Stories, please

Like everyone else, I am staying home. Or trying to. There was a doctor appointment, and a trip to the car dealership to check on an engine warning light.  And I had to pick up a prescription.

But mostly, staying home. Connecting with others via telephone, Facebook, texting, and Zoom.

Doing a lot of cross stitch, basket weaving, and Solitaire. Watching TV. Reading.

Today I went outside and raked up sweet gum balls,and dragged limbs into a pile to be taken to the curb. Me against nature. I’m not sure who is winning.

A few days ago I wondered what I could do to help others. I know parents have their children at home, and possibly both parents are trying to work from home as well as make sure their children keep up with their lessons. But what about when said children are bored and whining that they have nothing to do?

The Swineherd and his magic kettle

 

I remembered that I used to read stories to my children and grandchildren. There doesn’t seem to be any substitute for curling up on Mom’s or Granny’s lap and listening to a story.

I remembered the stories I loved to listen to or read when I was a child. And so I dug out the faded and tattered copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales. No copyright issues here, Andersen’s most loved fairy tale, The Mermaid, was first published in 1837.

So I set up my iPad on a table on the deck and began to read.

So far I have read six of his stories, some short, some long. Most have a somewhat happy ending. Andersen was not known for happy endings. Remember The Little Match girl or The Steadfast Tin Soldier?

Some are Christian allegories and filled with bloodshed. I even wondered about the soldier in The Tinderbox who murdered his benefactress with nary a glimmer of guilt. Or The Red Shoes, where poor Karen cuts off her own legs in order to stop dancing?

Then I realized something. What these children are living through today has nothing on Andersen’s most frightening tales.

I will continue to read, and leave it to the parents’ discretion as to whether their children can take a 200-year-old story of witches and goblins and kidnapping and whatever else the storyteller had in mind.

I read them all when I was a child, and it didn’t harm me. The world is a dangerous and often wicked place.

Our children know that.

You can find me on YouTube by typing in “Meemaw Sandy reading.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Family secrets

Secrets and lies. Every family has them. Events are omitted purposefully from the family history, questionable relatives are white-washed, stories are half-told or not at all.

This makes for great reading. We want to know why and who and how. We cheer the plucky heroine as she unravels the mysteries of the past to explain the present.

I’ve been playing with writing our family history. I say playing because, like the tablecloth I’ve been cross-stitching for 50 years or more, I pick it up and put it down again, leaving it for months at a time. I could tell the story with no trouble. It’s what I put in and what I leave out that makes me give up and go to something else.

There are amusing anecdotes that come easily. But how do I write the sometimes horrendous events that also make our family who we are? Does posterity really want to know? Do they need to know? Or should some secrets stay buried until they are pushed so deep that no one remembers?

It’s easier when you are writing about fictitious characters. They can be as angelic or evil as our imaginations can paint them. Their stories hurt no one except other fictitious characters. And as the author of their imaginary lives, we can heal them with our words.

But in real life, the truth can hurt. It changes how we feel about not just our forebears, but about ourselves. If they are not who we thought they were, then we are not who we thought we were.

So I write a few pages and then come to a stopping point when I realize I don’t really want to include some things. I wrestle with the necessity for telling the whole truth or not telling the story at all. I hope some day I will be brave enough to include the ugly as well as the noble.

It’s much easier to write fiction.

 

 

We’ve come a long way, baby

Among a box of goodies I received for Mother’s Day was a book: The McGraw Hill Author’s Book, copyright 1955.  I think it was intended as a curiosity from my daughter-in-law, who is an antique/collectibles dealer and who comes across curious items in her search for treasures at flea markets, yard and garage sales, and estate sales.

Just reading the “Foreword to the Author,” I realized how far we’ve come since the mid-2oth century. We are all familiar with galley proofs and making changes. To us, this is minor. Back then, revisions were (and I quote) something “we devoutly hope to avoid, for after-thought is time-consuming and very costly.” Evidently it took the work of 4-5 “highly skilled and commensurately paid” printers to make changes, even small ones.

I guess all those printers are retired, or as the British say, redundant, now. I hope they got commensurate retirement benefits.

The book was written so the hopeful writers submitting their work to McGraw-Hill would know exactly what was expected of them. Clean copy is not a new thing, every publisher hopes to see it. But back then it was more of a necessity than a courtesy.

The first chapter, Preparing the Manuscript, tells us that the submitted copy will be handled by as many as 25-30 people, and so must be printed on good quality paper, and a black noneradciable ribbon should be used on the typewriter–a ribbon that should be replaced often to ensure a good impression.

This brought me back to the days when I had to write term papers and that stricken moment when I realized I’d made a mistake, and the work had to be painstakingly re-typed on a fresh sheet of paper.

Then Betty Nesmith Graham invented a typewriter correction fluid she first called “Mistake Out” in 1956. The name was later changed to Liquid Paper. I know I am not the only one who kept a bottle handy on my desk…and said a daily prayer of thanks to our benefactor.

The chapter goes on to admonish the writer not to use mimeographed, ditto, or photostatic copy “which cannot be corrected with ink.”

I haven’t seen a mimeograph machine in ages. We had one in the school office and I recall running off copies of  worksheets for my elementary age students. Purple goo that got all over your clothes and hands…ugh.  And ink? Can you even buy ink in a bottle any more? I still have–somewhere–a pen with a refillable cartridge, but I’m pretty sure it’s an antique.

Then the writer is advised to be sure and make a carbon copy of her work. Oh yes, I remember trying to line up the carbon paper with my white typing paper, only to have to it go awry when I rolled it in the cartridge. And again, the purple ink on my fingers, ink I had to be sure not to smudge on the paper. Carbon paper, like the typewriter ribbon, had to be replaced often. I suppose someone somewhere still uses it.  I simply hit hit “copy” and “save” on my computer. No mess, no waste.

I’m eager to continue my walk down memory lane, reading this book chock-full of antiquated advice. It makes me realize how much easier we have it today. I’m sure some of the  advice still holds. Some things never change.

But thank goodness the mechanics have.

 

 

 

A sneak peek

I thought you might enjoy a little preview of my  novel, Riverbend. It is scheduled for release May 1 from Amazon.  I hope you enjoy it, and–hopefully–are intrigued.

Chapter One

In spite of her shaking legs, Damaris Tilghman stood her ground as the High Sheriff approached. She longed to wipe her sweaty palms on her skirt, but dared not make any movement that he could interpret as fear—or guilt.

The sly smirk on his lips belied the coldness of his gaze as he tipped his hat. “Sale’s nearly over, Miss Tighlman. Sorry the auctioneer couldn’t manage to get a better price for Twin Oaks. It was a grand plantation in its time.” He didn’t sound at all sorry.

“Enough to cover my father’s debts, I hope.”

“Well, Miss, as to that I have to say it didn’t. He owed a great deal of money to a great many people.” The man shook his head in mock sympathy. “Gambling’s a terrible vice—”

“And suicide is a sin. Yet neither of my father’s faults seems to have kept people from coming here and gawking, poking through our possessions….” Her voice began to tremble and she stopped, her heart beating so loudly she was afraid he would hear it in the sudden silence.

“Possessions.” The amiable leer disappeared. “Seems some of your family’s possessions didn’t turn up as part of the sale. Would you know anything about that, Miss Tilghman?”

“I have no idea what you mean.” She jutted out her chin.

“I think you do.” He looked down at the small wooden trunk sitting at her feet. “Maybe I ought to take a look at what you packed to take with you.”

“How dare you suggest such a thing! I won’t have you pawing through my shifts and stockings!”

“I can get a woman to look. If you claim all you have are shifts and stockings, you won’t mind me making certain.” He turned as a boy ran up, calling in urgency. “Sheriff! They’s a fight behind the barn. You need to come quick—one of ’ems got a knife!”

Cursing under his breath, the sheriff lumbered after the boy.

Damaris’s shoulders sagged in relief. She had been given time to think of something—but what? She willed back tears of frustration. If anything, the past few years had taught her the futility of weeping.

She watched the buyers as they lugged their purchases to the line of wagons parked along the winding drive, horses and mules stomping in impatience to begin the journey home. Home! She no longer had a home. Because of her father’s weakness, her dream of marriage and children had shattered like a fine crystal goblet dropped on a tile floor. Her past was irrevocably gone and her future a mystery.

She jerked her thoughts back to her present dilemma. The fight would soon be over. She needed to get away before the sheriff returned.

One of the buyers, better dressed than most in a black suit and embroidered waistcoat, saw her and nodded politely. “Miss Tilghman.”

She recognized him as the man who had successfully bid on the last of her father’s wine cellar. A friend of her father’s—when he still had friends. What was his name? Price? Polk? No, Pope. “Mr. Pope.” She smiled and held out a hand. “Well met, sir. I wonder if you could do me a favor?”

“Of course. If I can be of any assistance…”

“The sheriff promised he will take me to the inn in Wadesborough where I can purchase a seat on the coach in the morning. I fear he will not leave here until the last nail is sold, and I really cannot abide watching this auction any longer.” It wasn’t hard to add a quaver to her voice. “To see my life dismantled, piece by piece….”

“I understand. I would be happy to take you, if you are not embarrassed at traveling without a chaperone.”

Chaperone! I need to get away from here now. She brushed away an imaginary tear and offered a tremulous smile. “I don’t think there would be any gossip. After all, you are a dear friend of Papa’s.”

An eyebrow raised at this, but he lifted her trunk without commenting on her claim. “My wagon is this way.”

He stowed the trunk in the back of his light wagon, assisted her to the seat, and then climbed aboard and sat beside her. He had just picked up the reins when a meaty hand grasped the edge of the wooden plank that served as a seat. “Miss Tilghman. I believe we have some unfinished business.”

Pope stared down, his hands tense on the reins. “Miss Tilghman is my care. What do you want with her?”

“I need to look at her trunk.” The sheriff winked as if they were conspirators. “Just in case.”

“In case of what?” Pope’s tone was as cold as his dark eyes.

The sheriff dropped his hand and stepped back. His voice was curt as he said, “I believe she may be holding on to some jewelry that should go in the sale.”

Damaris stiffened at the accusation. “All Mama’s jewels went to pay Papa’s gambling debts years ago.”

“So you say. I still—”

“Are you doubting the lady’s word?” There was something dangerous in Pope’s voice. He raised the whip. “How dare you, sir!”

“Now, Mr. Pope, no need to get all riled up. I believe her, yes, I do. Good day, Miss Tilghman and good fortune to you.” He tipped his hat fawningly.

Pope jerked the reins and the horse started down the dirt path that led to the road.

“Thank you,” Damaris managed to mumble through a dry throat.

“My pleasure.” Pope glanced sideways at her. “If you did get away with something out of the forced sale, I congratulate you.”

She answered quickly. “He made certain I didn’t. He even sold my personal slave, Pearlie, who’s been with me since I was a child. Everything I held dear is lost.”

If she expected sympathy, Pope failed to offer it. “What will you do now?” he asked briskly.

“I have been offered a position as a companion to a distant relative of my mother’s. She lives in New Bern.” The letter she had received from the lady had been neither courteous nor welcoming, but hinted strongly of duty and God’s will.

“Being at some old lady’s beck and call doesn’t sound like much of a life for a young girl.”

“I am not young, and I have no other choice. I wasn’t raised to earn my living. My parents fully expected me to marry well.” She took a deep breath.  “The problem is, no one has proposed marriage since I celebrated my seventeenth birthday. I should have accepted the offer then. Instead, I have spent the past six years nursing Mama until her death, and then trying to keep house for Papa while he.…”

“Gambled it from under your feet and then shot himself.”

“You put it quite succinctly.”

He shrugged and chirped to the horse, which pricked its ears and began to trot.

As they jolted along the rutted path, Damaris struggled to remember what she knew of Matthew Pope. He owned Riverbend, one of the biggest cotton plantations in North Carolina. He was reputed to be wealthy. No wonder the sheriff toadied to him. He wouldn’t want to offend one of the most powerful men in Anson County. But none of that answered the question of why he had played along with her pretense of acquaintance or took her part against the sheriff.

As she studied him under her lashes, she decided he was not bad looking if you liked dark hair and eyes. She noted a ridged scar over one eyebrow and a bump on the bridge of his nose where it had been broken, spoiling an otherwise perfect profile. His teeth were good for a man of middle years, very white and straight. Not a common asset among her acquaintances.

The horse stopped at a crossroad and she looked at him in question.

“Everyone has choices, Miss Tilghman,” he said as if minutes and miles hadn’t passed since her declaration. He pointed with his whip. “This road leads to Wadesborough and this one to Cheraw.”

“I am aware of that.”

“I am offering you a choice.” He shifted in his seat until he could meet her eyes. “I have a proposition.”

She blinked under the intensity of his gaze. “What is it?”

“Two propositions, actually. One, I need a housekeeper. From what you told me, I gather you have some experience.” He waited for her response.

“Yes,” she said guardedly. “And the other?”

“What? Oh. The other is, I need a wife.”

A touch of amusement lightened her countenance. “And am I to choose which of these delightful occupations I might wish to pursue?”

“I had thought them to be one and the same.”

Damaris intended to reply with the disdain he deserved, but then she thought again of spending the rest of her days caring for elderly invalids.

“I need an answer, Miss Tilghman.”

“Is it to be a marriage in name only? I mean, you mentioned housekeeper first, but I could not accept that, a spinster residing in an unmarried man’s home. But if we were married, gossip would be put at rest.”

“I suppose I should have mentioned the third thing. I am also in need of an heir.”

Her pale cheeks blazed scarlet. She blinked once, slowly.

He waited.

She shut her eyes and drew a breath. “I accept, Mr. Pope.”

He nodded and guided the horse on the road that led to South Carolina, where a marriage license could be obtained in one day. “I see you are very like your father, Miss Tilghman.”

“Why do you say that, Mr. Pope?”

“You are a gambler, too.”

 

Juggling the genres

Last week I was at the beach, enjoying sunny warm afternoons, splashing through the waves in my bare feet.

This week, I dug out my sweatshirts and warm coat, going outside only when necessary.

Yes, this is North Carolina weather. Rather than complaining, however, I used the time to hunker down at my computer. The stories were written, but  it was time for the next step.

The novel I polished at the beach during the writers retreat needed one last-minute check. Then I had to write the synopsis, which I just finished.

I wrote a synopsis before I started, as I may have noted before. This was my guide, my lifeline that made certain I didn’t stray too far afield. But it isn’t the same synopsis that one submits to a publisher. This time, I had to be more careful of my grammar and punctuation while still, hopefully, retaining my original enthusiasm for the project. This I will send off, fingers crossed.

My other novel? I decided to self-publish, so I spent some hours working on the cover design, then formatting the Word document. Luckily, by this time around I know the pitfalls and most of it went smoothly, with only a few corrections to be made. I’m fine-tuning it now, having looked at the first proof copy and deciding the margins were too wide and the indents too deep. Saved about 50 pages there, which allows me to lower the price.

They are wildly different books. One is a contemporary romance and the other is historical fiction with a bit of mystery and of course, a love interest because what is any story without some romance?

It’s kind of an experiment. Which will fare better? Should I stick with light stories, meant for a few hours’ entertainment, or should I continue to tackle the research a historical requires?

If you’ve been following my path, I’ve done women’s fiction, romance, paranormal, and now historical. That may not be the best way to build a firm platform, but I’m not trying to make a name or career for myself. I write what I love to write, and if the genre’s differ from one book to the next, it’s because it expresses my interests at the time.

If I were younger, it’d be different. I’d choose a genre and stay with it, book after (yawn) book. Most authors do well this way. We know what to expect from them and aren’t disappointed.

But I’m not young and so I give myself permission to write what I please. If the book sells, I’m delighted. If not, I write another. So far, the reviews have been positive, so I must be doing something right.

My contention is, if someone picks up one of my books they have only to turn it over and read the blurb to decide if they want to buy it (or borrow it from the library). Who knows, they may decide to try a new story, even if it wasn’t what they expected, and like it.

I love to read and at any one time I may have a stack of books consisting of a biography, a historical romance, an action drama, and a mystery.

So if I like reading different genres, it follows that I like writing them.

I’m not sure what comes next. I have a few ideas …

We’ll see where they lead me.

 

 

 

 

What is your brand?

I have put a lot of miles on the Malibu this summer. Jim would be complaining about the mileage and wear and tear, but I think secretly he would be proud of me for getting out and not sitting home grieving.

I’ve been to Pennsylvania, Georgia, and most recently to Kentucky. I have to say Kentucky has a lot going for it: good roads, lovely scenery, and horse farms. Lots of horse farms.

In Louisville, there are horses everywhere. Not  real, live horses. The city boasts horse statues of every kind. Some are painted in bright colors. They really stand out on a sidewalk. (Click here to see some pictures of the painted horses.)

So from statues, billboards, signs, and even actual horses grazing peacefully in the countryside, you can’t forget for a minute that you are in horse country.

Kentucky knows how to brand herself.

I understand that is important for a writer as well. An author needs to create a brand that is instantly recognizable. What do you think when you see the names John Patterson, Mary Kay Andrews, Elin Hilderbrand?

If you answered fast-paced action mystery, humorous southern romance, and summer beach reads, you know what branding is.

Sounds easy, but it isn’t. Authors work hard to create a brand. Their books are aimed at a specific segment of the reading public. If Patterson suddenly published a sweet cozy mystery instead of his usual drama-packed story, readers would be as outraged as if they had opened a carton of rocky road ice cream and found a quart of strawberry swirl instead.

He might even lose a few fans.

I didn’t know this when I started writing. I wrote women’s fiction, and then switched to a kind of hybrid paranormal. I should have written the latter under a pen name, I suppose, but it seemed like too much effort to create a new Facebook author page and website. And, everyone knows that J.D. Robb is really Nora Roberts, so changing the name doesn’t fool anyone. Except that readers know what to expect when they open her books–under either pen name.

That’s what branding does. The reader sees a familiar name on a book cover and instantly knows what kind of story lies within. Yes, the cover illustration and the blurb on the back help, but the author’s name gives instant recognition.

I haven’t reached that pinnacle where people recognize my name and realize at once what kind of stories I write. But I hope I am slowly, steadily, building my brand.

Book by book.

 

 

 

 

The next step

Believe it or not, there is something more difficult than sitting down and writing a book.

The writing is the fun part: creating characters, plots, and scenes in your head and translating them to paper a Word document.

No, the hard part is the query letter. This is the letter that MUST grab an agent/editor/publisher’s interest and prompt them to ask for a full ms. Just as the first paragraph in your book should grab the reader’s attention and get them to read on, the first paragraph of the query letter should state your heroine’s goal, how she means to attain it, and what stands in her way, and make them beg for more.

I’ve written query letters before. Some have gotten the desired results; others have done nada, no matter how much I tweak them. So I know how important this is. I probably struggle over this as much or more than I struggle over the opening paragraphs of my book.

Still, it is doable. What I really dread, even more than the query letter, is the synopsis. Some publishers or agents want a few paragraphs with a general idea of what the book is about. Others want as many as 5 or more pages of

Jim, me, and our three sons, taken before Jim passed away.

Jim, me, and our three sons, taken before Jim passed away.

detailed, chapter-by-chapter descriptions. I can’t blame them, they haven’t time to read the whole book. They just want to know if it is worth their time to ask for it.

I’m no novice at this game, but each time I go through the same agonies. I suppose that is natural. I  had three babies and the second and third deliveries were not easier than the first!

But the results were worth it. I have three fine sons and three grandchildren I love dearly.

So here goes the query letter. Wish me luck that the results are equally worth the effort!

 

Enter the dog (or cat)

I had a book rejected by a publisher once because the main character wasn’t “likable.” Well, to be honest, she wasn’t. My goal was to have her become more likable over the course of the story, when her inner “niceness” came out.

I learned a lesson then that was reinforced during a workshop when the speaker talked about the need to have your reader connect with (like) the main character. One way to do this, he said, was to give your hero a pet, preferably a dog. People who have dogs, apparently, are instantly likable.

I never thought to add animals to a book. No pets show up in my previously published works. The book I am writing now does have a dog, but it is a minor character’s pet and not mentioned very often. I do have the heroine trust the hero early on because she notes he is gentle with his horse. My editor says she is not “strong,” i.e., someone the reader will cheer for during her struggles and be happy for when she finally achieves her goal.

I am wondering if I shouldn’t give her a pet. Maybe a little dog that annoys everyone else but she loves it dearly. Hmmm.

I can’t think why I haven’t had animals in any of my stories before. I’ve always had both cats and dogs, and usually more than

Bubbie, the shelter cat

Bubbie, the shelter cat

one of each. Right now I have two rescue cats. One just showed up, so I guess she adopted me. The other I got at the shelter where I volunteer one morning a week. It’s dirty work, dumping out litter boxes and washing them, cleaning the cages, and seeing that the cats and kittens have fresh food and water. But I feel that I am doing a little something to make their lives better while they wait to find new homes (the preferred outlook). This week I took home a cat that had been in the shelter too long and was slated to be euthanized. I’m fostering her until I can get her to her forever home (and yes, I found an adoptive family). My two aren’t happy with the newcomer, but I tell them it’s only temporary.

So, since animals are such a big part of my life, I think I might be wise to make them a part of my heroine’s life, too. Maybe being a pet owner hasn’t made me more likable, but I have been assured it will work for my fictional characters.

(The photo  is of my foster cat. She is so sweet. I hate to give her up except I know she will have a wonderful new family to love her.)

 

 

 

When the end is the beginning

Yesterday, I left my romance writers’ meeting and hoped I’d get back home in time for the drop-in celebrating my dear friends’ 50th wedding anniversary.

As I drove, I thought about the many romances that end with the couple still dewy-eyed and flush with first love. Maybe it’s a chaste kiss, or maybe it takes the reader into a more intimate setting, but they all follow that age-old plot: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. And once she’s got, the story is over, we close the covers (or power off the e-reader) with a satisfied sigh.

Not that I don’t enjoy such stories, but at my age, I know they don’t stop there. The story continues after the glass slipper is rightfully restored, the kiss awakens the sleeper, and the beauty realizes the beast isn’t so ugly after all.

There is something to be said for the romance that continues, regardless of bumps in the road, for fifty years. Cinderella might be wearing orthopedic shoes and her Prince might need a hearing aid. Snow White may have needed all fifty years to come to terms with her Prince’s yearning for an apple pie. And the Beast may wonder if his Beauty is ever going get her nose out of a book and cook a pot roast the way he likes it.

What of our sassy heroines and brawny heroes? Are their stories any less interesting as they get older, the wrinkles and gray hair appear, and their steps begin to falter?

It’s the pursuit and capture that grabs our imaginations. To young readers, everything after that goes downhill.

Older readers know better. The same pursuit and capture replay themselves over and over. The story never ends with the first, heated kiss.

It only begins.

Getting my money’s worth: Part Two

Today I am posting some more tidbits of wisdom garnered at the Carolinas Writers Conference. Chris Roerden is an editor and this was her second appearance at the annual conference. Chris knows more about editing than most people I know (including editors) and is happy to share her expertise. Some of what she told us was what we all learn when we start writing, but here are a few things I didn’t know.

  • Attitude: The main character should have an attitude–that is, her world view, how she approaches her environment.
  • We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell.” The character’s emotions are critically important. Don’t say, “She cried.” Show the reader how she cried. (If I showed the reader how I cried, I’d have to say “and snot came out of her nose.” Because I don’t cry pretty.) Showing is judgmental on the part of the author.
  • Read the book you love twice, first for enjoyment and second to figure out how the author did it.

Author Michelle Buckman also made her second appearance at the conference. When we find someone who is good, we tend to ask them back. Here’s what I took away from her workshop:

  • Show the protagonist’s characteristics in the opening page. The opening pages create a sympathetic character or situation.
  • There has to be a reason for everything the character does. Things in the past affect the now and project into the future. (Here is where we can sow little clues in the beginning of the book that bear fruition when we come to the climax.)
  • History is backstory and is necessary for depth but it doesn’t go up front. Your characters must have a history, but scatter it throughout the story. Avoid the dreaded “information dump.”
  • Tie your characters together as closely as possible, but not in the way readers expect. Make the unlikely one step up. Surprise the reader to keep her interest.
  • Create sympathetic characters and intriguing situations or a situation that  relates to the reader’s life.
  • Add enough layers to the character and plot  so both are intriguing.
  • What is her greatest fear? Why? What caused it? Have her face this fear.
  • Who does he love most? Who does he hate? Reverse roles for a new dimension.
  • Who is blocking the main character from achieving her goal? Who is her mentor?
  • Have the lead character do something he would never do. Do the same thing with a secondary character.
  • Find something about your secondary character that ties him to the main character.

You’ve probably heard all this before, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. I’ve been taking a long, hard look at my WIP to see if I’ve created as many layers in my characters as I could.

Because there is nothing worse than a shallow, cardboard cut-out hero or heroine.

 

 

Making the pitch

Having missed several RWA chapter meetings, I decided to attend in February. First, I missed being around my writer friends. Just being in proximity with other writers gets me fired up to work on my novel (which has been sadly ignored of late). Second, the program was to be given by an agent, and she was taking pitches.

I have a book I have been querying for longer than I want to admit. I like the story, and I think readers will, too. I just need to bring it to someone’s attention. So I practiced my pitch all the way to Charlotte, which is roughly one and a half hours driving time.

The morning program was interesting as she talked about what agents look for and what turns them off. Then she said something that really caught my attention.

She described a book she loved, but had trouble getting to editors because the main male character is a preacher and the female is a piano player for the choir. And yet, it wasn’t an inspirational novel. It took her two years to find it a home.

My heart sank. My lead characters are a minister and organist, and the book is not an inspirational. It is about two people who want a second chance at love, but are torn apart by family obligations and expectations. They do get a HEA, but religion and/or redemption have nothing to do with it.

After the business meeting and lunch, I bravely took my turn at the table to pitch my book. The moment I said “minister” she shook her head.

“I know,” I said. I didn’t even try to explain that my book was different–mainly because I hadn’t read the other one yet. (I did read it later and it was funny and sassy and nothing at all like my book).

My five minutes up, I was about to thank her and leave when she asked if I was working on something else. I quickly mentioned the historical I am sooo close to finishing and she said she loved historicals, especially that time period, and to send a query when I finished it.

So–I drove home with mixed feelings.

The lesson here is this: Don’t ever be discouraged by a rejection. You may not get a face-to-face explanation of why it didn’t pass the test, but chances are that the agent or editor has already published a book very similar to yours. It has nothing to do with your writing style or the book’s qualities. I once got a rejection from an editor who didn’t like first-person stories. No other reason. So don’t give up. Acceptance depends on so many variables. It does get discouraging, but there is always another chance.

You just have to be ready to grab it when it comes.

And since I did love the book-that-got-there-first, it is “The Happy Hour Choir” by Sally Kilpatrick (Kensington).

 

 

 

What we do when not writing

Writers never stop writing. I really believe that. When not at a keyboard, or holding a notepad and pen, we are still writing in our heads.

I have been going over my plot, my characters, my settings, while emptying the dishwasher or making the bed. Pretty soon I will sit down and transfer all these thoughts to physical words.

Soon.

I have a friend who took a new job and mourns the fact that she hasn’t time to write because of the long training hours and because she gets home too tired to think, let alone plot.

I told her to use this time for gathering.

Yes, gathering. It’s what you do when you sit on a bench at an amusement park while the kids are on a ride. It’s what you do in a restaurant when the couple next to you can’t be ignored; during the long wait at the doctor’s office; standing in line at the post office.

I suggested she take the opportunity to watch her customers. To take note of physical characteristics she might use later, gestures, postures, attitudes, that might fit one of her characters. To remember physical attributes that she can use describing her hero or heroine.

Listen to conversations and make a quick note of a turn of phrase, a colloquialism she might borrow; how what is said doesn’t match the person’s expression. To observe how people react to stress, such as the harried mother or the bored teenager or the young lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other and don’t care who knows it. The couple arguing with tight lips and narrowed eyes who are equally oblivious.

It takes only a minute to jot these observations in a small notebook. It can be done on break, or during lunch.

Then later, when time is more easily accessed, she will have a treasury from which she can gather gems to make her stories sparkle.

I believe the very act of writing her observations down will propel her into finding time to work them into a story. There is always time, we just need to find it, set it aside, make certain we honor it.

Intellectually, I know this. In reality, I haven’t done it as much as I should.

I need to follow my own advice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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