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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


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.