Friday, August 26, 2016

August Snippets

Somewhere amidst the natural disarrangement of schedules that comes with a week of family vacation, and the added complication of nursing an injured dog, I did manage to complete my main goal for August: editing the first draft of The Mountain of the Wolf. (And now I can stop referring to it as "the first draft of" and be glad of it, for with that title there are entirely too many "ofs" in the sentence.) It is a great and happy relief to have it finished and on its way to beta-readers.

The Mountain of the Wolf will be coming to an e-reader near you in late 2016—as a matter of fact, I have some rather exciting plans afoot concerning this story's publication. I shall say no more just yet, but watch this space for an announcement sometime in the next couple of months! In the meantime, to celebrate the wind-up of this draft, here are a few snippets:

Somehow he and his noisy voice and presence were out of the house, and Rosa Jean hastily closed the door behind him. She wanted to think. She felt she had been given the key to a riddle, if only she could pick it out of everything else jumbled in Charlie's speech. She went in and sat on the edge of her bed, one hand on either side of her, and stared at the opposite wall.


He was hardly in the saddle when a wolf's howl rose loud from somewhere close by and both horses jumped. Quincy steadied Pheasant with the reins and spoke to them in low tones, meaningless words, while his mind was occupied with a pithy and fervent prayer that the wolves would mind their own business tonight.


Rosa Jean heard the thunder of hooves and dropped her rolling pin to run for the door, only to falter to a stop halfway. It was queer the way that sound still made her heart give a little jump of excitement and then just as quickly the thud of sickening remembrance.


Again he saw it—her expression shut up like a door being closed; her mouth set straight and her eyes offering no clue to her thoughts. It must hurt, he thought involuntarily, to do that...he did not know where the unsettling thought sprang from.


The white head swung slowly toward him, and the old man's blank eyes stared. Quincy nodded to him. "Your name's Sullivan, isn't it?"

The old man bent over and began doing something vaguely with a rope and bucket at his feet—he half glanced sideways at Quincy without looking up at his face. "I ain't got any whisky," he mumbled. "I tol' you I ain't got any."

Monday, August 22, 2016

20 Old-Fashioned Character Names to Revive

I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but character naming is one of the easiest and most enjoyable parts of writing for me. And one of the fun parts of writing historical fiction is the opportunity to be old-fashioned in your naming. I love being able to use a lovely old name that might be considered quaint or outdated today, but which suits a historical character and story perfectly.

Of course an elaborate or unusual name isn't necessary; if one of my protagonists decides their name should be Jim or Anne (they're usually pretty good about arriving with their names attached), I'm all for it. But I think a great opportunity exists for historical-fiction authors to make their characters memorable by choosing lesser-known names that give a flavor of the time period. And besides, a lot of the older names are just plain cool. There's so many pretty girls' names in particular, which I wouldn't mind using for a daughter as well as a character! There isn't quite as much variety among traditional boys' names, but I rather like the old trend of handing down family names by using a surname as a first name—that gives you lots of opportunity to be creative. Wouldn't it be neat to write a fictional character with an old-fashioned name who was so well-liked by readers that they succeeded in reviving their name's popularity?

Anyway, here's a sampling of some old-fashioned names I've had stashed in my "name-database notebook" for awhile, awaiting the right character and story:
  • Beatrice
  • Cecily
  • Constance
  • Hester
  • Linnet
  • Lorena
  • Marcella
  • Marietta
  • Phoebe
  • Prudence
  • Clement
  • Everett
  • Felix
  • Jerome
  • Leander
  • Malcolm
  • Merritt
  • Oliver
  • Royce
  • Thaddeus
Do you have any favorite old-fashioned or "historical" names you'd like to see revived—either as names for fictional characters, or just as popular names? Tell me about them! (I'm always looking for new names to stash in that notebook, you know...)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Capsule Wardrobe Fun

Some completely off-topic fun for today. Over the past year or two, I've been working on sorting and sifting my wardrobe down to the things I really love and wear. Inspired by some theories of minimalism and simplifying, and profiting from the advice of a mother with a wonderful eye for color and style, I think I've finally begun getting the hang of what clothes suit me best, and am having fun creating outfits. I find when you sort your wardrobe by color, and build around a core of basic, classic pieces that mix and match, you suddenly begin seeing all the different "looks" you can achieve just with different accessories and jewelry.

I've also had some more theoretical fun with the idea of two-color capsule wardrobes. Imagine you're going away for a week or a few days, choose a color from your wardrobe and a few of those classic pieces to build around, and you can pack a single bag and still end up with half a dozen different outfits through mixing and matching. I tried it with a few different colors, and for fun, shared my results on Instagram. Here's what I came up with:


Capsule Wardrobe #1: White/Spring Green

White + denim shorts
Green + white t-shirts
White sheath dress
Green and white striped seersucker dress
Tan sandals + white eyelet espadrilles
Pearl bead necklace + two sets of green jewelry

I absolutely adore this shade of green, and it's one of the hardest to find. You can get four outfits out of the shorts and tees alone—more if you count dressing them up or down with different shoes—and several different looks with the white dress simply by changing the shoes and jewelry. (Not pictured: white sneakers for a more casual look with the shorts, white and/or tan purse to go with the shoes.)


Capsule Wardrobe #2: Red/White
 
White + denim shorts
Red + white t-shirts
White sheath dress
Tan sandals + red-and-white gingham espadrilles
Pearl necklace & pearl drop earrings + red shell necklace
Two different red purses

All I did here was swap in a red tee for the green one, and switch the shoes and accessories. (The shell necklace, incidentally, I think came from Wal-Mart goodness-knows-how-many years ago.) The red leather purse is a vintage one I got as a birthday gift a few years ago, and the polka-dot clutch a hand-me-down! The pearl drop earrings (which I forgot to put in the green picture) I bought a couple years ago to go with an outfit for a concert, and they have ended up being pretty much one of my signature pieces. I wear them almost every day.


Capsule Wardrobe #3: Peach/White
 
Peach capris + gingham blouse
White shorts + t-shirt
Peach seersucker dress
Tan sandals + white eyelet espadrilles
Two sets of peach jewelry

This has been one of my favorite colors since I was a little girl. I can't remember how long I've had the blouse/capris outfit. And as with all of these, you can add different looks by tossing in an extra piece or two—for example, put in the denim shorts here and you've got two more casual looks (multiplied by switching shoes); or, if you want to dress it up, substitute a white or denim skirt for the white or denim shorts.


Capsule Wardrobe #4: Blue/White
 
Chambray dress
White shorts
Navy pencil skirt + navy-and-white striped 3/4-sleeve top
Blue-and-white striped seersucker dress
Straw purse with blue flowers
Tan sandals + white eyelet espadrilles
Pearl necklace & earrings + navy loop earrings

I was surprised by how much I liked this nautical-inspired wardrobe, since blue isn't one of "my" colors! White shorts, pearls, and shoes still going strong...the pencil skirt and striped top were both hand-me-downs. The chambray dress from L.L. Bean Signature my sweet parents surprised me with just last month, after I'd been eyeing it wistfully for a while. But the straw purse (which looks like it was made to go with the dress) came from Wal-Mart about fifteen or sixteen years ago.

I think that's one of the keys to making the most of your wardrobe: developing a knack for recognizing how pieces you already own and love can be combined, perhaps sometimes with a new item, to create stylish outfits. And once you really know what you like and what suits you best, you can make that occasional new purchase with an eye to fitting it into the wardrobe you already own.

Now I can't wait to try this out with my fall and winter clothes.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Past in Color

Last March, I did a two-part blog series (part Ipart II) on vintage color photos—photos from the 1940s and before, an earlier era than most of us are accustomed to seeing in color—which ended up being very popular posts. Since then, every once in a while I've seen old color photos on Pinterest or social media or while doing historical research, and I'm always delighted by them. And I recently thought, why not collect them all to enjoy in one place? So I've started a Pinterest board devoted to color (not colorized!) photos from the 1940s and before:


One thing I discovered, browsing Pinterest for a few dozen pictures to get it started—there are a lot more early color photographs out there than you'd think! The Edwardian autochromes and the 1930s/40s Kodachromes are amazing simply because we're not accustomed to seeing or thinking of those years in color. And I can't get over how crisp and vivid some of those Kodachrome prints are. It's like Glorious Technicolor in still form.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Troubles Come in Threes

First, there was the puncture in the truck tire. Then at lunch, my dad cracked a tooth. Then, just two minutes before dinner was supposed to be on the table, our German Shepherd tangled with two other dogs, got bitten and ended up needing a lot of stitches and staples in three places.

Sunday evening was basically miserable. Hours of waiting...a lot of crying...more waiting...re-warming a rather soggy supper late at night for people without much appetite...more waiting...and then finally heading out at one o'clock in the morning through empty, brightly-lit streets (it seems strange how many lights a city leaves on at night when there isn't a soul to be seen) to the emergency animal clinic to pick up Bär...getting a half-sedated, pitifully whining dog into a pickup truck...agonizing over every bump in the road on the way home....somehow getting the dog out of the truck, into the house, and finally into her crate. And then five hours of sleep. (Five hours for my siblings and I; none for my parents, since Bär whined all night in their room.)

I'd spent the whole afternoon out in the swimming pool, working my way up to a hundred laps. When you're in practice, you don't really start to feel tired until about, say, ninety-six. Then afterwards you simply feel like you have no muscles at all. I came in and got dressed and went drowsily through the motions of making supper, comfortably aware that it was my sister's night to clean up afterwards and I'd be able to crash on the couch and relax with a book or Pinterest, then get a good night's sleep and be fresh for a week of editing and researching in the morning. But at literally the moment I was taking the trays of chicken tenders out of the oven, Bär slipped out the sliding door that had somehow been left open for a split second—and this is not something she is even prone to under ordinary circumstances—and all hell broke loose. So instead of the sleepy weekend evening I was looking forward to, at nearly two a.m. I was sitting in the empty waiting room of an animal clinic with my hands shaking and teeth chattering uncontrollably from a combination of stress, squeamishness, exhaustion, and probably the effects of a piece of cake on a mostly-empty stomach at midnight.

On Monday the whole exhausted family dragged mechanically through the day, attempting nothing beyond meals and taking care of Bär. Today the real work begins: two to four weeks of keeping a large, high-drive dog quiet while her injuries heal. Keeping her crated or confined to two rooms; keeping her from running, jumping up or doing stairs; keeping her from hearing or seeing the neighbors' dogs, the mail truck, squirrels or rabbits; putting warm packs on the worst of her injuries a few times each day...hoping and praying that the stitches heal properly and without complications so she won't need further surgery. Needless to say, all my ambitious plans for the month of August have flown out the window...I will have to collect the scraps of them and see what I can do once things have settled down a little.

I was going to write a pleasantly off-topic post about summer fashion today, but I guess I will save that for next week.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Storytelling Score of Red River (1948)

I never used to pay too much attention to the score of Red River. I thought of it as fairly nice, rousing, but generic music that mostly took a back seat to the action of the movie. But last year when one of my sisters got the soundtrack CD (a full recreation by the Moscow Symphony Choir and Orchestra), and I was able to listen to the full score independent of the film for the first time, I realized with some surprise what a great score it really is—and most of all, how cleverly composer Dimitri Tiomkin used his various themes to underscore the different elements of the story.

The backbone of the score is made up of three melodies: two original songs by Tiomkin with lyrics by Ned Washington, "Settle Down" and "Off to Missouri" (at least I assume that's the title), and the folk song "Old Chisolm Trail." From the beginning of the film, the vigorous, swinging waltz tune of "Off to Missouri" is linked with cattle—branding them, raising them, rounding them up, and finally throwing them on the trail north—it's the theme for the cattle drive itself, accompanying the trail scenes in a dozen different moods and tempos. The sweeping melody of "Settle Down" seems to be linked with the Red River itself, as well as Dunson's Red River D brand named after it, and gradually becomes the over-arching theme for the whole story.

(I should mention here that I've never been able to decipher most of the lyrics to "Settle Down" or "Off to Missouri"—I figured it was just a combination of dense choral arrangements and muddy audio that kept me from understanding the Hall Johnson Choir on the film soundtrack, but I found I couldn't understand the Moscow Symphony Choir on the re-recording either. All I can make out is that "Off to Missouri" presumably begins with those words and ends with, "...we'll be in Missouri someday," and I think there's a line somewhere in the middle that runs, "Nights are so long and the days are so weary..." Anyway, while working on this post I did a little searching online and found a forum thread with a post by composer John Morgan, who restored Tiomkin's score for the Moscow Symphony re-recording—he reveals that no one actually knows what the lyrics are because they were apparently never written down! For the restored version they had to make do with listening to the original and improvising where they couldn't understand it. So it's not just me after all.)

"Old Chisolm Trail," meanwhile, accompanies the shots of an old handwritten manuscript that guide us through the story, in an arrangement of horns, a rippling harp and the hum of choir that creates a nostalgic, time-traveling effect. It also crops up more subtly here and there throughout the score at key moments relating to the cattle drive. One could say that while "Off to Missouri" is the theme for the actual work of the drive, the grit and sweat and danger, "Old Chisolm Trail" underscores the historic aspect, the sense of achievement. There's a great moment in one of the best tracks on the soundtrack, at 2:19 in "Birth of Red River D," where the two songs are played together in a triumphant counterpoint, at the moment when Tom Dunson (John Wayne) brands his first two cattle—a foreshadowing of what's to come. And is it an even subtler bit of musical foreshadowing that further back in the beginning of the film, when Dunson makes his assessment of the young Matt (Mickey Kuhn) with a laconic "He'll do," the music in the background (1:51 in "The Lone Survivor") is a determined cue of "Old Chisolm Trail"?

Besides all this, there's a pretty self-explanatory Indian-attack theme, cued whenever the threat of attack materializes or hovers just over the horizon, and a beautiful love theme, introduced at the beginning in "Dunson Heads South," and surfacing again later whenever the script hearkens back to Dunson's lost love (Coleen Gray)—e.g. "Out of the Past" and "Memory of Love." And one of the marvelous things about the score is the Russian-born Tiomkin's grasp of American folk songs and the deft way he uses them to highlight the action, even if it's just a few notes—a bit of "Turkey in the Straw" to accompany a wagon train; "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" for the railroad; a dash of "Oh, Susanna" for a celebration; and of course the single bittersweet use of "I Ride an Old Paint" in "The Missing Cowboy." More prominently featured is "O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," which beautifully scores several scenes of just such a burial as the song describes, beginning with "Mexican Burial."  This scene, incidentally, I've always felt to be a bit of foreshadowing in itself—the way that Groot (Walter Brennan) and young Matt stare after Dunson as he leaves the graveside, seemingly a little taken aback that he can turn so quickly from a funeral back to work. It's almost a hint at what Dunson will become in the future.

But there was one discovery I made listening to the soundtrack CD that really impressed me. Early in the film, Tiomkin introduces a brief but beautiful little melody, one that seems to evoke a sense of the wide-open plains, of optimism and promise for the future. It's Dunson's own theme, and it's only heard a few times in its original form. It appears for the first time at 1:11 of "Dunson Heads South," and is developed most fully at 1:35 of "The Lone Survivor," at the key moment when Dunson hands young Matt back his gun. It's one of my favorite bits in the score, and I thought it was a shame that it's only heard so briefly. Listening further, however, I realized that it does reappear—made over in a minor key, it becomes the ominous, threatening march that's heard for the first time in "Latimer Burial," at the first hint of Dunson's impending tyranny, again in "Cottonwood Justice" when his men finally defy him, and finally builds to a crashing crescendo in "The Challenge" for the final confrontation. (What I colloquially refer to as the Dunson Gets Mad theme.) It's still Dunson's theme, but Tiomkin has made it over to reflect the gradual darkening and hardening of his character as the film goes on. It continues to follow Dunson as he pursues his revenge ("The Spectre Takes Form"), and haunts scenes where he is off-screen but uncomfortably present in the minds of other characters ("In Wait" and "Vigil in the Night").

Without getting too deep into spoilers, the ending of Red River—changed from the magazine story it was based on—is one of my biggest quibbles with the movie. Not necessarily the way the writers chose to wrap up the plot itself, but its abruptness and sudden change of tone. If you're aiming for redemption, okay, but something still has to be done with all that rage and tension that's been building for the second half of the film—it's got to be blown off somehow. It's a little like watching a fuse burn up to a stick of dynamite and then having it go off with a pop instead of an explosion. In a musical sense, if Dunson has come full circle, shouldn't we hear his musical theme restored to its original form too? But we don't; there simply isn't time. Which possibly begs the question: does it really make sense for Dunson to have come full circle at all?

But all of that is hardly Tiomkin's fault. And what his music does for the film as it stands is really wonderful. For instance, after you've listened to the score by itself, if you go back and watch the conversation between Dunson and Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), the scene accompanied by the track "Out of the Past," you realize that all throughout it Tiomkin is subtly invoking a few bars of the different musical themes, one after another, to match what they're talking about. I love it when a film score becomes an instrument of storytelling like that. I just hadn't realized that, under all the noise of bawling cattle, the score of Red River did it so well.

~ * ~

Now, this post is an entry for Legends of Western Cinema Week, hosted by Emma Jane at A Lantern in Her Hand and Olivia at Meanwhile, in Rivendell—and I thought it would be even more fun with a Western-themed giveaway! So I'm giving away one signed paperback copy of my own Western book Wanderlust Creek and Other Stories. Enter via the Rafflecopter below (as this is a physical prize, the giveaway is open to U.S. entries only).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Wishlist Edition

The actual title of this week's Top Ten Tuesday is Ten Books You'd Buy Right This Second If Someone Handed You A Fully Loaded Gift Card.

Well. A bit much for a post title, but an easy one to participate in! I can always call to mind a list of titles that I definitely want to read, can't get from the library, would definitely buy if I had the spare funds, but am waiting to buy till I have the spare funds and/or can catch a sale. Here's what heads the list at the moment:


America Moved: Booth Tarkington's Memoirs of Time and Place, 1869-1928. You probably know by now how much I love Tarkington's novels, so I'm eager to read his memoirs of 19th into 20th-century America.



Christmas at Thompson Hall: And Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope. I would have snapped this up the first time I saw it, had it not been rather staggeringly priced for a fairly short book (in both print and ebook). I'm going to get hold of it sooner or later, though, because I love Trollope and I love Christmas stories and the combination of those two things sounds wonderful.



Indian Country by Dorothy M. Johnson. Her other short story collection, The Hanging Tree, is one of my favorite Western books, and I'm hoping this one turns out to be just as good.


Baker's Dozen by Kathleen Thompson Norris. Ditto for this one. Norris' Poor, Dear Margaret Kirby and Other Stories recently made my list of top ten favorite books—will lightning strike twice? (And no, I couldn't find a single image of this one online, which is not at all a new experience for me when it comes to book lists.)


The Rhodes Reader: Stories of Virgins, Villains and Varmints by Eugene Manlove Rhodes. I've thoroughly enjoyed the handful of Rhodes' public-domain Western novels and short stories I've already read, and I'd like to read more of his short fiction—as a matter of fact I've had my eye on this anthology ever since the late Ron Scheer reviewed it on his blog a few years ago.


Miss Seeton Draws the Line by Heron Carvic. The first book in this series, Picture Miss Seeton, was a bargain impulse-buy on Kindle this summer, and proved to be such fun—a quirky, even zany, but cozy mystery from the 1960s—that I'm keen to see if the next book lives up to it.


Friendship and Folly by Meredith Allady. I enjoyed the free companion novella to Allady's Regency-era Meriweather Chronicles (Letters From Bath) so much that the first novel in the series immediately went onto my Kindle wish list. (Are you starting to notice a pattern here?)


Launch to Market by Chris Fox. This recently-published guide for self-publishers intrigues me because of some reviews that mention advice on locating and launching to a target audience, a task that has baffled me since I began publishing. I'm interested in having a look at it before the next time I release a (non-series) book.


Rumbin Galleries by Booth Tarkington. Because I haven't read a good new-to-me full-length Tarkington novel in a while (Seventeen is a bit of summer confectionery that doesn't really count), and from its one brief review on Goodreads this one looked appealing. Plus it's set in 1930s New York City!


Tin Can Sailor: Life Aboard the USS Sterrett, 1939-1945 by C. Raymond Calhoun. Okay, this may be cheating a bit, because I am going to buy this one soon whether someone hands me a loaded gift card or not—it's my next research book and I hope it turns out to be as good as it looks.

What's at the head of your wish list?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Musical Interlude: Mahler's Symphony No. 3, Finale


I'm cheerfully lowbrow when it comes to classical music. Most of my favorite discoveries have come from switching on the classical radio station and happening on a piece that captivates me—though I do have my favorite composers. My encounter with this piece was a combination of both: I pricked up my ears when I heard a selection from a Mahler symphony being announced, since I'd thoroughly enjoyed pieces from his other symphonies before. This is the finale from his Symphony No. 3, known as one of the longest symphonies in the classical repertoire (around 90 to 105 minutes, depending on tempo). Isn't it gorgeous? (And is it just me, or does some of the beginning remind you a bit of the melody to "I'll Be Seeing You"?)

Friday, July 22, 2016

Snippets of Story: Mrs. Meade Returns

My project for July has been writing the first draft of the next Mrs. Meade Mystery, The American Pony. I got off to a slightly rough start—along with battling some nasty seasonal allergies during my writing sessions, I think the first few pages suffered from my trying to "tighten up" my style unnaturally to keep the story's length from overshooting that of the others in the series. But I've decided I just can't worry about that. The story has to be written as it needs to be written. After all, you're all fond enough of Mrs. Meade that you won't mind a few extra pages, will you?

I've had the plot idea of The American Pony saved up in a notebook for quite a while now, and it's been a fun one to develop. As it revolves around an English family visiting Mrs. Meade's home ground of turn-of-the-century Colorado, I've been able to draw on some of the research I did for writing an article about the English in the Old West several years back. Reading a lot of books by English authors lately also seems to have helped me with my dialogue—that part of the story at least has been flowing smoothly and has been enjoyable to write. Anyhow, here's a few snippets!

They were leading their horses out of the barn now, halfway down the slope. Mrs. Meade squinted a little. She had occasionally suspected lately, though she did not like to admit the possibility, that her eyes were not what they once were when it came to long distances. But the strong eastern light of morning flashed so on the bold white patches of the pinto pony that everything else looked a little shadowy by contrast.


"The Army would never have done," said Frederica positively.

"Quite," said Oliver. "The Army would never have done. I should have been out from under your jurisdiction then, Frederica."


It was a most unfortunate position to be in. Seated as she was between the two lighted windows, she could hardly rise and move either way along the veranda without being seen, and betraying that she had heard. It may have been the more honorable course, but Mrs. Meade was not sure it was the kindest one...


"Who did it?" said Sir Edmond, fearfully brief.

"That I couldn't say, Lord Marsland sir," said Collyer, who had not made a study of his Peerage. "All I know is what I found, and I've told you that."


"Not at all. But it's a poor doctor who doesn't get involved in a bit of mystery once in his life. I read the detective-story magazines, you see, Mrs. Meade. And correct all the medical details in red pencil."

I can tell you that Mrs. Meade has a new assistant in detection this time, a character who appeared briefly in a previous story. But don't worry, Sheriff Royal will be back in future installments! Meanwhile, you can glimpse some of the setting-inspiration pictures I've pinned recently on my Mrs. Meade Mysteries Pinterest board.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Nonfiction Shelf


I really learned how to write from Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Trollope, and de Maupassant.
~ Louis L'Amour

I think I learned how to write largely by L'Amour's method—reading good books and absorbing their style. I suppose I must have had some writing textbooks back in the early days of my schooling, before we switched to a more literature-based approach, but considering that I've utterly forgotten them, their influence can't have been great.

In the present day, I'm not a huge fan of how-to books on writing. When I first began writing seriously several years ago, I did read a ton of how-to blogs and articles and gleaned a lot of solid practical advice from them: things like how to handle point of view, avoid too much passivity, et cetera. After a while, though, I found you can reach a saturation point with this—you begin to feel like you're reading the same advice over and over again, and even that it's making you second-guess your own work too much. So eventually I moved away from how-to topics as a steady diet, referring back to them only when looking for help with a specific problem or feeling the need to brush up on a certain technique.

The kind of writing nonfiction I find I like most now is memoir-type writing by authors, who share some of their own techniques, opinions, and experiences with the joys and headaches of writing—less of a "how-to" than a "how-I-do." Sometimes you agree wholeheartedly with their conclusions, sometimes you differ, sometimes you find a thought or a tip which never occurred to you before that ends up being a tremendous help. It's a less formal and less pressuring way of exploring the subject of writing than strict lists of dos and don'ts.

All that being said, here's the small collection of nonfiction writing books I've accumulated over the years—books that have provided inspiration, or served as a trusty reference. They kind of fall into two categories:

nuts and bolts


The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. Truth: when I was young I thought the title of this book was "Strunk and White"—it was one of those copies where the authors' names on the cover are bigger than the title, and everyone in the house just casually referred to it as "Strunk and White." Anyway, this is a primer I don't think you can go wrong with, no matter how experienced you are. It's always useful to come back to when you want to clarify certain basic guidelines, or just need a breath of fresh air to clear your head after reading too much bad English. And it takes up next to no space on a bookshelf.

Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun. The funny thing is, I'm not certain if I ever read this one straight from cover to cover, but I am sure I've absorbed all of its contents at some time or another, and benefited from them. Much like "Strunk and White," it aims at creating a common-sense, understandable style, and goes into a bit further practical detail.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. After reading this blunt, irreverent, no-nonsense guide to punctuation, I don't think there was ever any danger of my forgetting what the different punctuation marks were invented for or how not to use them. Punctuation somehow receded to the least of my worries, and erudite specks such as the ellipsis and semicolon became warm and fast friends.

Chambers' Synonyms and Antonyms. The only criticism I have of Chambers is that they should have better bindings, because this is my second copy, and I'm fairly certain I'll eventually end up splitting this one's binding too. I pull this one off the shelf in both moments of inarticulate despair and moments of being certain there's a better word to express the idea knocking at the inside of my head.

those lovely intangibles


Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster. This is a really nice, intelligent and relaxed look at the basic elements that go into making an enjoyable novel, illustrated with examples from classic literature. I did a lot of pencil-underlining once I got my own copy (also wrote a short review which you can find here), and pick it up every once in a while when I feel like I need a big-picture restoration of perspective.

The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. I'd been curious about this one ever since Abigail Hartman recommended it so enthusiastically, and I wasn't disappointed. Sayers makes the case that man, being created in the image of God, shares the characteristics of God as Creator, and has a natural instinct to create and craft works of his own. Being a writer herself, Sayers uses examples from the writer's life and experiences to illustrate her ideas about the creative mind, which is what makes this book particularly interesting for writers. It's definitely the deepest and most scholarly book on this list, and I'm looking forward to another slow and careful reading to mull over its ideas further.

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. You've probably heard me mention this one before. It's got such a nice refreshing, emboldening perspective on creativity—not just for writers but definitely applicable to writing—that flipping back through my favorite parts is always somewhat of a pick-me-up when I feel like I've bitten off more than I can chew or gotten lost in the minutiae of things going wrong with a project.

Writers: what's your opinion of how-to nonfiction? Love it or hate it? Favorite nonfiction books on writing?

Monday, July 11, 2016

On Wrangling Ideas


I am always swamped with ideas.


An overactive imagination is both my greatest blessing, and sometimes a rather pesky curse. I wouldn't be without it for anything, because it means I always have an idea when I need one; but it's also an ongoing challenge.

I have ideas filed away by the dozen. I have notebooks full of one-paragraph and two-page sketches for short stories that may or may not end up being written one day. I have bits of random dialogue waiting to find a home in some story or other. I have lists of titles without stories, titles which just sound so nice I didn't want to forget them. I have a handful of antiquated novel plots from my early teen years, mostly for nostalgia's sake, but partly because I have a touch of the pack-rat instinct that says not to throw away anything that might conceivably be useful one day. (I did go through my older notes recently and cleared out a lot of stuff I realized wasn't going to be any use; I'm getting a little more practical in this area.)

I have a few false starts of novel and novella drafts that I haven't given up hope on. I also have concepts, character lists and a few sketchy notes for novels that I firmly intend to write one day. And then I have a dozen quick outlines or concepts for novels that at this stage are pipe dreams, but which I had to write down just on the magical off-chance that someday I will find myself capable of writing them.

Story ideas, you see, are not bound by time or space or one's own capabilities. It doesn't take any effort at all to dream of writing an epic family saga spanning thirty or a hundred years. It's easy to fudge the technical details in your mind when you're captivated by a plot that centers around subjects you know practically nothing about—aviation, horse racing, railroads, factories, oil drilling. With the experience I'm gaining from researching Dearest Lieutenant, I know I can master those subjects if I really want to write about them someday—one at a time, please—but the task would be no joke. Ideas are free, but writing a book costs time and effort.

Occasionally I catch myself saying, "Why didn't somebody just write this or make a movie of it in 1946 so it would exist for me to enjoy and I wouldn't have to do all the work?"


The practical challenge of the overactive imagination is, of course, that it barges in on you at the most inconvenient times. It tempts you with those glittering new ideas when you're supposed to be concentrating faithfully on just one or two projects till completion. Learning to manage it is an ongoing thing for me, but I think I'm getting the hang of it. You see, I've spent most of my life, from early childhood on up, entertaining myself by making up stories in my head. Some of them dance pleasantly in my mind for a while, then evaporate painlessly when it becomes clear they don't have enough substance to be worth the time. But when an idea keeps coming back, keeps gaining complexity and keeps hinting at future promise...then I begin to take it seriously.

So I write it down.


Even if it's just one paragraph, I commit the concept and perhaps a few character names to paper; maybe a few key scenes or lines of dialogue; and that satisfies the anxious little corner of my mind that insists "This is good; you don't want to lose it!" And then I go back to whatever I'm supposed to be writing. Whether the captured concept is for next month, next year or next decade, I know it'll be there when I need it and I can rest easier. Even if my imagination never does.

(In this twenty-first century, I sometimes create a private Pinterest board. Somehow that seems like even more of a commitment than pen and paper, so I usually wait till an idea has been upgraded from the pipe-dream stage to the "I'm definitely going to write this someday" stage—but the way some of the pipe dreams have been nagging at me lately, I wonder if Pinterest would help keep them quiet.)

Seriously—I have jotted notes for a couple of series, at least one trilogy, two of those epic family sagas, and at least one sequel to something I've written but not published yet. Silly? Perhaps. But it doesn't cost anything to dream.