Tell Me A Story . . .

APenrose-bookmark Cara/Andrea here,

With all the new developments and buzz about e-books and e-reading, I’ve been thinking a lot about the written word. Which, for some odd reason, also got me thinking about books and the spoken word. I wasn’t one of those kids who went out for the school plays, so the occasional times that I do public readings from my novels, I’m more than a little nervous.

Gulp. Speak aloud? The sweat starts to trickle down my spine.

Regency-reading I always take pains to practice the selected passage aloud. The first attempt usually comes out as a croak. The second is a herky-jerky stumbling over the sentences. Finally, after countless tries, I’m usually able to get through it without too many embarrassing hitches.

For those who haven’t tried it, reading aloud is NOT easy. Oh, mumbling the words doesn’t take that much effort, but to capture the mood and the nuances of a story, to make each of the characters come alive, is a daunting challenge. At least it is for me. And it made me realize how, with CDs, DVDs, TV, i-pads, Kindles, Nooks, and the internet to keep ourselves amused, reading aloud—or storytelling—has become pretty much of a lost art these days.

Regency-reader-1 Regency-reader-2 Of course, that was not so in the Regency. We have only to look at the novels of our beloved Jane Austen to see countless examples of how the practice was woven into the fabric of everyday life. Fanny Price, like so many poor relations and paid companions, was expected to keep her aunt’s boredom at bay with the soothing sounds of the spoken word. The Bennet sisters had to sit through Mr. Collin’s pompous readings of religious texts. And then there were the solemn Sunday church sermons and passages from the Scriptures to remind people of their moral duties.

Gillray On a lighter note, we are constantly reminded of how one of the main sources of evening entertainment for a family was reading a novel together after the evening meal, with each family member taking a turn. Poetry was also popular—though I imagine not many parents allowed their daughters to recite Lord Byron’s Don Juan or The Corsair aloud!

Beowulf.firstpage The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the oral tradition of storytelling has been an integral part of the human experience since the dawn of civilization. Starting with the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from around 2000 BC and is considered one of the first works of literary fiction, we see the archetypal theme of “hero and a quest” take form. (Ha, you see, romance was at the root of our imagination even back then.) This continues with Beowulf and the classical Greek epic poems of  The Iliad and  The Odyssey. And the rise of Greek theatre, with its chorus, was another way of telling an oral story.

It’s interesting to note that during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church developed “mystery plays” to convey stories of the Bible and other morality tales to the masses, most of whom could not read or understand the Latin of Church services.

Medieval-storytelling The Middle Ages also saw the rise of the troubadour tradition, which combined epic poetry and song. Guilem de Peitieu, 9th Duke of Aquitaine, is credited with inspiring the concept, and the French courts went on to develop the concept of Courtly Love, and their stories refined the notions of chivalrous behavior that have been passed down to this day. Eleanor of Aquitaine brought the tradition to England when she married Henry II. Her son, Richard the Lionhearted, was one of the most celebrated troubadours of his time, and was much admired for his artistic skills—as well as his prowess on the field of battle. During this time, we also see the rise of the Arthurian legends. (Love, honor, jealousy, sex, betrayal—the romance is heating up!)

Crusades-Troubadours Dante, Milton . . . I could go on and on, bu
t let’s fast-forward to the present, where the idea of going and listening to someone read aloud seems something of an oddity, a quaint, old-fashioned throwback to the past. I suppose that audio books are the closest thing we have to a modern version of the oral tradition.

Storytelling-1 Which brings me full circle to my own experience. After coutless sessions of practicing until I’m blue in the face, I have come to two realizations: One—I made a wise career choice in steering away from the performing arts. Two—much as I want to like listening to stories, I much prefer to read them. I am one of those people who just doesn’t follow a narrative well by listening. It seems to go in one ear and out the other. My mind wanders . . . I forget what I have heard . . . a particular voice doesn’t mesh with my idea of the character. I need to see the printed words on a page, (yes, I still prefer books to e-readers) to go at my own pace, to hear my own voices for the characters.

Greekchorus I shall end my “story” by sharing a few quotes I came across while doing a bit of research for this piece—for me, they capture the essence of why we are captivated by stories, both written and oral:

The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in. —Harold Goddard

There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories. —Ursula K. LeGuin

The universe is made of stories, not atoms. —Muriel Rukeyser

What about you? Do you enjoy listening to books or storytelling, or do you need to see the words on a page to get the full enjoyment out of a story?

The Ballad of the Long Distance Storyteller

Cat 243 Dover by Mary Jo

March 21st, 1986 

Not a date that will live in infamy, exactly, but that is the day I started writing my first romance.  Twenty-five years ago.

It was the first full day of spring, so the symbolism was good.  No deadlines for my freelance graphic design business, so I had the time to start the contrarian traditional Regency I’d been toying with in the weeks since I acquired my Leading Edge computer.  The Mayhem Consultant showed me how to Daffodils2008[1] use the word processing program, and Eureka!  I’d found the writing tool that could turn daydreams into books. 

Not that I had any expectation of actually selling a book, but what the heck, why not give it a try?  So I wrote “RR” for Regency Romance on a 5 ¼” floppy disc (yes, it’s been that long <G>) because I couldn’t admit even to myself that I was writing a book, and I started to work on the rather unimaginatively titled A Musical Lady.

And my life changed forever with less thought than I had invested in researching a new electric hand mixer.  For me, the biggest life changes tend to be the ones I don’t even notice until everything has been turned upside down.  Not that this is necessarily bad, but it is often surprising. <G>

So my fingers tripped lightly over the keys as a very Heyer-derivative story flowed out.  My brother-in-law, a fine pianist, read the first chunk and suggested calling it A Lady of Note, which was better and touched on the musical abilities of the heroine. 

Divine intervention stepped in, I found an agent in six weeks, sold the book on a Diabolical Baron--Original partial in three months.  As soon as money was offered, the smooth flow of words diminished, never to be as easy again.  (Someone actually wanted to pay money for my stories?  Good but scary!) 

I turned in the book, my market savvy editor renamed it The Diabolical Baron, and I was off and running, like a lemming over a cliff.  On this, my 25th anniversary of starting that first book, I’m still diving off cliffs.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

I’m not literary, I’m a storyteller because I love great stories, and what we love is mostly likely what we’ll write.  I like to read adventure, history, romance, fantasy, and happy endings.  Guess what I write. <G>

I’ve had my share of ups and downs, though more ups.  I’ve been overpaid and Dearly Beloved underpaid.  Treated wonderfully, and manipulated into a corner where I had to chew my paw off to escape the steel trap.  (Because they thought I couldn't escape.  They shouldn’t try to coerce stubborn authors. <G>)

I have pretty much always been able to write what I want, though some stories had to wait years for the time to be right.  I’ve had the fun of researching wonderful settings and events by setting stories in the middle of them.

I’ve told stories about good guys and bad girls and reformed bad guys.  And if none of my characters, tortured and otherwise, are really me, they all have some traits that echo in me. 

The people are never real people (except for the occasional historic figure), but the DSCN0035 cats are always based on real cats. <G>  (That's Lacey.)

At the beginning, I didn’t even know how to format dialogue because I’d never written it before.  (Despite being an honors English major.)  Didn’t know how to do a kiss.  Luckily I didn’t have to figure out to write a sex scene in those early books!

VeilofSilk5 Since my traditional Regencies tended to be too complicated and too long, not to mention paying too little to support me and my cat, I moved into historical romance. That is my enduring genre even though I’ve made side journeys into contemporary romance, fantasy, paranormal romance, and now young adult. There is just about always history, always romance, and most certainly a Happily Ever After!

I’ve mostly had good editors, with a couple of exceptions.   I remember the day a friend called cross country to say that the editor who had been making us both insane WAS LEAVING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Joy abounding!  The editor is gone, but the friend and I are both still standing. 

I’ve had two amazing agents because I am lucky, not because I was businesslike or professional in agent hunting.  (Though I still haven’t quite forgiven the first for ADM--300dpi retiring a mere 19 years into our relationship.  Most inconsiderate of her!) 

I’ve made terrific friends who share my particular forms of madness, and we celebrate and commiserate each other’s ups and downs.  At conferences, we get together and tell the tales of our kind.  Of covers good (“it’s gorgeous!”) and bad.  (“It looks like he’s giving her a field pap test!”)

Of the infamous three armed heroine who helped launch Christina Dodds’ admirable career.  Of copyeditors.  (“This CE couldn’t have had English as his first language!”)  Of the legendary editor who changed a teenage secondary character into a raccoon because she didn’t want there to be the least possible hint of impropriety on the part of the hero.  (Yes, a raccoon.  Really.) 

NEVERLESSTHANALADYART Writing may be easy for some authors, but for me, it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done.  The hardest, and the most satisfying.  I can’t imagine doing anything else—I’m now unemployable in any real trade. 

Yesterday a friend called from New Mexico and we chatted.  She asked what I had coming out this year (Three new books!  No wonder I’m behind on everything. <G>)

She asked if I’d ever run out of story ideas.  An instant no from me.  Ideas are easy, it’s execution that’s hard.  The ideas are always there when I need them.  Apparently my brain is wired for stories.

So here I am, a battered old story wolf, prowling the wild hills of Storyland while more sensible folk stay within their pastures and work at jobs that have regular income and benefits and paid vacations.  In all of these years, I’ve never once had the desire to join the flock of the sensible. 

DARK MIRROR--Finalcove-- What about you?  Have you merrily started new projects that took you to places you never dreamed of?  Have you stayed with something—a career, a relationship, a hobby, longer than you ever imagined?  What interesting and totally unexpected turns in the road have you experienced? 

Mary Jo, still standing after 25 years.