owl in winter

owl in winter

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I Thought You Would Write Nice Stories...

Maybe I should have characterized this post as "Character Definition" or, more to the point, "Don't be Afraid of Your Characters." No matter. You will understand what I mean as you read this.

Here's the deal.

A few years ago, when I first revealed to my parents my intentions of becoming a published author, my mother said, "I thought you would write childrens' stories. I mean, I thought you were writing childrens' stories."

What? Had I ever given that impression?

I must have looked confused because, then she revised her theme to say, "I thought you were writing nice stories."

Nice stories?

I may have looked more confused at that point.

I asked her what she meant by nice stories. "Oh, you know, no cursing. No dirty stuff, nobody doing bad things, you know, nice stories. I like the movie, 'Sarah, Great and Tall,' you know, a story like that."

Uh hunh. Nice stories. I have never seen "Sarah, Great and Tall." Maybe I should. Maybe I would understand more if I did see it. But, I haven't and probably won't. Sounds a little, shall I say, pedestrian, to me? Well, you know, I understand my mother is 75 years old and so...gotta give a little leeway. HOWEVER.

Speaking about writing now. I said all that to say this. Don't be afraid of your characters.

Think about it. Your characters are as real as you are. You were born someplace. Your parents came from somewhere, whether it was from Europe or from across the road. Maybe you nearly died at birth. Maybe you were so huge at birth, your mother died. Maybe your parents were of a particular religion or creed with all its constraints and/or joys, and traditions. Maybe you went to parochial school and a nun didn't like you and showed it and it affected you later in some awful way. Maybe you went to public school, where you had your first crush. Think about this. Maybe your parents got a divorce. Why? Maybe your father was abusive. Maybe your mother was timid. Why was your father abusive? What made your mother timid? Were your parents uneducated? Is that why they talked like that or believed the things they believed? Why? Maybe you moved around a lot and never made a connection anywhere. Maybe you yearned for more out of life and never got it. Maybe you yearned for more and it was the catalyst to make you what you are today. One thing that has shown up in my stories time after time, is diversity. I grew up with color. I am acquainted with different types of sexual orientation. These things do not frighten me; they shouldn't frighten you in your writing either.

Pull it all in, folks. Life is about conflict. Without conflict you have no story. If all your characters are nice, if they only behave nicely, if only nice things come about, what is your story? Sorry but snoozeville here and probably everywhere else as well.

Let your characters be human; allow them that. They will get up and move and they won't always move the way you expect or plan or even want. They do have minds of their own, after all. They have backstory, they have had a life somewhere, one that you may not necessarily like or approve of, but one that adds to the layers of your story. Don't be afraid to go there and, take it all the way.

Cardinal rule right here. Be honest. Never, ever lie to your readers. This is paramount. Maybe this is why I have a problem with so-called "Christian Fiction." I know there is a big market for this genre right now and that is fine but, I just have to say my piece and let it go. Never, ever pretend that your characters are so noble that they can never say a bad word or behave in a less than noble way. Would not happen in real life, don't put your characters through it. Make them real. Make your people believable. If you can do that, you can produce a good story. A believable story.
And, seriously, that is what your readers want. They want something they can hold onto, something to identify with, to say, "yeah, I felt that way once," or, "that happened to me," or maybe to someone they knew but at any rate, they want to identify, to relate. They want to be able to absorb your writing, take it in by osmosis. Your readers want REAL.

Okay, go to the page and write. Tell the truth. Don't be afraid. Be real. Ready, get set, go!

It All Started So Well

It did. It all started so well. Even with the rain. Even with the falling temperatures. Even with the dimming sunlight. My oldest son's girlfriend, Kelcey, was with us, all aglow at the idea of having a big family Christmas, bless her heart. It was supposed to be perfect. The gaily wrapped presents were packed. I had packed the cheesecake and raspberry topping, we were ready to rumble for the familial Christmas Eve at my parents' house.

To begin with, you may have seen my quasi-rant on http://www.facebook.com/ about my family's Christmas Eve misadventure. After I posted it, as common sense would have it, I thought better of having done so but it was too late. Out there, for all the world to see. And I really wished I had not done it. It just seemed like the wrong thing to do, at least on that medium, which is all about sound bites anyway and the whole story probably never gets told. So, I felt guilty afterward and wished I could retract the whole thing.

The story is: As with every Christmas Eve, we venture over the highway and through the burgs to my parents' house, which is probably 75 miles from my front door. Right about the time we hit Mansfield, Mo, approximately 20 miles from destination point zero, the oil light came on and approximately one second after that, the knocking started. What the crap? I have been a pretty attentive car owner, yes indeed. I check my oil. I perform routine maintenance, or at least my mechanic does; point is, I'm on it.

Well, so we're knocking to beat the band. We pull off the highway, drive the car up to Lazy Lee's convenience store, and I am thinking, well, my brother lives not far from here, maybe we can get that far and hitch a ride with him to our parents' house, the car wildly knocking the whole time. So, we limp the five or so blocks over there. Nobody home.

The rain keeps pouring, the temperatures keep slipping.

We limp my Xterra back to Lazy Lee's where I go in to find a phone. "Is there a phone here?" I ask the clerk. She's not in a very good mood, this being Christmas Eve and she has to work. I'm sure she has other obligations and other interests at that moment and she probably is not real thrilled about having to work when she has so much to do. "No," she says without looking at me. She's looking beyond me to the next person in line.

Christmas Eve. No room at the inn.

I say, "Look, my car just blew its motor, I'm from Springfield, I need to use a phone. Have you got a phone?"

She hands her blackberry over to me, and I find I can't read the numbers on it because they are so small and the flourescent lights are glaring on it, and my aging eyes can't see squat sometimes, so she ends up having to dial for me and I call my parents. "We'll be right there," my mother says. I ask the clerk what I owe her for using her personal phone and she shakes her head and says, "nothing." Merry Christmas to you, unknown clerk at Lazy Lee's in Mansfield, Mo. There are angels everywhere, you know it?

Some 25 minutes later, my 75-yr old father pulls up. The man who's been my hero since I was born, here yet again, to rescue his now middle-aged daughter from yet another fiasco. Oh, the stories we could tell. But won't.

Long story short now because it's probably boring at this point - my car was towed to Springfield by my sister's fiance. I'll get it repaired, I hope, this week. The verdict seems to be that I must have run over something that punctured my oil line because the car still starts right up, and there was really no reason for the oil light to come on and then all go to crap in one instant unless I had indeed hit something. So, Christmas Eve, sitting at Lazy Lee's in the dark, rain pelting, all of us in my car with the windows all fogged over and just sitting there wondering how it would all turn out, waiting on my father, I remember turning to Kelcey and saying, "Are you sure you want to take any more road trips with us?" to which she laughed and said all was fine. We had a wonderful Christmas Eve at my parents' house and all's well that ends well. And it has ended pretty well. We live to tell the story, right?
We do indeed, and, here's my dad.
See ya.

Listening to the wind blow...

So, hey, it was a white Christmas in southwest Missouri this year. After returning from our disastrous journey to Mountain Grove on Christmas Eve, I dropped into bed and listened to the wind howl outside my window for hours before falling asleep. I remember hearing that sound every night of my life in Minnesota and I could imagine myself back there, huddled underneath heaps of quilts in my little blue bedroom with the two windows that faced north. Sitting here, right now, today at 1:26 p.m., Sunday, December 27th, I am listening to my wind chimes on the front porch, being bouyed and smashed together by the wind...It may be freezing out there but it is toasty in here.
This is what we have to chase the chill today.
Beef Stew
1 1/2 - 2 lbs. top round steak, cut into cubes
1 c. flour
2 teas. salt
1/4 teas. pepper
thyme, to taste
Combine the flour, salt, pepper and thyme in a gallon sealable plastic bag. Drop the meat cubes in and shake to coat. Heat a couple tablespoons olive oil in dutch oven or soup pot. Drop meat cubes in, reserving flour mixture, and brown well.
Beef stock
Carrots, chopped
Onions, quartered
Cabbage, quartered
Celery, chopped
1 Bay leaf
1 8 0z. can tomato sauce
Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
Salt and pepper
Pour 2 - 2 1/2 cups beef stock into the pot with the meat. Since you've seasoned your flour mixture and since beef stock will have salt in it, there is really no need to add more (I know, sounds like I'm violating my principal rule of seasoning the layers, but I'm really not, this time). Throw in a bay leaf, maybe a little more pepper and thyme. Let that cook while you are getting your vegetables ready - the amounts are subjective, whatever you like. Drop vegetables in, pour tomato sauce over and stir. Cover, bring to boil and then turn down to simmer for about 2 hours. Stir in reserved flour mixture until soup thickens. Season to taste.
Sometimes, I will pour maybe a quarter cup red wine in while everything is simmering but if you don't drink, you don't have to put it in. It just adds another depth of flavor, in my opinion. About the wine, just make sure it is a wine you would want to drink so don't dump one of the cheapos in. A burgundy or pinot noir generally works real well.
Also, I know you can buy beef stew meat pre-cubed but I had a bad experience with that once and have not bought it since. Besides, I find it too fatty and not as flavorful as I would like so I prefer top round to anything else.
Well, I plan on sitting here, next to the fire, with a steaming bowl of beef stew, listening to the wind blow for awhile. Have a wonderful Sunday and I will see you on Sunday Musings very soon!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

And a Merry Christmas to All

I hope you and yours have a very Merry, prosperous, healthy, and joyous Christmas!

Will post again after this wonderful and riotous Christmas season! Don't forget me and please come back.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rituals, Respite, Refuge

So, here we are, bounced once again into the holiday season. For me, this time of year becomes a time for introspection; a time to consider where I am at this moment and where I would like to be next year at this moment. After all the celebrating, the shopping, the eating, the giving, yes, I do like to take some time and just be silent for a little while. I have some rituals, which provide me respite and which I take refuge in.

Having said that, I did venture out today to do some holiday shopping. Springfield has become Wacko-City, which it generally does at this time of year. If you like stalled traffic, horns honking, pushing, shoving, anxious shoppers oblivious to anything but their own shopping angst, well, this city is for you right about now. Me, not so much. I keep telling myself, next month begins tax season and that aint so much fun so, enjoy the moment now.

And I do love Christmas.

So, back to rituals, respite and refuge.

Since I was a teenager, every Christmas season, I've endeavored to set aside time to just be quiet and read or re-read something I really love. Years ago, it was The Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Rings trilogy. Read that every December, tucked into my Minnesota bed at night with the wind roaring outside and loved it. Isn't it funny how you can pick up on things you didn't read the time before?

The last several years, however, I've read and re-read Rosamunde Pilcher's "Winter Solstice."

Ms. Pilcher is in high esteem in my book. Her writing is rich, sumptuous, human. Who can resist a troubled young teen, a woman lost in love for a man she cannot have, and most of all, who can resist a years old-love story? If you haven't read it, you really need to.

I am in the midst of re-reading "Winter Solstice." These days, instead of tucking myself into my Minnesota flannel-sheeted bed, listening to the wind howl outside my window, I tuck myself into my Missouri regular cotton sheets, and I revel (another "R" word) in Elfrida Phipps, Oscar Blundell, Lucy, Carrie and Sam. It's a good Christmas read and a good ritual, a fine place for respite and refuge. Before the tax man cometh.

What are your rituals? How do you keep your sanity during this topsy-turvy, riotous holiday season?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Process, or Part of it Anyway

I spent part of my day today with a dear friend, who lives in a different town. Her husband recently lost his job and mentioned to me today that since he is out of work and has time, he has given a lot of thought to writing a book. He really wants to write a book. He has all these thoughts in his head and wants to do something with them. Bravo! Seriously, I wish I could have stayed longer, drunk some wine, and shared some thoughts I have with him but, as I had obligations in Springfield, I journeyed back home, only being able to share this with him before I departed, "Get the words out of your head and on paper. Don't worry about anything else, just get the words out."

We probably have, at some point in our writing careers, had somebody come out and shake the red pen at us and cry, "format, format, format!" I even know of one person who claims to format as she goes.

Well and good, I suppose. Formatting has its place, do not get me wrong but a first draft is all about getting the words out of your head and on paper. Creativity does not breathe in a box. I notice that when I start becoming concerned about formatting as I am writing, the process shuts down. It becomes mechanical, dry, passionless.

I don't want to write that way. Do you?

Now having said that, I don't want anyone to perceive that I don't know there is discipline in writing because I know there is. You have to do it often, every day is best, you have to push through barriers and keep your thoughts and stories alive. The point is, do not worry about having perfect sentence structure or proper margins or starting every new chapter halfway down the page. Do open your mind and let what's in your mind flow out onto your medium, paper or computer screen, whatever you are using. Let it flow. When the appropriate time comes, you can and should and will go back and refine.

Get the words out of your head an on paper.

Just do that and in time, you will find your rhythym.

Make sense?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Back to Work

I need to get back to work, the real work, the nourishing, cleansing work that has been so important to me the last four or five years. It's the nuts and bolts that I need now. I've languished too long, worrying about creativity, worrying about not having enough time, worrying about how to get it all done and just not starting it. I make a promise to myself to dive back into my passion with all my heart.

I haven't talked about the MIP much, which doesn't lend much credibility to me as a writer but a writer I am and not so much a teacher but, more of a cheerleader to you and other writers out there who need to hear the words, "you can write." So, before I go back to work on the MIP, let's link arms for a second and say, "we are writers. We write."

Layers. Let's talk about layers for a minute.

I can relate this idea back to cooking (of course). I know people who season in the beginning or who season at the very end of a dish but, neither approach is right. Season the layers. Think about those onions sauteing in butter. Go ahead, salt and pepper them. Throw a little garlic in, or thyme, or red pepper flakes, whatever gives you a kick, whatever moves the dish along. Maybe then, you drop in some flour, stir that around and then pour in your liquid. How about a little more salt, a little more pepper, a little more something-something to give it some jazz? You're stirring your sauce, it's thickened, it's almost finished. Pull out some nutmeg, maybe or a little more thyme, a little more red pepper flakes. Now you've got it.

It's the same sort of thing with our characters. We must give our characters life, we must give them energy (whether good or bad), we must provide them with depth. Where do they come from? What was their childhood like? Were they abandoned once? Did they witness a terrible act? What was their favorite vacation? What memories do they have of other places? Think about a joyful moment in their lives, something that will bear on the story you are telling. Describe it. Why does it matter so much?

So, when we're developing our characters, we pull from the pantry of our imagination the garlic, the cumin, the chives and we begin our layers, we give our characters depth of flavor. Let your characters speak to you, listen to their voices.

Does this make sense to you?

By the way, the photo above contains several books that I believe are useful to any writer. All of them can be found at Barnes & Noble. One is "Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg. Donald Maass's "The Career Novelist" and "Writing the Breakout Novel" are also featured, as well as an edition of "Writers Digest" with one of my favorite authors on the front, Anne Tyler. The purple print-out contains an article I wrote for a dear friend and it is actually the program guide to the Indian celebration she allowed me to be a part of this past spring. Go to http://www.amykitchenerfdn.org/ for more details on the Trail of Tears and the Weeping Waters Cultural Heritage Award.