Wednesday, June 29, 2011


By Joan

Not that I’m counting, but in seven short weeks my only kid goes to college. During these bittersweet days, he’s been around more than in his past four years. He’s indulging me a bit, but I sense he’s also feeling bittersweet about leaving. He’s asked for man-in-the-moon eggs, shared movies and great meals, played card and board games, even my new obsession, Words with Friends, a crazy iBlank game which must soon be deleted from my phone! Soon this microburst of bonding and joy will be replaced by excitement and angst as we send him across the country, into the vast and sometimes harsh world.

I’m in the midst of another countdown—four weeks (give or take) until I send my first query for The Italian Architect at Highgate. Right now my manuscript is in the hands of my trusted group of beta readers. All of my What Women Write partners have either critiqued it or are doing so now, plus I’ve enlisted a few trusted mega-bookworms who share the same taste in fiction.

Some established writers might balk at the idea of so many people commenting and picking apart their manuscripts, but after writing, rewriting, revising, editing, culling, sprucing, sprinkling, killing, I’ve lost a bit of perspective. Plus, as any proud parent would, I relish the time and attention my baby is getting.

Most writers who have queried manuscripts (as a 3-time almost ran, I feel somewhat qualified) know that opinions vary widely. There will be those who love your idea and words, others who pass them by. It’s no different than browsing a bookstore display of new fiction—sometimes you just know at the first few words that it’s not for you.

If three people love a sentence or paragraph and one does not, look hard at the negative comment. Especially if the phrase in question has bothered you—I have one or two in Highgate—hone and twist it into a fresher sentence, save it for your next go, or send it to the guillotine and briefly mourn. The trick is to study the advice and comments and track-changed manuscript for what feels right.

Ultimately, you are the final judge of what ends up in the version you send off to agents and editors. You are the one who will send your baby off to the harsh world, and know it will be in good hands, that in 18 months (or 4 years) from now, you will reap the benefits, see its name on a shelf or a college diploma.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Celebrity Encounters

by Elizabeth

So my toes weren't just for fun; we went out of town. To Hawaii! What was extra great was that a follower of this blog who lives there gave me some terrific Big Island advice. Unluckily for me, she wasn't around the week I was there, so we couldn't meet up.

But someone else was around as my family slogged through our unplanned layover at LAX: Richard Simmons. My husband had stalked the concourse in fruitless search for an alternative to burgers (lucky for me I had some awesome peanut butter packs and crackers to chow and was thus spared the horror of fast food prior to a week in a bikini), and reported back that the famed exercise guru was just a couple hundred yards away, signing autographs. I grabbed my phone (forgot the camera, silly) and ran.

No mistaking this guy, even in an orange track suit instead of his trademark Dolfin shorts. He was tiny: petite and slim-but-muscular; and absolutely like his TV persona. I have to admit, I was most struck by his sincere kindness and generosity. He posed patiently with kids and adults, asked real questions and listened to the answers, and was utterly genuine. A huge personality--I guess he'd have to be to carve that career--and nice nice nice. When my turn came to say hello, I pulled out my phone and asked if he'd call my friend in Alabama, a woman I knew would find the call an absolute hoot. He did; she wasn't home; but he left her a lengthy message, and she told me later she laughed and laughed when she heard it.

Nearly everyone has a celebrity encounter or two under their belts. My most intimate one happened about a dozen years ago. While waiting to board a Southwest jet to LA (what is it with famous people, airports and me?), my toddler son and I chatted with fellow pre-boarder Jack Palance about African art. He was somewhat of an expert; we were not. So I mostly listened, though the kid offered a few garbled insights. Another time (also in LA though no planes were involved) I gave Mandy Patinkin a cookie. But that was at a concert, so it doesn't really count. Plus, I'm willing to bet the cookie landed in the trash and not his gullet. Too bad for him. Those were some rocking cookies.

In one of my novels, a character has a brother who stumbles into major fame. So far, that's as much as I've danced with celebrities in my own books (unless you count the Washington clan in my historical middle grade). But I love to read bits with famous people, whether named explicitly, such as Allison Pearson does in I Think I Love You, or more obliquely, like Rain Mitchell in Tales from the Yoga Studio. (You'll have to read that one yourself to see if you agree on the identity of "Becky Antrim.")

I like when authors write famous people into fiction. Done well, the work is suddenly that much more authentic. Yeah, yeah, celebrities really aren't a part of our actual lives. But tabloid culture is pervasive today's world, thank you Hollywood and Madison Avenue, so it often feels as though we nearly know these people. Any reader of women's fiction will tell you if you don't believe in the characters or the story, it's unsatisfying. A dab of fame sprinkled into a work can make the people and situations believable and relatable, and the read that much more enjoyable.

And this isn't a new-fangled literary device, either. Even Jane Austen referenced one of the most popular novelists of her own day, as Emma's pal Harriet Smith revels in the Gothic horror of Mrs. Radcliffe's famous books.

So what about you? Any celebrity encounters, either real life or in your fiction?

Pamela here, chiming in, since Elizabeth said we could.

I lived in LA for a year and had few chance encounters--Casey Kasem (+ tall, blond wife) and Howie Mandel (+ his hair) at the mall; same mall, different days. I also attended a few show tapings.
Al, Katie, Elizabeth, Pamela (red sweater! figures...), Anne, ?

Then I went on a girls' weekend to NY about 12 years ago with my friend Elizabeth (different Elizabeth than the one here) and we had a lot of celebrity encounters. Elizabeth's friend worked for the Today show and we got on set to watch a taping. (Oprah happened to be there. She walked by while we were in the green room and said hi as she passed.) Plus we got to meet the Today show staff. Anne Curry was as genuine as she seems on TV; Matt was on his honeymoon. Later we talked our way into a couple of show tapings: Regis and Kathy Lee, The View (ran into Barbara Walters in the hallway) and The Rosie O'Donnell Show.

I'm not too star struck, I don't think, and I have a tendency to shy away from using celebs in my manuscript as I feel it dates the book. (Just reading the above list of shows I saw in NY dates my trip.) If mentioning a celebrity (e.g. saying your main character had a childhood crush on Bobby Sherman) establishes your character's personality and intentionally dates her, then I think it works. But because people are people and tend to appear one minute to be something they aren't the next, then I think it's best to leave current icons alone.

Julie says ...

My family's celebrity encounters tend to happen in restrooms. I guess celebrities go, too. My daughter and I were at LAX a few summers ago waiting to return to DFW. In the restroom, a tiny dog ran under the partition and ended up in my daughter's stall (she was 11 at the time). My daughter giggled and told the dog how cute she was. Then we heard another voice calling the dog and saying, "I'm so sorry!" Everyone finished their business and the young lady came out to wash her hands. She looked very familiar to me, but I didn't place her at first. As she walked down the concourse ahead of us, her dog now safely in a little carrier, I realized it was LeeLee Sobieski. She stopped at the gate for a flight headed to Chicago, and later, I figured out she was on her way to the film her part in Public Enemies. She was even prettier in real life than onscreen and was sweet and gracious--even in a public restroom.

My brother used to be the assistant to the director of Buena Vista Television. He, too, encountered Richard Simmons--on a fairly regular basis! Simmons was often in the office and always gave him sweaty hugs. But one afternoon, my brother "stood up" next to Tom Selleck. I won't give you any more details other than the fact that there were no partitions.

In my current manuscript, celebrities don't get any screentime, but there is a quick reference to Wayne Brady and Whoopi Goldberg!

Kim says...

While I have no exciting celebrity encounters to report other than briefly meeting Emma Thompson at a book signing, I do include several in The Oak Lovers. My great-grandparents, Carl and Madonna Ahrens, had a vast social circle. Canada's Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was a friend. Carl studied with William Merritt Chase and George Inness, and knew all the various members of the Group of Seven. He also knew Calamity Jane and Elbert Hubbard and was a close friend of the Mohawk recitalist Pauline Johnson. Many of these people are not well known today, but were considered among the Who's Who of the early 20th century.

Joan here:

My greatest celebrity encounters have been from live theater audiences, most memorable: Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, Richard Chamberlain, Tim Curry and Laura Linney. Wow, wow, wow.

In 2004, I went backstage at the Kennedy Center to meet Goldie Hawn, who was as personable and vivacious as she is on TV. In Manhattan, I’ve passed Joe Namath and clumsily asked to shake hands with bizarre Robert Pastorelli (Eldin the painter from Murphy Brown), who was months away from death at that point. In L.A., I spied Adam Arkin picking a movie in a video store and Will Smith and Jack Nicholson from binoculars at a Laker's game. In Rome, we drank espresso across the piazza from Harvey Keitel, but refrained from interrupting his morning.

We've met our share of best-selling authors at book signings, but I was completely star struck when I ran into author Susan Vreeland at the B&N near North Park, casually signing her books on the table where I browsed. Oh, and Pamela, Kim and I met the personable Emma Thompson when she signed Nanny McPhee Returns at the Dallas Museum of Art.

I love reading historical fiction featuring painters, which is why I’m not only critiquer of Kim’s manuscript, but a big fan. I’ve met Vermeer in Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With the Pearl Earring and then again in Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Artemisia Gentileschi was featured in my favorite Vreeland book, The Passion of Artemisia. Marc Chagall appeared in Dara Horn’s A World to Come and I followed through France one of my favorite artists, Vincent van Gogh, recently in Sheramy Bundrick’s Sunflowers and will meet him again when I begin A.J. Zerries The Lost van Gogh, currently on my nightstand.

In my WIP, I wrote a chance encounter between Gabriel, a nineteenth century architect, and Charles Dickens, but I took it out because it seemed forced.

But one of us, who will remain nameless, has had more celebrity introductions than all of us combined, but is too humble to say so!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Need Characters? Borrow From Your Family Tree (Reprised)

By Kim

I originally wrote this post back in July of 2009, but we have a lot of new readers since that time. Some may be curious as to how I came to write a novel about my great-grandfather, and why I would think anyone would want to read it! Here is a slightly edited version of my answers to those questions.

I’m an accidental genealogist. I know it’s a strange hobby for a woman in her 30's, but compiling a family tree can be as much about stories and the characters who lived them as names and dates. What better raw material for a novelist?

Yes, your query would be rejected immediately if you begin with I’ve written a 150,000 word novel about my great uncle; but if that uncle happened to live a compelling life you can always wow an agent with the story first and casually mention your relationship to the protagonist later.

Eleanor Douglass
Still not convinced? While researching for my current work in progress I’ve found Eleanor Douglass, a fiercely independent artist at the turn of the last century (and a minor character in my current book). Then there’s Edgar and Sarah Niles who left New York for the western frontier in the 1880’s in a desperate attempt to cure Edgar’s consumption. The level of detail about pioneer life in their letters to family back home is enough to make any novelist salivate. Just last month I discovered that no one has ever written a book on one of the most famous Indian agents during the Revolutionary War. That’s three potential books right there thanks to my 2nd cousin, my great-great grandparents, and my 6x great grand-uncle.

I never had to search for the subject of my current work-in-progress, The Oak Lovers. The most cherished fairy tales of my youth all featured a rather colorful character named Carl Ahrens. My grandmother, Tutu, used to entertain me with stories about Carl running away from home to live with the Indians or making a catastrophic attempt to fly off the barn roof. (My daughters cringe when I recite the flying tale, but always ask to hear it again). As I grew older, the stories multiplied. Carl was a cowboy in pioneer Montana, befriended Calamity Jane, traveled the California coast by covered wagon, and spent an afternoon hiding in a buffalo hollow while warring bands of Indians shot arrows over his head. She never explained how he did all this while suffering from a crippling form of tuberculosis, and it seemed an unimportant detail.

Madonna Ahrens
Of course, all good heroes must have a heroine, and Carl found his while working in the Roycroft arts and crafts community. To keep the story interesting, or so I thought, Tutu complicated their relationship in deliciously scandalous ways. Carl, then 38, already had a wife who despised him but wouldn’t let him go. The “Madonna” he worshipped was all of 17. He was a genius with a paintbrush, but cantankerous and destitute. Irresistible as well, apparently, because Tutu occasionally slipped and called them Daddy and Momma.

Having grown up surrounded by paintings of trees that laughed, grieved, danced, and even embraced, I never questioned that my great-grandfather was both a real person and an amazing artist. However, it wasn’t until I was about seven that I began to associate the adventurer with the frail old man in the family photographs. One day my mother saw me playing with a small antique basket that has always fascinated me. She mentioned she believed it was Indian made and had likely been Carl’s. Running my fingers reverently over the basket’s intricate designs, I peered at the nearest old photos. They were candid snapshots instead of the dour portraits that were the vogue of the day. Madonna not only laughed as she sat beside Carl, but leaned into him, sometimes touching his arm or his hand. Carl gazed at her rather than at the camera, an expression of naked adoration on his face. Even then, looking at them made me smile.

Carl Ahrens
We later inherited a photo of a young Carl dressed in buckskins, with the chiseled features and confident stance of a movie star. I stared first at the image and then at my own father. The resemblance between my real life hero (Dad) and my fictional one (Carl) was so striking that I could no longer doubt even the most outrageous of Tutu’s accounts.

After years of intensive research, I have proved the fairy tales true.

Even if you would rather run a mile barefoot on broken glass than look at eighteenth century census records, you can ask questions. Talk to parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Don’t listen simply for the names and dates, but wait for a character to speak to you. Look at those old family photos and study the faces. Some stories can be updated and others will remain firmly in the past. If nothing else, you can probably find some interesting character names. Think about what a conversation piece surnames like Bottenhagan, Cuthwolf, Dunfrund and Frithogar would be. How about Godfrey Lothier III? He happens to be my 24th great-grandfather, but I’ll share.

What about you? Have any of you considered borrowing characters from your family tree?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Gone to the ... spa!

By Julie

Today, I used a gift certificate my amazing, supportive husband gave me for Christmas. It was due to expire today, so I didn't have much choice! Last fall, I hinted that it might be fun to get a certificate for a massage or something as a birthday or Christmas gift. I opened my stocking Christmas morning to discover he'd gone whole hog--a half day visit to an upscale spa. Wow! He listened and he put it into action! You can't have him, he's mine.

The certificate had a six-month expiration date. You may ask why I waited so long to use it. Well, my personal life kind of took a nose dive right around that time. My mother was in a serious car accident and the last six months have been spent helping her heal--in the hospital, a rehab center, and finally at home with home health services that recently ended. I certainly NEEDED the spa visit, but I just didn't have the time or energy to go get pampered. How goofy is that?

Also, I'll let you in on a little secret. I was a little intimidated by the thought of spending half a day in an environment that is SO different for me. I am proud to admit ... well, kind of ... that I am a city bumpkin. I've lived in cities or suburbs pretty much all my life, but I am just a low maintenance kind of girl when it comes to this stuff. For me, "pampering" means a haircut every 3 to 6 months (seriously) and highlights noticeable enough to give my hair a little pick me up, but not so noticeable my hair gets the two-level look while I wait a year to get them redone.

But make the appointment I did, and I enjoyed my day just fine--the pampering part as well as the chance to make a fool of myself at every possible opportunity, because I am talented like that.

I guess I didn't do too badly. I find it possible to put on the appearance of someone far more sophisticated than I am when necessary. For a few hours, anyway.

All day, the thought that my blog post was already overdue ate at me a little. I admit it kept my first stop--massage--from being quite as relaxing as it might have been. Well, that and the fact that I find it difficult to lie on my stomach with my face against a thing that kind of resembles a tiny, padded toilet seat. (Yes, Joan, I did just say that out loud.) I was never a stomach sleeper and still have trouble figuring out how anyone does it. But relax I did, eventually, and the whole experience went fine until the masseuse, who spoke in a perfectly normal voice up to that point (when she spoke at all) asked me at the very end, "How you feel? You feel gooood?" In a voice that weirded me out a little. This may be TMI.

I managed to impress the aesthetician with the amount of dry skin she was able to rub off my face. She was not surprised as I informed her right away I'd never had a facial. I am honest if nothing else. I dutifully nodded when she mentioned I should do this treatment every four weeks. Uh huh.

After my massage, facial, and spa lunch, my veneer was wearing thin.

Thus, I was delighted to spend the last couple of hours with a nail tech who was as down to earth as could be. She laughed when I told her my usual pedicure consists of checking to see which toes need another coat of polish before I go out and whether any of them are so long they're hanging over the edge of my sandal, thus requiring a quick snip with the clippers. Yes, I am that girl. After a while, I do have to remove the gunk my method creates and start over. She was impressed that my fingernails and toenails were in great shape anyway. I attributed it to a little lotion addiction, never going barefoot, and not doing enough housework.

After four hours or so, I left feeling relaxed and ready to return to my everyday life.

I said all that to say something about writing. I spent a few minutes at each spa stop thinking about how I could apply it to writing. It finally occurred to me. I spent my afternoon in a place where I'd normally never go, doing things I'd normally never do, and it stretched me. Not in any life-changing way, but still.

This is what we can do to stretch and grow our characters, too, or bring life to what could otherwise be a dull, everyday scene. I'm guilty of letting too many of my scenes take place in kitchens and living rooms and yards--where my characters are comfortable.

I realized that in my current project, some of my favorite scenes to write--and I believe some of the best or funniest or most emotional ones in the story--were ones in which I placed my characters where they'd normally never be.

~My 36-year-old hairstylist forced to eat lunch at the Pitt Grill in the racist hometown she couldn't leave fast enough as a teenager.

~My 16-year-old sheltered Kentucky girl pretending to be grown up in a swanky Newport nightclub or hiding in the shadows of a revival meeting where all the faces are a different color from her own.

~My 89-year-old weary traveler sitting at a rest area in Arkansas giving a terrified mother unexpected advice.

So. What about you? Can you lift your character from the dollhouse you've created and drop her back down in a setting she can really work with?

Without my spa day, I would have been coming up with my blog post from the couch in my family room--as usual.

Photo credit / Unique Hotels Group's Flickr photostream, by Creative Commons license

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mom, can we keep him?

By Pamela

My daughter with Jett--a love/tolerate relationship. Can you tell?
Among many labels I wear--mom, wife, writer, baker, reader--I'm also an animal lover. Can't help it. We've always had pets, mostly dogs, but currently a fish (I know, not like you can pet them), a hamster (way cuter than I expected him to be), and our dog Jett.

From the precious beagle pup my brother brought home from the farm where he worked, tucked into the front of his denim overalls, to the current 85-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback/Shepherd mix we rescued eleven years ago, a dog has been my constant companion. (Jett, who ate the last bite of my breakfast, is currently snoozing just inches from my feet.) I was raised in the country and, although we didn't farm, it seemed everyone around us did. So horses, pigs, cows, chickens, cats ...  you name it; we were near 'em.

When I picked up Katrina Kittle's The Blessings of the Animals, I fell in love with not only the lovely writing, but the animals that played an integral part to telling the story. The main character, Cami Anderson, is a vet who assists in animal rescues. And while the opening scenes of a horse farm left unattended still make me uneasy, it's Kittle's use of one horse's journey to healing that parallels Cami's own emotional recovery. Cami's three-legged cat and crazy goat also add a lot to the story and give us more to love about her heart.

Sadly, my WIP is currently dogless. I feel one lurking about but I haven't decided what kind he is. Because the personalities of the family vary so much, I haven't fit them with the perfect pet. I think the boy would like a big yellow Labrador that chews his chemistry book and sleeps half on, half off his bed. I see the mom with a Puggle that joins her on her morning walks and snuggles in her lap as she reads at night.

But then there's the dad. He's not a dog guy. I can't really see him with even a cat! So, I'm trying to decide how much power he has over the house. Does he veto the dog notion? Does the mom get one anyway, to please her son? Does a dog just follow the mom home one day while she's out walking, and she can't turn him away?

Just as in The Blessings of the Animals, it's important to the story. Pet ownership tells something about you. If you adopt a rescue, I admire your caring soul. If you adopt thirty, then to me, you're a crazy hoarder. If you kick one to the curb when it wanders into your yard, then, well, you're not someone I'd like to know better.

So pets--both real and fictitious--say a lot about someone's character. I just have to decide what that animal will say about mine.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Non-Writing Part of Writing

By Susan

I used to brag that I could write anywhere. On lunch hours, I would scribble in a small black notebook, as I sat parked in my car under a tree at a park near my office. I could find a diner and write for an hour without noticing the time at all (like I did in this photo, to the left). Sometimes, I would take my laptop to my nearby coffee shop, and I could peck away at the keys, oblivious to the hustle around me. Usually, I’m typing fast in my favorite chair, children playing around me and my husband cooking dinner in the kitchen as I hurry to complete the next scene before somebody hollers “Mom!”

Yet lately, I’ve wanted (no, maybe needed) more perfect conditions. I’ve sequestered myself to my bedroom and locked the door, hoping no one (i.e. children) will notice that I’m hiding with my manuscript. I’ve waited until the house was empty to even open my working document, sure that nothing will get done unless I have Complete. Total. Silence. I make excuses for why I can’t work, for why nothing is getting done. And nothing is getting done-- at least on this manuscript-- that’s for sure.

What’s changed? It’s not me. It’s the nature of my project, and my project has changed. I am now no longer writing when I crack open the antiquated laptop that has housed my baby for the past few years. I’ve actually finished it, all 100,871 words-- at least the writing part of it. The thing that has changed? I’m now an editor- no longer a writer. And I’ve realized that as much as I know nothing about writing, I know even less about where to place a comma, how to spell, or when to edit out a scene or add a new one. An editor? I am not.

I’m out of my league, once again.

And stuck.

Last night, I went back to one thing I do know: management. I decided to tackle my editing as I did my writing, as I do my work, and my life. I make lists, prioritize them, shuffle them, and give myself deadlines. I set short-term and long-term goals and I rank the elements of the project by size and scope.

I won’t bore you with the list. It ranges from everything from scenes to add, to words to cut, to character development and consistancy of voice. But for me, it’s pure gold. I’ve found a starting place on my new phase of writing this novel- the non-writing part.

What about you? How do you make it through the post-writing let down and through the editing phase? Please share. I'll take any advice I can get!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Flower Power

by Elizabeth

I'm not, as my daughter would say, "a super girly-girl." Oh, I like a pretty skirt just fine; I wear makeup most days; I even sometimes use various hair care gadgets. But my general style would best be described as practical and casual. I wear a lot of plain T-shirts, jeans that cost less than dinner for two at Chili's. My prime consideration when shoe shopping is comfort, and even most of my bras are good old serviceable nude.

But now and again, it's fun to get a little glam, step out of my plain Jane rut, and go fancy.

My mother-in-law isn't a girly-girl either, but she's definitely a woman who knows how to accessorize. I don't think I've once seen her nails bare--fingers or toes. I can't recall ever seeing her without a necklace. It's rare for even her ears to be unadorned.

Her accessories are always gorgeous, too. Her real jewels are stunning, and her costume pieces chunky and wonderful. I think everyone who knows her must have had the same moment I have many times over: seeing a bracelet or earrings at a shop or a festival and immediately knowing it should belong to her. My daughter has already had this happen, a lot. "That is so Grandma!" she'll say. "We should get it for her!" She's inevitably right, and if the price is too (a lot of the stuff that is "so Grandma" costs more than my annual mortgage), and a gift-giving event is imminent, we're set.

Said mother-in-law doesn't necessarily wait for a gift-giving occasion to treat me, however. The other day she invited my daughter and me to join her at the salon she frequents for manis and pedis all around. The ten-year-old worked herself into a flurry of anticipation, and I looked forward to it, too. It's summer, I thought. Maybe I'd go really crazy and go for something a bit bolder than the pale pink I usually brush on if I bother.

I got an elegant but still serviceable French on my hands. I did spring for--well, Nancy sprang for ("It's your inheritance and I'll spend it if I want!") the new I-don't-remember-what-it's-called super-durable insta-dry polish-stuff. I'm interested to see how long it lasts. My own usual on-clearance-at-Target polish has a pretty short life span, at least in the shine department.

But then came toe time. First, they talked me into a brilliant pink, like the color of some roses you have to stop and stare at. "Would you like flowers?" the manicurist asked. Flowers?! On my toes! What's next, music music wherever I go? My daughter was already getting fat daisies on all of her great digits, had planned them from the moment she heard about the outing, but me? Flowers?

What the hell!

It's not that I don't like a pretty skirt. It's not that I eschew makeup, or fail to appreciate a lovely necklace. It's not that I'm anti-girly, or even un-girly. It's just outside my box.

Not long ago agent Janet Reid linked her blog to a graphic flash fiction piece (that's the best way I can think to describe it) that made me nearly cry. It told the life story of an artist--and though it was an illustrator, it could have been a sculptor or a writer or anything--finding her vision over and over when she dared beyond the expected. Stepped outside of what she knew, of what she did. Got brave enough to be a little more--not more than she was, but beyond the rigidity of how and what she thought about herself.

So, I got flowers. And honestly? I love 'em.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Forgotten Names

by Joan

As writers we hope our work will remain on others’ shelves and minds long after we’re gone. We wish to connect with readers, touch hard-to-reach hearts or bring humor to those who crave it. We’d love our name to be familiar to someone other than our relatives. Especially after we die. Surely non-writers feel the same.

Last week on a trip home to Maryland, I visited friends and family, celebrated three more high school graduations, and took my niece to Solomon’s Island and St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland where she’ll attend next fall. I also made my way to a cemetery I’ve long wanted to visit.

On a sunny, happy day, my son and I roamed through Mt. Olivet Cemetery in historic Frederick, Maryland. It was easily close to two miles long and probably half a mile wide. I expected he’d humor me and patiently wait while I wandered for a bit, maybe long enough to see Francis Scott Key’s monument and cross a field or two of aging tombstones.

But to my surprise and delight, he seemed just as fascinated as I was, enamored with stones and epitaphs and history. As we stepped over the past, we discussed life and death and legacy. Who will recognize our names?

Many names we spotted that day were unfamiliar and we wondered if they weren’t made up. There were plenty of duplicates, even some whose match lay clear on the opposite side of the cemetery. By the time we’d climbed through each section and were headed back to the car, we ventured there were thousands of graves there.

I wrote down some of the more unusual names we saw, as well as some I’d like to use for characters in a future book. One name was so steeped in history, I contemplated stepping out of my comfort zone and setting a book during the civil war. What do you think of Amos Thigpen?

We couldn’t help but wonder if we could figure out their professions:
Fearhake - Accountant
Gittinger - Bootlegger
Deterding - Jailer
Devilbliss - Mortician
Stonebraker - Architect
Kefayver - Locksmith
Haberkorn - Bootsmith
Kottmyer - Physician
Hamrick - Butcher
Peomroy – Dog groomer
Tobery - Teacher
Hahn Crum – German spy
Boleler - Musician
Dudrow - Cowboy
Petrotth - Scientist
Lebhertz – Telegraph operator
Wickless - Thief

And we came upon a tree, whose trunk formed the image of a woman about to give birth. I'd name her Bessie Brightwell. What are some of the most unusual names you've come across?

Friday, June 10, 2011

I Would Hate to Live with a Writer

By Kim

The last few weeks have been crazy in the Bullock household. Teacher conferences, field trips, dance recitals, business trips (for my husband), appliances breaking, one child bored and the other suffering from a combination sinus and ear infection – you name it! My manuscript took a back seat to my life and, while I often kept a smile on my face, there have been days my temper got the best of me. At times, I may have been a bit unpleasant to be around.

The more I connect with other writers, the more I realize that as a group we share certain traits. We play nicely with each other because we baffle our friends and families. I tried to imagine what it must be like for my husband and children, trapped in the house with a writer. I don’t envy them. Here’s why:

Writers are easily distracted

I used to say I had “Mommy Moments” but it’s not really fair to blame motherhood. I had to turn the car around a block from home to assure myself I closed the garage door long before I had kids. In the past week I’ve left my car keys on a counter, neglected to bring in the groceries, left the back door unlocked (though I did set the alarm), and burned a grilled cheese sandwich beyond recognition. My excuse? While my body is in 2011, my mind is in 1916.

Writers may forget to eat

They may also forget that they are in charge feeding everyone else until it is six in the evening and someone asks the inevitable question. “What’s for dinner?”

Writers are selfish

If we hope to get anything accomplished we must neglect something, be it our jobs, our housework, or our family. I’ve been guilty of playing a DVD for the kids so I can finish writing a scene. I’ve spent evenings with Carl and Madonna instead of my husband. I’ve put off errands, rescheduled doctor and dentist appointments, said “no” to volunteer opportunities with the PTA, and ignored the dishes piled in the sink. I’ve lamented my lack of a real office, though in all fairness it is pretty quiet around here during the work/school week.

Writers are poor

Very few of us will ever make a living wage from our writing. We must either work a day job and steal time from our families to write, or rely on our spouses to support us. Neither option is ideal.

Writers come with unpredictable muses

Those muses may remain silent during our regular writing time and wake us at 3:00 AM. They may speak to us in the middle of a meal, while waiting at a stoplight, or while listening to our children talk about their day. We can’t help it.

Writers are slightly nuts

We hear voices. Enough said.

Writers often appear to be daydreaming

No one but another writer understands that staring out the window is part of the job description. Zoning out in the middle of a conversation is an occupational hazard as well. Please don’t take it personally. It’s not you. It’s us.

Writers are anti-social

Most of us are hermits and loners. Some of us can be extroverts when the occasion calls for it, but we would likely much rather be left alone. If I don’t have a few hours of complete solitude several times a week I become anxious and irritable. That’s not always fun for those who share a house with me.

Writers are slobs/neat freaks

Okay, I don’t know if this is everyone, but it certainly applies to me. When my writing is going well, I live in sweats and a T-shirt and the house has no flat surface without clutter. Laundry baskets will be full, dishes will pile in the sink, and I don’t recommend that anyone venture into the master bathroom. When I’m stuck, I declare war on the dust bunnies, and my kitchen is sparkling. My poor kids never know if I will get after them to pick up their stuff.

Writers are always observing

No one is safe! We eavesdrop on conversations We store away images of fashion blunders. We ruthlessly steal cute lines from our kids or have our characters rehash an argument we had with our spouses. We scan other people’s bookshelves or music collections. We ask nosy questions. We read everything.

I’m very glad I don’t live with a writer! If you live with one, or are one, and I left something out, please clime in! How many of these fit you?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

When setting is characters

By Julie

Yes, you read that right. It doesn't say what we've talked about before--setting as character. Nope, it says what you think it says.

You guys are getting the fallout of my revisions in my posts lately. I love exploring craft issues—and enjoy it even more when a post occurs to me as a natural result of what I'm doing.

You may know I'm revising a manuscript about two unlikely friends on a road trip to a funeral.

The settings vary, all the way from Texas to Kentucky, and while I'm very familiar with the Texas settings because I live here, the Kentucky/Ohio settings are a little tougher to write.

I was born in Kentucky and lived there off and on until I was in the third grade. My grandparents lived in Cincinnati, and my dad grew up in these areas, too, so I am somewhat familiar with them—mostly from my childhood memories, one or two trips back as an adult, and family photographs and lore.

I've worried. Will my setting notes for the parts of my manuscript that take place in Kentucky and Ohio ring true? I've picked my dad's brain again and again to be sure I remember things correctly. I've used Google Earth to view terrain, neighborhoods and architectural styles. I've searched for historical images of landmarks. In other words, I've tried to ensure my setting is accurate. However, I don't doubt that when my novel is published, some local reader will be able to point out the flaws in my Kentucky/Ohio scenes.

But I came across something interesting this week. Something that told me setting isn't necessarily about the terrain. It isn't always about the landmarks.

Sometimes, it's about the characters.

I just read Laura Moriarty's The Rest of Her Life. This is the second novel I've read by Moriarty (I reviewed The Center of Everything last year here), and I find her prose and dialogue to be painfully honest. I can relate to it on many levels. Like I often do with Elizabeth Berg, I wonder if Moriarty can read my mind. How else could she describe so precisely the way I feel—the often frustrating and confusing parts of being a mother or daughter?

The Rest of Her Life is about a family dealing with the death of another family's child caused by their daughter driving while distracted. It takes place in Danby, Kansas. I don't know if this is a real town. For all I know, it could be a town like the Kentucky one I've created in my novel—loosely based on my research and memories of several towns in the general area. (And yes, I could look Danby up to see if it's real. I might do that later, but for purposes of this post, it really doesn't matter.)

Moriarty didn't spend much time on physical description of the town or the surrounding area. I don't remember many, if any, references to landmarks or cultural reference points. Yet, this town is crystal clear in my mind. The reason is because of her characters.

Her characters are representative of the place. The clothes they wear. The way they talk. The things they do in their spare time. The houses they live in. How they raise their children.

All these things combine to make a detailed picture in my brain of what Danby, Kansas, "looks" like. It might not look like another reader's picture, but it works for me. Setting became an important character in spite of the lack of concrete details.

I hope I've done this in my manuscript, too, regardless of whether the small details I slipped in—maybe 100 percent accurate, maybe not—contribute.

I hope my characters say it as well as I could have.

(And that photo at the top of the post? I took it in Leadville, Colorado, last summer. Click on it to see it larger. What says more about the character of Leadville? The buildings a century or more old? The mountains in the distance? Or the guy in the cowboy hat and leather jacket riding a longboard down the middle of Main Street? Okay, maybe the slightly unsettling gas station signs, too ...)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Is my word count showing?

By Pamela

You know you should exercise daily—bathe, too. You should write thank you notes within a week of receiving a gift. You should rinse the plate before you put it in the dishwasher and separate reds from whites when doing laundry.

People notice when you don’t do these things.

People may not notice when you don’t write on your work-in-progress.

But, my people do.

Recently I’ve been reading the manuscripts of my fellow WhatWomenWriters. Julie and Joan just completed theirs and are gearing up for querying. Susan finished hers, too, and is about to send it to us—letting her family take the first pass—although I managed to wrangle an early draft from her. Kim is steadily plodding forward with her labor of love, and I get to see chapters as she goes.

Julie emailed me the other day: How is your manuscript coming along? Joan sent me a note: Feel free to send me some chapters. Susan said over lunch: So when was the last time you worked on your story?

Oh, I had excuses. Busy with work. Kids’ end-of-school-year activities. Mom here for a long visit. Finally, two Saturdays ago, Joan and I met for breakfast. I knew my explanations wouldn’t hold water with her. Joan knows my writing better than anyone; we co-wrote a manuscript together.

We talked about whether or not I still loved the story. I did. Or whether another story line was tugging at my heart. Not yet. “I just put everything else first,” I confessed.

That’s when this dear friend, who has a full-time job, a son who just graduated high school and a recently completed manuscript, told me her secret. “I got up an hour early every morning and wrote before I had to go to work,” Joan said. “Pick a time, every day, maybe from 10 to noon, and write it.”

And so I have. Not every day yet, but almost. I just passed the 30,000-word mark, so there’s no turning back. In fact, I got up the courage to send Joan two versions of one chapter I recently completed, as I am torn as to which version is more compelling. She wrote back: So glad you’ve picked this back up.

I’m so glad my people notice when I don't.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Keeping it Simple

By Susan

At 6:00am, the waters of the sound are quiet. I have my coffee and binoculars and I watch the ospreys as they glide above the water, searching for food, and then ascend to their nest and perch there together at the end of the pier, squeaking in a language too high-pitched for my father to hear.

"Hand 'em to me," he says, and I give him the binoculars and watch him, the cigar clenched between his teeth.
"You hear 'em?" I ask. He shakes his head. "I think they are arguing," I say. The two birds snap their wings open and closed, fluffing themselves as they screech.

Daddy is 69 years old now, and this is one of his favorite places on earth: this deck, this chair. "He must have stayed out all night," he says, smiling, as he holds the binoculars to his weathered face. "She's none too happy." He knows these birds, and their tumbling nest that spills over the peak of the roof to the small gazebo. He follows this family of birds the way housewives follow soap operas.

He's been coming to this house in Corolla for almost ten years, and each year he watches the birds. My parents come and go with the same regularity as the ospreys. My clan of four only comes every third year or so to join them. But my parents are steady, arriving and departing each May, planning the meals and the pick-up basketball games with my nephews, scheduling walks on the beach and bike rides along the paths near the sound.

We come and go. It's predictable, it's simple. There is no drama, and the only conflict is whether we should spend the day at the ocean, the pool, or in the sound, kayaking the fresh waters in a silent glide. My children are still sleeping and today is our last day.

"I haven't told them we are leaving tomorrow," I say to Daddy.

"Don't," he says, and I nod.

When I leave here, I know, my life will lose its simplicity. I will face the daily conflicts and challenges that come with raising children, writing late into the night, and spending my days working too much. But this week, I have been completely unplugged.

I lift the binoculars again, and the osprey turns her head. She's watching me too, I realize. She's watching me come and go and perch on this deck each morning with my father as he chews his cigar and I drink my coffee. Under her gaze I can see how alike we are, this mother-bird and myself. We come, we go. The conflict between the coming and going are our own affairs. There is no conflict here between me and mother-bird, only peace.

Tomorrow, I will fight my way through the airports to make my way back to Texas with my husband and daughters. From there, I'll return to work, juggling the summer schedule of children and career, and begin querying my manuscript while I struggle to find the hours to begin my next one.

On the hectic days to come, I will stop to think about my father watching the ospreys, and I'll hold that sliver of peace with me until the next time I make it to the coast. But today, I am living it. And so I sit back with my coffee and smile.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mundane--or Magic?

by Elizabeth

So here are a few things that have happened to me in the past couple of weeks.

First up, my microwave died, the apparent victim of an underpowered and/or overloaded circuit. (Don't ask me to explain anything technical; my brain turns off.) The good news was the oven itself was okay; the bad news was that the dedicated circuit (or whatever) cost over twice what the new nuker would. Had to be done, though.

So I approve the work, write the check, wait around all afternoon while the electrician does his thing--only for him to discern, oops, it really was the microwave all along. This brings the grand total to an amount high enough I don't even know what president is on that bill.

The ordering of said new microwave from the home improvement store around the corner, a should-be five minute process, takes almost an hour. And then they get it wrong anyway, which I learn the night before when a machine calls to inform me of my delivery window. No changes allowed, so sorry, beep. Did I mention that one hundred percent of the reason we bought from that particular store was so I wouldn't have to hang around the house waiting for a truck? Now I'm stuck.

Fine, I can deal. The next morning, I dash through part of my to-do list and race home. I spend the first half hour of my delivery sentence politely chewing the manager at the local store a new depot. Then I putter around, waiting for the phone to ring. When it does, after an hour, and a mechanized voice announces the truck is thirty minutes out, I have a moment of celebration, realizing I might actually have time to run errands on the flip side. Sixty minutes later: no truck, no microwave. A second call to the store and I learn--it's been delivered there! Which is something the manager assured me they do not do. Now too late to leave the house, I gird myself for kids and carpool, and take a very considerate call announcing a new G.E. awaits me at the store. I very considerately do not use my George Carlins.

Next up: another electrical failure. I'm vacuuming up piles of black and white animal fur when smoke alerts me to another circuit snafu, the surge taking the life of the sweeper's motor like one of Voldemort's followers grabbing a muggle on his own way to oblivion. The vacuum, faithful as Hermione, at least leaves a parting gift: a hot melted stench that will no doubt scent my playroom all season long. Nothing says summer like the stink of scorched plastic.

We're not done yet. The next morning, I drive to my trusted auto shop for an oil change. A note on the door snarls that the manager has quit without notice, fired the staff, and left the charities the profits supported in the lurch. Not to mention me and my dirty oil.

This is all life, I know. As the writer of women's fiction, I guess I should just recast it as research, story fodder. And I do. But I wonder, too: what is truly interesting, life experiences other people can relate to and savor and guffaw over enough to justify inclusion in a story, and how much is just filler? Does anyone want to read the woes of my daily life injected into a fictional character's journey? At what point does alchemy transform the mundane into the magical?
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