Friday, April 18, 2014

The Bible , A Source For Writers

Kathy Cooney Dobbs

Allegory, parable, poetry,
dialogue, discription, characterization;
Plot, narrative, conflict; and the resolve thereof.
Writers can glean much about writing from what
some call the greatest book ever written, the greatest story ever told
 - the Holy Bible.

The treachery and heartbreak of Good Friday
gives way to the glory of Easter Sunday and the Risen Lord.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

P.L. Travers, Walt Disney & Mary Poppins

Kathy Cooney Dobbs

   I was one of many moviegoers watching Disney's  popular musical , Mary Poppins  when it opened in theaters in 1964,  and like most, fell in love with the practically perfect Mary , the Banks family and chimney sweep, Bert.                                                   

   While I knew nothing about the author, I enjoyed the  book Mary Poppins , and was a  huge fan of Walt Disney -  a child of the 1950's , I grew up with The Mickey Mouse Club , Zorro, The Wonderful World of Disney and movies Old Yeller, Bambi,  Dumbo, Toby Tyler, Pollyanna and The Parent Trap . Living in Southern California allowed me , along with my family to visit Disneyland every summer. When I graduated high school we even had our all night party at Disneyland!  Walt Disney was like an old friend.                                                    

     Not until I saw the movie Saving Mr. Banks, the Disney account of  P.L. Travers and the  tug of war, what Travers referred to as 'uneasy wedlock' ,  between her and Mr. Disney  and the making of Mary Poppins, did I learn something about the author. That she was a   somewhat difficult,  determined woman, one without much  humor or joy. Her biographer, Valerie Lawson portrays the same in Mary Poppins, She Wrote  - The Life of P.L. Travers. Travers being a  rather humorless, difficult  woman, but also a woman with talent, imagination and fortitude. And most protective of what today she might call 'her brand' - her beloved Mary Poppins.

    Lawrence writes her search for Pamela Travers (born Helen Lyndon Goff) began with the discovery she was Australian, and  "like myself had been a dancer, actress and writer. For me, Travers became more fascinating the more I learned of her mystery."

    Travers began writing as young girl and wrote several poems , including  Mother Song published in The Triad in 1922

Little son,
you must be sleeping;
Baby stars are peeping,
One by one.

'Time for bed !"...
Hear the Dustman crying,
As he comes with flying
Wings outspread...

    Lawrence writes 'Mother Song' was an unabashed piece of sentimentality (I think it sweet) , notable only for its mention of stars , the theme of so much of her later work, the phrase 'time for bed' , one of Mary Poppins favorite orders, and  the idea of the flying angel in the form of the Dustman.

    On March 20, 1926 the Christchurch Sun published  "The Strange Story of the Dancing Cow" , accompanied by a panel boasting "Miss Pamela Travers, who writes this story of the Sun is rapidly winning fame for herself in London. Few writers  today can equal her in the realm of whimsical fantasy. Read here in the Old Red Cow who awoke to find herself smitten  with star fever." In the first Mary Poppins book, published in 1934 , Mary told the same story of the cow and a king within a chapter called , "The Dancing Cow."

    During one interview Travers  says, " When I was in my teens, I wrote a small story about someone named Mary Poppins putting children to bed. I can't remember what paper the story appeared in, but the name was a long  time a-growing, a long time in existence, perhaps."  While during her lifetime no one ever discovered when she created Mary Poppins, and she certainly didn't tell, one can surmise Mary Poppins was always part of P.L. Travers. I'm sure that's one reason it was so hard for her to relinquish any control to Disney for the movie adaptation. Mary Poppins belonged to her.

     Travers admitted she liked the movie, but was always peeved with the title screen,  'Walt Disney's Mary Poppins' and felt it should have been  Mary Poppins arranged for the screen by Walt Disney. In the end one might say, it was the  magic of Travers and the magic of Disney that brought Mary Poppins long lasting life, and generations of fame.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Green Tea & The New York Times

Kathy Cooney Dobbs

    Yesterday after church, I had the pleasant experience of sitting in Starbucks drinking a refreshing glass  of  iced green tea while casually reading through my two favorite sections of The New York Times - Book Review , and Arts&Leisure.

    I don't often read print editions of the newspaper, I primarily  read articles on line now, most often The Spokesman-Review and Los Angeles Times. But having the paper in my hand with its  newsprint smell and inky feel reminded me of how important reading the daily paper once was to me, especially the Sunday paper. Turning actual pages, seeing the layout, perusing each headline.
    Statistics show print media is struggling , subscriptions and readership are down.  Many reasons are cited , not the least being the immergence of the internet .  But yesterday while browsing the paper ,  I thought how newspapers  once provided fertile ground for  young writers to hone their skill. Learning to work with an editor, rewriting and editing a story, and the pressure to  meet a copy deadline.  I thought of my own long ago days when I was one of those young writers just out of college , and was hired to write feature  stories for a community newspaper in Southern California. The editor  stressed what my journalism instructors did about writing a news story, the importance of five W's and H - Who, What, Where , When, Why and How.   

    The same  can be helpful for other genre's as well. In the telling of any story , fiction or non-fiction the reader is wanting to know who the story  is about, what is their purpose , where are they, when is the time frame, why did the characters act like they did,  and how any conflict is resolved. 

    Prior to the internet  and 24 hour cable, Newspapers were a primary source providing  news and other information for the average person;  Crime stories, society, sports, politics, obituaries, opinion, food, theater, advertisement.

    In yesterday's New York Times I found many articles informative, and interesting,  including Laemmle's List: A Mogul's Heroism , a biographical sketch by movie critic, Neal Gabler about Carl Laemmle, a founder of Universal Pictures and East Meets West, Over Cocktails - a history and recollection of vanished Chinese nightclubs. I was surprised to learn during its heyday in the 1940's, the Forbidden City in San Francisco billed itself as "the world's most famous nightclub" which often included celebrities like Bob Hope and Lauren Bacall in the audience. Then there were the Display ads touting Broadway shows, an upcoming movie release, and the American Ballet Theater.

    I discovered drinking green tea and reading The Times makes for a happy union, and rediscovered the pleasure of reading the Sunday paper - something I plan to do more often.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Fun with The Word UP

Jennifer Rova

I received this in an email today and smiled. The author is unknown but he seemed to be up for writing something funny.

The word UP in English has more meanings than any other two-letter word.  It is listed in the dictionary as an [adv],  [prep], [adj], [n] or [v]. To  be knowledgeable about the proper uses of  UP, look UP the word UP in the dictionary. In a desk-sized dictionary, it takes UP almost 1/4 of the page and can add UP to about thirty definitions. If you are UP to it, you might try building UP a list of the many ways UP is used. It will take UP a lot of your time, but if you don't give UP, you may wind UP with UP to a hundred uses or more.

 It's easy to understand UP, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, 
 but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake  UP?

At  a meeting, why does a topic come UP? Why do we speak UP, and why 
are the officers UP for  election; if there is  a tie, it is a toss UP Why is it UP
to the secretary to write UP a  report?  We call UP our friends, brighten UP a 
room, polish UP the  silver, warm UP the  leftovers and clean UP the kitchen.  
We lock UP the house and fix UP the  old car.

At other  times, this little word has real a special meaning. People stir UP trouble, 
line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and think UP excuses. To  be dressed is one thing but to be dressed UP is special.

And  this UP is confusing:  A drain must be opened UP because  it is  blocked  UP.

We  open UP a  store in the morning but we close it  UP at  night. We seem to be
 pretty mixed UP about  UP!

When  it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding  UP. When the sun comes out, 
we say it is clearing UP.  When it rains, it soaks UP the  earth.  When it does not 
rain for awhile,  things dry UP. 

One could go on and on, but I'll wrap it UP, for now . 
 My time is UP!


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Writing Notes of Sympathy

Jennifer Rova
Sending a store-bought sympathy card when someone dies is better than not acknowledging a death at all. A sincerely written note or letter of condolence is infinitely better. It is more personal and tells the recipient that you are thinking of them more deeply then just a “Hallmark moment.”  Because I am a writer, people expect me to express my thoughts on the death of someone with perfectly chosen, heart-felt sentiments and so may acquaintances of yours.

Writing a letter or note of condolence is not difficult. Express your thoughts conveying what you feel. It need not be long. The words can be written on the left hand side of a card or on plain stationery enclosed in a card or in a plain envelope. If you knew the person who died, you have things to say that you remember about him. If you did not know the deceased, you know the person to whom you are sending the letter. 

If you knew the deceased, you will have memories, a nice story or an overall impression of the person. Focus not on how she died but how she lived.
      “Your dad always kept your cars sparkling. I can still see him washing and vacuuming them       every Saturday in the summers.”

     “I loved going to your brother’s baseball games with you and your father. He explained the finer points of the game which I am passing on to my children.”

     “Your Aunt Ruth was glad to see me when she visited. Her smile was lovely. I  liked her.”

     “Brian helped to teach my boys how to act around adults with his happy greeting and stated interest in what I was doing."

     “I knew Jesse only a short time but I remember fondly how he taught your dog, Dudley, tricks.”

     “Your grandmother was such a picture of good grooming. She displayed a caring nature I wanted to 
        emulate when I grew up.”

Refer to the deceased by name. 

If you did not know the person, say something about your friend’s relationship with him.
            “I remember you talking often about how positively your mom influenced your choices in life.”

            “Your grandfather played such a big part in your life when you were a child. The funny stories you told about going to the farm every summer still make me smile. I am sorry I never met  him.”

           " Dan deployed to Iraq just before we moved here. Your family is rightly proud of his service to keep our country safe as are we. John and I cannot imagine your loss. May your many memories bring you happier thoughts."

1.   Do not mention how they are feeling. Nobody has been in the exact situation even if you have experienced a similar loss. You do not know how they are feeling.

“The loss of your infant son, Chase, is so sad. No one understands your grief but John and I send our heartfelt condolences. We want to donate to a cancer facility of your choice in his name. I will contact you in a few weeks to discuss which one you and David prefer.”

“ Tom spoke often of his grandfather. What a tragic situation to lose him so suddenly.”

“Mary Jane told me of the passing of your daughter-in-law. Beth’s death leaves a heartache nothing can heal but may your memories of her live in your hearts always."

2.    Refrain saying they will get over it, their grief will pass, it was for the best, or you are sure he is in a better place now, or it was God's will.

3.    Avoid bringing in religion unless you know you both share the same feelings. If you are religious and say something like he is better because he is with the Lord now, even though that is what you believe, the recipient may not.

 Signing a card is tricky. Some people use the term “Warmly,” or “With warm thoughts.” For some reason I always think versus “Coldly"? 

            We are thinking of you,
            With caring thoughts,
            May the blessings of peace be with you,
            With loving thoughts,
            Our prayers and thoughts are with you,

 Here are two samples of letters of condolence.

June 30, 2014

Dear Mary and Jake,
            Bill and I were so sad to hear of the death of Mary’s mother. Although we did not know Evelyn, we feel as we did because of the many nice and funny stories you told us. I still smile when I think of Evelyn stuck in the tree trying to rescue your cat. Or the time the four of you went crabbing in Maine and it snowed. The obituary in yesterday’s paper was lovely.
            We are thinking of you with deepest sympathy and caring thoughts. I understand the funeral is this Saturday and we will be there.

With heartfelt condolences,
Sheri and Bill

July 7, 2014

Dear John,
     It is with a breaking heart that I express my condolences on the loss of Jeannie. Her prolonged illness was a terrible ordeal for both of you. We share comfort in knowing that she is no longer in pain.
     Your marriage was a long and charming one that many of us tried to emulate. During my extended friendship with Jeannie, we shared so many fun activities. Picking peaches, trying to solve the world’s problems over a glass of wine, volunteering together at the food bank and exchanging solutions for problems at work will be forever instilled in my memory bank of happy thoughts.
     It is difficult to see past Jeannie’s death. May looking back at your lifetime of memories help you. I keep a picture of the two of us laughing over something I have now forgotten but I will not forget how much joy Jeannie brought to life.

With caring thoughts,

Monday, April 7, 2014

Should You Write A Historical Novel

Jennifer Rova

Yes! The field of historical novels may seem crowded but not many authors are currently writing this genre. Some eras like mid 1600s are saturated with numerous books about the Tudor and Stewart kings and queens (Phillippa Gregory et al). Bernard Cornwell has fairly well sewn up the crusader knights’ scenario as has Jean Auel for prehistoric chronicles (Clan of The Cave Bears). John Jakes did a wonderful job with The Kent Chronicles for the Revolutionary War period and the success of Gone with The Wind almost makes it impossible to write about the Civil War as we feel we know all about that time. 12 Years A Slave says pooh-pooh to that theory. A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls by Hemingway seem to kibosh the idea of a novel set in the late 1930's. However, those two novels were set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Sarah Gruen (Water for Elephants), Joe David Brown (Paper Moon) and Michael Ondailje (The English Patient) were not dissuaded by Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or Hemingway's books.  They wrote stories that were huge commercial successes set in the same era. You should not think that everything has already been written. What would stop you from writing a novel set in the late 1930's in America or Ireland or Norway? Or a Civil War novel even though Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is a recent success? Maybe you are the next Louie Lamoure with your gunslinger-gone-good-frontier novel.

The only things stopping you would be a deep distaste for research and propensity to ignore details. The majority of the work by authors of historical fiction are hours of research into the details of the period in which books are set. Many authors take up to three years to finish a historical fiction novel. Readers do not tolerate inaccuracies. They will catch if you if you have a scene where the man hears of the death of Abraham Lincoln via a telephone call in Oregon Territory which did not have telephone lines until much later. Did Eisenhower swear during cabinet meetings? Did the astronauts play cards while orbiting? When were zippers invented? Was a brougham still in use in 1900? When did the term "housedress" become common? How often did Marie Antoinette bathe? Can you see the ground where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake? (Yes, in the center of Rouen, France.)

Historical fiction can have drama, humor, tragedy, paranormal scenes, wars, social and or political emphasis. Murder, romance or war can be a main theme. Each must be accurate in the details. When were shoelaces invented? Would your character say "The thief sold the necklace to a fence" or would he say in a 1600's setting "The footpad sold it to a spiv"? You must know the period of your novel intimately enough to understand the customs, manners, dress, political events, geography and common phrases. In Gone with The Wind Prissy famously wails, "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies" versus "I don't know how to help Melanie have a baby."

Realize that you are writing about another time and place with different biases. The social mannerisms, values, economic, household goods and religions were practiced differently. Your characters should act as they would have during those times without judgment by the author. 

You may choose a time that interests you and develop a story in that time. You can write your story in brief outline form then choose a period and adjust the details. In either case, it is recommended that you check facts from at least three different sources. We all know the Internet can be wrong despite reading the same fact in three articles. It is suggested reading several books and/or articles and taking notes (without plagiarizing). Do your own research. Then if you are up for it, talk to the author of one of the books and ask questions. By doing your research first, you will know what questions to ask and not waste his or her time and the author may share his notes with you. Or not.

The primary places to look for facts are the real thing. Check artifacts and documents in museums, Look at film reels, photos, letters, diaries, news articles, exhibits of fashions, artillery, and archived drawings of homes and buildings. Read professional analyses of the subject. Read many books both fiction and nonfiction set in the time but check your facts; an author may not have. Do not depend upon movies for being correct about any details. Historical fiction is first fact based, second a good story.

U.S. Public Libraries: http.//
British Libraries: http://www.royal historical
Library of Congress: 
Presidential Libraries: see individual presidents' web sites
Free Graphic Organizers for Writers: 

A friend wrote a historical novel about the man who fired "the shot hear round the world" that started the Revolutionary War. He self -published after learning no publisher or agent would touch his "perfect" novel and he sold three copies, two to family and one to me. He missed several important points. The end of the book was where the man leaves his sweetheart and heads for the fields of Concord, Massachusetts. The beginning of the novel was about his love of guns and hunting with the Indians. The middle of the story was about him cleaning his various guns and talking with this friends about hunting and worrying about running into British soldiers. I never "bonded" with the character not having developed an interest in guns nor wanting to. My friend lacked showing the flavor of the times and did not explain why this man was motivated to run off and fight British soldiers. Little time was spent developing his persona through his clothes, housing and every day activities much less the political feelings of him, his friends and his token sweetheart. I was excited when I heard the premise of his proposed book. I like stories set in the mid to late 1700's. His beginning could have worked with the proper set up but it seemed to me that he ended where he should have started. Do you know how hard it is to come up with words when your friend says, "Well, what do you think?"

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Recipe Details: Too Much or Too Little?

It started out innocently enough. The gravy for the roast looked a little thin, so I reached for a packet of gravy mix to bulk it up a bit. The directions on the packet yielded this sentence:

"Boil 1 cup of water in a saucepan."

"Well, of course, in a saucepan," I muttered darkly. (I'm often guilty of muttering darkly when I cook, especially when confronted with inadequate gravy.) "What else would you boil water in?" A teakettle would work for the boiling part, I suppose, but not so well for the gravy part.

The recipe continued. "Combine gravy mix and cold water in a bowl, using a whisk." Again with the muttering. "Why do they have to specify to use a bowl and a whisk? Do they think I'll sit down on the floor and make mud pies with my fingers?"

In retrospect, I see that my sour attitude that day had less to do with the directions on the package than with my disappointment over my gravy malfunction. Still, it got me to thinking about recipe writing and how it has changed over the years.

In my other life, I write a blog about all things vintage. Once a week, on what I call "Retro Recipe Wednesday," I like to post a recipe from long ago. Sometimes they're great and sometimes they're ghastly, but they always inspire nostalgia.

One problem I run into with these old recipes is their imprecision compared to today's recipes. Not only do they neglect to instruct the cook to use a bowl or a spoon, but they often omit oven temperatures entirely and call for vague measurements like "butter the size of an egg." Would that be a medium, large, or jumbo egg? Chicken or quail?

To be fair, some very old recipes date from before oven-controlled ranges were available. My mom tells me that my grandmother could judge whether a wood-fired oven was ready by sticking her hand inside it to feel the air on her skin. Obviously a "slow" oven felt markedly different from a "quick" one.

I even saw an old cake recipe that listed the ingredients, instructed the reader to mix them together, "and bake." Nothing about the size of the pan. Nothing about the temperature of the oven or the length of time. Just "and bake," with the confident assumption that the reader would know what was needed.

Unless written specifically for the novice cook, older cookbooks assume that the reader knows what is meant by whip, stir, saute, and blanch. Sometimes there is a glossary printed at the back to define these terms, but the general assumption seemed to be that cooks would be familiar with these terms, perhaps learning them from their mothers or from home ec class at school. Today, not only is this level of knowledge not assumed, but neither is the knowledge that one boils water in a pan or mixes ingredients in a bowl.

This got me to wondering what social factors might account for the change. Are recipes now written for latchkey kids learning how to start supper before the rest of the family gets home? Young adults who grew up on fast food and microwave meals while managing to avoid both the home kitchen and the gone-the-way-of-the-dodo home ec class, who are now trying to feed themselves in their tiny apartment kitchens?

I suppose that, like adding salt and pepper "to taste," the amount of detail appreciated in a recipe boils down to personal preference.

What do you think? Have you noticed a change in the way recipes are written over time? If you cook, what level of precision do you like to find in your recipes?