Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 - Not a Stellar Year, Actually

Last night I sat down to do my annual year-end review of my reading accomplishments, and the first thing that popped into my head was, "Wow, this was kind of a 'blah' year." I didn't read as much as I did the year before, for one thing, and for another, much of what I read didn't really give me much satisfaction. Having made that cheery assessment, here are my picks for my selected categories.

Best Discoveries - In some ways, this was a non-fiction year for me. I read three non-fiction books (well, ok, I'm not finished with one yet), which is more than usual. Two of those nonfiction books - actually, the first book I read during the year and this last one - are what I am considering to be the best books I just "happened onto" this year: The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs , and The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum.

Saddest Disappointment - The Serpent Never Sleeps by Scott O'Dell. I had such high hopes this was going to be great historical fiction, but honestly, it just felt flat to me.

Favorite Classic - One of the high points of my reading year was going back and re-reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. For years, I've been telling myself it's one of my absolute favorites, but I had a sneaking suspicion that maybe I was falling prey to "books were better in the good ol' days when I was a teen" thinking - but, nope. It really is one of my absolute favorites.

Favorite Love Story - That would have to be The Witch of Blackbird Pond, too. I read a couple of other romantic novels (The Chataine's Guardian by Robin Hardy, and Harper's Bride by Alexis Harrington), but neither one really made my heart go flutter.

Favorite Historical Fiction - Same song, third verse. The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Although...the real winner of this category is actually Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's the only book I read all year that I couldn't put down.

Greatest Reading Accomplishment - I finally read The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnon Rawlings! I don't know why I got so bogged down in it. I also feel that making it all the way through Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott was a real show of perseverance (or stubbornness....).

Biggest Failure - Blood Reaction by D.L. Atha. I'm just a scaredy-cat.

Favorite Re-Read - I bet you're thinking The Witch.... nope, this one was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. I kind of skipped around in it some, but I eventually pieced it all together, so I'm counting it.

Once Is Enough (Books I Probably Won't Ever Read Again) - That could be several on this year's list, but the one that would top the list, I guess, is Page from a Tennessee Journal by Francine Thomas Howard.

Books I Thought Would Be Amazing But Were Just So-So - I really enjoyed The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner, so I expected the sequel, The Silver Blade, would also be a good read. It was all right, but just all right.

Books I Thought Wouldn't Be Much But Were Actually Good Stuff - I was pleasantly surprised by two books this year. First, The Year of Living Biblically had more depth than I had expected (I thought it would be a collection of cheap jokes about religion), and secondly, I actually enjoyed The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (although I had to take a HUGE dose of suspension of disbelief with it).

Books I Plan to Read - I didn't read ANY of the books I planned to read in 2011. Total failure. I'm not even making a list this year. I have a box of books I gave myself for Christmas (ha) that I hope I will get to read in the coming year, but who knows? I just hope to have a better year with my reading, both in terms of doing more of it, and in terms of reading more books that will excite and inspire me. I need it.

Friday, December 30, 2011

I Do Love a Good Academic Study

One of the scenes in my book takes place at a Christmas party, and I always felt a little unsure that I had portrayed the scene in historically correct fashion. I knew from a basic Google search that Christmas as we know it didn't really start to take shape until the 1820s, which is the time frame for my story. However, those changes started in the big northeastern cities, so I'm sure it would have taken awhile for them to filter down to the South (specifically Nashville). So...what was Christmas like in the South in 1823?

To help me in my research, I found a book called The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum. I found what I needed for my story relatively quickly (and I'm not going to go into what that was in this post - you'll just have to wait and read the book someday, ha ha), but I became fascinated by the book and decided to read the whole thing.

What I find intriguing about this book is that it shows how an institution we take so much for granted -- Christmas -- was once completely different, and in fact, was created to be the way it is now, for specific purposes to benefit the higher classes in society. Nissenbaum makes a pretty convincing argument for his thesis, that Christmas was overhauled to go from the "season of misrule" to being a home-centered, child-centered, commercial holiday to reduce the threat of harm to property and the annoyance of the ways the lower classes celebrated the season. Most of what we think of as time-honored Christmas traditions apparently came about as part of this campaign.

I love to think about how different our world was only 200 years ago. At the turn of the 19th century, people were apparently quite rowdy! Celebrations of Christmas had for centuries been more like our Halloween, in which groups of people (usually young men, apparently, and specifically, servants or working class people) came to the homes of the landowners and demanded (through wassail songs) food and drink, with a veiled threat if none was forthcoming. ("Now bring us a figgy pudding," anyone?) Nissenbaum recounts some examples of how the tradition carried over into the "New Country." As the economics of American society changed and people were no longer "attached" to specific landowners, Christmas wassailing evolved into a tradition of bands of young, lower-class men roaming the streets, drinking and making as much noise as possible. Of course, "respectable" middle-class/upper-class people like Clement Clark Moore and John Pintard saw this as a threat, and thus began the move to re-invent Christmas.

I won't detail everything I've learned from Nissenbaum's book, but let me just say every night as I'm reading I have an "ah-ha!" moment. One of the most entertaining has to do with the reason my husband and I (both of us teachers) are getting a Christmas break. Apparently, young scholars (male, of course, since girls didn't go to school) had a practice of "barring out" the schoolmaster during the Christmas season - yes, they literally nailed themselves into the schoolroom and kept the schoolmaster out so they could have a period of several days in which they partied in the schoolhouse. Nissenbaum doesn't say that's why we have Christmas vacations from school, but it doesn't take a huge leap of speculation to say someone, somewhere, decided "Why fight it? Let's just suspend school for a couple of weeks during the Christmas season." 

I love that kind of stuff!

Monday, December 26, 2011

My Best Christmas Gifts

(Has it really been nearly a month since my last post? December has whizzed past in a blur of papers to grade, gifts to find and wrap, concerts and parties to attend, food to cook - finally, Christmas is over and I have time to sit and catch my breath.)

I guess it's not easy to find gifts for me. When asked what I wanted for Christmas, all I could think of that I really wanted was a little stainless steel pot to warm the milk for my faux coffee (oh, and a gift card to get books for my Kindle, ha ha). But my husband didn't think that would be quite enough. I did get my little  saucepan, but he also gave me two other items that are tops on my list of "favorite gifts" - an 8G flash drive and a laptop fan/chiller. Why do I think these are such great gifts? Because it means he's encouraging me to keep writing.

When I opened the flash drive, he said, "You can use it for just your books - don't put anything else on it, just your books." What's great about that is that at this point, I only have ONE book to put on it. There is a substantial bit of a first draft for another, and ideas and bits and pieces of others, but I've never really organized them. By giving me this flash drive, he's telling me to get professional about this writing thing.

He couldn't know this, of course, but his gift came at the perfect time. I've decided to forget about querying my "non-commercial" novel at this point. Instead, I'm going to focus on writing more, and when I have three or four that are ready to go, I'm going to publish them myself. Ann Turnbull sent me a link to a blog by writer Catherine Czerkawska, which had a post entitled, "Some Thoughts About Literary Agents" that was quite enlightening and encouraging (as were the comments to the post). As one of the commenters (Linda Gillard) said,
What I learned from that experience (which threw me out into the professional wilderness for years) was that the book was/is my property. It had its own identity and integrity and it still had that, even if no one wanted to publish it (and no one did.)
It's a little frightening to think of walking out on the tightrope without the security of someone to "validate" the integrity of my story, but it's also exciting and empowering. Now I can get back to why I like to write in the first place - discovering the characters, playing with plot, doing the research - instead of worrying those first 10 pages and the query letter to death in hopes they'll stand out of the slushpile. I'm going to go back and fix the first scene of my finished novel so it suits me. I had tickered with it, trying to follow the advice of agent blogs to make it "grab" readers right away, and I felt that I was trying to cram a foot into a pointy-toed pump when it really belonged in a moccasin. No more of that. I will trust myself. As another commenter said,
I say, the hell with fear. Let's just take a deep breath and dive in. Let's create the change we want to see.
A good way to end one year, and start another, don't you think?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

This Is So Cool!

Apparently, my daughter has been studying the US Civil War at school this quarter. Tonight the school put on a "literacy night" in which all the activities related to some aspect of the war. We looked at dioramas and she tried "shooting" with a rubber band, and we ate real hardtack one of the classes had baked. The evening wrapped up with the girls' choir singing a medley of Civil War-era songs. Overall, it was a pleasant evening.

The cool part came on the way home, though. Somehow, she got started telling me about a writing assignment she had (or was it maybe just something she's doing on her own?). She is writing a story about Belle Boyd, the Confederate spy. The story is action-packed. My daughter detailed what she has written up to now (with dialogue and everything), and then she outlined where she plans to take the story. She talked about trying to be historically accurate, and we decided handcuffs wouldn't work since Belle is going to use a soldier's sword to cut her bonds and be able to escape.

It was fun to listen to her. I already think she has a real talent for creating voice and mood (she takes great pride in her ability to write description). Tonight, though, she seemed to have a better concept of plot than ever before. And her Belle Boyd character is really a go-getter! : )

Maybe she'll be published some day....

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Quick Study in Creating Empathy

I was thinking some more about my post of the other day, and I wondered if perhaps I wasn't over-reacting a bit in thinking I was so disappointed by the ending of Page from a Tennessee Journal. I decided to do some examination of the area that seemed to be the major problem: my lack of investment in the characters' emotional lives. To do this, I thought it would be most appropriate to compare a scene from Page to a scene in a book with characters I did care about. I chose Ann Turnbull's Alice in Love and War, comparing Alice Newcombe and Page's Eula Mae McNaughton. There is a scene in each book in which each woman suspects that the man she loves and has devoted herself to may be less than faithful. Of course, it's not a perfect comparison; Eula Mae is the wife who is being wronged, while Alice is the "other woman." But I thought it would be as close as anything I could find, and I want to be fair.

Warning: This is going to be a LONG post because I need to quote some passages from the books to make the comparison.

Friday, November 18, 2011

I Feel Ripped Off

Reading is an act of investment. The reader puts his/her time and mental/emotional resources into a story, hoping in the end to get something - insight into life, historical knowledge, emotional satisfaction, maybe just simple entertainment and escape. When the payoff doesn't seem worth the investment, the result is disappointment. Trust me--it happened to me tonight. I finished Page from a Tennessee Journal by Francine Thomas Howard and my immediate reaction was, "Really?? I spent all those evenings reading this book and putting up with its flaws, and THAT'S how the story ends????"

(There will be multiple spoilers in this discussion, so if you don't want to know them, don't read any further.)

First, a quick summary. The story is set in Tennessee in 1913, when white farmers "hired" black sharecroppers to raise and harvest the tobacco crop. The story is told from the viewpoints of four characters -- Annalaura Welles and her husband, John (the sharecroppers), and Alex McNaughton (the farmer) and his wife, Eula May. When the story begins, John Welles has, by all appearances, abandoned Annalaura and their four children (he's actually gone to Nashville to try to earn enough money to buy their own land so they can get out of the sharecropping system). Annalaura is having a difficult time feeding the family, and she doesn't know how she and the children (all under the age of 12) are going to get in the tobacco crop. One day when Alex McNaughton is making his rounds to check on the sharecroppers, he sees Annalaura with her skirt hiked up as she works in the field, and he is overcome with lust for her. Eventually, she agrees to become his mistress in exchange for food (and, as it turns out, other items like shoes and toys) for her children. Annalaura quickly becomes pregnant, and near the end of her pregnancy, her husband John suddenly returns, setting off a crisis. John is determined to kill Alex, Alex is determined to either run John out of town or kill him, Annalaura delivers the baby prematurely, and it is too white to pass as the child of a black man. Alex, who is delighted to have a baby, gets Annalaura to promise to move in to his house as a hired girl, but when John comes to take her and his family away from Tennessee, she goes with him instead on a train headed to Chicago. In the last chapter of the book, John gives her a choice -- she can go to Chicago, where chances are pretty good that Alex can find her, or the family can get off the train in a town before they get to Chicago and start over. He will forgive her infidelity and raise Alex's baby as his own.  He goes back to his seat to allow her to make her decision.  And here's how the book ends:
Her hand began a slow slide down the page. A raised place in the paper stopped her. She eased her eyes open and stared down at the letters on the smoothed-out sheet [which is the train schedule]. Her answer had lain there all along. The pain in her heart eased. Choose, said John. Choose me, Alex had said. But she had a choice neither man had given her. Annalaura stroked Lottie's arm and settled into sleep, her mind at peace. All of her tomorrows belonged in only one set of hands -- her own.
SO WHAT DID SHE DECIDE? Is she going to Chicago? Is she getting off the train early? Is she going to accept John back in her life or is she going to hope Alex comes for her? she going to dump both men and start over on her own? I can't tell. I don't think I'm too dense to get it.  Or am I? Do you get it? If you do, please fill me in.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I Can Handle the Truth! (or can I?)

Last week, I entered a query contest sponsored by a literary agent, mainly because she promised to respond to every query with her honest reaction (hence the name of the contest and of this blog post). I thought it would be a good opportunity to get some feedback, especially since she promised to respond to them all (which is quite rare, in my experience with querying). So today I got her response, and she said she would pass on my book. I can't say I was surprised, and I wasn't upset. Actually, I was rather encouraged, because her reason for rejecting my query didn't have anything to do with the writing.

But I do become discouraged when I think about what was her reason. Here it is in her own words:

I'm not sure how commercial a historical with a western feel will be for YA.

In other words, she doesn't think my story would sell enough copies that publishers would think it is worth the financial investment to publish it. If publishers are going to sell historical, it's probably going to be about royalty (think Tudors) or some high-profile historical event (like the Salem witch trials). She's not saying my book about early pioneers wouldn't sell at all, just that it wouldn't make enough money. So she's not going to waste her time trying to pitch it to editors (and getting no money for her effort) when she could be pitching another paranormal series of some kind for teens, which would be more likely to earn her 15 percent cut. Can't blame her for that, and I'm not bitter about it (really).

I'm not bitter, but I'm saddened a bit, as a reader as much as a writer. There's a piece of advice for writers that I see quoted frequently that says something to the effect of "write the book you would like to read. If you like it, there will be someone else who does." So that's what I've done - I wrote exactly the kind of thing I love to read. And now I hear from an agent that the kind of story I love to read isn't "commercial" enough, which means there will be less and less of it in the future.

With the end of the year coming up, I was thinking the other day about my year-end review of the books I've read in 2011. It struck me that there haven't been that many I've truly enjoyed. Let's see, off the top of my head I can think of three that I really got caught up in - The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. Some of the others (including the one I'm reading right now, unfortunately) have been a real struggle to get through. I'm probably not going to make any friends here, but several of those I've struggled with (including the one I'm reading right now) have been self-published books. The problems I've come across are often things about the writing style that could have been taken care of with a good, tough editor - like the "sun-streaked hair" mentioned dozens of times in the romance novel I read last summer, or the sort of weird obsession with eye position in the book I'm currently reading (I'll talk about that another time). But self-published work usually doesn't get a pass through a good, tough editor. It's just too expensive to hire a freelance editor when you're probably going to barely make back enough to cover your basic costs (really, it is quite expensive - I've looked).

I guess my point is, if mainstream publishers aren't going to take a chance on historical fiction that falls outside of certain narrow parameters because it is too "niche," does that mean I'm going to be stuck reading work that is two or three drafts away from polished? That doesn't make me look forward to my future reading, to be perfectly honest. It also discourages me even more when I think that teens won't have choices to read good historical fiction. It's sort of like shopping for clothes when you are a "woman"; do women older than me really like those pantsuits with the big, gaudy, beaded flowers on the top, or do they buy them just because that's all that's available in their size? Do the majority of teens really want only vampire stories, or is that what they buy because it's what is in the bookstore? I don't know.

I guess I can comfort myself by remembering Ann Turnbull's next book in the Quaker series is supposed to be coming out next spring (I hope that's right), Nancy Dane has the last book in her Civil War series set to come out in 2012, and I haven't yet read the sequel to Chains. Those are things to look forward to. And I suppose I should quit being so picky and critical about everything I read. (But that sounds like settling.....)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NaSSMo for Me!

Today marks the beginning of National Novel-Writing Month, in which people will attempt to write a 50,000-word novel. Because of my day job, I never really think seriously about trying, although every November 1, I rather longingly read through the posts of friends who are giving it a go. This year, though, I decided I am actually going to try to completely write something in this month - my chapter for the university's self-study report.

To me, this is an undertaking as massive as a 50,000-word novel, mainly because it's not going to be nearly as fun as getting to create characters and plot. Another intimidating factor is the sheer amount of research that has to go into creating this document - some of which I've been doing, some of which I am depending on other people to do. This chapter has to collate and, more importantly, evaluate where the university stands in terms of its support of the "acquisition, discovery, and application of knowledge."

Ugh. But you know what? I'd really (1000x) prefer to ruin this month by writing this report than be stuck doing it during my Christmas break.  So.....NaSSMo, here I go! Tonight, I will review my outline and see if there is at least one small section I can get started on without my research notes here at hand.

Maybe I should offer myself an incentive for getting the draft finished by Nov. 30.  Any ideas?

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Halloween Treat

You are probably expecting something chocolate or something pumpkin, not what I ended up making for supper tonight. It was the ultimate of comfort food - Chicken a la King.

This is the result of a recipe "train of thought." It started when I pulled a bag of pumpkin out of the freezer over the weekend and began looking for a recipe to make some kind of muffin or coffee cake I could have with my faux coffee (I found a REALLY good one, btw). In the same magazine (actually on the same page), I found a recipe for potato scones, and the description said the scones would be good "with creamed dishes," which led me to remember I had once seen the recipe for Chicken a la King in my old Betty Crocker cookbook and thought, "I ought to make that sometime." It was good. The whole family approved. And it's really easy, which is definitely a plus.

But the real star of the evening was those potato scones. I know, sounds weird. The recipe calls for one cup of leftover mashed potatoes. I just happened to have one cup of leftover mashed potatoes in the refrigerator which I needed to use up before they started growing fuzzy green spots.

Again, the recipe was an easy one, actually no harder than making biscuits. And they were so good! They were light and yet had body. They were moist, not dry like biscuits. They made a perfect base for the Chicken a la King, and yet I believe they will also be quite tasty in the morning with a dab of homemade strawberry jam. Yum...that will make a nice side for the faux coffee...

Friday, October 28, 2011

It's Not You, It's Me

I read something not long ago that suggested writers should read something outside their preferred genre once in a while, as a tool to help hone their eye for techniques such as characterization and plot development. That advice came at a time when I was open to hearing it, for one of my husband's former students (D.L. Atha) had written a novel, and although the novel is in a genre (horror/paranormal) that is totally not my thing, I wanted to support her. So I bought the novel, Blood Reaction, for my Kindle and intended to pick it up as soon as I finished Ivanhoe.

The story is about a woman who battles a vampire to save her life and the life of her daughter. I have to admit, I really felt some apprehension when I thought about reading it. For one thing, the reviews I saw said the vampire in Atha's book is a departure from the current mold of vampires and harks back to the evil roots of the creatures. For another, Atha is a doctor, and the promotional materials also pointed out that she used her knowledge of the body and medicine to create the protagonist's way to overcome the vampire. A bit squeamish, I am.  A few years ago, I quit reading Allen Eckert's The Frontiersmen--even though I'm really into that genre and time period--when I got to the part describing the torture the Indians inflicted on their captives. The little bit I read of that description still bothers me, as does a student speech I heard YEARS ago about various means of torture people have used throughout history.

Not only am I squeamish, I also have quite an active imagination and am rather easily spooked. Yes, I'm one of those people who checks behind the shower curtain if I come home and find I've accidentally left the door unlocked. Heck, I got spooked the other night just listening to my son tell about the movie Insidious. My friends in college took great advantage of this, including the time I (because of social pressure) went to see Poltergeist with a group of friends. My roommate Beth hid under the bunk beds after we got back and grabbed my ankle as I walked past--let's just say it's a good thing I was returning from the bathroom, not on my way to the bathroom!

So I started Blood Reaction last night. Although I have a three-chapter rule (I give a book three chapters to capture me before I give up on it), I think I'm going to make an exception this time. The book starts with Annalice, the protagonist, preparing to spend a week totally alone in her big, old, two-story house in the middle of nowhere, eight miles down a one-lane country road. Her daughter has gone to spend the week with Annalice's mother, and Annalice takes advantage of her alone time to go for a horse ride in the woods. But she loses track of time, and it gets dark before she gets back home. And she can't shake the feeling someone is watching her....Then when she is finally inside and "safe," she hears thumps upstairs. No one is there, but one window is unlocked....

Shivers!!! I kept telling myself not to let my mind go too deeply into it because I really didn't want to start thinking about Annalice's situation when I woke up at 2:00 a.m. So, while I do want to be supportive of Atha's book, I just don't want to have her scary, evil vampire roaming around in the cocktail party going on in my brain (see this post to understand that analogy).  Maybe someone reading this blog is braver than I am, and maybe that someone will give the book a read. I'll put a link to the Amazon page below. If you are one of those people who like to be scared (and apparently there are plenty of you, given the earnings of horror movies!), here's your chance to discover a new author. To help you decide, here are a couple of reviews:

A review from Fabulosity Nouveau
Review by Bunnycates

As for me, I think I'll find something nice and definitely non-scary to read - maybe it's time to revisit Winnie-the-Pooh! : )

Amazon page for Blood Reaction (Kindle version)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

May I Have a Word with You, Sir Walter Scott?

Dear Sir Walter Scott,

For the past several months I've been reading your Robin Hood/Richard the Lion-Hearted adventure, Ivanhoe. I read it when I was in high school and had positive memories, so since it was a free classic for Kindle, I thought I'd check it out again. It was still a fun adventure story, but I have a few points of contention to discuss with you. 

First, for a book named Ivanhoe, the character of Ivanhoe certainly wasn't in the story very much. I first noticed this when he was injured in the tournament at Ashby. There was the dramatic moment in which he fainted from his wounds at Rowena's feet, and then.....he disappeared for a great many chapters. The same thing happened again later, when the castle at Torquilstone was captured and burned. Ivanhoe was rescued by the Black Knight, and then.....he disappeared again for several chapters. This was disappointing to me, because I liked Ivanhoe (just as you wanted me to). He had a very interesting conflict - he has (in the past) turned his back on his Saxon heritage to fight with King Richard and now he's back. Will he be reconciled to his father? Then there is also the love triangle with Ivanhoe, Rowena, and Rebecca. Will Ivanhoe marry his long-time but forbidden love interest Rowena, or will he fall in love with the beautiful, talented, kind, and brave--but most definitely forbidden--Jewess Rebecca? Those are questions packed with dramatic possibility, and while they are answered in the story, they don't get the play they could have, because so much of the story is taken up by the story of Locksley/Robin Hood and by the treachery of Prince John and his coterie of knight conspirators. That's too bad, because Ivanhoe is a very (potentially) appealing character who should have been a much bigger part of this whole story.

Second, you certainly took the long way around in your descriptions of the action at times. Including the lyrics to the death song of Ulrica?  Was that really necessary? There were several times you interrupted the story to give the lyrics of some song a character was singing. OK, I know you were writing in the nineteenth century and there was no such thing as television and the internet, so people needed a different kind of entertainment than we have today. I suppose there was a great deal more patience for such departures from the plot in your day. But I have to confess -- it made me have irritated feelings toward your book by the time Rowena was singing the death song for Athelstane....

But perhaps my biggest point of contention is your total sell-out at the climax of the novel. Brian de Bois-Gilbert was a fascinating character; although he is despicable early on, at some point I found myself actually feeling some sympathy for him. I suppose that happened when he was trying to convince Rebecca to accept him after he had kidnapped her and brought her to Torquilstone. Granted, that's a pretty dastardly thing to do; so why did I end up sort of liking him? (Or does that just make me weird?) When he visited Rebecca after sentence had been pronounced on her, I felt great sympathy for the conflict he found himself in - does he give up ambition and power to save the woman he loves, or does he keep quiet and watch her burn as a witch? Wow, what a struggle! While it appears he's choosing ambition, even at the point of no return, so to speak, he's still battling himself. When he rides up to Rebecca as she's sitting by the stake where they plan to burn her and proposes that she jump on the back of his horse and ride away with him, I found myself almost hoping she would do it.

But then, how does all this great conflict end? (Spoiler alert, if you care) He has a heart attack and dies while he's riding against the still-wounded and weak Ivanhoe, who has come forward to be Rebecca's champion. A heart attack????? Really, that is just too coincidental. It's not even satisfying. I mean, sure, he's dead and Ivanhoe won and Rebecca is vindicated and free, but.....a heart attack? It was just a real letdown.

I'm not sorry I went back and re-read your book, but I must say I'm glad to be finished. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

It's a Keeper

We had our first frost/freeze this week. This time, I took the weatherman's warnings to heart and went out to strip the tomatoes off the only garden plant that survived the difficult summer -- a grape tomato plant that had been an "extra" and went in a large flower pot beside the swimming pool. The plant grew to be HUGE and was covered with tomatoes about the size of my thumb or smaller. Unfortunately, most of those tomatoes were green. I say "unfortunately" because the only things I knew to do with green tomatoes are make relish (which my family just doesn't eat) or fry them (which I've never had success doing). But unwilling to let them go to waste, I picked them all and got two 5-quart buckets full of a mix of ripe, nearly ripe, and green tomatoes.

Then I consulted "The Google" (as my sister calls it) and found a recipe for green tomato soup. Now, allow me a little side story here. We all have those days when we're tired of our jobs and fantasize about what else we might be doing, right? Unlikely as it might seem, my husband and I have a fantasy that we could run a restaurant that specializes in soup. I can see it in my head - we would buy an old house with "character" and fill it with flea market furniture so it has an eclectic atmosphere. The menu would be nothing but soup and the stuff one might like to eat with soup - cornbread, breadsticks, crackers. Maybe very simple sandwiches and cookies. And coffee drinks (although neither of us drinks real coffee - but this is a fantasy, right! Ha ha).  There would be some soups that would be staples of the menu, but one of the attractions of this restaurant would be the "daily special" - some kind of soup that is different. So I'm always on the lookout for recipes I could use in my fantasy soup kitchen someday.

Enough of that. I tried the green tomato soup recipe with a little apprehension as to whether the family would like it - I mean, green tomatoes? Soup?  But it turned out to be excellent! It was also very simple to make. It has ham, a mix of green and red tomatoes, and a jalapeno pepper, and that's about it.  (The red stripes in the picture are skins from the red grape tomatoes - I probably should have peeled them, although they didn't detract from the flavor or texture of the soup, and hey, they add that fiber we all need....) It was just perfect with a big chunk of fresh cornbread crumbled in.  Even my daughter declared the recipe to be a "keeper." So this weekend I'm going to chop and freeze all the additional green tomatoes so we can have another batch (or three) this winter.

Maybe someday you can stop by the fantasy soup kitchen and have yourself a big bowl of hot green tomato soup!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

An Update on Dobby

Here's the scene I found Saturday evening a week ago:

Two complete wash loads of jeans had been pulled off the line, and I knew immediately who was to blame -- Dobby. Fortunately, none of the jeans were damaged; he apparently didn't chew on them, he just pulled them off the line. I guess he couldn't resist the legs that were gently kicking in the breeze.  At least he was appropriately contrite.

Last Saturday, I tried again. I mean, the weather is perfect right now for drying stuff on the clothesline, and why should I have to use the electricity and spend the money to run the jeans through the dryer because of a dog? So I hung out the first load and then went in the house, determined to keep an eye on them and to teach Dobby a lesson if he pulled them down.

I was opening a window to let in the wonderful fresh air when I saw Dobby coming toward the clothesline, and I knew by the look on his face he was getting ready to have some fun. So I yelled at him out the window, in one of those horribly threatening "Mom" voices. Of course, there was nothing I could do - I was in the house and he was outside; if he wanted to jerk the jeans down, he could have done it before I got out there.

But he didn't. He gave me a guilty look, then went off in the other direction. And he hasn't touched anything on the clothesline since. He may be an annoying puppy, but he's not dumb!

By the way, some of you may be wondering why I call this "The Musing Reader," and then talk about nothing but dogs and food instead of books. I am reading, just not what I would prefer to read. I'm on the committee that is preparing the accreditation self-study report for my school, and that means I'm looking at all kinds of annual reports and such.  Bleah.  I'm also teaching News Writing this semester, and wow, what a lot of grading if it's going to be done right.  By the time I get in bed to read, it's either too late or I'm too tired. I am trying to plow through Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I don't mean to imply that Ivanhoe is dull. I'm enjoying it. But it certainly is different to read something in nineteenth-century prose (which has LOTS of telling) than to read the fast-paced prose of the 21st century. I'm about 70% finished, according to my Kindle, and I'm really anxious to move on to a couple of books I've acquired in the past month. But it may take me the rest of the year to get through this one book....

Monday, September 26, 2011

This Dog Story May Not End Well

A few weeks ago, I put up a couple of posts about our good old dog, Tracy, who disappeared and then mysteriously reappeared. At the end of the post telling about her return, I noted that there seemed to be a new dog hanging around that someone must have dumped on us. Well, it was true. We've become the owners of a big, active puppy - willing or not.

Obviously, this dog had been abused, because any time we raised our hand or our voice, he would cower. He also had a really strange mark on his side; it looked like someone had cut or branded an "X" about the size of a dime into his hide. He was so pitiful, he made me think of Dobby the house-elf from Harry Potter, in his dirty pillowcase, so that's what we named him - Dobby.

Dobby quickly got over his fear of abuse. Like his namesake, he has become almost obnoxious in his friendliness (remember, Dobby the house-elf nearly killed Harry several times before actually saving him!). When we get home, Dobby is there waiting, ready to flail us with his bullwhip of a tail. It's gratifying, in a way, to see what a difference a tiny bit of positive attention has made in him.

However....Dobby likes to chew. In the picture above, Dobby is posing with some of his early handiwork - a chair cushion he got from the tree house and absolutely shredded.  Since that time, he has gone on to loftier missions.....

like chewing up one of our daughter's barn boots....

frequently scattering the trash...

and worst of all, TOTALLY annihilating a cardboard box and its contents that had been sitting in the garage for YEARS.

What gets me about Dobby's destruction is that it is so complete. He's like the atomic bomb of dogs. All that's left of the box is small bits approximately 2x3 inches (he did more damage after this picture was taken because we simply didn't have time to clean it up that week; it IS football season, after all). 

I try to remind myself he's a puppy and puppies chew. Tracy was a chewer. She once tore a hole in a quilt hanging on the clothesline, and so far Dobby hasn't touched any of the laundry. (So far.....) But we're older people now, and we were used to a nice, calm, old dog....AARRRGGGGHHHH!

It brings to mind the beginning of Old Yeller, when the dog first shows up and gets in the smokehouse and goes swimming in the drinking water with Little Arliss. Old Yeller turned out to be worth the trouble; I can only hope the same will be true of Dobby -- and that we have the patience to wait for it to happen!

(By the way, PLEASE spay or neuter your pet!!!! This makes the fifth dog we've had dumped on us over the 14 years we've lived in this house. If a person isn't going to be responsible enough to take care of the offspring, he/she ought to be responsible enough to prevent any offspring. It's not fair to stick other people with a responsibility they didn't choose.....)


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Here's a Switch...

In my last post about "Try It Out Tuesday," I said my husband likes just about anything I cook, and that I hadn't yet found something my daughter would eat. Well, tonight turned all that on its head!

I found a recipe for Three Cheese Stuffed Shells in an older Taste of Home magazine. This is the first time I've ever cooked with ricotta cheese, and it was sort of fun to make the filling and stuff the little limp pasta shells. I might have put in too much spaghetti sauce, but I thought it came out looking pretty well:

It was really, really rich! Two shells was almost more than I wanted. That might be one reason the hubby didn't like it - he spooned three shells out to start with. He said he doesn't like the texture of the ricotta.

The kids, however, did clear their plates, and when I asked if this was a recipe to keep, my daughter said, "Well, I don't want to have it every night." But she agreed it would be something we could put in the menu rotation.

The last thing I would say is, don't laugh at my fancy garlic bread! : )

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Case Study in "Feeling"

Agent Mary Kole had an interesting post over at this week in which she talked about a writer's number one objective: To make your reader feel. Her post made me think of a song I'm really liking right now exactly because I think it does such a good job of conveying feelings without hammering us over the head and telling us how the song's persona feels. We have to fill in the gaps - to feel it ourselves.

The song is Nothing by The Script, and I think it is the best song at portraying misery that I've heard in a long time - maybe ever. (Of course, The Script is an Irish band, and I joke that no one knows how to be miserable like the Irish.) (That is a joke - I love you, Irish!) Here's the video for the song:

The gist of the song is that a guy has broken up with his girlfriend (or been dumped, more likely) and his friends decide to "help" him by taking him out for drinks. After one too many, he decides he will call her and say he still loves her, which will solve everything, right? Except...all he hears on the other end of the line is nothing.

Cool enough as a setup for a song. But since I am excessively high in need for cognition (that's a joke for my Persuasion Theory students, should any of them be happening to read this), I couldn't leave it at that.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Sense of Intimidation

After finishing the final draft of Book One (which is called Dancing in the Checkered Shade, by the way), I was forced by the day job to take a couple of days off. Today I started reading the first draft of the followup, most of which was written while I was on sabbatical from the day job, from January-May 2010. I haven't allowed myself to look at that draft since that time, although I've thought about it quite a bit. As I remembered it, I had done a pretty darn good job, if I do say so myself.

Well....let's say there are some pretty darn good spots mixed in with some pretty mediocre spots. One thing I noticed immediately is the amount of "telling" -- yes! After all my grumping about that writing style on this blog! Fortunately, this is a first draft and I can fix that problem. But, wow, that will take some thinking and some real writing work.  I also never completely finished the story, so I have to write the first draft of the last few chapters.

Overall, I am pleased with it as a beginning. It's really sort of funny - there are so many differences to DitCS (see, I even have an acronym!). For one thing, it was a lengthy struggle to cut DitCS down to a reasonable length; so far, this second book has 15 chapters (of probably 18) and fewer than 50,000 words. That's too short, really. I hope the conversion from "telling" to "showing" will help. I know it's going to be some work, but as one friend put it, it's "lovely" work.

To be honest, there is something else that intimidates me. The same friend asked me, "So what's next for DitCS?" Well....I don't know...... This friend has self-published two books, and she has encouraged me to do the same. That route does have some appeal, although I know I don't have the time to do the promotion needed to give the book a decent chance in the world.  And a little part of me still would like to have an agent think it's good enough to request the full manuscript to read (although the mainstream publishing world has some disadvantages, like a short window of opportunity to "make it," that don't appeal to me at all). I don't know....I don't want to be famous, and I don't want to quit my day job (at least not today!). would be kind of cool to have people reading about these characters and loving them as much as I love Will and Susanna, Kit and Nat, Laura and Almanzo, Hannah and Tice.....

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Sense of Accomplishment

I may have mentioned at some point that I've been writing a novel. : ) This past Saturday morning, my husband and daughter went spelunking with a friend, and my son was sleeping in after a hard week of high school. So I decided to forego the work I brought home from school to spoil myself by a day of working on the edits for my book instead. Well, I became consumed with the task and ended up spending the entire Labor Day weekend editing (I did go to church, do laundry, and keep the family fed!). Last night around 10:00, I finally typed "The End" and closed the file with a sense that the book was finally finished

It's been a long process. I first had the idea for these characters about 25 years ago, but it wasn't until about seven years ago that I actually started writing. My first draft was 169,000 words, which is down to about 92,000 in the final draft. For a while I was stuck in the middle of the story, unable to explain why some of the scenes were included. But after "killing a few babies" (as the agent blogs call it), I feel satisfied that everything finally ties together into a tight plot package. For the first time, there's nothing I think I need to change.

Of course, I've heard authors say there is always something to change, even after the book is published. But at this moment, I feel pretty happy. And excited, because now I'm going to dive right back in to the first draft of the sequel to this book. That will be fun!

A quick update on "Try It Out Tuesday": We didn't try anything new for the main dish tonight because the kids had a practice meet for their cross country teams and weren't going to be home to eat. But I did try a new cookie recipe. It's called Orange Chocolate Drops. The story of how I got this recipe is kind of funny. You may remember I said I was going to let my daughter pick the new dish for this week since she didn't like the dishes the other two weeks. So Thursday evening of last week I mentioned to her that she needed to pick something out so I could get the ingredients needed. On Friday, she went to the school library and checked out a big, old cookbook. Then she and one of her friends looked through the book and picked out four recipes, including Five-Cheese Pasta (FIVE cheeses!!!????) made from scratch, not from a jar. This is a cookbook for REAL cooks. Yikes....

One of the four recipes was this cookie recipe. I'm not sure I like it much. I haven't eaten one of them yet (don't want to eat too close to bedtime), but they are sort of small and there weren't really very many (only 2 1/2 dozen) and they seem like they may be sort of dry. My son did try one, and he announced they are "not poisoned" (family joke - someone always has to try the cookies fresh out of the oven to be sure they are safe for everyone else). I'm not sure if that was an endorsement, ha ha.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Try It Out Tuesday"

This has absolutely nothing to do with reading or with writing, but my family is engaging on a little adventure, and I thought it might be fun to write about it. With school starting up, I made my annual resolution to make a menu since knowing what to cook for supper each night really helps to eliminate stress (and also cuts down on the grocery bill, and cuts down on the amount of food growing fuzzy white or black or green stuff in my refrigerator!). While I was writing out the first menu, I seemed to be planning for the same stuff as always. I was looking through a cookbook for a recipe and saw a picture of a Crab Louis Salad. "That looks good," I thought, then, "Why don't I make that?" And thus was born the idea for "Try It Out Tuesday."

Every Tuesday night this school year, we are going to try some entirely new recipe that we've never eaten before. My hope is to get some things I can add to the menu rotation -- and to experience some interesting new tastes. Last week, I did make the Crab Louis Salad (with imitation crab, of course - this IS Arkansas, after all). The guys in the family liked it really well; I was only so-so about it, but would eat it again. My daughter didn't eat hers at all.

Tonight we tried Irish Tacos, a recipe I found from an app on my phone (All Recipes Dinner Spinner). It was really simple to make, which is nice after a day at school. Basically, the taco is made of corned beef, coleslaw, and a simple yogurt sauce on a warmed tortilla. I used thin-sliced corned beef sandwich meat (I didn't want to invest in the $20 corned beef roast in case we didn't like it), which I cut into thin strips and warmed. The yogurt sauce called for fresh cilantro, which I think I would have liked in the dish, but I no longer have a cilantro plant thanks to the drought this summer. The sauce has a pretty aggressive taste on its own, and I was afraid at first that it would overpower the taco. However, when the three tastes were layered in the taco, they blended together nicely so that nothing was overpowering.

My husband and I both liked the tacos (of course, my husband is very easy to please; he claims it comes from growing up in a family of 12 children, lol). My son pronounced them "too sour"; my daughter took two bites and quit. I'm 0-for-2 with her on "Try It Out" night so far! Maybe I should have her pick next week's recipe....

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Facing the "Ick" Factor

A few months ago, I read an interesting blog post on Frances Hunter's American Heroes Blog that talked about William Clark and his two wives (sequential, not concurrent, by the way). Clark met the girls who became his wives when they were tweens (11 and 14, to be specific) and he was "just past 30," according to the blog. He eventually married the younger of the girls, Julia Hancock, when he was 37 and she was 16. As the blog author said, "...we may recoil with a certain ick factor today...."

The book I just finished had a similar "ick factor."

Monday, August 15, 2011

Oh, The Irony!

One thing I forgot while I was writing my sad little post about our missing dog last night - not all dog stories have sad endings! I should have remembered Lassie Come-Home, since I read (and loved) it when I was a kid. Tracy pulled a Lassie today, reappearing in the yard just as mysteriously as she disappeared. She's limping a little, and she really went after the food in her bowl, but otherwise, she seems absolutely normal.

How I wish she would pull a Martha (from Martha Speaks) so she could fill us in on where she's been! Did she follow our neighbor when he came to fix his fence Friday and get lost, spending the last three days wandering in the bottomlands along the creek? Was she dog-napped and only now managed to escape? Was she abducted by aliens and released after their examination of this earthly life form was complete? Was she being a drama queen who got jealous of our attention to the cats and ran away from home for a couple of days? Did she just need a little time alone? She's not saying, so I guess it will always be a mystery.

The biggest irony is, my daughter reported there's a new dog hanging around the place, and my husband said he saw a strange truck pass very slowly earlier in the evening. Probably someone has dumped an unwanted dog on us (again). So we are going to go from having no dog on the farm to having two (although maybe this dog will take up with one of our neighbors, hope, hope.....).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

If There's a Dog on the Cover, It Ends Sad

The title of this post is "advice" my son has given my daughter before about books. He is, of course, referring to books like Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows that just tear your heart out when the dog dies at the end. Well, this weekend, we had our own sad ending for our faithful dog of 13 years, Tracy.

When a dog gets to be that old, you know you won't have much more time with them. What's weird is that Tracy wasn't sick. She just disappeared Friday. She went for a walk with me Friday morning, but when we came home from a long day at band practice and uniform fittings, she wasn't there to greet us by trying to climb into the vehicle, as she normally does. We haven't seen her since. Because Tracy wasn't the type of dog to run around the neighborhood, we're pretty sure something has happened to her.

But what? As I said, she stayed around the yard most of the time. We checked the ditches up and down our country road, in case she might have wandered out to the road and been hit by a car - nothing. We looked in the horse pasture, because she had recently decided it's great fun to bark at the horse, who usually bucks and kicks in response. We thought maybe she was foolish enough to bark at him within kicking distance, but there was no sign of her. We wondered if maybe she went visiting our neighbor's little dog (who comes by pretty regularly), but he showed up today briefly, looking for her, I guess. She hadn't been sick, just a little arthritic in one hip. I guess it will always be a mystery. The sad thing is, we lost another dog last summer in almost the same fashion - she just disappeared.

So, in the best "dog story" fashion, here are a few words about Tracy. She came to us as a puppy from the local shelter, the only pet we've chosen for ourselves (all the other dogs we've had over the years were dumped off along our country road and chose us). As a puppy, she was a chewer - I remember she pulled a quilt off the clothesline once and tore a hole in it that I had to mend. When we got a second dog, she quit chewing on things and chewed on him instead. She was always curious, getting up from her comfortable "cool" spot even on these dreadfully hot days this summer to come with me to the clothesline or the barn. Many dogs get grumpy as they get older; Tracy seemed to get sweeter and more loving. She would "talk" to us by whining, especially to my husband, who I think was her favorite.

Several times already today, I've looked for her when I went outside. It's going to be lonely around here without her.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Ok, I'll Play

There's a trending topic on Twitter today (I know, the second Twitter-inspired post in as many days) that is #bookswithalettermissing. The idea is to remove one letter from a book title and then give a one-sentence blurb of the reimagined work. There have been some funny ones. I can't resist! I love words and word games, so I went to my own book shelf and came up with the following:
The Itch of Blackbird Pond - An outbreak of hives cripples a small community
No Shame, No Ear - an unauthorized biography of Vincent Van Gogh
Lice in Love and War - a treatise on the impact of parasites in human history
The Log Winter - Tales from a lumber camp
Ever 1793 - Science-fiction time warp tale
Where the Lilies Loom - Another science-fiction tale set in a valley of overgrown vegetation
The First for Years - The romantic tale of a woman's return to dating

Ok, ok, I'll restrain myself! Can you come up with some?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My Trouble with "Romance"

This tweet appeared in my Twitter feed today:
editrixanica Anica Mrose Rissi Do you repeatedly mention the color of a character's eyes, or oft remind us of a signature hairstyle or defining feature? Well, stop it.
I laughed when I read it, because it reminded me of something I kept thinking while I was reading a book at the beginning of July.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Good Reader is Hard to Find (Apparently)

Over the past couple of years, I've followed a set of blogs written by literary agents and authors to get perspective and advice on writing well and on submitting work to agents in a way that will give it the best chance of being published. One of the blogs I had bookmarked was by a very popular agent who recently published a children's book. As the publication date for the book neared, the blog began to have more and more posts about the book, still with the slant of "here's my experience, it might be the same for you." Since publication, there have been several blog posts that were outright efforts to sell the book, including one that included related merchandise.

This morning when I checked the blog, I was a little surprised to find the author was having a PBS-style pledge drive. Briefly, the author was saying, "I put all this good content out there for free, so you ought to support me by buying my book." To be perfectly honest, I was rather turned off by that approach. I suppose that says something unpleasant about me, that I like the content but am not willing to pay for it.

The good/bad news is, I'm not alone in that sentiment. How many times have I seen groups spring up on Facebook which are protesting "We won't pay $9.95 a month for Facebook!"? I discovered (and briefly followed) a discussion thread on Amazon in which customers recommended "bargain" books for each other (with "bargain" often being defined as "free"). We look for extras or bonus features on our DVD purchases; we want hidden, bonus tracks on the albums we download.

When I was on my sabbatical a year ago, one of the webinars I attended was about 10 trends to be aware of/10 things to do to be successful in the new PR environment. I'd have to look at my notes to get the exact wording of what was said, but the gist of one point was, "People will expect to get something free. Give away something of value as a way to build loyalty and a relationship that will lead people to come to you when they are ready to buy."

The problem with that, as the blog author discovered, is people don't always feel a need to reciprocate. Just because he's giving good content about the publishing business, I don't feel obligated to plunk down $12+ for a book for kids younger than my own and in a genre I really don't like to read when I could spend that same $12 on something my kids and I would like to read. That's probably the case for a number of people who are readers of the blog; we aren't the target audience for his book, so he's not depending on true interest to spark book sales, he's relying on guilt. And in the internet age, it's pretty easy to avoid things that make you feel guilty (just hit "delete bookmark").

On the other hand, I recently found Royalty Free Fictionary, a blog devoted to allowing authors of historical fiction to post a description of their book - as long as it's not about royalty. Now that's interesting to me. That's a freebie that may actually lead to the purchase of a book, because it provides something that is both of value to me and related to a product I would want.

That's the risk of the new PR; not everyone you give something away to will become a customer. Actually, it makes me think of the people who sit at the commercial booths at our county fair, giving away balloons and nail files and brochures and business cards. There is probably a small percentage of the people who pick up those items who convert into customers. Business requires an investment; either you can pay money for the balloons and brochures, or you can pay time in writing a great blog.

I seem to have wandered away from the purpose of my title. The first thought that came to my mind when I read the pledge blog this morning was, "I guess it's tough to sell a book, no matter who you are." I have a friend who has self-published two books, and she occasionally (frequently?) is discouraged by how slow sales are. You would think the author of the pledge blog would not have the same trouble; after all, he's got the advantage of being in the business. But I suppose ultimately, it doesn't matter who you are.* The book has to find its own readers.

*After I had written this line, it occurred to me that Snooki and Bristol Palin sell books. I don't think it's because the books are riveting reads....

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

To Re-Read, or Not

Unless you've been on an extended space walk, I imagine you know Friday is opening day for the final installment of the Harry Potter movies. To prepare, the kids and I have been watching the earlier movies. I also thought I might brush up on the books, because when they first came out, I read them so fast (to find out what happened) that now I don't really remember some of the details. For the last book, actually, my memory of the major plot events is pretty sketchy.

I started re-reading the first book in the series, but I haven't made much progress over the first couple of days. It's not because I don't like the book; Sorcerer's Stone is actually a book that gives me a lot of pleasure; I think it is so well-edited and so imaginative. The problem is that I keep having this nagging feeling that I ought to be spending my sparse reading time on something new that I've never read before. There are all kinds of books on the shelves in this house that I've not read yet; shouldn't I reduce that TBR pile instead of going back to the same story I already know?

This is something I nag my daughter about all the time. I can't tell you how many times that child has read Princess Academy by Shannon Hale or the Warriors books by Erin Hunter. I'm glad she has favorite books, but I keep telling her she needs to expand her reading horizons. There are so many classics out there and so many good new books that she will miss out on if she just keeps reading the same thing over and over. I don't seem to be having much success with this campaign, by the way.

Another acquaintance once said she never re-reads a book. She said there are too many books in the world to spend time going back. I agree with her on the point that there are many worthwhile stories I'd like to read, but I also see the appeal of revisiting a book. It's the tension between getting back in touch with good old friends or meeting someone new. Both have value and can add pleasure to our lives.

I guess one thing that is bogging me down this time is the knowledge that Sorcerer's Stone is the first of a lengthy series. If I start on it now, it's likely to take me the rest of the year to finish (given what I have waiting for me this fall when school starts again - ugh). That means no chances to meet interesting new friends - and I had interest in "dates" with several characters. As much as I love Harry Potter, I don't want to miss out on meeting Mr. Darcy for the first time.

My compromise for the time being is to read the last three books in the series. They are the most complicated in the series and the ones I tend to confuse. And maybe I can finish with enough time to get to Mr. Darcy.

What do you think? Do you re-read or stick to books that are new to you?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

I recently finished reading Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's the story of a slave girl (Isabel) during the British occupation of New York City in the Revolutionary War. While I learned something about that historical event, the main thing I'm taking away from this book is an increased appreciation for the injustice of slavery.

The story indirectly described the suffering the rebels experienced during the occupation (I say indirectly because Isabel's owners were British sympathizers and therefore were given preference when it came to getting food. They are even able to have some elaborate parties.). Isabel also ends up taking food scraps to the American prisoners of war, and the description of the conditions in the prison is almost uncomfortably vivid. It's not the first time I've read about those kinds of conditions (The Heretic's Daughter and Forged in the Fire, for example, had pretty vivid prison scenes). What makes it different this time is that the main characters in Chains are slaves, and that adds a whole new dimension to their suffering.

Isabel and her younger sister Ruth are sold early in the book to a selfish, cruel woman and her husband, who take the sisters to New York City. Throughout the book, Isabel is trying to find a way to get away from Madaam. On top of all the work Isabel is expected to do, Madaam hits Isabel with a riding crop, constantly insults her, separates her from her sister, and even has her branded with an "I" for "insolence." That's all bad enough, but what really brought the injustice home to me was that Madaam wouldn't even allow Isabel her identity. Shortly after arriving in New York, Madaam renames Isabel "Sal," even though that's not who Isabel wanted to be. I don't know why that bothered me more than the branding. (spoiler) Actually, I decided as soon as she was branded that the "I" should stand for "Isabel" instead of "insolence"; it took Isabel nearly to the end of the book to come to that conclusion herself.

The fact that all this cruelty is set against the struggle for the patriots to free themselves from British "oppression" is ironic. At least a couple of times, Isabel appeals to people who are engaged in this struggle for freedom and they refuse to help her; freedom is not for the slaves. There's also a sad reality in the way Curzon (Isabel's friend) is treated in the prison. He was captured fighting for the rebels and taken as a prisoner of war along with all the free white men. However, even though he was actively fighting for their cause, the other prisoners still place Curzon in a lower position. They steal his blanket and they take the lion's share of the food - even when Isabel has brought it for him.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, which means there will probably be a lot of discussions about slavery. Sometimes I think it's easy to intellectualize what slavery was about. Chains takes slavery out of the intellectual realm and makes the reader see and feel what it must have been like to be owned, body and soul, by another person and how hard it would be to escape that situation.

Let's add Laurie Halse Anderson to that list of people I want to study to be a better writer....

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Pantsing" the Family Vacation

One of the questions I see fairly often on blogs about writing is "Are you a plotter or a pantser?" By that, the questioner is asking whether the writer plans every detail of what will happen in his/her story or if he/she goes "by the seat of the pants" and lets the story go where it will. The same question could be asked of traveling style. Normally, my husband and I are "plotters" when it comes to planning the family vacation, but this year we decided to try "pantsing" it.

We knew we wanted to go to the East Coast since we had a window of only two weeks. We had settled on going to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and our son had requested going back to Washington, DC. We planned to leave immediately after our daughter's concert for band camp (the flute came on the trip with us!) on June 18 and we had to be home by July 1 so our son could get his driver's license. We planned to stay in hotels for most of the trip, but we also wanted to do a couple of nights of tent camping. With those parameters in mind, we stuffed the back of our vehicle with tents, sleeping bags, two suitcases, and numerous duffel bags and headed east.

The first opportunity for spontaneity came when we hit Memphis at suppertime.
We headed to Beale Street to BB King's Blues Club, where we had horrendously fattening and wonderfully delicious Southern fare and were treated to live music by a blues band whose guitarist most certainly wasn't born yet when Elvis died (but who could play the guitar, for sure). The spirit of the spontaneous slid into my husband and me, who mortified our daughter by pretending to dance at the table. Pantsing is fun!

We saw the downside of pantsing a couple of hours later, when we stopped in Jackson, TN, for the night. No rooms were available in our first choice of hotels - seems the Miss Tennessee pageant and a Little League baseball tournament were both in town. We did find a room, however, without too much trouble.

Our next stop was Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We've been there several times, and we've passed by the sign for Laurel Falls several times but never stopped. This time we decided to stop and do the hike. What we didn't know is that it was a 1.3-mile uphill hike! When we were nearly to the falls, someone coming back down told us there was a bear and cub on the trail. By the time we got to the spot, there was no cub, but there was the adult bear, sitting in the path. This was really cool to us since we've been to the Smokies several times and to Yellowstone and never saw a bear in the wild. Pantsing has pleasant surprises!

One of the things we did this time that we hadn't done before was go to some places just because we saw them on the map and thought they sounded interesting. The first of those was the Mountain Farm Museum at the North Carolina entrance to GSM park.
It ended up being one of my favorite stops on the trip, partly because there were so many things that reminded me of my great-grandparents' farm (like the corn-sheller) and partly because it was THE setting for my novel. Several times I had little moments of daydreaming in which I could almost see my characters leaning against the rail fence or carrying wood from the pile under the woodshed. This visit also pointed out to me, though, how far removed my kids are from the way I grew up - my daughter helped feed the two young pigs with one hand pinching her nose shut because of the smell!

Another jewel that we visited just because we found it on the map was Chippokes Plantation State Park in Virginia. We got a private tour of a plantation home circa 1854 (well, ok, no one was there besides our family) and to visit a museum of farm equipment and implements. We also stopped at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia because we would be passing it on the way home, and that was neat. The Seneca Rocks themselves are a huge, impressive outcropping of rocks, but again, the cool part to me was a homestead site that had the home and some gardens with vegetables and herbs people of the 19th century would have grown. Both of those sites are things we would have missed if we had chosen to take the interstates rather than pantsing our way on side roads.

There were some interesting stops that crossed our path quite by accident. While in Asheville, North Carolina, we ate at the most impressive McDonald's restaurant I've ever seen.
Since that is the location of the Biltmore estate (which we didn't visit because it was too expensive for our budget), the McDonald's had a "Biltmore" theme, complete with a tapestry over a faux fireplace, a waterfall wall sculpture, and a player baby grand piano.

Another time, we were driving toward Washington, DC, and we saw a big spire sticking up above the trees.
"What's that?" Jeff asked, and we exited to find out. It was the National Museum of the Marine Corps, which was a great museum with LOTS of history (although it was, of course, oriented toward military history and specifically the Marines' role in that history). When we got to Washington, we visited Arlington National Cemetery - just in time to see a wreath-laying ceremony with the Prince of Belgium. Wow. What dumb luck! Finally, we got to see first-hand what Jeff called an example of political "pork." We drove for several miles on a beautiful 4-lane interstate in West Virginia that began outside a very small town and suddenly dumped us off in what seemed like the middle of nowhere (miles from the next town of any size). That was a weird experience that took us pretty far off the path we had planned, led nowhere, and forced us to find an alternative route back to where we wanted to be. I guess that happens sometimes with pantsing.

As it turns out, we didn't take quite the route we had thought we might take - no swinging up into Delaware and Baltimore. But we got to do all the things we really wanted to do on the trip - play in the ocean and go on a fishing boat (Jeff and the kids did that - I discovered I'm really not a fan of deep water, boats, and long, long bridges, ha ha!), visit Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, see all the relatives in that part of the country, and camp a couple of times. There were some stressful moments, but seems like maybe there weren't as many as when we've had to push to get to a certain location by a certain time (or at least a different kind of stress). After the first night, we had no trouble finding a place to stay. Taking the vehicle off the interstates and on the backroads let us see something of the countryside and the way people live, which I think is just as valuable as any museum. The verdict? I like pantsing some of a vacation and hope we'll do it again sometime. Just as with a story idea, we can take the basic framework, get started, and see where it takes us!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

June or JK?

Somehow today, the family conversation turned to my writing. (Honest, I wasn't the one who brought it up!) My husband and daughter wanted to hear the synopsis for a middle-grade novel idea that I've mentioned in the past. My husband thinks (and I agree) that it is an idea that is quite possibly marketable, much more likely to be published than the novel I've been working on for the past seven (!) years. He said I ought to start working on it, and that if I could get interest in it, then I might be more likely to get the first one published too.

The problem is, it's going to take a LOT of research before I can start any writing. This idea is another historical, and as you probably would guess from previous posts, I am a hard-liner about historical accuracy. Plus, this story involves actual historical figures quite prominently, which means it's even more important to be accurate. I love doing the research, takes a LOT of time. A lot.

Which brings me to the subject of this post. When I brought up the amount of time needed to do the research and then the writing and the revision and how hard it is to find any time to write, my husband said, "You can't be June Cleaver and Gilbert Parks and JK Rowling all at once." (Gilbert Parks is one of my teaching colleagues who has been teaching for nearly 50 - yes, you read that right - years. For all his years in the business, he is still one of the most energetic and involved teachers I've ever known.) I understood what he was saying - a person can do one thing really well, or a person can stress over trying to do everything well.

I posted his advice on my Facebook page, and very quickly a number of my friends jumped on to say things like "Yes you can!" and "Why not?" I guess they think Jeff is being a male chauvinist, but realistically, he's right. People who are really successful at something tend to devote the lion's share of their time and energy to that one thing. As just one example, how many hours a day did Michael Phelps spend in the swimming pool?

I think my friends are still buying in to the "Superwoman" concept when they say it's possible to be the perfect wife/mother, the perfect employee, the uber-successful writer at the same time. I guess it depends on what your standard for "perfect" is, but in my life, there's just not enough time in the day to be "perfect" in all those roles. This past school year has been super-stressful -- and all I found time to do was be an employee and a mother/housewife, and I was definitely less than "perfect"! Writing fell by the wayside completely. I did some substantial revision when I chaperoned my son on a trip to Chicago in early March; the next time I was able to do any work on my book was late May. I had to go back and re-read the whole thing just so I could remember who the characters are!

What this boils down to, I guess, is that I really appreciate that my husband understands single-minded pursuit of "perfection" and has given me permission, no, encouraged me to go for it. Now whether he still buys into it when there are no clean socks in the drawers.....ha, ha. The two things I always manage to do are keep the family fed and in clean underwear. Dust bunnies off the floor....well.....they'll just have to wait. I have some research to do....

Thursday, June 9, 2011


(guest post by my daughter - she read this book in about 24 hours)

The book Rules by Cynthia Lord is a really great read that pulls at the heart strings. This book was made for the young adult reading group. The main character is a twelve-year-old girl named Catherine. Catherine's problems keep mounting up; her best friend is in California with her father, her little brother has autism, and her old neighbor is moving away. Then a new problem comes -- she meets a boy who can't talk. Suddenly she finds herself trying to figure out what does normal mean? Will she get a new best friend? Can she help herself to not feel weird around her brother? Find out and read this book. Oh, and don't forget the rules!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

I Want to Write Like Her!!!

Because I've so many times held Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond up as a model work of fiction, I decided it might be good if I actually went back and read it instead of relying on my memory. Sometimes, you know, memory isn't completely reliable. But in this case, it was, and re-reading Witch has reinforced my hero-worship of Elizabeth George Speare!

I read differently this time than I did as a teen, having studied the art of fiction writing over the years (I had never heard of "show, don't tell" back then!). One of the things I found myself appreciating this time around was the way Speare developed the romantic relationship between Kit and Nat (oops, sorry for the spoiler if there's actually anyone out there who hasn't read this book). Not until the last chapter, like four pages from the end of the book, does Kit realize what she feels for Nat is love. The reader is aware of how good they are for each other long before Kit is. And maybe it's just me, but there's something so satisfying about watching it develop instead of being told it is developing. For example, I found this section amusing:
"She expected that when they reached South Road Nat would turn back, but to her consternation he strode along beside her, and even when she hesitated at Broad Street he did not take the hint. The happy mood of the afternoon was rapidly dissolving in apprehension. Why on earth had Nat persisted in coming too?"
Well, we know why!

Later, in what would I suppose be the climax of the story (when Kit is at a hearing to determined if she should be tried as a witch), I got the same thrill reading the following passage that I had the first time I read it:
"Every voice was suddenly stilled. Almost paralyzed with dread, Kit turned slowly to face a new accuser. On the threshold of the room stood Nat Eaton, slim, straight-shouldered, without a trace of mockery in his level blue eyes"...(skip a couple of pages)..."In the warm rush of pride that well up in her, Kit forgot her fear. For the first time she dared to look back at Nat Eaton where he stood near the door. Across the room their eyes met, and suddenly it was as though he had thrown a line straight into her reaching hands. She could feel the pull of it, and over its taut span strength flowed into her, warm and sustaining."
She doesn't call it love yet, but as a reader, I'm saying "Yes!" It's just right, in every way.

That's the reaction I want to bring my readers to. They say a person ought to write what he/she would like to read. In that case, I think I need to spend less time on agent blogs and more time really studying what Speare has done, and Janice Holt Giles, and Ann Turnbull, and Lisa Klein. Those are the literary footsteps I want to follow. If I can come close, I'll be happy, even if my work is never published.

(And Ann, if you read this, I'm not sucking up - I mean it!)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Favorite Summer Memory

It's the first day of summer vacation, and already my daughter has complained - tearfully, even - that no one will do anything with her, and that she doesn't have anyone to play with. "You had sisters to play with," she said. After reminding her she will be going to band camp in about a week and a half, I said, "It's not my responsibility to keep you occupied all day, every day of summer vacation."

That got me to thinking about summer vacations when I was growing up. One of the things we had that Lily doesn't was the library's bookmobile. Once a month (I think), one of the area libraries would send out a truck sort of vehicle to the rural communities, stocked with all kinds of books. We could check out (I think) five books, which wasn't a lot to last a month, but back then, the twelve miles to town for the library is a lot longer than it is now, so we were pleased to have something different to read.

I can still remember some of the books from the bookmobile and even where in the bookmobile they were located. There was the little book called Let's Make Doll Furniture, which told how to use matchboxes, spools, and contact paper to make doll furniture that I thought was really cool. I checked out that book several times, and I think it was in the non-fiction section in the end of the truck above the checkout desk. I think the bookmobile was also my first exposure to Pioneer Breed, which was influential enough that I remembered it and hunted it down 25 years later. It was in the adult fiction section along one of the walls. Finally, the children's books were near the floor, including over the wheel well, which made a great place to sit while trying to make a decision about what books should be included in the five.

One of the other reasons we so enjoyed going to the bookmobile, possibly, was that sometimes we would stop at the local general store for a yellow, banana-flavored popscicle. They cost six cents at the time. Those are still my favorite frozen treat!

Maybe I'll load the kids up tomorrow morning and take them to the library in town. It's not the same as the bookmobile, but maybe Lily can find some literary "friends" to hang out with for a while. And maybe we'll stop at the store for a banana popscicle - they still have them, although they aren't six cents anymore...