Wednesday, December 6, 2017

From Cebu to Ubec: Inspiration for The Newspaper Widow, novel by Cecilia Brainard

I enjoy movies like Shakespeare in Love and The Man Who Invented Christmas.  The first one is a fictional romantic comedy about Shakespeare infatuated with Viola de Lesseps during the time he was working on Romeo and Juliet. The Man Who Invented Christmas relates how Charles Dickens came to write the novella, A Christmas Carol.

These movies amuse me because it's true that some writers will take bits and pieces and weave these into their stories. The facial expression that the movie-Charles Dickens gets when a name or event strikes him as "material", reminds me of when something hits me too, and my creative self recognizes this as important in my work, and I feel as if I'm in twilight zone.

In some cases, these bits of inspiration are a throw-away statement or anecdote overheard, or some bit of information that the author read, or a name that strikes his/her fancy, a bit of truth, a bit of fantasy, a memory, some imaginings.  Even the author hardly knows just where exactly the characters, or scenes, or details from his/her creation came from -- not with precision, because the creative mind whips around here and there collecting material and tailoring these until the end product is new.

I'm sharing some sources of inspiration that have worked their way into my third novel, The Newspaper Widow.

I'll start with my protagonist, Ines Maceda, the 39-year old widow who has to find out who killed the Augustinian priest in 1908 in order to free her son from jail.

Ines Maceda was inspired by my great-grandmother, Remedios Diosomito Lopez Cuenco, the mother of my grandfather, and the grandmother of my mother.

Here are some facts about Remedios. She originally came from Naic, Cavite, in the Philippines. She married my great-grandfather, Mariano Albao Cuenco, when she was only thirteen. She bore sixteen children, although only four survived to adulthood. Her surviving sons were: Maria Jose who became the Catholic Archbishop of Jaro; Mariano Jesus who at the height of his political career became senate president; Miguel who became a congressman; and a daughter also named Remedios who was known for her storytelling skills.

The husband of Remedios, Mariano Albao Cuenco, came from Capiz and he settled in Cebu where he was a poet, teacher, writer for a revolutionary general, Court of Clerk to the American Judge Carlock, and he also founded and ran the Imprenta Rosario which published several newspapers.  He ran for governor, but lost.  He died in 1909, leaving Remedios with four children and the Imprenta Rosario to run, making her the Philippines' first woman publisher.

My fictional character, Ines Maceda, is a thirty-nine-year old widow, who lives in Ubec with her son, Andres Maceda, in their house on Colon Street.  (She had two miscarriages early in her married life with the literature professor, publisher, and political contender Pablo Maceda.) As a young widow Ines is forced to run her husband's newspaper business, The Ubec Daily.

When Andres is picked up and jailed as a murder suspect of an Augustinian priest, she and her friend, the French dressmaker, Melisande Moreau, solve the crime.

The reader will note that my mythical Ubec is sometimes a lot like the real place of Cebu. These places generally share the same history, culture, and folklore. But there are also differences. I generally tweak the geography according to what is needed in the story. For instance The Newspaper Widow has a leper colony called Culyo near Ubec. In fact, there is no such leper colony on an island near Cebu. There is a Culion leper colony, but it's farther from Cebu, off of the island Palawan.

When I work on my story, there is a world in my imagination that builds as I write. The characters,  places, and all aspects of this world are introduced or changed to fit the "story." I cannot give Ines Maceda sixteen pregnancies, nor four children, because even though my model, Remedios, actually had sixteen pregnancies and four surviving children, this situation will not work in The Newspaper Widow. I cannot have her marry Pablo Maceda at the age of thirteen, because what was acceptable in Philippine society back in the early 1900s, would raise eyebrows in the 21st century.

In many ways I write so my images are crisp; the scenes have to be relevant. My story has to move along in an understandable, non-cluttered way. And of course, my characters have to be as real as flesh-and-blood; they must develop/change as the story happens.

In the end, even though "reality" inspired the novel, such as real people or real places, in the book these are no longer real but are fictional.

To those who have not yet read my novel, I share with you a recent advanced review by Foreword Reviews.  The book is now available from Amazon and from Kindle

Here also is the book trailer of The Newspaper Widow:


The Newspaper Widow, a novel by
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
published by the University of Santo Tomas University Publishing House
distributed by

Softcover $18.95 (238 pages)

While at first glance The Newspaper Widow seems like a standard historical mystery, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s novel is full and complex, overflowing with textured, fully realized characters who drive the story on every page.

Ines Maceda, the “newspaper widow,” aims to clear her son’s name. He has been accused of murdering a priest. In addition, Ines grieves for her deceased husband and combats the lingering trauma of earlier miscarriages. Her development is one of the shining elements of the novel—she feels tangible, rooted in the story and the setting.

The Newspaper Widow offers a nuanced glance into Filipino society circa 1908. It is a world rich with history, myth, and ritual; descriptions pulse with life, providing crucial insights into aspects of Filipino culture and world colonial history, such as encounters with the “Island of the Living Dead,” sectioned off to contain those inflicted with leprosy, and once the world’s largest leper colony.

While on the surface the book is a crime story, the plot is actually layered and unique. One of the novel’s greatest strengths is how it raises interesting, complicated questions about morality and justice while Ines searches for the priest’s true killer: Is death ever an apt punishment for a crime? Is revenge moral, or even necessary?

Refreshingly, nothing is black and white.

For all of The Newspaper Widow’s greatness, sometimes there are too many layers to the plot, and the ending falls a bit flat in comparison to the rest of the narrative. But flaws are minor; overall, this is a solid, satisfying work of literature.

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard displays masterful storytelling skill in The Newspaper Widow, a unique, memorable mystery.

 MYA ALEXICE (Jan/Feb. 2018)
tags: writing, how to write, book, writer, novel, mystery, murder, literature, Philippines, Filipino, Ubec

Read also:
           Women and My Writing

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