Sunday, March 18, 2018
(First published as a Logansport Pharos-Tribune column)
Several years ago, I was invited to direct a work shop at the International Women’s Writing Guild annual conference on the campus of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. I had never done anything like this before. I’d never even attended a workshop much less developed and directed one. I’d never stayed on a college campus, slept in a dorm or been to upstate New York. I’d never been thrown together with 1,200 women.
I barely remember anything about the conference itself. I don’t recall what other workshops I attended or what I taught in my own. If I learned valuable writing lessons, they have been processed subconsciously.
But I do remember all those women and how intimidated I was at first. They congregated into groups with common interests. There were several New York poets, all elegantly dressed and accessorized. They considered themselves the Artists, existing on a slightly higher plane than the rest of us.
There were the Earth Mothers in sandals and long skirts. Generally, they came from little self-sufficiency farms where they raised goats and organic food. You could usually find them in the yoga classes or making mandalas. (Mandala is a Sanskrit word roughly translated as “circle” – a mandala is a cosmic diagram, if you will).
There were the hard-core Feminists, many of whom had become lesbians voluntarily as a way of making a political statement. They tolerated no dissent from the party line.
Then there were the rest of us. I considered us the Regular people. We had no agenda beyond learning how to write or how to sell what we wrote.
Some wanted to do just one particular thing. One wanted to write her church’s history, another wanted to produce a cookbook featuring her southern granny’s recipes. One, with an autistic son, wanted to write about coping with that condition.
St. Patrick’s Day always makes me remember one woman in particular. This St. Patrick’s Day was no different.
Her maiden name (I’ve changed the names because it’s not my story) was Hummel or Schneider, anyway, a very Germanic-sounding name. Her family, she told us, had been of proudly German origin for generations, on both sides.
But her mother had a peculiarity in that her favorite holiday was St. Patrick’s Day. Every year, she made green-iced cupcakes decorated with four-leaf clovers on top. She made a big bowl of green punch. She filled the house with green balloons and hung green crepe paper garlands above the door sills. The centerpiece on the table was a cut-out of a leprechaun. She put Irish music on the record player. And she always took the kids to the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
If the rest of the oh-so-German family thought this over-the-top celebration was odd, they never said so but just enjoyed the green cupcakes and punch.
Many years later, the mother was very old and ill in the hospital. The doctors said she wouldn’t live much longer. She called my friend, her daughter, to her side and said, “I have a secret to tell you.”
Her daughter leaned in close because her mother’s voice was weak and trembling by then.
“I was adopted. I’ve known about it from the time I was very young. I was rummaging around in a trunk in the attic and found my birth certificate. I never said a word about it because I was afraid if I asked questions, it would hurt Mama and Papa’s feelings. They never wanted me to know they weren’t my real parents. I never wanted them to know I knew because I considered them my real parents in every wonderful way it is possible to be a parent.”
Her daughter was astonished, hearing her mother’s confession.
“My birth mother’s name was Kathleen McCarty. She was 17 years old when I was born. That’s all I know. It’s all I ever tried to know although I wondered about her often. I’ve always given her the benefit of the doubt for doing what she must have thought was best for me. Since I couldn’t recognize my little Irish mother in any outward way, I always gave her a special celebration on Patrick’s Day.”
My friend wanted to ask questions but it was too late. Her mother was too weak. She’d said all she had to say. She died a short time later.
So, that’s why she was at the conference, to learn to tell her mother’s story. I don’t know whether she accomplished her goal or not but if she didn’t, I’m sure hearing it is something none of us who were in the cafeteria the day she told it has ever forgotten. I bet I wasn’t the only one to think of her on St. Patrick’s Day.
I’ve discovered since then that there really are no “just Regular” people – every one of us has a special story inside us – if we are willing to tell it and if someone is there to listen.
Saturday, January 27, 2018
As writers, we all have our own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to style. We can improve on the areas where we falter, of course. I've gained many techniques from reading other writers I admire, such as how they handle transitions but over all, we are what we are and it's best to just go with it.
For instance, I could never develop a plot no matter how I studied how other writers did it. My books have no plots. They just ramble. That's the way it is.
When I was young and poor, my friend worked at Hooks Drugstore. When Harlequin paperbacks exceeded their shelf life, the store threw them away or gave them to employees. My friend read them, then brought them to me. Oh, God, I read so many Harlequin romances. They were so formulaic, it was like reading the same story over and over except in one, the hero was a pirate and in one he was a rancher.
When I got a little older, I thought I should write for Harlequin. It would be easy. They sent you guidelines that practically laid out what had to happen in every chapter. Just follow the formula. Except I couldn't do it. My romances always took a turn for the twisted. Not Harlequin material.
You have to be organized to write a nice, concise plot but I'm not organized. I never know what if going to happen next. I just start out and let it happen. I think I have a fair talent for characterization but that's not on me, it's on the characters themselves. They come to me full-blown.
For example, one of the protagonists in one of me books was born and raised in Romania before coming to New York as a teenager.
"Are you kidding?" I asked him. "Why Romania? I know nothing about Romania and could care less."
"Nope," he insisted, "it has to be Romania."
So I had to do a ton of research to to be able to write realistically about Romania. It turned out to be quite interesting but I'd never have chosen that country if it had been up to me.
So, my advice is to read a lot and yes, pay attention to how authors write about people, places and things but don't model yourself on anyone else. Whatever your voice is, that's the important one to focus on.
Monday, December 25, 2017
I hardly ever read a stand-alone book anymore. Maybe it is old age but I prefer series in which the characters are already tried and true and beloved. I pre-order my favorite authors as soon as you can do so.
The first series I ever remember being in love with was The Little Colonel books by Annie Fellows Johnston. I think there were sixteen of them and I'm sure I had them all. I know they'd sound dated and unrealistic now but back then, I thought the Little Colonel was the height of class. I remember practicing talking with a southern accent because it sounded to elegant.
I moved on to animals after that with The Sunnybank Collies (Albert Payson Terhune) and The Black Stallion (Walter Farley).
Next was Mazo de la Roche's Jalna series and then the 87th Precinct books by Ed McBain. Although I read the first of them long ago, my very favorite series is still probably the Burke series by Andrew Vachss.
Some authors have a force that can draw me in no matter what the subject matter is. For instance, I read everything by Iain Banks or Iain M Banks - the middle initial denotes a science fiction book. He's now deceased but he wrote a mainstream novel every other year and a scifi in the between years. I have never been a science fiction fan but Iain M Banks made me love his SF just by the force of his style and wit. The books don't include the same characters but they all involve the same planetary location - the Culture.
On the other hand, although I adore Harlen Coben's books that feature Myron Bolitar and his fascinating sidekick, Win Lockwood III, I never read the novels that aren't about these characters. I just skip his non-Myron books.
I love Larry McMurtry's novels but only the ones that take place in the past, not the modern ones. I think Lonesome Dove will always be on my Top Five Books of all time.
Most of my favorite books tend to be about private eyes, cops, assassins and spies. They are usually graphic and gritty. I don't think I've read a book with a female protagonist since The Little Colonel.
In recent years, I have fallen in love with Diana Gabaldon's fat Outlander books.though I put off reading them for several years because I didn't think they sounded like my cup of tea. (Claire falls through the Standing Stones right after the First World War and ends up in the 1740's in Scotland, where she meets and marries that dashing Highlander, Jamie Fraser. Beyond Outlander, my other favorite recent character is Captain Nathaniel Blackthorne of the the Pirate Captain, Chronicles of a Legend by Kerry Lynne.
Here are a few others, I buy as soon as they are available:
The Jack Reacher series - Lee Child
The Eddie Loy series (Ireland) - Declan Hughes
Mark Greaney - the Gray Man series
Adrian McGinty (Ireland) - the Sean Duffy series
Mark Dawson - the John Milton series
David Stone - the Micah Dalton series
Daniel Silva - the Gabriel Allon series
John Sandford - both the Prey series (Lucas Davenport) and the Virgil Flowers series
Charlie Huston - the Joe Pitt (Vampire) series
David Rosenberg - Andy Carpenter series in which one of the main characters is always a dog.
And then, of course, is my own series about Rafe Vincennes. Rafe is my altar ego in a way. He's a unique character, as much anti-hero as hero.
I know as soon as I post this, I will remember some not listed here and think, "how could you have forgotten _______?"
Monday, December 18, 2017
Vulnerable - Entitlement - Diversity - Transgender - Fetus - Evidence or Science Based
These are the seven words that the Trump administration has forbidden the Center for Disease Control (and other agencies) to use in budget discussions. My God, this is fascist behavior! It's words today. Will it be books and films and internet posts tomorrow. In fact, there already is some of this kind of censorship from the Trump administration. Freedom of Information Act requests are being sent for the emails and other materials of employees who have ever said anything negative about the administration or the agency they work for.
No other administration has ever done this. It would be crossing a red line even for our previously most paranoid president, Richard Nixon.
And these aren't dirty words or even controversial words. They are scientific terms with real meanings.
This is how The Medical Dictionary defines fetus:
the developing young in the uterus, specifically the unborn offspring in the postembryonic period, which in humans is from the third month after fertilization until birth.
This is the meaning of transgender according to The Medical Dictionary:
individuals who do not fit within rigid gender norms and incorporate one or more aspects, traits, social roles or characteristics of the opposite gender.
For heaven's sake, the CDC researches health issues, including diseases such as the Zika Virus, which primarily harms fetuses. How can they explain their studies if they are not allowed to say the word?
And whether some people like it not, transgender people do exist. You can't just wipe out a significant part of our population by annihilating them verbally.
And vulnerable? What could possibly be wrong with that word? Or diversity? Or entitlement? They've been part of our vocabulary ever since I can remember.
I'm 72. I've never seen anything so terrifying in my country in my life. Slowly but surely, we are sliding into authoritarianism and words are a big part of it. We'd better wake up before it is too late.
Thursday, December 07, 2017
If you're a writer and you don't already have one, you might consider putting an Amazon Echo (or the more compact, Amazon Dot) on your wish list for Christmas. The voice inside the Echo is Alexa and she can become one of your best friends if you let her. She'll coordinate your calendar and remind you of appointments. She'll serve as your alarm clock. She'll tell you jokes. She'll play whatever kind of music you're in the mood for. With her voice recognition capability, she'll inform that your mother is calling. She'll keep your shopping list. She'll give you the weather forecast in New Orleans or what coffee is on sale for the best price this week.
A friend of mine was recently at a hotel in Chicago and residents let the Echo in their room know if they needed anything like toothpaste or more coffee. Pretty soon, Alexa told them that a robot was at their door with their supplies.
You can use Alexa to supervise your television. Ask her to give you a list of Johnny Depp movies, then pick the one you want to watch. Tell her you'd like to see old re-runs of the Andy Griffith Show. Request her to play Christmas music. Choose a particular movie for her to bring up for you.
If you know how to do it, you can program her to turn your lights on and off.
I admit, I'm not by any stretch of the imagination a computer geek so I'm probably leaving a ton of stuff out. I don't take advantage of all her skills because I don't have many skills myself. She's way smarter than I am.
But as a writer, I find her invaluable for research. If I need to know who won the Kentucky Derby in 1939, I just ask and the answer is instantaneous. Being ignorant about the digital world, I am stunned by how quickly she responds. It seems like there'd have to be a process where your question goes somewhere to be answered but that appears not to be the case. I just accept it as magic.
Alexa will tell you the most popular breed of dog in America or the best-selling song of 1969 (and then play it for you) or who led the Union troops at the Battle of Chickamagua or well, literally anything you need to know- who wrote a certain book, a Bible verse, a recipe for Shrimp Scampi, whether two medicines can be taken together.
I will tell you that she can get a little snarky at time. My friend, Jan, asked her teasingly what 2 + 2 was and she replied - "Four....but I think you knew that."
Anyway, I won't say that I never use Google but I mostly don't bother with logging on and typing out a question. I just ask Alexa.
Saturday, November 11, 2017
I was an enthusiastic blogger right from the very beginning. I have always encouraged my writing friends to blog.
I have four blogs now Red State Blue Collar (politics), God Loves Circles Best (Nascar), RafeVincennes (writing), My Cancer Journey - (cancer). I've used Blogspot.com for my blogs since I started, not because I did research and decided they were the best but because they were the first blog host I heard of. That's been years ago now and I've been well-satisfied with their service.
Blogspot provides you with all kinds of fascinating statistics to track your blogs, like how many read it yesterday, today and last month and how many have read it since it started. They have graphs and charts to see when readership spikes, which is usually shortly after you add a post.
They give you the details of where your audience is located.
Red State Blue Collar, the political blog, is the one I've been writing the longest. The number of hits it's had over its lifetime is well over 100,000. It has had 151 visitors today and 1941 last month. The countries that most often read it are, as you'd expect, the U.S. and Canada but I also have readers in the Ukraine, Singapore, France and Ghana (seriously, Ghana?), among others.
My Cancer Journey is my newest blog. It had 71 visitors today and 433 last month. The U.S. and Canada read it most but after them, my largest readership is in Poland.
I originally created Rafe Vincennes to promote my book, Sociopath?, and the whole book is there but it gradually morphed into a general blog about writing. It has had four readers today and 1217 last month. Oddly enough, I have more readers for Rafe in China than any other country, including the U.S. The next two countries that read it are Japan and Russia.
Lastly, the NASCAR blog, God Loves Circles Best, had 93 hits yesterday and 667 this month. The top two countries to read it are the U.S. and Russia. Who knew Russia was so interested in NASCAR?
None of these makes me an especially popular blogger. Some well-known writers have thousands of readers for every post but I have my niche and I'm happy with it. I find it enthralling to think someone in Singapore or Ghana or Poland or China is interested enough to read what I write.
The main element of blogging is dedication. You must be willing to keep it updated without fail or your readers will give up just as you have. I have friends who started blogs and petered out after only two or three. It takes a while to build a significant audience and most bloggers can stand the loneliness they feel at first when it seems like they are writing into a void. But if you hang with it, the payoff eventually comes. .
Wednesday, November 01, 2017
The worst mistake a beginning writer can make, in my humble opinion, is to be repetitious. I always knew when I had a group of new students who were just starting out, the girls would be beautiful, the men would be handsome, their hair would be blonde or black or red, their eyes would be blue or brown or green.
Usually, with the first group of manuscripts I critiqued, I would circle all these over-used words and ask them to find a more creative replacement.
A beautiful woman can be stunning or gorgeous or radiant or lovely. A handsome man can be striking or good looking.
Blond hair can be wheaten or flaxen. It can be a palomino mane or a waterfall of butterscotch. It can be the color of honey or butter or daffodils.
Black hair can be lustrous sable curls It can be onyx or ebony or raven.
Red hair can be ginger or rust or marigold.
Try to use more than one word to in your descriptions. Not green eyes but green the color of moss or seafoam or emerald or sage.
Blue as in cobalt, azure, sapphire or cerulean.
Brown as in hazelnut, latte, sand or fawn.
Complexion can be tan, tawny, ivory, cream or toasted.
It is exactly the same when you're describing places. Grass isn't always green. The sky isn't always blue. The dress isn't always red - maybe its flame or rose or garnet or scarlet or crimson.
I always told my students to play with their thesaurus (or, of course, now I suppose you can use Google instead). . Find words that appeal to you, that you think have a ring to them. Words that sound joyful or somber or whatever mood you want them to convey.
Another quibble I always had with new students was too many "ands". Rather have several shorter sentences than a great long string of ands. I usually went through and struck most of the ands out of manuscripts to show students how much more dynamic sentences sound without them.
Of course, in the end, it is your own style that counts. Perhaps description just isn't your cup of tea. You spend all your creativity on action. This bothers me as a reader. I want the author to tell me who his or her characters are. I don't want to have to figure it out for myself.