Tag Archives: novel

Sundays at 2 (tomorrow): Author in the Galleries

Many thanks to the folks at the Greenville County Museum of Art for inviting me to read. The event will take place in the gallery that in which photographer Owen Riley’s work is currently exhibited. I’ll be making connections between  text and image, people and place. Details below.
Mar 22, 2015

Sundays at 2: Author in the Galleries

2 pm – 3 pm

Join local author Heather Marshall as she reads excerpts from her most recent book, The Thorn Tree, along with short selections from other Celtic writers. Listeners will be invited to make connections between the words and visual images in the gallery.

All Sundays at 2 programs are free and are presented by Duke Energy.

420 College Street, Greenville SC 29601

 864.271.7570Content ©2015. Greenville County Museum of Art. All rights reserved.


Four Weeks of Fiction, part two: Sentences and Setting

We opened the second session of the four-week fiction workshop with a discussion of Andrea IMG_4167Barrett’s  Theories of Rain,  from her collection, Servants of the Map. The story not only provides a variety of settings–large and small, from cottage to woods, to the William Bartram’s garden–but also offers excellent examples of how setting can be a character itself and can reveal elements of other characters that might otherwise remain hidden.

To move from this story to an exploration of sentences and setting, we read paragraphs from Annie Proulx (People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water, from the collection, Close Range), Murray Bail (Eucalyptus), and Michael Ondaatje (In the Skin of a Lion).

Working with the characters we created in the previous session, we listed several settings the character might inhabit or wish to inhabit–large (bigger than a house), small (smaller than a room), comfortable, out of his or her element, a bucket list place–and then began to pladark sun on water muddy mountainy with setting and sentence length.


Our characters snuck into one of these places, exploring them over the course of around 150 words, all in short (five- to seven-word sentences). We noted how these short sentences heighten the drama and anticipation in these moments.

Our characters then meandered into another place in a sentence that took up a half page or more. Here, participants noted how they were able to really drop down into the place and observe more fully.

Later in tR0012460he session, another character entered the setting–one who felt differently than our initial character.


What are some of your favorite settings from works you’ve read? Why do those appeal to you as a reader? Do you have favorite places you like to write about? What makes those appealing to you as a writer?

We’re taking a week off next week. When we return, each participant will bring a completed draft with which we’ll play, exploring a variety of ways in which writers can choose to allow a story to unfold.

Marathon Running for Would-be Novelists

I could also call this, “Everything I ever needed to know about writing a novel I learned from running a marathon.” Ok, so that’s a wee bit hyperbolic. But just a wee bit.

I’m reminded of this by a combination of taking my morning walk in the rain today and by a question a young writer recently asked me about how to complete the first draft of her novel-in-progress.

The simple answer: just write it. Set a time every day and write.  Anyone who has tried it (even all you NaNoWriMo folks) know that that can be easier said than done. I knew this, on an intellectual level, when I was working on my first novel. (This would not turn out to be my first published novel, The Thorn Tree (MP Publishing, June, 2014).


I began this novel before the births of my two younger children (I have three), and was still working at it, in my spare time when I started to train for the Marine Corps Marathon in January, 1997. In addition to the three children (two of them were still in diapers; one was then four months old), I was a freelance writer.

I already knew that, in order to finish the novel, I needed to write. Just that. I needed to cast aside the critic, the need to wander down rabbit holes of research, to read books about writing, to go back to the first sentence again and again and again and again.

I also thought I needed to be in better shape, to lose weight, to contribute something to the community (postnatal hormones, I guess), so I signed on for Team in Training, to run a marathon and raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

The nine months of training and then the running of the marathon in October let things settle in fully: step-by-step, I pounded the understanding in. I learned that there will be shitty, slow days. Many. I learned that sometimes when my feet felt as though they were flying, my stopwatch said I wasn’t any faster than any other day. I learned to enjoy the sensation anyway. I learned to listen to my own instincts in the face of conflicting advice from people who had run loads of marathons. In other words, I learned to trust myself. I learned that if I skipped a day (I skipped the 16-mile training run three weeks in a row), I was just making the next run harder. (When I finally made myself do that 16-miler, so that I could hang on to the last shred of a schedule, I wept for the first four miles. It was 90 degrees out. And August-in-South-Carolina-humid.) After that, 18, 20, 22 didn’t seem so bad. So I also learned that the middle distance (the center of the novel) is harder than the beginning or the end. Just keep going. Cry if you need to.

When the marathon day came–really it’s an epilogue after all that training–the rain started about 20 minutes before the starting gun fired. And it rained the whole time. I’ve written a good bit on this blog about connections between yoga and writing, and I believe in them, but no-one has ever asked me to hold a yoga pose for four hours (yes, I took me that long to run 26.2 miles). In the rain. I did it. I put one foot in front of the other. Lots of people fell off to the side with cramps, with hypothermia, with whatever else told them they just couldn’t. Lots of people finished before I did. None of those people mattered. And none of the writers who don’t finish should offer you an excuse to abandon your project; neither need the writers who are doing “better” than you cause you to berate yourselves. One step–one word–at a time. Just write. Trust yourself. Cry if you want. But keep going. Develop a mantra: You can do it.

Those of you who have run marathons know that there are other components to training for a successful marathon, just as there are other components to writing a complete novel. I’ll address those in other posts. None of them matters, though, if you skip the act of coming to the training ground when you said you would and doing the work.

What helps you come to the page day after day? What questions does this bring up for you?

Four Weeks of Fiction

My Four Weeks of Fiction class started last night with a diverse group of participants, each working on different projects in genres from fantasy to tales of immigrants. Thanks to Emrys, the organization that offers The Writing Room, the umbrella for lots of classes and workshops that help get writers started, keep them writing and find their best voices on the page.


Each week in this fiction workshop, we’ll play with language a little to get warmed up and then look at a craft element to help us develop our stories. Last night, we used one of the exercises from Ursula LeGuin’s book, Steering the Craft, to open up some language play with alliteration, onomatopoeia, repetition and rhythm. We then jumped right in to character. The opening of Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist offered inspiration and an excellent example of a compelling physical description. 


Dale Ray Phillips and M. L. Steadman helped us get our characters moving into work they know well. The protagonist in What Men Love For,  from My People’s Waltz gave us a boy setting to a favorite chore.


The Light Between Oceans offered a glimpse into the work of a lighthouse keeper.


Each of these is an excellent example of how much the details of daily tasks can reveal about character.

For homework, we’re reading Andrea Barrett’s Theories of Rain,  from her collection, Servants of the Map.


Next week, we’ll look at setting, and at the use of setting as character.

Book Review: The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin

Such patience. Such diligence. Such sweet fruit.

In her debut novel, The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin offers us the wonderfully patient and diligent William Talmadge. He finds himself orphaned–his mother dead and his sister disappeared–in the Pacific Northwest. Carefully and tenderly, Talmadge builds an orchard filled with apples and apricots and more. The love he might have offered his mother and sister, or a wife, is poured into his land and all that grows there.

It is not, then, too much surprise that he reacts to the arrival of two dirty, pregnant young girls with the same patience and keen eye he applies to his trees, nor is it a surprise that he tends to them with the same diligence–observing them and trying to read what will allow them to grow in the best way possible. But people are not so simple as plants, for Talmadge at any rate, and what follows from this is a story of endurance and tenderness in the face of great pain and abuse, of the crafting of a family out of the most unlikely circumstances. Coplin walks the reader through the story the way Talmadge walks the orchard–guiding us through all the possibilities for new growth as well as the dangers or fallow seasons and storms. Each of the characters, including the land itself, grow and ripen and age in their own right time. The novel is beautiful in its language, its characterization and in its pacing. I’m not sure how I missed it when it released in 2012. I’m so glad I found it now.

For more details on Coplin and The Orchardist, visit http://amandacoplin.com



Mindfulness, Writing and Letting Go of Expectation

In my post with the  link to my TED talk on Letting Go of Expectation (https://heathergmarshall.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/tedx-greenville-what-to-expect-when-you-stop-expecting/), I wrote that I’d connect the concept of releasing expectation tofoggy woods for blog mindfulness and writing. I think that writing requires both the letting go of expectation and mindfulness.

When we come to the page, we must clear the space of expectations. That could mean shedding the expectations that the writing be good enough, long enough, or any other kind of demand our critical brain might make. It also means that we let go of any expectation of where the writing will go. We might think that the plot has to turn in a certain way, or try to insist that the story go in a particular direction. Clearing the space allows us to remain open to possibilities we hadn’t considered. It’s about always being curious.

Once we clear the space, we can then be fully mindful, allowing ourselves to drop fully into the moment we’re exploring. We can do what poet Cathy Smith Bowers (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/cathy-smith-bowers) calls, “writing into the mystery.” In a class at Queens University of Charlotte, I heard her explain that she starts with an abiding image — this could be any visual that has hung with you (it doesn’t have to be a work of art by any stretch) — and writes into the mystery. So we’re curious and fully immersed in what we’re writing.

Clearing the space, dropping in and being fully mindful as we write helps open places we hadn’t even known existed. It brings a richness to the writing, both as an experience of the process and for the reader. It’s a way to begin. It’s also a way to open up and explore stuck places in our stories and novels.

The next time you sit down at the page, clear the space or expectation — there’s just you and the pen and the page. Whatever comes is enough. Start with an image or a sound or whatever resonates, drop in, stay present, let it flow.

A look at settings from The Thorn Tree

I’m just back from Great Britain. I began with the Scottish launch of The Thorn Tree, in the Isle of Skye, travelled south to Glasgow and west to Arran — all settings in the novel. The Thorn Tree got a wonderful reception at the Skeabost Hotel near Portree, and I enjoyed wandering over hills that would have been dear to Agatha. Here are a couple of photos. (And if you haven’t picked up a copy of the book yet and would to, links are below the photos.


Agatha may have tread this ground on the southwest of the Isle of Skye. Her beloved Cuillins are in the background.

Arran's peaks loom in the distance -- the view Hope might have had if she'd only opened her eyes in the car on the way to Agatha's

Arran’s peaks loom in the distance — the view Hope might have had if she’d only opened her eyes in the car on the way to Agatha’s