Sunday, July 14, 2019

#064 Inside the Emotion of Fiction: NECESSARY SINS by Elizabeth Bell

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****Elizabeth Bell’s NECESSARY SINS is #64 in the never-ending series called INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific excerpt from a fiction genre and how that fiction writer wrote that specific excerpt.  All INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION links are at the end of this piece. 

Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? Necessary Sins, Book One of the Lazare Family Saga. When an agent expressed interest in this novel, she wanted the title to sound more literary, so I tried lots of other names. At the top of that list were The Migration of Souls and The Virtue of Sin. Finally, I went back to Necessary Sins. This is a four-book series, and I wanted the titles to “go together.” They’re all seeming contradictions; the others are Lost Saints, Native Stranger, and Sweet Medicine.

     Necessary Sins is actually a theological concept from an Easter hymn and from the writing of the anchoress and mystic Julian of Norwich. So the idea comes straight from my research and is explained in the novel. 

Has this been published? And it is totally fine if the answer is no. If yes, what publisher and what publication date? I’ll be publishing Necessary Sins on August 7, 2019, three days before my (gulp) 40th birthday. The ebook pre-order is live now on Amazon. Long story to publication short, I’m issuing the series under my own imprint, Claire-Voie Books. 
What is the date you began writing this piece of fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? I began the Lazare Family Saga in 1993, when I was 14 years old. I finished a complete draft of the series in January 2019. I’ll be revising Books 2 through 4 over the next year or so, and I’ll be tinkering with Book 1 till I hit publish in August 2019!

Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work? And please describe in detail. And can you please include a photo?
Most of the current draft was written in my basement apartment in the woods of Northern Virginia. Because of space limitations, my writing office is also my bedroom. I am surrounded at all times by piles of books and printed research materials, mostly obtained from the university library where I work. Two of my bookshelves not pictured!

     After years of writing on MacBooks (laptops), I invested in an iMac last year. I’m so glad I did. I love the wide screen, which allows me to toggle between my manuscript and my electronic research materials. Right now, I’m working on the series covers with my designer. But the large monitor does conceal the 1850 painting of Charleston, South Carolina, which is on the wall behind it. Charleston is a major setting for my fiction.
     There are dried wisteria racemes to the right of my computer. An important event happens beneath a wisteria pergola in Book 3 of the series. I also burn scented candles, including wisteria that are appropriate to the scene I’m writing. I’ve got a Franklin Mint Wells Fargo stagecoach because my characters travel by stagecoach across the American West. My characters also make cornhusk dolls, which I learned how to do at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. If you’ve got a good eye, you might spot the Tenth Doctor with his sonic screwdriver. I’m a sci fi fan as well as a historical fiction fan, and Doctor Who has some spectacular writing.

     The paintings above my desk all tie into my fiction. Left to right:  The Confession (1896) by Frank Dicksee. Noli Me Tangere (circa 1514), attributed to Titian. The Entombment of Atala (1808) by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, based on Chateaubriand’s novel Atala. The latter two paintings actually appear in my fiction and I explain their significance.

What were your writing habits while writing this work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? I like to have drinks and munchies appropriate to the scenes I’m writing. Some of my family saga takes place in the West Indies, so I drank coconut or mango juice while writing those scenes. For the Charleston scenes, I nibbled on benne wafers, a local sesame cookie with roots in Africa. For the scenes set in the American West, I snacked on Tanka Bites made from bison, similar to the pemmican my Cheyenne Indian characters eat.
      I mentioned burning scented candles. For Joseph, I usually burned incense and myrrh, because he’s a priest. I’m actually working with Book Scents Candles to create a custom fragrance inspired by Necessary Sins as a book launch / birthday present to myself that I can also give away to readers, so I’m excited about that.
         Occasionally I would listen to music my characters would be listening to: Schubert piano sonatas or Cheyenne flute songs. The Donizetti opera Lucia di Lammermoor also plays a pivotal role in my story. But those were usually for specific scenes. For the most part, I find music distracting and prefer to write in silence. I’ll use a white noise machine to drown out my landlady’s three barking dogs. I have a sleep disorder, and my “wakemaintenance zone” is in the wee hours of the morning. This means I am most productive and creative between 10 pm and 4 am. That is, critically, when my living space is most quiet because the rest of the house is asleep. 

What is the summary of this specific fiction work?  In antebellum Charleston, a Catholic priest grapples with doubt, his family’s secret African ancestry, and his love for a slave owner’s wife.       
     Joseph Lazare and his two sisters grow up believing their black hair and olive skin come from a Spanish grandmother—until the summer they learn she was an African slave. While his sisters make very different choices, Joseph struggles to transcend the flesh by becoming a celibate priest.
     Then young Father Joseph meets Tessa Conley, a devout Irish immigrant who shares his passions for music and botany. Joseph must conceal his true feelings as Tessa marries another man—a plantation owner who treats her like property. Acting on their love for each other will ruin Joseph and Tessa in this world and damn them in the next. 
     Or will it?
     At once intimate drama and multigenerational epic, Necessary Sins is the first book in the Lazare Family Saga that transports readers from the West Indies to the Wild West, from Charleston, Paris, and Rome into the depths of the human heart.

Can you give the reader just enough information for them to understand what is going on in the excerpt?  My protagonist is a man named Joseph Lazare in 1830s Charleston, South Carolina. He attended seminary in Rome and has just been ordained a Catholic priest. Joseph is making parish calls, and he comes to the tenement home of Teresa “Tessa” Conley, a young Irishwoman who’s recently immigrated to Charleston with her brother Liam. Joseph and Tessa have only known each other a few days, but they have a lot in common, and they’ve very attracted to each other. Yet each knows a romantic relationship is impossible, so they’re trying to deny their feelings. Catholics were sometimes persecuted in early America. A gang of troublemaking boys has been using chinaberries from the city’s trees as projectiles to harass Joseph.
Please include just one excerpt and include page numbers as reference. This one excerpt can be as short or as long as you prefer. This scene will appear on pages 215-220 of the paperback.

     The first Sunday of Advent, Joseph decided to knock at one more door before dusk. “It’s Father Lazare, the new Priest,” he announced.

     “Father! Come in!”

     Joseph opened the door to reveal a familiar figure standing by the window, hastily tucking stray hairs behind her ears. Not so familiar—only unforgettable: Miss Conley.

      Joseph took in the room at a glance. There was little to see. A cracked hearth with books on the mantle shelf. Two worn trunks that doubled as tables. A frayed blanket strung up in one corner. Beyond it, he glimpsed a washstand with a battered basin, pitcher, and dressing mirror. The only adornment was a crucifix, hung between the two beds. Unless the mold on the walls counted as decoration.

      Of course Miss Conley lived like this. She was poor. But the sight of her beauty in this ugly little room seemed so incongruous. To call her a pearl among swine would be uncharitable to her neighbors. Most of the Irish were good, pious people—and no one should live like this, unless they chose it as a Penance. But certainly Miss Conley was a rare flower in need of a better bed.

     Better SOIL, Joseph corrected. You must see her as Christ would. He would care only for Miss Conley’s spiritual beauty. 

She assisted at Mass every day. As a parishioner, Joseph had not understood the truth of that phrase, how the faithful in the pews could “assist” the Priest in his sacrifice. But as the celebrant, when Joseph knelt before the altar, when he elevated the Host, he felt their prayers joining his, strengthening them, strengthening him. Especially Miss Conley’s prayers.

     She knelt before him now, and as he blessed her, a ridiculous wish occurred to him: that this invocation could transform her drab dress into a ball gown, as if she were Cinderella.

     When he’d finished the blessing, Miss Conley took his hand and kissed him just above his knuckles for what seemed like an eternity, but must have been a moment. His reaction to her touch had hardly dulled. Few of Joseph’s other parishioners greeted him in such an intimate manner, though the practice had been common in Italy—he had often kissed Priests’ hands himself.

     He must say something to discourage Miss Conley without her suspecting his true reasons. He had asked Father Baker, and there were no indulgences for kissing a Priest’s hand after his Ordination and first Mass. “Miss Conley,” Joseph stammered, “I do not know the practice in Ireland, but in this country, it is customary to kiss a Bishop’s hand only, not a mere Priest’s.”

     She had not let go. “But your hands are also holy. Every day they hold the precious Body of Our Lord.”

     Joseph sighed. He could hardly explain: When you kiss me like that, my thoughts are anything but holy. I imagine not Our Lord’s body but—

     Slowly Joseph realized that Miss Conley’s expression had changed. Still on her knees, she was squinting up at him quizzically. When Joseph frowned, Miss Conley quickly lowered her eyes and let go of his hand. “I’m sorry, Father.”

     “What is it?”

     She bit her lip and pointed gingerly toward his head. “There’s a…small yellow ball in your hair.”

     Joseph chuckled, stroked his fingertips below his hat brim, and withdrew a chinaberry. This explained why Mrs. O’Flaherty had been staring at him out of the corner of her eyes when she thought he wasn’t looking, and why Frankie Doyle had been gaping outright. “Thank you.”

     Suppressing a giggle, Miss Conley rose from her knees. “Could I make you some tea, Father?”

     Parishioners were always offering him food and drink—people who could ill afford to spare it. “No, thank you; I’m quite all right.” Joseph stepped before the hearth and tossed the berry into the fire.

     “Perhaps a seat, then? I imagine you’ve been on your feet for hours.”

     She was right. “Yes; thank you.”

     Miss Conley offered him the room’s larger chair, which must belong to her brother. As if she’d read Joseph’s mind again, she added: “Liam is still at the office.” She frowned. “That lawyer keeps him so late—and pays him so little.”

     As Joseph sat by the fire, he noticed the pincushion, spool of thread, and pair of ladies’ gloves on the table by the window. The gloves were rose silk, finer than anything Miss Conley herself would wear. “Please don’t stop your own work on my account.”

     “The sunlight is going, anyway. I should move to the fire.” Even candles must be beyond the Conleys’ means. She transferred her chair to the hearth across from Joseph, then gathered her sewing. “I help Liam all I can, but my skills are limited. And I didn’t realize I’d be competing with—” She broke off and fell silent, lowering her eyes to her task.

     “With negroes?” Joseph prompted.

     Miss Conley nodded. “We knew there were slaves in South Carolina, of course, but somehow we’d thought they were all on plantations, that I’d be able to find work easily in a city… I know that must sound naïve.”

     “I’m sure I harbor just as many misconceptions about Ireland.”

     “Perhaps,” she smiled, glancing up at him. “But most of your ideas are probably accurate. Many Irish do believe in fairy folk. My own father—who is very God-fearing—calls me his aisling.”

     Joseph held his hands to the warmth of the fire. “I’m sorry, I don’t recognize the word.”

     “You must understand, Father, I am my parents’ seventh child, but their first daughter.” Miss Conley concentrated on her stitching as she spoke. “While my mother was carrying me, both my parents prayed for a girl. My father claims he had a dream in which a beautiful woman assured him I was coming. Aisling means ‘vision’—she appears to dreamers and foretells change. My father swears the aisling he saw nineteen years ago looked like I do now.”

     Even in the gathering gloom, Joseph saw a flush in her cheeks—pleasure at her father’s compliment but embarrassment that she’d just called herself beautiful. It was nothing less than the truth.

     How different her hair looked by firelight. In full sun, the strands shone like the brass of his thurible. Now, their color was darker and deeper, like the fragrant myrrh he burned within. Her halo of braids was looser as well, her long tresses barely contained, so he could better estimate their full glory. Unbound, they might cascade to the floor.

     He must look somewhere else. Joseph’s gaze landed on the books lined up along the mantle. Some were law tomes, but many of the volumes must belong to her. “I know you share your father’s love of books. You said you have some teaching experience as well?”

     “Oh, yes!” She stopped stitching. “Do you know of a position?”

     “I’m afraid we can’t pay you very much, but we do need another catechist. I was thinking: once you become acquainted with the parish’s children and their parents, it might lead to other things—perhaps a position as a governess.”

     “It might. Thank you, Father.”

     He would do anything to inspire such a smile. “When the weather’s mild, if you can bring your sewing work with you, you’re welcome to sit in the Biblical garden afterward. The light must be better.”

     “You wouldn’t mind?”

     “On the contrary.”

      Joseph was both disappointed and grateful when Miss Conley returned her eyes to her sewing. “I had a letter from my mother this morning. My eldest sister-in-law has been safely delivered of her tenth child. They named her after Our Lady.”

     “I imagine your parents chose your Christian name to honor Saint Teresa of Ávila?”

     Miss Conley nodded. “I was born on her feast day.”

     “Have you read any of her writings?”

     “I have. For my Confirmation, I asked for an English translation of her Life. It took my father almost a year to procure it, but finally he did.” She looked up to the last book on the mantle and smiled.

     Joseph read the spine with its antiquated spelling: The Flaming Hart, or, The Life of the Gloriovs S. Teresa.

     “That copy is nearly two hundred years old! I cannot understand why, but Saint Teresa seems to have fallen out of favor.”

     “You’ve not read her other works, then? I think my set is from the seventeenth century as well.”

     “You own the set?” Miss Conley gasped, abandoning her work on her lap. “Might I see the other volumes?”

     “You may borrow them, for as long as you like.”

     “Oh, thank you, Father!”

     Joseph was becoming very warm by the fire. He stood and moved to the window.

     Though she remained seated, Miss Conley turned in her chair. “Isn’t Teresa extraordinary?”
     “She certainly is.” Joseph tried to stare into the alley; he tried to keep himself detached. He was not successful.
     “I realize I’m prejudiced, but I think she is truly unique. She’s so honest, so human, even humorous—but also so utterly holy that she leaves me in awe. Her yearning for union with God is palpable, there on the page. The way she writes about Christ, as if He is her dearest friend…”
     At last Miss Conley lowered her eyes. “Yet she never forgets His divinity or her unworthiness.”
     “We are all of us unworthy. But I think she must be precious to Him, too.” Joseph decided that if he stayed at the window, it was safe to admire her. “There’s a chapel devoted to Saint Teresa in Rome. In the vault above it is an inscription from one of her visions, one I don’t think she mentions in her Life. Christ said to her: Nisi coelum creassem ob te solam crearem.” Joseph waited to see if Miss Conley understood.
     She wrestled visibly with the Latin, furrowing her brow and catching her lower lip between her teeth. Finally she shook her head. “Something about creating Heaven…”
     “‘If I had not already created Heaven, I would create it for you alone.’ Teresa insisted Christ meant that for all of mankind…but He said it to her.”
     She held his eyes for one long moment in the firelight, before her brother entered the room.

Why is this excerpt so emotional for you as a writer to write? And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt?  I find it delicious to write love scenes that aren’t love scenes, where the sexual tension isn’t explicit. So much is happening beneath the surface, and that makes it all the more powerful. Joseph and Tessa are devout Catholics, and he’s a priest. It’s two years before Victoria became queen, so it’s not quite the Victorian era, but they’re already repressed. These characters are not going to come right out and flirt with each other. They feel guilty about their attraction, and they’re trying to fight their feelings. Their affection for each other is still coming through, but they’re couching it in sacred language. This scene reminds me of all the times I’ve thought things I cannot say aloud for fear of the consequences.
By Karen Weisener


Were there any deletions from this excerpt that you can share with us? And can you please include a photo of your marked up rough drafts of this excerpt. I’ve done all my drafts on a computer for many years now, and I’m a perfectionist. I won’t “move on” from a chapter till it’s very close to what I want. I looked back at the earliest draft I could find, from 2014, and only a couple phrases have changed.

     However, this scene is evidence of a big change I made: I renamed my heroine. In early drafts, Tessa was named Aisling (pronounced ASH-ling). I loved the Irish legend behind the name, and I thought it tied in well with my story. Joseph thinks he knows what he wants from life—to be a good priest—but then he meets this woman who’s his soulmate, and she changes everything. However, when I did more research, I realized Aisling would not have been used as a given name at this time. Because the British Crown controlled Ireland, Irish people had Anglicized names. Furthermore, this woman from a good Catholic family would have been given a saint’s name. So I had to choose an appropriate saint. This conversation is the only remaining vestige of my heroine’s previous name, and now it explains why I named her after Saint Teresa of Ávila (Above Left) instead.

Other works you have published? Necessary Sins is my first book, although the opening pages were published in the online literary journal Embark. You can read them here:
Anything you would like to add? This family saga has obsessed me for 26 years, and I am so thrilled to finally launch it into the world! What took me so long? I was fourteen when I started—I had no idea what I was doing. I had to learn how to write. This saga covers a multitude of subjects, and I spent years learning about each of them. Life frequently got in the way. Research and revision, rinse and repeat, till I got it just right.

          Elizabeth Bell has been writing stories since the second grade (ABOVE LEFT).  At the age of fourteen, she chose a pen name and vowed to become a published author. That same year, she began the Lazare Family Saga.

     After earning her MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, Elizabeth realized she would have to return her two hundred library books. Instead, she cleverly found a job in the university library. She works there to this day.

     Elizabeth grew up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, which inspired the Western parts of the Lazare Family Saga. She now lives near the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and numerous historic house museums, which she has visited many times in the course of her research.

     Elizabeth was a Finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and won Second Place in the Maggie Awards for Excellence. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, and she loves chatting with fellow readers, writers, and history buffs.


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