Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Importance of Research

How many times as a writer have you heard the phrase, "write what you know"? One of the main reasons for this line of thinking is that if you are familiar with something to its very core, you'll convey it more smoothly to the reader. Well, that's true, well and good, but what about writing historical stories?

As a writer, you have an implicit contract with your readers. They give you their time, attention, and their money. You promise to give them, in return, entertainment, information, and perhaps even a new idea or two. But as an historical writer, you have an additional promise, and that is to sweep your readers back in time and take them to a world they may not have known even existed.

To do this, you must know the world you are writing about inside and out. Every little detail in your story must be historically correct, and in order to do this, you must RESEARCH. Now, many beginning writers will say, "Well, this is fiction, after all. I don't need to know every little detail. I can make it up as I go along, and no one is going to know." Uh uh. Mark my words, someone is going to know.

No matter how far back in time and history you go, some of your readers are going to be well-versed in it. Galileo didn't carry around a kerosene lantern because kerosene didn't exist then. Benjamin Franklin didn't zip up his breeches because zippers hadn't been invented yet. Little things no one will notice? Wrong! It's the little details like this that will hurt you, turn your readers off, and lead you into the biggest bear trap facing writers of historical fiction--anachronism.

Your research should fall into three categories: historical events, subplots, and lifestyles. What events shaped the years you are interested in? Was it a catastrophic event like the Civil War? Was it the way women were thought of and treated in the 16th and 17th centuries? By all means, use the dramatic events of the era in the story, but don't forget to look for the more obscure events or a new perspective just coming to light in those days. They could add the drama and even mystery to your story that you are looking for.

Now look for the subplots that can add to your plot, or help you develop a major or even a new character. If you do your research properly, and really dig into the history of the era, you can find things like a law against tinkers in Ireland that could provide you with a whole new plot device. Finding an old photograph of a man with a pet bear in a gold camp could suggest a new character to develop, or perhaps give you an idea of a new depth to add to your main character . The point is, the more research you do, the deeper you dive into the morass of history, the more little details you will find that will add to your story, illuminate some aspect of the story, and add historical authenticity to it as well.

The most difficult and time-consuming area of research concerns the lifestyles of the people in the era you are writing about. This is also a most important area. How did people live in those days? How did they dress, men, women, and children? ( Don't forget about the zipper incident ! ) What modes of transportation did they use, what businesses were they in, how did they cook their food? What foods did they eat? Don't forget that refrigeration is a modern invention, and that cook stoves didn't exist the way they do today.

When it comes to this type of research, sit down and write out what your lifestyle is, in terms of eating, cooking, cleaning house, wearing clothes, working, getting from one place to another, and so on. These are the things you need to look for in your research, because they  are the important details of an historical story, so do your research extensively. Don't fall into that bear trap!

One more thing: speech. Dialogue is such an important part of any story, and you need to get the speech patterns of that era correct. Use the expressions people of that era used, but don't overdo it. People aren't going to talk like they do today, but at the same time, you don't want to have your characters speaking in so much regional dialect that readers can barely understand what they are saying. Be correct in the expressions and colloquialisms that people of past eras used, but don't over-burden your characters' dialogue with them.

Remember that every era has attitudes, philosophies, and activities that were specific to that day and time, so look upon your research as something that is necessary but can also be a treasure hunt that will give you color, excitement, and authenticity to your story.

Think about it.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Positive Side of Rejection

The "positive" side of rejection? Oh, I can hear you now! What is positive about rejection? Well, let me tell you a little story. At dinner one night, one of our companions was talking about her granddaughter, and how fantastic a basketball player she had been in high school. Now that she was in college, her basketball days were behind her. "Oh?" I asked. "She didn't want to be in sports in college?" Hmm, it wasn't that she didn't want to, it was that after winning game after game in high school, she couldn't seem to achieve that same star quality in college, so she considered herself a failure, and she quit. OH. She quit.

As writers. we fail a lot. Think about it. How many times do you think you have gotten that story just right, and you send it to your critique group. And it comes back with all kinds of suggestions: your characters are too one-dimensional; your narration concerning you settings is too long and too boring; you have too much telling and not enough showing. We've failed to produce the well-written manuscript that we thought we had. So, we try again. And again. Until finally, the critique group says YAY, submit that puppy!

So we submit. Again and again. We get enough rejection letters to paper our office. Well, those we actually get, that is. There are always those agents and editors that we wait on for a response of some kind for 8, 9 months, maybe 10, and still hear nothing. We have failed. Again and again and again.

Really? I don't think so. Failures quit. Writers don't. We just start writing, rewriting, editing, revising, again. And again. And again. Therefore, it stands to reason we are not failures. Because. Writers. Don't. Quit.

I've heard it said that the pathway to publication can be compared to today's freeways. What do you find on a busy freeway? Traffic. Road blocks because of traffic. Bumps in the road because of traffic. Signs telling you that this lane is closed, merge left...where all the traffic is to begin with. All of which leads to slowdowns and frustration. A lot of frustration. A lot of frustration is the major road sign leading to publication, because waiting and waiting and waiting some more, only to get a rejection or even, hear nothing, is the most frustrating and disappointing thing a writer can go through.

But we are writers, and we WILL become authors Because in order for us to succeed, we have to fail. It's the nature of the beast, and since we can't kill the beast, we learn to live with him, and learn from him.  We may have to feed him a lot more than we would like, but eventually, he's going to get full. And that's when we get that oh so treasured acceptance!

Writers have that personality trait known as sticttoitiveness...and yes, that's a real word. You can call it perserverance or whatever you want, but the point is, writers keep on writing in the face of failure, because we never call failure defeat. We learn as we go, that you cannot have success without failure, so in order to have one, we must accept the other.

General George Patton once said, "I don't measure a man's success by how high he climbs, but by how high he bounces back when he hits obstacles." As writers, we're always hitting obstacles, but to finally be successful, we have to bounce back. And the higher we can bounce, the better we can write, and the sooner our success will come.

Here are a few success stories...AFTER their failures:

Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of NBA's Dallas Mavericks: his parents wanted him to have a "normal" job, so he tried carpentry, but he hated it; he became a short order cook, but he couldn't cook; he waited tables but couldn't open a bottle of wine without spilling it. He says, "I've learned it doesn't matter how many times you fail. You only have to be right once."
Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, made into movies: wrote the first Twilight book from a dream, and never intended to publish it until a friend encouraged her. Nine literary agents rejected her, One gave her a chance, and that led to EIGHT publishers fighting for the right to publish the book. Today she is reportedly worth $40 million.
Stephen King: his first book, Carrie, was rejected 30 times, and after the last rejection, he threw the book in the trash. His wife rescued it and insisted he keep on trying. He has sold more than 350 million copies of his books.
Vincent Van Gogh: only sold one painting in his lifetime, yet he painted more than 800. Today his most valued painting is worth $142.7 million.
John Grisham: took 3 years to write his first book, A Time to Kill, and it was rejected 28 times before he got a "yes." Today he has sold close to 300 million of his books.

If you don't try and fail, you aren't going to be able to try and succeed. And that's the "positive" side of rejection.

Think about it.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Those Little Reversals in Life

Isn't it remarkable that most of us go through life totally unaware of the reversals that happen to some along life's journey? What reversals, you ask? Well, let's talk about that.

Role reversal is the most important one that can happen to anyone in life. On a very personal note: my son grew up into a handsome man who married a wonderful girl, had an amazing son of his own, and who expected to always take care of them. But life interfered, as it does so often, and one day, his role in the family was reversed. His wife became the caretaker of him, and of the family, until his death in January, 2015. A role reversal of the saddest kind.

One day I was in the library, browsing among the stacks, when I heard a soft voice say,"No, Dad, that word is "running." You know the word 'run,' so just put 'ing' to it."

Another soft voice, much deeper, said, "He wa...was run...running too far..."
"No, Dad, not 'too far', but it is 'too fast.' Come on, let's try it again." The deep voice: "I don't know, honey, I don't think I'll ever learn again." The sentence was spoken in bits and pieces, with pain evident in each word.

I'm not usually a snoop, but that day I just had to be. I had to know what was going on. I stepped quietly around a couple of bookcases, and stopped. In front of me was a round table and four small chairs, those found in the section for young children. On one of the chairs, stooped over and barely sitting on it, was a tall, thin man with his face in his hands. Sitting next to him, but on the table, was a lovely young girl of about fourteen. Dark curly hair clustered on her shoulders, and her dark eyes were filled with tears. She sat with one small hand on the man's shoulder. "Dad, you will learn again. Look how far you've come this year. I won't let you stop learning until you can read all your own books again." He raised his head and smiled at her. His dark eyes mirrored hers, complete with the tears. He wiped his face with a handkerchief, and got up, slowly and painfully. He held his hand out to his daughter, and they carefully picked their way around the other tables to the checkout counter. He held a Beginning Reader's book in his hand.

I checked out behind them, and as I walked out, I saw the father pointing at various trees, cars, and even a rabbit who came scuttling by. He named them all for his daughter, and she was laughing and hugging him around the waist.

I drove off, with tears in my own eyes. Teacher in reverse: daughter teaching father, and in the same loving, patient way the father had once taught the daughter.

How wonderful. How remarkable. A reversal in life that could have been tragic, but instead, courage, patience, and love was all wrapped up in one beautiful, fourteen year old package.

Reversals in life. What remarkable thing have you seen lately?

Think about it.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Truth in Imagination

I write for kids, aged 10 to about 16 or 17. Some of my short stories and books are for Middle Grade kids, and some are for teens. I was recently asked if, while I was teaching, I got a lot of ideas for these stories from the kids themselves. Hmm. Well, no, not really. Other than a couple of years working with sexually and physically abused children, I taught at the university level, so my students were juniors, seniors, and grad students. Yeah, there were a lot of stories there, but not exactly the kind you'd want kids in middle school to read about!

I've always wanted to create a world of imagination for kids, but one in which they could find some measure of truth, something that would ring true just for them. I want to write stories that spark the child's imagination, but also those in which the child can find a Truth. A truth about friendships, relationships, family life, the environment, nature, or maybe nothing more than a truth about this specific child and his or her  life.

Let's look at this a different way: when you were reading a story as a kid, and it really interested and excited you, didn't you get lost in that story? Didn't you, even for a short while, imagine yourself as the hero or heroine? Did any of those stories ever make you realize something about real life? If so, isn't that a kind of "truth in imagination?"

Several years ago, I published a short story about a young boy who, after his parents' divorce, had to go live with his father on a horse ranch. The boy hated it. He hated the horses because he was afraid of them. One night during a bad storm, the father had to go into town to get a vet for a newborn foal. He told his son that he was counting on him to get out to the pasture and keep the foal alive until he could get back with the vet. What would the boy do? Would he stay in the house, frightened of both the storm and the mare and her foal, or would he make himself go out to the pasture and take care of the foal? To a young boy reading this story, wouldn't he put himself in the character's place, and wonder what HE would do in the same situation? Would he go outside into the storm and brave an upset mare and her foal? If he did, how would he try to keep the foal alive until Dad got back? And if he simply was too scared to go outside at all, how would he feel about betraying the trust his father had put in him? How would he feel if the foal actually died before the vet could get there? The boy reads on. He finds out what the boy character did, and then he asks himself, "Is this what I would have done?"

The story sparks the imagination. It does more than that. It leaves a measure of truth in the reader's mind for him to figure out for himself. Is that young boy learning something from this story? Is he learning, or at least, thinking about what can happen in real life, and how that might affect him? I never intend to "teach" in the pedantic sense of that word, but I always hope I put a grain of truth into an imaginative story, and that the reader will pick up on it.

Truth in Imagination is just a concept, but in every story I've ever written, and in the three books I've had published, I have always tried to instill that concept and keep it alive and well. What about you? Have you thought about what you write, and how it will affect the child or adult you write for? Even if you have never thought of "truth in imagination" in so many words, don't you put into the imagination that makes up your stories just a little bit of truth somewhere?

Think about it.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Memories of Things Past

I must be getting very nostalgic in my old age. I was putting some old pictures away in a scrap book and came across a picture of the girl I used to call my "Chinese daughter." She was Chinese, and as a kid from the age of 8 until high school graduation, she and my daughter were inseperable, which meant she practically lived at my house. She had three sisters, one older, two younger, and they all lived with their Chinese father. Her American mother came and went in their lives, and most of that time she was gone.

Anyway, this all brought back some really funny memories. One was of a vacation that I took the girls on to Canada. My son was in college and working in the summer, and didn't want to go on a two week trip with "all girls." My husband was busy, also, so the three of us took off.

Everything was fun and games until we got to Seattle. I had booked all our rooms ahead of time, and in what I thought were some great hotels. Hmm. The room I had booked was for three people. Well, it did have three beds, all lined up like in an Army barracks. ( Growing up as an "Army brat", I was quite familiar with barracks.)

The problem was, in order to get to the third bed, you had to literally climb over the first two. Guess who got that one. There was a closet in the far corner, opposite that infamous third bed, but in order to open the closet door, you had to push the bed out of the way. In order to do that, you had to open the room door, push the first bed sideways out the door, push the second bed over to where the first bed had been, push the third bed out of the way, and then open the closet door. So okay, we didn't need the closet after all.

There was one window. Opposite the third bed, of course. I opened it, and tried to stick my head out to see whatever "sights" there were. Only I could have easily bumped my nose against the brick wall of the building next to us. So much for the "sights." Below was an alley. As to fresh air, that was a matter of opinion. If you didn't object to the smell of over-cooked Chinese food and burnt cooking oil, I guess you could call it "fresh" air. We kept the window closed.

Then there was the bathroom. Which, for a change, you could actually open the door to without moving all the beds. I walked in to take a shower and began laughing hysterically. It seems that the bathroom floor sank in the middle of the small room by about six inches. I thought for sure I was going to slip right through and land naked in the lobby below. When the girls got me calmed down enough for me to actually step into the shower...which was in the bathtub, and that's another story...I started in again. It seems the shower "curtain" was one of these folding screen things that did NOT stretch out to shelter the entire tub when one is taking a shower. Instead, it slid from one end of the tub to the other, but never opened up at all. So there was a space of about four inches that was contained by this so-called curtain.

I finally stopped laughing, said "oh well," and turned the faucet on for the shower, and waited for the water to come out. And waited. And waited. When it finally turned on, it was full force, turning from hot to cold with no help from me, and getting both me and the bathroom floor completely wet. That was the shortest shower on the face of the planet.  When I stepped out, it was into about six inches of water right into the hole in the floor.

We did have a good dinner that night...it wasn't Chinese and it wasn't at the hotel. On the way up to our room, the bellboy accompanied us in the elevator. Bellboy ? Maybe in the 19th century he had been a boy. The girls named him Iago. He was really creepy, and he was always right there, in front of our door. Before we went to bed, we pushed the one and only small dresser up against the door. We left that hotel very early the next morning, and didn't breath a sigh of relief until we were miles away!

Canada is wonderful, beautiful, and full of fresh air! All three of us fell in love with Vancouver. Oh, and our hotel was beautiful, the room was huge, we had three beds we could actually walk between, a big closet we could open, AND no holes in the bathroom floor!

That first night, the girls wanted Mexican food. Really? Mexican food in Canada? Well, okay. We found a Mexican restaurant and it was really pretty. Bright colors, good smells, Mexican music playing softly ( that was a change), and lots of people. We breathed in the smells, smiled at each other, and blithely ordered chicken tacos, rice, beans, and tortillas. Now...we live in California, where Mexican food is practically a staple of our diets. I've also lived in Mexico, so I know something about GOOD Mexican food.

Our dinner was served. Hmm. The rice was coucous, not real rice, and none of us like coucous. The beans were some kind of red bean, but they looked like they were ready to hop off the table. They weren't all smooshed up like real Mexican beans are supposed to be. And there was no cheese melted on top. We just looked at each other, and I said, "Well, I'm sure the tacos will be good." Oh wow. I'm sure the chicken was at least twenty years old when they killed it. If it was even chicken. I didn't want to mention my doubts to two teen age girls, however. You know what hysteria does to a crowded room. At least, there was some lettuce in the tacos, but the rest of the filling was either corn or something that closely resembled corn. To this day, I wouldn't swear to it.

My daughter took one bite of her taco and I thought she was going to spit corn...or whatever...all over the room. At the same time, my Chinese daughter took a bite, and promptly choked. She finally got some sips of soda down, and was all right. Good thing, as I was about to do the Heimlick manouever on her. The girls looked at me in a questioning kind of horror, so I quickly said, "Okay, don't make a big deal of this. I'll pay the check, and we'll go find some hamburgers." They were out the door before I'd picked up my purse.

Before leaving, I took a quick peek under the red-checkered napkin that covered the...tortillas.  I was glad neither of them had looked.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Words That Kill A Story

Writing is all about words. As writers, we're always looking for the best way to express ourselves. We want to use the most descriptive words we can to make our story interesting, exciting, moving, inspiring, funny, or suspenseful. But sometimes, we just go overboard.

We all know about those extraneous words that we should not be using, the ones we should cut the very first thing when we edit. Words like 'that,' 'then,' 'but', 'well,' 'and', and so on. Like the italicized word above...that. Wouldn't you have understood what I was saying if I had written: We all know about those extraneous words we should not be using...Of course you would. So 'that' is completely unnecessary in the sentence.

But it's not just "extraneous" words we shouldn't be using in our writing. There are phrases writers use all the time which simply don't make sense. How many of you have read something like this: Her eyes followed him as he stormed out of the house. What kind of image does that produce? A pair of long-lashed eyes bumping along the walk? Umm...really? In this sentence, there are two such images. "...he stormed out of the house."  In my writer's mind, I can see him creating hailstorms and thunder clouds as he leaves. Is this the image you really want your readers to have?

How about: Her eyes were consumed with passion. The dictionary says "consume" means to use something up in such a way it cannot be recovered. I wonder what this lady did without her eyes when her passion was over? Then there is: He claimed he was telling the truth, but his eyes said otherwise. Do you suppose his eyes learned to talk when he did? That should have been interesting for his parents. Or: She dropped her eyes in embarrassment. Poor thing! I hope she dropped them on something soft, like a bed or a thick carpet.

Here is a favorite of mine, because I've seen it in so many books: Unseeing, he looked out at the setting sun.  Uh, how can he "look" at anything if he can't see?

Some more favorites: Her emerald eyes mesmerized him. What was the rest of her body doing?
His smoky eyes blazed with fire. I guess they would be smoky if they were on fire. Only...how do eyes catch on fire??
Her sultry voice grated on me.  Why? Are you a piece of cheese?
His voice came from a long distance. That must have been very hard on his throat. And where was the rest of his body?
His eyes caught and held hers. Hmm...one pair of eyes must have been running away to have been caught by another pair. Come on! Really?
Her heart sang with happiness. A very old favorite because it has been used so much. What song was her heart singing, do you suppose?
I thought to myself. Excuse me? Who else would you be thinking to?

All right, enough already. The point is, when we are editing our work, these are the kinds of words and phrases that need to be eliminated. Think about yourself before you write something: would your eyes drop down on the carpet just because you might be embarrassed about something? Would they be on fire, or chasing another pair of eyes down the street? I don't think so.

You don't want to use a body part of any kind, inside or outside of your body, to be the subject of your sentence. It just doesn't work.

I know, I know. This is fiction we're talking about. And these are phrases we read and write all the time. Usually we don't give them a second thought, but we should. These are cliches. Using a body part to express an emotion...for example, her heart sang with happiness...is so outdated. It's the kind of thing you read when you read an old time romance novel, which are full of cliches. So be careful in your edits, and if you have written something using a body part...eyes, heart, voice, a hand...as the subject of your sentence, rewrite it. Think about all the ways in which you can say the same thing, most probably much better, without using that specific part of your ( her, his) body. Don't give an editor or an agent the opportunity to consider you an amateur.

Think about it.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The First Amendment, Social Media, and Blogs

To Americans, the First Amendment to the US Constitution is probably the most important one of all. That amendment grants us the freedom of speech, the freedom to say whatever we want to way, whenever we want to say it. It carries over into the freedom to write whatever we want to write. With a certain exception, and that is, if what we write is libelous against someone, then that is illegal. But most people don't go that far.

In recent years, social media has become one of the most important parts of our lives, in terms of keeping in touch with friends and family, and allowing Internet strangers to get to know us, and we to know them. But social media has also become a battle ground of discrimination, politics, religion, and perhaps worst of all, bullying.

What does the First Amendment have to do with social media? Aren't we all granted the right to say what we want , when we want, and wherever we want? What so many people don't seem to understand, and most of all, the kids who use this media so viciously, is that with "Rights" comes that other "R" word, "Responsibility." No matter what opinions we have about politics, religion, and people of other ethnic and racial groups, we have the Responsibility to keep our written thoughts  civil. Yet, every day there is something posted on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media spots that is full of hate and self-righteous indignation about something or someone who doesn't agree with that person.

The worst of these is the KIDS and their vicious bullying of another child or teen. How many times do we read in the papers or watch on the TV news about a kid who has killed him/herself because of the extreme bullying on the Internet by both her friends, class mates, and even other kids who don't even know her but are stirred up by others' remarks? They have NO sense of responsibility. But you know what? These kids are not to blame. Their parents are. Their parents who have not taught them the meaning of being responsible for what they say and do; parents who don't monitor what their children/teens are saying and doing on the Internet; parents who have in many instances disengaged from raising their kids, and have turned that responsibility over to others.

Then there are blogs. We all have blogs. You're reading one right now. How much does the First Amendment have to do with what we write on our blogs? Because we are on the Internet, a blog has no expectation of privacy, so anyone can read what we write, either by design, or because someone is just messing around on the Internet and finds a blog by mistake. Aren't we guaranteed the right to speak freely on our blogs? Can't we write about our thoughts, our opinions, anything we think or feel, on our own blogs?

Well, yes. And no. A blog is public. Everything is out in the open for the entire world to see, regardless of whether we want it to be that way or not. We can't expect our most private thoughts, if we post them, to remain private. How we write, the way we say something, is also protected by the First Amendment. Or...is it? What about the politically extremist blogs, do they have the right to spew out their racially charged expletives, their lies, their vicious and venomous remarks?

Unfortunately, that answer is yes. The First Amendment even covers that kind of offensiveness. The point is...this amendment gives us the right to say whatever we want to say, wherever we want to say it. But once again, with Rights comes Responsibility. There are so many blogs today, right along with Social Media, that abuse this right to the nth degree. Most of them do so intentionally. Just like the kids that use the Internet, both social media sites and their own blogs/websites, to carry out the intense and vicious bullying that all too often ends in the death of the one who is being bullied.

How far can a blog go...how far will Social Media be allowed to go...before the First Amendment will no longer protect it? Or, in this country, where Freedom of Speech is the FIRST freedom we espouse, will that amendment never recant that freedom, no matter how radical or extreme...or lethal...the speech, written or spoken, becomes? Where do Rights end, and Responsibility begin?

Think about it.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.