Friday, October 30, 2009

A Room of My Own

By Kim

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction
. – Virginia Woolf

Growing up as an only child, I always had my own room. At times I had my own bathroom, even my own balcony. When I was nine the entire top floor of our condo, which included two rooms and a loft, belonged to me, though I usually played in the storage nook halfway down the staircase, which I also claimed. At our house in Maine, the basement was mine, though it may not have been such a prize as I shared the space with the wood stove and had no door until my dad built me a proper room down there.

Dorm life in college was miserable. With parents who lived overseas, all of my things were with me, and I had to share a room a fourth the size of what I was used to. My roommate and I agreed an off-campus apartment was in order the moment we were allowed to have one. I had my own room again, and eventually my own apartment. Heaven.

Then I got married and had kids. I’ve accumulated more things over the years and my personal space has shrunk. I have to wonder what Virginia Woolf would think of my ‘room’ today.

Here is my desk. It’s a bit cramped, but it’s mine, at least until one of the kids commandeers my computer to play Webkinz or leaves artwork or trinkets they’ve made for me on one of my piles of papers. During the day, it’s a little oasis in an otherwise chaotic house. Beside me, I have vintage postcards of Roycroft and other places featured in my work in progress, The Oak Lovers. Look up and there’s a stunning portrait by Edmund Wyly Grier of my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens, the protagonist of my novel. From my chair I can see several of Carl’s paintings. (Note the bright pink earplugs sitting near my monitor. I’ll get into why those are an important fixture soon.)

To my left is a wall of photos and sketches of the women of generations past and present, other than for a lone photo of Carl by the lamp. The cabinet, not generally left open, is where I cram correspondence and research material related to my book. What doesn’t fit in there fills filing cabinets under the printer, the lamp and my desk. Things I've not yet found a home for wind up stacked behind my monitor. That pile is frightening. Yes, I can find things, but only when I don’t need them.

To my right hang examples of the artwork my great-grandmother, Madonna, did at Roycroft. On the bookshelf rest a menagerie of family photos and rocks plucked from the spot where Carl and Madonna met and the Ojibwa reservation where Carl once lived. One of Carl’s paintbrushes is in the vase, though I often fiddle with it when the words don’t flow. It still smells faintly of turpentine and I love running my fingers over the patches worn smooth from long use. In case you're curious, the nude woman in the one photo is Madonna.

My most constant companion through the day is the dog. If only he would always be as sweet as he is in this photo. While writing this he’s attempting to hump one of the cats. Seeing she just spent the last 20 minutes sharpening her claws, I imagine she’ll win this battle soon. In the meantime, I have earplugs.

My space is cramped, but manageable, at least until three o'clock on school days. After that, all hell breaks loose. My room is not a room at all, you see, but one wall of a living area in the middle of the house. This space is also occupied by three animals and three kids. The 39-year-old boy may not look like a kid, but he’s the loudest and has the biggest toys.

Here is his space. Keep in mind that I took this photo while sitting in my desk chair and no, I did not zoom in. The corner of his desk is 52 inches from the back of my chair. He’s a gamer, so when he’s home, he rarely leaves this desk unless one of the kids needs him or I present him with a list of chores. Now, out of courtesy to me, he does wear headphones. This prevents me from hearing the incessant music, gunfire or other sound effects. A drawback of his chivalry is that the children always come to me to fix drinks, snacks, malfunctioning electronics or out of boredom. Another negative is that his new headphones are equipped with a microphone, in which he frequently talks to other players. Imagine what a disruption it is to be immersed in the world of 1908 Toronto and have the guy behind you pipe up with, ‘Can I blast this one away with the regular machine gun or do I need the vaporizer?’

Hence the bright pink earplugs. Yet, if I wear them while children are home, who will notice when heads are bonked or the verbal sparring comes to blows? Even on those occasions when I put my husband in charge of his offspring for a few hours, I can't escape the household melee because I don't have a laptop. Volcanoes built in the kitchen erupt to squeals of delight uttered less than ten feet away from me. When the phone rings, I hear it in triplicate. If a visitor should push the doorbell, it chimes directly overhead. Just seventeen feet of echoing laminate floor separates me from the big screen TV, fully pimped with surround sound, a Play Station 2, a Wii, and an Xbox.

Sometimes desperation allows me to tune it all out enough to work. I wrote a heated argument scene to the soundtrack of Dora the Explorer. A pivotal romantic scene got penned while my husband and a neighbor jammed to "American Woman" on Rock Band. Madonna was indeed an American woman, but Carl was decidedly not telling her to stop knocking round his door ‘cause he didn’t want to see her shadow no more.

Clearly I need a proper space of my own, but my only option is to take one of my daughter's rooms. I can’t ask an eight-year-old to share with a four-year-old, especially since she's had her own room since birth. Doing so would rob them both of a private place to dream, something that was vital to me as a child and helped shape me into the writer I am today. There’s no place for a makeshift office in my bedroom, and I’d never sleep if my computer were there anyway. A room could be built above the garage but at great expense. Right now I’d settle for a little shed in the backyard, provided it had electricity and a window air-conditioning unit. Texas summers are a little toasty after all.

When I expressed my desire for my own space to my husband, he smiled, kissed my cheek, and told me I could have anything I want if I just sell a couple of million dollar books.

Yeah, I’ll get right on that, Honey. Now, go watch the football game in our bedroom.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Don't Jaywalk Your Query

by Elizabeth

I'm a pretty law-abiding citizen. If you overlook my occasional indifference to speed limits on long stretches of open highway, you could really call me squeaky. I really don't understand disregard for the law, especially when the law simply codifies common sense and protects the vulnerable.

It drives me nuts seeing parents at my kids' school jaywalking their kids across the fairly busy street. (Worse in the rain. Trust me, don't get me started there.) I realize the parents are watching cars, waiting for tolerant drivers to stop in the flow of traffic to let them cross, rendering the practice more or less safe, but it still irks me. There are crosswalks at either end of the school, and sure, it would add two minutes to the twice-daily routine--but at what cost are they buying those 240 seconds? As I see it, those parents are teaching their kids that their time is more important than other people's; that the rules don't matter; and that taking a shortcut is okay if you don't get caught.

There are times to break the rules. I get that. Civil disobedience has its place; our country wouldn't exist without it. But I don't agree that a busy street with frazzled drivers, a situation in which a moment's inattention can transform those saved two minutes into a lifetime of regret, is the place to introduce the concept to a seven-year-old. Not that I think these parents consider they're teaching those kids anything. They're simply focused on getting them to school on time. Even so, the thing about breaking rules is that you have to know the rule and have followed it before it's meaningful to break it. (Or safe, for that matter--and in the case of the Founding Fathers, at least worth the considerable risk.)

For writers on the cusp, it's not time to break the rules, either. I'm equally amused and amazed reading accounts of queries stuffed with glitter, or packaged with trinkets, or accompanied by not-funny joke death threats. I'll admit that when I first learned about the system, my mind flickered to what pretty paper on which I'd print my queries. Luckily for me, information is plentiful to anyone who exerts themselves even mildly, and I'm pleased to report I never sent out a query on anything but plain white bond, SASE included.

The query system isn't perfect. We all know that. Laws aren't perfect. But both work pretty well almost all of the time, and if you follow both, chances are your sparkling manuscript will find representation, and you'll remain ticket-free (and un-maimed). Querying is not the time to flaunt the rules. That's not what gets noticed. Shining within the guidelines is the way to catch an agent's attention. And since your manuscript has one shot with that agent, play it safe. Play it smart. Cross your T's, dot your I's, stay inside the crosswalk. Allow your project to provide the glamour.

And teach your kids to follow the rules instead of how to get around them. They'll figure that out on their own when they're teenagers.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Editing With Ghosts

by Joan

I didn’t start out thinking I’d write ghost stories. But one day a ghost showed up in a manuscript I was writing and helped my protagonist deal with some buried family secrets. She was based on my Aunt Florence who died when I was twelve, a rotund redhead who loved to float in the pool, inhale coffee and cigarettes, and belly laugh. I like the idea of spirits and souls so connected to people or places that they just can’t leave. Of ancestors who stay with us long after they die. (Kim agrees)

Last year I wrote a blog post about a mysterious ghost writer who communicated with me via my computer. Turned out it wasn’t a ghost at all, just my son’s runaway Bluetooth mouse, making itself at home on my screen. Technology.

I imagine Aunt Florence, a product of the Depression, wouldn’t quite know what to make of our technological advances. I’ve been accused of being a Luddite, despite using Word and Excel for over twenty years, regularly posting to two blog sites, not so regularly posting on Facebook, and writing three manuscripts and the bones of two others on my laptop. To be honest, though, I stick to the functions I know and don’t go searching for new tools.

But I do keep an eye out for new ghosts. And I’ve just encountered another one, though this one’s no Luddite. In fact, this one does make herself at home in my computer. She's Rachel, a British ghost I downloaded to my Mac.

I had no idea my computer had a function for text-to-voice, probably has had for many years. Julie turned me on to this amazing concept, after reading about it on QueryTracker. But I didn’t really like the robotic voice my Mac offered and found a program called GhostReader. (I’m sure there are others, but I’m partial to this one’s name.) There are many languages to choose from, not just British English. Just open your document in GhostReader and it will READ YOUR NOVEL ALOUD TO YOU.

Aside from the thrill of hearing your manuscript read aloud, this is a great self-editing tool. After many revisions, it’s easy to find yourself skimming sentences, paragraphs, even whole pages after a while. Sentences you’ve read over and over sound good because they are familiar. But are they really good? Are they clean, tightly written? Do they convey your intent? The program has a pause/play/rewind function so when you hear odd phrasing or a misplaced word, you can stop and jot down the problem. You can make changes and copy it over to Word, even download it to your iPod, I’m told, though I haven’t tried yet. GhostReader is an amazing tool for any writer!

I’ve had a number critiquers and beta readers on the ghost story I’m shopping to agents. Last month, I put it on hold while I did some brutal revisions, added some new twists, changed my working title and now I'm getting it ready for a new beta reader. Rachel just read the first five chapters to me. I felt as though I was listening to an audio book I’d purchased. I’m excited about it all over again.

Little by little, I’m leaving my Luddite ways behind. And meeting new ghosts.

(If anyone knows of a similar program for PC users, I'm sure our readers would be interested.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Joy and Worry

By Susan

My 7-year-old daughter is full of joy. She is one of those people who cracks jokes, sees humor in everything, and seems to surf through her uncomplicated life on one big joyous wave. Sometimes it’s completely exhausting, especially when there are soccer practices and laundry and homework and bedtime to worry about. I often worry about all the other things we are not doing, instead of taking a moment and laughing with her. I choose worry because I am her mother and she chooses joy because it’s fun. Motherhood, as Moms know, is fun. But it’s not as fun as being seven years old.
Writing is like being the mother of a joyful seven-year-old. The characters on the page dance off in different directions, spinning and laughing while you try to pull them back so they have meaning and substance. Sometimes it’s like herding cats. You want your protagonist to repent and change, to complete his character arc, yet all he wants to do is continue on his merry little way without apology. Or your antagonist laughs at you because you cannot think of anything clever for him to do next. And so you worry. Just like you worry about your children. When that happens, writing isn’t as fun anymore.

Writing is supposed to be fun, right? We do it because we love it, because we have to, because it frees us. We nurture our characters, and we fret over little details the same way we dress our daughters on picture day. Yet just like our kids, our works in progress take on a life of their own. They start doing their own thing. If I don’t worry about my novel (or so I seem to think), the next thing I know it’ll be sneaking out to ride around with boys who drive convertibles. It’ll be smoking cigarettes and saying dirty words, leaving me alone, waiting up for it, hoping that it comes back to me. All of this, of course, shows up as procrastination or writer’s block or lack of discipline or just plain lazy, bad writing. That’s when it becomes easy to blame the unruly child I have created rather than take ownership for my own habits. That’s when I worry it’s all garbage. That’s when it’s not fun anymore.
Yet our characters are also much different from our children: we make them kill their lovers or run from the law or get caught up in a tangled web that is not of their own doing. We root for them, and we hope our readers will too. We almost always know they will have a happy ending, unless we kill them first. We want to share in their joy. Then we allow worry back onto the page. At the base of it, when we are worrying about them we are actually worrying about ourselves. Will I get an agent? Will this ever be published? Why am I doing this, anyway?

And so I am trying now, quite mindfully, to release my worry about my characters and about myself, and allow the words to take me where they want me to go. In the process of releasing the rules and writing for joy, I’m finding a clearer voice in my narrative. I like my book a lot more. Sure, there are plenty of unforeseen things I could worry about. Or I can just choose the joy and write for the sake of writing. Why not have fun while I’m here? I’ve created a perfect sentence or two. I’ve drawn beautiful landscapes out of phrases. I’ve fallen in love right alongside my characters and been heartbroken when I wrenched the lovers apart. Now that’s having fun. If I push and pull my characters and tweak the story enough, perhaps I can let my worry go and just enjoy the moment.

If you are famous and tortured by your art, it can be hip to talk about the pain of writing, the blood that flows from your pen, the way you agonize over every manuscript. But for me? My family is my life, my work is my passion, and writing is my fun. And so the destination (being published) doesn't matter as much for me anymore. That's what caused my worry to begin with. I’m deciding to enjoy every minute of my writing journey instead and to just have fun. Like they say, life is all about the journey, not the destination. My writing is much more fun now since I left the writing worry behind.

Besides, I’ll need to save the worry for my daughters.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Impact and Inspiration

It's surely no secret to anyone who reads this blog that we're a bunch of bookworms, the six of us. I'd hate to have to be the arbiter of who has the biggest Dr. Suess hat, but I'd certainly nominate myself as a finalist. Then again, we'd have six finalists, so there you go.

For the past month or so, it's felt like I've done even more reading than usual. (Even as I feel like there is never enough time. Never enough!) Maybe that's because nearly everything I've read lately has hit a nerve, either because it was so honest as to be shattering, or because I've read and admired and thought, Yes. That is it. That is what I want to do. There. It's inspiring, and daunting, and inspiring all over again.

In fact, it's why I write at all, to try to engender the same kind of reaction from readers that I've gotten from some of these books. That's something I think we all crave, to impact the world in some way. For writers, it's through words. For some, that means to make people laugh. For others, writing is the vehicle to help people escape reality and visit a different place magicked up by their pen. Some write to shed a glow of beauty, even fleeting, on readers' lives. Plenty write to expand knowledge by sharing their own.

For me, it's all about the emotion, though I hope other elements come through as well. The words I love most when they land on my page are the ones that make my own skin rise to bumps, the ones that fill my eyes with tears for the characters who have become real to me. And my fervent hope and the reason to continue is so those same words will give rise to other people's goosebumps, thrust hard knots in their throats, force them to rub at their now-blurred eyes to enable them to read to the end.

Here's what I've been reading, and how these books have affected me.

The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood and Day After Night by Anita Diamant. Reading these was an exercise in encouragement. One of my manuscripts has a similar style of storytelling, a group of women helping each other through trials with a core character serving as the glue. These are the kinds of stories I've always loved to read, and they reinforced my belief that there is indeed an audience for my own novel.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale. All about the voice and crafting and so well done. Both writers draw a unique main character whose lack of understanding creates both sympathy and empathy--which was surely the point.

Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay and Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan. Harrowing reads both, about women in difficult marriages and worse situations. One set in the early '70s and the other tilting back to that decade, both served as reminders that life as we know it now isn't the way it's always been. Useful for anyone with an ear toward the past, as mine leans. Coupled with beautiful writing and perfectly imperfect characters, these are the kinds of books that stick with me for years, ideas and images popping up randomly like a lost friend calling unexpectedly--with terrible news.

Sleepwalking in Daylight by Elizabeth Flock and Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. Both of these were told in alternating viewpoints, and both dealt so bluntly with difficult subjects and themes that I wondered where the heck the authors got the courage to be so honest. Between the crafting of the plots and the sheer gutsiness of storytelling, I saw the kind of writing to which I aspire, galvanizing experiences both. Though not comfortable. Not comfortable at all.

Having It and Eating It by Sabine Durrant. This one blew me away with the plotting, so much so that I outlined it after I read it to better understand exactly how Durrant strung me along in the best way, turning the story realistically just when I thought I'd figured things out, and keeping me just ahead of the main character but never so much that I found her stupid. And then, bam! A satisfying and logical ending I didn't see coming. This is a book I suspect I'll turn to again when I get lost in my own plotting, sort of like the fictitious Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel, but in a good way.

And 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might by Pat Walsh. Need I say more?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Playing well with others

By Pamela

As Joan mentioned last week, we writers tend to be a solitary bunch. I guess if someone were to do a personality study—and I’m sure someone has—most authors would probably dance across a pretty diaphanous web of traits: enjoy being alone, vivid imagination, tend to have close relationships with few rather than superficial relationships with many, avoid the limelight, prefer a quiet evening at home to a loud party. Sure, some defy the stereotypes and relish the opportunity to share their craft with the masses via talk shows, book tours and such. But I believe they are the exceptions.

I remember watching Today show's Anne Curry interview a successful author about the woman’s best-selling book’s paperback release. The author didn’t make eye contact and barely spoke above a whisper. She was either painfully shy or heavily medicated. I’m voting for the former. I wanted to tap Anne on the shoulder and say, “Just let her go home and write. You’re killing her.”

I tend to have a few close friends and enjoy their company immensely. Put me in front of a large group and ask me to read, and my hands shake and my words squirm out through a voice box constricted with insecurity. It took me several weeks to actually enjoy reading aloud at critique.

This weekend I enjoyed the company of women I see rarely and one I’d never met. None were writers but a few were voracious readers. For me it was an opportunity to talk shop. Not about the craft of assembling a story but what makes good writing. We talked about books we’d read and loved and why they continued to haunt us. (As a bonus, I got to see my very first Kindle! Pretty cool, but I’m not sure I’m ready to forego any hardcover book purchases just yet.)

So, while my some of my closest friends tend to be fellow writers, I enjoyed the opportunity to talk to fellow readers. They seemed genuinely interested in what I write, asked questions I couldn’t always answer (about how a story comes to life—it just does!), and offered hugs of encouragement as we departed. I know it’s vital to my writing to stay inspired, to interact outside my comfortable refuge and to listen to others as they share the stories of their lives. (One woman shared funny tales of her long career in real estate; I'm convinced she could write a book!)

This weekend provided a valuable lesson in the art of stepping out.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fused at the Root

By Kim

Madonna was lost in the woods. The air, thick with fog, smelled of damp earth, and she tripped over underbrush she could not see. Then she heard the noise, an unearthly sort of moan. She followed the sound until coming to a clearing. A man knelt in the grass nearby. The light was poor, everything in the forest shades of greenish gray, and he was so still she at first mistook him for a tree stump. There was that haunting cry again, the sound causing the very marrow in her bones to expand until she feared they would shatter. The man was hunched over, every line of his body mirroring the agony she endured. He clutched his dark hair, ripping it out in clumps. She knew those hands.

“Carl?” she said softly.

As he stood, turning, the landscape around him changed. The clearing widened, drawing him further  from her. A house was far off to her left, a man and woman standing together a short distance away. They were indistinct, featureless, their hair and clothes billowing in the wind. The sky threatened over them, but where she stood she saw the sun’s rays strike Carl’s face. She took in a sharp breath. It was his painting. He reached out for her, inviting her in.

She suspected he would vanish when they touched. He always did in dreams. His lips were soft, gentle, but this was not enough. Torn between her desire to encourage and punish, she raked her fingers through his hair, pulling his closer. His grip tightened, crushing her, but it didn’t matter; she no longer required air. She barely noticed the strange tugging sensation in her feet at first, the perception of being slowly swallowed by the earth. When she no longer felt her legs, she broke the kiss, gasping. Her torso had fused into a trunk. She looked up at him, wide-eyed; what had moments ago felt and tasted like skin had hardened into bark. His face was a cluster of wooden knots, her hand nothing but a clump of leaves brushing against him. Yet his voice was still clear in her mind. “We're fused at the root, Madonna. How long must I wait for you to see it?”
In The Oak Lovers, Carl Ahrens’ words transform Madonna from the young and proper step-daughter of an Episcopal priest into an unrepentant home wrecker. For me they were damned inconvenient.

You see, the dream was mine first. Even now, a year later, I can remember how that forest smelled, how my feet tangled in the underbrush. I can still hear that haunting cry, trapped between a moan and a scream, though the pain is an indistinct memory now. At the time I felt it deep in my bones, worse than childbirth. Had a tubercular hip felt like that, I wondered? Is that why I assumed the man pulling at his hair was my great-grandfather? Yet the voice that whispered his name wasn’t my own, the wisps of hair blowing across my field of vision were dark where I’m decidedly blond. The man turned and the resemblance to Carl ended at his height. I was disappointed. He often appeared in my dreams, but always at a distance, and he had never heard me when I spoke.

As the scenery changed my pain turned to longing, a longing so intense it was terrifying. The man before me was a conglomerate of several men who had starred in my daydreams over the years, but the emotions inspired by the sight of him were deeper than desire, than sex, than anything I’d ever imagined. I approached him with a sense of dread, fearing he’d disappear, fearing that I’d destroy him, or that if I touched him I’d be bound to him forever. His embrace would be unrelenting; I would live a life of slow strangulation. Yet the alternative would be an eternity of feeling nothing at all. There could be no one else, no in between. He reached out in invitation, waiting, and I didn’t hesitate. After my flesh hardened into bark, I woke, choking on my own tears. Thankfully, my husband was on a business trip at the time.

Further sleep out of the question, I sat in front of a photo of Madonna taken in 1904, shortly before Carl left his wife and three children to reunite with her in New York. The photograph had always disturbed me; her expression was sullen, her stare penetrating, accusatory, a woman captured in a moment of profound, yet private, suffering. Had she sent this photograph to him he would have seen the question in her eyes – Why have you not come for me? – and been on the next train. Perhaps that is why the photo was saved. Or perhaps it was because she had a second question, this one directed at me. Why have you written our story as though he was the only one who struggled?

She had a point. Early drafts show a man tormented by desire and an admiring young girl too innocent to realize the object of her childish infatuation adores her. Their flirtations are restrained, chaste, except for a stray thought or two on his part. It didn’t work because she wasn't free to behave as a girl in love would. In giving Madonna her decidedly unchaste dream back, as I felt I must, I had to rewrite a good fifty pages to keep the tone consistent. (That’s what was damn inconvenient!) The effort was well worth it, though. The emotional stakes are much higher now that Madonna openly gazes at Carl, brushes against him at every opportunity, and becomes territorial if anything infringes on their time together. It is far more dangerous for a man to toe the line between flirtation and seduction with a girl whom he knows could not find it in herself to refuse.

Throughout the re-writes, the painting from my dream continued to haunt me. Surely I had seen it; the details were too clear to have imagined. I rifled through old auction records, newspaper articles, magazine articles, stopping short when I found it. The composition was a perfect match, though the black and white photocopy was of such poor quality I couldn’t imagine having given it more than a glance before. The Coming Storm, it was called, and it was featured in an article from 1904. Perhaps I should have been shocked by the date, or by the fact that it was displayed at the Macbeth Galleries in New York, a place Madonna would surely have gone to see it during their separation. Instead I simply whispered, “Thank you.”

Note: All art shown in this post is Carl’s, though it is cropped to show his oak lovers. To see more, please visit my website.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hot off the presses: Debut Author Therese Walsh!

By Julie

Today we welcome Therese Walsh to What Women Write. It's a big day for Therese — release day for her debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy! We're delighted to share in Therese's special day of celebration.

Therese is a cofounder of the blog She lives in upstate New York, with her husband, two children, a cat and a bouncy Jack Russell named Kismet.

From Therese:
The Last Will of Moira Leahy is a women’s fiction novel that borrows liberally from other genres: mystery, psychological suspense, family saga, romance and mythical realism. It’s about a woman who lost her identical twin — and a large portion of herself — about a decade ago, but reconnects with her former life after purchasing an artifact from her past. Through interwoven narratives, we see Maeve Leahy as she was and what led to the tragedy with her sister, Moira; and we travel with her in the present day as she unravels the truth about the artifact — who's following her and leaving her notes. We see her transform as, little by little, layers of her past are peeled away and the course of her future is forever altered.

I've known Therese online for several years through Writer Unboxed, Barbara Samuel's forums, and other social networking sites, and I really couldn't be happier for her. I'm thrilled she agreed to have a conversation with me for What Women Write.

Welcome, Therese! I love your title. I also loved UNBOUNDED, your working title, but The Last Will of Moira Leahy grew on me. I have my own hypothesis, but how do you pronounce Moira Leahy? Moy-ruh Lay-hee? Mwah-ra Lee-hee? And precisely how nuts will you go if someone else mispronounces it, say, when introducing you at an author event?

Thanks for having me, Julie. Thanks, too, for your compliment on the title. Your first guess at pronunciation is correct! If the title is mispronounced, I promise not to go nuts — though I will have a keris nearby for many of these events, so maybe people will be very careful not to mispronounce?

www: Friends, you've been warned: Tread carefully and carry a bigger keris!

Therese, The Last Will of Moira Leahy is an unusual blend of genres. To help us place it on our mental bookshelves, what other books might you compare it to, classic or recent?

Oh, boy. If I’d had an answer to this, my query-writing process would’ve been a whole lot easier. Louise Erdrich wrote a book called The Painted Drum and used myth to help unfurl the narrative as I’ve done, but her novel is quite literary. My agent wrote this in her pitch to editors:

“Part psychological suspense, part love story, (The Last Will of Moira Leahy) will appeal to readers of Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child and Jennifer Egan’s The Keep.”

I like to say that Last Will is women’s fiction that borrows liberally from other genres and leave people curious for more.

www: I'm curious! I've read the excerpt you made available on your Web site, and I'm buying my own copy today, as soon as I can get over to my local bookseller.

So, the main characters in Last Will are twins – one living and one her deceased twin sister. Why tell your story from the perspective of twins? How did you conduct your research into this aspect of the story and the special bond many sets of sisters, especially twins, seem to share?

When I first started to write Last Will, waaay back in 2002, Maeve did not have a twin. But one day, Moira was just there, explaining Maeve’s behaviors and trauma. When I scrapped version one of the manuscript and began version two in 2005 (and version three in ’06), I knew the story had to be structured around these two women. It took a while for me to realize I could tell Moira’s tale through detailed Out of Time sequences — not flashbacks, but an actual narrative from the past that wove in and out of Maeve’s present-day story, a la The English Patient.

There are so many terrific books available about twins, but the one I liked best was a small paperback by Susan Kohl called Twin Stories, for its rich first-hand accounts of twin phenomena.

www: I love when that happens — when you think you've got it all figured out, or you've given up on ever figuring it out, and then voila!, the characters lead you.

And speaking of characters, the Javanese keris plays a special role in Last Will. I'm venturing a guess: the keris could be considered a character on its own, much in the way setting becomes character in many stories (perhaps even in Last Will?).

You’re right, and the truth is that the keris dictated the course of this story more than any character.

www: How did you learn about the keris and why did you choose to include this unusual element in your story? Did its significance change or expand over time while you were writing Last Will?

Its role in the story absolutely expanded over time. I found the keris almost by fluke. When I first started writing adult fiction, I planned a simple love story — girl + guy + peach pie = happiness. The guy was an antiques dealer. I spent many happy hours going through eBay listings, looking for antiques. One of the items I found was an antique Javanese keris — a dagger with a wavy blade. It looked interesting, so I added it to my list. I wanted my first scene to take place in an auction house and wasn’t sure which item should draw my characters’ attention. I chose the keris from my list without much thought.

I gave my scene to a friend, who read it with interest, then asked if the keris would be important to the rest of the book. It sounded like a good idea. I dug in, did some research, and realized the keris was so much more than a pretty blade. Maeve Leahy, the main character, realizes the same throughout the course of the novel. Here’s an outtake from the book, a scene between Maeve and a friend who knows a lot about this particular item:

"Kerises may well be manufactured by machine nowadays,” Garrick said, “but it used to be that empus made them, layering metals to create perfect patterns by following something like a blueprint. Each design was supposed to bring the owner a specific gift — like wealth or inner strength. But sometimes the empu would allow the blade to be made however it wanted to be made. When that happened, it was said the gods had a hand in crafting the keris because they had plans for it. Your keris,” he said, “is fated.”

www: (You noticed the pretty blue font to complement the cover art, right?) I'm curious, though — even though the keris plays such a large role, the story takes place in Castine, Maine, and Rome, Italy, but not Java, correct? This fascinated me as I read prepublication pieces or posts you wrote for Writer Unboxed, but I was also slightly puzzled. Without too much spoiling, can you hint at whether there's a tie between Java and the other two locations?

Correct. Javanese culture is a big part of this book, through one character in particular. Readers will meet that character in time.

www: It took a lot of years for the published version of Last Will to come to fruition. Many of our readers and What Women Write bloggers have been laboring for years to get our stories into the hands of the right agents and editors, too — some certainly not as long as you did, and some, I suspect, even longer. I admire your "sticktuitiveness." In fact, if I chose one word to sum up what I know about Therese Walsh right now, it would be persistence.

Aww, thanks.

www: Therese, how did you cope? Was there a point when you felt you might give up, or did you even throw in the towel for a period, but then summon up a new reserve of energy to try again? How do you think the process affected your reaction when you finally received "the calls" from Elisabeth Weed, your agent — first, with her offer of representation, and second, with news of your sale?

I thought about giving up regularly after the first version of the story — the guy + girl + peach pie version — failed with agents. Not only did it fail with agents, but one agent suggested I’d written the story in the wrong genre and should be writing women’s fiction. I felt defeated and exhausted at the prospect of reworking the story, even though I knew that agent was right.

I took a prolonged break. The timeline is a little fuzzy, but 2004 was a big year for mulling over what I wanted to do next. I’d been working on a new project, but when Unbounded (now Last Will) failed, I lost enthusiasm for that new project — probably because the old project writhed in the “unfinished business” category of my mind. I did a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, a lot of craft work. I salvaged one critical scene from the old draft and started over again in 2005. Then I scrapped everything again in 2006 and started over for a third time.

Maybe I would’ve quit but my characters refused to leave me alone. You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach, that disquiet you feel when you know something needs to be done and it’s important and you’re messing up? That’s how I felt whenever I wasn’t working on this project. When I was at least actively thinking about it, the anxiety eased. And so, little by little, I worked through the last draft.

When Elisabeth offered to represent this book, I was thrilled, hopeful. And maybe it was because the road had been so long, but when the deal came through — even though it was like someone holding up a big neon sign that said, “Congratulations, you’ve made it!” — it took a while for me to process it.

www: Thank you for being so frank. I think your words here may act as a balm and a beacon of hope for many of us. Never give up, right?

But now, something less serious. We've heard cover horror stories and witnessed some of those horrors limp painfully, unapologetically to print. BUT ... the cover for Last Will is without doubt one of the most breathtaking I've seen. I heard about your book months in advance. I've been anticipating it. But even if I hadn't, I believe this cover would produce an almost audible siren call for me in a bookstore. (Seriously! I love this cover that much. Am I gushing?)

Was this the first option your publisher offered? What was your reaction when you saw the gorgeous rendering of your story from an artist's viewpoint? How far away could they hear you scream? I'm pretty sure had it been mine, it would have been the scream heard around the world, but maybe you have a different take on it.

Thank you! I love my cover, too, and feel very lucky to have it. Here’s what’s cool: That scene I mentioned salvaging from version one of the story? That was the heart of the book for me, and that is what’s represented on the cover of the novel. I didn’t scream, but I felt choked up when I opened the PDF file. It was the first option offered, and obviously we were all thrilled with it.

www: And again, for our readers who are also aspiring writers, what do you believe is the singularly best thing you did for yourself along the way to becoming a published author?

Wow, this is a good and tough question. Why aren’t I asking this question at Writer Unboxed? (Makes a note.) I think the answer is networking, which for me involved reaching out to other writers for critique and establishing Writer Unboxed with Kathleen Bolton.

Yes, you can write in an isolated environment, but — especially for new authors — why would you want to? It’s true that not all critique will be helpful and some may even be harmful, but hearing how others digest your work can guide you along the path to publication if you’re listening with your gut as well as your head (and never your pride). And I could never fully list the ways Writer Unboxed has helped me along the way — the people I’ve met, the things I’ve learned. The blog is sometimes exhausting but it always gives back.

www: I can vouch for Writer Unboxed as an invaluable resource. It's been on my go-to list for nearly as long as I've been reading blogs. And by the way, Writer's Digest named it of the 101 Best Websites for Writers in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Current contributors include uber-agent Donald Maass and one of my other favorite authors, Barbara Samuel/O'Neal. Readers, check it out!

Therese, besides the obvious – your dream of publication coming true – what do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

I have two great kids who make me proud and make me laugh and make me glad to be alive every single day. But, sure, this book is right up there with my two best shining living accomplishments.

www: And who is Teri, as you're more commonly called, in the moments when you're not wearing the admittedly fabulous hat of Therese Walsh, debut author of The Last Will of Moira Leahy?

Who is Teri? Well, she likes laughing more than anything, even chocolate (I know! Gasp!). She thinks Richard Simmons’ guest appearance on Whose Line is it Anyway has to be one of the funniest things in the world, right up there with Chris Farley’s SNL skit as motivational speaker Matt Foley. She dances, badly, in the kitchen with her kids, cheers loudly at their swim meets and soccer games; and goes — occasionally — to her husband’s Irish-band gigs (but not too often lest she be pulled from the audience to sing the un-Irishy Homeward Bound or The Boxer with him). She likes dressing up in medieval clothing for her local choir’s Twelfth Night event and braiding her hair crazily for that night. She’s a bit of a foodie; she would drive long miles for fabulous feasting.

www: Hey, I think I'd like to hang out with that Teri in real life. (I'd go hear the band, too, by the way! Just sayin'.)

I have one final question: How are you going to celebrate book release day?


I have a book talk/reading/signing planned for a nearby Barnes & Noble — very excited about that! After, a bunch of us are going to one of my favorite eateries so we can gobble bacon-wrapped BBQ shrimp and drink chocolate martinis. But after reading Adrienne Crezo’s story about chocolatinis via Twitter (@a_crezo), I know to be careful.

www: This interview has been beyond a blast, Therese. Thank you so much for visiting with us at What Women Write, and we wish you only the best.

Today, Therese Walsh, debut author. Next week, New York Times Bestselling Author Therese Walsh?

Wouldn't surprise me. Nope, not one bit.

Visit Therese at her Web site, where you may read an excerpt. (But I just dare you to visit this beautiful site and not immediately run out to buy this book!)

Monday, October 12, 2009

What Women Write

by Joan

I’m a loner. My office is a cocoon, outfitted in a wrap-around desk, favorite paintings and prints, and plantation shutters closed off to the elements. I often have no idea whether it’s a sparkly, sunny day or a dreary rainfest. The only way I know a storm is coming is when my mother-in-law calls to tell me to batten down the plants and patio chairs. I don’t like talking on the phone, the result of three years as a headhunter in the ’80s when I had to make phone calls at night and attend networking gigs. If I’m on the phone too long, the person on the other end will often sense my unease and let me go. I like the solitude of a writer’s life, taking a phrase or sentence, working it into something that not only I love, but also has some meaning to someone else. Which is odd, when you think about it, but a common trait writers share.

But as any writer knows, it’s nice to connect with other writers, to share ideas, work through mistakes, celebrate achievements and, yes, rejection. I joined the Writers’ Guild of Texas, a young organization that has grown to almost 80 members in three years, and became its treasurer. There I met my first critique partner, Kim, and subsequently Pamela. I met Elizabeth at the Lesser North Texas Writers’ Critique group, Pamela and Julie connected online, then we met Susan at a conference. And here we are, our own little writing village.

Today we celebrate our fiftieth post. When we started What Women Write, we knew our styles were all quite different but wanted to find a way to connect with the writing community and share a bit about our writing journeys. We set up a schedule and committed to following it, making small adjustments for when life interfered (flu, day jobs, family emergencies, travel). I’m constantly amazed at the posts my partners have written, the authors we’ve been lucky enough to interview, the response and support from our readers.

Like many writers, when I look back at my manuscripts from a few years ago, I cringe. Reading them makes me want to send apology notes to all those agents I queried with what I thought was the best book I could write. I should also apologize to unsuspecting friends and family members who also read my early drafts and offered unworthy praise. Since then, I have studied writing how-tos and written daily, but my partners have pushed me to become even better. Yes, our styles are different, but each one in her own way has helped me gain perspective of my work, stretched me, provided me with honest feedback, and kept me laughing when I wanted to cry. (Some diligently reading revisions of the same manuscript numerous times!) Next month, the six of us will go on the first of hopefully many writing sojourns together, to a remote cabin far away. Maybe I’m not a loner after all.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Story of your Life

By Susan

Today, I am thinking about my story.

I’m not talking about my work in progress, I’m talking about my story. The story of my life, the story of your life.

I just finished Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. He talks about your life as a story, with the same character arcs, growth and development as you would see in a screenplay or a novel. What are you doing? he asks. Are you leaning toward comfort and ease in your life, or are you taking on challenges that stretch your comfort zone, making you a different person at the end than you were at the beginning?

It made me think about my story. Right now, my story is busy- busy running children hither and yon, busy working, volunteering, busy avoiding swine flu. I’d like to think that it’s getting me somewhere, taking this protagonist of mine (Susan) from point A to point B. I’m trying to make it a story that I would like to read one day and say, “nice story” and not say, “Whoa, boring. What’s the point of this?” As Miller says, no one wants to read about a man striving to buy a Volvo, then buying the Volvo and driving off the lot. The reader wants some action, some conflict, and some resolution. Are we giving that to our own lives?

We make our characters go through all kinds of machinations. They get their hearts broken, experience loss, and experience triumph. Sometimes we "kill our darlings" as Stephen King says. Sometimes, we map out their entire lives and then, when we sit down to write about them, they have other plans. They veer off and do crazy things we didn’t expect or want. Sometimes they are right, yet sometimes we, as the god of their creation, are right all along and truly do know what’s best for them.

Look at your protagonist: your protagonist must want something deeply, and overcome conflict to achieve it. They must be willing to sacrifice something great for this thing that they want, the greater the sacrifice the better the story, in a way. They must change throughout the story, from cruel to compassionate, or from angry to accepting.

I changed some things about my WIP this week, taking 30,000 words and deciding that as much as I love the characters I have drawn, they are my back story. My true protagonist is emerging. She is someone that I saw early on as a side character yet now it is her story that is capturing me- her struggles, her conflict, how she will change as the story progresses. I see greater things for her than she sees for herself. I have decided that she is the story now. I, as her creator, am smiling on her.

And I am going to take her places that she never imagined. She will tell this story now, and she will live it. Will she fight me? Or will she dance along willingly on her new journey? Just as our lives take us unexpected places, I imagine she will go somewhat reluctantly as I throw things at her she is not prepared for. But will it make a better story? I think so.

At the same time, I am looking at my life, as a mother and as a writer. I don’t want to seek the path of least resistance, I want to push forward through things that may be uncomfortable but that will make me a better lead character in my own life. When you think about it, there is no other way.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Five Basic Food Groups for the Aspiring Author

By Julie

Remember when you were a kid and learned about the five basic food groups and how important a balanced diet was to growing into a healthy adult?

Or when you gave birth.

Remember how the first year or so, it was relatively easy to figure out what to feed the kid, but the next year, your toddler argued the point every single day that mac 'n cheese and chicken nuggets alone do, in fact, constitute a healthy diet? (And how many of us gave up on that? Ketchup is a vegetable, so said Erma Bombeck.)

So it goes for writers. I believe to be a healthy writer, there are certain basics I must include in my "writer's diet" on a fairly regular basis.

For me, in no particular order, these are:


I know you've heard the saying, "Writers read."

I'm sure you've also engaged in conversations with others who claim to be writers. Were you as stunned as I was when you asked, "What do you like to read?" and their answer was, "Well, I don't really have time to read."

Phhhwwwhaaaaaaaat? (said in best Craig Ferguson voice.)

Perhaps there are exceptions, but I'd have to see the documented evidence to believe it.

Writers read. Period.

We don't all read the same things. Some of us are more versed in the classics than others. Some of us have reading lists from previous years 100 books long, and others of us have lists that struggled to reach ten. Some of us read the same old things month after month, and some, a broader selection of materials, which by the way, is easier said than done.

You might be surprised, though, when you color outside your self-imposed lines. Like ordering that Thai Peanut Salad you always thought you'd hate only to discover it's really quite delicious.

Last week, for instance, I picked up Tana French's In the Woods on Margie Lawson's recommendation. I'd seen the book, even handled it in a bookstore, but always put it down. I don't usually read murder mystery or suspense. Thus, I was surprised to find myself glued to this story for the week it took me to read it, even if I was a little baffled and frustrated by its conclusion. The Likeness, which is supposed to be even better than In the Woods, is on my nightstand now.

Reading is kind of like protein. We can manage without certain other groups for a longish period of time, but protein?

It's kind of a life or death thing.


Music would have to be the fruits and vegetables of my writer's diet. Pretty much neck-and-neck with protein, music makes me a richer, healthier writer in the long run.

I can't tell you how many times I've bounced off the lyrics or mood of a particular song when stumped for a writing topic or stumped by a problem in a work in progress. Nearly everything I write starts out with a working title I "borrowed" from a song or lyrics.

Some writers go so far as to create a formal soundtrack for manuscripts to inspire them as they write. I've kept informal lists, but find they evolve along with my story. What works for my story one month is often not the same the next.

Attending concerts I enjoy is an integral part of my creative life, and I take this pretty seriously. Our What Women Write bloggers are going on a retreat in a month or so, and when I discovered the event we'd scheduled fell on the same weekend as a concert I'd planned to attend for months, the decision was hard and the decision was easy.

I was disappointed to realize I'd have to leave the retreat early, but I also knew if I didn't go to the concert, I'd regret it. I'll be sad to leave my writing sisters a day early, but the nourishment I'll receive from hearing Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova perfom (as The Swell Season – you might have seen them in the movie Once) will balance that out. Both will inspire me for a long time.


Movies may be like starches to you. They're kind of like starches to me. And like starches, I sure do love them.

I prefer to think of them as GRAINS.

I'm frequently amazed how much I learn from watching films. (As is Pamela. See this post.) My husband and I probably watch at least thirty movies a year in theaters. We watch them at home, too, but there's something about the big screen.

Last weekend, we saw Whip It, the latest Ellen Page movie – Juno meets Roller Derby. I came away not only inspired by great lines, great costume and setting details, and great characterization, but also refreshed. I got my head out of my own story and fully into another for two hours.

I got fed.

Publishing news

Most like dairy.

We need it, especially as youngsters, to grow strong and tall with good, weight-bearing bone structure.

Too much dairy may be more than is strictly necessary.

Publishing news is freely available online – perhaps in a greater quantity than is strictly advisable.

After subscribing to every publishing or author's blog that came along in the last few years, I find myself overwhelmed these days. Much of the information is duplicated or it's market news or craft lessons drilled into my head so often I could probably recite them in my sleep, and possibly have.

I'm trimming my subscriptions to a few "must reads." Maybe ten. If I'm really bored or in need of another blog to read after that, there's always Google or the blog rolls many bloggers keep on their blogs to guide me.

Here are a few I think will survive the pruning:

1) Writer Unboxed, a group blog of mostly published authors headed up by Kathleen Bolton and Therese Walsh. They give away a lot of valuable information for free about the journey that took them there. (Therese will be a guest here on What Women Write next week, by the way.)

2) Pub Rants, the very first agent blog I ever read. Kristin Nelson is always to the point and shares something aspiring writers can use. Bookends, LLC is another agent blog I probably won't do without.

3) Blogs of a few authors who have mentored me in one form or another over the years: Diane Chamberlain and Barbara Samuel/O'Neal are the first two that come to mind, but there are certain others.

4) A few editors' blogs that teach me something new nearly every time I read them. EditTorrent, for instance.


Community is to me what oil was to the Tin Man.

Call it oil, call it fat, call it what you will. I may be an introvert at heart, but a little community goes a long way toward making Julie a happy, healthy writer.

I can do without it for a while, but pretty soon I find myself creaky and cranky and stuck in the mud.

I had a recent conversation with a family member about Facebook. She's considering cutting back her Facebook contacts to only family, close friends, and maybe a few online friends she's met in person. Her purpose for having a Facebook account is mainly to keep up with those folks, and she no longer finds it prudent to share the mundane details of her life with random acquaintances.

I don't blame her. But I explained that, as a writer, social networking sites like Facebook are my water cooler.

Most of my writer friends live at least tens of miles away, if not hundreds or thousands. They are my colleagues – my coworkers, if you will. If I need a boost to my writing morale, or to find a good laugh that makes sense only to me as a writer, I can usually count on the community of other writers I've shored up online through Facebook or organizations like Backspace.

And one day, these fellow writers might just be the go-to folks when it comes time to get the word out about my first published novel ... and second and third and so on.

What about you?

Those are my basic food groups as a writer. Without one or more, you might find me a little droopy, not as healthy as when I partake from each on a regular basis.

But here's what's nifty – your basic food groups might not be the same as mine.

I knowwwww! (I love you, Craig Ferguson, for those two phrases alone if nothing else.)

So, tell me, what are some of your basic food groups as a writer or other creative person?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Stepping Into the Light

By Kim

A sane man would never have left the Meadowvale station in the middle of a snow squall, especially not mere hours before nightfall. Carl, frantic over the idea of leaving Madonna alone overnight, felt the wait may be more perilous than the walk. It would take a day or more before the roads into the village were passable. Crossing the farm fields on foot was more direct anyway, and there would only be more snow to trudge through at daybreak. The pain in his hip already radiated from deep within his bone from standing on the train. There were no chairs in the station. If he remained on his feet much longer, he may be unable to walk at all.
He shielded his eyes against the wind, seeing nothing but a blank white canvas. Heading easterly, he would eventually reach the Credit River. From there he could follow the riverbank to the bridge at Derry Road. This would lead him home. 

His dress boots offered no protection against the cold, let alone the snow. Wiggling his toes between steps, he hoped to delay frostbite. He could not hold his hat on his head without exposing his hands to the elements. Damn foolish mistake to leave tuque and gloves at home in April. He knew better than to casually dismiss Mother Nature's moodiness at this time of year.

Back in 1907 my great-grandfather, painter Carl Ahrens, made the two mile journey from the train station to his home in Meadowvale, Ontario, three times a week. Rents were cheap that far outside of Toronto, which was perhaps the reason that many artists settled in the sleepy little mill town. Madonna Ahrens described their time there in some detail in her memoirs, from their little house on the mill dam, to the large garden Carl insisted on tending despite his bad hip, to the birth of their first daughter, Penelope. 

A century later Meadowvale is a heritage village within the boundaries of the city of Mississauga. Getting to it involved most things I can’t stand about life in the 21stcentury; ugly strip malls, industrial parks, road construction, cookie-cutter modern housing developments, and surly gas station attendants who refuse to give directions unless you buy something first.
The moment my cousin Chris and I crossed over the Credit River on Old Derry Road, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. While we were still in the city, there was no trace of it around us. We turned off the radio, opened the windows and listened to the sound of the breeze. My eyes swept over the farm fields gracing either side of the narrow tree-lined avenue, half expecting to see a tall man with a cane trekking across them to greet us. Every house we passed was both immaculate and from an earlier time. I wondered how many of them Carl had been inside, which one he called home. Had he attended the small red-bricked church? Had he ever exhibited his paintings in the town hall?

We parked the car, anxious to rid ourselves of the reminder that we had not truly gone back in time. An elderly gentleman waved at us as we walked past his porch. When we asked about the old mill, he said it was long gone, a gazebo now marking its place. Gone, too, was the old mill pond, then called Willow Lake.

I held little hope of finding the old Ahrens residence without these landmarks.
The lone envelope I had from that time was addressed to Carl Ahrens – artist – Meadowvale and the family photographs only showed a small portion of the house. Still, Chris and I were in no hurry to leave. We wandered the small gravel lanes of Old Mill Lane and Pond Street, studying each house and waiting for instinct to tell us it was the right one. While they were all from the right era, the only thing that kept luring us back was a tall oak by the gazebo.

“It looks like something Granddaddy Carl would paint,” Chris remarked.

I shook my head. “It looks like Granddaddy Carl himself. But what’s he pointing at?”

One limb of the tree jutted out dramatically and appeared to be directing us toward the woods. Chris shrugged and went to investigate. A few minutes later he called out for me to follow him. It was a dry creek bed and I could see at once what had his attention. The suns rays filtered through the trees in a particularly haunting way. This, I thought, was something Carl would have painted. It was also something his great-grandson, a talented photographer, must capture on film.

I closed my eyes, listened to the rustling of the leaves, and knew we were close to the house.

A year and a half after visiting Meadowvale I contacted a local historian and obtained an old map of the village. What we had thought was a creek bed was actually the remains of the mill stream. I should have realized this, as the gazebo marked the location of the mill. The dam once sat about three steps to the left of where Chris and I had been. I quickly pulled up the photographs Chris had taken on that day, and my heart leapt into my throat. The light rays that had so hypnotized us were concentrated on that bend, as though illuminating the way for us.

I e-mailed a friend of mine, Mississauga artist Rick Taylor, about my discovery. He replied at once; Meadowvale was ten minutes from his home. Did I want him to go investigate? I sent him all the family Meadowvale photos I had. He assured me that the board and batten construction of the house would narrow the choices down significantly and the angle of the light on Carl’s face in one photo suggested they were on the west side of the old mill pond.

Two hours later I learned that if Chris and I had simply stepped into the light that day, we would have seen the house.

In this photo you can see the creek bed. We were around that bend, about two steps out of the picture. In the foreground on the right is part of the ruin of the old mill dam. As it wouldn’t have been possible for a house to literally be on the dam, Madonna must have meant that the house was beside it.

Rick, the photographer of the photo above, is standing in what was once the old mill pond, a.k.a. Willow Lake. This 1909 photo of Carl holding baby Penelope would have been taken only a short distance behind where Rick was. Carl would have faced the house shown in the photo below.

What this experience taught me is that when it comes to researching setting, tools like Google Earth and old photographs can only go so far. I would never have been able to write the scene from The Oak Lovers at the beginning of this post, and certainly not the text that follows, had I not seen those fields for myself, had I not known what Carl’s destination had been that day in the snow squall. My intuition is much stronger now than it had been back in 2004. Were I making my first trip to Meadowvale now I’d have listened more closely to the faint musical refrain of the breeze and walked directly into the light.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Mighty Mentor

By Pamela

Last night I proofread my son’s English assignment, which included a collection of essays and reviews of short stories. He titled the file: Ben’s BIG HONKIN ENG PROJECT, to give you an idea of the scope. After reading it I told him, “It was good, Benjamin. You did a really nice job on this.” He said thanks, but more importantly…he beamed. As a smart kid who excels in most subjects, English is not his favorite. I’m hoping a little encouragement might help him realize that he is a good writer.

I had the good fortune of early influences in my writing career. My high school English teachers—Mr. Omstead, Mrs. Thomas, Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Angel—all provided unique perspectives on reading, writing and grammar. I can still hear Mrs. Smith saying over and over in a sing-song voice: and-but-for-or-nor sometimes so and yet. And Mrs. Angel would rise from her desk and walk to the listening corral where we’d hear Shakespeare and other classics. As she stood, she’d say, “Quack, quack” which was our cue to follow behind her like ducklings. We were seniors and yet we obediently toddled along in her wake.

In my first year of college I, along with nearly every other freshman at Ball State, enrolled in English 103. There I landed in Shirley Fuelling’s class. A kind, gentle woman, she provided unique writing assignments that encouraged our creativity. (A few I’ve kept stowed away in the one box in the attic that is mine.) Not only did she make writing fun, she made it a point to help an insecure teenager realize that her writing had merit. I remember her reading aloud a couple of my assignments, and I’m sure she had no idea how much that meant to me.

Eighteen years later, I decided it was time she knew.

I wrote her a thank you letter to let her know that, even though I graduated with a marketing degree, I was employed as a writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The confidence she instilled in me allowed me to stretch my potential and apply for a job I knew would go to someone more qualified. (I could have emailed her, but I wisely chose the old-fashioned route.)

Here is an excerpt from her response to my note:

What a delight it was to hear from you. Often we comment that an event “makes our day.” Your letter probably makes at least a decade.

Yes, I certainly do remember you—even where you sat in the classroom. Be assured that I cannot do that for all students, especially not those from 18 years ago.

Your career sounds very interesting. Yours is one of the many cases demonstrating the changes that people make in their careers and the value of core curriculum classes. So many students see no value in writing. I had a young lady last year who told me she was going to be a teacher and simply would not need to do any writing. I hope your children and my grandchildren never have her in class.

Thank you so much for writing. In an era of electronic mail, a real letter to hold and re-read is a treat.

I’ll admit that I hesitated sending her a note. I didn’t want to come across as a weirdo or someone seeking a response; I simply thought she deserved to know how much she meant to me.

Now, I try to remember the power our words possess. Whether it’s encouraging a child who might be a little insecure about the writing he produces. Or remembering to thank someone who offered up the right words at the right time.

If you had a mentor or someone who encouraged you when you needed it most, why not take the time to tell him or her? And do it the old-fashioned way: put pen to paper. It just might be something he or she will take out and re-read when a shot of affirmation is needed. How many opportunities do we get to “make someone’s decade?”
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