the same manner. And what about Scout? Her name feels
like a fingerprint on Harper Lee’s character, a curious tomboy through whom the
reader views the world. While all the parts have to come together, nothing cues
the music or gets us on board like a character’s name.  It’s one of my favorite parts of the writing
process, and something I stumbled on by accident… or error.
Years ago, my staple income was writing for a regional magazine
in Salisbury, Maryland. After yet another yawning interview with hospital’s latest
CEO, or maybe it was the manager of a restaurant in town, I did what I always
did. On the drive back to my desk, I recast the subjects. Along with savvier
bios and backgrounds, I gave them far more illustrious names. They weren’t
necessarily exotic or catchy, just a better fit for the personal history I’d embellished.
This was all fun and games until an intriguing alias ended up in the piece I’d
been assigned. I told the proper story about the new director of parks and
recreation, but I’d accidentally given him the name I conjured up. Yeah, it
wasn’t good. You can misspell someone’s name, an unprofessional but forgivable faux
pas. But dish up a Sunday spread, photos included, and call him something other
than the name his mama gave him and, well, it’s an embarrassing clue that maybe
you’re not cut out for real news
      It’s all good now as I’ve traded those
tarnished credentials for the kind of writing that embraces a bad habit. Deciding
a character’s name is one of the perks of the job and, I think, one of the most
critical elements.  I don’t revisit a
character’s name once I’ve handed a story over to my editor or filed a wannabe
book in a drawer, but in the moment nothing seems quite as important.
was fortunate to have a Madonna moment—no, not an epiphany, just a character strong enough to stand on one name: Flynn. He actually has a first, middle and last name, but Flynn’s
single call sign ended up being as integral to his character as his dark past
and questionable psyche. There’s an interesting footnote here and why I mention
it, perhaps highlighting how deep the name process goes. Flynn’s name was fashioned
after a professional baseball player I admired as a teenager. The book’s
protagonist and real-life Flynn have about as much in common as a Kardashian
and Supreme Court Justice, but that just demonstrates how something so small
can trickle down to the heart of a novel.  
With my current WIP, the name hunt is no less intense, as
if I might have to swear to it on a bible. Some of those names—Levi St John, a surname
my husband suggested over burgers at the British Beer Company, Aubrey Ellis, swiped
from an author I admire, and Frank Delacort,  guttural and obstinate—floated in on a breeze.
Others, like Dustin Byrd, had to be coerced and cajoled. It was an effort to capture
the right combination of syllables and sounds to attach to his quirky
character. Curiously, Violet Byrd, Dustin’s mother, also plays a part in this
book. As I wrestled with this task, casting and deleting a dozen possible choices,
it occurred to me how much easier the name-game would be if I could have just
asked her.  
Laura Spinella is the author of the award-winning novel, BEAUTIFUL DISASTER and upcoming novel, PERFECT TIMING. Visit her at www.lauraspinella.net       

The Beast of Chapter One

By Laura Spinella

Original Draft from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind

I had a different five letter B-word in mind for the title of this blog, but I heard Susan McBride whisper in my ear, “Hey, Miss Laura, try to keep it civil and polite…” I defer to her impeccable manners. I think first chapters will do that, more so than any other part of a book, bring out the worst in you. This first chapter wasn’t an inception, but a revision, which I firmly believe to be more riddled with landmines than any initial attack. Sure, there’s the daunting prospect of blank pages and zero word count when you begin something new. But there’s also gutsy intuition and the promise of unabashed wordsmithing. This just looked like work. The initial first chapter of any book is a sketch. It has to be, unless you’re a writer who outlines every chapter on index cards, tacking them sequentially to a corkboard before turning on your computer. It’s the same methodology used by people who alphabetize condiments or coordinate their closet by color and season. It’s something Patrick Bourne would do, a character in my novel, who I happen to be in love with and also happens to be gay. But I assure you, along with Patrick, that organizational skill set escapes me.

Me at work

When I first considered the revisions for this book, I almost trashed the entire thing: switch from first to third person, rewrite the main character’s motivation, and match the tone in BEAUTIFUL DISASTER, which, apparently, I failed to do. But like BD, this book, these characters, convinced me to hang on, saving their lives and story in the process. So after I committed (or was committed, the insane never know they are) the first thing I did was chop off Chapter One. There was no point to it, not until I’d coerced and cajoled the other 375 pages into submission. Fast forward three months and I was there, ready to rewrite the first chapter. I will give myself credit; it was the right move, as those other countless changes left me a detailed blueprint. Of course, there’s a reason draftsmen get a flat fee while contractors get an inflatable check. Execution is everything, and if the foundation sucks, well, the rest of the project is essentially a house of cards.

Night and day for the past two weeks this is where I’ve lived, inside Chapter One. During that time, I made a whirlwind trip to Athens, Georgia, taught a community class on writing/publishing, and banished a 14-year old boy to house arrest after seeing his interim progress report. None of these were simple tasks, but none were as daunting as that chapter. I thought I knew these characters, I really did. But like a weak eyeglass prescription, you’re awed by the clarity when the proper adjustments are made. What I had was that sketch, the one to which I’ve already confessed. Now I have a hand slamming against my forehead, a voice (not Susan McBride’s) saying, “You idiot, why didn’t you see this the first time around!” I suspect it takes me longer than the average author to get to know my characters. I’ve no idea why—I’m slow to peel back layers or simply slow out of the gate. I often envision the entire writing community receiving an old fashioned telegram, complete with character instructions: Single woman, STOP. Tumultuous childhood, STOP. Fearful of her own sexuality,STOP. Lingering denial reaches impasse, STOP. There are a hundred more directives and stops, but you get the idea. Fluidly connect the stops and you’ve got a first chapter. A telegram is an antiquated analogy, but I like the idea of vital information being hand-delivered in a sealed envelope.
Fortunately, I appear to be on the downside of the first chapter mountain, my stinky pack mule having finally lumbered into camp with the goods. I am satisfied, to the extent any neurotic writer can be, that this Chapter One has its house in order. But in the end, we’ll see, because as we all know, the writer’s word is hardly the last one.

Keeping Faith

I once watched a wonderful British mini-series, full of galloping horses, lush landscapes, and inevitably, class wars. Poor orphan girl comes to the home of her rich, foul-humored uncle, and must decide if she loves her sensitive boy cousin, his swashbuckling wastrel brother, or the stable hand who is poor but sincere. Leaving aside the issue of whether marrying your first cousin is a good idea, I, of course, was rooting for the poor stable hand. To my delight, after much bosom heaving and weeping, she ends up with the guy with no money – which is okay because she has enough for them both.

I promptly went out and read the books on which this mini-series was based – and they were absolutely wonderful. A few years later I was delighted to discover a sequel to this saga. But to my horror, the author had decided that class will out. She broke up the marriage of rich girl, poor boy, so that the society b**ch could marry within her own class – her newly-reformed rich cousin. Ugh.

As defined in the dictionary, a sequel is “a literary work, film, etc. complete in itself but continuing a story begun in an earlier work.” So while I’m the first to agree that an author has the right to do whatever she wants, for me, this particular writer betrayed the basic premise of the first books. We had a deal: true love trumps fancy schmancy class distinctions. She broke faith with her readers (or at least this one). It’s as if Margaret Mitchell wrote a sequel to Gone with the Wind and had Scarlett subdivide Tara into a housing development of McMansions. Or Thomas Harris penned a sequel where Hannibal Lecter became a vegetarian.

I love reading mystery series. It’s like meeting up with old friends. I want to know what has happened since the last time we were together. While I want a complete story that can stand on its own, I want to recognize the characters I’ve grown to love. I have no problem with personal growth in the characters, but they have to retain the essence of who they are. I promise when you read Murder Takes the Cake (due in May 2009), that the delightful Mac Sullivan, Rachel Brenner, and Whiskey are all back in prime form.

What’s the best – and the worst – sequel you’ve ever read (or saw if it was a movie)?

Evelyn David