• Linda Ulleseit, author

  • NaNoWriMo!

Creative Expression

creativeI have always had the need to express myself creatively. I drew and colored and wrote stories, and later tried every art or craft I could. It was more than fun. My very soul demanded creative expression. I even remember making up stories in middle school and passing them off as truth–like how my mother wanted to buy me a horse but I refused because she wanted to deck it out in an absurdly fancy stable. I even  wore a friendship ring for awhile that purportedly came from a boyfriend living in Canada. Creative expression.

Writing stories began in third or fourth grade. The earliest story that I still have is about pigs. It’s done on that cheap lined newsprint they used to give elementary school students. Every letter is carefully written in a different color crayon. Not only the story (which is pretty bad) was creative that day! Today my drive to write is still strong, and my finished novels give me a parental thrill.

Leatherwork is another outlet for my creativity. I draw the designs, then carve and stamp them into the leather. The finished panels are sewn into purses, portfolios, or tote bags. I enjoy going to art fairs where people exclaim over the beauty of my work.

Gardening is another way to create. The color of flowers and texture of foliage decorate my yard. I week and clip and plant and feed all year. In the summer, I sit in my yard and watch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy my garden.

Cooking, although not always successful, is another form of creativity I enjoy. I’m mostly a recipe follower, but I love trying new things. I cook dinner six nights a week even while I’m working, and I live for large family gatherings like winter holidays and summer barbecues.

Cleaning house, now, is not creative. I hate cleaning more than anything else, and I avoid it desperately. Someday I hope to earn enough money from my creative endeavors to pay a housekeeper!

As a teacher, I strive every day to motivate students. When I find students with no creative drive, it still stuns me. I understand not being artistic–I’m not musical at all, and I can’t draw well–but no desire to communicate creatively at all? It’s as foreign to me as a PhD trying to teach kindergarten. We all have energy inside us. My energy wants me to create something to express it. When I do, it makes me happy.

Most people can learn to be creative. In my classroom, I show this with writing. When they enter my classroom, students usually groan when asked to write anything. In my class we write a LOT. Students participate in NaNoWriMo, writing short novels, and they write arguments and essays. As with sports or music, practice improves performance. By the time they leave my classroom, students’ confidence and pleasure in their writing has increased dramatically. Does that mean I’ve turned them into creative people? Maybe not all. But for those that do continue writing, I know their lives will be much more creative!

 

 

 

The End is a New Beginning

matsonI’m excited to announce that I have finished the first draft of my newest novel, Aloha Spirit! It begins in Honolulu in 1922 and follows the main character to California through 1960. Inspired by the life of my husband’s grandmother, Carmen Dolores Medeiros, the novel shows how one woman overcomes difficulties to find her own aloha spirit.

The story is told in three parts. In the first part, a young girl is left with a Hawai’ian family. Her mother is dead, and her father and brother are going to California to find work. She doesn’t encounter much loving attention in her large new family, but she learns the value of hard work and makes a good friend. Her friend is also Catholic, so our young girl develops a strong foundation of Catholic faith and Hawai’ian superstition. When the friend marries, our girl arranges to leave with her and improve her life.

Part two begins with her marriage at age sixteen. Her three daughters delight her, but her husband becomes abusive. Only her husband’s nephew, who is her age, can protect her. When Pearl Harbor is bombed, her life changes. Fearing for her life and that of her daughters, she flees with them to California.

Part three follows her reunion and estrangement from her brother, and her reunion with her husband when he joins them. His nephew follows, too, and they fall in love. She is torn between the strictures of her faith that prevent divorce and the tenets of aloha that call for embracing others with no thought of obligation.

This is my fifth novel, and I am familiar with the empty feeling of being done. The story rushes through my brain and out my hands like a torrential flood. When it’s finished, I feel drained. Next I will take a few days to let the story settle before beginning rounds and rounds of revision. The first part has been revised a couple of times already, and the second part once. The last part is pretty rough, so it will be awhile yet before it’s ready to publish. I will keep you posted, and I hope you’ll read it when it’s done!

Background in Historical Fiction

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One of the hardest things in writing historical fiction is to describe the world fully enough for the modern reader to imagine it while at the same time not having the character exclaim over, or even notice, items that are common to them.

In our everyday lives, for example, we pass by buildings in our neighborhood without noticing them, to the point that when one of them is demolished, we say, “I remember something was there, but what was it?” In my current work in progress, Aloha Spirit, I need to describe Honolulu as it was in territorial Hawaii. My protagonist never had to even notice buildings along the route from her home to the downtown shopping district. As an author telling her story, though, I need to describe it to provide historical context.

Another place authors of historical fiction have to pull back is when characters are doing normal household tasks. These tasks need to be described so the reader understands what is going on, and the process must be historically accurate. In Aloha Spirit, my character does the laundry, a task we all know well. But what did it look like in 1925? What type of machine was used? What brand of soap? These details give the story a historical accuracy and flavor, but it’s important to remember that the character isn’t going to notice the washing machine any more than you notice your coffee pot. Joan Blos wrote an article in the School Library Journal. She included the passage “Mother stood in front of the white box and carefully adjusted the black dial” to illustrate the awkwardness of this type of description. A modern writer surely wouldn’t describe cooking as Blos did in the above passage, so why should a historical fiction writer do so?

Personally, I prefer a little more detail about the setting in historical fiction because it helps me envision the era. I can honestly say I have never felt a historical fiction piece to be over-described. I appreciate the research that goes into novels of this typed, and I get tired of blow-by-blow accounts of battles and political intrigue, but the details of the furnishings, clothing and food, for example, captivate me.

 

 

Creative Nonfiction

writingOne of the writing genres we teach in sixth grade is personal narrative. A narrative is a story, or fiction, but a personal narrative is based on a real event. The struggle is getting students to write good stories about an event in their lives.

Now personal essay, or memoir, is supposedly a different genre. It is defined as an actual memory or experience that is enhanced by imagination. Sounds the same to me.

When we remember something from our past, we tend to remember the important part, the climax, the culmination. For example, we remember opening a present and getting something we wanted, or falling off our bike, or swimming in Hawaii. In order to make that a good piece of writing, you need to add details. Who else was there? What was the weather? What happened before that led up to it? What happened afterward? What did you feel before and how did this event change it? What did people say? These details, however, are what is usually forgotten. You are left with a story like this: I went swimming in Hawaii. It was cool. Bad story.

To enhance the memory of the experience, you need to add details. If you don’t remember what the weather was like, it’s safe to assume it was warm and sunny since Hawaii is usually warm and sunny (and you’d remember swimming in the rain). If you were on vacation with your family, you can safely assume they were there with you, even if you have to make up dialogue on what they most likely said.

So where is the line between fiction (personal narrative) and nonfiction (personal essay or memoir)? Nonfiction stories serve up just the facts, like a newspaper article. And many novelists  do a lot of research into facts to help make a novel believable. Remember, too, that memories are colored by our age at the time, and they fuzz a bit over time. When I compare childhood memories with my brother, we are often amazed we are talking about the same event. Our brain already adds creativity.

You may ask, why is it important to know if the story is nonfiction or fiction if it’s a good story? One of an author’s duties is to give the reader what they expect. If a book is billed as memoir, the reader expects that everything in it actually happened. If it’s sold as fiction, the reader assumes it’s all made up. Some people are using the title ‘creative nonfiction’ to bridge this gap. In creative nonfiction, a reader can assume that historical facts are checked and still accept that some of the characters or events are made up. My own book, Under the Almond Trees, I call historical fiction because most of it is fictionalized based on very little information. What about you? Do you like your nonfiction to be factual, or are you a fan of creative nonfiction?

 

Remembering

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I am a pretty good gardener. I plant and trim and weed the back yard, and people compliment it. There are a few things I can’t grow. Fuchsias don’t like me. Neither do yellow daisies or orchids. Violets, though, have always despised me. I have never been able to get a violet to survive, much less bloom.

Violets worshiped my mother-in-law, however. For thirty years, she had a pot of violets on the narrow windowsill above her sink. She constantly dumped the plant into the sink, stuffed the dirt back in and replaced it on the sill. It got indifferent light and inconsistent water, but it thrived. She passed away two years ago this August, and her windowsill no longer has violets.

On Mother’s Day, my husband presented me with the violet plant in the picture. I immediately placed it on my windowsill. I really didn’t expect it to live very long. The flowers wilted, but the leaves stayed healthy. Then, to my amazement, it bloomed! I have not yet dumped it in the sink, but it is beautiful and healthy. It’s not only my care that’s keeping it well. I know Mom is helping. This amazing woman laughed at the violet dirt spilled in her sink, and every day my violet reminds me of that memory.lily

Outside in that yard I love to care for, I had an orange canna lily. A year ago, it was one wilted leaf and one dead leaf. I dug it up, intending to toss it, but my husband insisted we give it another chance. I stuck it in the ground and forgot about it. The picture to the right was taken this morning, a year later. He’ll never let me forget I almost killed this plant. Isn’t it gorgeous? And that is how memories are made.

And memories usually make their way into my novels.

 

The eBook Market

I recently read an article from Fortune online about trends in sales of ebooks. With the release of sales numbers for 2015, many publishers are reporting drops in ebook sales and predicting traditional book sales will pick up. This Fortune article attempts to explain the whole picture. This is a chart they share:

2015-aug-trend-units

Keep in mind that overall ebook sales might be slowing, but are still growing 1% or so a year. What’s changing is the publisher of those books. As you can see, traditional publishers are losing market share while independent publishers are gaining market share (go Indie!).  The article goes on to predict that digital sales will continue to rise.

I used to go to the bookstore to buy my books. I would see displays created by the Big Five publishers to announce their new books. Often, I would buy them. Usually, independently published books are not carried in bookstores. They don’t have the same visual marketing ability.

Now, however, I browse for books online. Goodreads book recommendations, as well as book review blogs, now shape my buying decisions. Suddenly the exposure to all sorts of books has exploded–like it did for music when my sons bought their first iPods. I never pay attention to whether a book is independently published or not, but I do read reviews. I also leave reviews. In a future full of ebooks, those reviews will be golden to both authors and readers.

If you have never reviewed a book online, I encourage you to do so. Amazon reviews are easy to do. Be honest about what you liked and disliked, but be accurate. Friends of mine have had reviewers blast non-existent sex scenes and use the wrong main character’s name. Be specific, too. If you didn’t like something, say why. Bad reviews may punch an author in the gut, but if it’s honest they recover. Good reviews, too, should be specific. Too much gushing loses its impact. So say what you liked and say why. Say what you didn’t like and say why. Go ahead. Write a review today and help someone discover a new book to love! Especially if it’s one of mine. 🙂

 

 

 

 

Inspired by Family

IMG_0551Throughout my life, I have listened avidly to stories of my family. It was no different when I married my husband and heard stories of his family. I turned my own stories into a novel, UNDER THE ALMOND TREES and I’m currently working on ALOHA SPIRIT a story of my husband’s grandmother. The picture at left is his grandmother, mother, and aunts in Honolulu just before World War II. When writing these stories, I can’t be completely accurate since I don’t know all the details of the person’s life. It can’t be a biography. Dialogue has to be invented, as well as what I call the filling in between known events. For this reason, I’ve stopped saying these novels are about my family and begun saying they are inspired by family.

Family stories may be the inspiration, but they cannot carry a novel on their own. Even so, the first source of deeper information is the family. I took the older members of my family aside and urged them to tell me the details–where they went to school, what their mother made for dinner, which was their favorite relative, and who fought with who. My sons were working on a genealogy merit badge in Boy Scouts when they interviewed their great-grandfather. He was born in Honolulu in 1918 and was a civilian ship fitter at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed in 1941. His first-person view of the event was incredible, but his personal reactions were priceless. He told how he wanted to hide during the attack, but his boss made him go out with a crew to remove scaffolding from a ship. He hid behind turrets on the ship as the Japanese planes flew over. I wish I’d had my novelist’s eye that day and asked him about how he got to work, how long a day he worked, what he’d had for breakfast, and what the family said when he got home. Those are the details that make a novel.

Grandpa’s experience is a tiny part of my novel ALOHA SPIRIT. I had to research a lot about territorial Hawaii–the years between the fall of the monarchy and statehood. I didn’t care so much about the politics of the sugar plantation owners. I wanted to know about daily life. When did they get televisions, cars, radios? When were the hotels built on Waikiki? I read historical fiction set in Hawaii to get a feel for the era, and nonfiction for accuracy. There are many details I couldn’t find or that I had to change to fit my story. I can do that, since it’s a novel and not a biography.

The hardest part is showing the finished work to living members of the family. I think they understand that I intend it to be a tribute to our ancestors, but I’m sure they have a different view of the characters and events than I do. When I exaggerate a negative trait, I’m trying for greater conflict to improve the novel’s pacing, not to ruin a person’s reputation. So when you read my novels, keep in mind that they are novels. A lot of it is made up! Enjoy them as fiction. If you absolutely must know if something really happened, send me an email. My hope is that readers will be as inspired by the characters in my novels as I was by the women who inspired them.

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