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Hello, summer! Can we offer you a glass of ice water–or fifty?

As I sit here applying melted chapstick in Charlotte, it’s hard to believe that just a week ago I was standing in ocean waters on a beach in Maine that were chilly enough to numb my calves. As always, returning to see family and friends in the state where I was raised is a gift and one I can’t wait to open every time the school year comes to a close.

Outside the auditorium after the presentation. Take note: crazy prints hide armpit sweat stains.

This trip was particularly special as I had the chance to do some promotion for LITTLE GALE GUMBO, and my upcoming release THE MERMAID COLLECTOR (which, like GUMBO, is also set in coastal Maine–and even bears an iconic Maine lighthouse on it’s cover that I swear I had nothing to do with–how cool is that?)

Not only did I get to attend a book club meeting that included several friends from high school, but I also shared the room with my high school English teacher who is not only a published author in her own right, but someone who was pivotal in my understanding of story structure and prose and the layering of themes. It was, as you can imagine, a very touching event for me.

There was also the chance the participate in the Portland Public Library’s wonderful series, Brown Bag Lunches, where authors get to present their work to readers. (In full fan-girl disclosure, I was there presenting LITTLE GALE GUMBO the week after Richard Ford and the week before Richard Russo–I know! Swoon, right? I melted just a little at that podium. Okay, I melted a lot. )

I also had the absolute pleasure of (finally!) getting to meet the wickedly witty and talented writer, Julia Munroe Martin, whose blog wordsxo many of you are already familiar with. We met for coffee and chatted like old friends for what seemed like ten minutes only to realize two hours later (!) that we’d only covered a fraction of all the things we meant to talk about.

In other news, I’ve started a Facebook page for THE MERMAID COLLECTOR, and I’m looking forward to it being a place where everyone can share their thoughts on the mystique and appeal of mermaids–as well as photos of them in our every day lives. (I’m looking to you, dear Josey! Didn’t you mention mermaid sculptures to me once?) I hope you all will come on over to the page and share in the fun.

Okay, enough goodies from me–How are you all keeping cool, on and off the page?

Who’s writing? Who’s reading? Who’s my hero and managing to do BOTH??

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I’ve got a pile of books on my nightstand that is easily above my head (when I’m lying down, that is–though it’s dangerously close to that height when I’m standing up!) and I am determined to make my way through it this holiday.

But at the top of the pile are two books I’m VERY excited about.

The first is READING MY FATHER by Alexandra Styron which came highly recommended by two women whose admiration for William Styron is out of this world: my mother, and my friend, Teri.

The other is LIVING ARRANGEMENTS, a collection of stories by Laura Maylene Walter, a gifted author I met through blogging. Laura, I can’t wait to dig in, lady. (And because this is the season of giving, I just learned there’s a Goodreads giveaway for one copy!)

I hope everyone is right at this moment enjoying some sort of comfort and/or joy during the holiday season. I can’t wait to see what adventures are ahead for all of us in 2012–and I hope, most of all, that we keep sharing them with one another. The good, the bad, the humdrum.  All of it. Hey, we’re writers! We can turn anything into a story, right?

Okay, back to the gingerbread cookie mines. Warm hugs all around, and I’d love to hear what book you all are cozying up to before visions of sugarplums dance in your heads…

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When I first started blogging over a year ago, I never imagined I’d meet so many amazing people.

Never.

I also never imagined that the first group of bloggers I’d get to know would grow to become a fierce and fabulous clan that very recently had its first (of many!) official face-to-face meet up–and though we couldn’t all be there in body, we were definitely all there in spirit.

Little did those of us know who couldn’t be there, that our dear Teri was sending each of us one of these gems:

How cool is this?

I love this bracelet.

I love it not just because it reminds me of the place where we all first met, but I love it because it represents community and support and fun and joy and challenge and celebration among people I am proud to call friends.

I love it because it is everything that is good and pure about the internet, because at the end of the day, isn’t that really the point of all this?

This bracelet makes me so glad I came, and even more glad I stayed.

So dear friends, tell me what you love about this place we call the blogosphere.

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In LITTLE GALE GUMBO, there’s a scene where Camille shows Ben how to cook gumbo. Like Ben, I learned how to make the famous New Orleans dish from a reliable source: my husband Ian, who is a native New Orleanian and an incredible cook.

I thought it would be fun to have him share a bit of his experience growing up around so much great food.

Tell us about yourself. I was born and raised in New Orleans, and my roots in Louisiana run far back on both sides of my family. My great-grandmother grew up in Houma, Louisiana and spoke only French until she was fifteen when the family moved to New Orleans. One of my favorite stories of hers was how she became Episcopalian which was very unusual for a Cajun. Her family lived so remotely that when my great-great grandfather became gravely ill, the only priest who ventured into the swamp to console him was the Episcopal priest, so when my great-great-grandfather recovered, he switched to the Episcopal Church.

Why do you think food is such a central part of New Orleans culturally? I think it’s a pervasive part of all cultures to have food at special gatherings of family and friends, so New Orleans isn’t unique that way. The difference with New Orleanians is that food is the special occasion and they don’t need the excuse of a holiday or some other big event to eat extravagantly. The vast majority of family gatherings I remember as a kid were because my grandfather got 40 pounds of crawfish or someone gave him a bunch of blue crabs or oysters or whatever was in season at the time.

What are some of your earliest memories of food? My grandparents always made huge vats of gumbo and froze it, so they would always have a bowl of gumbo waiting for me when I came to visit, chock full of blue crab bodies still in the shell.

Crawfish boils were also a big part of growing up. My grandfather would cook the crawfish in these huge tin wash bins and I have very distinct memories of watching him and being amazed at the amount of cayenne pepper and salt he would pour into these boils. Whole jars of cayenne. Then when they were done cooking, he’d dump the steaming crawfish out onto three picnic tables lined up end-to-end and my cousins and I would sit around them and it was always a race to peel the crawfish before they were all gone.

Your grandfather was a shrimper in Lake Pontchartrain for many years. Did you ever get to go with him? Lots of times. What I remember most was getting up at three in morning and getting out on the water and it would be completely dark. While we were trawling, I can remember sitting under the bulkhead and I couldn’t see anything—all I could feel was these big waves hitting the hull and I remember being certain we were going to sink. Then by the time light came, we’d be finished trawling and my job would be to pick the crabs and the fish out of the shrimp. You had to watch out for the small crabs because their pinch was the worst.

Tell us something people may not know about New Orleans food. New Orleanians are not purists when it comes to their food. I remember my grandfather started putting his etouffee over pasta instead of the traditional rice and it became quite popular among his fellow shrimpers.

What’s your favorite New Orleans dish to cook and your favorite to eat? Definitely gumbo. To me, it’s the one dish I most associate with growing up in New Orleans. But I miss those blue crabs.

* * * *

When Ian isn’t teaching his wife how to make traditional New Orleans dishes, he’s teaching Biology and Anatomy.

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Little Gale Gumbo has been out in the world now for 14 days. It’s been a wonderful ride so far, and I’ve got lots more road ahead.

But if you’ll forgive a writer getting more mileage out of a cheezy analogy, I’m going to have to pull the car over for a moment. Link-hugs ahead!

There aren’t words (even for a writer!) to express how grateful and touched I have been by the outpouring of support from friends upon my debut’s release, many of whom I was fortunate enough to meet when I first started this blog over a year ago. There’s a wonderful group of writers and readers and just plain fantastic gals I got to know from agent Betsy Lerner’s blog and I have to say even though I haven’t (yet!) had the opportunity to meet them in person, I feel very close to each one through the community of their fabulous blogs. They have been championing my book from the beginning and I wish I could give each and everyone of them a great big hug. Until the time I can, I say thank you Teri, Downith, Amy, Averil, Lyra, MSB, Lisa, Deb, Sherry, Lizi and Laura.

To my Twitter friends, who have and continue to cheer me on, my warmest thanks! Julia, Natalia, Beth, Erika, Jackie, Melissa, Alex, Kimberly, Sarah, Cynthia, Jenny, Amanda, Roz, Jen, Tom, Teresa, Linda , Victoria, Ollin.

And of course, to my fellow debut sisters at the Deb BallLinda, Joanne, Molly and Rachel–who spent a whole week chatting up Little Gale Gumbo. And all the past Debs, including Eleanor, Elise and Kim!

And I could go on, you all know I could.

So to everyone who has been so kind, who gave feedback and cheer, I am so grateful.

Now, back on the road…and I can’t wait to get into the celebration lane for all of you whose books are coming out next!

In the meantime, I’d love to give away a copy of Little Gale Gumbo! (Open to anyone ANYWHERE. Well, let’s say in this galaxy…)


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I first met Victoria Mixon through blogging friend and fellow writer Roz Morris, when she and Victoria did a wonderful series of editorial talks. I was hooked right away. Not only were they a heck of a lot of fun, but they were also exceedingly informative on the craft of writing.

Just yesterday, Victoria released her book, The Art and Craft of Story, and I’m thrilled to have a sample chapter on my blog today that deals with a topic that always leaves me with more questions than answers: How to use backstory (or, as I like to think of it: Avoiding the dreaded info dump!)

My thanks to you for sharing this, Victoria!

And now, without further ado…

Backstory

What is it? Why is it important? And what on earth are we supposed to do with that stuff?

As little as humanly possible.

It’s true that Backstory plays a part in proper plot structure. Sometimes we need a little illumination from behind the curtain. A little light filtering through the lace, highlighting the pattern as it begins to move. However, extra information is awkward, it requires its own special techniques, and the reader prefers to get that information the way they get almost everything else these days—on the fly.

So before we start throwing on the flood lamps and ripping holes in the fabric of our story, we must spend a good long time spelling out all that information in great detail in our notes and identifying ways to layer it into our characters’ interactions and adventures.

The reason Backstory is so often confused with exposition is that they share a lot in common:

• lack of momentum
• lack of in-the-moment excitement
• lack of mystery

You see? All lacks. Not a good quality in storytelling technique.

Everything we put into a story must add to the forward momentum of our plot. It must be about getting our characters from point (x1,y1,z1) to point (xn,yn,zn) with as much velocity as humanly possible. We are here to make our characters’ lives a hellbent-for-leather ride. When we stop the action in order to explain what’s gone before or what’s going on now—to point at the curtains—we throw our reader right into the dashboard. They don’t like that. They like their hair flying straight back off their heads.

Our job with Backstory is to make sure it does not throw our reader into the dashboard.

At the same time, everything we put into a story must serve the purposes of pacing. Most of what readers want out of pacing is increasing tension to make previous excitement look like the slow part laying the groundwork for what’s really electrifying.

Now, there are subtle undulations that we, the writers, know we’ve layered into this increasing tension. But the reader is feeling the pulsing increase in pressure of G’s that—if all goes well—is going to eventually implode on them, blasting them into a parallel universe. When we stop adding significant description, action, and dialog to keep that pressure stimulating, soothing, stimulating in carefully-modulated doses—when we lift the G’s to pause and discourse on general stuff—it feels weak. And our reader is likely to lurch out of our grip and fall like a lump back to earth while they’re still under the sway of gravity.

Our job with Backstory is to make sure it keeps our reader forever entirely engaged in the thrilling experience of the story, heading into orbit.

Finally, our story must always be about launching our reader out of our imagination and into their own, the curiosity that impels them out into the ether. When we drag the story backward with Backstory or exposition, we’re dragging the reader’s attention back to us. And they don’t want to pay attention to us. Then want to pay attention to themself, to their own experience of this mysterious, rocketing ride through the wilds of the imagination.

Our job with Backstory is to make sure our reader is always wholly engaged in exploring our fictional landscape, completely forgetting there’s a human being behind it all typing frantically away.

Ray Bradbury helped bring dark literary (pre-‘edgy’ ‘edgy’) fantasy and sci-fi to the forefront of modern fiction through his meticulous, unerring instinct for pure scene without a speck of exposition. And in “The Dwarf,” the first story in his literary masterpiece collection The October Country, Bradbury teaches us exactly how to handle Backstory.

Instead of telling us in exposition what the Dwarf has done before his story’s Hook, Bradbury shows the owner of the carnival Mirror Maze telling the protagonist, innocent Aimee, how the Dwarf has come to him more than once in the past asking about the price of his funhouse mirrors.

Bradbury places this Backstory exactly right, directly between the Hook and Conflict #1, and he ties it back into the Hook by introducing the conversation through Aimee’s observation that the Dwarf almost came up to them after he’d been inside the Mirror Maze, almost asked something he just couldn’t bring himself to ask.

This gives the owner of the Mirror Maze the opportunity to tell the story of the other times the Dwarf has come to him and almost asked where he could buy such a mirror, something he couldn’t quite, in the end, bring himself to ask.

That’s Backstory with forward momentum, ominous tingling, and ever deeper curiosity about Bradbury’s special melancholy country of inner torment.

And it’s only what’s absolutely necessary.

We must winnow our Backstory down to only that most essential information the reader simply has to have as they venture into our story, layering as much of that as possible into the process of our characters getting to know each other, and casting what’s left (if anything) into either very brief exposition or—better—thoroughly vivid flashback scenes.

We put those flashback scenes into Chapter Two or Three, after the Hook, before we get too deep into Conflict #1.

But only what’s absolutely necessary.

Victoria Mixon has been a writer and editor for thirty years and is the creator A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and the recently-released The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, published by Prentice Hall, for which she is listed in the Who’s Who of America. She spends a lot of time horsing around on Google+ and Twitter.

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I can hardly believe it was almost a year and a half ago that I first learned NAL would be publishing my debut novel LITTLE GALE GUMBO on October 4th, 2011. That date seemed a million days away. Now a million days has dwindled down to seven.

Having not had the experience of a book release before now, I’m not sure how the fever/fervor rates just yet–but I do know that I’ve been busy and I know you all have too. My blog subscriptions arrive in my inbox to taunt me of all your adventures and discoveries and I want you all to know I will be back to your wonderful blogs soon to catch up.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few tidbits here.

LITTLE GALE GUMBO got a very kind (and starred!) review from Library Journal. Thank you, Ms. Donohue!

To escape an abusive relationship, Camille Bergeron fled her beloved New Orleans in 1977 with her two teenage daughters, Dahlia and Josie, winding up on Little Gale Island off the coast of Maine—a place as geographically and culturally distant from their home as possible. Opening a Creole restaurant, the Bergerons soon win over the locals, becoming as much a part of the island’s culture as lobster fishing. Most important for Camille, she wins the heart of Ben Haskell, their landlord, who becomes a stable fixture in their lives. Yet Camille’s daughters remain scarred by the chaos of their early childhood. Dahlia vows she will never let a man hurt her as her father hurt her mother, and Josie maintains her idealism and romanticism despite the challenges of adulthood. When their father arrives on the island, bringing trouble with him, Dahlia and Josie, along with Ben’s son, Matthew, must come to terms with their pasts.
Verdict A debut like this doesn’t come along often—this is women’s fiction to be savored, just like a bowl of Camille’s delicious gumbo. And like gumbo, it’s the blend of ingredients that makes the difference. Marks’s combination of strong female characters, New Orleans culture, and light suspense is a winner.—Nanette Donohue, Champaign P.L., IL

If you haven’t been over to the Debutante Ball, stop on by this week–the subject is Banned Books Week and we’d love to hear from you. Today, my post explains how I didn’t know a bloody thing about the dreadful practice of book banning until I saw the movie Footloose in 1984.

I finally set up a website which will have more goodies in the days/weeks to come but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the meantime. I also added an excerpt from the book so you can get a “taste” of GUMBO, as it were.

Okay, so that’s enough about me right now. I’d really love to hear what you all have been up to, what projects, writing/reading/and otherwise, are landing or exiting your plate.

The floor is yours…

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