How do you define a great novel? plus writer Ian Craine’s 6 picks


Is a great novel the one you had the most fun reading? One that transported you to a whole new situation, a new land, a new time? Or did that story unlock new insights? How about one that allowed you to feel understood and less alone? What about the books of childhood, which stripped away all the anguish of being small and vulnerable? Is your favorite one that’s compelled you to read it more than once?

The desire to read

I was born ready, jumping out of my diapers with eagerness to comprehend how written language worked.

My reading list from the start

All printed words that came my way. Food wrappers, cereal boxes, and street signs were intermingled with picture books.

School days

Fourth-grade outings with my best friend were bike rides to the library. There I would tick off readings from the Newberry Medal list (the highest esteemed American children’s books). Kids’ magazines with fiction, grown-up mags that featured stories, books lying about the house, I was starved for reading no matter how much I learned. That included Playboy Magazines, The Godfather, Marquis de Sade. That last one fascinated eleven-year-old me not for the sex (it went over my head), but for how sadomasochism mirrored the day-to-day I saw. Later in high school, Shakespeare taught me how stories can tap numerous levels beyond surface and deep.

Lately

My idea of “best” has more to do with whatever I’ve recently read that left an impression. Since embarking upon novel-writing, much of my fiction is via audiobooks. Minutes spent sitting is time I could be writing. The books I select are for enjoyment as well as for learning. Since the books I’m writing, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat” and “Tango & the Sitting Cat,” are epistolary (correspondence or diary), I’m apt to download books of that style. That includes the historically latent “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” the contemporary “Queenie,” the fizzy “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and “The Roxy Letters.” Non-epistolary includes anything by authors like Anne Patchett, and Anne Tyler, who’s endings are complex. Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent protagonist encourages us to never regret losing our virginity. Now I’m dizzy with memories of beautiful reads, too many to note here but irresistible to type: “Little,” “A Tale for the Time Being,” “Kindred”… I can’t wait to read Kathleen Rooney’s latest (she was so very kind to be a Happiness Between Tails guest here).

Ian Craine, writer Ian Craine, writer

With that, dear readers, let’s meet Ian Craine — he often blogs on his wife’s site (Roberta Franklin is a writer of romantic fiction). He’s a Brit currently living in London who hopes to move to Wales and has worked as a lawyer, a book indexer, and a writer. He enjoys history, books, writing, walking, travel, horse racing, cinema, and music.

About writing, he notes, “…to write, one first of all, has to be able to read. Our life experiences, as Borges once said, include both the things we have done and the books we have read. Reading needs to be a balance between fiction and non-fiction, both from the reader’s and the writer’s point of view.”

Ian has written screenplays in various genres, novellas, stage plays, articles, short stories, flash and poetry. As for novels, he says, “…I confess I have always signally failed there. Somehow I just cannot write that many words. Perhaps I just haven’t got enough to say. But I admire anybody who can from Miguel Cervantes to my own wife.”

A lover of good novels, here are the ones he regards as the best six…

Six Great Novels: Ian Craine’s picks (in chronological order)

Painting of Don Quixote and Sancho Pansa by Honore DaumierDon Quixote and Sancho Pansa by Honore Daumier
  1. Don Quixote” by Miguel Cervantes: This is where the novel began, this is the template. It may never have been bettered since. It’s wonderfully layered, whose story are we hearing? This is a world that contains all worlds- those of dream, of memory and of imagination, of bawdy and elegy, the fantastical and the prosaic. This satire of romance now bears its own warm romantic glow. It has inspired many of the world’s greatest writers — Diderot, Mark Twain, Borges, Graham Greene, Nabokov, Carlos Fuentes — as it was inspired by Homer’s majestic Odyssey.
  2. The Black Arrow” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Stevenson was a man for all seasons from the early spring of childhood with tales like Treasure Island to winter’s disillusionment of old age in South Seas Island novellas such as Ebb Tide. My choice is in the earlier category, a stirring tale of derring-do from “The Wars of the Roses.” I am sure it was as fun to write as it is to read.
  3. The Alexandrian Quartet” by Laurence Durrell: These are four linked tales, the first three told contemporaneously but from different points of view; the fourth is subsequent to the earlier events. To me, nobody has combined a sense of place with a sense of the human condition as perfectly as Durrell. Alexandria is described on every page as the essential witness to all the characters do — their affairs, relationships, journeys, and desires. Beautiful descriptive writing effortlessly merges with a keen post-Freudian feel for humanity. It’s an object lesson too, in the primacy of the novel in describing human behaviour. This is rich beyond anything Freud himself ever wrote.
  4. Downriver” by Iain Sinclair: As Durrell wrote of a city, so Sinclair wrote of a river. The river is the Thames. The starting point is Thatcher’s London, the “revival” of the dockland with bijou apartments for bracered brokers, and it takes place largely downriver of the City, where such folk “earned” their commissions. The book, told in ten chapters, brings us an incredibly rich mix of deeply eccentric characters and allusions to episodes in London’s history over the centuries. Sinclair was a walker (till age put paid to his excursions) with a sharp eye for the topography and architecture of London, and the effects of crushing change on those left behind by the sudden hysteria orchestrated by “The Widow.”
  5. “The Blind Man’s Garden” by Nadeem Aslam: It’s 2001 and 9/11 has come and gone. But this is not about its effect on the West. This is what happened afterwards in Afghanistan. A beautifully evoked Pakistani family, each with their problems and preoccupations, are torn apart when the son decides to go to Afghanistan as a medic. An adopted “cousin” goes along for the ride. But they are too naive (perhaps a modern version of our old friends, the Quixote and Sancho Panza) and those they think are helping are out for their own cut- they are sold to the Taliban. Now they have to tread with care amidst their new “owners” while the other enemy, the Americans, fill their skies with terror and destruction. But like all serious novels about conflict, this is about trying to find common ground, mutual respect and reconciliation amid the chaos. Only “Sancho” survives because only he would have been equipped to survive. And this tremendous book, beautifully written, a tale of redemption amid horror, is his Odyssey. New ways of telling old tales.
  6. “The Professor and the Bird” by Roberta Franklin: This is a beautiful story, again with a strong sense of place, and like The Quartet set in the Mediterranean by a writer deeply conversant with the rhythms of life of Greeks and Turks and the Levant generally. She tells a lovely tale of May and November. A sparky young Irish girl on a motorbike meets an ageing Greek archaeologist. They would appear to have little in common at first, but a love of history, the sort buried deep beneath the sands and sea of the Med, begins to bring them together. She is friendly and open, he kind but academic and diffident. Their burgeoning relationship is told with warmth and humour, and the supporting crew on the dig all have their own stories to tell.

Guest Blog Post: The Margaret Fishback Papers by Kathleen Rooney


85-year-old Lillian Boxfish is out for a stroll — of over 10-miles! New York City!! New Year’s Eve, 1984!!! Alone!!!! In the middle of the night!!!!!

Wondering and worrying how the best-seller historical fiction novel would end was plenty to keep me turning the pages of “Lillian Boxwood Takes a Walk.” All the more enticing is that author Kathleen Rooney modeled Boxwood after the country’s real-life highest-paid advertising woman of the 1930s, Margaret Fishback.

Here, with Rooney’s permission for Happiness Between Tails to re-publish her article from this site, she describes the inspiration behind her book…

Kathleen Rooney, poet, professor, and author of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk.”

The Margaret Fishback Papers by Kathleen Rooney

Back in May of 2007, thanks to a tip from my best-friend-from-high-school Angela Ossar, I got to be the first scholar ever to work with the newly acquired papers of the poet and advertising copywriter Margaret Fishback at Duke University’s Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History in Durham, North Carolina. I didn’t know it at the time, but Fishback would end up being the model on which I based the protagonist, Lillian Boxfish, of my second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, which would end up coming out just slightly less than 10 years after my visit to Fishback’s archive.

Through an internship she held as part of her Library Science degree program, Angela got to be one of the first archivists to process and organize the Fishback materials. As she did so, she quickly realized that Fishback — a proto-feminist who was, at one point, the highest-paid advertising copywoman in the world, as well as a successful and well-published author of light verse — was a figure after my own heart. I love re-examining and rediscovering unjustly obscure figures, so getting a travel-to-collections grant from the university to check out the Fishback material was pretty much a dream come true.

While I was there, I connected with Fishback — her joy in her job and the identity and satisfaction she clearly found from her employment, as well as how she balanced creative pursuits and family demands with monetary ones — immediately. But it took me a long time to figure out what to do with my newfound encyclopedic knowledge of her life and times. In that spirit of not-quite-procrastination, here’s one of the poems from her 1932 collection I Feel Better Now, called “Getting Down to Work”:

Now, almost exactly a decade after I first worked with her archive, my novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk — based loosely on what I learned at Duke back in 2007 — is coming out from St. Martin’s Press. I hope that it will call more attention to this overlooked person and her role in shaping advertising as we know it. As the divisional copywriter at Macy’s, where she first worked in 1926, she revolutionized the house style and the style of advertising generally by adding humor to her ads. The humor of the ads is present in the poetry as well, even as it tends to take a slightly more world-weary and melancholy bent, like in this poem “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” also from I Feel Better Now:

Fishback’s books, as one can probably see by the fact that these are photographs of photocopies, are sadly long out of print and almost impossible to get a hold of.

But some of my most treasured acquisitions from my research that are now part of my own archive here at home include bound Xerox copies of every single one of her poetry collections, as well as her etiquette guide and guide to motherhood.

Her etiquette guide came out in 1938 and is called Safe Conduct: How to Behave and Why

And her guide to motherhood came out in 1945 and is called Look Who’s a Mother!

Both of these books, as well as each of her collections of witty verse, including her final one, Poems Made Up to Take Out, dating from 1963 —

— are delightful examples of Fishback’s voice.

Without the spirit and intelligence I found while doing my research in the papers of Margaret Fishback, I would never have been able to create Lillian. These photocopies — along with everything else I discovered in the Fishback archive roughly one decade ago — make me so happy to have gotten the chance to unearth her exceptional life and work thanks to Angela.

About Kathleen Rooney: she is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches in the English Department at DePaul University, and her most recent books include the national best-seller, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte (Spork Press, 2018). Her World War I novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is forthcoming from Penguin in August of 2020, and her criticism appears in The New York Times Magazine, The Poetry Foundation website, The Chicago TribuneThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay. Follow her at @KathleenMrooney
Do walk in your city for fun?…

Guest Blog Post: Caregiving for Men by Dan Zeorlin


News alert! Caregivers are not only women.

Since Kansas blogger Dan Zeorlin (a.k.a. MLBerg) became one, he’s shared what he’s learned by writing, “Care Giver’s Manual for Men.” It is absolutely free, neither emails nor strings attached, as a downloadable pdf file. He’s also looking to start a support group.

He first wrote for Happiness Between Tails here. Read on for six of his insights into caregiving…

Caregiver/blogger, Dan Zeorlin (a.k.a. MLBerg), has an absolutely free manual for you!

Observations of a Life Well-Worn: Reflections from a Caregiver, by Dan Zeorlin

  1. Choices: I love to see young, recently-married couples at church with crying babies. Where else would one expect to find such enthusiastic subjects and empathic, experienced audiences? A beautiful encounter is in becoming a Caregiver for someone that you love – and to grow more fully human in sharing life: joys, struggles, strengths, and acceptance. Great opportunity to meet and know God through awesome presence! Of course, it is assumed that a new parent of the crying baby loves her/him. And through the gradual series of choices, we become seasoned Caregivers. 
  2. Disappointment and Farewell to Regret: Show some resolve – grow backbone where it is needed. Do the research to find out what you want and then go for it! If drawbacks are identified in every proposal, then deliver them in a positive manner. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by creating impossible expectations. In other words, allow yourself space to dream big.
  3. What am I waiting for? Get over it! When will it be over? When will my life be through? I don’t know about you, but I need to request a review As Soon As Possible! This doesn’t mean I want fewer days to breathe, eat, sleep, and etc. but merely that I do not wish to spend my life preoccupied with “me” when there is so much more worth living for. Worse off than some…Better off than most – I do not deserve a charmed life. But isn’t this what I have every time I escape into my comfort zone? I need to be taking chances and reach new levels of shared experience. After all, sharing is caring.
  4. Enabling vs. getting a leg up: How do we become better Caregivers? The opportunities to help run rampant; the desire to leave everything neat and tidy is innate; the willingness to clean while becoming exposed to filth, getting dirty, and experiencing heartache can be devastating. Each of us has certain norms and standards, but none of these are absolute. What’s more, the object of desire often moves, and it changes. So instead of keeping the focus on trying to reach a target’s bulls-eye, sometimes the goal becomes quite unimagined and may take on slight variations or be radically different. Approach unforeseen consequences and not-prepared-for conclusions with confidence.
  5. The point is… When you sign up to love unconditionally (i.e., become a Caregiver), you do not control the rules. Pray for strength to say “Yes” each time something is asked of you; have the courage to say “No” whenever it is in the best interests of life. Try to recognize and respect those times when there is no answer other than to “hang in there.” We can be certain that love is served through Caregiving.
  6. What can I do to help? Look for ideas (try reading this: Caregivers Manual for Men) and get on board.

More about Dan Zeorlin: He is a blogger, a supporter, a follower, and a learner. He believes there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, but sometimes we must build a better mousetrap. His desire for sharing methods to enable persistence in giving care is simply a calling to do the right thing.

Do you know any men who are caregivers?…  

Guest Blog Post: Paranormal Geezer-Lit Mysteries by Mike Befeler


Anytime, especially n-o-w, is an excellent time to start something! In 2001, when Mike Befeler was 56, he set out to become a novelist. Since then, he’s authored 17!!!! books, including mysteries, a thriller, and a biography of a World War II veteran!

In this post for Happiness Between Tails, Mike discussed geezer-lit. Here he explains the ones he’s written that interlace the paranormal…

Photo of Mike Befeler
Geezer-lit author Mike Befeler

“Writing Paranormal Geezer-Lit Mysteries” by Mike Befeler

Most of my published books are geezer-lit mysteries, featuring older characters. A number of years ago, my agent suggested I consider writing a paranormal mystery. I read several and decided I would give it a shot. The result was The V V Agency, a paranormal private investigator mystery that introduced a new type of shape-shifter called a transvictus.

Then I decided to blend a paranormal mystery with older characters, and The Back Wing was born…

A normal person ends up in the back wing of a retirement home with aging witches, vampires, werewolves, and shape-shifters. And don’t believe the myth that vampires don’t age. They get older, move into retirement homes, lose their teeth, and gum people on the throat.

Needless to say, I enjoy writing humor with quirky characters. The sequel, The Front Wing, will be published this month.

 I love stories where older characters aren’t merely life-savants who are sentenced to die by the end of the tale. What do you think about how older characters are usually treated in fiction?

The Kelpies of Scotland by da-AL


Usually, I start out telling of a vacation sequentially — we arrived here, then there, and so on…

Amazing from any angle: The Kelpies of Falkirk, Scotland, by sculptor Andy Scott.

But for our spring trip to the United Kingdom, I’m beginning with the most unexpectedly jaw-dropping.

The delight of The Kelpies!! Driving between Glasgow to Edinburgh, they loom from the highway.

We were lucky for a spectacular sky of turquoise and popcorn clouds.

But any backdrop would be mysterious and magnificent with a foreground of these colossal creatures.

Label them horse heads if you will. In person, they’re far more.

The closer we got to them, the more magical they were. It didn’t matter what side we viewed them from.

From any angle, they bordered nature and the supernatural. Here’s more on The Kelpies and their sculptor Andy Scott, and an explanation of what kelpies are.

Here we are among The Kelpies!

Here’s about our visit to jam-packed London and the British Museum Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3, bubbly fun at Bath, and Avebury, and Stokesay Castle, and Harlech and Conwy and Penrith and Ullswater.

Has a sculpture ever spellbound you with its marvelousness?

Guest Blog Post: How to use atmosphere by Joseph Carrabis


Writing is dear to my soon-to-be self-published heart! As a skill as well as a talent, writing benefits from frequent regular practice and ongoing education. Author Joseph Carrabis shares his thoughts about the craft…

Joseph Carrabis, author.

“How to Use Atmosphere in Your Writing” by Joseph Carrabis

Writers are told to use atmosphere in their stories. What is atmosphere?

Writing texts define atmosphere as …the presenting of physical details so as to create an emotional reaction in the reader. Emotional reaction is what allows the reader to identify and empathize with characters in the story.

Consider the line “Eric stopped as Julia entered a copse of ancient, dark boled trees” from a horror story I’m working on.

The details relevant to Atmosphere are “stopped” and “a copse of ancient, dark boled trees.” The word “stopped” tells us Eric doesn’t want to do something and what he doesn’t want to do is follow Julia into “a copse of ancient, dark boled trees.”

I hope readers experience some tension, some foreboding, and at the same time want to read more to learn 1) why Eric stops and 2) what happens to Julia in the copse.

Creating reader emotional reaction is important because you want the reader involved, engaged. The line Eric stopped as Julia entered a copse of ancient, dark boled trees should make the reader sympathize more with Eric than Julia because Eric is showing caution while Julia is entering that copse of ancient, dark boled trees and people (in their heart of hearts) tend to favor caution.

That sense of confinement, foreboding, discomfort, ill-at-easeness comes from the words copse (a dense growth of trees), ancient (anything ancient’s going to either be very, very good or very, very bad), dark (it’s going to be bad), and boled (even if you don’t know what the word means it just sounds like something that’ll hurt you) to create a malevolent atmosphere.

A longer version of this piece is available at Atmosphere is….

About me: I’m boring and dull. Hopefully, my fiction isn’t. Learn more about me here and get my fiction here.

Does atmosphere enhance your writing?

Happy Spring and Happy Persian New Year plus Video by da-AL


Photo of Nowrooz spread by Katzenfee50 from Pixabay
Image by Katzenfee50 from Pixabay

Spring and the start of any new year are laden with happy promise — those of releasing past griefs and embracing potential good times ahead.

I wish you, dear reader, all the best for this new season that for many countries also marks the start of a new calendar year.

Here’s a speech I did for Toastmasters…

Persian New Year (aka Nowrooz, which is spelled a variety of ways due to varying alphabets) is not (n-o-t) a religious holiday. Moreover, other countries also (a-l-s-o) celebrate it, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Albania.

Did you know that Japan celebrates a version of Nowruz?

Have you got plans for Spring?…

Guest Blog Post: “Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t” by Caz


My inner cynic can loom monstrous enough to be laughable. When it skulks, it can be harder to address. Caz, who lives in England, understands that emotions are part of being human. Without being syrupy, without promoting denial, she offers practical help. Her Invisibly Me site deals with living with invisible chronic pain, including living with an ileostomy (not to be confused with a colostomy). Here’s a sample of her best advice…

Graphic: Focus On What You Can Do. Not What You Can't.

Photo of blogger Caz of InvisiblyMe.com
Caz made her first website when she was 13!

I wrote this with chronic illness in mind, but it also applies to other spheres of life, from living arrangements to your financial situation. 

Focussing on what you can’t do. It can become a vicious cycle, leaving us exhausted and disheartened before we even begin. It can happen for various reasons. Looking at how things used to be in the past, such as before chronic illness took hold. It may be from social pressures concerning what we ‘should’ be doing at this point in our lives. It may be from comparing your life to how you thought it would look, or comparing your situation to that of your peers.

For whatever reason, it’s good to work on acknowledging and accepting the situation and what you can’t necessarily change right now. Then, redefine what’s important to you, not what you feel you ‘should’ value or want. Write your own rules. Find new paths to explore and get creative to find ways to get there. Maybe you can’t do certain things, but there will always be options and alternatives. There are always small changes you can make and actions to take to improve your situation or live your best life. You may just have to look a little harder to find them.

It’s also about readjusting expectations and making them more realistic and manageable. Take note of the things you can be grateful for that often get lost in the midst of pain and illness, or stress and worry. It’s about looking at the things you’re good at and the positives you can eek out of your situation and experiences. You’ve become stronger and more resilient. Perhaps you’ve met new people in person or online, such as through blogging or support groups. Maybe you’re more compassionate, empathic, have found a new skill or have become more appreciative of the small joys in life.

When we focus on the negatives, the limitations or the things we can’t change, we give up our power. By honing in on those things you can’t do or have, or the ways in which you feel constrained, it limits your perspective and experiences even more so.

By focusing on the can’t-dos, you’re reducing yourself & your life. You are more than just the things you can’t do. 

Empower yourself by looking at what you can do, no matter how small. Look at the things you can change, the tasks you can accomplish, the things you can choose to do. 

Instead of ‘I can’t do…’, change it to ‘but I can do…’.

You’re doing the best you can, with the cards you’ve been dealt and the situation you find yourself in. A little jiggle of perspective can make a big difference. Don’t close yourself off from possibilities. Instead, think outside the box and take back some control over your life. You may just find that you’re capable of more than you imagined.

– Caz

Visit Caz at her blog and her facebook page and her Instagram.

Blogger Caz of InvisiblyMe.comInvisiblyMe.com logo graphic

How do you deal with invisible pain?…

 

Guest Post: 10 Harmless Things Said That Hurt by Uncustomary Housewife


Photo from Uncustomary Housewife

I admit it — I suffer from foot-in-mouth disease. Fortunately, Uncustomary Housewife offers help from anyone who shares my predicament…

Uncustomary Housewife

I’m letting my heart spill out through my keyboard… metaphorically, of course, and I’m offering it all to you. Today, I’m going to talk about my mental health. This is something that I’ve worked to conceal for a long time, mostly because of the negative stigma attached to mental illness. I’m sharing for two main reasons; (1) to educate people, and (2) to show people like me that they are not alone.

For the record: I’m living with Bipolar Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder… In this post I’m sharing 10 “harmless things” that people have said to me that actually cause me a great deal of pain. I’m also sharing how they make me feel, and why, while giving you an inside look at my life.

So, these are the things I wish you wouldn’t say to me;

“You don’t look like you have a mental illness.”
More commonly stated as…

View original post 3,306 more words

Hope for Novelists and Other Writers by da-AL


Do you have an elevator speech? Book writers are told that they need an ‘elevator speech’ — a one-minute pitch for when they inadvertently meet their star-maker. It’s also useful for talking about one’s book with everyone else.

Theoretically, that is. My elevator speech rarely gets past the first floor.

Bunny rabbit outfitted person reads paper.
Ryan McGuire of Gratisography is a smart bunny.

But I love my books, which is why I keep at them. My two novels are in the final edit phase as I build an audience of followers (that means you, dear reader) who I hope will be interested in them when they’re self-published. They’re narrated by a 40-year-old woman, in the form of letters to a deceased grandmother.

“An epistolary novel: written in the form of a series of letters.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The Hope Part of this Post: This video reminds me of me pitching my book — and Maria Keogh Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” did great!

Here’s part 2 of her pitching (this time to another very successful author), which is also shown comically yet realistically…

Semple’s book is so successful that Cate Blanchette is starring in a movie version of it!

What’s been people’s reaction when you tell them about your books?