Posted by on in Magnolia City

Avoid flimsy fiction!

I use a lot of construction metaphors when talking about writing novels, because I think structure is an important element of good narrative. I once read that “Writing is the manual labor of the mind,” and I thought, “Oh yeah!” I remember penning a letter to my aunt after finishing a huge section of Magnolia City: “You’d think sentences were made of lumber, dry wall and nails, so exhausting is the struggle to be articulate.”

One important element of this is the scaffolding that good research can bring into your work. I have found from experience that if I try to write a scene before I’ve done enough research, the scene will feel like it’s built out of veneer instead of real wood. It will feel generic and pasted together hastily. Good hard facts and details authentic to the period are what’s needed to bolster the story and give it strength.

A good example of this is my recent work on the sequel to Magnolia City. I’ve been having fun creating the portrait of an evil Grade Five teacher at Montrose Elementary School in Houston, Texas, circa 1952. I couldn’t find enough details about the school to bring it to imaginative life in my mind. Even the Texas Room at the Houston Public Library, where I did a lot of research for Magnolia City, wasn’t helpful. But writers have a new secret weapon: Google. After a search, I found a site with pictures of old schools in Texas. Someone had even photographed pages out of the Handbook given to teachers in Harris County, where Houston is located. This gave me the back story I needed for this teacher, and even the language that would have been used in those days. “Mrs. Spinks” sprang into life! I started hammering away, and a series of well-constructed scenes finally developed. It was the research that enabled me to nail it!  

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Guest Monday, 19 February 2018

Author Q&A

Q: What inspired you to write Magnolia City?

A: I grew up seeing photographs of my mother, Dottie May, as a flapper from a remote, more romantic time in Texas history. The exotic woman in the pictures wore furs and long strands of pearls, staring into the camera with a kind of flaming defiance missing in the practical housewife who was raising me. I had to write a book to explain who that other woman was. She sparked my imagination in so many ways as I tried to picture her on a honeymoon in Galveston, sneaking into the Balinese Room for one of the fashionable new bootleg cocktails. "Dottie" shape-shifted into "Hetty" and sprang to vivid life in my mind.  Henry James said that every writer must find his donnée (what's given to him by life). I found the thread of my donnée in those old faded photographs of my mother. When I yanked on it, a whole book unspooled.

Q: Why did you choose the title Magnolia City for a book about Houston, Texas? That brings to mind the Deep South.

A: As I delved into the history of my hometown, I discovered many surprises. The biggest one was that Houston's historic nickname was "the Magnolia City." This may seem odd until you realize that during the period my novel is set, the 1920's, Houston was still a gracious bayou town, steaming at the edge of the Old South but awash in the new money of Spindletop oil. The city didn't get varnished with the Western Myth until the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo kicked off in 1932. Before that, there were no cowboys and Indians in Houston's history. But there was a Lost Eden. During Edwardian days, Houstonians took the trolley out to Magnolia Park along Buffalo Bayou, an earthly paradise that rivaled Central Park and was planted with 3,750 Southern magnolia trees. It was wiped out by urban sprawl in the 1920's but lingered in the collective memory of Old Houstonians like the lost scent of the lovely white flowers that gave the city its name.

Q: Hetty's mother Nella is a complex, fascinating character, one who can be both magical and infuriating. Is she based on a real person?

A: Nella is a fictional collage that I glued together from many different scraps of real life: an elegant grandmother who lived in a hotel, a witty aunt who wrote letters in calligraphy, a mystical Mexican woman who worked in an herb shop and entranced me with her glittering eye. I took an earring here, a pair of lips there, a gesture, a tone of voice, a memory, an innuendo, then cut and pasted them all together in my imagination, fitting the pieces like a puzzle. People who accuse writers of identity theft don't understand how the creative process works. Characters stolen wholesale from real life often come across as flat in fiction. There's an alchemical process that must happen, just as in making a collage. Suddenly all the clippings coalesce, and a new face is staring out at you.

Q: Why did you choose to write from a woman's point of view?

A: I didn't choose it, it chose me. I was trying to write a novel about a male protagonist in the 1960s who was loosely based on myself.  At one point in the story, his mother returns home and drifts off into a long reverie about her youth in the 1920s. I was studying at the Humber School for Writers at the time and my writing coach, the Canadian novelist Sarah Sheard, said, "You know, the best part of this manuscript is the flashback.  Why don't you let the mother tell her story?" It turned out to be a good suggestion. As soon as I allowed my imagination to dance, Hetty MacBride was born.  That one chapter mushroomed into a whole book and, suddenly, I discovered that I had this strong female voice living inside of me. I was as surprised as everybody else.

Q: Larry McMurtry pioneered a spare prose style for his novels about Texas, a lyricism as "clean as a bleached bone." Why have you chosen to write in a more descriptive style?

A: Most of McMurtry's books are set in the Panhandle Plains or the Big Bend Country of West Texas.  Magnolia City unfolds along the Gulf Coast, in the moist subtropical part of Southeast Texas. In place of the wide-open sky of the West, Houston has moss-hung bayous and lush azalea gardens flickering in the shade of twisting post oak trees. It's a different geological zone and a different culture. In order to capture the intricacies of Old Houston, with its elaborate social customs and Art Deco skyscrapers, I needed a language as rich and heady as one of those big, fragrant Magnolia grandiflora blossoms.