Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Searching for the haunted past...


Since taking my first “ghost tour” just for fun, I’ve become aware of just how much untold history is often included in the various guides’ spiels. No, I’m not talking about paranormal investigations—of which I’m not a fan. I’m talking about the interesting tidbits which might not turn up in history books because they’re considered too small or insignificant but which definitely add information about many American locations.

I love these tag-along tours (even at risk of life and ancient limb in the dark or in cold rain!) and often purchase a book about the location in advance. Visit the Haunted America website for a listing of no fewer than 252 such volumes!

Imagine my surprise to find a family-related story in Ghost Stories from the American South compiled and edited by W.K. McNeil! It’s set in Arkansas—that much is true—and perhaps the perpetually blood-stained floor part is true, though by the time I found the location, the house was gone. And, according to the 1876 newspaper article detailing the actual incident (killing!), the victim was indeed shot “while abed”. I’m delighted to know a (convoluted) version of the story has found its way into the tradition of American storytelling—and that I know the real truth!

In a book checked out recently from the local library, Ghosts of the Carolinas by Nancy S. Roberts, I read these telling words:

A house is more than just its timbers.
It is the lives which have been lived there,
the deeds which have been done within its walls.

I always enjoy including a little tongue-in-cheek “ghost story” in my books. (Look for one in the upcoming The Legacy of Diamond Springs in which a Yankee investigative reporter is dispatched to delve into the mystery of a blue diamond at a southern college located on what was once an antebellum plantation in Mississippi.) As Ms. Roberts so aptly puts it, the house (now the college administration building) holds more than offices and records within its circa-1840 walls.

Researching the tidbits for this novel has been enjoyable and educational—and I’ve taken so many notes, it will take at least one more novel to use them all!

And if I earn some good royalties on Diamond Springs, I’ll probably use them to buy books from Haunted America! Take the challenge—browse--and let your mouth water as mine has been doing.

Because…
everybody loves a good ghost story!


In my (small) collection…







Sunday, May 20, 2018

Searching for the vanished past...


Creating jobs, saving the past

One of FDR’s programs to create jobs during the Great Depression was the WPA. Unemployed writers were tasked with compiling travel guides for each of the 48 states. Mississippi: The WPA Guide to the Magnolia State was published in 1938. What no one probably realized at the time was that the information about many of the Old South’s antebellum homes would have been lost without the descriptions (some obtained from oral histories given by still-living people who still remembered the houses in their hey-day) included in the text.

Then the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) provided employment for architects and photographers—and reaped photographs of old home which, in the next fifty years, would become only dim memories—or be forgotten entirely. These invaluable collections of haunting black and white photographs now reside in the Library of Congress and were used by Mary Carol Miller in the writing of Lost Mansions of Mississippi.


Grand old ladies fallen on hard times

The author of the aforementioned book, which has held my undivided attention this week, wrote the book not to glorify the slave culture of the Old South but rather to celebrate the architectural excellence of an era. Mississippi became a state in 1817, and in the years before Secession and the Civil War, wealthy planters and businessmen built huge homes in the American Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Gothic styles. Inside the walls, they raised families, entertained their neighbors, and—yes--flaunted their wealth and social standing.

Separating myth from fact

Some of the houses fell victim to “Yankee” invaders, but most died unrelated deaths due to fire, natural disaster, neglect, and abandonment. With the coming of Reconstruction and the ensuing economic downturn, owners could no longer afford to heat huge rooms with ceilings as high as 18 feet, restore peeling paint, or make repairs to these homes. Some were sold. Some were turned into boarding houses, hotels, and commercial buildings and demolished when their usefulness ended. Some were simply abandoned and left to the elements. Now, only a few crumbling columns and hidden foundations hint at their presence.

So why am I living in the past?

After the umpteenth rewrite of The Legacy of Diamond Springs, I knew this contemporary romantic suspense needed more historical background—the odd fact tossed in here and there to give the reader a sense of realism in the setting. My fictional “Ainsleigh Hall” is loosely based on several of these grand old ladies, and the family’s secrets are taken from snippets I’ve read about the families who built and lived in them.

So—it’s back to the drawing board!

Meanwhile…

If you are fascinated with a vanished past, I recommend visiting your local library to search for Lost Mansions of Mississippi in which the author profiles 56 houses. The appendix following lists a whopping 98 additional houses of which little-to-nothing is known and which no longer exist.

Also look for two additional books by the same author:
  • Lost Landmarks of Mississippi (schools and colleges, hotels and spas, springs and resorts, churches and synagogues, public buildings, industrial sites)
  • Great Houses of Mississippi (which will send you to the internet to plan your next trip!)



Wednesday, May 16, 2018


What would you do with these tidbits?

  • a 500-year-old oak tree
  • a skeleton found in the walls of an antebellum home during its restoration
  • plaster (ceiling) medallions—each one a different design—in multiple rooms
  • a plantation owner killed in the explosion of a steamboat on the Mississippi River
  • a fourteen-year-old bride who in her later years was able to take over the running of a plantation by herself
  • a violin-playing ghost
Is there a story here? Or perhaps two?

I’ve been scouring coffee-table type books on the history of various antebellum homes to pluck a few interesting facts for The Legacy of Diamond Springs, a new romantic suspense in progress. The background of the current protagonists’ long-dead ancestors comes alive with facts stranger than fiction taken in or out of context. (That’s called literary license!)

Besides enjoying just reading about lives played out in these grand edifices—some destroyed by Federal troops during the Civil War and others spared by the invaders—I fill up a couple of pages in my research notebook with future fodder.



The above list came from Louisiana Plantation Homes: the Grace and the Grandeur with text by Joseph Arrigo and magnificent photographs from Dick Dietrich. I checked out the book from our local library but just ordered it from Amazon to keep for future reference.

Though my story is set in Mississippi, I can incorporate facts gleaned from a book about Louisiana since they’re vague enough to apply almost anywhere in the antebellum South.





Sunday, May 13, 2018

What is diversity--really?



Recently, a writer’s magazine ran an article about writing “diverse” stories—which I interpreted as meaning writing whatever hadn’t been allowed or accepted in the past. Okay—we still have our freedom of speech (so far) and the choice to read/not read a book or story. It’s a no-brainer. Write what you like, and if I want to read it, I will. If I don’t like it, I won’t bad-mouth it either.

But what is diversity?

The word’s been done to death. I mean, the saturation point has been reached. But are we any closer to understanding what it really means?

The dictionary defines diversity as
  • the state of being diverse; variety
  • a range of different things
I’m not sure, however, that the article defined the word quite this way. I took the discussion as focused on giving writers permission to skate on the edge.

Diversity in fiction

All writers are looking for that “hook” to reel in their reader audience. To that end, we develop new characters, plots, and settings. We give new “twists” to old cones. We sharpen dialogue, come up with new interactions, and ask our readers to stretch their imaginations and sometimes believe the unbelievable.

How do I interpret “diversity” in my writing?

First of all, I’m not locked into one genre. Vintage romance (1930s,1940s), romantic suspense, and cozy mysteries. My settings range from small towns to big cities. Plots focus on “real life” with occasional literary license taken.
If I’m “diverse” in any sense of the word, I think it’s because I often give my characters a handicap—or, to be more politically correct, a challenge. My first book and its sequel featured a blind man—by no means limited by his lack of physical vision. (Where Is Papa’s Shining Star? and Finding Papa’s Shining Star).

One of my favorite characters is Danny, a young man with Down Syndrome, who becomes a natural hero in the Dreamland series. My short stories, published and unpublished, contain even more characters such as you don’t find in mainstream fiction.
Right now I’m working on a new romantic suspense with an interracial romance between two people who fell in love in their youth but were prohibited from making a life together because of skin color.

When “diversity” falls flat

When writing takes on the goal of being “diverse” to create shock value, IMO it has failed in its intent: which is to inform and/or entertain. When the connotation of “diversity” becomes “in your face”, it can’t make the intended point.

And certainly, when every other word of dialogue is four letters of the “f” and “s” kind—it’s not variety at all. Rather, it’s the same-old same-old which makes me close a book. Everytime.

What is your definition of “diversity”? If you write, how to you implement it?



Visit my author page on Facebook for "diverse" links to some great writing-related articles!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Do you really understand "priority"?


Following up on Monday’s blog—don’t miss this information from award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, reprinted with permission. And just to be sure you don’t miss more of his great tips, subscribe to his FREE Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. It’s one email you won’t delete unread!!

Organization: "But Everything's a Priority!"

Have you ever felt paralyzed into inaction because all the tasks and projects in your life felt overwhelming?

It’s not a good feeling.
And it’s not fun to be told, “Just set your priorities!”
In that moment, it’s easy to yell back, “But everything’s a priority!”
I’ve said that myself. I’ve heard other people say it. It always seems wrong when other people say it, so I suspect it’s also wrong when I say it.
I suspect that when we say it, we don’t really mean that everything is actually a  priority. What we mean is that “everything is important.”
So how do you set priorities when everything is important?
I think the key thing is to understand that setting priorities doesn’t mean you’re making a judgment on what’s important.
It just means you’re choosing what order in which to do the important things.
When we say that a task or project has a high priority, the actual meaning is that it’s scheduled to be done sooner, rather than later.
A task or project with a low priority needs to wait. It will still get done, but not right away.
So if you want things to get done quickly, it makes sense to have only a very few “high priority” items that you work on until they get done. 
At this point, the word “multitasking” usually comes up.
Of course you can sometimes do several things at once. It’s perfectly possible to take a walk with a friend and talk out the plot for your novel. I’ve done that plenty of times and it’s efficient. You get exercise. You get some friend time. And you work on your novel. Three things at once!
But only one of those requires deep mental focus.
What doesn’t work so well is working on the plot for your novel at the exact same time you’re solving a hard math problem. Both of those tasks require deep mental focus. If you try to multitask those, you’re going to crash and burn. You’ll get less done than if you had only worked on one at a time.
So how do you set priorities? I’ll sketch out below what works for me. Different people are different, so this may or may not work for you. If it does, that’s a win. If it doesn’t, it costs you nothing. 
What I find effective on things that require mental focus is to allocate blocks of time for each. Maybe I’ll work on my novel for a couple of hours until I get stuck. Then I’ll switch to the math problem and work on that for awhile. My subconscious mind will keep working on the storyline of my novel while I’m doing math. 
So I’m not multitasking; I’m shuffling projects.
Shuffling projects actually works very well, but it has its limits, because of two issues:
  • I can allocate only a limited number of hours per day for hard mental tasks. If I try to work more hours than my limit, I tend to wear down. 
  • I need to spend at least an hour at a time on each hard mental task. Two hours is better. It takes time—up to twenty minutes—to really get into the flow of the job. If I work in fifteen minute blocks, I never really go deep and I wind up wasting time.
What that means in practice for me is that I have a limited number of blocks of time in a day when I can do deep work. My normal limit is four blocks. I’m more efficient when I do three blocks. When there’s a crunch on, I’ve been known to work only two blocks in a day, or even one. But I don’t like crunches and I try to avoid them.
I usually work on a project until I feel like I’ve lost energy for it. Then I go take a walk for a while, clear my head, and come back and either work some more on the same project or else switch to another that I feel more energy for.
I do best when I work on each active project every day. That means that I can really have only about four projects that are true priorities, things that I’m actively working on “now.” Everything else has to be “not yet.” Even if it’s “important.”
Setting priorities for me just means picking four projects for “now” and putting everything else in the “not yet” category.
That simplifies things a lot.  
I don’t have to order all the things I want to do from 1 to 100. I don’t have to feel like I’m somehow calling something “unimportant” if it’s not in the immediate priority list. Yes, it’s important. No, I can’t work on it today, or any day in the immediate future until I have an open slot. 
At my day job, I’ve enforced for years and years a strict rule on priorities. I made it clear early on that I would work on only one project at a time. The reason is because I work part time, and therefore I need to stay very focused. I thought my superiors would be unhappy with that, but they actually aren’t. They think it’s cool. They like knowing that whatever is my current priority will get done as soon as possible. So they live with my quirky style of work. This is of course a luxury for me; I know perfectly well that not everyone has that option. So I’m grateful for it. 

Homework

Everybody is different, so let’s talk about you. Answer these questions in order:
  1. How many productive hours per day can you use your brain for hard mental tasks?
  2. How big of a block of time do you need to work on a project to get productive work done?
  3. How many blocks of time can you work in a day?
  4. How many projects can be classified as “now” rather than “not yet?”




This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
 
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 17,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
 


Sunday, May 6, 2018

Self-Care for Writers





Rules, suggestions, ideas, instructions, commands—all abound for every facet of writing. The bottom line is: you can’t use all of them—ever! So today lets talk about what’s useful and what’s not.

Of the above, what’s useful is what you can use beneficially. Only that. Nothing else. The business/craft of writing is not a one size fits all.

In the past, I have printed out volumes of information, only to discard most of it. Sometimes I’ve gone through an article with a highlighter and noted what I think I might actually do. Sometimes I’ve gotten as far as transferring the highlighted text to a legal pad/checklist. Sometimes I’ve actually gone back and used some of the most promising ideas.

In the May 2018 issue of The Writer Magazine, freelance author Pete Croatto writes in “Parallel Work” about steps to take when your writing muse/inspiration/motivation/energy dries up (hopefully only temporarily)! I noted his suggestions in one of my Dollar Tree notebooks which I’ve begun keeping in lieu of spewing out reams of paper and using up ink cartridges.

As expected, not all of his excellent points hit home for me, and some I passed over because I’ve already implemented them successfully in the past. So let me hone in on one which may just really fit all despite what I wrote above. That is: Practice self care.



For me that means giving myself a break. If I’m not on deadline, I don’t have to write a certain number of hours a day. I don’t even have to write everyday! Like any other task, I’ll perform it better if I’m rested and motivated.

Getting a late start in my writing “career”, I pursued it relentlessly—for a while. Then I slowed down—guiltily. Then I took a good long look at why I was writing to begin with (which I’ve discussed in other blogs) and decided to practice self care. I didn’t think of it in those terms until I read “Parallel Work”. But it's apt--and important!

Check out your local bookstore or library for the May issue of The Writer Magazine and read the article. You’ll find something among the writer’s eleven ideas which will fit you like a glove.

More about Pete Croatto here.



Sunday, April 29, 2018

Best of the Best


The May-June issue of Writer’s Digest features their annual 101 Best Websites for Writers. Divided into nine categories, the top site in each is listed as “Best of the Best”. You’ll need to buy the issue for all the information, of course, but here’s a quick overview of those top websites you’ll definitely want to check out.

Creativity (7 sites): Six-Word Memoirs

Writing Advice (20 sites: Helping Writers Become Authors

Everything Agents (10 sites): Janet Reid, Literary Agent

General Resources (5 sites): Kirkus Reviews

Publishing/Marketing Resources (8 sites): ALLI Self-Publishing Advice Center

Jobs and Markets (10 sites): Funds for Writers

Online Writing Communities (10 sites): Story a Day

Genres/Niches (26 sites): Go into the Story

Just for Fun (5 sites): Highbrow

Definitely do NOT stop with these nine, however. You’ll want to scan the entire list and read the information about all 101 websites to find the best fits for you.

Other articles of interest:
  • “The Attention Deficit” by Julie Duffy (if you let social media interrupt your writing time)
  • “Conference Scene” by Don Vaughn (if you’re looking for a place to connect)
  • “Alpha-Blog Soup” by Gabriela Pereira (if you’re interesting in creating a platform)

And find Writer’s Digest online!