How to Write a Novel at 83 … or 13

Back in the days of vaudeville, Gypsy Rose Lee and her mom found themselves booked into a third rate theater specializing in the dubious art of stripping. This was comically dramatized in the 1962 film version where the young “Gypsy” is introduced to the inner sanctum of stripping by a trio of strippers, each insisting, in her own inimitable way, that to succeed “You Gotta Have A Gimmick.” “Gimmick” is yesterday’s word for today’s all-purpose “hook,” as in: if you want to guarantee stardom on the world stage “You Gotta Have a Hook.” But in vaudeville “hook” meant if you gave a lousy performance somebody from backstage would wield a big, long hook and reel you right off the proscenium. There went your rent money and your reputation in show business. Not so today. Have a great hook and you’re in the running for whatever the media demands.

Hooks come in all shapes and sizes, ready to solve almost any problem, need or desire known to modern man. If you as an author come up with an intriguing “hook” as a way of drawing attention to your latest writing endeavor—especially if it’s non-fiction—your publicity path will be easier for obvious reasons. You have something to sell, something the carnivorous public can’t live without, or so the advertising world and the Internet would have us believe. Your hook can tie into the current news, or the latest trends. It can tie in with famous people, religion, or popular but controversial issues. Anything from “Six Ways to Save on Your Taxes” or “How to Dance the Tango on Stilts and Still Get on ‘Dancing With the Stars’” to “How to Stay Positive in q Negative World” and “How to Have the Whitest Teeth on the Planet in One Day Flat.” With the right hook anything is possible. And you might even get to share your “hook” with Oprah on TV!

If you are writing fiction, your “hook” itself may be a harder sell. You may have to rack your brain to come up with a hook scintilating and exciting enough to entice the over-stimulated public to want to buy your book. What I’ve come up with for my first novel, UNBRIDLED: A TALE OF A DIVORCE RANCH, was that, at 83, I am part of what I am sure is a fast-dwindling group of survivors of divorce ranch days. Of course, some are younger than myself since some divorce ranches were in business up into the 1960s. My own stay at such a ranch took place in 1951 when I was a rather naïve young woman of 25 and mother of two little children, the youngest a newborn. Many people today have never heard of divorce ranches, which is why I felt sharing my story would not only be educational but would reveal an important piece of our nation’s history. I’ve been working on the writing of it, off and on, for 14 years, using fictional characters in some of the settings endemic to the story with which I was familiar at that difficult time in my life. Creating characters has not been hard for me as I have written for the stage in the form of variety shows and entertainments, also acting, directing, and performing over the years.

In the 1950s, a “quickie divorce” could be had by going to Reno, Nevada. Divorces by other methods in most states could mean a wait of over a year, so a preponderance of women, and some men, took advantage of Nevada’s six week divorce law, running to Reno to get “Reno-vated” (a term coined by Walter Winchell) or “to take the six-week cure.” Six weeks was the length of stay in the state necessary to obtain a publicity-free divorce behind closed doors in Reno’s Washoe County Courthouse where all records were sealed at the completion of the hearing.

It was in 1931 that Nevada passed their six-week divorce law to correspond with a wide-open gambling law, providing a lucrative boom for the state’s coffers and a flourishing business for dude ranchers who offered a six-week stay for anyone who could afford it. Prior to the 1931 six-week law, the Nevada residence requirement for a divorce degree was for a stay of six months. So the reduction in time to six weeks popularized the “quickie divorce,” with Reno, the “Divorce Capital of the World,” fast becoming the place to go through the ‘30s and ‘40s on up to the late 1960s. With no-fault divorce in most states now, divorce ranches are a thing of the past. However, I think it is important for people (especially today’s younger women) to realize how difficult it was to get a divorce in the 1950s in most states in this country and how a lot of young married women were not as knowledgeable about their rights as they are today, NOR as free to exercise them. Divorces are easier to get today but that is not necessarily a good thing. It is actually rather sad, considering the recent U S. Census Bureau’s report that 50 per cent of all marriages entered into today will end in divorce. It is even possible now to divorce online!

Divorce ranches represented a colorful period in our nation’s history, sometimes shown in movies such as Clare Booth Luce’s “The Women,” or Arthur Miller’s “The Misfits” (starring his then wife Marilyn Monroe with Clark Gable in his “last hurrah” in films). Both Miller and Gable were familiar with the divorce ranch aspect, having stayed the six weeks at two different ranches. There were no film celebrities at the ranch I went to, but it was rife with interesting characters, some who worked there and some who were guests. In UNBRIDLED, I’ve tried to capture some of their personalities, fictionalized of course, some based on real people and some totally contrived for purposes of story-telling. There were wranglers of wild horses, cow-hands, socialites, a world personage in disguise, kids, moms, dads, waitresses, bartenders, ranch owners and foremen, even a detective and some Indians. I’m glad I wrote it even though it has taken this long to get it published.

So how do you write a novel at 83 … or even 13? As most of you already know, age has nothing to do with it. You feel you have a good idea and you run with it—right to your writing machine (I started on an electric typewriter and graduated to a Mac)—and start getting it down. If you’re thirteen, you’ll be writing about different things than you will when you’re older, but it all boils down to planting your seat in a chair. You just grab a pen or pad  OR start pounding some keys on a keyboard for as long a time as it takes to paint the picture in your head, heart and soul, sometimes driven by memory, sometimes by raw emotions begging to be expressed. Then, when you get that first draft down, it takes much more time and effort, as you all know, to polish the thing into some kind of tangible, appetizing result suitable for publishing.

I learned a lot about myself at that ranch and needed to get it down and share it. It was one of the turning points of my life, and, like most of us, I’ve had a few more since then. Those six weeks at the ranch helped me realize I was a person in my own right, something I needed desperately to learn. Up to that time, I was just a reflection of somebody my then husband thought I was. This I show in the character of Lara, the heroine in my novel. Like me, she finally feels free to face with confidence her new life as a single, working mother with two youngsters. Her story ends, but mine continued to include a happy marriage of almost fifty years and three more children, all grown now of course. I am widowed now, and if my novel UNBRIDLED: A TALE OF A DIVORCE RANCH brings back similar memories and opens a door for someone, like any work of art, all the time taken to create it will have been worth it.

And, at 83 … or 13 (although one usually has more time ahead of oneself at 13) … it is important to “keep on keeping on,” keep growing. So I am now working on the second draft of a second novel entitled MIXED MEDIA, set in Santa Fe, New Mexico (where I spent some happy years) and hope to finish it, ready for publication soon. It is a supernatural tale of a deceased Santa Fe artist who, despairing that she was not able to complete her final masterpiece, steals the living soul of a young, talented artist to accomplish the task for her. As a professional artist myself, this was a subject I felt I could tackle with some finesse and understanding. For, don’t the experts endlessly tell us “write what you know?” Of course, I had to do research for the supernatural parts of the novel, all about shamans and psychics and such. But doing research enlarges your world, helping you grow as an author and as a person. And Google makes research so much easier!

Edith Wharton, the first female recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel THE AGE OF INNOCENCE said: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it.” I hope I’ve spread some light on how to write a novel at 83, 13, 43 or one hundred and three. Don’t laugh. I had an uncle who lived to be almost one hundred and four and he was still sharp as the pencils he used to check his meal requests. He wrote several books in his time, was a preacher of distinction, and at the age of 91, organized, single-handededly, a huge family reunion at his alma mater in Ohio at which, on entertainment night, he got up and recited from memory a ten minute dramatic sketch, acting out all the parts, complete with accents. His hook, his “gimmick” was a love of life, hanging in there and spreading his light for as long as he could.

We all have a hook, or “gimmick” we can share with the world in our writing.

What’s yours?

This entry was posted on Monday, April 13th, 2009 at 9:39 pm and is filed under 1950s, Divorce Ranches, Entertainment, General, Latest Book, Mixed Media, Paintings. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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