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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.