Circle of Friends

Oxford Languages defines a friend as “a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection.” Whether they are portrayed as the long-suffering sidekick, the compassionate care-giver or even the rival for a new job or love interest, friendships are frequently on display in television and film. Where would Lucy be without Ethel? Thelma without Louise?  Mary without Rhoda? 

In literature, the bonds of friendship are often the primary or underlying theme of the story. Well-known friendships between women  include Lila and Elena in My Brilliant Friend, sisters Celie and Nettie in The Color Purple, Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice and of course, Lena, Tibby, Carmen and Bridget in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. 

Dialogue between fictional friends can reveal hidden secrets, fears, hopes and dreams, without the need for a load of inner dialog, which let’s face it, can get pretty boring. A well-written friendship also gives the writer a chance to show how compassionate or kind or, at times, delusional the main character is. Crotchety or quirky characters are somewhat transformed, or at least made more likable, when a best friend is part of the story.

I am a writer working on my 6th novel. My main characters are all women of different ages and backgrounds, some educated, some not. Some are mothers, others are not. Married, single, divorced and widowed- on the surface, my characters appear to have nothing in common. But there is at least one thing that unites them- they are all privileged to enjoy the benefits of close friends. 

My historical novel Landscape of a Marriage will be published on July 29th. My main character is Mary Perkins Olmsted, wife of renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.  Although Mary was very much in love with her husband during the 44 years of their marriage, I invented a fictional best friend for her. Anne is the wife of Fred’s business partner and frequently provides a shoulder for Mary to cry on, a heart for Mary to take comfort in and an ear to make certain that Mary is heard.

Anne serves as both the devil’s advocate when Mary is venturing down the wrong path and the cheerleader when she needs to believe more in herself. At one point in the story, Mary implores her husband to repair a riff with Anne’s husband. “Not for the  sake of the business”, she begs him.  “But for the sake of my friendship with Anne.”

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught me anything, it is just how much I value my friends. Gone (for now) are the coffees in the cafes, the bi-weekly lunches and the weekends highlighted by a dinner party or potluck supper. In their place are phone calls, FaceTime sessions and Zoom get-togethers. Early on last spring, my friend Sandi suggested a weekly phone call every Thursday at 1pm and despite our schedules, which can still get crazy at times, more often than not we honor that appointment. We talk about our jobs, our families, friends in common, books we have read and  shows we have binged on. I usually end each call by thanking Sandi for prioritizing our friendship. We schedule other things that are important, so why not a phone call with a dear friend? My friend Lisa and I talk the last Monday of every month at 7pm. I block off my evening, knowing that we will spend 2-3 hours discussing our lives and, at least in our minds, solving all of the problems in the world. We make time to chat and text in between these marathon talk-fests, but those nights are sacred. 

If you’re a fiction writer, be sure to give your characters the gift of friendship. If you are a reader, look for cues into the protagonist’s character by seeing how they treat their friends. And most of all, reach out by phone, text, email or snail mail and tell your friends far and wide just how much you love them. It will make all of the difference in the world.

19th century novelist Charles Dicken probably said it best. “Friendship? Yes, please.”

Then & Now

Then & Now

By way of introduction, I am a writer of contemporary fiction with a new book in the historical genre. In thinking about how I made the ‘switch’, I would like to share a few thoughts with you. 

First and foremost- in my experience, writing a novel set 150 years ago is not all that different from writing one based in modern times.  In my first four contemporary novels, my main characters were women on a journey in search of more meaning in their lives, a happy ever after if you will. My latest- Landscape of a Marriage is the story of Mary’s journey- from lonely widow with three small children to wife and partner of renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted as he strives to transform the American landscape forever. Despite the vastly different time period, the challenges Mary faced are remarkably similar to what she might have dealt with today- how to balance her needs with those of her family? How to pursue what she values in order to be fulfilled- as a mother, a wife and a woman? The importance she places on friendships to keep her grounded and feeling treasured? In my mind, these themes are universal, timeless.

Next, all good stories require good characters- well developed, flawed, lovable and fully formed. Before I even begin to write, I dig deep in order to understand who my main characters are- their physical appearance, their manner of speech, of dress. Their fears, hopes, dreams, goals, likes and dislikes. I often found myself thinking- ‘no, Mary would never do that’… or ‘how is Mary feeling right now’  or ‘how would Mary respond to whatever was going on?’ Getting into your character’s head is key, whether they write with a quill pen or send text messages, the work has to be done in order to get a true sense of your characters.

Finally, a plot that keeps readers interested; one that tells an interesting story, reveals the goals and motivations of the characters and presents a realistic backdrop from which to tell the tale is critical. Landscape is set in the second half of the 19th century in the United States. The country was at war, the nation was divided and women were fighting for their rights. Was what they faced really all that different from what we are experiencing today?

I will say that writing a novel set in an earlier time period did require much more research than one of my contemporary works. Although it is fiction, authenticity is critical in order to tell a story properly. Everything from what Mary would wear- a taffeta gown with a fitted bodice and a floor-skimming skirt worn over a chemise, drawers, and a corset; what she would serve for dinner- a joint of beef, a platter of roasted vegetables and a berry trifle; and what book she might be reading- Little Women or Around the World in Eighty Days when reading to her children had to be carefully researched. I admit that prior to working on Landscape, I was never much of a history buff. All I recall of classes that I was required to take while growing up was the need to memorize dates and the names of key battles in the Civil War. I literally don’t remember a thing from all that cramming and memorization. I grew to enjoy history more recently as I researched the lifestyles of my characters and how the events of the day impacted their thoughts, choices and lives. You could say that history came more alive for me and I hope for my readers as well. 

Overall, creating characters who are interesting and memorable should be the focus when writing in any genre. One phrase I do recall from my high school French classes seems appropriate here. 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or

The more things change, the more they stay the same.