Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"The Rough and Often Beautiful Mess"

In the heat of mid summer and through the days of the full moon, I have been absorbed in two events: one being the birth of the future King and the other reading, The Yonahlosse Riding Camp for Girls. Anton Disclafoni's first novel is a breathtaking story. Set amid orange groves in Florida and then at an old riding camp in the hills of North Carolina, this book does what we hope for in our summer reading; it transports us to another time and a well imagined place.

Having been a veteran of both boarding school and summer camp, I know the cloistered worlds where young woman were sent to build friendships, to gain skills, and hopefully, to stay out of trouble. As my camp had horses and a riding ring, I am very familiar with the obsessions that accompany equestrian pursuits. Disclafani, herself a skilled horsewoman who competed nationally, brings an ability to describe riding to a new level. The reader absorbs her fearlessness with admiration and awe. Never have I read a better description of an annual competition then in this debut novel.

Aside from it being a great read for horsey types, it captures something of the Depression, the thirties, the ruin that grabbed the most secure families, as if it had a hand on the back of their necks and pulled them down with tremendous force. Abandoned houses, quiet declines, suicide and peril are woven into this tale. As the Depression haunted the parents of my generation who were children during those frightening years, we are too quick to joke about all the carefully wrapped and preserved little bits of food in the freezer, the grandmothers who still collected rubber bands, the women who washed and saved the tin foil, even the ones who washed and dried plastic bags and hung them on the line; they kept up with these practices because they never lost their fear of the wolf at the door. In this book, the Depression is not depicted in dust bowls and bread lines, but rather stalking the genteel and ordered world of the privileged, where girls are suddenly yanked from their known realities and set out into an uncertain future. Family life seems similarly fragile, as if the precious and beautiful life in the orange groves left them vulnerable, only to be toppled by an unwelcome frost. The mothers were cocooned in their beautiful homes, with all rooms seen as exquisite and in perfect balance and order. Yet one event could destroy all and young women could heap shame on their families by one imprudent night.

 I remember that world; I remember my grandmothers with their dresses, and their silver tea services, their china, and their housekeepers, their luncheons and their stories, often involving one false move that led to ruin. You had to get a good husband at all costs; your house was, as Disclafani states, "both mother and father." Your daughters were kept at a curious distance; sexual awakening was feared and mistrusted. All of this is beautifully captured in this smart and terrific novel. What Disclafani manages to impart is that the camp girls were not delicate flowers- not girls who rode horses anyway. They were made of flesh and blood; they were familiar with the sound of their bones cracking, they took their cues from magnificent creatures whose noble blood they cherished. The barns were full of sweat and muck. They girls were expected to travel from the bold and the beautiful, from the rough and the wild, from the sheer abandon of a mad gallop, to the starched linen and polite conversation of the dinner table. Disclafani writes:

"I took pleasure in how good I was in the saddle, how well I knew my way around a horse. I was good at something in a way most people are never good at anything in their lives. Horses were a gift; how many people have such a constant in their life, separate from the rough and often beautiful mess that is their family?"

If you are heading to the beach or the cottage, if you are boarding a plane, or packing the camper, I would toss the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls into your weekend, canvas bag. If you know a great horsewoman, or two, or three, give this to them with a five star recommendation.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Love the Idea

When writing about Anna Karenina recently, I remembered a passage from Sophia Tolstoy's diaries. I only had to type a few words into Google, and voila, there it was. I copied it into my blog post, but something else regarding his thoughts stayed with me. What lingered was this:

"Yesterday L.N went to his table, pointed at his notebook and said "Oh how I long to finish this novel (Anna Karenina) and start something new. My ideas are quite clear now. If a work is to be really good there must be one fundamental idea in that one loves. I love the idea of family; in War and Peace I loved the idea of the people because of the 1812 war; and now I see clearly that in my next book I shall love the idea of the Russian peoples powers of expansion."

His great novels had to do with being in love with an idea. Authors are commonly asked this question: How did you come up with the idea for your book? It speaks to the heart of the matter. We all have tons of ideas; we may even have notebooks full of concepts for novels. Once decided upon, our love for the idea must remain in the forefront of our minds for years.

When my father died, I did not want him to go. I didn't want to forget about him either. I wanted to cling to everything I could remember about him and keep it in my mind forever. It is this idea I am currently in love with, bringing my father back to life. Folly? Yes, no doubt. Can a person we loved appear as a character whom the reader can picture? Can I recreate a certain time in my life, 1961 to 1971, to be exact? Can my interpretation of the sixties rekindle memories for others? Can I bring readers into my story? As I have other family members I am missing now who have gone on to join my Dad, I am in love with remembering them too: I am in love with this idea of family, just as Tolstoy was when he wrote Anna Karenina.  Even though I am not in possession of his talent, not within a country mile of it in fact, I still persist. Why? The answer is simple:  love. I have a love for my Dad, for my Mom, for my sister and brother, who are all up in heaven now. I have a love for my old neighborhood, for my old home, for my grandparents and aunts and uncles. I have a love for my city and my country. There is no end to my love. Being in love with an idea, can fill up a lot of pages. The one fundamental idea of my story can be boiled down to the old adage that blood is thicker than water.

Where does it come from, this love? Does it spring from the same wellspring of our most universal emotion, or is it more academic than that?

If you write a novel and get on a talk show, someone will ask you how you came up with the idea for your story. You will have to think back to that first spark and be able to elaborate. If your face lights up and your speech becomes more animated, so much the better. Enthusiasm is infectious: people see it and want to have that same feeling. Readers want to be in love with ideas too. When I gaze at the picture above, knowing I was the baby stuffed into the snowsuit, I see us all as a fun loving, keen and zestful bunch with good times, too numerous to count, just around the corner. When this picture was taken the Queen was beginning her reign and we were part of suburban life, in the post-war years, in Toronto. The future looked bright and rosy back then. We were on the dawn of a new era, marked by hope. We all had our parts to play and we certainly played them.

 How does this story end? Stay tuned...

Friday, July 26, 2013

Surveys & Writing North Idaho

    If you're like me, sometimes polls and surveys can seem like a pain in the neck. Especially during a presidential election season, or census year. Yikes ! During the last political  campaign,  it seemed  I was getting something in the mail every other day asking me to answer questions about life , liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
    While I think surveys  can be annoying, I also believe they have purpose in helping to give positive  direction in how to better a product or service. Right about now, you may be wondering what this has to do with Writing North Idaho.  Simply this, WNI has as its purpose to continually improve its content, to provide valuable information for writers about writing. Over the past several years contributors have blogged about writing fiction,non-fiction , memoir and poetry. There have been blogs about query letters and grammar, and examples of how  to write a good  beginning , middle,  and  ending to a story; Also, about  dialogue , description and plot. Contributors have blogged about a variety of  subjects on writing, including essays on authors and books.

    Now WNI would like  to hear from you  regarding   writing  topics  you want  more of , or perhaps something we haven't covered.  For that reason,  in the next few weeks  WNI  will be conducting a survey  asking you   to reply to specific questions  about what you're  interested in, what topic you'd like to learn more about.  There won't be  any prizes or awards for answering the survey questions, only the promise each response will carefully be considered.

   So, please, when Writing North Idaho posts its survey,  take a few minutes to answer our query.  It  will  serve all of us well.




Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Summer Writing

Summer for me

is joyful play,
fun in the sun
lazy days -
Cooking hamburgers
out on the grill,
kayaking, hiking,
eating watermelon.
Reading and writing
(no arithmetic, please)
Trying a different
genre, one I 
haven't written 
before: A mystery, 
history or play.
Or maybe a 
poem, an essay,
or personal story
about an old 
heirloom or weathered
barn; A road trip 
or circus show, a 
day at the lake, a 
walk in the woods; A 
family reunion or 
grunion run. It
matters not the 
topic or theme, only
that I write in summer

* In Fred White's The Daily Writer 365 meditations to cultivate a productive and meaningful writing life, White's  entry for  July 24 suggests writers TRY THIS-

Practice writing descriptions of objects using as many different kinds of sensory impressions as possible . Start by describing these objects in enough detail for them to come to life in the reader's mind.
  > thick steaks broiling on a mesquite grill
  > freshly baked pastries in a bakery window, from the viewpoint of a hungry,
     homeless person
  > a forest path during or just after a rainstorm
  > a dank, moldy cellar late at night

   ** While many prompts and summer writing ideas on the  internet  are aimed at younger school  children, some  are still helpful for writers of all ages such as keeping a summer writing journal.   Summer will be with us for another several weeks,  so I encourage you to make your own 'Bucket List' of summer writing ideas, and write something every day.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Writing Modes, & Importance of The First Sentence

    Maggie Smith , the acclaimed star of Downton Abbey on PBS,  won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1970 for her role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,  the same year I started my career in journalism  at the Pico Rivera News in southern California. The  editor,  Bill Schlapper was like a college professor giving instruction and guidance to his fledgling reporters.   When writing a  story, Bill said  I should  choose  the topic,  and carry its theme throughout  - not to become distracted with emotion and extemporaneous happenings outside of what I was writing about.

    Bill was an early mentor  whose counsel served me well in the feature articles I wrote for the Pico Rivera News, and later when I took at job  at the Herald-American/Call Enterprise. Along with the basic writing rule  of journalism - what, who, when, where and why, Bill often alluded to  the four  writing modes and their different roles,  how each had a specific purpose.  Expository, Descriptive, Narrative, and Persuasive. The one time editor of the Pico Rivera  News would be pleased to know textbooks today still list  those modes.

   Expository writing communicates knowledge. It provides and explains information; it may also give general directions or step by step instructions on any activity.

   Descriptive writing can make a person, place or thing come to life.

   Narrative writing tells a story, either real or fictional, and holds the reader's attention by presenting interesting characters in a carefully ordered series of events.

   Persuasive writing presents an opinion. Its goal is to make readers feel or think a certain way.

   With each type, there are several  questions particular  to the  modes  of writing a   writer  should  ask   of him or her self.   One in common for all,  "Is the opening paragraph interesting, does the first sentence get the reader's attention?"  For me, that opening sentence is always the most difficult to write.  Where to start ? How to begin? I think back to those many years ago,  long before personal computers and word processing  when I  sat behind a Royal  typewriter to do a story for the newspaper. Always  close to deadline,  it would take me  the longest timeto compose that first sentence. I would eventually get up from my chair, pace the floor back and forth until something came to mind. A habit I continue to this day when working on an article for magazine  or blog post.


     According to one  internet writing site, to write brilliant first sentences,  writers should   pick up favorite books and read the first sentence carefully and think about what makes them so effective. It is often judged  the best opening sentence is short and snappy, and sets the tone of the story.

     For example, read the first sentence of  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark's novel published in 1961, later adapted to stage play , then movie :

      The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine school, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.

      It's not   boys talking to girls that draws the reader in ,  but a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, that describes the scene, and makes us wonder about these particular boys and girls, and what happens next?     It shows how a  well written first  sentence  helps  motivate  the reader to read on.







Friday, July 19, 2013

Finding Time for Writing

Writers complain about: rejections, securing an agent, how to build a platform, inspiration and motivation but mostly about finding time to write. How do you fit in writing when your spouse is complaining that you seldom have time for him any more because you always want to write? Your friends have stopped calling because you brush them off saying you are working on your novel. Your tennis group finally dropped you because you missed so many practices and matches.

There are 168 hours in a week. Business sites tell us these figures for the average person.*
EAT-------10.53 hours/week on the average
SLEEP--- 56.00 hours/week (@ 8 hours/night)
WORK----40.00 hours/week
               (106.53) 107 hours

Add in: time to shower and dress, get to and from work, buy and prepare food and spend time with your family. Let's round time off to say these activities all take 17 hours more/week = 124 hours/week reserved.

This calculation leaves 44 hours for everything else you want to do. If you exercise for fitness or for fun, attend religious services, entertain, participate in a hobby, provide general house maintenance (cleaning and/or repairing), no wonder there is little time to write!

A writer can do different things to maximize his writing time. Prioritization is paramount to juggling all aspects of your life successfully and with fulfillment. Sit down and make a list of your priorities. Block out in each day, hours that are filled with 'have-to" and "want to." These will include the activities of daily living, hobbies like tennis practice and matches, choir practice, walking the dog, etc. The blank spaces represent what time you have left to write. Some tough decisions need to be made. Would you rather play tennis or write? Build furniture or write?  Knit for charity and family or write? Look at what you do and decide what is important to you. Realize that knitting, tennis, hand bell chorus, or bowling are priorities for you and accept the fact that you have only 3+ hours a week to write or whatever number you figure.

If you want to bump up your writing time, it means you must drop something. Drop out of the tennis league and substitute running 2 miles a day for fitness. Put aside knitting for several months to allow you time to work on your writing. The biggest component of this plan is to not feel guilty about what you are putting aside. If there are major changes in your schedule, explain to your family what you are doing and you need their help on more chores or that you will need their help cooking on Saturdays, so you can freeze meals for the week. Maybe a child is old enough to take care of the dog including daily walks. You may have to take a temporary leave from a volunteer position in order to write. Another solution could be to get up earlier or stay up later 45 minutes every day to write.

One of my favorite tips for better time management is to use GAP minutes. Those are the minutes you waste standing in line at the drug store, waiting at your child's tennis or ballet lesson, for a meeting to start, a boring speech to end, while at the dentist, doing a mindless task like folding clothes or cooking, or get the idea. During those five or thirty minutes, you could observe people (their habit, dress, mannerisms, facial features, ways they walk); you could look at the landscape and memorize details; listen to conversations to detect local dialogue, speech patterns, how people phrase things; or watch how people interact with animals or rude people. 

Keep a notebook, any size, with you and jot down these impressions. Put the notes in your writing space and use them to build your characters or conjure up some complex scene for your novel. Use the attitude of people in the airport toward a war veteran to evoke emotion in a person in your sub plot. Look through your notes for the perfect details of the hubbub of the train depot in the morning. All these observations are fodder for your creative writing. Having notes makes your writing easier and faster. All you need to refresh yourself about the smell of the subway were your notes about the harassed youth trying to get onto the train to bring reality into your scene about taking your dog on the tube in London.

It is up to you to determine how you spend your time. Do you want to make more time for writing or do you just want lack of time as your excuse for not writing? Think about how you can use your time most effectively. Act to change things in your life or give up writing but do not whine about something you can change.



Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Chicken Soup for The Soul: Inspiration for Writers--a review

While traveling last week, we stopped at a grocery store in St George, UT.  Directly inside the store was a large table filled with books at 25% off retail price. It was manna for this woman. What I bought and am delighted with, is a first edition of Chicken Soup for The Soul: Inspiration for Writers 101 Motivational Stories for Writers-Budding or Bestselling-from Books to Blogs. It is edited by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Amy Newmark and Susan M. Heim, published by the 19 year old Chicken Soup for The Soup Publishing, LLC, Cos Cob, CT, 2013.

Following their tradition as in almost three hundred other Chicken Soup for The Soul books, this book contains 101 stories by published writers broken into eleven chapters. These vignettes are two to four pages about phases of writing and the authors' experiences. The chapter titled "Queries, Agents and Insomnia" starts with a quote by Charlotte Bronte; "A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow." Author, Beth Cato, told about years of writing, being terrified of querying until finally feeling she had written THE book worthy of an agent and editor's perusal. She had written it too many times to count and in the end slashed 80,000 words down to 20,000 and changed the plot completely. Her past rejections haunted her sleep and made her so anxious that she got sick. She received more rejections for this book until The Call came. Ms Cato continues telling about how surreal her life became working with an agent and getting published.

Another story deals with finding the time to write. As a busy mother with children on the go, she spends much time in the car. When home, she often has no more than 20 minutes before the next car trip. Usually she would work jigsaw puzzles on-line. After turning down a favor for a friend by lying (I have a deadline), she felt guilty. It forced her examine why she wasn't writing. Now "not enough time" did not seem a good enough excuse. When was she going to have time? In ten years? Fifteen? She decided that she had what some would called snippets of time, 20 minutes here, 35 minutes waiting for a child's lesson to be over and that those minutes were going to be her writing time.

"A work has to stand by itself,” said a college professor. This author told of her experiences of how cruel she thought her college classmates were regarding her writing. She was so upset that they did not like most parts of her writing that she forgot it was the writing they were criticizing not her. When she learned how to use their criticisms, her writing improved, as did their assessments of it. 

This book covers inspiration, how writing changes lives, persistence, writer’s block, and the power of writing. All the stories are interesting, read and digested quickly and sometimes memorably. It is the type of book, you can choose what to read knowing the story is short and then not coming back to it until you find you need some mental help. 

I am interested in reading books teaching me how to learn a new task or improve on a skill I am trying to learn. I do not care for the general "how to care for the mind" type books. I have prayer for that. Nevertheless, this book I found helpful and I think I will pull it out about as often as I iron (blue moon) just to tweak my writer's mind. The only criticism I have is that each story reads like a Reader's Digest Condensed Book rendition. They are edited so that each story sounds like the same author wrote it but under a different name; the personal identities of the writers have been edited out. For the price, it may be a good stocking stuffer or gift for friend.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Contest Winners!


Announcing the winners of the WNI 2013 "A Picture is Worth 500 Words" Writing Contest!
A hearty "thank you" to everyone who entered the contest, which was judged by a panel of five published writers. Although all of the current winners happen to hail from Idaho, this is not always the case. (Living in Idaho is never a contest requirement!)

Congratulations to:
1st Place: This Old House by Tana Essary of Post Falls, ID
2nd Place: Voices on the Wind by Wally Swenson of Shelley, ID 
3rd Place: To Light a Candle by Wendy Steffenhagen of Malad, ID
Prizes will be mailed shortly, and the winning entries posted on the Showcase page of Writing North Idaho. Also, all participants will receive copies of the judges' score sheets. We hope you'll find them informative and encouraging as you continue to grow and develop as writers.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Be A Better Writer

There are numerous articles on how to become a better writer and they are full of good advice: write every day, read, seek criticism, target your audience, proofread, build your vocabulary, do not use words beyond your target audience's educational level in order to sound intelligent, and write what you  know or want to know.

This post deals with the more obscure ways to enhance your writing skills.

1. Shift focus off yourself and on to your target audience.

     What does the reader want from you?
          A. Enjoyment/laughter?
          B. Education---to learn something about a subject?
          C.  Enlightenment?
                (1.) an "Aha!" moment
                (2.) spiritual growth
                (3.) insight
                (4.) persuasion

2. Write with enthusiasm derived from

          A. Experiences
          B. Research
          C. Spiritual beliefs
          D. Personal contacts
          E. Respect for: people, history, animals, physical sciences, fine arts,
               inventions, travel, or psychology
3. KISS---keep it simple sweetheart. Crisp, clear, simple writing conveys your
                 meaning but doesn't call attention to itself.         
             A. Read each one of your sentences. Can I say it using fewer words or
                  better choices of words that will appeal to all your readers?
                  "I washed the dog using a non-aromatic, dye free, low sudsing, mild
                   soap in "Goldilocks  temperature" (not hot nor cold, just right degree of
                   warmth so not to frighten him) and in a low PABA, plastic pan."       
                  "I shampooed my dog using a non-irritating soap and tepid water."

4. Be honest. Opinions show in your writing. Your words tell others about you and what your think. If you want the reader to believe you, you must be truthful.

5. Use a thesaurus frequently. It takes the boredom out of your sentences and allows you to say precisely what you mean. It helps you to use words correctly.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Go Ahead, Camp With Kids (It'll Probably Be OK) by G. T. Rees

G. T. Rees and his son Steven at Sawtooth Lake
(We're happy to share this guest post from author G. T. Rees. Check out G. T.'s latest book, Protect Your Nuts, for a great summer read.)

     Last summer, when I took my then eight-year-old son on his first real backpacking trip along with two of his buddies and their dads, I fully expected trouble from the little twerps, and worked myself up to withstand a barrage of complaints. But low and behold, throughout our three-mile hike into the Cabinet Mountains east of Sandpoint, not one complaint of sore legs or boredom came out of their mouths the entire time. Even when the mosquitoes were exsanguinating us through clothing and head nets, my son and his buddies uttered nary a peep of dissent. They were too interested in racing each other up the trail, catching brook trout from the lake, and playing with the campfire to even mention iPods. I was shocked.
           Now it’s getting to be that time of year again in northern Idaho—the outside time of year. I love all the opportunities we have here to experience nature, and with the warming weather, my thoughts have begun to migrate toward what I’ll do with my kids over the fast-approaching summer break. After all, you’ve got to do something with the little skeabers or you’ll soon be counting the seconds until school starts back up and thinking about checking yourself into a mental rehab unit. A backpacking trip into the high country with my now nine-year-old son is definitely on the list. I’ll take my daughter, too, when she’s a bit older and doesn’t complain about sore legs after hiking a hundred yards. Her time’s coming. 
      I treasure the memories from my childhood of hiking and camping in the mountains with my parents: catching bright rainbow trout from alpine lakes using grasshoppers for bait, because I knocked the salmon eggs into the water and we didn’t have anything else to use; poking the campfire with charred sticks and watching the sparks rise into the night to merge with the stars; breathing mountain air so pure and crisp it seems alive. It’s a fact that campfire smoke indelibly prints memories into the brain, don’t know why exactly, but it does because I can vividly recall those childhood experiences as if they happened yesterday. I’m anxious to pass onto my son his own smoke-tinged memories of childhood camping, and last summer I put a great deal of thought into how I could arrange our trip to get him hooked. It wasn’t an easy challenge.
In Coeur d’Alene, we loaded up the truck of a friend and fellow dad with the three eight-year-old boys and their three dads. With the gear, it was a bit snug in the vehicle but the boys in the back kept things lively and no one minded the tight quarters. I don’t think either one of the other dads had ever been as far up into the mountains as I took them, and as we kept driving up and up, there was a bit of apprehension. Once you turn off the paved road, it is a good hour’s drive before you get to the trailhead for Black Tail Lake, where we were going.
When we reached the trailhead, I’ll admit that my misgivings were growing. It was a three-mile hike to the lake, mostly uphill, and despite our efforts to keep the loads light, the packs the kids were carrying looked about as big as them. I really wanted the boys to get the backcountry into their blood but despite my careful planning, I now wasn’t so sure how things would go. Earlier, I had reasoned that the trek was relatively short and up a well-maintained trail I had personally hiked the previous fall, and we were only staying out one night. Easy, I thought. But things did not go quite as I had planned.
The smooth trail of the previous fall was now littered with deadfall that had come down over the winter, some of debris chest-high on me, and whereas the mountains had been mostly bug-free the previous year, packs of ravenous mosquitoes now descended upon us with vigor. I swear the bloodthirsty insects were trying to carry us off, well, at least the boys. A bit of bug spray mostly kept the vampires off, except for one unfortunate kid who, despite the deet, had a face that looked like a lump of cookie dough the next morning. There always seems to be one the mosquitoes pick on. A little guiltily, I was glad it wasn’t me.
Despite the hardships, the boys took the challenges well and we made good time to the lake. I’ve noticed that often the best way to motivate my son is to include a few of his friends in whatever venture I’m trying to get him involved in. If it had just been the two of us, I can guarantee you there would have been ample complaints, mostly from him, but with his buddies along for a bit of camaraderie and competition, it was an entirely more positive experience.
Blacktail Lake is a beautiful little gem fixed high up the Cabinet Mountains with a grassy meadow on one side and a towering mountain slope on the other. We set up at a nice little campsite next to the lake. We put the boys to work collecting firewood, of which they brought in some, while we dads set up tents and unpacked gear. I tied a fly onto a line for my son and the boys were soon busy trying to catch the numerous brook trout in the lake. The trout in these backcountry lakes are small, but easy to catch with a dry fly and are a lot of fun for kids. I don’t know why exactly, but they don’t seem to like bait. However, you can spot a fish in the clear mountain water and drop a fly in front of it and get a hit nearly every time. The boys weren’t particularly skilled with a fly rod, but with a bit of help they managed to land half-a-dozen little brown fish before it got dark, and despite my son falling off a log into the water, they all had a great time. The hike back the following day was mostly downhill and the kids joked and laughed like the annoying eight-year-old boys they were. Despite the deadfall and clouds of mosquitoes, the trip was a success.
So, get on out there and make some memories of your own with your kids. If you don’t have a kid, borrow someone else’s. The parents will thank you for it. I can’t guarantee it, but it’ll probably be okay.
Recently, when I asked my son if he wanted to go backpacking again this summer he scrunched up his face, bounced up and down, and emphatically responded, “Yes. With friends. Somewhere we can go fishing.” I can’t help but get all warm and fuzzy on the inside with a response like that, assured now that my son’s future will hold a wealth of smoke-scented memories of time spent in the wild with his dad.

AUTHOR BIO: G. T. Rees's work has won multiple awards from the Idaho Writer’s League and been published in Idaho Magazine and Predator Xtreme, and Fish Alaska Magazine.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Verbivore's Feast: Book Review

Some people collect coins or stamps or dolls or butterflies or autographs. I collect words and phrases, plucking them from my reading and listening and capturing them in a notebook. Sometimes I collect them merely because I like the way they sound, like fluorescent, cameo, chrysalis, and jubilee.  Sometimes I like what they stand for: grace, sapphire, cocoa. And I love to delve into their origins.

Recently I had the fun experience of being able to explain to friends what "I'll be there with bells on" really means. ("I'll be there with the bells still intact on my horse's harness," i.e., carefree and happy, experiencing no trouble along the way--although I've also seen an alternative explanation involving sailors' bell-bottom pants that doesn't make much sense to me.)

Given my proclivity for words and phrases, Verbivore's Feast by "Chrysti the Wordsmith," aka Montana author and radio personality Chrysti M. Smith, has been a delight. Organized alphabetically, Verbivore's Feast is a serendipitous collection for words and phrases, with a page of explanation for each. Here's one entry, chosen at random:


"The common American expression paint the town red means 'to celebrate wildly, to party with unruly abandon.' Though every American English speaker knows what the expression means, its origin is surprisingly fugitive.

"One theory suggests the paint in this expression was actually red fire that blazed in frontier settlements after an attack by some vengeful faction. This notion provided a later metaphor for celebrants who partied with incendiary glee.

"William and Mary Morris, in the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, contend that the red in this phrase refers to the red-light districts in western towns. A herd of rowdy workers, after visiting that shady section for whiskey and company, might decide to treat the whole town like a red-light district, thus 'painting the town red.'

"Or perhaps the red in this expression is symbolic of violence and blood, giving us a phrase that figuratively means to cover the town with bloodshed and brawling.

"A final contender connects this phrase with an older expression to pain, meaning 'to drink'; the paint here is the red on a drunk's nose. Using this notion, to paint the town red is to visit every saloon on the streets.

"This lively expression has a mind of its own, refusing the scrutiny of America's most earnest word watchers." (from Verbivore's Feast by Chrysti M. Smith, copyright 2004, Farcountry Press)

There you have it, readers. Which explanation of paint the town red seems the most likely to you? Have you heard any others?

Verbivore's Feast is filled with these delightful tidbits. Next I'm off to see if I can dig up a copy of the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins for myself Meanwhile I'm adding incendiary to my word-collection notebook.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Protect Your Nuts FREE July 10 on Amazon

Exciting news! The Kindle version of Protect Your Nuts, the debut novel by author (and  Writing North Idaho guest blogger) G. T. Rees, will be distributed FREE on Amazon this Wednesday, July 10!
Walnut farmer Jubal Harris watches helplessly as his father wastes away from Alzheimer’s disease. It’s only a matter of time, and when the old man dies, there’s going to be a $5 million estate tax bill. Jubal doesn’t have the money, and getting it means selling out. So he hatches a plan to hide his father in Costa Rica, away from the government’s prying eyes. 
It’s a good crime that quickly goes bad. Jubal’s greedy sister, a nosy IRS agent, and a blackmailer all make trouble, endangering the plan and sending events spinning. Saving the family farm ain’t easy and things might get a bit shaky, downright questionable even, for Jubal to salvage the scheme.
With the help of his wife, secretary, and her bounty hunter boyfriend, Jubal just might have a chance. 

G. T. "Gabe" Rees' work has won multiple awards from the Idaho Writer’s League and been published in Idaho Magazine and Predator Xtreme, and Fish Alaska Magazine.
Don't miss this chance to order Protect Your Nuts FREE on Amazon, July 10 only!

Music Soothes the Savage Brain

One of the keys to productive writing is to understand the kind of environment that lets you do your best work. I've long understood that I write better with music playing in the background. I thought this was just a quirk of mine, like a preference for cool cloudy days and butterscotch, but it turns out there's science behind it--specifically neuroscience and psychology.

We've talked before about using music to get in the mood of fiction, such as channeling ragtime or Cole Porter to immerse in an historical time period. But here's the twist--using music can help you focus and reach the yearned-for "flow" state while doing ANY task that requires concentration.

Here's the thing: our brains is wired for distractability. While we focus our selective attention on a task, other environmental factors fade into the background. But at some level our senses are constantly scanning the environment for clues to danger. Each time you catch a flicker of light out of the corner of your eye or feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck, you can thank your brain and nervous system for keeping you safe.

This system worked very well for most of human history, keeping us alert to threats and predators so that we could catch our dinner before becoming dinner for something else. But in today's stimuli-rich environment, it's too much. We keep picking up on sensory signals that we no longer need to respond to, pulling our attention away from the task at hand for no good reason.

Here's where music comes in. If you choose the right kind of music (nothing that will make you jump, jive, and wail or send you packing down Memory Lane), you'll occupy the auditory portion of the brain just enough give it something to chew on while you get your task done. According to the research, gentle music that plays at 60 beats per minute is ideal for decreasing neural activity and reaching a relaxed yet alert state. It takes about 20 minutes to reach peak concentration, which then lasts up to 40 minutes before a break is needed.

You can read the science here.

I've been experimenting with a program called focus@will that plays the right kind of music for building concentration. My choice is Classical, but the program also offers Spa, Up Tempo, Alpha Chill, Acoustical, Cinematic, and Ambient channels, none of which I've tried yet.

I've been using focus@will for about three days while plowing through a grueling nonfiction writing project, and I do believe it's helping me concentrate, although I've enjoyed the music so much that I've had to stop four times to write down the title and composer of what I'm listening to, which is obviously a distraction, albeit a pleasant one. According to the research, the best music ambient music is neither particularly liked or disliked, so maybe I'm liking it a little more than I'm supposed to for maximum benefit. I can live with that. If you find a particular musical selection too distracting, you can alert focus@will and banish it forever from your playlist, but I'm actually looking forward to hearing my favorites again.

There's a free three-week trial period, after which the music may be purchased by paid subscription or in free 100-minute chunks, which is ample time for the typical work cycle of 20 minutes ramp-up and 40 minutes deep concentration. I suppose Pandora or your own personal music collection could work as well, but wouldn't be preselected to soothe the frontal cortex and stimulate cognitive function.
And all that jazz.

(Image source:

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Joy of Prosody: Children's Poetry

By Liz Mastin

Children’s poetry need not consist merely of lines which are appropriately child-like and rhyme. Today’s children’s poetry can contain good-quality poetry and may serve as an excellent introduction into the world of poetry in general.

I was fortunate in sitting next to a children’s book agent at a luncheon last year during the Whidbey Island Writer’s Conference in Langley. As I had an opportunity to find out something about what is in demand for children’s books, I also asked her if there were any children’s books featuring poetry that were doing well. 

She suggested several books.  I looked online at Amazon, hoping to read a few sample pages. Right away, one of the recommended books stood out. The name of the book was “A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk” by Deborah Ruddell. This book also had lovely illustrations by Joan Rankin. Reviews on the back of the book stated “A terrific introduction to poetry, with a smile attached” Kirkus Reviews, “Delightful” School Library Journal, and “Lyrical” Publishers Weekly.

I felt that as an incentive, when writing children’s poetry, it would pay to buy this book for reference, and I will be happy to share with you some of the unusual poems it contains and how they are written!

A Wild Turkey Comments on His Portrait

I find it most insulting
that you’ve traced around your hand
and colored all my feathers
either plain old brown or tan.

Where’s the copper? Where’s the gold
that a turkey should expect?
Where on earth is raw sienna,
And where is the respect?

Finally, I’m baffled
That you’ve made me look so dumb.
My head is quite distinguished
And it’s nothing like your thumb.

This poem is written with alternating trimeter (three beats) and tetrameter (four beats) lines.  While there are other feet, (substitutions), the poem is in iambics with da DUM  da DUM sounds.)  Yet what makes a poem like this more exceptional is that the messages in the poems are not the tired, so expected ones. This poem opens the door for learning, as well. A child may want to know, exactly what is raw sienna? The vocabulary is more elevated, as in the word distinguished.

Here is another:

Moonlit Raccoon

In a watery mirror
  the rugged raccoon
admires his face
by the light of the moon:
the mysterious mask,
The whiskers beneath,
the sliver of cricket
still stuck in his teeth.

This poem is written in anapestic dimeter. That means it sounds like da da DUM, da da DUM.  Anapests have two soft accents and one strong. Again, the poem is very clever, and you can hear techniques like alliteration in the way the animal is called a rugged raccoon (two r’s)  and in mysterious mask with its two m’s. The last two lines have alliterative quality with all the s’s: sliver, still and stuck.

Liz Mastin Bio
Liz Mastin is a poet who lives in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho during the summer and Bullhead City, Arizona in winter. She thrives on the study of the great poets, their biographies, the schools of poetry to which they adhered, and the poetic conventions of the times in which they lived.

While she enjoys free verse as well as metrical poetry, her main interest lies in prosody. She notices that most of the enduring poems are those we can remember and recite. Liz enjoys poetry forms such as the sonnet, the sestina, the couplet, blank verse, simple quatrains, etc. and she hopes to see modern poets regain interest in studied metrical poetry.

Liz is currently putting together her first collection of poems which should be completed this winter. The poems are a mixture of metrical and free verse poems.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bonfires and Illuminations

Once again it’s time to celebrate our nation’s birthday with “bonfires and illuminations,” as John Adams suggested on July 3, 1776. Today, the bonfires and illuminations of 200 years ago have become community celebrations, parades, sparklers and fireworks – but the reason for celebrating remains the same.

The best description for why we should never stop lighting those sparklers on the Fourth of July was given by Thomas Jefferson in 1826. His words explain why communities all across America should never stop putting on fireworks displays or holding Independence Day celebrations.

He said the celebrations of the Fourth light the world with a signal that can move others to recognize the rights of man and should be a reminder to each of us of the blessings and security of self-government and the free right of reason and opinion. “For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

As writers, the 4th of July is the day we should refresh our recollection of our glorious freedom to write whatever we wish without fear of punishment - a right others around the world do not share.

So, whether you attend Coeur d’Alene’s big fireworks display; march down Maine Street as part of Spirit Lake’s Fourth of July Parade; head out to the Stateline Speedway Demolition Derby for a smashing good time; or choose to stay home to enjoy the spectacle of America’s grandest Independence Day concert on your TV, be sure you take a moment to tell your kids, or just remind yourself, why the Fourth of July is a day of celebration.