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The O’Briens Among Us

It seems everyone has watched Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey, which means we all know who Sarah O’Brien is—but if you don’t, here’s the in-your-face “thumbnail”: she’s a snotty, meddling, opportunistic lady’s maid at Downtown—and of course we all pretty much dislike and distrust her, because what’s there to cozy up to?

I’m working on a new novel; specifically, the development of characters (character development is my favorite part of novel-writing, which, if you’ve read The Angry Woman Suite, you’ve probably already guessed)—and I just realized I’ve created a character who’s very much like O’Brien (though she wasn’t inspired by O’Brien, but by someone I used to know). Because the worlds my characters inhabit are never black and white, rarely are my characters either (an exception is Lothian in The Angry Woman Suite). So when I start fleshing out a character, I list her or his not-so-shining qualities on one side of a page and on the other side those characteristics that are attractive—the ones that can make us doubt our own assessments, as in it’s just an eccentricity we might tell ourselves (about a “difficult one”), and we should maybe cut her or him some slack.

Because even O’Brien herself has a soft spot (for her nephew), so she can’t really be all bad.

And O’Brien has no clue she’s a meddler; she actually can be helpful, so she can’t be purposely cruel, right? Right?

She also doesn’t know that almost every time she opens her mouth she pretty much alienates everybody, because of a naturally critical nature—but she can be friendly and approachable as well.

Just as she doesn’t see she’s overbearing and judgmental, because she can be charitable and self-deprecating, too.

She doesn’t see herself as scheming or controlling, because what she also is, is quite bright, and intelligent people are often forward-thinking (we tell ourselves).

However, despite a sturdy IQ, her EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) is quite low and so she lacks perspective and empathy, as in how her words come across as demeaning to others. Ironically, she is an overly sensitive individual always on the lookout for slights. She is easily hurt, often feels misunderstood, and would be crushed if she knew how many people go out of their way to avoid her.

One can actually get on with difficult people for some time. Years, actually. How? Well, for one, it’s a good idea to not let a difficult person “in” too close. Tread carefully. Sharing feelings can become ammo for O’Briens at some point in time, against a sharer. O’Briens often want to “fix,” which is not helping or supporting; it’s taking over instead, running roughshod, stepping on boundaries and telling others what to do. And know ahead of time you will always be offending them in ways you can never possibly see coming. The O’Briens are seemingly wired to be offended. It’s the first thing they consider in the morning, as in why did so-and-so get me this present? Or not come to my retirement party? Or (if they did attend) leave so early? To their prickly minds, there are no mitigating circumstances.

And I think this must be the aspect of the world’s O’Briens—how easily offended they can be—that is the foundation of their most unpleasant qualities, those cutting remarks and undermining ways.

O’Briens likely have less than optimum beginnings, maybe even got kicked down the road early on, and unfortunately they’re not resilient, though they can be ambitious. They love an imaginary glory, and see themselves racing against “competitors,” elbowing them aside, tripping them up in their mad quests for long-denied recognition, and turning a screw or two before it’s turned on them—which obviously begs the question: With profiling like that, who among the O’Briens of the world wouldn’t be on the lookout for “offenders”?

Does it help knowing this about the difficult ones? That they probably had tough starts they could never put in perspective? Because … ahem … remember, perspective is something they completely lack.

Depends. On how much distance you can keep. Or how much you want to punish yourself. Because that’s what it feels like after a time of interacting with or having befriended one. It feels like you’re slapping yourself in the face.

Stories are always about overcoming conflict or giving into it. One way or another, a story must have conflict, or it’s just words. Which is why all O’Briens make for great characters—despite a “stiffness” they all, strangely, seem to have, they are conflict in motion. They thrive on it—but unless some upward momentum, some change, occurs, these characters are doomed to predictability. Their snottiness begins to outweigh their positive attributes, and once a balance is that tipped, the weight of an O’Brien becomes a pain-in-the-ass burden.

And so there’s the answer. At some point, when burdens become static, they morph from boring to heavy, to hurtful, and even sometimes dangerous (as in worse than slapping your own face). The difficult people of the world need to be cut loose when they become static, whether they are real-life PIA’s bad for anybody’s mental health, or (safer) characters in novels—or, yes, even fixtures like Sarah O’Brien of Downton Abbey.

IndieReader feature: The Angry Woman Suite

All About the Book | IR Staff
Lee Fullbright on “The Angry Woman Suite”

An unsolved celebrity double murder in the early 1900’s, and the fallout on three generations of one fragile family, as told by three very different narrators: a young girl in search of autonomy; a young man in search of an identity, and an older man in search of justice.  Read On »

Lee Fullbright on “The Angry Woman Suite”

All About the Book, Homepage Sub  •  IR Staff  •  Oct 16, 2012

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What is the title of the book and when was it published?

The Angry Woman Suite was published March 10, 2012.

What’s the book’s first line?

“It is said that love is comfort, and that comfort comes from recognition of the beloved.”

What’s the book about? Give us the “pitch.”

The elevator pitch is it’s about an unsolved celebrity double murder in Pennsylvania, in the early 1900’s, and the fallout on three generations of one fragile family, as told by three very different narrators: a young girl in search of autonomy; a young man in search of an identity, and an older man in search of justice.

What inspired you to write the book?

The autonomy slant was the inspiration. I was visiting Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, site of a Revolutionary War battle, exploring George Washington’s headquarters and the battleground. It was a warm, quiet day, and I considered how different it must’ve been the day of the battle; the noise and bloodshed—and that’s when it hit me: the idea of another story about a battle for freedom, but within family. I even knew, on that day, that my lead narrator would be a woman looking back on her life, and that I would include the Battle of Brandywine as background and as a metaphor for a story about family.

What’s the most distinctive thing about the main character?

There are three narrators and they pretty much share equal billing. But the character who starts off the book, Elyse Grayson, is the novel’s glue—and she’s an understated rebel. As for who she reminds me of, she looks like a girl on my street, but other than appearance, Elyse is, for me, an original.

What’s the main reason someone would read this book?

The Angry Woman Suite can be an immersion and an adventure; a book to get lost in. And I think that’s why many of us read novels. To become lost and then found again.

Writing Mountains

Crime writer Patricia Cornwell (of the best-selling Scarpetta series) said in a recent interview that writing is hard work; that “it isn’t just sitting around fantasizing, or having a drink with somebody and talking about how cool it would be if you write a story. It’s work.”(italics mine, because of course I agree)

Cornwell also said, “And research isn’t easy. But if you’re going to have a character who’s a musician, you should learn everything about that you possibly can.”

As an aside, The Angry Woman Suite (see sidebar), does have a musician; a pivotal character—and guess what? I don’t play an instrument or even sing (at least you wouldn’t want me to), and I don’t remember how to read music … everything this character (Francis) does in the way of music was researched.

But what really, really struck me about the Cornwell interview is when she said this:

“You don’t become a writer—you are one. And if you really are a writer, it’s like telling a songbird to shut up—you can’t … (and) you have to be willing to be bad at something to be good at it.”

So this is what I thought (and not for the first time): What kind of person is willing to really suck at something and feel like a total failure, and yet still get up in the morning and go back to her or his personal challenge?

A freakin’ masochist, that’s what.

My brother is a self-described non-athlete. He also just summited Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. He said it was the hardest thing he’s ever done. The first time he tried climbing Whitney, he lost part of his gear. Back down the mountain he went, crestfallen. The following year he tried Whitney again, but his hiking partner got altitude sickness, so back down the mountain he went with his partner, because that’s the kind of guy my brother is.  

This year, like the two years before, he trained for months, hiking and climbing in San Diego’s backcountry, and the Sierras. He and his partner agreed that if one became ill, the other would continue to the top.

Why’d my brother keep plugging away at this mountain?

Because that mountain was calling for my brother’s personal best, and my brother heeded the call.   

It’s the call that goes out to each of us; to all athletes, professional or aspiring, and to all writers, seasoned or fledgling. You name the job or challenge, the call’s there. It’s the call that makes every morning a promise, and each day an opportunity to go a little farther and a little higher than the day before.

Patricia Cornwell also said this (about being sucky before you’re proficient):

“You are going to trip over your own feet … (and) you will never be good at writing the first time you try, any more than Nadal hit a tennis ball the way he does now the first time he picked up a racket…. The only way you get better is to just do it all the time. And if this is the inevitability of how you express yourself, you’re still going to get up after failures.”

And you will climb mountains.

PS The Angry Woman Suite is currently on a blog book tour, and it’s going very well– I love bloggers! And Emlyn Chand over at Novel Publicity. Check out GoodReads for new reviews each day….

Image credit: kamchatka / 123RF Stock Photo