October 5, 2011

Writing the Novel

"If you try to nail anything down, in the novel, either it kills the novel,
or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail."--D.H. Lawrence

I ran across this quote the other day and found it interesting--even intriguing. Since first reading it, I've been thinking about the nail it refers to. Have I been trying to nail something down in the novel I'm working on? Have I been forcing characters to do and/or say something they're not comfortable with? Have I been moving the plot in a direction it simply doesn't want to go? It's true I can't force characters or plot onto a path that suits me if that direction isn't true to the story. It's so easy to forget that when I'm in the midst of writing.

So I'm grateful every time a character steps up to tell me that he or she simply won't do what I want--or when a new character appears from nowhere and pushes me in a different direction. I'll always try to pay attention, for fear the whole thing will get up and walk away with the nail I'm trying to force into place.

I've never been good with a hammer and nail!

September 16, 2011


I've always a great respect for the phenomenon of serendipity. When things happen in a coincidental way, connecting two things or ideas, it's mystical to me.

Recently on a trip to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, Peter and I drove to Whitefish Point on Lake Superior. We'd wanted to see that lake and its gorgeous turquoise waters. We'd heard that the beach was beautiful.

The Shipwreck Museum there is devoted to the history of the many wrecks that occur along that stretch of coast, the most famous being the Edmund Fitzgerald. It was interesting to see the bits (some of the giant bits) and pieces of ships that didn't make it to their destination. After touring the museum and viewing a film about the Fitzgerald's sad end and the memorial built in honor of the captain and crew, we strolled over to the replica of a Life Saving Station, where I took some photos of the equipment and gear used by the original Life Savers.

Great stuff for background for the historical novel I'm working on. It's about a young girl in 1913 who wants to be a Life Saver like her father and brother. At that time, only males could do that work.
Here's the serendipity part: On our way to the car, I spotted a gift shop and took a quick spin through it. On my way out, I spied a glittery object on a display table. A second look showed the glitter to be a replica of the medals used by the surfmen on their nightly patrols to meet their counterpart from the neighboring station. I'd read about these, but it was a thrill to actually see one--and to be able to buy it and bring it home for inspiration! It now hangs over my laptop.

As Peter often says, it doesn't take much to make me happy!

September 9, 2011

Tao and the Creative Process

I read this other day in my book of Tao meditations:

An ocean of ink in a single drop,
Trembling at the tip of my brush,
Poised above stark white paper,
A universe waits for existence.
It no doubt refers to the act of creating visual art, but it seems to fit the writer's life as well. It's awing to realize that a universe is waiting for existence while the writer hesitates to begin her work. Or that an ocean of ink is held in a single drop (or an ocean of words in a single touch on the keyboard). The point of the meditation that followed those words stresses the importance of having reverence for one's work, for treating it with esteem.
This thought gives me pause. Do I have reverence or esteem for my work as I'm putting words down? Too often I get fed up with my efforts and long to hit the delete button. Maybe if I began with a more respectful feeling for what I'm writing things would flow more and I'd be happier with what I create. Certainly worth a try. I manage to respect other writer's work. Perhaps I should treat my own words with the same esteem--before I even start out. As the saying goes: Wouldn't hurt. Might help.

August 10, 2011

Flora and Fauna

The first time I read the phrase, "flora and fauna," it took me a while to realize that this simply meant the plants and wildlife of a given area. (I was a kid at the time.)

This summer has given me a whole new perspective on those two "f" words. Normally I concentrate on the flora part of my backyard area. Things starts out just fine. In May and June we enjoyed lettuce and other salad greens. Then, in July, the weather turned so dismal that I've been hard pressed to harvest more than three tiny tomatoes, some okra. Vegetation does not do well in desert conditions. Just ask my son and his wife who live in Abu Dhabi.

On the fauna side of things, the wildlife passing through our territory has flourished. We've been visited by foxes that came right up our deck to peer in the dining room as we had breakfast. They became daily visitors, and I learned yesterday that a neighbor has been feeding them because they "looked so forlorn." We've become used to raccoons and, of course, squirrels and have even spotted a bedraggled coyote one morning. Yesterday a Cooper's hawk posed on the edge of the birdbath, apparently hoping that the smaller birds would think he was a decorative sculpture and came by to take a drink or bath while he looked on--and then dined on.

Despite the heat and drought, the wildlife has done well by us. All in all, the flora has, much like the Royals, lost more games than they've won. And, like the Royals, I say, "Just wait until next year!"

May 23, 2011


Last Friday they were predicting 100% chance of thunderstorms from afternoon through the evening. I was scheduled to launch my new book WASATCH SUMMER at our local, wonderful children's bookstore, Reading Reptile. The weather forecast threatened to squash my hopes for a big turnout of friends and family, some of whom would be traveling from distant suburbs. As it turned out, it rained a bit in the early afternoon and then the sun came out and the turnout was terrific!

Two days later, almost to the minute, a violent series of tornadoes hit Joplin, about two hours south of KC. At this point, 116 are dead, at least 30% of the city is flattened, and the photos look like a war zone. All of which makes my worry about a thunderstorm disturbing my little world seem very petty. It also spurs me to do what I can to help--a donation to Heart to Heart and lots of prayers for the victims, those who have lost not just property but loved ones, and for the rescue and medical people who have been working nonstop.

March 20, 2011

The Life Skills of Squirrels

When I was teaching, our team did a lot of work on Life Skills such as patience, perseverance, flexibility, creativity, and integrity. All of this comes in handy for a writer. The creativity, of course, starts everything going, but the other skills play an important part once the writing is done. It takes patience to search out the right markets, agents, editors. Perseverance means never giving up that marketing search, no matter how many rejections come. Once a writer's work is accepted, she must be flexible about changes that are often requested, but not so flexible as to feel that the integrity of the work and of the writer is being compromised. I'm glad I persevered to finish WASATCH SUMMER and find a home for it and flexible enough to change the title (originally HANNAH"S LEAP).

However, my life skill practice is minimal compared to a young squirrel who's been studying two bird feeders on our deck. He made many attempts to go from the cylindrical peanut feeder to the cattail feeder that holds sunflower hearts. Both of the feeders were nearly empty by the time he figured it out, but he persevered to the end.

February 16, 2011

In my Own Backyard

In my soon-to-be-published historical novel for kids, WASATCH SUMMER, Hannah receives two turkey wings for her birthday. One is a gift from her Blackfeet friends, who tell her they use the wings as fans in hot weather. The second wing is from her mother, who uses them as a dusting tool.

Anticipating school visit requests, I've been looking for a turkey wing to use for show and tell when I speak to classes about the book. I've asked people I know who hunt or who know someone who hunts--but with no success. Monday, fiddling around on my laptop I typed "turkey wings" into the Google window and up popped several sources for intact feathered wings. The first site showed a gorgeous object, suitable for smudging. It cost $185. I gulped and went on down the list.

I came to a listing for Custom Feathers, which offered a variety of wings, feather sizes, and prices. I found one that sounded right and was reasonably priced. So I clicked away and put in my order.

Tuesday afternoon i heard the mailbox creak as it does when its lid is lifted. Normal sounds for mail delivery. But then the doorbell chimed--not normal. I found the largest Priority Mail envelope somehow managing to remain upright in our tiny mail receptacle. Inside was a beautiful turkey wing.

Amazed at the one-day delivery, I checked the return address. Custom Feathers is in Chillicothe, MO--a few counties away from Kansas City. I had found just what I was looking for--right in my own backyard.

Something to think about. How many other things, people, ideas have I roamed far and wide in search of, only to find them close to home?

February 1, 2011

Winter storms

A little less than a year ago, we were in Egypt, enjoying balmy weather and friendly hospitality from the people there. Now we're snowed in, watching the news about the demonstrations in the northern cities. We're not surprised because it was clear that there is much poverty and unemployment in that country and that the ruling government is not popular with the people. I hope that their struggle brings about positive, productive change.

While the Egyptians storm with righteous rage, the elements storm here in the Midwest--and across most of the country. Anxious birds attack our feeders in a frenzy, looking for survival--just as the people on the streets of Cairo are.

January 26, 2011

Writing and Knitting

I've just discovered that the sweater I've been knitting for Peter--and nearly finished--is too small and the sleeves are too tight. So i've been unraveling a considerable amount of gray wool yarn and working up the energy and will to try again. That may take a while!

It's as if I'd written an entire novel and then discovered that the plot was all wrong or that the characters didn't fit. The feat of unraveling 30,000-50,000 words is daunting. I'm saved from that by belonging to a critique group who will listen to chunks of what I'm writing and give me feedback and support. No need to wait until the whole book is done. I can unravel as I go along, sometimes more than once over the same chunk. I also learn as I hear how others have unraveled something that was giving them trouble the week before.

Writing and knitting--weaving words and stitches in combinations and patterns that work together and end up as a perfect fit. That's the goal. To get things right, it takes a lot of hard work, patience and perseverance--and unraveling.

January 20, 2011

Sources of Inspiration

A few days ago my son posted on his blog about finding inspiration for a new writing project while washing dishes. He and his wife live in Abu Dhabi and have had a variety of experiences--good, bad, humorous, irritating, etc. (including tremors from an earthquake far away in Pakistan)--but it was left to hot, sudsy water to provide a creative spark.

The same is true for me as a writer. Creative ideas come most often when I'm performing daily, mundane tasks that require little mental engagement--raking leaves, taking a walk, cruising grocery aisles, swimming laps, digging up a garden patch. It's as if physical activity allows the creative part of my brain to get in gear and the sparks fly! The same is true when I'm stuck on where to go next with plot or character in an ongoing project. I've found it's best to stop thinking about the problem and go do some mindless activity.

However, I draw the line at any sort of housework. Cleaning, dusting, or vacuuming is so distasteful that it blocks any creative idea that might be trying to get through.

January 10, 2011

The Missing Spatula

How is it that a vital kitchen tool can disappear overnight? Last night, ready to turn the tilapia fillets browning in a non-stick skillet, I searched the utensil drawer for the spatula designed for non-stick surfaces. Not there, nor in any drawer in the kitchen. Not in the dishwasher. Not in the freezer (where occasionally missing objects turn up). Using a metal tool, I carefully turned the fillets, now somewhat browner than I had intended, and went on with dinner preparations.

Since then, Peter and I have done an exhaustive search of the kitchen with no luck. Did our errant tool get boxed up with the Christmas decorations? Or did it just disappear into an alternate universe inhabited by single socks, lost books, missing earrings, and misplaced bank statements? And, if so, will it return before I spend money to replace it?

When more elusive things disappear--a memory of a person, event, or place, for instance--I find that simply relaxing and letting go works. If I let my mind move on, the memory soon pops into my awareness. Seeking, searching, looking for something lost is not always the best approach. Sometimes it's best just to wait.

January 3, 2011

Winter Visitors

The other day I noticed a new bird at the feeders. At least it was new to me.

Peter wasn't sure about the pretty birds, who seemed to like hanging out in the holly tree outside the kitchen window. We studied our bird books, and finally Peter made a trip to his favorite bird food store and learned that our visitors were Cedar Waxwings.

They prefer a diet of berries, which may account for their preference for holly trees. They didn't hang around for long, but they were here long enough for Peter to catch them on film. Note the brilliant yellow on their tails. A true winter treat! We hope they stop by every December.