Friday, June 28, 2013

How to Write Humor according to North Idaho's own Patrick McManus

by Ana Parker Goodwin

Do any of you write humor? I am probably one of the worst humor writers on the planet, but I'm learning. So here I am, practicing what I preached in my last blog: Write about something you know nothing about and doesn't excite you.

When I was a kid I grew up with a father and his family who had escaped Communist Russia during the Stalin purges. We very rarely laughed.  My father, the head of our household, saw nothing to laugh about. As a matter of fact on my wedding day he became very annoyed that Ron and I were being silly and joking with each other. "Now be serious, Anna," he said. "Getting married is nothing to laugh about." Actually it was probably one of the reasons I fell in love with my husband. He laughed a lot and could find the humor in almost anything. And so in the years we have been together I have learned to laugh.

When I wrote my mystery/thriller book Justice Forbidden I deliberately snuck in some humor even though the plot is serious. And in the next fiction book that I am presently writing in the Justice series, I am adding even more humor. Why?

If we didn't have humor in our lives when things got tough, where would we be? Probably even more anxious and depressed. The thing is, that the world is pretty stressed out right now and many people are reacting with anxiety and anger. That's okay. People have automatic emotions when they listen to the news and for each person the emotion may be different. But don't forget. We all have choices about how we will respond and act. Can you see the problem from a different perspective? Can you turn the picture upside down or at angles and see the funny aspect of it? Comedians have a great way of doing just that. If you can laugh at a situation it will help you cope with what is going on.  

Patrick McManus, who lives here in North Idaho, is one of the great humorists in this country today. I hope all of you have read some of his books. My favorite of the books I read was Never Sniff a Gift Fish. Most of his stories are about his adventures in the woods, rivers, and lakes in the Sandpoint area, just north of Coeur d'Alene. The last book before he stopped writing in 2000, is one he wrote to teach humor writing. The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor. In his book he included several tips. So if you are interested in writing humor, here are a couple:  

1. Never write real-life humor. I would probably say don't write real life humor if the audience you are trying to reach cannot identify easily with what has happened. Probably Johnny falling off the canoe was hilarious to the family because they knew him, and knew his particular personality, but most of your readers will say, "HUH?"  

2. Write about your bad experiences, not your good ones. Write about your failures, your fears, and situations others have experienced as well and say, "Yeah, that's me," or "That's what happened to my dad, alright."

3. Write about personality quirks. My  character, Evelyn Frampton, in Justice Forbidden, is an elderly, eccentric, but very loving neighbor who runs around helping Faythe capture the murderer by hitting the presumed criminal over the head with a wine bottle. She also gets rid of  her dandelions by slurping up puffballs with the vacuum cleaner. Also create two characters who play well off each other like Lucy and her friend in the ancient but very funny show, "I Love Lucy."

4. Use exaggeration but not so much that it seems completely implausible.  You must be able to imagine the situation and see how funny it would look. Of course if you earlier read the title of Patrick McManus' book, The Deer on the Bicycle, you might say, "A deer on a bicycle? That's crazy."  But you can see it in your mind and it would probably make you laugh. Most people are willing to suspend reality for a while if not too absurd. Another one of his stories is called, "A Bear in the Attic," and it's hilarious. I am finding this technique to be one of my favorites to create humor for my books.

5. Say or do the opposite of what someone would expect you to say or do. Although McManus does not mention this technique, I have found that the element of surprise in humor is very effective. I have heard many people use it, including me, and it works really well as long as it is funny and not hurtful to someone. Of course that's true for all humor. Using four letter words over and over for shock value looses it's effect, and for me just turns into shock.

The more I read and learn about writing humor, and practice it in my writing, the more fun it's becoming.  And yes, I'm getting better at it.

If you have any other great ideas and comments about writing humor to help the rest of us schmucks, let us know.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Challenge yourself: Write About Something you don't Like

By Ana Parker Goodwin

Just like most writers I've been told that the best way to find topics to write about is to make a list of all the things you know best and that excite you: your work, a special hobby, interest, or experience you survived. Or if you have several children, you might want to write tips to parents about child rearing. And to a large degree these teachers were right.

I recently talked to a man who, after a nasty divorce, raised his five children by himself. He is writing some articles about his personal experiences and adventures with the children as they grew up. He is writing about a topic he knows well. Most of us have heard few personal accounts of men raising children alone and we are interested in hearing about the rapid changes occurring in our culture today. Will single parent men be considered and accepted to be as capable as women at raising children in our near future?

I, myself, have followed the advice of my teachers and peers. Both in fiction and in nonfiction, I write about topics that I know well and am passionate about. Mostly I've stuck to psychology, because learning how the mind and brain work is absolutely fascinating. What amazing creatures we are! Most people have no idea how powerful their mind is. On my blog site I write a lot about the stress of past traumas and how to deal with it. Why? Because I gained so much knowledge in that area while working as a psychotherapist and I want to pass it on to others who need it.

But recently I said to my husband, "I need a challenge. What if I try something new? What if I write about something I know nothing about and really have never found interesting?" He stared at me and his left eyebrow rose higher than I'd ever seen it rise.

"Okay," he said, and went back to reading his book on plant viruses. In plain English, "I'll believe it when I see it." So now it's a real challenge.

Right now I am checking everything and searching everywhere for ideas. As I go about my day I often ask myself, "What don't I like and what does not interest me?" I notice things I haven't noticed for years. "When do I change the channel on my TV? Am I watching something that triggers me or bores me?" Actually observing everything around me has been more fun than I've had for a long time. I'm checking the news, the neighborhood, people, jobs, hobbies, sports and anything else that doesn't interest me. I'm not fond of movie stars, or arrogant people, or people who I consider to be shallow. I'm not fond of football or car racing, or reading books that don't have a fast moving plot.

This morning I decided to write an article on movie stars, my least favorite topic. But here is something interesting that is happening. The more I research and delve into their lives, the more fascinating they are becoming and the more I like them. I am learning things about the movie industry I never knew and about the sacrifices movie stars have to make to become and remain famous. And suddenly I am realizing that they are very human like the rest of us---not shallow or arrogant--- just people who are hiding behind a thick veil.

Oh, oh! I think I'm back to psychology again.

What would be the topic you might least like to research and write about? Leave a comment.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Write Poetry to Help you Relax and Fall Asleep

We would like to welcome Ana Parker Goodwin to Writing North Idaho as a regular contributor.  Ana is an accomplished author and writer with a delightful sense of humor.  Her voice will be a tremendous asset to our blog and we know you'll enjoy her insight and advice on the art of writing.  Educated as a psychotherapist, Ana is now retired and writing 'How To" books in her field as well as psychological mystery thrillers so she can finally write "happy endings."  Read Ana's full bio on our homepage and learn more about her writing at

by Ana Parker Goodwin

Hey, when I was a kid my teacher used to make us write poetry, and man it had better rhyme. If it didn't it was a sure D-. I was no good at it though it caught my fancy at times, especially when at the age of 11 one of the older boys in the neighborhood, who I thought was absolutely awesome, fell in love with my older sister instead of me. So I wrote poems like, "Life, oh life, is like a knife. It cuts you every day. Da, da, da, da, da, da, da. No matter what I say." And on and on using words with great dramatic effect. Then I found out he was really a mean kid. My depression vanished and I went on to the next guy down the block. More poetry.

Fortunately times have changed. I am no longer madly in love with the boy next door and poems no longer need to rhyme. Seeing as I write mostly nonfiction (e.g, 18 Steps to Cope with Post Trauma Stress (PTS)Before it Becomes a Disorder(PTSD): especially for veterans and families and Sand Play Therapy: A Step by Step Manual for Psychotherapists of Diverse Orientation), I need a break from that heavy stuff at times. So I started writing fiction as well (Justice Forbidden, a mystery about a psychologist who is sued for implanting memories in a client.) Now that was fun!

But the other day after spending hours of writing and researching PTSD, the grandpa clock striking midnight, and my thoughts in a negative rut, I needed a way to relax and to alter my thinking before I tried to go to sleep. And I remembered a woman coming from Seattle to conduct an Idaho Writers League meeting. She taught us how to write poetry. I call it the ABC method. No need to rhyme. The first sentence must start with an A and the next one with a B, etc. through the alphabet. The night of the meeting I was "in the zone" and I created a rather good poem, if I say so myself.

A Zillion Dollar Comics by Carolyn Hiler

So this night, to get my thoughts out of trauma thinking, I decided to have fun with poetry. I wrote three poems, though some of you might not consider them as such. I used the ABC method but each line consisted only of one word and I used only words that came to me instantaneously. "A Battered Cow Drove Effortlessly Forward Going Hundred Inches---." You get the idea. I had a great night with pleasant dreams, ready to get back to my PTSD writing the following day.

Next time you get stuck with what some people call "stinking thinking" or negative thoughts that weigh you down before going to bed, try having fun creating poetry. But don't become obsessive like I have a tendency to do.

Happy dreams to you.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Prologues and Wasted Pages


Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The famous prologue to Romeo and Juliet, tells us all we need to know.  A prologue is, as Shakespeare said, 'where we lay our scene.'

The beginning of any novel, play, short story, or screen play, is so plagued with back story, the stetting of the stage, that it often needs to be cut, and cut, and cut again. At the beginning, when you only have a vague notion of what you want to say, many pages are often spent casting about in the dark. More often than not, those pages need to go into the waste basket. A well written prologue can take the place of three chapters of laying the scene. It is wise to re-write the prologue last, as it must encompass the whole story in a nut shell, as it were. Looking at Shakespeare's brilliant prologue, we know what story we are going to hear. Not only do we know what it will be about, we are excited to watch it play out. That is the essence of a great prologue.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Anna Karenina, Costumes and Textiles

If you know and love a book, if you happen to have read it two or three times, if you have taken more than one college course because you saw the title in the course description, then you may be on the same page with me when it comes to Leo Tolstoy's great masterpiece, Anna Karenina.

My first reading took place in the summer when I was fifteen years old and able to spend several days in August, in a hammock strung between two trees, nestled under the whispering pines of northern Ontario.  Lulled by the sound of water lapping against the shore, I was totally enthralled with Tolstoy's Russia. The characters of Anna and Count Vronsky were so real to me, I felt as if I knew them well. My mind, to this day, can conjure up whole scenes, and if given the task, I do believe, it would be great fun to costume this beautiful drama. After all, it is a story that can be danced and has been done masterfully by the great Bolshoi Ballet.  

Years ago, after giving friends the second draft of a work in progress, the first assessment to come back to me was that I had changed my character's outfits. It is but too true. I amuse myself by dressing my imaginary friends, and they well may get new costumes as time goes on. When I think of the great books brought to the screen, when I first see the trailer and have a look at a tremendous actor inhabiting the role, it just takes my breath away to see them in costume.

If an audience can walk by the life size posters in theaters and know immediately, that a new version of Jane Eyre, or Anna Karenina is about to be released, if the casual viewer can know the story at first glimpse of the costumes, then I say the writer clothed his characters in such a way as to allow us to see them. Even if certain liberties have been taken with the original descriptions, but the feeling is still there, then it just puts me right over the moon.

As writers, we don't often think in terms of costumes; there are so many details to keep in mind that dressing the protagonist, is often seen as an afterthought. Not so. This is your chance to be a designer. If you long to see your work on the silver screen, then think of it in terms of the trailer. If another artist, or actor, can see how to flesh out this role, or how to design the set, or what the color palette should look like, it is a credit to the author. Some writers, such as Tolstoy, had a knowledge of textiles and color and because of this, designers can recreate it.

Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina, released in the years 1873-1877, was published serially. Russia was in a time of reform and there was much detail of the amalgamation of agrarian life and the emerging merchant classes. Adultery, and the inherent risks taken regarding social convention make up the theme, but part of what lingers in the mind regarding Anna Karenina, is her appearance and her dress. As it turns out, it played a part in the creative process itself.

Sophia Tolstoy, Leo's wife, kept notes as he was hard at work. This passage tells us a great deal of what was on her husband's mind as he wrote, Anna Karenina.

"I was sitting downstairs in my study, examining the white silk embroidery on the sleeve of my dressing gown, and I thought how beautiful it was. And then I wondered how it occurred to people to invent all these designs and decorations and embroideries, and then I realized there was a whole world of fashion and ideas and hard work that make up women's lives, and women are so fascinated by all of this. And it naturally led my thoughts about the novel to Anna and suddenly this piece of embroidery on my sleeve suggested a whole chapter to me. Anna is cut off from all the joys of this side of a woman's life for she is alone, other women spurn her and she has no one to talk to about all the ordinary, every day things that interest them."

So there it is, captured for posterity and available to all of us, the workings of the great man's mind. Take a look at a work in progress and imagine yourself the costume designer. Think of the color pallet and call to mind some of the best films in terms of color and pattern. Do not limit your writing to black and white; give it all the best elements of great design. If you are writing in another era, spend an afternoon in the library and familiarize the dress patterns down to the actual year. Learn about dyes, weaving techniques, berries and flax, cotton and wool. What do the clothes sound like when they move? Who can forget the image of Scarlet O'Hara's mother, Miss Ellen, rustling as she passed by with the scent of lemon verbena wafting through the hall.

If you set your story in another era, then please do, just for me, include a ball. You would be doing me the distinct honor of imagining the costumes.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Who Loves Short Shorts?

 We are pleased to offer this guest post by, Lila Bolme

I love short shorts.
No, I'm not talking about clothes, I'm talking about stories – like WNI's short, short story contest – "A Picture is Worth 500 Words".
But squeezing a story into a five hundred word manuscript is a little like shimmying into a pair of short shorts:
  • You have to be bold
  • You have to be lean
  • You have to be careful how you move

It can also make you a better writer.
Last year, WNI offered a contest to write a short mystery, just six sentences long. That's about as short as you can get. I wondered if I could do it. I didn't plan to submit – but I did.
It turned out to be an incredible writing experience.
So how do writers go about writing something so short? Here's the process I went through to develop that contest entry. (My thoughts during the process are in italics.)

Put Both Feet In

I started with basic questions:
  1. What does a story need, to make it a story?
A protagonist and a problem. An antagonist would be nice, but no sense setting the bar too high at the start.
  1. Who is my protagonist?
A guy. Yup, I only had a picture in my head - a drunk in a trunk. I had just watched Water for Elephants.
  1. What's the character's problem?
He's drunk.

Shimmy, Shimmy

  1. But I need a mystery.
A drunk man is no mystery. How about a drunk woman?
Voila – I had a drunk woman.
Then I remembered some writing advice I read somewhere that said – throw your protagonist off a cliff.
So I did.
Presto! I had a drunk woman falling off a cliff.
  1. How did she get there?
Kidnapped...Skiing...hmmm...OK, maybe she doesn't fall off a cliff, maybe she falls off a elephant...her bed – Her bed (lots of giggling) Wait – To a drunk with bed spins, falling off a bed might seem like falling off a cliff.
Now I have a drunk woman falling off her bed.
That's not a mystery but...what if I don't tell the reader she's drunk till the end. Ta Da! Wait – Is that a mystery? I knew I should have looked that up. OK, what if I don't tell the reader she's drunk till the end AND I don't tell the reader it's a bed that she falls off of, until the end? – SHA-BAM!
That was my story kernel.

Work It

Time to get the story moving, but short, shorts only cover so much. I needed a plan.
Here's how I laid it out:
  • Sentence 1 & 2 - Introduce the character and the problem.
  • Sentence 3 & 4 - Make the problem huge and the character struggle .
  • Sentence 5 & 6 - Let the character win or lose and reveal the mystery.

Squeezing into the story limits forced me to drop flab and muscle up my words. I started with my character already in crisis. The character struggled, then lost, revealing the mystery.
What I Learned:
Everything that I thought was a limitation, actually helped me write better.
  • Each sentence had a specific job.
  • The conflict had to be inflated immediately.
  • Every word had to be deliberate.

I challenge you to enter this contest. Try some short shorts for yourself. Who knows? You might decide you love them too.
If you like, you can see how my Six-Sentence Mystery, turned out, right here on Writing North Idaho.


Monday, June 17, 2013

The Best Food Ever Book Club Reads The End of Your Your Life Book Club

Written by Will Schwalbe, this novel pictured above, covers the author's journey through his mother's bout with pancreatic cancer. While I believe most editors would say that one cannot write a book about someone who gets sick and then dies, Schwalbe manages to do this quite successfully.  While it certainly feels like a story to anyone undergoing such an event, it is typically not enough to sustain fiction; something else needs to be added to the mix. How this author manages to hold our interest involves the device of discussing the books he read with his mother while she was undergoing the full course of chemotherapy. At the same time, they also discuss years of reading and other books they loved and shared.

In the end, the approach does work and people have been reading it in droves. The author's mother had an interesting life that keeps the reader engaged, as we are invited to look back on her years of helping refugees. A working woman ahead of her time, she managed to keep the home fires burning and make lively and interesting friends from all parts of the world. Her desire to build a library in Afghanistan make her admirable and the fact that she accepts her fate with grace, only adds to her strengths.

While reading, I felt I wanted to see a bit more of her flaws. We have had this discussion for the last twenty-two years  in my reading group, made palatable because we are the 'best food ever book club.' It seems to me that defects and faults make characters more interesting. Fellow readers will say they do not care for a novel, no matter how well written it is, if they do not like the character. It is one of those avenues where we agree to disagree. I am waiting, with baited breath, to see how this age old difference of opinion will play out. If one person agrees with me, and says they would like to know about at least a few faults in this admirable woman, then I can say, “Aha.” However, I know full well that it will not change anything.

What are character flaws? Because of the age we live in, I turned to Google for the answers. From Ten Ugliest Character Flaws

1. Arrogant, argumentative
3.Short tempered-combative
4.Need to always be right (conceited)
5.Perfectionist, nit picking.
6.Being a victim, always blaming the other guy
7.Selfish, miserly
8.Stubborn, rigid
9.Vain, prideful (haughty)
10. Humorless, inability to laugh at oneself

When my husband was studying for his post graduate degree, his class was asked to write a list of the ten worst traits in humankind. They all scribbled furiously, slammed the pencil smugly down and looked up at the professor. He said, "Now, take up the piece of paper and look at your self portrait."

Carson Reeves put together another great list that is even more straightforward in Script Shadow. He adds well known movies where we can see this exhibited.

1. Puts work in front of family and friends. Zero Dark Thirty
2. Won't let others in. Good Will Hunting.
3.Doesn't believe in one's self. Rocky Balboa. King George VI in The King's Speech.
4.Doesn't stand up for one's self. George McFly in Back to the Future. Cameron in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
5.Too selfish. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
6.Won't Grow Up. 40 year old Virgin.
7. Too uptight, too anal. Pretty Woman.
8.Too reckless. James T. Kirk in Star Trek.
9. Lost Faith, Mel Gibson in Signs
10. Pessimism/ cynicism Sideways.

Reading this list, it is easy to see how some flaws lend themselves beautifully to tragedy and others to comedy. It is our weaknesses that make us real and indeed, at times, lovable.When describing a heroic type, he better have some defects, or we will not relate. The same can be said of antagonists. A guy who blows his stack and kills his wife, but loves his dog, is believable. No one is all good or all bad- we are a complex soup of both.

If you are looking for something to read this summer, you get two for the price of one with The End of Your Life Book Club. You will enjoy the story and get a reading list to boot. As I tend to read my way through life's trials and have for as long as I can recall, I particularly enjoyed the certain truth, that if you are put to bed with an illness, it is the perfect time to read and read and read, until the book falls on the floor and you are at the end. Hopefully, we all  still have many volumes ahead. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Father's Day

    For Christians, God the Father holds a vital importance  - the first person of the Blessed Trinity,creator of all,   in  the book of Genesis  the Lord tells Abraham he will be  father of many generations, and Americans refer to George Washington as the father of their country.

    The name father has always held a special significance.   One who is protector, provider,  role model, counselor, guide - one who disciplines , but also forgives; One who helps their children be the best they can be, and loves unconditionally.

     I was surprised to learn Father's Day was founded in Spokane, Washington  at the YMCA in 1910 , but wasn't until  1966 , President Lyndon  B. Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation honoring fathers, designating  the third Sunday in June as Father's Day, and   wasn't until  six years later President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972.  

     This Sunday as we commemorate Father's Day, I think of my own father, Ronald W. Cooney,  and   the positive way he has influenced my life.  I am his oldest child, in some ways you might say we have grown up together,  sharing the twists and turns of an unpaved road., marking our own way as we drove along. No matter my age, or what I was doing dad always encouraged my endeavor and told me I could succeed if I persevered , like he did when reaching out his hand to me when  I was still a toddler taking first steps off our front porch. I felt confident knowing he was there.

     Dad's motto is not to wallow in misery and past mistakes, but strive ahead and make the next day better. It's a motto that has served him well, and has been a good example for me.

     For writers of memoir,  stories about fathers are a wonderful avenue to pursue.

     Through the years many  books have been written extolling the virtues of fathers , including :

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. While the author tackles the topic of race relations,  she also depicts,  in an inspiring way the loving relationship between father and daughter.

Little House on the Praire. Laura Ingalls Wilder tells of the hardship of pioneer life while exploring the bond between the girls and their pa.

Fatherhood by Bill Cosby , the  1987   bestseller shares the authors tales of his life being the father of five.

    And one of my personal favorites, Life with Father by Clarence Day, Jr., first published in 1936.  I have read Day's account of   his exacting, humorous father more than once, and have watched the beautifully adapted movie staring William Powell  and Irene Dunn  several times. It is pure joy.

      In 2007 my dad gave me a book titled How to Write Poetry and inscribed it with many notations,  among them , 'To Kathy, my favorite poet" ( see what I mean about dad giving me encouragement ?)  Then he wrote :

I read in this book: "Sometimes a few beautiful  well-constructed lines are more powerful than any thousand page novel could possibly be."  So this book challenges you to always seek  the  "few beautiful well-constructed  lines."      My love, Dad


                Happy Father's Day, Dad ! With love and gratitude  from  your daughter, Kathy.



Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A June Wedding, Graduation & Anthologies

     Yesterday morning my cousin, Elizabeth posted a picture of her parents on facebook . It is one of those wonderful   photos from a time long gone showing a young couple clearly in love with one another. In my opinion this is one of the great  photos, and  without prejudice think  Aunt Myrtle (Suzy) Cooney and Uncle Bob Breedlove look movie star glamorous !  They were childhood sweethearts growing up in Council Bluffs, Iowa,  and married June 11, 1941. Along with their three children, Aunt Suzy and Uncle Bob shared an exciting life together - living in Germany, New York, Maine and Mexico.

     My aunt and uncle were soul mates, and by all accounts their marriage was one made in heaven, they were a very dear couple,  perfectly suited to each other.  Perhaps ,  that's why they chose the month of June to make their vows.  June is named for Juno , Roman goddess of marriage. Ever since  Plurarch in the ancient  days of the Roman Empire  implied June was the most favorable month for weddings,  June has been considered 'bridal' month.

     June was also  considered  commencement month in years past,  when seniors  graduated high school.  After breakfast this morning  I  pulled  The Treasure Chest from my book shelf - an anthology of 1,064 familiar and  inspirational quotations, poems, sentiments, and prayers from great minds of 2500 years.  It's a book I often   browse through , but this day I took extra time in reading the inscription, Kathleen Cooney Graduation gift from Grandma Cooney  June 13, 1968. 

   The first thing that came to mind was, "Oh, my!, can it really be  45 years since I graduated high school!".  The next thing I studied was the inscription written in my  grandma's own hand, and how familiar her cursive writing  was to me. I  thought about her love of poetry, and her  joy in  sharing that love with others, especially her children and grand-children.  It's  a rich heritage she left to us.

    From The Treasure Chest are two  that touch my heart.  I'm pretty sure they would be favorite's of my grandmother, too.

To reach the port of heaven we must sail, sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it 
- but we must sail, not drift or lie at anchor   Oliver Wendell Holmes

    My Creed  by Howard Arnold Walter

I would be true, for there are those
who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care.
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer,
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.
I would be friend to all - the foe, 
the friendless;
I would be giving , and forget the gift.
I would be humble, for I know my weakness;
I would look up  - and laugh - and love - and lift

    According to Wikipedia,  anthologies became important in the twentieth century as a part of poetry publishing, i.e. for English poetry, the Georgian poetry series was trend-setting; it showed the potential success of publishing an identifiable group of younger poets marked out as a 'generation'.   Some publishers  found anthology publication a more flexible medium than the collection of a single poet's work.  I have several in my personal library:  Anthology of American Poetry, A Treasury of GREAT POEMS English and American compiled by Louis Untermeyer, Idaho's Poetry A Centennial Anthology edited by Ronald E. McFarland and William Studebaker.

    Another favorite anthology is one belonging to my mother, Lenora - one  given to her by Grandma Cooney  in the early years of her marriage to my dad -  books she still cherishes, and reads.    Memorial Edition Anthology of the World's Best Poems compiled by Edwin Markham Vol 1-6  . I was still a very little girl when mother  would read poems  to me each night from  one  those  small maroon  books with the  gold leaf binding. It was from her sweet voice,  I first   learned of Eugene Field's Little Boy Blue, and  Wynken, Blynken,  and Nod, and  The Duel staring the gingham dog and calico cat who side by side on the table sat, and was completely  enthralled.


    Anthologies shouldn't be overlooked as a source for writers - they provide a wide range of expression and writing style. The anthology may be a collection of essays, short stories, poems, or plays, and are a worthwhile addition to any home library.






Monday, June 10, 2013

Painting With Words Like Painting With Color

    This past March I decided to paint the interior rooms of my house.  My husband and I have lived in our home for eight years and I was tired of the same drab nondescript creamy white walls  greeting me in bedroom, kitchen and hallway, and longed for color.

    I spent hours looking through  House Beautiful , Cottage Style, and other decorating magazines for ideas,  and days going  back and forth from my home  to Lowe's to discuss color with the expert  Emily in the paint department. When I finally decided each room would be a different color, I had to laugh at myself , and was reminded of Myrna Loy's character in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House  painstakingly  telling the contractor  the precise shade of  color she wanted in each room. After all her thoughtful description,  the contractor turns  to the painter and says,  " You got that ?"

  " Huh-huh",  replies  the painter, " Red, green,yellow, blue and white".

    Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House , a  comic  novel delightfully  written by Eric Hodgins in 1946, the scene I refer to is wonderfully highlighted in this youtube video.


    Perhaps  I  wasn't quite as precise as Mrs. Blandings,  but  I did  carefully and clearly   state I  wanted  the kitchen and family room yellow. Not a bright  lemon yellow, but a soft buttery yellow.  And the master bedroom and study I wanted  green, not a hunter green or pea green, but a rich colonial green. And on it went with each  color in each  room. Thankfully, Emily  was very patient, and helpful in making sure the colors were to my liking - even if she had to remix two or three times.

   While going through the exercise of choosing color and painting rooms of my house , I  thought about a book I read last year titled Word Painting  A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan. Just as I was trying to make the rooms of my home more descriptive, and interesting to visitors, so I strive to do with my writing - make the words more descriptive,  and interesting  to readers.  I must admit, painting seems the easier process with a  more consistent and better outcome; even so I write on!, and like paint that has to be mixed and remixed to find just the right shade and hue, so it is with the words we write,  they have to be written and rewritten before the completed story can be  finished.

   In her book, McClanahan tell  us The characters in our stories, songs, poems and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until they are anchored  by our words, they drift,  bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we've written the first words our characters begin to take form. Soon they'll be more than mere names. They'll put on jeans or rubber hip boots, light thin cigarettes or thick cigars; they'll stutter or shout, buy a townhouse on the Upper East Side or a studio in the Village; they'll marry for life or survive a series of happy affairs; they'll beat their children  or embrace them. What they become is up to us. 

   Just as I thought about writing while painting the rooms of my home,  the next time I sit down to write memoir, short story, essay or poem, I'll think about the process of painting and contemplate  how similar  writing and painting are in  the  need to prepare and plot out your storyboard before starting,   paying attention  to detail and sometimes making a bold choice in choosing  character and description, adding color to the story.

*** NOTE:  Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House written by American author, Eric Hodgins originally appeared as a   short story in the April 1946 issue of Fortune magazine.  If you are lucky enough to find a copy of the book in your local library or used book store, I recommend you grab it. Reading Hodgins is 'word painting' at its best, like walking into a colorfully painted room that helps describe the character and style of  home .



Friday, June 7, 2013

Somewhere in Time...

I recently came across some valuable advice regarding the writing of historical fiction. The cautionary note indicated that the writer should not get lost in the research.  Luckily for me, I am one of those people who like the process of creating something; the journey is fun and I do not really want to get to my destination. This may explain why I often sit in my car in the driveway when I am returning home from a trip to the market. History should never be top heavy in the story; it should be there, but not in the way. What we want to see is how the characters react to the changing times, not to read about every last parliamentary procedure, or tiresome debate in the Senate. We need to have a light hand with that ingredient, yet it is just as important as butter is to a good batch of shortbread cookies.One fantasizes about writing the definitive work, and the writer wants to know every single last significant detail about the time, but then it has to be as a thick, velvet curtain at the back of the stage.

When I set out to write a story set in 1630, I  wanted to capture, for myself most of all, what it would have been like to live in back in Boston when Europeans were new to the continent.  I read everything written on the subject and then some. Due to the fact that my characters traveled back to England in the midst of the civil war, I had to cover that as well. Once I began to grasp the enormity of losing every safeguard put in place, and seeing England fall into a military dictatorship, I did want to cover it in great detail. Too much history came the response from my first readers, and so I had to chop and chop. Still, the story of the struggle remains.

While I am not a big reader of the genre known as historical fiction, I do love reading a gripping tale when I feel as if I have been transported to another place and time. To me, that is the key.

Last evening, we set out in the boat from our dock here at the southern end of Lake Coeur d' Alene. Given that we were after hours to some degree, and needed to fill up on gas, we decided to try the town of Harrison. Having always been a fan of the place, I was happy to go over and take our chances. We were told to go up to the bar and find the man who could help us. It gave me time, while standing and holding the boat, to think.

 Harrison has all the makings of a place that time forgot. Handsome brick buildings suggest that it was a town on its way to becoming a small city back in 1890, when a branch of the O.R. And N. railroad put in a stop. A large sawmill, moved up from St.Maries, meant that a substantial operation had begun. However, a large fire broke out at the same mill, in 1917, and  destroyed most of the town. When the steamships discontinued service, they were all but cut off and the town ended up having a different future. It is one of those places, where when looking at it from the water, you sense that you knew what it was like to live there one hundred years ago. As I stood on the dock,  waiting for my husband to return from One Shot Charlies, the bar where the man who could pump the gas happened to be visiting, I thought of potential stories regarding the town and how I always feel that way when I am there.

An enchanted place can often spark the impetus to write historical fiction. Those wanting to know more about the era, will often be drawn to the story.

In the movie, Somewhere in Time, the late Christopher Reeve plays a man who being stumped in his efforts at writing, decides to take a small trip and travel to the famous Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan.  Once there, he becomes, captivated and obsessed regarding a photograph in the lobby. Desperate to know the hotel in its hey day and perhaps meet the person capturing his imagination, he accomplishes time travel and returns to 1917.  Of course, this is a metaphor for all writers and are we not lucky, that we have an imagination and picture what that may be like.

Time is running out to enter our contest here at writingnorthidaho. For details, read all about it in the sidebar.A picture can inspire 500 words.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

No Small Change

                                         Photo by Chris Lighty

Well, we moved. After twenty-two years in one location, we have changed our lives completely. It was a bit of a stretch to think of ourselves as city mice, being that Coeur d' Alene was a small town when we moved up to Idaho from Northern California. Nevertheless, we were downtown in a lovely neighborhood known affectionately as Sander's Beach. Full of handsome historic homes, close to the water, close to parks, close to the library, close to downtown, it was close to everything. Our home, built in 1920, with an addition put on in the seventies, had enough old world charm to suit us and it was a great place for kids, dogs, family and fun. What changed? Our lives did.

Once our daughter left for college, the character of the house seemed transformed. Suddenly it seemed too big, too expensive, too time consuming, too too. We knew we would have to downsize eventually and since I didn't like the idea of that looming before us, it seemed like a good time to get on with it. Plus, my husband declared that he would not deny himself the life long dream of a shop, one minute longer. That became the criteria: we needed something smaller that came with a shop that I would eventually grow to love.

Why is a home a place to hang one's hat for some, and nearly a religion for others? While I fall into the latter category, I must say I come by it honestly. It was gut wrenching to pull the old place apart, make endless decisions about what to keep and what to discard, but with a steadfast effort, we boxed up the sum total of our accumulated artifacts and toted them off to storage. Loading up the units became the great pleasure at the end of the day. It is far easier for me to fill a space than empty one, so I liked that part of the process. Seeing possessions wrapped and boxed gave me a picture of the size and scope of it all. Most of the objects were not even mine to begin with; they fell into my care through my mother who had a very good eye. So the question as to why I was keeping one cute tea cup after another begged to be asked, but could not be answered. As long as I can remember, the tendency to ascribe sentiment to objects is bred in the bone.

  I also liked spaces where my Dad would claim a modicum of freedom from what he described as, the land of “birds and flowers.” He set up a desk in the boathouse at our summer home and had a phone put in as well. A fridge where he kept a fresh supply of fishing bait for me, and cokes for him, made it comfortable. Every part of the boathouse was ship shape and unadorned. Our towels were on wracks with names stenciled above. Lines on top of wooden boats were gleaming white and perpetually coiled; it was the navy man's equivalent of a shop. He was happy in the boathouse and escaped to it often. I am so glad to know that my husband has his 'boathouse,' a place that is his.

Once through the looking glass, we are more than pleasantly surprised. We are ecstatic. Our new home is wonderful and we love it! We have left the life of city mouse behind and now dwell in the country. The site is beautiful, up high overlooking woods with a stunning view of the lake. It is peaceful and blissfully quiet. We have all new conversations. We each have room to pursue our hobbies, and we also are surrounded by countless birds of such varying species, I am going to need a field guide. It all makes sense to me now. In the midst of this honeymoon period, a post card arrived in our old, tin mailbox. My husband saw that it was a real estate advertisement about a home just sold in Sander's Beach. When he turned it over to look at the picture, he was shocked to see our former home. Showing this to me,  I found a curious distance had set in. Yes, it was familiar, but no longer attached to me. 

Change is supposed to be good for us, particularly as we age. While I questioned the wisdom of this through the move, I now know that the old adage is true. Of all the books I read in my youth, nothing cemented itself to my psyche more than Henry David Thoreau's, Walden Pond.

Born in 1817 and living until May of 1862, Thoreau kept company with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Branson Alcott, Walt Whitman and Hawthorne who were  known as the writers and philosophers of  the Transcendentalist movement.  It was no surprise, therefore, that these works found a very popular resurgence with the burgeoning hippie crowd. Thoreau is described as an author,  poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist and tax resistor. What a heady mixture! It was his love of nature that struck a cord with me, his idea to live out on Walden Pond, soaking up the peace and beauty. It was this line of his that I took very much to heart and it is perhaps why I feel so much at home now:

" I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Monday, June 3, 2013

Summer Dreams and The Great Gatsby

With the new film version out this spring, many of us are taking another look at a beloved work of American fiction known as, The Great Gatsby, by F.Scott Fitzgerald.  Like so many readers, I fell in love with the book when I was in high school in Toronto. It was required reading for us in Grade Twelve when we spent the winter on American Literature. I adored the beautiful, lyrical prose. Going on to read other works of his and reading about his troubles with his wife Zelda, I felt nothing but compassion and love for the man.

It almost breaks my heart to know that he felt like a failure in his lifetime. As he was writing The Great Gatsby, he was in the south of France, taking care of his health and deeply engrossed in the story.  Fitzgerald knew he had written his best work. He was in Paris in the spring of 1925 when the book was released. He anxiously waited for cables, reviews and sales reports. He thought it would be a bigger smash hit than his previous books. In a perfect world, it would have been. Yet the reviews were mixed, and sales dismal. What happened?

During the years when depression set in and writing became increasingly difficult, if not impossible, Fitzgerald likened himself to a "cracked plate." In the archives of the New York Times, I found this statement. "Sometimes though, the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never be warmed on the stove, nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do for crackers late at night, or go into the icebox with the leftovers."

It was not until after the second world war that the book gained the acclaim it deserved. By this time, the country had gone through the crash of '29 and then saw the world nearly tear itself to pieces. Was the story a portent of things to come? Was it ahead of its time? When the resurgence came, Fitzgerald was lost to us and gone from this world. Perhaps he resides in some part of heaven where all the literary magic lives. To say that while he lived, he wrote with the voice of an angel, is not an overstatement and I am not the only person to think so.

People write of his talent: the word is synonymous with him. How many of us have woken up in a cold sweat, slumped over our keyboards, crumpled pieces of paper, put the windshield wipers on in the car without realizing it is our tears, not the rain clouding our vision. We fear in our deepest souls that we do not have enough talent. A horrible rejection letter, or a snide remark can send us reeling, head long into this fear. Are we wasting our time? Is there a person somewhere who would know for sure and who could give it to us straight and save us from endless toil for nothing? No. They could be wrong. Shame on those reviewers who did not see the power of this novel. My search through the archives of the Times brought me to this headline: "Fitzgerald launches another dud." Shame, shame.  Whether the talent is there, God given, or whether it can be earned, or acquired, whether its a matter of luck, or not, does not matter one whit. We are all given an imagination. What we do with it is up to us. Whether we succeed, or fail ought to be measured against the mirror of our own taste. If a writer creates something they are pleased with, if it is work they can pick up ten years from now, and not cringe at every sentence, if it has been well-crafted and reworked and refashioned into something lovely, then it is a gift to all and we should view it as such. Some hugely successful writers envy Fitzgerald to this day and feel that they will never enter the same cloud. My foray into reading more about the man did reveal this truth: the gorgeous sentences that make you stop and reread them, marveling about the beauty and the clarity, were revised and rewritten many, many times until they sounded right to his very fine tuned ear. Talent, discipline and tenacity are as a holy trinity to any work of genius.Then there is something else that none of us understand.
Years ago, I had a neighbor who signed her son up for a summer workshop where he would learn to play the bagpipes. He took to the instrument like a duck to water. After attending his first concert, I asked a teacher, a master piper over from Scotland, if it was just me, or did he, too, see a staggering level of talent, as well.
"Once in a hundred years," he said, "it will come along like that." 

"And so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past." F.Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby.