Sunday, January 29, 2012

Where am I?

I sit in a wide area surveying the geometric-patterned carpet stretching beneath my feet. Up-light sconces along the walls spew muted light. No one is listening to the canned music, nor do most take notice of the silk trees spaced intermittently around us. Wide windows provide a glimpse of the busy world beyond this place, but only a few people seem to care.

Can you guess where I am?
Read on...

Most of us are casually dressed, though others wear business attire. Everyone seems intent on his own agenda. I write in my notebook; others read newspapers or books or sip drinks. No one smokes, of course.
Enough clues to hazard a guess?
If I didn't know, I'd think about a couple of places, not necessarily the obvious.
How about a few more clues?
An amputee--a veteran?--sits in a wheelchair. A priest in a long black cassock strolls by; then a monk in a brown robe and sandals. No one seems to notice them except I--who am carefully cataloguing each enounter in my notebook. Around me, people text on their cell phones or tap the keys of laptops.
Is it becoming more apparent?
Let me see if I can throw a few more ideas your way.
A blonde man wearing a sports shirt pushes a stroller with two young children. Following him is a woman in a long dress and head scarf. She carries a basket. Then I see another man--not with them--carrying a small drink cooler.

Think you know, huh?
Read on.
There goes a 'bicycle cop'--he wears a helmet but no discernible sidearm. Two young boys with partially-shaved heads and spiked 'mohawks' make me mutter a silent Yecccch and wonder what they'll look like by the time they are teenagers. A man with a beard and a ponytail stops and looks around, then scratches...well, where he shouldn't scratch in public. A young man, obviously mentally disabled, smiles broadly and offers to shake my hand. 

I think you're narrowing it down now.
One more observation...
And then I see her--the perfect prototype for the story I've been turning over in my mind for a while. Her graceful body glides by purposefully, head erect on a long slender neck, silver hair pulled back into a neat bun belying her younger features. Her skin is the color of rich cocoa and sets off the simple black suit of a flight attendant...because, yes, I am in the airport waiting to board my plane. I penned a hundred notes, probably useless, until I saw her...and I'm glad I was watching because she is Cordelia, the beautiful, gutsy heroine of the as yet unwritten The Legacy of Diamond Springs.

In truth, these observations were noted on two different occasions; I simply combined them for this blog.  My purpose was two-fold...first, I write very poor descriptive passages. I keep meticulous notes on my surroundings in various places but find it difficult to translate them into a cohesive passage that makes the reader feel she is indeed in that place.

I am also a people watcher, looking for that perfect visual image of the character whom I know so well--except for how she really looks until I actually see her--and the lightning flashes as I take a snapshot to be saved in my mind. Hopefully, readers will know and believe in my characters even if I don't adequately describe the setting. 

How do you "see" your characters? (And if you have any tips on writing good place descriptions, have a heart and share...)


Monday, January 23, 2012

The 'R' Word

This week I'm passing on a couple of resources gleaned from recent issues of The Writer Magazine.
  • In November, Karen Rigby, reviewed 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected: And How to Be Sure It Won't Happen Again (Mike Napa, Sourcebooks, 384 pp, print or ebook) He takes up (1) editorial reasons (2) marketing reasons and (3) sales reasons--plus tips for "fixes". 
  • First Page, a semi-regular column by Peter Selgin which displays an excerpt from a story/novel, analyzes it, and explains why he would/would not keep reading
I cite these because all writers (published, not-yet-published, struggling-to-be-published) know the importance of 'hooking' editors with a query, synopsis, first three chapters--or whatever has been requested by a particular publisher. With all the competition out there, what we send has to be the best. 

Successful author Ken Follett, interviewed in the January 2012 issue, didn't hit the bigtime overnight. But, he says, he knew what he wanted to achieve--and eventually, he did it.

In the same vein (and issue!), Laura Maylene Walter talks about what we've all experienced: rejection. She advises moving on, using the rejection as a motivator, looking for positive aspects of the rejection, and remembering that all writers share this crushing moment!

My soon-to-be-released novel, The Face on Miss Fanny's Wall, received 5 rejections--some encouraging, some simply form-not-what-we're-looking-for. Each time it came back to me, I went through it again with the eye of a critic and recognized its weak points. I revised and even completely rewrote--and the sixth time was the charm. I had a fantastic editor who took me through four complete edits before she/I/we considered it ready to go.

I'm preaching to the choir--we all know the necessity of a good query, a good synopsis, and the best three chapters we can possibly write. We dream about overnight success and recognize that it's rare. We all experience rejection and, hopefully, become better writers because of it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Time Travel Made Easy

The stack of books I brought home from the library is the inspiration for this week's blog. We've all heard the saying, "He (or she) was born one hundred years too late", referencing someone whose tastes turn to days past. I could be that person. As an imaginative child, my "cape with hood" was an old brown silk scarf pinned under my chin, and I played at "pioneer girl" by eating cornbread with a dollop of mayonnaise--absent the bucket of jam! (I still like it, btw.)

Always fascinated with "the way it was", my shelves groaned with books on various eras until I gave most of them away, realizing that a trip to the public library was far handier than packing and unpacking a half ton of thick tomes. Last week I visited the "976" section and came home with the following:
  • Main Street Arkansas: The Hearts of Arkansas Cities and Towns-As Portrayed in Postcards and Photographs--a virtual trip back in time to the main streets of Arkansas towns, some no longer in existence (Ray Hanley and Steven Hanley, Butler Center Books, 2009) Writing about a turn-of-the (20th) century small town? Watch the wagon traffic pass a barber shop, meat market, news office, and the city hall--and consider the same scene photographed 30 years later, then 40 years later. 
  • "Wish You Were Here " --Arkansas Postcard Past 1900-1925 (Steven Hanley and Ray Hanley, University of Arkansas Press, 1997)--How about an interesting view of a raised crosswalk on the unpaved street of a town square in 1910? Need to describe an early hospital or school? How about a wooden-hulled riverboat accident scene?
  • Life in Arkansas: The First Hundred Years (State DAR Society, 1985)--a painless way to view the evolution of a state, from parades to ferryboat travel, making sorghum to thrashing rice, stagecoaches to ox wagons, high school basketball to teachers' associations...the whole spectrum of an evolving society in haunting black and white photographs that will suck you into their vortex of "who and why".
Illustrated books from any part of the country are a valuable resource when you write historically. Getting lost in the pictures as you study them brings to mind ideas that might just be the clincher for that book contract. For more in-detail information, try things like:
  • Vinegar Pie and Chicken Bread: A Woman's Diary of Life in the Rural South 1890-91 (edited by Margaret Jones Bosterli, University of Arkansas Press, 1982)--weather and washing, sewing and sickness, recipes and relationships--it's all there. 
  • The Seed of Sally Good'n: A Back Family of Arkansas 1833-1953 (Dr. Ruth Polk Patterson, granddaughter of a man born to a slave mother and her white owner, University Press of Kentucky, 1985). Photographs put faces on the individuals who struggled and succeeded in the post-war South. What was daily life like for them? What were relations between black and white in this tenuous world? 
Visit the 976 section of your public library soon. You'll be surprised what you'll turn up and how it will translate into charismatic characters living their lives in authentic settings.

Monday, January 9, 2012

History or Political Correctness?

Let me state up-front that I'm not a fan of PC--rather, I believe in mutual courtesy and respect between all human beings. That said, an article in the local paper caught my eye this morning:


Here is a link to the article in another paper I found online. Credit for the article goes to the author Mary Foster of the Associated Press. I'm glad to see the information getting a public forum. 

History is made up of facts which should be checked and rechecked closely for verification. We've all seen errors in books and articles--and we've seen writers insert their own political slant into history. It's a slippery slope. Several people quoted in this article seem to allude to a feeling that southern Civil War museums are viewed by many as inherently racist and that the displays and information provided should be more diverse.

I'm not opposed to as much information as I can get--on every facet of the war which threatened to end this country as it was established after the American Revolution. There will always be differing views on the real reason it was fought, the motivation behind the atrocities on both sides, and what it did or did not accomplish. 

Expanding exhibits to include information on everything and everyone involved in this great conflict can only be a good thing. But, I repeat, it's a slippery slope  As Joe Friday used to say in Dragnet, "Just the facts, ma'am." Historians can go too far and basically reinterpret history until it is unrecognizable. Each time I view a documentary or read a (non-ficition) book, I get a new look at old ideas. It's food for thought. Tunnel vision is dangerous--the big picture is what counts. 

I have an M.A. in history, so when I write books with a historical/vintage setting, I work hard to get the facts right. Maybe no one will notice an error, but then again, maybe they will. I'll know it's there. Obviously, an author's feelings are projected onto her characters; if said characters are believable, okay, but one has to be careful.

I remember my aunt calling the books of one of my favorite authors when I was growing up "too sweety-sweet". That's how she saw them. I see many things today as "too darned PC". (And btw, I'm a southern girl, Texas born and bred, but I'm probably as critical of the South's responsibility for the conflict as of the North's responsibility for it.)

Joe Friday had the right idea--"Just the facts, ma'am."


Here's an additional resource for any of you out there who write about the Civil War era--a terrific 3-disc documentary "Civil Warriors" from National Geographic.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What's in a name?

      Do you enjoy naming your characters? Do you have names that you can't wait to use? Do you like to make up names not commonly used? Do you think about how your characters' names define them?
     Of course, you think about whether or not the name is appropriate for the time period in which your story is set...don't you? Recently, I ran across some names in the obituary column of my hometown paper (Note: the obituary column is like Facebook for Seniors!) and was surprised to see that the person's age didn't fit the name. Frankly, I never heard of a 'Misty' born in the early 20th century!
     Where do you find names for your characters? Besides obituaries, I mean, if you're not a senior citizen like moi. Consider the following sources:
     Consider these things when mapping your characters for a story:
  • era (we've already covered that)
  • cross gender names (can be confusing)
  • pronunciation (you want your reader to feel comfortable with the protagonist)
  • sound and image (what do names like 'Summer' and 'April' or 'Jerusha' convey about the character?)
  • rhythm (ever hear someone say, 'Boy, that's a mouthful!' ?
     How do you name your characters?