Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

August 30, 2013

When a character steps off the page and goes places you never imagined


Briana Harley is an über-talented musician, singer, songwriter, and devoted reader of Velva Jean Learns to Drive.  In 2010, she wrote to say that she’d written a song inspired by Velva Jean and her story.  We’ve since become great friends.  She has also written music for the lyrics that appear at the end of each Velva Jean book, recorded a CD of Velva Jean songs, and, most recently, chosen Velva Jean’s favorite hymn as her project for her Choral Arranging class at Vanguard University.  It’s hard to describe just how cool it is to have your story and characters take on a new life outside of the book, and just how lovely a feeling it is when someone really gets (and is affected by) a story you wrote. 

Arranging “The Unclouded Day” by Briana Harley

As a music composition major I had to take Choral Arranging, which I was  excited about. However, I was the only one who registered for the class so it turned into private choral arranging lessons. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do “The Unclouded Day,” because I’m always thinking of Velva Jean (haha). As my professor and I went over the syllabus on my first lesson, he explained to me what the project requirements were– I could choose to arrange for mixed choir, men’s chorus, or women’s chorus.  It could be any song I wanted.  He told me that people have done the Beatles before or even current pop songs, but explained that hymns usually turn out the best.

So from that moment I was set on arranging “The Unclouded Day.”

I chose to arrange it for Women’s Chorus for a few reasons:  being a female, I would be able to arrange for female voices better, and I used to be in Women’s Chorus so I just had more knowledge about how I could arrange it.  And also because I wanted to capture Velva Jean in the arrangement (I couldn’t for the life of me hear low male bass voices singing and think of Velva Jean).  booksoup3

I knew the form of the piece from the beginning. It starts out with the first verse being a solo.  My goal was to represent 10-year-old Velva Jean from the first book, before her mother died, while she was still innocent.  The first chorus starts with two voices and adds more voices with each line until it grows to be the full choir.  This reminds me of when young Velva Jean was baptized in the river. When I picture a good ol’ fashioned baptism, I always imagine one person singing and then slowly the entire church joining them, which is where my idea came from.

After that I take each verse and chorus and add a little bit more to it each time. It started off simple and straightforward, but then I started adding more tricky descants and blue-note harmonies to give it more flavor. This is supposed to show Velva Jean’s learning and growing, how even when times get tough Velva Jean still pushes through with grace and spunk! She learns from everything she’s been through and is ready for the next battle.

There’s a section where I decided to throw in “one-liners” from other recognizable hymns. These are hymns from my “Velva Jean playlist”– even though they aren’t mentioned in the book and some of them were written after Velva Jean’s time, they still remind me of her. Anytime I hear them I think that Velva Jean could sing the heck out of them.  Also I’ve always been a fan of medleys, which was my first idea.  But there were too many hymns I wanted to feature, plus I still wanted it to be “The Unclouded Day” arrangement.  I didn’t want to have to change the title to “The Unclouded Day & other hymns,” which is what gave me the idea to just use a line from the other hymns while “The Unclouded Day” was still being sung by other voices.  Honestly, my choral arranging professor wasn’t too fond of the idea, but when I presented it to the Women’s Chorus director she loved it!  The last verse is a solo as well but with the choir singing back-up.  To me this represented Velva Jean all grown up– she still has a young spirit but she’s lived a bit, so this solo is a little slower and more heartfelt.

And then it once again ends with the choir singing “The Unclouded Day” (and other hymns) just to show all that Velva Jean has been through– but at the end of the day her heart still lies at “home where no storm clouds rise.”


April 20, 2013

Things I couldn’t write without

As many of you know, I’m currently doing a very fast, very intense, very daunting, and very complete rewrite of the fourth Velva Jean novel, American Blonde (due out next year).

In this last stretch of the Book from Hell, as I’ve taken to calling it– otherwise known as That Damn Book– I’m making a list of the things that are helping me get to the end of the Worst Deadline I’ve Ever Known.

(Not including my computer and my imagination, of course. And my loved ones, who, I hope, will still love me once the book is completed.)

Thank you to:

  • My readers, who write me the most wonderful notes and emails, reminding me why I’m doing this in the first place
  • Robeks, which gives my weary brain sustenance
  • Scrivener, the greatest software for writers ever
  • My early morning walk/workout/girltime in the park with my friend Lisa Brucker (please watch her show, Ex-Wives of Rock!)
  • John Green, Melvin Burgess, and Raymond Chandler
  • Google
  • My fab intern, Laura Burdine, who, at lightning speed, can research everything from wire tapping in the 1940s to the Los Angeles streetcar system circa 1946 to the U.S. postal system in postwar America (not to mention her ability to help one brainstorm love triangles and ways in which to solve a murder)
  • The CW, Switched at Birth, and Adam-12, for good, fluffy fun
  • Newspaperarchive.com
  • My literary cats (a special shout out to Miss Lulu for being at my side throughout each long work day)
  • My copy of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, which I’ve practically worn to dust
  • My team of experts– private investigator, medical examiner, and toxicologist– who are patiently answering my endless questions
  • Daryl Dixon, the most inspiring badass I know (or wish I knew), and my hero (as well as pretend boyfriend)
  • Lululemon, maker of the most comfortable writing clothes on the planet
  • Briana Harley, who not only helps me with Velva Jean’s music, but is the very best resource for Velva Jean idea bouncing–  after all, she knows Velva Jean almost as well as I do
  • My bosu ball and elliptical machine, which are productive places to have a good book think
  • Netflix, which, without complaining, delivers 1940s-era movies to my door or directly to my TV
  • The Los Angeles Public Library
  • And Ryan Bingham, who is Butch Dawkins

I couldn’t do it without them.

Speaking of Ryan Bingham, here’s a video that I use for inspiration. It really could be Velva Jean’s friend Butch sitting on her granddaddy’s porch.

December 27, 2012

HOME for the Holidays

One of my dearest friends, Angelo Surmelis, is a brilliant designer. I’ll be featuring him in a post to come, but here’s what you need to know for now: he’s a genius. He’s talented beyond measure. And he’s an amazing person. Angelo and I “knew each other When,” as we say– years before he was designing full time and I was writing for a living, back when we were paying our dues and dreaming, dreaming, dreaming of things to come.

Now his Angelo: HOME line is sold in some 100 stores nationwide, everywhere from amazon.com to Overstock.com to QVC, but a little over two months ago, he opened his very first HOME store, right here in downtown Los Angeles inside the historic Eastern Building. I couldn’t be prouder.

In addition to his gorgeous (and affordable!) line of furniture, bedding, and pillows, Angelo also sells books from the Jennifer and Penelope Niven library. Last week, Angelo: HOME hosted Mom and me for a special mother-daughter author holiday event. We discussed how we got our starts and how we came to write the books we’ve written. We also talked about our latest books, Thornton Wilder: A Life and Becoming Clementine.

Briana Harley was our musical guest, and for those who don’t know her, she is brilliant and talented beyond measure herself. Briana first read Velva Jean Learns to Drive when she was fifteen years old, and found in Velva Jean a kindred spirit– Briana, like Velva Jean, is from North Carolina. Also like Velva Jean, she is a guitar player and singer who’s been playing music since she was a little girl. I first met Briana when she wrote a song inspired by Velva Jean– “Live Out There,” the song that now appears at the very end of Becoming Clementine.

In honor of the recent holiday, Briana wrote a lovely, poignant, cozy-round-the-fire tune called “A Fair Mountain Christmas,” which captures the spirit of Velva Jean and her beloved mountain home.

Listen to it here!

And why not browse and shop Angelo’s designs while you’re at it? He has some wonderful sofas and chairs, perfect to read a book in…

In the meantime, here are some pictures from the event. Happy Holidays!