Indy Author Talk ~ Making Memories, and Hooking Them Later with Alicia Rasley

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Making Memories, and Hooking Them Later

Hi, everyone! Gladys asked me to do a guest post about what I call “Life Hooks”—the recording of memories that lets us yank our life experiences together.

I’ve never had much of a memory. We moved around a lot when I was young, so every year I’d be in a new place and all those visual cues to memory (the chair my grandmother sat in, the kitchen where I started a fire while making popcorn) were left in the old place. But a few years ago, for my parents’ 50th anniversary, I was in charge of making up a “memory book” of old photos. There are eight of us siblings, so I delegated each a town the family had lived in along the way, with the assignment of choosing some photos associated with that place and writing down a memory. What I learned from that is that we each remember different things, but also different sorts of things. I regret to tell you that what I remember are old grievances (like the time my big brother told me to do a swan dive into the snow off the back porch in Elgin, IL, assuring me that it would just be like jumping onto a big pillow: Note to self, never trust a big brother’s assurances). Mark (that very big brother) remembered the cars we had, and since my dad would buy old junkers that couldn’t last, he had to remember a lot of them. Rick, the youngest, remembered a single crystalline experience of going out into the desert and seeing the stars like they’d just burst into flame.  We all remembered… but in different ways.

What I also learned was that the very fact of recording a memory brought up a dozen more, and that as my parents paged through the memory book, they recalled events and experiences none of us had ever heard of. It was as if they could live them again—and significantly, they remembered only happy things, or at least things that were amusing in retrospect.  The memories weren’t lost, but they needed a “hook” to become accessible. And that hook was the sharing of our collective memories.

As we baby boomers move protesting and incredulous into our senior years (btw, I just saw a book title, “You’re Never Too Old to Rock and Roll,” which could be our battle cry), I think we’re going to need to find more of those memory hooks. We were most of us more dedicated to keeping our options open and trying new things to get much into ritual and tradition, which are the most common ways of “hooking” memories.  Many of us have moved far away from our homes and families, discarding boxes of junk and mementos on the way. Now we look back at a lifetime and find that we don’t have a lifetime’s worth of memories available for review. But of course we do. Experience carves actual pathways through our brains—that’s where the memories are stored—and we have them, but it’s like they’re up on a high shelf in a distant corner of a dusty attic in an abandoned house. We need a way to find them and bring them back into the light of life.

After doing the memory book, I realized that there’s something special about the physical representation of memory. I used to scorn my friends who scrapbooked; now I wish I’d been doing that all along, saving the tickets from concerts and films, the cards I’d gotten for my birthday, the scraps of my life which I just threw away.  I know now that the act of recording events, capsulizing them into some piece of paper or photo or memento, and gluing them into a book, would hook my memories together. And then they’d always be right there—not so much in my mind as in this physical book, ready to be taken down and paged through whenever I need a reminder of who I used to be.

What is it about an actual book and actual ink and actual photos? I wonder why those are still so significant in these digital days—why we still jot down a to-do list in the morning, rather than just texting ourselves our schedule; why we page through a young couple’s white satin wedding album when we’ve already seen the photos posted on Facebook.

Maybe the physical act of recording captures the physical experience? My sister-in-law Cher Megasko, a frequent traveler, keeps a travel journal and writes down her impressions as she makes each trip.  She said, “I journal when I travel abroad, taking care to record lots of unremarkable details. I keep track of each drive we take, every restaurant we eat at … even things like the number of stray dogs and cats. I’m surprised at how often I go back and read what I’ve written. Sometimes it’s just to reminisce, but I also use it to help plan future trips, even if not to the same destination. My travel journal is my younger daughter’s first choice of things to inherit when I’m gone!”

The memoirist and writing teacher William Zinsser echoed the importance of both the recording of  the unremarkable, and the usefulness of a physical representation: “When my father finished writing his histories (of the family and his shellac company), he had them typed, mimeographed, and bound in a plastic cover. He gave a copy, personally inscribed, to each of his three daughters, to their husbands, to me, to my wife, and to his 15 grandchildren, some of whom couldn’t yet read…. I like to think that those 15 copies are now squirreled away somewhere in their houses from Maine to California, waiting for the next generation.”

My friend Cynthia Furlong Reynolds has also used the physical to capture the ephemeral memories. She once worked to help elderly people record their memories—kind of making their own oral histories– and told me that they often found it oddly calming.  She remembered sitting with one elderly man with dementia, taking notes as he talked about his past. Then she typed up her notes and made them into a little book, which she printed out for him. She tells me his wife found that when he got agitated, just holding the book of memories calmed him. I think it’s because knowing the memories were in this paper-and-ink, permanent form freed him from the anxiety that he might forget.  He didn’t have to constantly remind himself about his childhood home, or his mother’s name. All that was here in this book and would always be there for him.

Maybe all this “physical” stuff is just a relic of any earlier age… but I don’t know. I have two nieces who are close in age – still teenagers– but not in proximity, and while of course these days, they kept in touch with texts and emails and Facebook messages. But once we were all together, and they showed me the little wooden boxes where they kept the letters they mailed to each other (yes! envelopes and stamps and all), and here they were, children of the electronic era, holding these pieces of paper and reading the letters out loud and remembering when they’d written them.

Anyway, I’m thinking of printing out some of those photos I have on Pinterest, writing out a note to my mother-in-law by hand for once, maybe even getting a scrapbook and starting—way too late!—to collect the junky little scraps of my days and nights. Maybe then, when my always-bad memory slides into no-memory-at-all, I’ll have something to touch and page through that reminds me I indeed did have a life!

What do you think? How do you hook into your memories? How do you remind yourself of what’s been and gone? What do you want never to forget?

I’ll leave you with a couple pretties to help jog your memories—

Here’s a Tim Buckley song about memory, Once I Was.

And a W.B. Yeats poem, “When You Are Old and Gray and Full of Sleep (take down this book).

Alicia Rasley

Indy Author Talk Author Bio

INdy Author Talk QA

Q. Where are you from?  Does the area you live in influence you writing?

I’m from Virginia, where “history” is a real focus. So I grew up intrigued by the past. Also, Virginia is, more than most places in the US, beholden to Britain for culture– even the town and county names hearken back to England because the British settled Virginia very early in our history. I always longed to go to England and see the original! I think the colonists must have found the Virginia landscape appealing, as many areas of the state look rather like the English countryside.

Q. Tell us your latest news??

My English-set Regency romance Poetic Justice is in the box set Pure Romance, which was released this month! There are 10 great romances in this set, and we’re hoping to introduce readers to our books.

Q. When and why did you begin writing? What inspired you to write your first book?

I can’t remember a time I wasn’t a writer. I wrote bad poetry and mediocre short stories until I started writing a novel– and I realized that was my preferred genre, the long prose form of fiction (that is, a novel :). I still can’t write “short” to save my life. I started my first book The Reluctant Lady when I was working as a teller in a bank in downtown Chicago. There were eight of us tellers, all young women. We would pool our money to buy romance novels, and rip the book apart. The teller on the far left would read a chapter and pass it down the line, so we all got to read the entire book during downtime and our breaks. I got impatient because I was at the end of the line! I would have to wait for everyone to get done reading the next chapter, and while I waited, I started jotting down my own story idea on the back of blank deposit slips. Eventually, I started bringing a notebook to work so I wasn’t using up all the deposit slips. :)

Q. What book(s) / author(s) have influenced your life and writing?

Georgette Heyer and Patricia Veryan were two classical authors of English-set historical romances– mostly in the Regency genre. Heyer was long gone before I started writing, but Veryan was still alive and writing. I sent her a letter asking for advice on writing Regency novels, and she was very gracious. Her advice was I should learn to fence because (in her books) swordplay was so important. I took her advice,  and took a fencing class. I ended up injuring my shoulder with all those thrusts and parries! And you know, I don’t think I’ve ever described a fencing match in my books. But for years, I had in my book bio that my hobby was fencing. I knew it made me sound dashing! I still have the mask and foils hidden away in a closet.

Q. Tell us about your characters and how they came to be?  Have they been in your head for a long time?

I have some characters who have been in my head a long time, yes. I’m working on a book right now, Tryst at the Brighton Inn, and the two main characters were kind of understudies for my first book. They aren’t in that book, but I had them in my head– “I’ll write their stories when I get done with this book.” But I never did write their stories. Oddly enough, I never conceived of them as a couple (rather, in the original proto-stories, they were paired with others)/. But last year, when I thought maybe I’d finally write Natasha’s story, I suddenly realized that this other character who had been living in my head was the perfect match for her.
In other books, like Poetic Justice, which is in the box set out this month, I invented a new character specifically to fit the plot. The hero John was in an earlier book– the hero’s bastard brother– but it took me awhile to come up with the right conflict (someone’s trying to destroy the only play in Shakespeare’s own handwriting!) and the right heroine (Jessica, the unromantic but obsessive heiress who hopes to inherit that manuscript).
It’s much easier when a character just lives inside of me. I just have to think of the situation, and I know how Natasha or Matt would react. It’s like how we know that our friend Billy would think that joke is funny, but our sister Mary would object to it as in bad taste– I just know these people, you know?  But when I have the story and have to invent the characters, it’s much harder. The characters still turn out engaging and understandable, but the process is more painful!

Q. What motivates you to write?

I like to read, to tell you the truth. And while it’s not much fun for me to write, I love reading over what I’ve written and polishing it and imagining sequels and such. I wish the writing part was more fun… but for me, it’s the reading and revising which is most fun for me.

Q. What is the hardest part of writing?

Right now it’s finding time, as I have a full-time job teaching college composition. But when I’m actually writing, what I find hardest are description– you know, when the character enters a room and I have to quickly describe what’s going on and what the place looks like– and action, when the characters are in motion and doing things and fighting the bad guys or completing some task, even something simple like rowing a boat. I can spend an hour on one paragraph of description or action. It’s just excruciating, and I just hope the effort doesn’t show in the eventual scene.

Q. Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

Of course, as an English teacher, I’ve always been exposed to Shakespeare. But in writing Poetic Justice, I learned more about Shakespeare’s life and work as I worked out the plot about his lost play. I found that I was mentally comparing his working-class upbringing and his literary fascination with my own character John’s, and that gave me a real focus– that John, like Shakespeare, was constantly having to prove his worth to the rich and worthless! I ended up so interested in Shakespeare as a person and his plays that these are a big part of my life now. In fact, I just got back from Stratford, Ontario, where I saw Hamlet at the Shakespeare Festival there, and I’m about to leave for England, where I’ll be staying in an Oxford University college and taking a course about Shakespeare’s women characters. So I have to say, writing that book ended up changing my life a little– for the better!

Q. Where do you get your ideas?

I have too many ideas. I don’t know where they come from. At this very moment, I  have 12 books started. I finally had to decide that I’d finish the Trystbook and couldn’t work on anything else till that was done. I wish there was a market just for story ideas, because I’d be rich. :)

Q. What does your family think of your writing?

My family of origin– parents and siblings– haven’t ever seemed that interested. My sister Jo is, and reads my books, and tells her friends to buy them, but I don’t think the others do.  We are all readers, but that means we all have pretty decided tastes, and only read what we want to read, which is fine. I think it’s important not to think of the family as the audience. I’d never get anything written if I worried about my brothers reading my work!
My husband is quite supportive, which is good because so much of my life writing and teaching writing and befriending writers. He retired recently from the law and started writing himself. He’s one of those people who are never burdened with writer’s block, and I am afraid now he realizes I was just whining all those years when I told him how painful writing is!
My sons both write themselves. The older one is like me– he has about 10 novels started– and I just told him sternly that he has to choose just one and finish it. We’ll see if Mom’s edicts have any effect. The younger one is in TV production in Hollywood, and he wants to write documentary films.

Q. What is the best advice you would give to inspiring authors?

Hmmm… well, I would say first, write the story that is fun for you, that makes you laugh and cry as you’re writing it. That’s the story that will connect with readers too. Also, don’t chase after people who wouldn’t like your books. Don’t try to write your book to appeal to readers who don’t like that sort of story. (I know that sounds obvious, but really, many of us are trying to appeal to a huge audience of people who either don’t read or read other types of stories.) Decide who your target reader is, which is probably the person who will laugh and cry reading your book– not your family, not some reviewer or professor, but someone who has your taste in fiction. I wasted way too much time trying to appeal to men especially (I write romance, and the readership is about 95% female, so that was kind of a waste of time), and trying to persuade snooty types that my books weren’t plebian really! Truth is, my target reader likes my books without having to be persuaded. So…get to know your target reader, and write your story to be the story those readers will enjoy.

Q. What book are you reading now?

I’m reading Heroes by Joe Abercrombie. This came in a recommendation from my husband and older son, who tell me the First Law series is better than Game of Thrones. We’ll see! I just got started yesterday. So far, it’s involving, and even the minor characters intrigue me.



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INDY Author Talk Extra

Alicia’s Regency romance, Poetic Justice, is part of the Pure Romance box set, now available for just 99 cents! That’s for 10 full-length romance novels!

Barnes & Noble:

USA Today, bestselling, and award winning authors share their favorite romances in this boxed set that includes suspense, paranormal, science fiction, contemporary, and historical stories of pure romance. This set includes Cynthia ClementWendy ElyBev PettersenHD Thomson,Christine Major DePetrilloKT RobertsAlicia RasleyBuffy Christopher, Loni Lynne and Kayce Lassiter.

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