Sunday, March 28, 2010

Resources for Writers #11: Take Your Mind Walking

One of the things I used to do when I got homesick--thousands of miles away in Africa with years between my home and me--was to take a walk through my home in my mind. I found myself remembering all kinds of things that might not have come to mind if I'd tried to write them down, say, as the setting of a story.

  • Walk up on the porch and ring the doorbell. Does it ring? Chime? Buzz?
  • Can you hear someone coming to answer it? Do their footsteps resound on hardwood floors, or are they muffled on carpet?
  • Does the door squeal on its hinges or open silently? When it closes, is there a 'whoosh' or a hollow slam?
  • Inside, is the house cool and silent or warm and full of music, talk, and household sounds?
  • Have you come to a place of refuge or confusion? Whenever you enter a new place, something forms in your soul as you try to decide what kind of a place it is.
  • What do you smell? Food? Gas heat? Freshly-laundered/ironed clothes and linens?
  • How many inside doors from the front room? Where do they lead? Are they open are closed?
  • As you walk through the house, does it have an open feel? Private? Mysterious? Foreboding? What makes you feel that way?
  • What's outside the windows on all sides? Are the windows meant to be open, and are they? Do they give light, or do the window coverings shut out light and life as well?
  • Is the furniture modern, stylish, antique, or just early-attic? How do the pieces make the room 'feel'? Are they arranged for comfort or for show? What does this say about the people who live there?
  • Does the house shout its time period? Victorian? Turn-of-the-century? Twenties and thirties? Post-war?
  • Remember, you're walking alone, but do you just happen to feel that maybe you're not? Why?
  • Open the closets. How do the doors sound? What smell wafts out? What's hidden away in the corners?
  • What's on the walls--art or family?
  • Can you hear water running anywhere?
  • Can you hear the heat (cooling) come on or going off? Where is the warm/cool air coming from?
  • Do you want to stay--or go--or flee as fast as you can?
  • Is there any clue as to past events that happened here? Warnings about what could happen in the future?

Tweak your questions to suit where you are--a house, an office building, a store. Unless a place is brand-new, it has a history, and that history includes people. Take a notebook--or a tape recorder--along on your mind-walk. What do you remember and why? And, when you leave and close the door behind you, I'll be surprised if you don't take with you at least one idea for a scene if not a whole story!

Something like 80 years separates the two pictures below. The one on the left is a picture of my father, probably around the age of 9 or 10, in front of the house he grew up in. The one on the right is a picture I took on a visit back to his hometown. I had to do a bit of "sleuthing" to find the house, but I recognized it immediately from the original photograph. How I'd love to walk through it! It appears to have fallen on hard times and likely won't survive much longer.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book Review #10: Not Just One Book

Since I first saw the movie "Titanic" in 1953 with Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck, I've been fascinated with the doomed ship and its ill-fated passengers. I've even read some fiction books in which the sinking of the ship played a part--as it does (though only briefly) in Where Is Papa's Shining Star? Over the years, I've collected quite a few books on the subject and thought I'd share them here. You've got to admit, the depth of possibilities for story ideas is not yet plumbed (no pun intended--honestly).

1) The Discovery of the Titanic by Dr. Robert S. Ballard (1987)
2) Her Name, Titanic! by Charles Pellegrino (1988)
3) Titanic: Destination Disaster: The Legends and the Reality by John P. Eaton and Charles A. Haas (1987)
4) The Story of the Titanic (As Told by Its Survivors) edited by Jack Winocour (reprinted 1960)
5) A Night to Remember by Walter Lord (1955, 1976)
6) Titanic by Thomas E. Bonsall (1987)
7) The Night Lives On by Walter Lord (1986)
8)Titanic, Fortune and Fate: Letters, Mementos, and Personal Effects from Those Who Sailed on the Lost Ship (Mariners Museum, 1998)

For children:
1) On Board the Titanic: What It Was Like When the Great Liner Sank by Shelley Tanaka (1996)
2) Exploring the Titanic: How the Greatest Ship Ever Lost Was Found by Robert D. Ballard (1988)
3) 882 1/2 Amazing Answers to Your Questions About the Titanic by Hugh Brewster and Laurie Coulter (1998)
4) The Titanic Lost and Found by Judy Donnelly (1987)
5) Finding the Titanic (Step-reader) by Dr. Robert D. Ballard (1993)
6) You Wouldn't Wan t to Sail on the Titanic by David Stewart (2001)
7) Polar the Titanic Bear by Daisy Corning Stone Spedden (1994)

Anyone who has followed the history of the ship will recognize Robert D. Ballard as the man who led the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's successful search for the remains of the ship. Walter D. Lord is probably the definitive author on the subject of the passengers and the actual sinking. Polar, the Titanic Bear is a true story of one of the child passengers, Douglas Spedden, and his toy polar bear.

I'm sure I'm not finished borrowing from this historic event. What can you use in your own writing?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Resources for Writers #10: Think Local

Local lore is full of ideas for stories and information to use in them. I've been 'into' genealogy since I was old enough to hold a #2 pencil and write down 'family trees' dictated by grandparents held hostage to my curiosity. It's paid off.
  • How about X who came to Texas and was never heard of again? 
  •  Or the great-grandfather who shot his stepfather and ran off, and when the law caught up to him, was told to "come on home--the man needed killing". 
  • the beautiful great-aunt who died of diphtheria at the age of 19--what dreams did she leave behind?
  • the grandmother who taught in a one-room school on a ranch in the Panhandle of Texas before her marriage. 
  • the second cousin whose mother never saw him again after the age of 4 or 5--and for what reason? 
  • the young man who went back to Alabama to fetch his intended bride and ended up bringing her widowed mother and three teen-aged siblings along with him. 
  • the great-great-uncle who, wounded, lay still and listened to two Union officers say, "Don't waste a bullet on the Reb; he's dying anyway" before a woman and her daughter took him to their farm and nursed him back to health. (He lived to father something like 14 children!) 
  • the infant brother whose records mysteriously disappeared from the hospital after his supposed death
  • the little boy who lay on a quilt on the floor, between his two grandmothers, listening to them discuss who would take him now that both parents were dead 
  • Did your grandmother have a 'lost love' ?
I could go on, but you get the idea. Granted, I'm older than some and had grandparents born before 1900 whose tongues didn't have to be pried loose. But you've all heard things.
  • Visit your local library and hit the genealogy section. 
  • Visit the nearest college or university library and do the same. Look for county histories, those books compiled from pictures and articles written by descendants of the first settlers in the area.
  • Read old city directories--houses have histories, too. 
  • Thumb through old telephone directories--in particular, the yellow pages.
  • Read old newspapers on microfilm. (A supply of peppermints will ward off 'motion sickness', also frequent breaks!)
  • Stand on the street corner in a historic section of town and will yourself  back in time. Where were the saloons? the brothels? the legitimate businesses? (Every town had all of them!)
  • Go into an old building still in use and look beyond the renovations. What does the owner know about it? (You might even hear about a resident ghost!)
  • Browse antique stores--you never know what you'll see that will spark an idea or fit right into your WIP. 
  • Find a site that posts older death certificates online. The tragedies there will break your heart--and the hearts of your readers.
  • Walk through the old section of a cemetery and read the epitaphs. Stand in the section reserved for 'paupers' (in older vocabulary) and consider the circumstances that made such a place necessary.
Research is a living, breathing thing--and it isn't just for historical writing. Write contemporary? Remember that what happened a hundred years ago is still happening today.

So put away the traditional books and turn off the computer. Arm yourself with camera, notebook, and tape recorder, and GO. Your next out there waiting for you.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Review #9: Plantation Parade

This 1945 volume by Harnett T. Kane (1911-1984) is a fascinating look at the early plantation homes built in Louisiana by the early French settlers and later by the Americans. He describes the building and furnishing of these grand houses, the life that flowed in, through, and around them, and sometimes their tragic fate. The men who built them were larger than life, and the women who were often left to keep them going after their husbands' deaths, were valiant examples of the not-so-fragile "southern belles".  The families that inhabited them were often large in number as well as vision.Their fortunes rose and fell with sugar and cotton, as well as with nature's fury.

An insert of photographs taken of many of the houses, presumably around the time the author wrote about them, will spark the imagination of any writer. From gardens to ballrooms to the "flirtation" room, and elaborate tombs, imported marble mantles, Greek columns, and ornate ironwork, these houses with names like Oak Alley, Magnolia Mound, Columb House, Bocage, Parlange, White Hall, D'Estreban, Ormond, Chritien Point, Uncle Sam, Houmas, Ashland, St. Louis, Live Oaks, Shadows, Madewood, Woodlawn, Belle Grove, Nottoway, Rosedown, Melrose, and Oakley sprang up along the bayous of Louisiana.

The descriptions boggle the mind--and so do the stories of the men who built them. Many have been restored; many no longer exist after years of decay and neglect. But they are preserved here in this book (younger than I am!) for future generations of historians, architects, and most of all, writers.

Plantation Parade is indeed a procession worth watching!

Here is a link to the author's obituary in the New York Times which mentions many of his other works about the South.

Book Review #9-Delayed

This week's book review is postponed until tomorrow.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Resources for Writers #9: At Your Fingertips

Books and websites are wonderful resources, but this week I thought I'd mention a few things slightly removed from those. I can't claim ownership of most of these ideas, but I like the old saying, "I am a part of all that I have met". So here goes.

1) Keep a camera in your car. This idea came from a good friend in upstate NY who takes fantastic pics and often shares them with me. From the deer in her backyard to places of historic interest, each picture can bring something to mind that might evolve into a story. Recently, while doing an errand, I pulled over and took pictures of a deteriorating barn/stable which had probably been top-of-the-line in its day. Across the road stood a new, bright red state-of-the-art structure. It only takes a few minutes to stop and snap.

 2) Read the newspaper, preferably the Sunday edition. I don't subscribe to a newspaper since I get my news online, but I do treat myself to the Sunday paper. One of the columns I hone in on is "On This Day in History". What parallels to contemporary situations can you draw from something that happened in 1821? You'd be surprised!

3) Keep a small notebook in your purse. Use it to jot down descriptions of people you see, for example, sitting in a restaurant, snatches of conversations, an interesting billboard, a piece of memorabilia in an antique shop, notes about a tour. I found my little notebook invaluable when I visited Branson MO last year, and  that visit sparked my latest contracted novel, The Showboat Affair.

 4) Keep a tape recorder handy (also in the car if possible) to speak lines from songs that might evolve into ideas for stories, even titles for them. Titles of anything aren't copyrighted, as I understand the law, so writers are free to use them. I tried a digital voice recorder, but I wasn't technologically savvy enough to become proficient with it. (It went, as many things do, to the house elf, who is.) But I have a small cassette recorder that continues to labor faithfully, asking only for occasional fresh batteries, and that works.

5) This from my crit partner: Read interviews by people in particular lines of work/with expertise on particular subjects. In your writing, you'll be giving information to people not of that world, so the details that strike you as significant or interesting might also strike your reader

6) Finally, life is the greatest teacher of all, and memories, as well as feelings and emotions of the moment, can be the starting point for novels, short stories, a scene in same--or even just a line somewhere. Write them down as they come to you, and you'll end up with your own personal book of 'story-starters' absolutely free.

Hopefully, one or more of these resources will work for you!

Wednesday book review: Plantation Parade by Harnet T. Kane, a gem from 1945! I'm older than it is!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Book Review #8: The Authentic South of Gone with the Wind

            There’s a wealth of information on the Old South for those writing historical romance centering around the antebellum period and/or the Civil War. The Authentic South of ‘Gone with the Wind’: The Illustrated Guide to the Grandeur of a Lost Era by Bruce Wexler (Courage Books, 2007) is just one of many books that profile life as it was ‘back then’.
             Similar information is available in other books, but this volume compresses it into a nice birds-eye view for writers who for whatever reason may not need to do a great deal of in-depth research. Sometimes just skimming the cream is good—and this book is rich in that commodity.         
             I always look at books on this subject with a wary eye, because I want the facts, not a glorification of a way of life that existed to the detriment of the human condition of another group.
            It’s an oversized hardback, liberally illustrated with beautiful color photographs taken on-site in many of the restored homes open to tourists, as well as snapshots of period artifacts. It begins with the story of Margaret Mitchell and how she came to write the blockbuster novel of 1936.
            Chapter Two deals with plantation houses and devotes a section  to Stately Oaks in Jonesboro, Georgia, which was literally sawn in half and moved to its present location for restoration!
            Chapter Three discusses the institution of slavery with a section on ‘King Cotton’ which rose and fell on the slave labor, which the South fought to retain.
            Southern hospitality is the focus of Chapter Four, which includes recipes and fashion notes for those ‘southern belles’ who inspired gallantry in the male species.
            Chapter Five includes information about the Civil War, nursing, medical care, Confederate flags, and uniforms and equipment. A visit to the CSA Armory at Macon, Georgia, finishes the warfare discussion.
            Carpetbaggers, scalawags, and blockade-runners populate Chapter Six. Finally, you can read about the making of the movie which sprang from Margaret Mitchell’s manuscript.
             I found the book online at for a ‘used’ price.

FTC Disclaimeer: I have received no remuneration of any kind for reviewing this book.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Resources for Writers #8: Historical Re-enactments

     She enters from the back, wearing period costume, chatting in character voice to members of the audience as she makes her way toward the stage—bare except for an antique, quilt-draped rocking chair and a green plant. By the time she stands in front of us, she is, in our minds, Harriet Tubman, and we wait in silence for her message.
     Describing herself as “nothin’ but a little ol’ bitty slave gal”, Harriet shares her early conviction that she had two rights—to be free—and to die.
     Often called the “Moses” of her people, she returned many times to bring family members and others to “freedom land”. Though I have read about her and know her story, I still find myself holding my breath as she details her first perilous journey from the border state Maryland to Pennsylvania.
     Finally, stepping down from the stage and out of character, Ms. Wright speaks to us—and especially to the children on the front row—about the importance of meeting life’s challenges with faith, hope, courage, and love for one’s fellow man. I find myself nodding and mouthing “amen” as if I were in church and hear verbal affirmations from others around me.
     I leave smiling, and the afternoon’s experience continues to bless me as I come out of a difficult week.
     Deborah L. Wright, now of Hot Springs, AR, has been re-enacting “The Legacy of Harriet Tubman” since 1997. She is a native of Chicago and worked as a journalist in both print and television. For her column, “Children Learn to Lose Colorblindness”, she was awarded a first place  Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors Award in 1999.
     For more information, contact Ms. Wright at

     Experienced authors often advise fledgling writers to “write what you know”. A historical background can, of course, be thoroughly researched and the facts vetted, but facts are cold, lifeless entities. In order to understand a historical character or period, one must  experience it. That’s where historical re-enactments become a valuable resource for writers. Just one brief hour, such as I spent, can be the springboard for insights and emotions that will bring your written words to life.
     Check your state’s tourist bureau for information about such events. Watch your local newspaper. Go online to individual historic sites to scan their offerings.
     Thanks to my good writing friend Donna for link to reenactor.Net (
 which may point you to opportunities in your own area.  

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Book Review #7: Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron is a combination textbook/workbook. Here's a quick overview: (The part marked with * are the ones I personally found most helpful.)

The Introduction, by S.J.Rozan, covers a general definition of mystery fiction, including the subgenres:  cozy, caper, police procedural, PI, historical, legal, psychogical suspense, forensic, fem-jep, and genre busters--all of which I needed clarification on.

Part 1:  Planning
  • The Premise
  • The Mystery Sleuth
  • The Crime Victim's Secrets*
  • The Villain
  • Innocent Suspects
  • The Supporting Cast
  • Setting
  • Staking Out the Plot
  • Picking a Title*
  • A Blueprint for a Mystery Novel
Part 2:  Writing
  • Writing a Dramatic Opening
  • Introducing the Protagonist
  • Introducing Major and Minor Characters
  • Drmatizing Scenes, Making Chapters
  • Writing Dialogue
  • Creating a Sense of Place*
  • Writing Investigation: Clues, Red Herrings, and Misdirection*
  • Writing Suspense
  • Writing Action
  • Puzzling it Out: Writing Reflection
  • Layering in the Backstory*
  • Writing the Coda*
Part 3:  Revising
  • Flying High: Fixing Plot and Characters
  • Flying Low: Polishing Scenes and Sentences
  • Hearing Criticism, Finding Your Own Fix
Part 4: Selling Your Mystery Novel
  • Introduction
  • Targeting Agents
  • Targeting Small or Independent Presses
  • Putting Together a Query Packet
Part 5:  Appendedix of Resources for Mystery Writers

>What makes this book stand out from the general category of "how-to" books is the "Now You Try" chart at the end of every chapter--not just one small space for note but rather guided exercises for every point made/skill taught in the chapter.<

This is a Writer's Digest Book (2005). I found my used copy online for $2, but for serious mystery writers, it's well-worth the shelf price in a bookstore.

FTC Disclaimer: I have received no remuneration for reviewing this book.