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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sympathetic, not Pathetic

The title harkens back to my subject of this end-of-the-year blogging: how we write sympathetic -- never pathetic -- main characters. Author Mary Lynn Mercer has an excellent blog on the subject, written in 2003. For today's web tip, let me send you to her. She is working with the exact character traits and problems I've been discussing here, and she does a nice job with good examples. Check her out!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011 Top Ten

How do we make sense of the years? News outlets are famous for their lists of important events. Although I suspect that doesn't begin to touch what a specific year may mean to us, I'm willing to offer up my list of the top ten events of 2011 for my own family:

  • 1. Top of the top has to be the birth of a new grandson. Welcome, Vaughn Arthur Aylworth, born September 12, 2011.

  • 2. Right up there behind Vaughn comes AylaPalooza IV. This biannual reunion has become a family tradition and treasure. This year we had extra family, but among our children, kids-in-law and grandkids, the only one missing was Austin, our oldest grandchild, who is serving a full-time mission in Chile. He's exempt because of his circumstance. Everyone else was there and we had a wonderful time.

  • 3. Next for me is birthdays -- lots of birthdays for the wonderful people we enjoyed at AP IV. You all know who you are!

  • 4. This was the year when I joined LDS Storymakers, attended the national conference, and became more involved with my writing than I've been in a while.

  • 5. I also joined ANWA (American Night Writers; long story), attended their national conference, and got involved there as well.

  • 6. Through very little fault of my own, I got elected to the Board of Directors of LDS Storymakers, and I've met some wonderful people who both inspire and help my writing.

  • 7. I finished the manuscript for A SECRET FAMILY RECIPE, got it to my editors at Covenant, and had it approved for publication -- sometime in 2013.

  • 8. Although I already mentioned birthdays, one stands out: I got to see my dad celebrate his 89th. This means he has outlived both his parents and all his older siblings, and he was there to enjoy my kids and grandkids at AylaPalooza, celebrating with us. You go, Dad!

  • 9. I made the decision to write about Lorenzo di Medici, sketched out the basic plot for a story, and have spent the year doing online and book research. Next March I will go to Florence to do more in-person research. So cool!

  • 10. Tied for tenth are a number of smaller items: little trips away with my honey, visits to see grandbabies, seeing friends' books do well in the market, watching my sweet old dog show affection to my sweet little granddaughter . . . I've a thousand such moments, all precious.

To everyone who made this year a little more special, to all of you who follow my ramblings, to all who read my books, THANK YOU. This has been quite a year -- and the next one can only be better.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Back to the Sympathy Question

I hope your Christmas was merry. Happy Boxing Day! (at least for the Canadians and Aussies in our midst).

As promised, I'm meandering a little farther into that question of what makes a character sympathetic and when she becomes simply pathetic. A novelist friend told me she likes to put her characters "through hell" before she lets them have a happy ending. That certainly works -- sometimes.

As a popular example of what has worked, let's look at the Harry Potter series. When we first meet Harry, he's a 10-year-old orphan, turning 11, living under the stairs in an abusive situation where cousin Dudley is king. As the series progresses, we see him go through a variety of emotional and physical tortures at Hogwart's, in company with the Order of the Phoenix, and finally, in an all-out war. Surely Harry is put through hell before he gets his happy ending.

Of course along the way there are humorous, fun moments, discoveres of joyous wonder and delight, fast friendships solidified, and an array of successful, happy moments as well as the dark ones.

But what if we had skipped Hagrid and the trip to Hogwart's, Nearly Headless Nick and Dumbledore, and had spent the whole first book watching Harry suffer abuse at the hands of his reluctant relatives on Privet Drive? My guess? There never would have been a second book or the Harry Potter phenomenon that has enthralled the world. We want to see people triumph over terror and tragedy. Watching victims while they endlessly suffer is a different kind of torture, not an enjoyable reading experience.

Perhaps the question is part pacing (How much shall I let him suffer here before I cut off this scene?) and part balance (That torment she just went through was terrible. I need to give her a triumph equal to it before we move on.) I suspect it all comes down to knowing our audience: what they want, how much sad they will endure before a moment of comic relief, how much sorrow they can handle before we give them joy. It's a delicate balance, but well worth learning.

Friday, December 23, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Birthdays

Part of me (the part I see in the mirror, I think) would sincerely love to freeze time in place, have all the fun I'm having, but never grow any older. Come to think of it, I should have done that a few decades back!

But never mind that. It's one of the truisms of life that we either grow older or we don't. Princess Diana is one of those who will never grow any older. We will always remember her young and beautiful, looking like the queen she might have been. Given that's the only other option we have, I'm grateful for growing older. I'm grateful for birthdays.

As I passed mine this week, I thought of a man I knew years ago when the dh and I lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut. "Ron" had been a combat soldier in Vietnam and had lived through some harrowing scenes. As he approached his Halloween-time birthday, he told us, "Ever since 'Nam, I have promised myself that I'd celebrate every birthday as a gift I might never have had."

Ron had the right idea. We may not appreciate the wrinkles, the changing jawline, the once near-black hair that's now silver unless we cover it, but if we love our lives (and how could I not? I've been so blessed!), we have to appreciate every birthday we get.

As a kid, I never bemoaned my Christmas-time natal day. I came home from the hospital on Christmas Day and my dad has often claimed I was his best birthday present ever. As people around me put up decorations and glittery lights, I always felt they were celebrating with me, and everybody got into the season. When you think about it, some Pretty Important Folks celebrate their birthdays in the same week as I have mine, and that's worth celebrating, too.

This week I'm thankful for birthdays, for every one of them I've shared with the wonderful people I love, and for every one I may yet have in store. As we celebrate one important Birthday this weekend, I wish you all a very merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Feeding the Soul

So I mentioned that I like dramatic stories with heavy emotional content. The one I'm working on right now has all that and more. It's set in the Victorian era (1850s and '60s) in Australia. James is an English Protestant; Eliza and her friend, Molly, are Irish Catholics. Despite the differences, James has set out to court Eliza.

Both women work as domestics and only have Thursday evenings free. Because their employer is Protestant, she insists that they skip their dinner (in Australia, "tea") if they wish to go to mass -- and of course, considers herself magnanimous for letting them go at all. After the first Thursday evening, when James visits with hungry Eliza, he makes a small correction before his next visit. Here's what happens:

James grinned at her gratefully and sat down next to Eliza on the side porch swing. Then he produced a small package wrapped in paper. “I’ve a small gift for ye, Eliza.”

“Ah, James, ye know I can’t accept –“

“You can accept this one,” he said. He untied the string and a pair of warm meat pies sat there between them, so fragrant Eliza thought she might almost be able to eat the smell.

“Oh! They smell delicious! James, how did you --?”

“When we sat here together last week, I heard yer stomach growl.”

Eliza blushed. “I’m sorry. I –“

“After I left, I got to thinkin’ about what time ye leave for mass and when Mrs. Pembroke likes to serve tea. When Cooper and Elsie came in to pick up the grocery order, I asked Cook if what I suspected was true, and she told me the two of you go hungry every Thursday, just so you can attend mass. Is that true?”

“Aye, sure ‘n it is, but I can’t have ye feeding me, James.”

“I bought two meat pies. I thought perhaps I could share a meal with you.”

Eliza looked around, saw Molly sitting a few yards away. “James, if ye don’t mind too much, I’d like t’ share my pie with Molly. She is powerful hungry, as she went without dinner, too.”

James’ expression fell. “How foolish of me. I never thought.” He called out, “Molly girl! Come over here and eat! I’ve food for ye.”

When Molly arrived, smiling brightly, James handed one pie to Eliza and the other to Molly. “I already ate a full dinner,” he explained. “Missus Hogan had me over tonight. I only brought the second pie so we could share, but I can’t eat it if I see either of you two going hungry…”

“We can’t eat in front of you,” said Eliza.

“I can!” Molly eagerly took one pie from the package, made the sign of the cross in a quick prayer of thanksgiving, and began to eat greedily.

“I s’pose we can.” Eliza chuckled as she ducked her head and crossed herself, giving thanks. Then she turned to her benefactor. “Thank ye too, James. This is a great kindness.”

James’ lips twitched in a wry smile. “It seemed the Christian thing to do.”

Stay tuned to hear more about James and Eliza. I think you'll enjoy them.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Birthday!

Paraphrasing Leslie Gore:

It's my birthday. I'll slack off if I want to.

Yeah, that was bad, but the point remains. It IS my birthday, and I feel like slacking off, so here is what I propose: Go do a great web search (try "fiction writing + tips" or "writing historical fiction" or some combination of similar words) and see what you turn up that looks useful. Then add the URL to the comments section. Any of us who read you can benefit.

So what am I pulling here, getting you to do my day's work for me? Well, yeah, I suppose so. Then again, it really is my birthday . . .

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What I Like

So what's the difference between sympathetic and simply pathetic? We've already said it may be in the eyes or mind of the beholder -- at least to some degree. Today I want to share the kinds of stories I love to read, and the sorts I want to write:

  • I like stories with heart, stories with emotion. Not for me the Transformers II sort of tale that tends to be "like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Come to think of it, that "tale told by an idiot" may sometimes be a bit too apt.

  • I like stories about real (or at least realistic) people who find themselves in unusual circumstances and either rise to the challenge or find crumble beneath its weight. For me, one of the hallmarks of the Harry Potter series was the fact that, magic or no, the characters there still had to make the same kinds of difficult choices, face the same sorts of physical and psychological threats, and deal with the same character challenges that many real, historical, non-magical folks have dealt with over the years, and especially in times of war. Were my parents any less threatened by the spectre of Adolph Hitler than the students at Hogwart's were threatened by Voldemort? Was either bad guy any less a megliomaniac?

  • I love a story of deep, sometimes shattering (but real, please?) emotions -- love, hate, pleasure, pain, greed, lust, altruism. Old Testament tales and Shakespeare's sagas shared in plays have nothing on the good storytellers of our day.

  • I want the good guys to win. Yes, they may well go through a metaphysical underworld before they come out on the hilltop, but if the bad guys win, what was the point of telling that story at all? (P.S. - I absolutely hated the movie "The Perfect Storm." Why get me caring about all those people if not a single one of them was going to make it in the end?) Sorry about the spoiler.

  • I love the kind of story where people overcome challenges that seem much larger than themselves. Perhaps that's why I admire Scarlett O'Hara despite some of the maddeningly selfish decisions she made. She lived through war, hunger and devastation and not only survived, but thrived. Now, if she'd only been kinder to the people around her . . .

Let's face it: I love stories. The more intensely real and emotional, the better they are. And you?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sympathetic? Or Just Pathetic?

A writer friend and I have been discussing how far we can take the drama in our books before it becomes melodrama. When does a story go from touching to overly sentimental? And how much can a character be forced to endure before he (she) moves from being a sympathetic character we want to cheer on into a pathetic creature we no longer wish to hear about?

In a way the answer is like the famous Supreme Court decision on what is obscene: We know it when we see it.

For instance, there was a great deal of drama (a created, exaggerated situation, but still real drama) in the first three Twilight movies. Friends who have seen it (I haven't yet) tell me the fourth film (yes, the much-awaited Breaking Dawn, Part I) is shot in soap opera style with every line of dialogue getting extra time for pauses and long camera shots at the characters' eyes. The differences seemed so huge to one friend that she asked if the fourth film had a different director -- and she's a musician, not usually given to noticing such things in film.

In some other respects, it's a matter of personal taste. I can usually go through half a box of tissues before I find something "overly" sentimental. My son John is ready to leave the theater the first time someone on the screen or anywhere in the theater sniffles.

Mostly we know what we like, we know what makes us comfortable or un-, excited or not, fulfilled in our reading experience or wishing we could get back not only the money we spent, but the time it took us to read as well.

Still it's a worthwhile question to explore. For the coming days, I'm going to spend time in this blog exploring it. I invite your comments as well.

Friday, December 16, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Holidays

This week I'm thankful for holidays. Actually, I'm thankful for them whenever they happen, but this week I decided to blog about it.

I'm thankful for this past Thanksgiving which saw 51 loved faces, all but one of them close relatives, all sharing our Thanksgiving dinner. I'm grateful for the week around the actual day, which turned into one of the best family reunions (we call them AylaPaloozas) we have ever had.

I'm grateful for all the people who made big sacrifices to join us, who contributed to the meals and the cooking, the costs and the fun, and who made the experience what it was for all of us. I'm grateful to my son, Adam, who somehow figured out how to host all 50+ of us and even prepared venison stew for the whole crowd.

I deeply appreciate my daughter's in-laws, the Wrights, who vacated their home so we could use it and then turned the keys over to our family. My daughter and her family stayed there, of course, but so did the dh and I and my aging parents had their own room and bathroom, a fact that enabled their trip to join us at AylaPalooza IV.

I'm grateful for the coming holiday as well, and for everything that Christmas means. This year the dh and I made a little pilgrimage of our own. The first shopping trip of the season was looking for an outdoor nativity scene that we can put on our front lawn to honor this holiday. We finally found one and we're looking forward to setting it up soon. I'm grateful for stores that still carry nativity scenes.

I'm thankful for the great year this has been with a new grandson born and the family all together, and as I look forward to another great one with another grandbaby due, I'm especially grateful for the people who go through this life with me and make it an enjoyable journey.

I'm grateful for holidays, and I'm grateful for all of you. May you enjoy the coming season and find the New Year blessed.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

No Name-Calling!

In Monday's post I mentioned the common error of name-calling -- no, not dirty names, but having the characters repeat one another's names whenever they speak in dialogue. It doesn't happen often in real life, although I have a friend who makes a point of putting my name into almost every sentence he speaks. In fiction, it sounds weak and amateurish. I have to admit, though, that it's something I often do in first draft writing and have to catch in revision.

This week's excerpt comes from EASTWARD TO ZION, my first historical. In this conversation James Martin and Eliza Wells are just getting to know one another. He is English, she Irish, and they've met in Australia. James has made a comment about his mother and Eliza responds with a gasp. The first draft of this was full of name-calling; this draft seems a little better. See what you think:

James patted her hand. “Tell me about it?”

Eliza nodded, still trying to regain her composure. “We’d all agreed that it was best for me to leave home to find work,” she began, “and after I’d looked around the nearby town of Castlebar a bit, we knew I’d probably have to go as far as England and possibly farther in order to make a future for myself. I s’pose I knew that, going that far away, I’d likely never see my home again, but I thought my ma would still be there, y’know? That I’d get letters and be able to write back to her, telling her about my life?”

James nodded reassurance, still holding her hand.

“She took ill the day I was to leave. I wanted to delay, but she said no, it was just a minor illness and I should go ahead as planned. I left, but I wasn’t pleased with it. Da sent a letter that caught up to me in Southampton just days after I got there. He told me she’d died suddenly the day after I left her, and she was askin’ for me at the end.”

“He shouldn’t have told ye that,” James said, solemnly shaking his head. “Ye couldn’t do a thing about it then, and knowing it didn’t help you any.”

“I believe Da thought it would be a comfort that Ma was thinkin’ of me.” Eliza wiped tears.

“I didn’t mean to speak ill of your father. It’s just … well, you don’t seem to be very comforted.”

“No, I don’t s’pose it was a comfort, after all.” They sat together while Eliza sniffed and wiped more tears and James held her hand. “I miss her so,” she said after a moment.

“I know,” he answered. “I miss my mother, too.”

I may still revise it further to include even less name-calling, but it seems to be coming along now. Let me know if you'd like to see changes.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Best Fiction Writing Tips

On Wednesdays I try to bring you the best of the web for writing purposes. This week I found a doozy.

It's 101 Best Fiction Writing Tips from the "Write it Sideways" web source. The link I'm giving you here takes you to Part I, but the links for three additional parts are at the bottom.

Some of the ideas will sound familiar; they're repeated on every good writing web site and I've also included a few of them here. Others may give you cause for pause, or even a new perspective on how you are proceeding with your own work.

I commend them all to you and hope you find them useful.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I LOVE Christmas!

Of all the holidays I truly love, Christmas is my favorite, but if I'm being honest, I have to admit it's something of a love-hate relationship. So for the benefit of any of you who may feel the same way, here's my list:

  • I LOVE the spirit of the season.
    I hate (or at least, greatly dislike) the rush-rush, hurry-hurry, spend-spend part of it all.

  • I love the Greatest Story Ever Told, the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
  • I dislike the fact that so much of what we see and hear at Christmas time completely misses "the reason for the season."
  • I love Christmas music, especially sweet older carols, hymns and triumphant songs. "O Come All Ye Faithful" and the "Halleujia Chorus" are up there with my favorite music of all time. I also love that wherever you go during this season, the canned music is Christmas favorites.
  • I dislike that the canned music we hear everywhere seldom includes a carol, hymn or song of triumph. Instead of "Away in a Manger," we tend to get "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."
  • I love the spirit of giving that seems even to reach the Scrooges and Grinches among us.
  • I dislike that that spirit of giving gets turned into giving diamonds, luxury cars, and even small electronics that cost more than I put down on my first home.
  • I love that we all seem to show greater care for the less fortunate around us.
  • I dislike that it takes a holiday to get many of us to care.
  • I love gaudy Christmas decorations and beautifully appointed trees and Christmas paper and ribbons.
  • I dislike that we have so much mess left to clean up and dispose of as the holiday comes to a close.
  • I love favorite holiday foods.
  • I dislike extra holiday pounds.

So you see, for me it's all about the love-hate that goes along with this time of year. Whether you agree with me or not, I hope your holiday is memorable and lovely. May you have a merry, merry Christmas this year.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Amateur Mistake We All Make

So you want to be a novelist and you are writing the greatest story anyone ever wrote, or at least a good story you'd like to read. Great!

The good news is, if you are smart, savvy and determined, you may in fact become a published novelist whose work will be read by many others and not just your mom. The bad news is, unless you are exceptionally talented, well studied and alert, you are probably making many of the newbie mistakes that all the rest of us made (and sometimes still make) when we're just getting started. Here are a few I've made and a few that always mark a manuscript -- to me, anyway -- as amateur work.


1. Telling, Not Showing

One of my ultimate favorite rules for writers is the exact opposite of this: Show, don't tell. So your main character (MC) is nervous? Don't TELL me, "Joan was nervous." Say something like, "Joan felt her breath coming faster, less evenly. Her hands shook so hard, she had to put them in her pockets so no one else would notice. She kept breathing in short, shaky little gasps." You won't have to tell us; we'll know.

2. Using the Passive Voice

What exactly does that mean? There are complex descriptions, but the basis is this: You're in passive voice when you show the object receiving the action ("The ball was hit") rather than showing the actor doing the action ("Larry hit the ball"). It's another way of removing the reader from what's going on, something you never want to do.

3. Doing Too Much Name-Calling in Dialogue

I've been guilty of this one myself, but usually in the first draft stage. I try to be good at catching it in revision. Here's a quick example of what I mean:

"Hi, Ed."
"Hello there, James."
"So, is it warm enough for you, Ed?"
"Ha-ha, James. You know I hate the heat.
And yeah, it sounds just that bad when you overdo it in your own book. Ugh. Thank goodness for revision!

Overdoing the Modifiers

All of us who learned to type (or keyboard) remember that "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy yellow dog," but when every noun is preceded by two or three adjectives and the adverbs start being tossed around liberally, it not only becomes tiring for readers, it can even confuse the point we're trying to get across. An excellent way to cut down on modification is to use specific nouns and carefully chosen verbs: Not "The very fit athlete walked really, really fast toward the lake," but "The Olympic medalist speed-walked toward the lake." One writing teacher told me to "use the exact right words, sparingly." I got the point.

Overdoing the Drama

A friend once cajoled me into reading her first manuscript. I got maybe half-way when I had to ask her, "Doesn't anything good EVER happen to your characters?" She didn't realize that making her character a victim who suffered at everyone's hands, who made nothing but bad choices and had nothing but evil occur in her life did NOT make the MC sympathetic; it made her seem like a wimpy, tragic doormat who couldn't make a good choice, even (literally) to save her life. It was NOT a fun reading experience.

The good news is this friend was willing to learn, believed me, and made some powerful changes that greatly increased the quality of her work.

The point here is, if you're a newbie and you're making newbie mistakes, forgive yourself, learn from the experience, and move on. You just may become the novelist you hope to be.

Friday, December 9, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Reading

Where do writers get started? I'm not sure that's always clear, but one thing is clear: At least most writers begin as readers and work from there. Today I'm grateful for the opportunities I've had to read.

It started early for me. Even before I could speak, I could sit in a parent's lap to have stories read to me. My dad still remembers how upset I became when he started reading "The Tawny, Scrawny Lion" (which he had memorized word for word by then) from a different Little Golden Book. I knew which story went with which cover -- even if he didn't.

In grade school, when the teachers didn't know what to do with me (an event which occurred with great frequency), they sent me to the classroom bookshelves and then to the school library to find something to read. I worked my way through dozens of "chapter books" by the end of fourth grade.

Junior high gave me a bigger library and new books I hadn't seen yet. In seventh grade I read my way through several huge historicals by Thomas B. Costain (THE BLACK ROSE and THE SILVER CHALICE are two of my favorites) and dozens of other adult-level novels. I finished out that year with my first read-through of GONE WITH THE WIND.

By high school I was having fun with Shakespeare while most of my peers wondered why he wrote in such funny language. Let's face it: I was a nerd, a book nerd par excellence.

Still I can't help but wonder what if I hadn't had so much good material to read and so many people encouraging me to read it? I don't like to ponder that thought.

Instead I've made a point of making books available and (I hope) interesting to my children and now, to their children. One of my sons is following me in pursuit of becoming a writer (Sorry, Paul!) and who knows which among my grandchildren may yet catch the muse?

I only hope they learn to love reading as much as I always have.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Nature Can Be Nasty

BENEATH SIERRA SKIES was not only my first book, but my best effort at the people-vs-nature plot. Of course, a story is more complicated when there are a few other things going on as well. Let me share a short segment from the book as an example.

In this scene, Robin and Brandon have been stranded by a plane crash which has left them both with minor, but debilitating injuries. They have lost their location devices so nobody knows where to find them and they've been unable to get any kind of signal out. They have made a shelter in the body of the airplane and are just waking up on their sixth day, awakening to the call of nature, when this scene takes place. It suggests a little more of what is happening in this story:

The wind was howling furiously, clawing at their precarious shelter and driving a heavy snowfall with it. It was a blizzard, the first since their accident.

“Damn, I have great timing,” Robin said aloud.

“Hmm? What?” Brandon awoke slowly.

“Nothing,” Robin answered, her voice dripping disappointment as she trembled with the cold. “It’s just... we’re having a storm.”

Brandon, who still slept with his arm in a sling, edged up on his good elbow and looked out the window. “Um. Looks like a bad one.”

“I don’t think we’re going to have a hot breakfast.”

“No.” The wind roared and Brandon lay down again, drawing Robin close. “Looks like we’re just going to have to stay here and find ways to keep warm.” He nuzzled her hair and she felt a little thrill run through her.

“Down, boy,” she said, pulling away a little.

He grinned lazily. “Suit yourself. It just seemed like a good way to pass the time.”

Oh yeah. They have their work cut out for them.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

People-vs-Nature Web Report

On typical Wednesdays I usually try to direct you to a useful web site or blog that discussed our topic of the week. When it comes to people-vs-nature plots, the web is particularly unhelpful.

Try it: Type "people vs. nature" or "people-vs-nature plot" into your search engine and see what happens. You will turn up some interesting (and perhaps useful) plot diagrams, some definitions, and some lists of different kinds of plots, but a solid, thorough discussion of the people-vs-nature conflict is hard to come by outside of academic discussions. Even those tend to be limited to a single work.

While a web search on this topic may have some value, I suggest you sit down with a wise friend and brainstorm lists of your favorite people-vs-nature plots. Start with kids' and young adult stories (I still remember the excitement of the shipwreck in THE BLACK STALLION) and work forward.

Looking at what intrigues you in the p-vs-n stories you remember may be the best device for putting you in the mood to write the next great natural conflict story.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Reason for the Season

As the Christmas holiday approaches, it may be worthwhile to look at how we're preparing to celebrate. Since I would scarcely be the first to comment on Christmas commercialism, I think I'll refrain. Suffice to say that, although the goal may be worthy for other reasons, "the reason for the season" is NOT making sure the local stores stay in the black.

For Christians it can be a challenge to keep Christ in Christmas what with all the distractions and opportunities to buy that assail us during the season, not to mention the guilt trips: Have you remembered Auntie Martha? Can you watch a child starve while you feast? Putting out our nativity scenes helps, but it can't be the only step. It takes work to keep the celebration of Christ's birth centered on Him.

What about non-Christians? Many participate in the secular, spend-it-all portion of the holiday, but let me suggest here that even those who don't remember Christ's birth can find a higher purpose for their holiday.

A friend recently suggested that Christmas should become the culmination of our Thanksgiving holiday, that we would do well to spend the whole season being grateful for all that is good in our lives. That's a higher purpose I can encourage.

Sharing love and concern and time with those we hold dear can also mean more than sharing expensive gifts that may need to be returned.

Whatever our religious or non-religious orientation, I am hoping that, as we contemplate and prepare for the holiday, we try to imbue it with greater and deeper meaning than department store sales. We all deserve better than that.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Conflicts: Us vs. the Elements

A few weeks ago we looked at human-vs-human conflict and spent some time discussing bad guys. Today I want to look at what happens when there are no bad guys, but there is still plenty of conflict (which, after all, is necessary for a story). Let's look at humans-vs-nature conflict.

I had fun with this one in my first book, BENEATH SIERRA SKIES. Robin and Brandon suffered the crash of their small plane and went down in the Mokelumne Wilderness area. When all their sources for contact with the outside world were also destroyed in the crash, their chances didn't look so good and it took some clever work on their part to survive.

And yes, in case you're wondering, I read several real-life stories of snow survival and airplane crash survival and I kept the Boy Scout handbook close while writing. The result was a fast-moving adventure story.

Just recently I watched a television replay of the movie, Apollo 13. If you haven't seen this one, I recommend it highly. Besides the star-studded cast, you have a real, absolutely true plot with no bad guys. Bad things happen, but it's human wit and grit against the challenges of outer space and it's riveting.

Another such real-life plot came to us through a friend. A U-2 pilot, Captain Kevin Henry was flying over an undisclosed location overseas when he suddenly forgot how to fly. His condition, something like nitrogen narcosis and caused by oxygen deprivation, is potentially fatal -- even without the risk of crashing an airplane in the process.

The story involves a dozen primary characters who spent several hours getting Kevin safely to the ground and then into treatment to save his life. Even the Arab pilots are good guys and heroes in the award-winning series my dh wrote for the Chico Enterprise-Record, "He Forgot How to Fly."

If you want a good story and you're tired of human conflict (we see plenty of that in the daily news, don't we?), consider pitting your characters against the elements. It can make for a marvelous tale.

Friday, December 2, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Research

What was the most prominent Protestant church in Sydney in 1857? What was the name of the Catholic church nearby?

How were executions conducted in Renaissance Florence? What kinds of crimes were considered worth the death penalty, especially for Florentine women?

How did a goldsmith operate his bottega, and where did he fit in the social structure of Florentine citizens? How might a daughter come to be part of a goldsmith's business practice, even though officially forbidden that masculine role?

If you want to know it to create versimilitude (read that: It didn't happen, but it could have) in a work of fiction, you can find it on the Internet these days.

Okay, that's not always true. In fact, if you want to know much about train schedules in the East prior to the Civil War, you won't find that online and it's pretty tough to find that info anywhere since train stations were frequently war targets and their records burned with them. (Ask me how I know! I ended up in the white-glove library affixed to the Railroad Museum in Sacramento, looking through precious copies of the few old schedules that remain, and in the end, I never wrote that book, either.)

Today I am grateful for research, and I have found that -- except in rare cases like the railroad schedules -- there is plenty of it available for almost anything I want to know.

Lately I've been writing a book set in Sydney in the middle 1850s. When I need a fact (What newspapers were printed in Sydney in 1857? Did they cover social news?), I can find it online. At the same time, I have been doing research for a BIG BOOK I want to write someday soon, which I'm setting against the life of Lorenzo di Medici, Il Magnifico himself, in Renaissance Florence. In the process I've begun collecting a rather impressive library of everything from academic textbooks on the social structure of Florence, circa 1400-1480, to other fiction set in that period.

The scope and range of material is astonishing and there's always more where that came from. In the cases of both these books -- the one set in Victorian Australia and the other in Renaissance Florence -- the question is not whether I can find the material, but where to stop the research and get the writing done, and that is a conundrum for another day.

Today I am grateful for research -- for the wealth of information made readily available by others, and for how much fun I've been having turning the academic and scholarly into imaginative fun. So historians and researchers, this bud's for you: My thanks to you all.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Back Story

One of the problems every writer of prose narrative encounters is the question of back story. Who are your characters? Where did they come from and how did they get where they are? Handling that without going on for pages is always a delicate matter.

My new Work-in-Progress, set in Australia, begins with former Englishman James Martin working in a general store and reflecting on how he came to be there. Here is the next short section:

News of a gold strike in the Australian colonies had reached his family when James had been an adventuresome lad of only sixteen years. Work was hard to come by in their small village in Wiltshire County, and he had begged his father to consider what huge stacks of gold nuggets might buy. In a few weeks the gold fever had overtaken even his practical father, who helped James gather the passage money.

James had bid his family farewell and started for the port in Liverpool with a small satchel of personal belongings and just enough hard cash to book passage to Melbourne, in Victoria Colony. He wouldn’t need much more, after all, since gold was practically lying about, just waiting for him to pocket it.

How green he’d been! And how foolish! His only comfort was that a number of other young fools had been taken in just as he had. The foreman called Murdoch was there at the docks when they debarked, looking for the young ones and bragging up the easy digs and rich wages. Neither James nor his several companions who had signed on together had realized they would be working for weekly wages on a rich man’s claim, searched every evening before they left the mine lest they dare to pocket even a smidgeon of the man’s great wealth, and watched over by armed guards at night while they slept in a bug-infested tent village erected along Burra Creek, allegedly to protect them all from robbers and claim jumpers.

Nor had he spent his time picking up nuggets. Ah, no! This had been down-and-dirty hard rock mining with pick, shovel and strong back, and most of what they’d mined in the end had been copper, not gold – a fine enough vein of that, to be certain, though it all belonged to the wealthy man who owned the mining company and James had not so much as a fraction of an ounce to claim for himself.

So whaddya think? If you have comments or questions about James and his background, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Web Tip: Making Time for Creativity

How do we make time to write? Years ago when my first book came out, the local newspaper did an interview and asked that question. I quipped that some people did their laundry and wondered when they would ever find time to write; I wrote and wondered when I'd find time to do the laundry.

The comment inspired a poet I know to write a lovely piece about her laundry and how handling her family's clothing drew her closer to the people she loved. Although I'm certain that was not its purpose, that poem made me feel like a poor writer and a worse wife/mother/laundry doer.

Today I'm looking at a blog that gives some serious answers to the serious question. Melissa Donovan's Writing Forward suggests a number of ways to approach the problem. Her ways don't work for everyone, but some of them may work for you.

She looks at your competing priorities -- even the laundry -- and brings her own creative answers to the table. If you're a writer (or artist, or creative entrepreneur, or ...) who needs to make more time in your life for creating, have a look. You may find something that will work for you.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Writing Vs. The Day Job

It's not "Joe Vs. the Volcano" (my son, Paul's, favorite movie; don't ask me why), but it is my unending dilemma: How do I keep putting food on the table and keep writing at the same time when writing isn't putting food on the table?

It's a big enough conundrum when the writing is paying something; when I'm stuck in Writer Purgatory and the writing isn't working and the day job is taking up more and more of my time and energy, and there is simply no mental space for creativity at all, then it's something more like the outer ring of Writer Hell.

It's not as if I'm the first creative person ever to experience the problem. Some true greats have been here before me. What would Faulkner have produced if he could have made his living writing during the early years -- not working in a bookstore for hourly wages? And what do you mean I can't compare myself to Faulkner? (Okay, okay, that was a stretch. I admit it. )

I thought the problem might end when I gave up full-time university teaching, and it did -- to some extent. Although it took a year after my retirement for my brain to come out of its numbed condition, I am creating again and loving it. And even though the former second job has now become the full-time 40-hour-per-week first job, it isn't the 24/7 pressure that came with the demands of five university-level writing classes and (usually) around 150 students. Yikes.

Still, it isn't the full-time writing dream I have always imagined which, I'm beginning to think, must have been one of my more fanciful fictional creations.

I'm writing and I'm loving it. That's what counts, and I'm putting the food on the table as well. Now and then, I'm even taking time away from the day job to indulge in a bit of full-time writing.

Hmmm... Maybe I don't have such a big dilemma after all.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Post-Apocalyptic Reflections

Okay, so it wasn't the Apocalypse, but AylaPalooza IV was a major undertaking for us, and now that it's over, we are all picking up the pieces, resuming our everyday lives, and looking forward to AP V, two years from now.

Two features of the reunion ritual happened on the weekend as we were winding down. One, the family pictures, is always a major operation, somewhat like trying to organize and outfit the Sixth Army. (Trust me; I know. Years ago I was a GS2 clerk typist for a post engineer's outfit in the Sixth Army. I've seen what it takes to outfit that bunch, and the two are surprisingly similar. Honest.)

In the past, we've hired professional photographers to come to wherever we were gathering. Yet in the final analysis, it was usually the pictures we shot of each other using our own digital cameras that ended up going onto people's Facebook pages, Christmas cards, and walls. This year we're bringing our own cameras and asking a neighbor who lives near our host to please come shoot the whole group. We think it's going to work just fine.

Another feature of getting our family together is singing. When the kids were little, getting them to harmonize was sometimes the only option I had to keep them from killing each other. They grew up singing together and loving it. Once, on a memorable trip into Mexico, the brothers entertained groups of non-English speakers by singing Weird Al's "One More Minute." Since it had a lovely tune, and they pulled it off with perfectly straight faces, the crowds thought they were hearing an American love song. We all declined to translate the words.

Two years ago we prepared a musical number that we performed together in church. This year we did a different number and we sang in church again. It's one thing we all love doing and, since most of the kids, in-laws and grandkids are quite musical, other people enjoy it, too.

So the pictures are taken, the pies are eaten, the songs are sung, the home movies shown, and we're all going back to our everyday lives. We're also getting the mental wheels turning, planning and preparing for two years from now when we'll try to one up ourselves with better games, better food, better songs, competitions, and fun. I, for one, can hardly wait.

Friday, November 25, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Mornings After

Today I'm thankful for Thanksgiving leftovers and especially leftover pie. I always know when it's the day after Thanksgiving, or maybe the day after Christmas, because I get to sit down to a slice of pie for breakfast -- the only time in the year I allow myself that privilege.

Since we'll have enough turkey to feed a small army at this year's feast (and it's a good thing, given we will have a small army there to eat it), we will probably also have curried turkey over rice -- our usual day-after dinner.

There will be turkey sandwiches and more sweet pickles than we see the whole rest of the year (my sister says they're a Communist plot, and my daughter pretty much agrees), and then there will be more pie for dessert.

AylaPalooza IV is well underway now and we're into it: enjoying each other, enjoying the food, enjoying watching the little ones play together to carry the family camaraderie into a new generation. We're feeling blessed and lucky and glad to be together, and we're enjoying the post-holiday naps that come with over-indulgence in carbs and turkey.

Here's to holidays, families, and delightful mornings after. May you enjoy yours as well.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

All About Thanksgiving

For most of the time I've had this blog, I've been pretty faithful at sticking to my original five-day plan. Not now. For the rest of November, I'm going to write random thoughts about things that interest me, bother me, or just tweak my imagination. It should be an interesting ride.


Let me tell you all about Thanksgiving as my former students used to explain it to me. In 1492 that Spaniard named Columbus sailed across the ocean, landed at Plymouth Rock, and invited all the Indians to dinner. They all got together, ate turkey and pumpkin pie, sang a few choruses of kumbaya, smoked a peace pipe and went happily on their way.

I won't go into how it horrified me to get this version of history from the future grade-school teachers in my teaching-the-teachers classes. Suffice to say that I tried to keep my cool while pointing out that Columbus wasn't Spanish, he arrived in the Caribbean -- not in what became New England, he landed there a generation or so before the Pilgrims even contemplated coming over, and the whole peaceful Thanksgiving mythology was a short break in the history of antagonism between the settled native peoples and the settling English.

But that's all really beside my point. This year as we gather for Thanksgiving in the middle of our biannual reunion known as AylaPalooza, I'm more thankful than ever to Columbus or the Pilgrims or whoever we feel like thanking for giving us this holiday.

For the Aylworths and associated relatives, the holiday is all about the pie, and this year's holiday is all about being together -- and eating pie.

Son Adam is hosting the Thanksgiving meal and he plans to cook about 80 pounds of turkeys in a variety of ways, but he is assigning out the other items on the holiday table to all the other folks who are coming, and every nuclear family is to bring two pies. When I do the math, I think we're going to have about 20 pies to share among the 52 of us -- and we'll probably bake more during the weekend.

So folks, wherever you are today, however you are enjoying your Thanksgiving holiday and whoever you're with, have some pie and think of us. We'll be thinking of -- and thanking -- you, Columbus, and all those other guys.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wecome, AP IV

For most of the time I've had this blog, I've been pretty faithful at sticking to my original five-day plan. Not now. For the rest of November, I'm going to write random thoughts about things that interest me, bother me, or just tweak my imagination. It should be an interesting ride.


AylaPalooza IV, the biannual family reunion that our whole family discusses, plans, argues over, prepares for and then binges on, begins today. We can hardly wait.

A few things have become staples of our AylaPaloozas. For instance, every one has its own theme and its own t-shirt. (See Monday's column for why I'm afraid of "Be Afraid.") We take turns cooking and cleaning up, and some events replicate from one AylaPalooza to the next.

Still this year has a few entries we have not seen before. For one, this AylaPalooza is hosting the first-ever "Aylapa-Biggest-Looza" competition. At the start of this year, one son challenged the rest of us to see who could be in the best physical condition by reunion time.

Originally intended to pit the brothers against one another, the "Biggest-Looza" competition gathered in almost everybody as sister, sisters-in-law, parents and even kids got involved. I've done just great -- I think I haven't gained more than two or three pounds -- but some have been very serious about their fitness.

For example, daughter-in-law Stephanie has lost 62 pounds, taken up a couple of active sports, and is probably in the best shape of her adulthood. Daughter Rebecca has run a Ragnar Relay within the past year and recently completed a half-marathon in under two hours. Thus the Biggest-Looza competition has served a worthy purpose.

There will be another new feature, as organizer Jared plans to pull family members out of one activity or another throughout the week to videotape scenes from a movie he is planning. He will cut it all together and show the video at the end of the reunion. We can hardly wait!

Of course Thanksgiving is a centerpiece of this holiday, and we won't forget it, either, plus there will be time out for the 49er game -- an old, old family tradition -- whenever it is shown in our neck of the woods.

Whether the activities are old, new or something in between, I'll be lovin' 'em all. Any time I can put my arms around that many of the earth's best people all in a single day is a very good time indeed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Not a Coincidence

For most of the time I've had this blog, I've been pretty faithful at sticking to my original five-day plan. Not now. For the rest of November, I'm going to write random thoughts about things that interest me, bother me, or just tweak my imagination. It should be an interesting ride.


It is not a coincidence that AylaPalooza IV coincides with Thanksgiving Week. (Get that? Coincidence coincides? I should be a writer or something!) No, not a coincidence at all. With 52 family members attending this year's gathering and ten of them age six and under, with another eight or so in the upper grades, we have to work around school schedules as well as work times. Choosing a popular holiday week gives us a shot at getting everyone together.

The timing does have its problems. For one, Thanksgiving Week is among the most expensive times of the year to travel. Want an expensive plane ticket? Decide to fly during Thanksgiving Week. For another, the weather can be iffy -- especially over the mountain passes that lie between our northern California home and our AP IV location in St. George, Utah.

Still this will be cooler than the 112 degrees the "Dixie" part of Utah often sees in the summer, and less expensive than the Caribbean cruise we talked about doing with the family. So it's a done deal; we're doing this!

So the planning and discussing are all behind us now and it's all over but the shouting -- and the hugging, and the laughing, and the eating, and the fun.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! Happy AP IV to the family I love.

Monday, November 21, 2011

AylaPalooza: Be Afraid!

For most of the time I've had this blog, I've been pretty faithful at sticking to my original five-day plan. Not now. For the rest of November, I'm going to write random thoughts about things that interest me, bother me, or just tweak my imagination. It should be an interesting ride.


Just about the time this blog appears, I will be organizing my loved ones around me for the fourth-ever Aylworth Family Reunion. We call them AylaPaloozas and they happen every other year. Since the first one was in 2005, this installment will be AylaPalooza IV.

Son Jared is responsible for this one, and Jared, being the unusual person he is, has chosen a slogan that makes sense to all of us who know him. Since we're meeting in the Red Rock territory of southern Utah, the theme is Red Rock Revolution. Then comes the sub-title, a popular Jaredite phrase: "Be afraid."

All of us who know Jared know the sub-text for this phrase and we know there is no reason why anyone should feel afraid. Other people don't know that.

So here we are, planning the largest reunion we've ever had -- huge in that I ordered 52 t-shirts for attendees. The shirts are a lovely dark red color with the AP IV logo on the front. Then, on the back, is the slogan: "Red Rock Revolution: Be Afraid."

If 52 of us go out in these t-shirts around St. George, are we going to start a riot? Will people call the FBI to come surround our compound and check for weapons?

I'm not afraid of the Aylworths. We bluster and bluff, but we're pretty much pussycats when it comes down to it. The FBI, on the other hand, is something to fear. Maybe I'll suggest we be cautious about where we wear those t-shirts.

Friday, November 18, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: The DH

Okay, it's not news, but I appreciate my husband, and even though I've used this space to express my gratitude in the past, I plan to do it again today. I have reasons.

Yeah, he's a good guy and clever and fun and he takes out the garbage, but that's not what I'm especially pleased with today. Just now I am most grateful for the way he has supported my writing habit, especially lately.

A little over a year ago, when we had our first exposure to Florence and I fell in love with the whole town and its history, I knew I would have to return. I began to read and study with an eye toward going to Florence again someday, this time to research a novel I simply must write.

Enter Roger. "Why don't you plan a trip? You can go with your sister?" It didn't seem fair, my making a trip like that without him, but he insisted. Next spring my sis and I will be going to Florence to get first-hand answers to many of the questions the books just can't answer.

But then I thought about marketing the book I'll be writing. Although I've sold nine books now without an agent, a book of this size and scope is a little bit different matter. There's an agent I want to interview and she's going to be at a writers' conference in Arizona next spring, just a couple of weeks before my Florence trip.

Enter Roger. I now have conference registration, hotel reservations and plane tickets. I will be interviewing a top-notch agent a matter of days before I leave for Italy.

But I don't speak Italian, and when we were there, we ran into numbers of people who don't speak English, either. Enter the DH again, with a full Rosetta Stone Italian. Now all I have to do is make the time to get through all five levels of lessons. (In the last ten months, I'm through one level, so I'm a wee bit behind the curve. Yikes!)

He's sweet, he's kind, he looks great in a tux, and he's the most supportive spouse I could ask for when it comes to my writing habit.

Thanks, Honey. I love you.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Happy Meeting

In my current historical work-in-progress set in Sydney, I have young James Martin at the dock checking out the folk who've just arrived on the latest passenger ship from Southampton, in England. He looks up just in time to catch the eye of one young lady, and here's what happens:

A second glance showed him there was nothing exceptional about this one. She was of average height and average-to-slim build and she wore a simple, tailored dress in dove gray with just a touch of lace at the collar. Her hair was cut shoulder length, styled up on the sides in the current fashion, and it looked a medium, mousy brown – although he had to admit that it shone like spun honey when she moved into the sunlight. Her face was a fine oval and her features were even and soft, surely not the prettiest he’d seen, though he wouldn’t call her plain. Then she looked up at him, caught his eye, smiled like the radiant sun bursting over the sea at dawn, blushed, and shyly dropped her eyes.

James listens as she comes ashore and learns her name is Eliza Wells. When she steps off the boat, he volunteers to help her. Here is how that goes:

“Miss? May I help you with your satchel?” James asked, approaching her.

She refused to meet his eyes, looking determinedly at his collar. “I do not speak with strange men, Sir.” The color was rising in her cheeks again.

He chuckled. “I’m a strange one, I’ll grant ye’ that, but I’m also a friend of the official who checked you in. If you want to walk back a step or two, he can perform a proper introduction.”

“No, um, thank you,” the girl said, rather more stiffly than James thought necessary. She took a long, deep breath and turned away from him.

Impatience sneaked up on James. “Look, Miss, I’m not tryin’ t’ give ye trouble. I thought from the way ye smiled at me –"

“I .. I didn’t smile at you.” She looked up at him, and then quickly back down at her feet, blushing furiously. “I just smiled, and ye … ye happened t’ be there.”

James nodded. “Ah, I see.” He let his tone and his look tell her how little he believed her protests. “So, since I just happen t’ be here now, is there somethin’ I can help ye find?”

I'm having such fun with James and Eliza. I promise to share more as their story develops.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Florence Facts

For the rest of November, I'm going to write random thoughts about things that interest me, bother me, or just tweak my imagination. It should be an interesting ride. I invite you to come along.


Most folks who've looked at the Renaissance realize it began in Italy. As they narrow down, they give credit to the flourishing of art that happened largely in Florence in the late 1400s (think Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael...). What I didn't realize until I started studying it carefully is this: Had it not been for one man, Lorenzo di Medici, the Renaissance as we know it might never have happened.

To make my point, let me take you to Florence, circa 1450:

The old feudal system of kings, knights, and so forth is gone, but the aristocratic families still proudly claim knights as ancestors. Slavery is still widely practiced; Circassian slave girls are especially popular and many prominent men have an acknowledged child or two with their slaves. People are openly pious in proclaiming their religion, yet they often profit openly from business practices that are condemned by the church. (In a city built on banking, usury is one of the most serious of those sins.)

The Tuscan city-state ruled by Florence is one of many rival kingdoms on the Italian peninsula. Among these, the papal states, where the pope rules as unrivaled "prince of the church," has one of the strongest armies. In the midst of this, Florence manages a nominal democracy where even lowly craftsmen can rule for a time alongside the most vaunted names in the city.

And into this mix steps Lorenzo di Medici, known even in his lifetime as Il Magnifico. He organizes the Plato Academy where, for the first time, the greatness of God is celebrated together with the greatness of human form and thought: a combining of Christian and humanist thought that has never been rivaled. He creates a sculpture garden, finds talents such as the young Michelangelo Buonarroti (13 years old when Il Magnifico took him in) and nurtures them in the traditions of Greek sculptors. He holds contests for poets to equal Dante, hires Brunelleschi to complete the dome on the cathedral (which has stood uncovered for 100 years) and creates a library of manuscripts to rival the fabled library of Alexandria. What a fascinating man!

I'm imagining my story, set against the backdrop of Il Magnifico's magnificent life, and I'm enjoying the process of studying and researching for it. In time I hope to share it all with you. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fascinating Florence

For the rest of November, I'm going to write random thoughts about things that interest me, bother me, or just tweak my imagination. It should be an interesting ride. I invite you to come along.


So yesterday I wrote about Australia and said I couldn't think of a more fascinating place to be. How about another that fascinates me just as much?

A little over a year ago, I visited Italy for the first time, and I fell in love with Firenze, the city we call Florence. For one thing, I love my home in northern California. It's one of the four places on earth, outside of the Mediterranean nations, that has a Mediterranean climate. So the landscape and the flora that I love every day here at home are there, too. Gorgeous!

At the same time, we here in nor-Cal consider something old if it's been around for a century. Century-old objects in Tuscany are just getting started. Then too, for someone who loves beautiful art and architecture, every day in Florence is a visual feast.

I intend to go feasting again next spring. My excuse is another historical novel, this one set during the early Italian Renaissance. If nothing else, that book will give me a chance to indulge in Florence fancy. I can hardly wait!

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Wonderful Land of Oz

I started this blog in mid-May and I have now written 135 posts (make this one 136). So far I've been fairly faithful in following my schedule, but it's time for a departure. For the rest of November, I'm going to write random thoughts about things that interest me, bother me, or just tweak my imagination. It should be an interesting ride. I invite you to come along.


My topic today is Australia. Upside down seasons, varieties of 'roos, bell birds, animals that look like walking oven gloves with spikes (I'm talking about echidnas here, people -- sort of marsupial porcupines), . . . what's not to love about the Land Down Under?

The dh and I visited briefly during ten charmed days in the middle 1990s. Since one does not see a continent in ten days, we contented ourselves with trying to see the best of Melbourne, Victoria and Tasmania -- still too much, but a bit easier to attempt. The experience was amazing.

I learned so much in such a few short days. I learned that people who drive on the left also walk on the left (who knew?) and look very strangely at folks coming at them on the right side of the walk. I learned that wombats (essentially 90-pound gophers) can rip the undercarriage out of a car that hits them in the road, get up and shake themselves, and then go merrily on their way. I learned that Victoria looks much like northern California -- except for the flocks of cockatoos flying overhead. I learned I love Australia!

The wonderful Land of Oz has been much on my mind of late. I'm working on a new book, an historical novel, that begins in Sydney in the middle 1850s. Loosely based on the true story of my great-great-grandparents, the story has me steeped in the wonders of that magical land.

I can't imagine a more fascinating place to be.

Friday, November 11, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Strong Female Characters

Welcome to 11/11/11. I hope you are reading this at 11:11, too. ;-)

In my look this week at strong women in fiction, I've referenced a number of other people's lists of good books and I've mentioned some of the strong real women in my personal past. Today I want to share three of the strong fictional women who have also influenced my writing and my life.

One of the first non-picture books I can remember reading cover to cover was A LANTERN IN HER HAND. This book, by Bess Streeter Aldrich, told the story of a powerful pioneer woman on the American plains, doing much with little. I've admired her my whole life and she is influencing the character Eliza in my current work-in-progress.

As a young mother I laughed and wept with Anjuli, the heroine of THE FAR PAVILIONS. M.M. Kaye's masterpiece is set in Colonial India where any woman's life is severely restricted and Juli's is even moreso, and yet she makes courageous decisions, choosing love and loyalty over the easy way out and simply surviving when many would not.

Despite some of the really stupid decisions she makes in her personal life, I can't help admiring Scarlett O'Hara, the flawed but strong central figure in Margaret Mitchell's class, GONE WITH THE WIND. She also makes some tough right choices and helps others to survive during the grueling years of the American Civil War.

I commend these books and these women to you. May they ever influence my work in healthy, positive ways.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

One Strong Woman

In my work I've often written about strong women. Sometimes they're even physically strong, mentally prepared -- you get the drill. One such example is my very first fictional heroine, Robin.

In BENEATH SIERRA SKIES, my first book now turned e-book, Robin and Brandon are stranded in the high Sierras after the crash of a small plane. In an attempt to get help, Brandon leaves the shelter they've created and takes off. Robin finds him, fallen into a hole, several hours later. Here is their conversation:

“I’m afraid I stumbled upon this little shelter quite by accident a couple of hours ago.”

“You’re hurt.” Fear numbed the pit of her stomach. A serious injury now could mean death for both of them.

“I think I’ve rebroken my collarbone, and maybe a couple of ribs. It hurts to breathe too deeply. I wrenched my knee again, too.”

“Ow.” Robin winced in sympathy, but her sigh was mostly relief at finding him. “You shouldn’t be allowed out without a keeper,” she said as she dug the large bandages out of her purse.

“That’s why I’m so glad to see you. I can’t get out of this hole. I tried for a while before I realized I was stuck. With this shoulder useless and my knee hurt, I’m...well, let’s just say that if you hadn’t come along...”

She shuddered. “But I did come along, didn’t I?” she said, not wanting to think about the alternative. “Here, crawl out of that thing and I’ll see what I can do about that knee. I brought the long bandage for a butterfly wrap, too, and I’ve got your sling.”

Brandon smiled wanly. “It’s a good thing one of us is prepared.”

Okay, I know: This isn't really physical strength. It's her intelligence, her preparedness, her... I get it. But it's also her physical rescue of him that saves them both -- and this is not the only time.

Right now I'm writing more strong heroines -- one an unwilling psychic, one a pioneer -- and I'm giving them their freedom to be as strong as they like.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hordes of Strong Women

Today's view from the blog is going to take you into the world of fictional strong women, or perhaps I should say worlds. Follow me; you'll see what I mean.

Fantasy fiction is full of heroic female characters. Not coincidentally, fantasy fiction written by women leads that pack. For a quick overview, read the descriptions of a few of the books listed on the "Fantastic Females" Booklist. Conquering monsters in unknown worlds is right up there for fantasy fans.

If you are more interested in Young Adult fiction, you need look no farther than Katniss from the recent HUNGER GAMES series, or this list from the Serpentine Library. For strong women in children's book, check out this list from About.com.

No matter how different the worlds they inhabit or the audiences who read them, these women all share some traits with the iconic Western hero: they do the right thing for the right reason, regardless of the challenges, and they defend those who can't defend themselves.

Let's hear it for strong women -- on our bookshelves and in our lives.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Strong Women

First let me send out a shout to my first exposure to strong-but-sensitive men: Happy Birthday, Dad!


Now let's have a look at strong female characters. I heard (haven't been able to confirm) of an interview with Joss Whedon, the producer, director, writer, actor , composer, etc. who has contributed greatly to American pop culture. (Think Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly...) Supposedly the interview went like this:

Q: Why do you write such strong female characters?

A: Because people keep asking that question.

I think that about settles the matter. In my case, I write strong female characters because I've always been surrounded by strong women and because I've tried to be one myself.

My female ancestors crossed plains in wagons, raised large families alone after being widowed, argued for female suffrage, and generally stirred things up. There is evening a somewhat apochryphal tale of a great-grandmother who found a bobcat on her kitchen counter and strangled it to death with her apron strings in defense of her sleeping baby. Wow.

I also write women because, being one, I see better through a woman's eyes, and I make them strong women because women can be heroes too, and often have been throughout world history.

For purposes of my plots, the women don't have to be physically strong. They, like my strong male characters, are willing to do what they fear in the defense of what they believe is right, challenge established belief, and pioneer defend the weak and helpless around them.

A few strong fictional women are currently inhabiting my head. I welcome them.

Monday, November 7, 2011

This Just In!

Who knows what motivates our muses? Certainly not I. If I could write a tell-all on the care and feeding of inspiration that would fit everyone's creative streak, I'd go down in history for my contributions to humankind. I won't write such a book. I don't even comprehend what my own muses are up to.

This past month is a case in point. Here I am, going along about my regular business, working full-time at the day job, trying to keep up with a dozen routine commitments (you know the kind: exercise, learn Italian, study Renaissance Florence for a book I plan to write in the distant future, live) and struggling to make even a moment for writing.

I make the moment, sit down to write and Voila! A blank page -- one that stays blank -- or even worse, one I fill with drivel, erase, and try once more, dribbling drivel again. Blah. Nada. I have one or two chapters on several pieces that are going nowhere, and doing it slowly./p>

Then bam! Out of the blue comes a story and just like that, I'm off and sailing: still working full-time, still exercising, learning Italian, etc., and WRITING, more than 60 pages in less than a week. And it's good! Yeah, okay, I know I can't be the only judge of that, but according to Sondra Perl's "felt sense" (thank you, literary theorists!), it's good. It was born in my head to be good, and thus it is.

This happened to me once before. I had written the first book in my Rainbow Rock Series and was starting work on the second, just thinking to myself about the characters and how the plot might develop when bam! The story popped out of my head like Athena from the brow of Zeus. AT THE RAINBOW'S END was written, edited, and sent off to my publisher in ten days -- and they loved it! They printed it without changing a word, and it is still among my more successful books.

Can lightning strike twice? I'm sure hoping so. Can I rope in my muses and get them to work like this all the time? Not a chance! But I do intend to keep trying.

Friday, November 4, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Role Models

Last week I honored the "good guys" who have surrounded me since birth. This week I want to send a shout out to mentors and role models.

One of the first I recall was a young woman whose name I can't remember, although I distinctly remember her face. I was a 17-year-old freshman taking my first English class. She wasn't much older, but much more mature. While good stuff in my world was "cool" or "neat," she found poems "delightful" and stories "charming." It was a paradigm shift: I was in the adult world now. I became more conscious of my vocabulary and word choice.

Eloise Bell and Louise Jensen were two of my role models for teaching. I encountered Eloise during undergraduate study and Louise in my graduate program. Both taught me techniques for reaching students inductively and both infected me with their passion.

A lovely lady named Nancy taught me how to teach my peers with the appropriate mix of confidence and humility.

When it comes to my writing, I've always said that when I grow up, I want to be Debbie Macomber. Debbie, bless her, has encouraged and mentored my work. She gave me a quote for my first series of romance novels (with Avalon) and is still doing creative things with her work that often inspire me to do better and achieve more.

Besides the people who raised me, I've been blessed to have some lovely, inspiring people in my life. I am grateful for each of them.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

No Villains Here

Since I usually prefer to write the sort of story where "everyone is in the right," I seldom employ villains. I do have one in a current Work-in-Progress, but since it's a mystery and since sharing the villain now would ruin the whole plot, I'm going to avoid the problem.

Instead I'm sharing a sequence from A SECRET FAMILY RECIPE. In this scene, Karen, a 40-something wife and mother, is musing about her husband's two aunts, in their 70s, who have come for the funeral of their mother:


For a moment I just thought about the two sisters. They seemed about as different as two women could be – Lenore petite and dainty, sophisticated and refined, a celebrity in a large and glittering world. Shirley was both taller and heavier, a solid Mormon mom little known outside her own small circle of family and friends. Each of them could have plenty of reason to be jealous of the other: Lenore had achieved remarkable and enviable successes, even being introduced to most of the world's remaining royalty. Yet it was Shirley who had borne and raised the family that Lenore had always wanted. In fact, she'd once confided to me, early in my acceptance into the family, that she'd give up the world of ballet in a moment if she could meet the right man and have a baby. It had never happened for her, despite her having so much to offer.

So the two of them could have been enemies, consumed by envy of one another. Instead they were the primary support for each other and, obviously, dear friends. I reflected they had much to teach the rest of us, and I hoped the pieced-together Burnett clan could benefit from the calm strength I felt in their bond, their mutual support.

If all of us who "could have been enemies" could instead become mutually supportive, it would be a better world. Hmmm... That sounds like a plot for the next book.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Creating Believable Villains

First, and so appropriately, let me wish you a Happy Day of the Dead. The Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico in conjunction with All Saints' Day on November 1 and All Souls' Day on November 2. For those who celebrate it, it's something of a Halloween on steroids. If you are so inclined, put out food and drink offerings for your departed friends and family and enjoy sharing a picnic with them all.


This week's web review takes us to the Horror Factor web site for a psychological exploration of villains and "The Other" by Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD. She too favors the complex villain, not as easily explained away as some monstrosities. (Freddy Krueger, anyone?)

Her article is called "The Other in Fiction: Creating Wonderfully Wicked Villains." It would make good required reading for anyone who wants to write horror, or even for the less horrific plots found in mystery and detective stories.

Have a good look at it and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Happy Day of the Dead

Happy Day of the Dead, everyone! Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico in conjunction with All Saints' Day on November 1 and All Souls' Day on November 2. Think of Halloween on steroids. If you are inclined, put out food and drink for your departed friends and family and enjoy sharing a picnic with them all.

This lesser known holiday (practically unknown for most Americans) is a joyful, upbeat festival for those who know it as part of their culture, complete with sugar candies in the shapes of human skulls or skeletons, picnics in cemeteries and bright colors. Still it seems macabre to those who haven't grown up with the concept, and because it's an unusual, macabre day, the Dia de los Muertos makes an excellent background for setting up unusual and macabre events in your fiction.

I recall how surprised I was when I realized Tennessee Williams was making oblique references to the celebration of the dead in "A Streetcar Named Desire." In Scene Nine, just when things are really getting bad for Blanche, an older Mexican woman, dressed in mourning, appears in the street, selling "Flowers. Flowers for the dead." Blanche reacts with horror because the woman is announcing her fate -- in fact, the fate of all of us, and death is what Blanche fears most.

The arrival of the Mexican woman and the brief mention of the Day of the Dead serve as foreshadowing for what will soon happen to Blanche. We don't have to take our books to Mexico in order to make the same kinds of subtle references that Williams has made.

Let's hope we can use them as well.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Enter the Villain

Let me start by wishing everyone a safe, sane and happy Halloween! It may not be my favorite holiday, but I hope you'll enjoy it on my behalf. :-)


In an earlier post I mentioned the fact that, as Tami Hoag put it, "Psychopaths are People, too." Indeed they are. In fact the trend in recent comic book translations to the silver screen has been to do away with bad guys who, like Richard III, are simply "determined to prove a villain." The new, improved bad guys are damaged souls who have turned their pain into pathos and their pathos into heartless victimizing of others.

Now even the James Bond franchise is adopting the trend. As a recent article by Tim Grierson puts it, "the Bond producers have really shied away from the cheesy, eccentric villains that started popping up during the Roger Moore years. Instead, there's been an emphasis on respected, foreign-born actors who can portray a stripped-down dark side." Oscar winner Javier Bardem has been signed to play the wounded villain in the twenty-third Bond film, opposite Daniel Craig, who has played a reinvented Bond in recent installments of this 50-year-old franchise.

As Grierson puts it, "If Bond movies are only as good as their villains, then having someone of Bardem's stature certainly can't hurt. In fact, in some ways he's a real change of pace from your usual Bond baddie."

I have suggested, and I'll say it again, that any person-vs-person conflict that depends on a bad guy is only as good as its villain is bad. Now let me add that to make for really fine fiction, whether in books or movies, the villain must be both bad and believable, motivated by real human drama in his (her) own life, someone we can care about or admire a little, even while reeling in revulsion and horror.

In other words, these villains are people, too, and the more believable we make their nastiness, the stronger our stories will be.

Friday, October 28, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: The Good Guys

I've been blessed to have a life full of "good guys," protagonists in their own stories, proactive in making the world arond them better.

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It started with my parents who always encouraged me to be and do my very best. I remember a series of kids' books I read before I was even in full-day school. The series featured Nurse Nancy and Doctor Dan. I thought Nurse Nancy was about as wonderful as anyone could ever be and said so, suggesting that maybe one day, I might like to become a nurse.

My mother's answer? "Then why not be a doctor?" For the mid-1950s, the idea was revolutionary and yet it stuck. I have never imposed artificial limits on myself and I've sometimes fought the perceptions of others. In this respect and many others, my mother has been an excellent role model.

Dad encouraged me, too. He helped with the "women's work" in the household, set an example as a fine cook, and expected his daughters to help with the outside work like tending the animals, irrigating the garden, and even helping to dispatch the varmints that found they way into the chicken coop. I didn't always appreciate the work, but I appreciated that he thought me capable of it.

Were there bad guys? Yes, there were. I could recite a series of terrifying almost-awful tales, yet I'm here to recite those stories because there were so many good guys, bold people who stood up for me and came to my rescue on more than one occasion when things might have gone very badly.

Today while in the midst of discussing fictional villains, I want to celebrate the heroes, the good guys, the bold and strong people who have been there when I needed them. I've been blessed to know some of the best of the best.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Motivating Our Villains

German poet and playwright Fredrich Hebbel once said, "In a good play, everyone is in the right." That is also my favorite way to write conflict, the sort of plot where good people have conflicting goals. Although everyone may indeed be "in the right," they can't all get what they want.

One of the best examples comes in the love triangle. Let's say it's a woman in love with two men. They are both good guys and genuinely care about her. She is a good woman who genuinely cares about both of them, yet you know from the outset that this story is going to end badly for someone. Debbie Macomber is good at this kind of plot. Although the essence of the conflict in the story may well be person-vs-person, everyone is a good guy, or as Hebbel put it, "everyone is in the right.

Yet sometimes people aren't in the right. Sometimes, as in the case of the movie villains we examined yesterday, there is a superbly evil person who is, unquestionably, in the wrong -- the VERY wrong.

So what did you notice about the villains in yesterday's list? What, besides their villainy, do they all have in common? I'm sure we could come up with a list, but the one thing that stood out to me is absolutely selfishness. Without a care as to how their own goals or plans affect anyone else, each of these villains seeks his or her own self-interest first, last, and always.

I currently have a story in the works that will have a bad guy -- a very, very bad guy. I'd share more about this villain except the story is a mystery and if I tell you now, there will be no reason for you to read it when the book is finished.

Instead let me share something about how I'm writing the villain. At a writers' conference I attended years ago, the inimitable Tami Hoag offered a workshop called "Psychopaths are People Too." The concept is simple and true: every person's motivation seems rational and justified to him or her.

I'm finding it spooky, but oddly satisfying, to think through the motivations of my fictional villain. I'm writing a bad, bad person and enjoying it immensely.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Best/Worst Movie Villains

No discussion of fictional bad guys would be complete without someone's list of worst villains. Since most of us have modern movies in common, I've decided to go with Reel Reviews' list of "Best Movie Villains of All Time," compiled by Frank Wilkins.

Some of these choices are surprising, but I suspect you'll find yourself nodding along with most of them, or maybe even getting a little chill as you say to yourself, "Oh yeah. He (she) was really, really BAD!"

In the spirit (spirits?) of Halloween, enjoy! As you read through the list, see if you can decide for yourself what makes them so bad and what it is that they all have in common.


Is there a movie villain not on this list that you think deserve to be here? Go ahead and add your comment.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Let's Forget Halloween

Halloween is the best time of the year for an examination of fictional villains and monsters. It's also my least favorite holiday (anti-holy-day?) of them all.

While I can admire the creativity, effort and commitment of those who go to extraordinary lengths to decorate their homes and design elaborate costumes, I wish those efforts served a better purpose. For me, Halloween seems little more than an excuse for beautiful children to dress in hideous costumes and go about begging strangers for candy.

That begging enables an outlet for any of those strangers who happen to have a sadistic streak. (Really, what kind of person thinks of putting razor blades in an apple or lacing hard candy with harder drugs?)

Even the history of the day with its tricks and pranks and its over-the-top fear factor raises my hackles while the celebration of goodies raises the blood sugar levels of all the nation's school kids all at once. You only need one November 1 in a room full of fifth graders to start wondering whether it isn't time to scrap the whole tradition.

For my part I scrapped it long ago. If my husband hadn't enjoyed the fun that can come with the occasion, my kids might never have had costumes or trick-or-treat escorts at all. Call me a fuddy-duddy stick-in-the-mud and I will readily agree, but for the widely-reported incidents of sadism, the apparent celebration of violence, and the elevation of what is ugly, I absolutely detest Halloween.


How do you feel? Is there a different tradition you'd just as soon do away with? Share?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Heroes and Villains

In the basic person-vs-person plot, the goodness of the hero depends largely on the badness of the villain. Conversely the nastiness of the villain exists more or less in proportion to the virtue of the hero or heroine who opposes him (her).

Hence Clarice Starling's intelligence, wit, decency and basic humanity are enhanced as she contrasts them against the demented intelligence and indecency of Hannibal Lecter, one of the most cunning monsters ever to grace American books and movies. She becomes a more amazing, insightful and virtuous heroine because she is pitted against an absolutely monstrous villain, one whose cleverness we can't help admiring even as our revulsion intensifies.

Harry Potter would never have become the Hero of Hogwart's if it hadn't been for Voldemort. J.K. Rowling herself, via her character Dumbledore, even tells us that Tom Riddle created the instrument of his own destruction by seeking out and trying to destroy "the boy who lived."

The list is long. Sherlock Holmes had his Moriarty; Batman his cast of hideous bad guys. Find a hero anywhere and he is matched by a villain as evil as he is good.

The example even works in history. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower might never have become the leader he was had he lived in a time of peace. He became the commander of the Allied Forces and then the President of the United States because his leadership was shaped, honed, and polished by his conflict with Adolph Hitler and the forces of the German Third Reich, Tojo and the Axis Powers.

We who write can do well to remember this phenomenon: In a person-vs-person conflict, the hero(ine) and villain create one another as they pit their best and worst against each other.


Who are your favorite fictional villains? What heroes or heroines do they "create" through their conflict?

Friday, October 21, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Second Chances

I believe in second chances. We all deserve them, and so do our books. This year I've been blessed to see my first-ever novel, BENEATH SIERRA SKIES, get a second chance with the reading public.

Robin Hill was my firstborn fictional heroine. Her hero, Dr. Brandon Demarse, was the firstborn hero of my writing career. Back then, the publishing line for which this book was produced, Silhouette Romance, allowed only one point of view (the heroine's) in any book, so Brandon's thoughts were represented only by what he said and did.

I loved him. I had created him, after all, and I knew what was going on in his thoughts. Even when he said or did seemingly incongruous or unkind things, I knew his heart. Unfortunately, that didn't always come through clearly in the writing.

I didn't realize that until 20 years later, when I was editing the digital version for any errors that may have crept in. Reading through the manuscript again after two decades' time, I realized that Brandon comes through rather less appealingly than I had intended.

Still I can't help but love him, and I'm glad he is getting a second chance. He deserves it. He may not be perfect, but he's perfect for Robin, and I can't help thinking he's pretty great.


Did you "meet" Brandon yet? What did you think?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

All Kinds of Conflict

This week we've been looking at various kinds of conflict, both external and internal. In my first-ever published novel, BENEATH SIERRA SKIES, I involved my characters in several levels of conflict of both kinds. This scene depicts one of the ongoing conflicts:

He was back in no time, shivering violently. “I hope you’re prepared to do first aid for hypothermia,” he said.

She folded back the comforter on his side. “Climb in. I’ll see what I can do.” He crawled in next to her, settling himself carefully, and she draped herself over him as fully as possible, rubbing his chest softly. He caught her hand in his and cupped the back of her neck, drawing her mouth to his lips. It was a full, thorough kiss and Robin let herself enjoy it, giving back as completely as he gave to her.

“That was delicious,” he said when she finally broke away. “You know, you’re a very sexy woman.”

Robin pulled farther away, more moved than she wanted to admit. “You know the first-aid books say you’re supposed to treat hypothermia skin-to-skin, no clothes.” Brandon grinned wolfishly.

“No chance.”

“Then come here and kiss me again,” he said, his voice husky.

Robin hesitated, then sighed and drew closer, allowing herself to feel and enjoy. Brandon was enjoying, too. He deepened the kiss, and she responded in kind, running the tip of her tongue along the roof of his mouth.

He moaned deeply and pulled her to him, his body suddenly very warm beneath her touch.

When I stranded them in the snow and ice of the Sierras, I knew they'd have troubles, but this was one conflict I thought they might enjoy working through.


What favorite conflicts fuel your stories? Share?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Internal vs. External Conflict

Rather than reinventing the writer's wheel by describing the differences between internal and external conflict and how we use them in a story, let me refer you to an excellent web resource that has already done that work for me. Glen C. Strathy's "How to Write a Book Now" site may not equip you to take the literary world by storm, but he does have an excellent discussion on conflict.

As he points out, we're all familiar with the external conflicts in common plots. We know them as:

* Man vs. Man (Or to be politically correct Person vs. Person)

* Person vs. Nature

* Person vs. Society

* Person vs. Machine

* Person vs. some supernatural agency such as gods, demons, fate, etc.

We can probably rattle off a half-dozen book or movie titles to accompany each of the conflicts listed here. Often the more important conflicts, both in fiction and in our lives, are the ones that happen between our ears.

My first book, BENEATH SIERRA SKIES, pitted Robin and Brandon against the forces of nature. If survival had been their only concern, they'd have had plenty to deal with, but I also gave them the push-pull of powerful attraction vs. fear of commitment, adventure and romance both.

Think of the best novels you've ever read and you'll probably find that the conflicts are both external and internal. Enjoy this great blog on the subject.


What are the conflicts in your favorite books? Share?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Conflict's Role in my Life

I'm a peace-loving person. Conflict is low on my list of favorite things. Yet somehow I've managed to live through a fair amount of it.

A marriage, if it lasts longer than Brittany Spears' or Kim Kardashian's, is an ideal classroom for studying conflict resolution. Since the dh and I have been wed for more than four decades, we've had plenty of study and loads of homework. That doesn't mean we're experts, but when you add in the practical lab application gained by raising seven competitive children, we're at least experienced.

Then too, during three of those decades, I taught at California State University, in the English Department. I well remember attending a cross-disciplinary workshop and introducing myself to a colleague. "Hi, I'm Mark," he said. "I'm from Math."

"Hi," I answered. "I'm Susan, from English."

Mark solemnly shook his head. With an expression of deepest sympathy, he said, "I'm so sorry."

Yep. English Departments are like that.

So what have I learned from all this conflict in my life? For one thing, I've learned not to rush into a situation talking. I try to stop, listen, get the lay of the land and understand more fully what's going on before walking head-on into a buzzsaw. (I seldom spoke in department meetings, either.)

I've learned to know who my true friends are and not be taken in by false friends. I've learned to be a true friend to those who are true to me and to honor those who have my back. I've learned to value trust.

Conflict may be the beginning of the story for our characters. In real life, it's sometimes the ending for us, but when conflict ends a story that hasn't really begun yet, there was never a story in the first place, was there?


What has real-life conflict taught you?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Conflict in Plotting and Life

Let's talk about conflict. No, not the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the kind of conflict we writers must create if we're to have a story.

Helen Keller once commented that "We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world." She was right. It is the conflict in our lives that becomes our best teacher. Writers know that without it, there's no story.

Typically a book begins when something changes in our main character's life, throwing her into a growth situation whether she likes it or not. Sometimes she (or he) deliberately chooses a new adventure; sometimes the "adventure" is thrust upon her and she moves only reluctantly into whatever her future holds.

A typical story arc follows her through the "rising action" (as the problems complicate and intensify) to a moment of climax when the conflict reaches its highest peak, to (we hope) a satisfying resolution.

Does that necessarily entail bad guys, good vs. evil, foul intention? I don't think so, and that's the argument I want to make in this blog over the coming days.

A woman who must choose between two men who both love her is faced with a difficult dilemma only when both are appealing candidates for marriage -- not when one is Prince Charming and the other the Prince of Darkness.

Stay tuned as we look at conflict, both with and without the bad guys.

Friday, October 14, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Traditional Publishing

I was lucky. I was blessed. I got started in publishing before you could upload your manuscript to PubIt or create your own works on Kindle or fall victim to PublishAmerica. I fell into traditional publishing. I was blessed.

My story started when I was nine and my teacher asked me what I would be when I grew up. "A writer!" I declared emphatically. After all, I loved books and my teachers all thought I had talent. At age nine I published a poem in a national magazine for children and thought I had it made.

I was eleven when I narrowed my ambition to becoming a novelist, fifteen when I made it my summer job to write and submit to magazines. When I had accumulated more than 200 rejections, I finally started throwing them all away. I didn't sell a word, but I got a quick and useful education in publishing -- at least at the magazine level.

By the time I had a couple of English degrees and was earning my keep by teaching, I knew I needed much more education. Still, both foolish and undaunted, I wrote a book. Having no idea what to do with it, I put it in a drawer.

Enter Debbie Gordon. As Brooke Hastings, she had written a small stack of books for the Harlequin empire. I happened to bump into a friend of hers while traveling. I was reading a book on how to write and publish romance novels and the friend told me about her buddy, Debbie. I made notes.

Later, while making videotapes on writing and writers for my college English classes, I met Debbie. Near the end of our interview, I confessed I had a manuscript in the drawer and she told me that if I polished and mailed it by the end of the month, she'd notify her editor it was coming.

That was in October 22 years ago. My nine books have been written in spare moments around a 30-year teaching career and a large family. Along the way, I've acquired a marvelous, practical education in the publishing industry.

I've been blessed, and I'm grateful.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Try to put up with Him

Today's excerpt comes from my first-ever novel, BENEATH SIERRA SKIES, traditionally published by Silhouette in 1990 and recently re-released by Belgrave House. You can read a longer excerpt on the Belgrave House web site. I quote here from the novel's beginning:

A breeze as soft and warm as an embrace carried the blossoms that fell from the almond trees. A preview of spring had come to the Sacramento Valley, and Robin reveled in it, lifting her chin into the breeze and tossing her red-gold hair. She’d lived in Chico long enough to know winter would return before spring finally came, but these lovely days in February gave her patience.

She walked briskly, stretching her stride. At five foot eight she’d always been long, leggy and with an ample figure, and men had appreciated her looks. Then why...? She shrugged the thought away. Perhaps the warmer weather had made her wishful, or maybe it was her sister’s wedding, only three days away. It seemed as though the whole world was pairing off in couples!

Robin quickly covered the few blocks between the university and the hospital, entered at the old doors off the Esplanade and skipped up the stairs.

Nancy, her supervisor, stepped from her office as Robin put on her lab coat. “Ah. The guest lecturer returns. How did it go?”

“I’m a hit. The students all want to be just like me, if you can imagine that!”

“I certainly can. You’re the best cardiac caseworker I have.”

“I’m the only cardiac caseworker you have.”

“In that case, get to work.” Nancy winked as she picked up her clipboard. “Oh, Dr. Collins’s office called about the Chilton case. They’re assigning it to Dr. Demarse.”

“I was afraid of that,” Robin grumbled.

“Trouble?”

Robin shrugged. “We really haven’t worked together often.”

“He’s supposed to be a wonderful surgeon. It’s the only reason we keep him. That and his blond hair,” Nancy said with a grin.

“He sure isn’t famous for talking with his patients. The first time we worked together was with a postsurgical patient. Just before he was to be discharged, he asked Dr. Demarse when he could make love to his wife again. Demarse just shrugged him off, saying ‘Sex is no big deal. If you can run up a flight of stairs, you can have sex, and if you can’t, you can live without it.”

Nancy groaned. “He didn’t really say that, did he?”

“He sure did, and two days later, the patient was back in the emergency room with a broken nose. He’d fallen while trying to run up a flight of stairs.”

“Oh, no!” Nancy was laughing in spite of herself. “Well, many doctors have a hard time talking about sex. That’s why the job often falls to us.”

“I know, but some doctors have a worse manner than others.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve heard some interesting things about Demarse’s bedside manner...”

“Don’t tell me you listen to hospital gossip?”

“Come on, Robin. Are you going to pretend he’s not attractive?”

“Well, I’ll admit he’s nice-looking—”

“Great-looking,” Nancy corrected.

“Okay, great-looking, but that’s no excuse for the way he behaves.”

“Well, try to put up with him. He is a very fine surgeon."

Robin and Brandon were my first literary offspring. Although attitudes have changed since 1990 and I now find Brandon more obnoxious than I did then (actually, he's something of a jerk!), I still love them, and I love their grand adventure.

You can find this book, and most of my others, on Amazon Kindle. Although it is not yet available at the Barnes and Noble Nook site, seven of my other books are.

Enjoy!