Distractions and how to use them

I “wasted” too much time on ancestry.com this morning. I meant to finish up one line and ended up tracking another … it’s so easy to get ensnared in following the elusive clues, combing through records and family histories. The further back you go, the more things get disoriented — dates don’t match, wives seem interchangeable with mothers, children have the same names, especially if one died young and a subsequent child was given the deceased sibling’s name.

I haven’t found out anything terribly interesting. There are a lot of Ladies and Sir Knights and Barons, but I don’t put too much stock in it. I believe other ancestor-hunters love titles and appropriate them whenever expedient. I have one ancestor who is

said to have been godfather to William Shakespeare. I’m going to visit Stratford-upon-Avon in a few weeks and  maybe I will have the opportunity to check that out. And I had a boatload (pun intended) of dissenters who came to America in the Great Migration. A few even came over on the Mayflower. (My Mom would have loved that!) One pastor who left the Church of England was told to immigrate or face prison. He made the wise choice.

So I guess it’s no wonder that my characters in my latest story are searching for their own families. Orphaned at a young  age, Bethann runs off to seek her mother’s family when the one she was adopted into morphs through death and marriage. Sounds easy, but this is in the early 1800’s and there is no ancestry.com to help her. The best she can do is hop on a stagecoach and visit the town mentioned in her mother’s Bible, and begin asking questions.

Henry thinks he has found his family, after discovering that he, too, was adopted. But he is tragically misled and the consequences will be deadly if others learn who he really is before he does.

The theme running through the story is what family is and why it matters. I know people who were adopted and don’t give a fig about finding their birth parents, content with the family they were given. Others sought desperately for answers, trying to fill a need that ate at them until it was satisfied.

I’m not desperate, just curious. I started looking because we don’t know a lot bout my father’s family. The paternal line ends in a few generations, but I researched my grandmother’s side and found a rich history that I might have been unaware of if I’d stayed with the paternal side and gave up after finding the dead end … or “EOL”.

I think I know now why my father tended to preach at us kids. He had it in his DNA on his mother’s side.

 

 

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Progress of sorts

As I said last week, I am participating in a program for Black History Month that recognizes  the contributions of all people regardless of ethnicity toward the cause of equality.

I pulled together a costume that might be worn by a rather fierce mid-19th century abolitionist lady: long skirt, high-necked, long-sleeved pleated blouse, high black boots. I tried on a shawl, but it didn’t look right. Nor could I find a hat that looked right, so I opted to believe the lady was speaking indoors and wouldn’t necessarily be wearing a hat. With totally opposite reasoning, I tried to find a pair of gloves. I did find a pair in the back of one of my dresser drawers. I used to have many women’s gloves, but had donated all but this pretty pair to costumes for our outdoor drama. Alas, these are stained and I have been trying every remedy I can think of to remove the blotches.

Elizabeth B. Chace

The hardest part was my hair. I wear it short, so I parted it in the middle and combed the sides straight back. It makes a severe look, which I thought appropriate. I’m sure my character, Mrs. Chace, was kind to her charges, but I imagine her strong in her beliefs.

We had dress rehearsal and although I’d been practicing my little piece, it flew out of my mind when I realized there would be actual people there. I recovered quickly and spoke my lines with only a few minor lapses.

My friend Beverley and I decided to get a quick supper after rehearsal and went to a local pizzeria in our costumes. We raised nary an eyebrow. I may be getting a local reputation for eccentricity. As Eleanor Roosevelt, Beverley simply looked stylish.

I  haven’t been neglecting my writing. I sent out another query, and have written more pages.  Whether or not they are any good remains to be seen. Here is where I will rely on beta readers.

All this takes time. Time is something you squander when you are young, and try to hang onto when you are old. Alas, it slips through your fingers either way. I am beginning to feel a sense of urgency, which may be why I am sticking to my writing schedule more rigidly than I have previously.

So I am working and having fun in equal parts, which is not to say having fun isn’t work at times (memorizing lines) and working isn’t having fun (looking up from writing to discover an hour has flown by).

The program will be behind me in a few days. Hopefully, I can say the same about this book in a few months!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I get sucked into things

So I was at my monthly book club meeting and some of the members began talking about how there had been no local celebrations of Black History month.  One member had decided to plan an event and asked if me and another member if we wanted to be on the planning committee because she wanted it be be all-inclusive. We said yes because, hey, she’d said the magic word.

So she told us that one of the features of the program would be a “wax museum” where people will dress up as historical figures and pose. When someone touches their hand they will explain who they were and their role in history. Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Abraham Lincoln came quickly to mind.

“You need someone to represent the Underground Railroad,” I ventured.

“Oh, yes, can you find us a character?”

One of the two book clubs I belong to. This was our Christmas meeting: good food, good discussion, good friends! That is me in the back row (standing) second from left.

I allowed that I could and set about researching. I discovered Elizabeth Buffum Chace who, with her husband, operated a station in Fall River, Massachusetts. What caught my fancy was that she gave each slave heading for Canada an envelope addressed to her. When she received it back, post marked Toronto, she knew the person had made it safely to freedom.

I brought this information to the meeting and discovered that I was supposed to impersonate Mrs. Chace!

“No, no,” I protested. “I was just to do the research.”

Silence. Then a disappointed scratch of the pen over my name on the roster.

“So who can we find to play her?”

More silence.

“I’ll do it,” I heard myself say in a meek voice. I am no actress, although I love theater. I”m more likely to be painting scenery or helping with makeup, or doing publicity. But I figured I could write my few lines on the back of an envelope (which would do as a prop) if I got stage fright.

So for the past week I have been trying to put together a costume. Not the easiest thing to do in a small town. I’m hoping the local theater group can help us out. Some years ago I sewed many a costume for an outdoor drama our writer’s club produced, but where they are now, I haven’t a clue.

So, from agreeing to be on a planning committee to actively participating is a slippery slope paved with good intentions.

Wish me luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding balance

I have been writing a little every day. The story is taking shape, although I realize that I don’t like my leading character all that much. She is turning out to be willful, spoiled, and lacking in grace.

In other words, she’s a teenager.

I raised three sons, but never a daughter, so I’m having to pull out some of my own youthful actions and thoughts to build on. Looking back, I wasn’t all that pleasant to live with, either. Luckily, my parents had patience. Lots and lots of patience.

Writers form a kind of attachment to their characters that other people can’t understand. (I wish there was a word for “non-writers” such as muggles for non-magic folks. Oh, wait, they’re called readers.)

Anyway, I see Bethann as a work in progress as much as my book is. I’m tossing a lot of problems in her path, but also giving her the intelligence and courage to solve them. She seems to blocking me at very turn, though. She says things I didn’t plan on writing and does things I didn’t foresee. I had thought her relationship with her guardian’s new husband would be a happy one, but Bethann doesn’t see it that way. She resents having a man in her life after living seventeen years with two older women. He laughs too much, takes up too much space in the house, and worse, tries to act as her father.

You can’t really enjoy a book without a cat on your lap

Wouldn’t you rebel, too?

I’m enjoying getting to know this young lady and finding out what she plans to do next. Yes, I had a outline and thought I  knew exactly how the story would take shape. So much for that.

Meanwhile, I’ve gotten involved in more outside activities. I realize that I need to get out of my office once in awhile and talk to real, living breathing people. My book clubs do this for me, and I can’t emphasize enough how these ladies make me laugh and cry and feel part of a community. And I recently joined a service club. Their big fundraiser for the year to raise money for scholarships is the annual soup and sandwich luncheon. So I’ve been helping with that, dumping industrial-size cans of veggies into giant pots. I’ve been amazed at  how organized chaos can be.

So its a balance between a quiet, internal life and an external, sometimes confusing one. I think writers need a little of both. We can be in our own heads so much we wouldn’t know reality if it hit us in the face. On the other hand, we can get so busy with dashing here and there, doing this and that, that there is no time for writing.

Or reading.

Somehow, I always find time to curl up with a good book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What are you reading?

What are you reading? This question was posed in a  comment on an earlier blog, and I promised to respond. As I told her, I’m an eclectic reader — which only means I will read anything, even the back of a cereal box if nothing else is handy.

It’s a tough question, so I went to my bag o’ books that I toted home from my last library visit. Here’s what I found:

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (almost finished)

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison (recommended!)

To Die But Once by Jacqeuline Winspear (yes, I’m a fan of Maisie Dobbs)

That Month in Tuscany by Inglath Cooper

Circe by Madeline Miller

I haven’t read the last two yet, so no comments.

Then there are the two books on my schedule for my book clubs. One club is reading The Book Club by Mary Alice Monroe. I have it on order. The other club is reading See Me by Nicholas Sparks. I may take this one to the beach with me next week.

Speaking of the beach, my favorite beach read authors are Nancy Thayer, Mary Kay Andrews, Dorothea Benton Frank, Mary

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Alice Monroe, Elin Hilderbrand, Barbara Delinsky, Susan Mallery, and Debbie Macomber. I have probably left out a few.

I also love big, sweeping historical novels by Ken Follett, Edward Rutherford, Philippa Gregory, Colleen McCullough, and Diana Gabaldon. Gabaldon is my all-time favorite. History, romance and paranormal all in one. My kind of book. The TV series is the only one I ever felt compelled to buy. I could watch them over and over, and no, it’s not all Jamie.

As for mysteries, give me Anne Perry or Elizabeth George any time. If I see their name on the spine of a book on the library shelf, it’s in my hands immediately.

Of course there are many others. And, I like to try new authors by browsing Book Bub and Ereader News Today. (I like the solid feel of print books, but also the convenience and portability of my Kindle.)

I also read biographies and other non-fiction. My son let me borrow SPQR by Mary Beard. It isn’t a book you read all in once sitting. But I am slowly getting through it.

And where do I put Anne Rice, Anne Lamott, and Pat Conroy? Also favorites.

After The Prince of Tides, I wrote Conroy a gushing letter telling him how much I loved it. I had never written a fan letter before and didn’t expect an answer. But he sent me a postcard from Rome where he and his family were staying while he worked on his second book. It was a picture of the hotel where they were staying and he even marked the window of the room they were staying in. I still have it somewhere.

So that’s what I read. Anything, even the history of ancient Rome, which is interesting enough to keep me reading, but not so interesting that I won’t put it down in favor of something a little (ahem!) sexier.

And, in parting, if you are looking for something to read this summer, hop on over to my place and browse the shelves. You may find something you like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing new under the sun

Every writer likes to think her ideas are unique. We try to come up with plots that are original, or at least a new twist on old ones.

I was reading a book yesterday and the heroine, orphaned and on her way to live with an aunt she barely knows, stops at an inn. She decides to go no farther, but to marry the older, dour innkeeper in order to gain a home of her own.

Well, deja vu all over again. My latest release, Riverbend, has an orphaned heroine who  marries an older dour man in order to escape having to throw herself on the mercies of a distant relative. And both heroines fall in love with their husbands.

There is also a witch who has all the other slaves terrified of her. I have a witch who terrifies all the other slaves.  In the book, the witch is old and ugly, while mine is young and beautiful, so there the similarities diverge.

I haven’t finished the book I am reading to see if it parallels mine in any other ways, but I’ve read enough to realize my idea wasn’t so original after all.

Then I was watching the TV show, The Good Doctor, and in the story, conjoined twins are separated, but one’s heart was working for both her and her twin, unknown to the doctors until they were separated.

Umm … yeah. In my as-yet unpublished book, there is a scene where conjoined twins are in danger because, you guessed it, one’s heart was working for the other unknown to the doctors until they get too far into the operation to stop.

It just goes to prove that there are no plots that haven’t been written over and over again. The trick is to give them a fresh look.  I once had an acquisition editor send me a scathing reply to a query because I used the old “secret baby” plot line. Overdone! She was tired of  this stale and unbelievable story. And yet I read books with this very same, or variation of, the secret baby.  It works for some because they know how to give it that original twist (while I obviously did not).

So, don’t worry if you find yourself reading a book with an uncanny resemblance to your own. Just figure out what they did that was different.

As a footnote, Frenchy is much recovered. So much so that I am having a hard time catching her to give her her twice-daily dose of antibiotic in her ears. And she has gained at least a pound because she is eating like a little gray pig.

 

 

 

 

 

Lesson re-learned

When my first two non-fiction books were published, I was elated. A real publisher had accepted my submissions. It was a small, indie press, but to me it was a first step. Never mind that the company went out of business a few years later and I had to re-publish the books on my own. The experience was invaluable in that I realized I was no longer a wannabe, but a professional writer.

The second lesson I learned was during the editing process. Each book (Angels Unaware and The Lunch Club) elicited the same directive from the editor: Lose the first chapter.

It’s good advice. Many writers, including me, think that everything has to be explained in the first pages. We throw in too much back story, we put in too much detail about the characters and their lives, and we never get to the point of the story until chapter two. It’s not until then that the action begins to gain momentum.

I tried to follow that advice with my next books, published by a different small press. I started out with the problem and the story accelerated from there.

But I must have forgotten with my current work in progress. Like the tablecloth I mentioned in my last post, I kept starting and stopping, knowing something was wrong, but just not getting it. The first chapter limped along like a dog with a sand spur in his paw. Aggravating and painful.

Then one evening the answer came to me. The first chapter is boring because it doesn’t state the problem in the first page. It drones on until about mid-chapter, and then we discover the dilemma the protagonist faces. By then, most readers would have yawned and tossed the book aside.

Yep, I needed to lose that first chapter. So I highlighted and deleted the whole thing  and rewrote the second chapter (now first) so that the reader knows immediately what the heroine faces.

The lesson here is that we continue learning, but sometimes we forget what we learned. That’s why it’s so important to keep reading craft books and magazines, to attend workshops, and to work with a critique group.  I submitted that now-gone first chapter to a critique partner who said succinctly that she wasn’t sure if the protagonist was 13 or 30. I re-read it and realized in an effort to make the heroine young, I had essentially made her a teenager. More cuts and revisions.

But now that I’m aware of the red flags that I’d ignored in my blithe assumption that as a published author I knew what I was doing, I am eager to tackle the story again.

And I’m still eager to learn. On October 28, Joseph Bathanti will lead an intensive short story workshop in Wadesboro. I don’t write short stories very often, but I believe that what I  learn from a master writer can be applied to longer works.

If you live in the Charlotte area, check it out at Carolinas Writers Conference. Maybe I’ll see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

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