True, a novel by Melinda Field

To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, great literature grows from two stories: someone goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. In Melinda Field’s first novel True, the character of young Cat sets events in motion–she is both on a journey and the stranger who comes to town.

MelindaAbandoned by her Mexican father, Cat has been raised by a drug-addicted mother and grown up tough in the streets of Phoenix, AZ. When her mother is taken to prison, Cat is forced to move to a small town and live with her Native American grandmother, a woman she has never met. To further complicate matters, the town is an isolated, predominantly white, ranching community in Northern California.

For Cat, this is a coming-of-age story. The brutality she encounters and the consequences will mark her life forever. But the novel True is much more.

The ensemble cast of characters, a diverse group of women brought together by their love of horses and their shared adventures in the mountains, is focused through Emma, a midwife who ultimately becomes Cat’s guardian. Each woman faces life-changing challenges, so that in True, Field reveals how we are always coming-of-age no matter where we find ourselves.

True is set in the contemporary west and Field evokes a palpable sense of place.  From the dusty heat of a Phoenix motel, redolent of curry and disinfectant–to the cider scent of an orchard, the crunch of apples underfoot—to the sharp-scented sage and dangerous shale of a mountain trail, the salt and blood of fear when a rattlesnake or mountain lion appears—True will transport readers from their easy chairs to a wild and authentic place.


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Irony: Some Folks Just Don’t Get It

Not long ago, my friend Jesse told me this joke: “Someone told me the other day that I just don’t understand irony. My feelings were hurt and I thought, How ironic–we were standing at the bus station when he said it.” 

I admit, I puzzled over this joke for a long while, and finally, I had to ask my husband to help. “There’s nothing ironic about being at the bus stop,” he said, “Some folks just don’t get irony.”

ShamrockMaybe it’s because I’m Irish that the absence of irony in the joke left me stymied. Irony is the use of language to express its literal opposite, a deliberately contrarian act for the purpose of emphasis, amusement, or mockery.

Ancient Greek historians noted how the Gaelic used irony, exaggeration, invective, and other wordplay as weapons of power in shaping politics and culture. Irony is especially effective because one must understand the context and the truth of the situation to understand the opposing, embedded meaning. As a result,  one can be ironic in the presence of the enemy or outsider, a circumstance the Irish know well.

Swift proposal

I grew up in an environment that dripped with irony and its cruder friend, sarcasm, so I’m always a bit surprised when my college composition students respond to Jonathan Swift’s famous essay “A Modest Proposal” by condemning him for suggesting people cook Irish toddlers to solve the famine problem. Once I explain the context to them, the absurdity slowly dawns, and I can see light bulbs shining over their heads.

But I was taken aback when one of my students quoted a deliberately ironic statement from the satirical website The Onion as proof of her claim in her thesis. Even though she understood the context of the contemporary situation, she was reading what she wanted to read, hearing what she wanted to hear, and was blind to the irony. Some folks just don’t get it.

And I was slammed again the other day on Face Book when someone butted into a conversation.  We were discussing a wild claim made by Donald Trump. After some exaggeration, word play, and leg-pulling, I’d concluded tongue-in-cheek that Trump’s statement must be accurate. My friend understood, but a stranger jumped in and castigated me, demanding I give evidence for my “bold claim.” I responded with an explanation of my meaning and an attempt to be conciliatory because I couldn’t find an emoji for rolling your eyes.

Of course, there’s a moral to the story: If you plan to use irony or sarcasm on Face Book, either keep your conversations private or you will have to put your ironic phrasing in quotation marks or add one of those insipid,  winking, smiley faces (semi-colon, hyphen, right parentheses).

The picture to the right is wordplay, not irony. sad man, ironing board, wash clothing and iron

Of course, you knew that,

but some folks just don’t get it.





On Beginning Stories

In Chapter 1 of her book Wired for Story, author Lisa Cron discusses “How to Hook the Reader.” She analyzes the elements of story openings from the view of neuroscience, using what we know about the cognitive unconscious and its need to know in order to help writers understand how stories work.

WiredAccording to neuroscientists, the brain is overloaded with incoming data, and it sorts information, storing what is most important just below the level of consciousness where it is easy to access as needed by the conscious mind. Stories evolved to relay important information to help us survive.

“We think in story,” Cron claims. “It’s hardwired in our brain. It’s how we make strategic sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us.”  As a result, Cron argues that we crave stories. We inhabit stories, living and learning vicariously from them.

In order for a story to be satisfying, a character must be placed in a challenging situation and confront a problem from the beginning pages: Will the boy win the heart of the girl? Will the hero be able to save the world? Will the woman get the career promotion she wants? The opening situation makes the reader wonder what will happen next, and this curiosity keeps the reader turning the pages and puts books on the bestseller lists.

While I agree with Cron about the importance of story problem in the opening, this chapter should come with a warning–Writers Beware. Don’t oversimplify this.

Too many beginning writers will carry this information to its extreme, placing characters in such overwhelming conflicts at the beginning that it becomes impossible to sustain the level of excitement for the reader.

jamesPattersonIf the writer opens with his female detective attacked by a gunman while she is naked and showering at the gym, even if he successfully extricates her from the danger, it’s nearly impossible for the reader to follow into the next scene which shows the detective relaxing at home with her cat and a glass of wine.

Author James Patterson might be able to get away with an opening scene in which the serial killer is contemplating how to murder the detective Alex Cross’s family, but Patterson is a master of sustaining the excitement.

If you’re not prepared to write a potboiler, you’ll want to begin with greater subtlety. Dostoyevsky begins Crime and Punishment with a hypochondriac avoiding his landlady because he can’t pay the rent. Carson McCullers begins The Member of the Wedding with a child’s loneliness and uncertainty.

grapes-of-wrath-lcAnd John Steinbeck famously begins The Grapes of Wrath with a lengthy description of the weather.

All of these writers tap into the emotional heart of their stories, engaging the readers’ imagination and empathy—topics that Cron addresses later in her book.

On the Birthday of Emily Brontë

Passionate. Disciplined. Wildly imaginative.

Growing up isolated on the moors of England, Emily Brontë found the inspiration for her masterpiece Wuthering Heights in the cold and windy hills of her own back yard. I remain spellbound.



The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me
And I cannot, cannot go.

The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow.
And the storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.

Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me;
I will not, cannot go.

Emily Brontë     1836

Incorporating Setting into Your Scenes

Modern readers often skip over passages of description in search of the action scenes in fiction. This, like channel-surfing, may be a sign of the shorter attention span of our times.

That’s why it’s critical to incorporate a sense of place into the scenes as you tell your story. Short story writer and novelist, Eudora Welty, is a master of creating settings that are as powerful as her characters. In her essay “Place in Fiction,” she reminds us:

Harris beach

Harris Beach, Brookings, Oregon, by Jacalyn McNamara 2014

“Location is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction that charge out from the story in its course. These charges need the warm hard earth underfoot, the light and lift of air, the stir and play of mood, the softening bath of atmosphere that give the likeness-to-life . . . ”

Whether you’re writing mysteries, science fiction, or literary fiction, this “likeness-to-life” makes your story real for the reader.