O Christmas Tree

I haven’t decorated a Christmas tree in years.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy decorating it once the lights were strung, except for hanging the tinsel. I hated that part of decorating, but I loved the effect, so I painstakingly strung each shiny foil string on the branches, one by one. I once asked the kids to do it, and found the half the tinsel in lumps on the branches and the rest on the floor. I think they stood across the room from the tree and lobbed fistfulls at it.

But, after the kids married, and especially after the grandkids came along, we usually were away for the holidays. It didn’t seem reasonable to put up a tree no one would see, at least not the floor-to-ceiling one. I still wanted some kind of tree, though, so I bought a three-foot one to put on a table top. It came with lights that changed colors due to a small motor in the base.

Then two years ago, I couldn’t find the base. I searched and searched, but if it is in the house anywhere, it is hidden so well not even Sherlock Holmes could find it. So I tossed the useless top in the trash and bought another tree. Alas, I could not find one that made the transition from green to blue to red, so settled for plain white lights. I added some small ornaments and put it in the window.

Last year, I couldn’t find  the tree and after another fruitless search, I trudged off the the local Walmart and bought yet a third miniature tree. This one has different colored lights on it, although they stay the same color. I don’t know why they stopped making the kind that change, or maybe they do and our local store just doesn’t stock it. Anyway, I added ornaments and put it in the window.  After the holidays, I put the whole thing in a giant trash bag and stuffed it on the top shelf of the closet in the guest bedroom, thinking I wouldn’t have to decorate it again.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the bag, took the tree out, and discovered all the ornaments had fallen off during the year. How had that happened when no one had touched it? My life is filled with mystery.

Then, while searching for a jacket I hadn’t worn since last winter, I found the other tree stuck in the corner, behind the one long coat I own. I suppose next I will be plundering in a closet and will find the long-lost motor to the tree I threw away.

So now I have one tree in the den and and the other in the living room.  And best of all, l don’t have to buy one this year.

I still miss the big tree, though. Maybe next year…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What rules do you follow?

Here are four things writers should do:

  • Read outside your genre
  • Study your craft
  • Write every day
  • Set goals

There are many more you can add, but these are what popped into my head. Do I do them?

Surely, you jest (makes frowny face).

But I do read every day, and I enjoy many different genres: historical, biography, science fiction, fantasy (no, they are not the same), thrillers , and mystery.  I read books from the library and books on my Kindle app. I read magazines and newspapers and cereal boxes and directions on detergent bottles. I am one of those people who panic when there isn’t a book in the house I haven’t read and the library is closed.

I subscribe to Writer’s Digest and study the articles, even if they don’t apply to me. Last weekend, I attended a workshop on writing narrative poetry with former NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti. I don’t intend to write a narrative poem, but there was so much more I learned that I can use.

Do I write every day? I know this is the rule that sets professionals apart from wannabes, but truthfully, it just isn’t possible. Life gets in the way. This week, I had meetings six of seven days. But I did manage to write most of those days. I believe setting up a goal to write every single day without fail is  setting yourself up to fail. Sometimes we need a breather.

Conversely, writing every day is like going to church. You miss one Sunday, then another, and pretty soon you aren’t going at all.

You see where I am heading with this.

Goals are good, though. I made my goal of writing 30 pages before our next writers’ club meeting. Then, since we don’t meet in December, I vowed I would finish my first draft before the January 26 meeting.

I think I will make it. I am near enough the end that I am eager to get it all put together. Today I wrote a crucial scene. It needs tweaking, but the bones are there.

I also did something I have never done before. I am a straight-line writer. I start at point A and end at point Z. But the ending of the story was so strong in my head that I went bravely forward and wrote it down before the impetus and excitement faded. Yes, excitement. I feel exhilarated when I can literally feel the story come alive.

So I guess thing number five would be, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.

Happy Thanksgiving all, and don’t forget to skip that second helping of candied yams to leave room for the pumpkin pie.

 

 

 

 

 

When yours is the book under discussion

I belong to two book clubs. They are polar opposites.

One is serious about discussion and books are chosen by recommendation — that is, if someone has read a book and think it worthy of discussion, it goes on the list. Not all of us like every book. I have struggled through some, and been blown away by others. It’s a way of getting us out of our comfort zone to consider genres we might not read otherwise. This group meets at different homes for a pot-luck lunch and  little wine may occasionally be served.

All right, wine is always served. And, we can get a little bawdy. We laugh a lot. Sometimes if a member is going through a hard time, we call an emergency meeting and offer sympathy, tea, and hugs.

The other is African-American and accepted me as a member after inviting me to talk about one of my books. This group is spiritually-based and even if we don’t get around to talking about the assigned book, I come home feeling uplifted and at peace. They share amazing stories themselves — we don’t need a book to get the conversation started! We meet for breakfast at a restaurant and while people may stare and wonder what this disparate group of women is doing at that back table, it doesn’t stop us from laughing and interrupting each other, everyone as eager to be heard as to listen.

This week, the latter group decided to read my latest novel, “Morven.” I was a little apprehensive, since it is set in the South on a large plantation. I wrote about slavery and its evils, and how the protagonist’s life is changed when she sees a slave being abused. How would these women, descendants of slaves, see this book? Was I being presumptuous?

They discussed the first few chapters, and I was amazed at their insight. They saw things in the characters that I hadn’t seen. They searched for motivation. Was the main character really guilty of murder by failure to act? The question became: What would you have done? Then they began to defend their positions.

As I listened, I realized how powerful a story can be. I explained why I wrote a certain passage, admitted I wish I had not written some things, and explained things that I perhaps had not made clear in the narrative.

I did not feel that I was on trial. Loving friends can point out flaws without making you weep with shame. It’s called constructive criticism.

Although they had nothing but praise for “Morven,” because of them, my next book will be better because I will keep their comments in mind.

Two groups, different as night and day, but alike in their love of books.

And their love for each other.

 

 

I

 

 

No NaNoWriMo — this year

So it is here: National Novel Writing Month. And for the upteenth time in as many years, I am not joining in.

I have the same, well-worn excuse: I am already in the middle of writing a novel and refuse to drop it to start another, no matter how tempting the challenge. Maybe some year I will be in between novels and will welcome the chance to jump-start a new one. But not this year.

Still, writers often need such a challenge to keep them on course. I admit I have been goofing off this past week. The weather has been too beautiful to ignore, and it is pruning season.

Image result for drawing a name from a hat

At our writers’ club, we also have a little challenge going on. Nothing as ambitious as churning out an entire novel in a month. We set a monthly goal and at the next meeting are forced to admit, not unlike Weight Watchers, if we have met our goal or not. It could be completing a poem you have worked on for weeks (or years), a page count on that ongoing short story, bravely submitting a piece to a magazine or contest, or whatever.

Winners occasionally net the lump sum of $7 or $8, because we only put a quarter in the pot. But as you have surmised, it isn’t the monetary goal that is — well, the goal — but the satisfaction of knowing you accomplished something you set out to do.

That, and the applause and congratulations from fellow members.

So at the last meeting I set a goal to move on with my manuscript. I tried to pick a number of pages that would be doable, but not too easy. It’s not a challenge if you set a goal you know you can reach without much effort. On the other hand, setting a goal too high results in burnout and giving up, with the subsequent feelings of failure and inadequacy.

Achieving my goal doesn’t mean I will win. My name will be put in a pot along with all the other members, whether they reached their goal or not, and someone will draw out a slip of paper and read a name. If that person didn’t make their goal, or is absent, the pot is moved on to another month, with the addition of several more quarters. Exciting times! We may never get to Las Vegas, but we do know how to gamble … on ourselves.

I guess we could call our challenge JuWriMoMo.*

So I need to get busy, ignore the enticing outdoors or the dusty furniture or the laundry piled up and start writing.

*Just Write More Month

 

 

 

Pratfalls and pitfalls

For the past two Friday mornings, I have joined a group of like-minded crafters in a local coffee shop to work on pine needle baskets. I had the idea of extending my skill by adding beads to my basket. I thought I had it all figured out.

When I finished the round, I discovered that my beads were on in inside of the basket, not the outside where they belonged.

My companions assured me that they thought it looked fine. I did not agree.

When I got home, I ripped out three rounds of weaving. This was not easy, as I had to pick out every loop. The whole, knotty business reminded me of the Gordian Knot. I wished I could just cut all the threads, but I was just mad enough and determined enough that I sought to save the thread and pine needles and re-use them. (That’s a Great Depression lesson learned at my mother’s knee.)

I then re-did the whole thing. This time the pesky beads stayed where I meant them to stay.

Gordian Knot

Why I’m telling you this is because I ran across the same thing in my story. For reasons I can’t (or won’t) disclose, one of my characters has to have her baby due in July. I counted on my fingers, the time-honored way to check the length of a pregnancy, and discovered that she would in fact be due sometime in March. That wouldn’t work.

I back-tracked and moved the scene where she announces her pregnancy further long in the book. This had the domino effect of making every previous and subsequent scene out of kilter.

I was so upset when I discovered this that I quit and spent way too much time tracking long-dead relatives on ancestry.com.

So now I have to cut each scene, place it in a separate file, and then replace it in the correct order in my timeline.

Even the thought makes my head ache. But it has to be done before I can move forward.

Sorta like my basket. I could ignore the mistake, continue on, and make an even worse muddle, or grit my teeth and do the unraveling called for.

This is what it’s like to be a writer. No one in their right mind would choose such a frustrating career. Frankly, it chooses them.

On the other hand, you don’t see a lot of people deciding to make baskets of pine needles and raffia, either.

 

 

Squirrels, Mark Twain, and pelisses

Well, that was fast!

One day I am sweating like a sumo wrestler just by walking to the mailbox, and the next I am rummaging through the closet for my sweater.

One thing about the cooler weather, I don’t have as much yard work to do. The grass  isn’t growing as fast, and the hedges and shrubs have slowed down in their efforts to add new little green leaves. So I have had time to get back to my book.

I feel pretty good about my writing this week. I’ve added pages and I can see where I am heading. I’ve gone over the last scene in the book so often that I’m now eager to get there.

The abrupt change in the weather reminded me of something, though. No, not Twain’s comment that everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. (Fact check: It might not be Twain who said it, but Charles Dudley Warner, who was an editor at the Hartford Courant in the late 1800s. There, now we’ve both learned something new.)

Image result for pelisse

A reader asked me what a pelisse was. It’s outerwear, essentially a long cape with sleeves.

I  try to be cognizant of the passage of time in my stories, noting the passing of one season and the advent of another by describing the weather as sit affects the protagonist. She might be glad for her straw bonnet on a hot day, or the the warmth of her wool pelisse on a cold one.  Candles must be brought out in the long, dark evenings while a rooster’s crow might wake her early on a summer morning.

If a story takes place in a short period of time, such as a few months or a year, it’s pretty easy. It’s more difficult if it spans a decade or more, which happens in the first two books of my historical series. In “Riverbend” and “Morven,” I solved it by jumping ahead a few years, hoping my readers would catch on without my explaining, “Now, 10 years have passed …”

I must get my present protagonist from seventeen to her mid-twenties without dragging the story out by describing each birthday. I don’t want to make a sudden leap, but had the idea of showing the passage of time by the dates on her correspondence. Whether that will work or not remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, I have a little success to report. I have complained about the squirrels eating the bird feed, no matter where I place the feeders. When one dragged a songbird feeder from the deck to where I found it in the yard, empty, I had had enough. I rigged a line from the persimmon tree to the post that holds the sun-flower feeder (that particular feeder is squirrel-proof, by the way) and hung my finch and chickadee feeders from it. It’s too high for the squirrels to jump up, and the line is too thin for them to crawl along it.

I thought I had the last laugh when I saw a squirrel attempt to reach the finch feeder. He made it, but the tube is glass, and he slid down it like a fireman on a pole, and fell to the ground. Several times.

Or has he simply figured out a way to spill the seed to the ground where he can eat it as his leisure?

You decide.

 

 

 

 

 

Tall mountains, big fears

It is a truth universally acknowledged that once you have faced something you feared and conquered it, you wonder why you were afraid in the first place.

I put off going to California to visit my middle son, Scott, and his wife, Dana, for three years. I considered driving there, or taking a train. Anything but flying.

But flying made the most sense.

It’s not that I haven’t flown before, and it isn’t that I’ve not flown by myself.  I took the three boys, the youngest not even potty-trained yet, from Pittsburgh to Tampa without a qualm. In the months after 9-11, I flew from Pittsburgh to Greenville, N.C., with a stopover in Detroit. Didn’t ruffle a hair.

I’ve flown from Atlanta to Frankfurt and to Rome, and from Charlotte to London. Nothing to it. The caveat is, my overseas flights were with a group and I didn’t have to worry. Just follow the crowd.

So why was I hesitant to fly solo to Los Angeles?

The answer in one word: the airport.

This was the view out my window that greeted me every morning  when I finally got to California.

I didn’t think I could navigate the huge, confusing airports without someone to guide me.

When Scott said I could skip LAX and fly into Ontario, a much smaller airport, I began to think it might be possible. I didn’t know that in trying to book a flight to Ontario, CA, the site read the “CA” as Canada and routed me to Toronto, Ontario. After three attempts, I finally typed in ONTARIO, CALIFORNIA. Bingo. And, Scott suggested I should leave from Atlanta so I could park my car at my oldest son Rob’s house for the week and not have to fight Charlotte traffic.

I drove to Atlanta and Rob drove me to the airport and came inside to show me how to use the check-in kiosk. Things had changed, and I grumbled, cranky old lady style, that I had tucked away enough cash to pay the baggage fee and hadn’t planned on charging it to my card. I was pointed toward my gate and arrived just in time to board.

I won’t dwell on the flight itself. If you’ve flown, you know all about it. If you haven’t, I don’t want to spoil your illusions.

All through the trip I feared I would, indeed, land in Canada. Needless to say, I was spellbound when I stepped out  of the terminal in Ontario, California, and had my first glimpse of the mountains.  Scott met me and we set off for their home which was very, very high up the mountain. The road was a succession of hair-pin curves, and when I dared look out the window to see the valley below — far below — my remarks were reduced to “Oh! How high are we? Has anyone ever driven off? How high are we?” 

I took this from the car window. It’s hard to tell, but that valley is waaaay down there.

We were very high, indeed. More than a mile above the Pacific Ocean.

 

I had a lovely visit, and then it was time to go home. I dreaded arriving in Atlanta and navigating the airport. Something told me it would be different from my previous experience.

I got off the plane and dutifully called Rob. Then I followed the crowd: moving sidewalk, check. Mile-high (or so it seemed) escalator, check. All the while following signs that pointed to Baggage Claim. At one point I couldn’t figure out what the next  step was, then realized I was supposed to get on the plane train, which looked suspiciously like an underground transit to me. Well, I had learned how to ride that  in London, so I got aboard when the doors opened and grabbed a bar as, just like London, no seats were available.

The next stop was Baggage Claim. I looked at a board to see what carousel my flight’s bags were  on, found it, and immediately saw my little green bag. I grabbed it, went outside, and there was Rob. We had timed it perfectly.

“How was your trip?” he asked as we pulled away.

“Wonderful!” I replied, and I meant it. I may have been preening just a little. Maybe all my fears were unfounded, but I had overcome them anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

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