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Archive for June, 2014

woman writing
The wonderful Jenny Bernard, author of the Bachelor Firemen of San Gabriel series for Avon, has tagged me for the Writing Process Blog Hop. This is one of those “answer some questions” deals, with these four questions: What am I working on right now?, How does my work differ from others in the genre?, Why do I write what I do?, and How does my writing process work? Simple, right? So without further ado, here are my answers.

 

1. What am I working on right now?

Book 3 of a new trilogy set in Colorado. It’s another small town series, but this time it’s a mountain resort town rather than the Texas Hill Country. Oh, and there are reality shows involved. Bad reality shows.

 

2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?

I guess I take a sort of ironic view of my writing. I’ve tried writing straight and serious, but somehow funny and sarcastic always sneak in. Maybe that’s because it’s the way I view life—if you can make a joke, even a small one, you can make yourself feel a little better in bad situations (although I freely admit that not all situations are funny).

 

3. Why do I write what I do?

I love to read historicals (particularly Regencies), but I don’t think I could write them. I’m more interested in contemporary situations and the way people think now. While it’s fascinating to see how romance works in a very constrained society like Regency England, it’s more interesting for me to see how it works out in a society like ours that has very few constraints and a lot of choices. How do people make romantic decisions when they can’t rely on social conventions to make those decisions for them? In a way, I think contemporary characters have a tougher time—they don’t always have social guidelines to rely on so they have to form their own.

 

4. How does my writing process work?

I’m a planner, but my planning doesn’t necessarily limit what I can do. I begin with a series of exercises I got years ago from Delilah Devlin that help me figure out who my characters are and what motivates them. Then I outline the plot. And then I start writing—and usually throw out large chunks of the outline. It helps me to have a blueprint of where I want to go when I get started, but since I’m writing a book rather than constructing a building, I’ve found I can make adjustments in the plan without bringing the whole thing down around my ears. Usually.

So there you have it. I’ve tagged some other writers to have them also answer these questions and when their posts go up, I’ll link them here.

 

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Americana musiciansLast year, a writer on Salon posted an article called “14 Amazing Country Songs For People Who Hate Country.” I read it, of course, although I was pretty certain I wouldn’t agree with it. And I didn’t. The problem was that the author hadn’t stopped to ask why people might “hate country.” He simply went in and posted links to fourteen songs he liked, and since he and I apparently have very different tastes, they weren’t songs I was crazy about even when they featured artists like Emmylou Harris who are some of my favorites.

A lot of people may hate “country” music because they think it’s twangy and old-fashioned. These are people who have apparently never listened to the product coming out of Nashville these days, which in many ways is indistinguishable from any other pop music. I may not be a fan of George Jones, but you’d never mistake the guy for somebody recording in LA. I can’t say the same for Taylor Swift. I’d say the list of fourteen songs on Salon might really appeal to people who feel dislike country music for this reason.

But what about people who hate country for that very reason—that Nashville music sounds like everybody else’s music these days? For them, that list won’t do much. For these people I have an alternative suggestion—Americana music (T. Bone Burnett calls it “American Traditional,” but I think that’s confusing—which “tradition” are we talking about?). Many Americana artists, like Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen, have spent some time in Nashville. Some, like Emmylou, still live there. But their music sounds nothing like the music coming out of mainstream Nashville these days. It’s rougher, more raw, and less predictable.

So here are 14 Americana songs for people who don’t like Country Music. Maybe you’ll like them. Maybe you won’t. But you’ll never mention them in the same breath with Taylor Swift.

1. “Gallo Del Cielo,” Joe Ely. Joe is my number one evidence for the inadequacy of the “Country” label, although he usually ends up in the Country Music section of music stores. This is his most popular song—not rock, not what you think of as country, and it’s about cock fighting. Enjoy.

2. “Melinda,” James McMurtry. James is the number two evidence for the inadequacy of calling an artist “Country”. He’s from Texas, and he can do a credible Townes Van Zandt cover, but he’s an original. This is a lovely ballad from his St. Mary In the Woods album.

3. “City of Immigrants,” Steve Earle. Choosing a single Steve Earle song is practically impossible, but this is one he wrote after moving to New York from Nashville.

4. “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” Rosanne Cash. Oh my, how to choose only one Rosanne Cash song? This is from her latest album, The River and the Thread, which ranks up there as one of my all time favorites. Keep in mind—Rosanne Cash was a bestselling Nashville artist in the eighties and left to make the kind of music she wanted. Bless her.

5. “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” Buddy Miller. If you want some old time torch and twang, Buddy Miller’s your guy. He’s also a first-rate Nashville session man and songwriter. The real deal, in other words.

6. “Heroin Addict Sister,” Elizabeth Cook. I have no idea if this song is biographical or not, but it breaks my heart every time I hear it. Cook’s a Florida country singer with her own Sirius show.

7. “Cornbread,” Band of Heathens. My, my yes. You’ll need a fan for this one.

8. “Shelter From the Storm,” Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. My all-time favorite version of this Dylan song from Crowell, a modern outlaw.

9. “Pancho and Lefty,” Emmylou Harris. Speaking of my all-time favorite versions—no one does this Townes Van Zandt song better than Emmylou.

10. “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” Carolina Chocolate Drops. A old-time song done old-timey style by a wonderful trio.

11. “Look Like a Bird,” Amanda Shires. New music that sounds like old music, sort of. A modern Appalachian melody.

12. “Coming Home,” Robert Earl Keen. “The Road Goes On Forever” is his most famous song, but I like his quieter love songs like this one.

13. “Dublin Blues,” Guy Clark. One of the Grand Old Men of Texas music with a beautiful song (and Emmylou on backup).

14. “Never Chase a Man,” Esme Patterson. Sort of a ringer since Patterson isn’t exactly an Americana singer. This song is an answer to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

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51ZzYBP1xQL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Robert Hilburn’s Johnny Cash: A Life isn’t likely to make many fans among those who adored Walk the Line when it came out a few years ago. Among the many less savory facts Hilburn passes along, you learn that Cash was never able to entirely kick his addictions, going on and off pills until the end of his life. In addition, his marriage to June Carter, usually held out as a model of spousal devotion, wasn’t exactly smooth going for either of them. In fact, more than once they came close to breaking up. And yet Hilburn’s work had the support and participation of both the Cash and Carter clans, and his cover blurbs include a very positive one from Rosanne Cash herself. So what’s up? Why would family members want a book that shows the family patriarch in a less-than-glowing light?

My guess would be because an honest portrait of Cash is more interesting than the usual country hagiography. Hilburn’s affection for Cash is clear—he’s a former music writer for the Los Angeles Times, and he knew Cash from his glory days. Unlike the Hollywood screenwriters who came up with the “feel-good” version of Cash’s life for Walk the Line, Hilburn knows that there are no easy answers to the question of what makes an artist great. There were times when Johnny Cash was a lousy human being, and there were times when he was a transcendent human being, much like the rest of us. And out of this roiling mixture of good and not-so-good, Cash was able to create some spectacular, enduring music.

When I finished Hilburn’s book, I felt drained, but I also felt like I wanted to listen to a lot of Johnny Cash, not just the songs I already had, but the ones I had yet to hear (including the several albums he recorded with Rick Rubin at the end of his life). I had a new appreciation for the complexity of his music and the maelstrom of his life that produced it.

And I think perhaps that’s the problem with our preference for the “feel-good” version of some famous lives. It’s comforting to think that Johnny found June and all his problems were over. We want to believe that other people’s marriages are perfect even though our own demonstrably are not. But that point of view downplays how difficult it is both to be a functioning artist and to have a functioning marriage. I write fiction that emphasizes happy endings, but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware that those endings are a lot more difficult in “real life.”

The thing is, though, Cash’s life does have a “happy” ending, or at least a satisfying one. At the end, his work with Rick Rubin produced some of the best music he’d ever done, and he left Rubin with a treasure trove of songs to be gradually released. Of course, this artistic triumph was accompanied with failing health, financial problems, and the death of the wife he’d come to cherish although he didn’t always treat her well. But that’s the way life is—triumph mixed with disaster, good times and misery.

We fiction writers get to shape our events to our own specifications, but biographers don’t have that luxury. It’s to Hilburn’s credit that even within the tough strictures of reality, he still manages to come up with a treatment that leaves me feeling both exasperation and admiration for Johnny Cash. He was real, and that’s enough.

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