Friday, October 31, 2014

Writing Skill Development

Our guest blogger today is Larry Telles of Dalton Gardens, ID

I have thought for many years that I was born at the right time. Looking back to those early years I can see that I was bound to be a writer. One of my necessary skills was imagination which I learned by listening to the radio. A mahogany appliance that appeared to glow in the dark sat on an end table in our living room. Narration, dialogue and sound effects became the critical parts of painting pictures in my mind.   

It was 1949, I was nearly twelve, and my grandmother who lived in Albany, California bought a television set. During the summer months I spent every Wednesday with her and my grandfather. There were only three stations we could watch went off-the-air at 9 p.m. each night. All three channels displayed our flag, in black and white and played the Star Spangled Banner.

By the mid-1950s, our three channels had added more programming like local news. With commercials at a very minimum, these stations turned to obtaining, through renting or buying, silent movies. For a young kid, they were clever and very funny. Over a short period of time I added a second notch in my writer’s bag of tricks. While watching these silent films I learned, “show, don’t tell.” These on screen actors had to convey emotion with hand gestures, body language, eye-brows and their mouths.

I learned all about action when nearly every Friday night my parents would take me to a local theater in Oakland, California to see two “B” Westerns, a newsreel, and cartoon. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t pursue writing after leaving high school. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that a forth item was added to my writer’s tool box.

Writing was not completely forgotten in the late 1960s to early 1970s, but I got interested in art. I had been drawing since I was nine years old and wanted to learn more. I enrolled in The Art Instruction Schools of Minnesota. I worked on this course while working at Pacific Bell in the Bay Area. When I got the chance, I transferred into the training department writing technical curriculum. There I learned all about pacing. It became necessary for me to choose words that got a point across without using hundreds of unnecessary words.

It was during this period that I began thinking about writing a children’s book. Technical writing during the day and fiction at night. I had seen an ad for The Institute of Children’s Literature in Pennsylvania and after a couple of years took three classes from them. My effort at the conclusion was a YA novel, The Hooded Rider of Whispering Pines, and several short stories written during those courses. This manuscript was put in a drawer only to see the light of day again in the late 1990s. I used it at Holy Names University in Oakland, California to challenge a creative writing class. I graduated with a BA in English (cum laude) in 1998. But the manuscript went back in the drawer.

I left California in 1999 and landed in Dalton Gardens, Idaho. I joined the Idaho Writers League in 2001. Years earlier I had joined the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators) and helped form the Inland Empire Chapter in Spokane. That manuscript is once again out of the drawer. However, it isn’t my first book. I wrote A Brief History of the Silent Screen and the World at that Time in 2008. I aimed the marketing “for the teen years to the seniors.” Most young adults would like to know where movies came from. My second book, Helen Gibson, Silent Serial Queen: Who Became Hollywood’s First Professional Stunt Woman. It was dedicated to all the young women who have a dream. Those short stories I did earlier were tweaked a bit and over the past four years won prizes at the IWL yearly contest.

So what does all of this mean? Don’t give up your writing. Make sure you have the right tools to do the job. Find an age group or genre you can relate to and start writing. Decide if you love fiction or non-fiction or both. Enter contests. Go to writing conferences. Join a writing group so you can get your work critiqued. If you know a teacher, see if you can read your work to a class. Kids are very blunt and will let you know what they think. I’ll bet a lot of you reading this have heard all of the above many times before. Well, it must be good advise, since it works!

LARRY TELLES, entertains readers with his fertile imagination in all sorts of yarns. The love of his writing life is children’s stories. Larry is presently marketing two books on film and a DVD, but his YA manuscript is currently being polished for publication in 2015.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bucket List for Writers

Bucket List

Do you remember the 2007 movie "The Bucket List" starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman? The title is derived from the slang term "kick the bucket" meaning "to die." In silent Western movies a character would fall down kicking over a bucket. That was the signal to the audience that he had died.  Many people have written their personal bucket list of things to do before they die just like in the movie.

In recent weeks in the United States a young woman, Brittany Maynard, has made news by writing her personal bucket list. She has an untreatable, painful brain tumor and death is in the immediate future. She has moved to the state of Oregon where the right to die act is legally practiced. She has selected November 1 as her date of death. In the past few days, she checked off the last thing on her bucket list.... a trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I wish her well in her journey.

A bucket list is different than a to-do list. The latter has things on it like: buy soap, return library books, buy gas, and register for writing class. It is meant as a reminder of tasks you wish to do today. A bucket list is a reminder of things to fulfill but on a grander scale (play at Carnegie Hall versus practice recital pieces). It includes goals you wish to accomplish, dreams you realistically want to fulfill and life experiences you desire before you die.

Writing a bucket list forces you to think what you really want. Some items may be materialistic but most are adventures or goals you set for yourself. It is a plan for your future. It is a blueprint for where you want to go and what you want to do. It gives clarity and focus to your life. To me, it makes me think about what I will work hard to make happen, places and people I want to see and challenges I want to tackle. It is realistic.

I know I will never be a ballerina (I am five feet tall and in the later part my 60th decade) but this doesn't diminish my desire to enjoy number four on my list: another performance of Russia's Bolshoi Ballet. The first time I saw them perform, I cried I enjoyed it so much. The BL solidifies my number three desire to spend two weeks in Paris. I do not want to play the piano at Carnegie Hall but I do want increase significantly my playing skills to better understand and enjoy music. These are legitimate items on my bucket list.

We, as writers, can benefit from a Bucket List aimed at our writing. Some goals for me to put down may be to finish the novel I started five years ago; send more query letters to different agents regarding my newly finished nonfiction book; learn to spin wool so I can write an article for the weaving magazine; refine what public libraries I want to visit to do research for a new idea I have for a different nonfiction book; and clean out my writing files! Thinking about what I want to accomplish versus what I have to accomplish gets me excited and motivated to check things off my BLW (Bucket List, Writing).

Your BLW is probably entirely different than mine. Yours may include finding a writers' retreat for the summer of 2016, winning a writing contest and trying your hand at Goth novels. Who knows? You know. You know what your heart is beating toward and where your brain is heading. Write down a BLW,frame it and put it on the wall in front of your computer. Put on the teakettle or coffee pot and get busy.
Bern, Switzerland
Tulips in Holland

Monday, October 27, 2014

“After all, tomorrow is another day."

 The title of this post is the last line  in both the book and the movie of Gone with The Wind. It is one of the truest adaptations of  book into movie form.

What is the trick to making an excellent movie from an outstanding book? Does it make any difference if the movie is true to the story? How do authors feel about their books being made into movies? What does it serve to duplicate a good book onto the movie screen except to make money?

A group of seven authors in New York debated these questions. Their feelings were divided into three camps:

(1)           I do not care what they (Hollywood) does with the movie if it remains true to the spirit of my book. 
(2)           I want it to be as true to my book as possible
(3)           I do not want a thing changed.

Numbers one and two are the only achievable answers to the question. Why? The author brings his one perspective to his book. A movie involves not only the perspective of a screenwriter but also the director, costume designers, editors, location settings and choice of actors. Multiple inputs are needed for a movie.

The author builds a sustainable image. He chooses his target audience and writes to them. A movie expands the book to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. The author has to work hard choosing words that show and not tell. The movie uses more effects visually showing emotions and actions in a much shorter period than is possible in books. A book can meander into its main plot whereas a movie must grab the attention of the viewer immediately so as not to be boring.

Each reader builds in his imagination what the characters look and sounds like, what the setting looks like in each scene and the pace of the book. The reader also goes through these same paces along with the plot pacing. He decides if he likes or dislikes, tolerates or abhors the characters. It may take him a long time to understand his conclusions. Movies make you immediately mentally vote on these things because it is has only two hours to present a much larger plot of a book. Dialog is more essential in both venues but more of it occurs in a movie because movies by nature demand action.

Some authors do not care what a filmmaker does to their books. They figure that the movie is two hours of free publicity for their book and/or other books they have written. The film can be made for a small audience or a blockbuster with name actors, lavish costuming and settings. Both try to make money. The studios can write off the smaller budgeted movie or movies that do not capture the audiences. Films can be made and seen by a test audience using various endings. Books do not have that luxury.

The risk in making a movie from a book is that the viewers go to a movie because they liked the book. Their expectations are built on what they individually visualized in their minds and what conclusions they came to at the end. We know what the ending should be. Maybe the movie is true to the book (Gone with The Wind is a prime example) or maybe the movie only has a passing acquaintance to the book.

Movies from books do have advantages to the public at large. Most adults read fewer than five books a year but discover that they like this story and seek more works by the author. Movies bring children back to reading. Movies can be a family affair watched together.

Books are a renewable source of stories for Hollywood. An actor may recommend a book but decline to star in it when he reads the final script. Good casting can make the book an even bigger hit; poor casting like Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher or Katherine Heigel as Stephanie Plum make a movie sink like a body in cement aimed into the Jersey River.

Here are some books being made into movies. I rarely see movies if I have read the book. The movie is never as good as the book (one exception is GWTW). Do you see the movies after reading the books? Which do you prefer?

Mockingjay  by Suzanne Collins
Gone Girl and  Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
The Switch by Elmore Leonard
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
A Walk in The Woods by Bill Bryson
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
Devil’s Knot by Mara Leveritt
The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks
The Giver by Lars Lowry

Read a follow post on October 29, 2014 for Dr. Seuss’ response published posthumously made regarding his books made into movies. It is delightful, shocking, and enlightening.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

An Inside Look at Reasons Your Writing Might Be Getting Rejected

Years ago I read about an author who wallpapered her entire bathroom with rejection slips from editors and agents. I don't remember now what this activity was supposed to accomplish, according to that author, but I do remember thinking that I, personally, would not feel encouraged by facing a rejection-wallpapered bathroom every morning, especially before I've even had my coffee.

What WOULD encourage me is some clear, no-holds-barred explanations of why stories remain unpublished. This is the kind of encouragement I found in Jessica Page Morrell's book, Thanks, But This Isn't For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected. Morrell, a developmental editor and writing teacher, takes the reader through fourteen chapters that cover everything from the first line to "The End," pointing out potential manuscript weaknesses that even the most careful writer might not be aware of, plus a helpful glossary of publishing terms.

Morrell's approach is not delicate--in fact, "blunt" might be putting it mildly--but she gets her point across. Think of it as tough love for the writer's soul ("soul" being something she's not crazy about, by the way, as in "she felt his passion in the depths of her soul"--phrasing she calls "cringe-worthy." I told you, this is not a book for the thinnest of skins!)

Even if you haven't yet finished your story (or haven't even started it; I'm looking at you, NaNoWriMo participants), you'll still find useful information that might help you swerve around some potholes in the first place. So the next time your manuscript receives a rejection letter, instead of posting it on the wall next to your toothbrush holder, try reading through it with a copy of Thanks, But This Isn't For Us at your side. It just might be a more effective brain stimulant than your morning coffee!

(Note: this review comes from my own, dog-eared personal copy of Thanks, But This Isn't For Us, not a publisher's review copy. Just so ya know.)

(This column first appeared in October 2011.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What Makes a Good Ghost Story?

Who doesn't love a good ghost story? One of my favorite books when I was young was Alfred Hitchcock's Haunted Houseful (Random House, 1961 and subsequent editions), in which the master of creepy supernatural thrillers introduced nine spooky stories by a variety of authors. My beloved copy had belonged to my brothers before me, and at around age 10, I snapped it up. I loved it so much that I recently hunted down a used copy on the Internet and have it before me now.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," was Mr. Hitchcock's characteristic opening. He went on to say that he'd compiled these particular stories "to provide reading for young people who are at the awkward age. Children who are too lazy to walk but still too young to drive. Here are nine stories carefully compiled to furnish reading material in Life's great waiting room where we while away the hours until our driver's license is issued."

Further on he wrote, "[One] reason I am not addressing this book to adults is (and believe me, this hurts) they insist they don't believe in ghosts. [Emphasis in the original.] It's shocking, really. After all, these are the people who write our country's laws and pay our allowances. I don't know how they could become so confused. Perhaps you are partly to blame. You have not watched them closely enough and they have fallen in with bad company."

I loved these stories, which included selections by such august authors as Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But my favorite of the collection was The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall by John Kendrick Bangs, which contained all the elements that my prepubescent mind thought a good ghost story should have:  a creaky old house, strange midnight appearances, unfinished business,  a clever solution, and a quirk of amusement.

I don't believe in ghosts. But I did write one ghost story back in my student days, which I'm still rather proud of after all these decades. If you care to read it, it's posted here.

What about you? Do you have a favorite ghost story? What, to you, make up the essential elements of a good ghost story?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Murder Mystery Update: The Story Comes to Life

The history-mystery fund-raiser plan is percolating along! (For those who are following this event as it unfolds, the previous update is here.)

To recap, I've been writing a history-themed murder mystery to be performed at a fund-raiser on behalf of a local history museum. Last time I explained a little of how the story and characters were developed. Since then I've gotten some questions about the process, so here's a little Q and A.

Is the story based on an actual murder that really took place?

No. The crime is entirely fictional, some of the characters are purely fictional, and even the "real-person" characters do fictional things.It is above all a fun story meant to entertain, but we hope that some nuggets history will be learned along the way.

For example, the owners of a ladies' millinery shop play a role in the story. There really was a millinery shop on Sandpoint's Cedar Street in 1920, and the sisters who owned it really existed. But beyond that, we don't have many facts to go on: what their personalities were like, how they spoke, and so on. I ended up loosely basing those characters on dress-shop owners Ruby and Pearl Pratt in the delightful BBC series Lark Rise to Candleford.

Pearl and Ruby Pratt own the dress shop in Candleford

As with any good historical fiction, we've woven threads of make-believe onto an historical framework. Guests will learn about Prohibition, the local economy, political concerns of the day, fashions, music, and goings-on around town.

Will the guests be involved in the story, too?

Yes. As each guest sends an RSVP to the fund-raiser, he or she is assigned a real character from local history to portray, to the extent he or she is comfortable doing so, along some backstory and suggestions for costume and lingo. We'll have everyone from grocers to bankers to ranchers to loggers to schoolteachers, all partying like it's 1920.

How did you do your research?

Mostly from combing the local newspapers of 1920 and oral histories left by people who lived in the area. As the event is a fund-raiser for a history museum, making use of the museum's resources to do the research seemed appropriate.

Who did the crime?

I'm not telling.

Check back to find out more about "A Little Party Never Killed Anybody." And as always, feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Jabberwocky: Whimsical Neologisms

“Jabberwocky,” a poem penned by Lewis Carroll in his 1871 novel, Through the Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There, is considered one of the greatest nonsense poems written in English. Delightful to read aloud, the poem’s singsong cadence, made-up words, and vivid imagery demands the reader’s interaction.

from: Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There
By Lewis Carroll

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
  He went galumphing back.

"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
  He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

The words made little sense to Alice, “It seems very pretty," she said when she had finished it, "but it's rather hard to understand!" (You see she didn't like to confess even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate---"

The whimsical language created for the poem by Carroll resulted in three neologisms (newly coined words that fall into common usage) and a plethora of nonsense words:

Jabberwocky: meaningless speech or writing.

Galumphing: to move with clumsy and heavy tread.

Chortle: a snorting, joyful laugh or chuckle; a combination of the words “chuckle” and “snort.”

In the book, Humpty Dumpty tried to explain the gobbledygook for Alice. He described “rath”as “a sort of green pig.” In his notes, Carroll described it as “a species of badger that “lived chiefly on cheese” and had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag; appendixes later described it as “a species of land turtle “that lived on swallows and oysters.” No one truly knows. Have you ever seen one?

Frabjous: a combination of fabulous, and joyous.

Frumious: a combination of fuming and furious.

Gyre: to go round like a gyroscope.

Mimsy: Humpty described mimsy as “flimsy” and “miserable.”

In Jabberwocky-fashion, Douglas Adams included a poem in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Oh Freddled Gruntbuggly

Oh freddled gruntbuggly thy micturations are to me
  As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
Groop I implore thee my foonting turlingdromes
  And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my
  blurglecruncheon, see if I don't!

Wanna have some fun? Try fabricating fabulous new words yourself. Use Jabberwocky, Dr. Seuss, and "Oh Freddled Gruntbuggly" for inspiration; refer to your dictionary and thesaurus for information; and let your imagination fly.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

5 Tips for Writing CharacterDescription

Artists draw pictures with ink, or paint, or pencil; but writers are challenged to draw pictures of their characters using words alone.  What does the character look like?  What are his/her personality traits, habits, shortcomings, strengths or idiosyncrasies?  The secret lies in outlining their  characters in detail, then introducing them slowly, through description and action.  Some helpful tips include: 

1. Develop a Character Chart 
The first step is to create a Character Chart outlining everything you know about your character. Many examples of Character Charts can be found online; some are very comprehensive, but you can tailor them to meet your needs.  The more complete your profile, the easier you'll find it to describe your character through words and action.   

2. Don't Make a List
An item-by-item list of characteristics, or giving too much information at one time, is boring for the reader and considered lackluster writing.  Skilled writers introduce the character then sprinkle tidbits throughout the story, allowing the reader to “discover” the true nature of the character in small doses.  The reader gets the same information, but in a much more enjoyable way. 
Sharon Rose might sit on the floor beside her bed like a sick child.  She often felt drained of her proper nature.  Her mind was like a liquid in a sloppy container.  Her soul rolled from side to side of a rocking boat. – Wright Morris, Plains Song
3. Beware Adjective Addiction
Adjectives don't add the spice you are looking for and result in making a boring list longer. Effective writers follow Mark Twain’s advice on adjectives:
When you catch an adjective, kill it.  No, I don't mean utterly,  but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice. – Mark Twain 
4. Choose Not “To Be”
Don’t fall into the habit of using the common “ to be” verbs which are considered weak because they don’t show action.  Replacing these verbs with action verbs results in powerful and concise writing. 
Nature forgot to shade him off, I think... A little too boisterous--like the sea. A little too vehement--like a bull who has made up his mind to consider every colour scarlet. But I grant a sledge-hammering sort of merit in him.  ― Charles Dickens, Bleak House
5. Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Following the old rule of “show, don't tell" enables writers to introduce their characters in a more interesting way, drawing a picture that is complete and well rounded.  If a particular trait is vital to the storyline, find different ways to imprint the trait you consider important through the character’s actions and/or interactions with supporting characters.
She [Sybil Vane] crouched on the floor like a wounded thing, and Dorian Gray, with his beautiful eyes, looked down at her, and his chiseled lips curled in exquisite disdain. There is always something ridiculous about the emotion of people whom one has ceased to love. ― Oscar Wilde, the Picture of Dorian Gray

Monday, October 13, 2014

Ronald Hayse Goodwin: A Tribute to a Life Well Lived

  To Ron, my Prince Charming

So quick of mind, and quick to laugh,
My love, you were and always will be,
       My guiding light, my star, my life.       
Our souls were entwined together here
And are in all eternity.

Anna Goodwin (Ana Parker Goodwin) one of the members of Writing North Idaho, recently lost her beloved husband of 49 years, Ronald Hayse Goodwin, following a valiant battle with COPD. During a memorial service on October 11, family and friends shared their memories of Ron through their stories, poems, and songs.

Their words alternately brought laughter, nods of agreement, and tears. His wife, our friend, remained silent, allowing others to read the words she found impossible to voice aloud about her loving husband who encouraged and supported her career as psychotherapist, writer, and author; through both word and deed. Her daughter read a tribute to her dad, describing the gifts he gave her. Her loss struck each of us when emotions overcame her voice as she described his precious gifts of love and laughter. Her son, unable to continue reading, asked a friend to read the many reasons he admired, respected, and loved his father.

One of Ron’s sisters led us in singing the folk songs he loved, including: “500 Miles” by Peter, Paul and Mary; and “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. His niece wrote and sang a beautiful song in tribute to him; his son-in-law told of Ron’s generous and accepting personality.

Each person who spoke mentioned Ron's love of family, his intelligence, his commitment to the world around him, and his laughter. Their love for him and their obvious loss stood in tribute to a life well-lived.
Our dearest Ron.
You have lived your life well, with sensitivity, integrity, and compassion.
We miss you so much, and love you always now and through eternity.
Until we meet again. Your family.
Ron passionately supported and believed in the work Anna was doing through her book, How to cope with Stress after Trauma; Especially for Veterans, their Families and Friends. In his memory, she created a fund which will be used to give books to those in need of healing. If you wish to learn more about her book written to help our veterans and others suffering from PTSD, go to

Ronald Hayse Goodwin

Ronald Hayse Goodwin, Ph.D. in entomology (invertebrate pathology), beloved husband of Anna Goodwin for 49 years, and father of Tonya (Chris) and Jason (Maria), completed his journey on earth on Aug. 8, 2014, at the age of 80. He had five grandchildren and one great-grandson. His family and many of his friends will always remember his brilliant mind and his quickness to play jokes, to laugh and love. They will treasure and remember him for the rest of their lives.

Ron was a veteran of the U.S. Army, a high school teacher, and then a research scientist for 30 years, before he retired to the Coeur d'Alene area. He was very much a family man and spent hours playing with his children. He was born on Oct. 15, 1933, in Hollywood, Calif., where his father was a backdrop artist for Paramount Pictures on films such as "Gone with the Wind" and "Lost Horizon." At the age of 7 he and his mother moved to the San Francisco area where he grew up, taught high school and graduated from UC Berkeley.

After his marriage to Anna they moved to Canberra, Australia, where he worked as an invertebrate pathologist for the Australian government (CSIRO), studying insect diseases to spread on the fields instead of insecticides. After three years they returned to Maryland where he worked for the United States Department of Agriculture creating tissue cultures of the army worm and infecting them with insect viruses to spread on infested trees. His tissue culture media has been used throughout the world, including Russia.

His last large project was to help his wife Anna, a psychotherapist, write, publish, and distribute her book "How to Cope with Stress after Trauma: Especially for Veterans, their Families and Friends." He had a deep passion for our veterans and their families, especially for the children, who were not receiving the help they needed.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Shadow of the Shore

 Edith Wharton at her desk.

On a recent trip to Memphis, Tennessee, my husband took me to a used book store called Burke's Books. We have done this on many trips, and it is one of our traditions for which I am most grateful. We spend a good amount of time in these establishments; he never rushes me or questions my purchasing habits, another one of his many strong suits. While in the stacks, I browse and sit in waiting chairs, picking up and putting down many books. Mostly, I wait for a certain feeling to come over me, a tingling, or an inkling that will lead me in a direction I need to go. It was in a used book shop in Coeur d' Alene that I found a sentence in a history book that led to me spending a decade creating My American Eden. My husband found two of the most significant details of the story in second-hand shops- one in our town and another in Westchester County, Pennsylvania. When we left the shop in Memphis, he joked that he had in his hand a book that may well be the key. I laughed because I often have the same feeling. On the plane home, I cracked open my treasure: Edith Wharton's Summer.

The book jacket revealed that this work was considered by many to be her finest. The trip home flew by in a jiffy as I devoured Wharton's beautiful work.

From Summer:

“The lake at last- a sheet of shining metal brooded over by drooping trees. Charity and Harney had secured a boat and, getting away from the wharves and the refreshment-booths, they drifted idly along, hugging the shadow of the shore. Where the sun struck the water its shafts flamed back blindingly at the heat-veiled sky; and the least shade was black by contrast. The Lake was so smooth that the reflection of the trees on its edge seemed enamelled on a solid surface; but gradually, as the sun declined, the water grew transparent and Charity, leaning over, plunged her fascinated gaze into the depths so clear that she saw the inverted tree-tops interwoven with green growths on the bottom.
They rounded a point at the farther end of the Lake, and entering an inlet pushed their bow against a protruding tree-trunk. A green veil of willows overhung them. Beyond the trees, wheat-fields sparkled in the sun; and all along the horizon the clear hills throbbed with light. Charity leaned back in the stern, and Harney unshipped the oars and lay in the bottom of the boat without speaking.”

Page 95

The Mount

When asked which books made her the most proud, Edith Wharton named Summer as one of them. In reading more about her life, I happened to learn about her home, a beautiful estate in the Berkshires, known as The Mount. As she penned a book about houses and gardens, she was able to oversee every detail of this exquisite treasure. Born of wealth and privilege into an old moneyed family, instead of whiling away her life in gorgeous drawing rooms and delicate gardens, she picked up a pen and gave us a body of work, worth picking up time and time again. Now I am obsessed with going to see her lovely home and have added one more adventure to my wish list. Her library is depicted below.

If you are the proprietor of a second-hand book shop, thank you. If you can spend an afternoon in a dusty shop, consider yourself lucky. You never know when you might find the key. It may lead to a decade of further study.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Among School Children

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;

A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,

To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy —
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.

Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once — enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

William Butler Yeats 
June 1865-January1939
Winner of Nobel Prize in Literature 1923

Monday, October 6, 2014

Help! Synopsis!

 Elizabeth S. Brinton in 2002.

There is no word in the English language I dislike more than the word synopsis. Tasked with writing one for my current novel, I started the way I begin most intimidating chores, I asked Google. Of course, this is not the first time, nor, hopefully, will it be the last, where I agonize over this dreaded concept. At first I looked for agents who did not require one. However, once gave myself a severe talking to, I proceeded to the reference shelf, to Google, to any help section within my grasp and got a refresher course. There is no simple solution.

There are a ton of books on the market about how to get published, how to write a query letter, how to write a synopsis, and how to get an agent. I believe I have read most of them. Usually, I am overwhelmed, in a near state of panic, and wonder if I can get through the process with any self- esteem left intact. Because I am an author, I prefer to live in a fantasy world. Would my flimsy little bubble burst right before my eyes? Not this time. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that if the hard work of figuring out what story you plan to tell is done in the early stages, these finishing stages are far less intimidating.

 To my everlasting surprise, I could hardly write fast enough. It just came flying out. As I had worked the plot-line, scene by scene, and had a big chart up on the wall of my old study, I think the trick may be in the narrative itself. Do not let any submission guideline intimidate you. We may not even know how these things come about, but for whatever reason it seems much easier this time. One tip suggested that a writer should follow the narrative arc. That was the spark that enabled me to pick up my pen. Yes, I wrote it longhand. Scribbled would be a better word.

Literary agents have to be admired. They stay in business. They maintain the same address. Instead of whining about how impersonal the process seems, why wouldn't I look at it as something I plan to make happen. All the guidelines are different. Some want a query only; others prefer a few pages of the novel which is a great thing, in my humble opinion. Most require a synopsis, and who can blame them? Well then, a synopsis I will deliver. I may revise it a hundred times; I may whine and wail, but I can promise one thing. I will not give up.

My search revealed another nugget of good news. I'll be honest. I fear rejection. I fear a loss of confidence and a total tail-spin. Because of the volume of submissions, making one's chances even more scant, a new process has evolved. They don't seem to bother with rejection letters anymore. Instead of trying to tell you why they are turning you down,  the prevailing winds are blowing in the direction of, “we will contact you if we are interested.” So the solution is to keep on doing whatever it is you do. Start a new project, or paint your laundry room, or knit a hat, or whatever it takes, but just keep going. Over the years, I have learned one thing about myself. I happen to like writing. I don't seem to tire of it. How does the saying go? Make art. While others try to figure out if they like it or not, whether they will buy it or not, make more art. Jazz musicians refer to playing in the shadows. Here is a piece of advice I read on Twitter. It came from Julian Lennon. He wrote, “That time you think you just wasted, wasn't wasted.”

Friday, October 3, 2014

Location as A Character

Think of Gone with The Wind not set in Atlanta but Washington, D.C., Les Miserable not in Paris but Berlin or HELP set in Detroit, MI not Jackson, MS and you have no story. In these books, location IS a character and a main character at that.

The question for the writer is how big a character do you want location to play. Does it define the action, is it a part of history that cannot be disputed, could the plot be plucked and set down in a different location without effecting the entire venture too much? How much would you have to explain if you set your novel some place else or change the dialog?

Many novels have the location as secondary plot. Under The Stars was set in Kenya in the 1930’s. The exoticness of the setting made the plot much more interesting. It helped the author to
grow her characters more easily due to the different ethnic morals and traditions she encounters. Daniel Steele’s novels could be set in any place and in any time. It doesn’t matter if her main character is rich, beautiful but troubled in Cote d’Azur, France, Denver, Manhattan or Rio de Janerio. She gets herself into the same predicaments and acts according to her set standards of the jet set. What happens in the location is not dependent upon the particular traits of Paris or Los Angeles.

A book set in a certain location may be a draw to readers. Many people want to learn things about another culture or geographical location and will pick up a book hoping to do so. If you want location to be a draw, do not set your novel in North Dakota unless it is during the 1870’s, early 1800’s or a mystery set in the oil area of the northwestern part of the state in 2014 where many people have emigrated for the high paying jobs. We just returned from a vacation in Whistler, B.C., Canada and Vancouver. I would love to set a novel in Vancouver but it could just as easily be set in Seattle, Portland or Lima, Peru if all I wanted was beautiful countryside with mountains, rain and evergreen trees. On the other side, talking about a geisha needs to be set in Japan because geisha were only a part of Japanese culture.

 I look for location as a primary factor in my fiction reading. I love to travel and enjoy reading more about a city or country because the characters are there. The Diana Gabledon series is intriguing because it takes the readers to the 1700’s in Scotland and then North Carolina and France. I love Daniel Silva’s mysteries because each one takes place in a European city or several and parts of Tel Aviv. I always learn something. On the other hand, Ethiopia as the location for Cutting for Stone, played a subtle and interesting part of the plot. However, the book could have been set in any third world country and the main plot sustained without difficulty.

Dialog has to be grounded in location but not to the point of possible misunderstanding. A “wee” here and there in a Scottish setting is appropriate and gives the reader a sense of the character. Most readers know the meaning of “bairn” (child) but would not understand “Awe’re a’Jock Tamson’s bairns” which means, “We are all God’s children, nobody is better than anybody else – we are all equal.” Most know that “havin’ a look under the bonnet” in Great Britain means someone is going to look under the hood of a car and not peeking under the hat of a baby. This reminds me of Tony Hillerman’s books set in Arizona in modern times where he uses numerous native American saying in their language but translates freely for the reader. It gives authenticity and flavor to the plot. A lot of his plots involved Native Americans and Caucasians together solving murders where the heritages of both entered into the plot line.

Are you taken by location when choosing a book? Do you find it hard to write your story if it is set in a different country. Do you ask yourself if this book has to be set in (place) and (time)? Does it work better in a different location or era? If you are stuck, try writing your story in a different location and/or era. No matter what you decide, remember that location influences what picture the reader develops in his mind. You want to make that as strong a part of the plot as you can. An exercise for learning is to write a short story set in a different country just to see what it entails.

“Haste Ye Back!" - Farewell saying meaning “return soon”.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

New Words and Phrases for 2014

The Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary update their additions once a year. Their web pages will list more words that are not added formally to their printed editions.

Both the printed and the web pages are interesting for their choices. I am not a purist when it comes to languages. I use many slang terms. I also appreciate that the English languages, both American and British, change quickly mainly due to the internet and the number of people who use English to communicate either in a chat room or while conducting business. What I do not understand is how some of these words and phrases make it into a hard bound copy of a dictionary. Some seem like slang and a fleeting fantasy while others make sense and will stay in use in a quarter of century. I starred the words I think will disappear in a decade or less. What do you think?

CATFISH: 1. any of an order of chiefly freshwater stout-bodied scaleless bony fishes having long tactile barbels; *2. a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes
*CROWDFUNDING:  the practice of soliciting financial contributions from a large number of people especially from the online community

FRACKING: the injection of fluid into shale beds at high pressure in order to free up petroleum resources (such as oil or natural gas)
*FREEGAN: an activist who scavenges for free food (as in waste receptacles at stores and restaurants) as a means of reducing consumption of resources
*GAMIFICATION: the process of adding games or gamelike elements to something (as a task) so as to encourage participation
HASHTAG: a word or phrase preceded by the symbol # that classifies or categorizes the accompanying text (such as a tweet)
PHO: a soup made of beef or chicken broth and rice noodles
POUTINE: chiefly Canada; a dish of French fries covered with brown gravy and cheese curds
*TURDUCKEN: a boneless chicken stuffed into a boneless duck stuffed into a boneless turkey

SMH: shaking my head negatively

*AMAZEBALLS: extremely good or impressive; amazing

*DOX or DOXX: publishing private or identifying information about a specific individual with  malicious intent

ACQUIHIRE: buying a company for the value of its staff and not for the product or service itself

CLICKBACK: content on the internet that draws attention to and thus visitors to a specific web page

*VAX: vaccination

*HUMBLEBRAG: ostensibly modest, self deprecating comment to draw attention one’s self or accomplishments

*HENCH: man who is physically fit

*ADORBS: cute, adorabable

*MANSPLAIN: man, usually, explaining to a woman, usually, something using a condescending manner

*LISTICLE: article on the internet that uses bullet point or numbers for emphasis or clarity