Monday, August 31, 2015

Fairytales on the Menu

As I mentioned in a recent post, I've been having a lot of fun with fairytale retellings lately. It's a genre I was never even really aware of until Rooglewood Press's Five Glass Slippers competition gave me the inspiration to write Corral Nocturne. Writing for that contest and reading the winning entries was such fun, I've long toyed with the idea of writing more fairytale-based stories at some point. More recently, I've been inspired by Suzannah Rowntree's wonderfully creative takes on both well-known and lesser-known fairytales. So the long and the short of it is, I have a couple more of my own in various stages of pre-production (to borrow a filmmaker's term). Lost Lake House is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses set in the Roaring '20s. And The Mountain of the Wolf, an idea that basically came out of nowhere and smacked me between the eyes this month, is a Western tale of outlaws and revenge based on Little Red Riding Hood. I'm planning to work on one or both of these over this autumn.

Along the way, I've been considering the question of why fairytale retellings are such fun to read and especially to write. Perhaps the appeal lies in starting with an existing story structure—for writers like myself, anyway, who find crafting a cohesive plot one of our biggest challenges! The few main plot points are laid out for you, almost like a template, leaving you free to play with the more colorful and subjective elements of character and setting to your heart's content.

Looking for a metaphor, I thought at first of comparing it to a recipe, but then thought better of it: you don't have quite so much freedom to shuffle the ingredients of a recipe. It's more like a menu. On a menu you have a list of categories or components—appetizer, soup, meat, vegetable, side dish, dessert—and it's up to you to fill in the blank on each and come up with as many different combinations you can think of, using a specified number of each of those pieces.

So, to take the most familiar example, the list of components for a Cinderella story looks something like this:

Key components (main dish and entrees, shall we say)
  • 1 heroine in unhappy or restricted circumstances (Cinderella)
  • 1 unkind relative/figure of authority responsible for heroine's unhappy state (Wicked Stepmother)
  • 1 hero, deemed inaccessible to heroine by his station in life or some other circumstance (The Prince)
  • 1 important event at which hero and heroine are brought together, with a crucial moment or disaster coming at midnight (The Ball)
  • 1 benefactor who makes it possible for heroine to attend said event (Fairy Godmother)
  • 1 lost shoe that proves vital to the heroine's fortunes (The Glass Slipper)

Minor components, optional (appetizers and desserts, if you will)
  • 2 other relatives/persons in heroine's life who assist in making her unhappy; also frequently rivals for hero's attention (Wicked Stepsisters)
  • Parent or parents of hero, preferably in position of authority and/or grandeur (King and possibly Queen)
  • Variable number of small friends or allies of heroine (mice, dogs, horses, etc.)
Putting it that way, you see how innumerable variations can be crafted on this one basic plot! How many difficult situations can we think of for our heroine to be trapped in (we writers are much too good at inflicting trouble on our characters), how many different eccentric or unlikely benefactors can we invent—how many creative uses can we find for a stray shoe? (Has anyone done a version where the shoe gets flung at someone?) Outlining my second and third, I've realized that my own particular angle on retellings—unintentional but consistent—is their real-world setting. They're straight historical fiction, without magical creatures or imaginary kingdoms involved, but still paralleling the characters and plot of the original fairytale. Coming up with those real-world equivalents is a fun challenge.

Do you enjoy fairytale retellings? If so, what do you think makes them fun to read and write?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Curious Wren Blog Party & Tag

One of my Twitter writing pals, Annie Hawthorne, is launching her brand-new blog  The Curious Wren this week, with festivities including a blog tag and a giveaway. Which is a good one—a copy of Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon, which I highly recommend! So click here to visit The Curious Wren and enter. In the meantime, here's my answers to Annie's tag questions:

What was the last book you read, and would you recommend it?
August Folly by Angela Thirkell. I've been working my way through Thirkell's Barsetshire series—light, witty comedy-of-manners type novels set in the 1930s and onward. August Folly wasn't my favorite of the four I've read, so I don't think I'd recommend starting with that one, but if you'd enjoyed other Thirkell books I'd recommend it!

Describe the perfect reading spot.
A corner of the living-room sofa on a cozy fall or winter evening, with a comfortable pillow at hand and the warm light of a lamp over your shoulder.

Favorite book beverage? Tea? Coffee? Hot chocolate? Tears of your readers?
Probably hot chocolate. Though I do enjoy peppermint tea and an occasional decaf coffee. (That about covers everything, doesn't it?)

What is your most loved fantasy read? Dystopia? Contemporary? Sci-fi? Classic?
Fantasy: Pendragon's Heir by Suzannah Rowntree. I've never read a dystopia. I hardly ever read contemporary, but I did enjoy Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay. Sci-fi: Firmament: Radialloy by J. Grace Pennington. Classic...well, there's so many it changes from time to time, but a couple favorites around now would be Persuasion by Jane Austen and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

List three authors you’ve collected the most books from.

If you count physical books and ebooks combined, I think it's B.M. Bower, Booth Tarkington and P.G. Wodehouse.

What are your thoughts on magic in literature?
Honestly, it's not something I've given much thought to, since fantasy fiction isn't my home turf. I doubt I'd be comfortable with witchcraft-type magic in a story, but a simpler fairytale-ish magic that is clearly defined as make-believe doesn't bother me.

What types of book covers capture your imagination most strongly? Feel free to include images.

Probably because I like history so much, my eye tends to be caught by covers that give an intriguing, vivid glimpse of the book's time and place.

Mention the first book character that comes to mind. Elaborate on this.

It may sound cliché, but one of the first to come to mind whenever someone talks about memorable characters is Anne Shirley. Spending an eight-book series with one of the most vibrant and memorable personalities in literature makes her like an old friend. I re-read a couple of the early books this year for the first time in a while, and find I identify even more than I used to with her enthusiasm for life, vivid imagination and love for the beauty of nature. I'm happy to say I don't experience cooking disasters half so often, though.

Do you lend out your books? Or is that the equivalent to giving away your babies?

Well, it doesn't happen very often.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Briefly Noted: A release date, a poll, and an interview

Some brief notes today. Firstly, if you haven't  seen it yet, The Silent Hour now has a cover (seen at left!), and also an official release date: October 1st, 2015.

Secondly, last month I asked my email newsletter subscribers who entered a giveaway to share their favorite settings/eras for historical fiction. The results were interesting—you can see them in the latest issue of my newsletter, online here.

Finally, I was recently invited by fellow writer Heidi Peterson to do an author interview, and it's now up on her blog, Sharing the Journey. You can check it out here.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Quote: It Begins With a Character

It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.
~ William Faulkner

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Things I Have Enjoyed This Month

That post title reminds me a little of a Dutch translation of "My Favorite Things" which renders the last line of each verse, roughly, "These are the things that I love so." For the past few weeks, the list looks something like this:

- Driving with the windows open

- Memorizing poetry

- Quiet country roads in the early morning

- Angela Thirkell

- August wildflowers: goldenrod and Queen Anne's lace, thistles and chicory

- Fairytale retellings: reading 'em and writing 'em

- Baby deer frisking through the yard

- WWII history

- Chocolate chip cookies (but when do I not love these?)

- The smell of wet pavement and pine needles after a rain

How about you?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Talking Shop with the Brownings

Don't you love it when a literary reference in a book leads you on to discover something else interesting?

I've been enjoying poetry quite a bit recently, so when I happened on a reference to Robert Browning in Angela Thirkell's Summer Half, I followed my usual method of pursuing a reference: I hopped over to the Kindle Store and found a free volume of his poems—and on a whim, because I like books of letters, I also picked up the first volume of his correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett (later, of course, Barrett Browning). I'm finding it absolutely delightful so far. It's intriguing to trace the growth of their friendship and become acquainted with their personalities through the letters. Robert writes in long, eager, running-out-of-breath sentences and seems to forget that he set out to say something else several pages ago, and Elizabeth has a most charming sense of humor. But an additional delight is their frequent conversations about writing. They talk of handwriting, critics, inspiration, and life as a writer in general. I've been highlighting my favorite passages as I go, and I thought I'd share a few:

From Elizabeth:

The most frequent general criticism I receive, is, I think, upon the style,—'if I would but change my style'! But that is an objection (isn't it?) to the writer bodily? Buffon says, and every sincere writer must feel, that 'Le style c'est l'homme'; a fact, however, scarcely calculated to lessen the objection with certain critics.

On another occasion:

What no mere critic sees, but what you, an artist, know, is the difference between the thing desired and the thing attained, between the idea in the writer's mind and the ειδωλον [translation] cast off in his work. All the effort—the quick'ning of the breath and beating of the heart in pursuit, which is ruffling and injurious to the general effect of a composition; all which you call 'insistency,' and which many would call superfluity, and which is superfluous in a sense—you can pardon, because you understand. The great chasm between the thing I say, and the thing I would say, would be quite dispiriting to me, in spite even of such kindnesses as yours, if the desire did not master the despondency.

And again:

One may be laborious as a writer, without copying twelve times over. I believe there are people who will tell you in a moment what three times six is, without 'doing it' on their fingers; and in the same way one may work one's verses in one's head quite as laboriously as on paper—I maintain it. I consider myself a very patient, laborious writer—though dear Mr. Kenyon laughs me to scorn when I say so. And just see how it could be otherwise. If I were netting a purse I might be thinking of something else and drop my stitches; or even if I were writing verses to please a popular taste, I might be careless in it. But the pursuit of an Ideal acknowledged by the mind, will draw and concentrate the powers of the mind—and Art, you know, is a jealous god and demands the whole man—or woman. I cannot conceive of a sincere artist who is also a careless one—though one may have a quicker hand than another, in general,—and though all are liable to vicissitudes in the degree of facility—and to entanglements in the machinery, notwithstanding every degree of facility. You may write twenty lines one day—or even three like Euripides in three days—and a hundred lines in one more day—and yet on the hundred, may have been expended as much good work, as on the twenty and the three.

And then, not forgetting the practical side, some very sensible advice to Robert:
Thinking, dreaming, creating people like yourself, have two lives to bear instead of one, and therefore ought to sleep more than others.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Skirmish at McKendrick's - Part VI (And Last)

“Pull those trousers out of his boots,” said Harry. “Cavalry boots are a dead giveaway.”

Sally did as he said, fumbling a little with chilled fingers. She had a shawl tied over her head; she was pale and did not speak much, as though she did not trust herself to do it without her voice being unsteady.

Jim was sitting up with Harry McKendrick’s arm behind him for support. He was likewise silent; the acute pain that had set into his wounded arm and the light-headed sickness that floated over him from periodic throbs of his head kept his mind occupied enough in enduring it. Harry had brought an old civilian coat, without comment on where it had come from, and he and Sally between them eased the injured arm into a sleeve of it. Jim shuddered a little as it was pulled up to his shoulder.

“You’ll have to let it hang, even if it hurts, once you get out on the road,” said Harry, helping him get his other arm into the coat. “Hold it stiff any way and it might catch a guard’s eye.”

“Oh, hurry,” breathed Sally, wringing her cold hands in an attempt to shake off the chill that came more from nervousness than night air. “It’s going to get too late.”

“Plenty of time,” said Harry. He was quiet, emotionless, but intangibly in command; not a word or movement wasted. Sally thought again, with a mingling of respect and regret, that this was not the same Harry McKendrick she had known before he went off to war.

He had already laid out their plan in a few crisp sentences, so there was no need for discussion as they put out the candle, freed the creaking door from the wedge of wood that held it in place, and helped Jim out of the smokehouse cellar. Sally drew in a gulp of the sharp night air, and looked up at the starry sky. It was another clear, bright night, well lit by a three-quarters moon. Harry took Jim’s good arm over his shoulders, and Sally went ahead of them into the black-and-gray patterned camouflage the moonlight made of the woods.

Others besides themselves were abroad this night, at a distance. A low mutter of sound, with an occasional heavier rumble like a far-off thunderstorm, could be heard off to the east. The flint-eyed Confederate captain had flung his firecracker into the town, and the aftershocks of the little explosion were still being felt, in the movement of troops and batteries being hurried here and there along the roads.

Through the thinning aspen wood that gave upon the road, with its waist-high bushes crowding round the trees and the moonlight glinting on the open meadow glimpsed across the way. The rail fence was several yards from the edge of the road, in the shadow. Sally clutched at a post and tumbled over it, her skirt and petticoats tangling around her legs and dragging over the rails. She heard the clip of a splinter breaking as it snagged on her skirt, distinct in the brooding silence of the wood. Behind her, with more difficulty, Harry helped Jim to get over the fence. On the far side they paused a second to rest; Jim leaning against it, his breath coming short, while Harry took a better grip on the arm across his shoulders. In this pause Jim broke the silence once.

“Sally told me—about Levi,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

Harry did not answer. He did not even look up. But somehow in the silence Jim felt that his words had been accepted in the spirit they were offered. It was not a silence of rejection. There was not much that could be said.

A rattle of wheels came from up the road. It grew, and seemed to grow endlessly, until at last a team and wagon appeared round the bend, crawling slowly along the moonlit road, one man up on the wagon seat. Closer and closer, with the thud of the heavy workhorses’ hooves and jingling of bits, and then it drew to a stop in front of them, looming high above the shadowed verge of the road. Sally hurried forward, the others following slowly. Jim’s father, gray-haired, in a farmer’s rough coat and boots, descended from the wagon to help, murmuring only in a low voice, “Jim—thank God.”

Harry gave Sally a few last clipped instructions. “Keep your arm around him, but let your shawl hang over it so it won’t be seen. If he can’t make it, and he keels over before the pickets, pretend he’s drunk—laugh at him, or scold him, whichever comes easier.”

“Harry, I—I don’t know how to thank you,” whispered Sally.

There was a short silence. “Never mind,” said Harry.

He took her arm and helped her up into the wagon to sit beside Jim, on a board that had been placed across the wagon box behind the seat. Jim’s father was leaning over from the front seat with a steadying hand on the boy’s shoulder; she dismissed him with a hurried word and slipped her arm around Jim, shaking out her shawl to cover it. “Lean against me,” she whispered.

“It feels like hot needles all up and down my arm,” he whispered hoarsely.

“It’s only a little ways—only across the bridge, and you’ll be home. You’ll be all right.”

Harry McKendrick stepped back into the shadow, lifted his hand more in a signal to drive on than a farewell. She hardly glimpsed him. The wagon started, and he was gone.

Now it was only a little ways to the bridge. Only a little ways, Sally kept telling herself. Her arm was tight around Jim, her head close to his shoulder. His head was bent forward; she only hoped the pickets at the bridge would not catch a glimpse of his face, or they would know something was wrong.

The wagon lurched in a rut, and Jim swayed dizzily beside her on the seat. Sally tightened her grasp on him, praying desperately and mechanically. Please, God, let him hold on till the bridge—just past the bridge…

There were campfires on the near side of it, and torches. Soldiers in dark blue moving about under the flaring light—only half a dozen, though to Sally they seemed millions. The small camp came closer and closer, its halo of light like something in a foggy dream. Sally heard the wagon hailed to stop, felt its motion cease. And she was sitting still looking down at the pickets. A country girl on the seat of a wagon, looking down wide-eyed but not alarmed at soldiers, as if she had never seen them before. She could almost see herself doing it, and felt amazed that she could be so calm.

She heard a few words exchanged between Jim’s father and the corporal on duty, though she was never sure what they were. Then the wagon started, and the glow of the fires and torches dropped behind. The wagon trundled slowly across the hollow-sounding wooden bridge—a farmer going home at night, driving some neighbors into town…

And they were past, and a cool breath of air seemed to wash across her face, as if she had been stifled before. And Jim was still beside her, numb and sick and breathing short and raggedly, but safe. She put both arms around him and pressed her cheek to his shoulder.

"We’re through,” she whispered. “It’s only a little ways more.”

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Keeping Summer Hours

I am pleased to report the second draft of One of Ours is officially complete, at an unknown wordcount. It filled a five-subject notebook—really more like a four-and-a-half-subject notebook, since I had torn out some pages of another project from the front—and spilled over a couple dozen pages or so into a new one.

I finished it earlier this week, and then promptly celebrated with a thorough ransacking and organizing of all my notebooks, manuscripts, bookshelves, closets and drawers. I don't know when my belongings have been so neatly arranged. Now I have a week's vacation coming up, in which I'll probably polish off my summer reading list, and then I'll fall to work on final edits, formatting and publishing The Silent Hour.

In past years summer has often been one of the most difficult and unproductive seasons for me, writing-wise. We typically spend every hot sunny day we get out at our swimming-pool; and frankly, a day alternating between swimming and relaxing on the deck with a good book is my idea of a perfect vacation day. But I'd often be distracted and guilty thinking of how little writing I was getting done. This year, though, I finally got into a rhythm that allowed me to get plenty of work done and still enjoy the summer days. Going to bed a little earlier and sleeping better with the aid of a light-blocking sleep mask meant I could get up early—about six-thirty most days—and take my notebooks out to the deck for a few hours of work while it was still cool and quiet outdoors.

It got to be a pleasant routine. Every morning I'd slosh through thick ankle-deep dew on the grass, as wet as if it had rained, balance four notebooks on the deck rail for a minute while I unlatched the gate, dry off the umbrella table, sit down on a slightly damp chair and set to work. I paused at the back door one morning, in swimsuit and shorts with an armful of notebooks and a sheaf of paper towels, to say to my dad, "I don't suppose you need to dry off your desk when you get to work, do you?" (He doesn't.) Even on the mornings of what would become hot days, there would be a light silver cloud cover to the pale blue sky, until the sun finally gleamed out from above the neighbors' trees and melted off the clouds and the thick morning mist. And before I knew it, several hours would have gone by, I'd have finished the scene I wanted to get done that day, and still have a good part of the morning and all afternoon left for swimming and relaxing.

So One of Ours is done. But then again, it's a long way from done. I'm going to make myself take a break from it for at least a few months, because I know it'll be better to approach it fresh for the next round. But whenever that time comes, I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Skirmish at McKendrick's - Part V

Lucy McKendrick sat on the edge of the front porch looking out into the yard as the sun set over beyond the trees. She was listening to the voices and laughter at the other end of the porch. The succession of one sensation upon another had not yet ended. Today, the day after the skirmish, had brought yet another, with the arrival of her brother Harry on a two days’ furlough. After the first joyous welcome in which everyone joined, Lucy had drifted to the edge of the family group, unnoticed by the older members who had much to talk about; and she had remained at that little distance for most of the afternoon.

She was not quite sure of her brother Harry. She had only seen him for a few hours on one or two occasions like this in the past three years. Even so he was not quite what she remembered. He had grown taller and broader than their father; his voice was not the voice she remembered; it had less expression in it. It seemed to hint at a part of him sealed off from the rest of the family, holding some reserve of feeling or force too dangerous to bring among them. Even his laugh, infrequent and short, had something alarming about it.

It was not till later in the day that Lucy began definitely to connect Harry with the secret entrusted to her, and reason out what his being here might mean. In spite of the uniform she had always seen him first as a member of the family—identifying him with the ‘blue soldiers’ took some little time. But even before that the consciousness of the secret made her wary. She knew, with child’s intuition, that if Harry discovered it he might do something—she did not know what—but she sensed his reaction would be something unpleasant.

With this in her mind, she watched him. She stayed in sight of him, but not too near, all afternoon; she listened now as he sat on the porch and talked with their parents, while her sisters were inside clearing up from dinner. And when her father had gone to the barn and her mother stepped inside to see about the bread dough rising, and Harry stood up and stepped off the porch into the gathering dusk, Lucy took hold of the post next to her and scrambled to her feet.

She went along the porch and stopped at the edge to watch him, as he walked a few slow steps into the yard, his thumbs hooked in his belt, looking about him a little. He moved on, without apparent object, and Lucy slipped from the porch and followed him. She hung a few paces behind him as he crossed the yard. At the far side of it he looked back at her, and she stopped.

Harry McKendrick had noticed his youngest sister’s silent shadowing of him that afternoon. He was accustomed to being aware of his surroundings. It had been a mild note of curiosity in the corner of his mind, nothing more. But now at the look on her face, he observed her with more attention. It was a look of distress. Something was bothering her, but she did not want to speak; she looked fearful of something happening but afraid of trying to prevent it. And it had come over her when he moved this way…Harry mused over this for a moment; and then he turned and walked on casually toward the dusky woods.

Lucy’s scampering footsteps overtook him. “Where are you going?” she asked anxiously, breathlessly.

“Oh, just over this way,” said Harry, without stopping or looking down at her. He was marking out the familiar landmarks, remembering what lay in this direction. The cow pond, the cornfields were down to the right. In the woods back of the house, there was only the old smokehouse.

Lucy was trying to keep up with him, half a dozen stumbling sideways steps to each of his long ones. “But—where? What are you going to do?”

“Just look around,” said Harry, stopping to gaze about him. He got his bearings in the patchwork of dusk and shadow, and moved more purposefully to the left, uphill.

Lucy trotted disconsolately after him. “Don’t go that way, please! It’s—dark. It’s awful dark.”

“You can go back to the house if you like,” said Harry mildly.

He paused. The dark outline of the old smokehouse was ahead of them in the gloom. He thought he had seen a tiny glint like a firefly near its base. And as his eyes adjusted he saw a dim, frosted vertical line of light—light showing around the edge of the old wooden door in the foundation.

Lucy was pulling at his wrist. “Let’s go back—please!”

“In a minute,” said Harry, and he moved forward.

He did not attempt to shake her off, and Lucy hung on, pulled along helplessly in his wake, trying with all her might to stop him. “Not now! Not till the war’s over!”

He went down on one knee by the old foundation, and reached out to pull the door open. It gave way with a jerk and a creak, the bit of wood that wedged it tumbling past his foot, and in the dimly lit cellar Sally Kincaid whipped around with a startled gasp.

“Harry!” she faltered, turning deadly pale.

She was kneeling just inside the door; she had been bending over Jim, who did not move, only turned his head slightly where he lay to look at the newcomer. Harry McKendrick did not speak. His eyes moved slowly from one face to the other, taking in everything, from the candle stuck in the corner, to the blankets, to the bandaged arm. Still he said nothing, and gave no sign. Sally could not move or speak—she only looked at him, trapped, defenseless, without excuse or plea. Even Lucy, sniffling miserably in the dark beyond him, seemed held to silence by his immobility.

Harry’s deliberating eyes returned again to their faces—first Jim, then Sally. His face was so devoid of expression he might have been seeing nothing. But he saw. He saw the exhausted, pain-worn face of his old playmate, and the mute pleading in the eyes of the girl who had adored Jim even in the days when they were children, when the old smokehouse and the creek bank had rung to the sounds of happy laughter.

His eyes came back to Jim. “Well,” he said, his voice cool, unemotional, “I didn’t expect to find you here.”

Jim’s mouth curved thinly in the beginnings of a faint smile. “Guess not.”

Harry nodded toward the bandaged arm. “Hurt yourself?”

“Yeah,” said Jim. His eyes met Harry’s, a direct gaze that made no excuses. “Fell out of a tree.”

For the first time, a faint twitch of expression touched Harry McKendrick’s tanned face, something he could not entirely subdue. The words, as perhaps Jim knew, were a passageway to another memory, as was almost everything that could pass between the three of them.

Harry shifted his hand on the rough wood of the doorpost, and the movement seemed to pull Sally from her paralyzed state. She leaned forward, clutching a bloodstained bandage in her hands, a rush of words spilling from her. “He was hit in the fight yesterday. Lucy found him in the woods and brought me—I had to help him hide somewhere. I couldn’t hide him at our house, and he couldn’t make it anywhere further—it was only going to be for a few days. I was going to get Mr. Benson to come over at night and take him home—but now I—”

She stopped, helplessly, trying not to break down in tears. She put down the twisted scrap of cloth with shaking hands. Harry McKendrick looked at her—perhaps a brief flicker of wondering crossed his mind at what had changed that his presence could make her tremble like this.

There was a pause. Then he said, “Can you get him here tomorrow night?”

Sally looked up at him, too bewildered for a moment to be distressed. “What?”

Harry’s voice seemed to hold a studied indifference, as if he did not want to admit even to himself the significance of the words. The glance he threw at Jim was scarcely different. “If you’re going to be out of commission for a while, I guess you’re better off over home than rotting in one of those prison camps,” he said. He looked at Sally. “I’ve got two days’ furlough. If you can get him out of here tomorrow night I’ll help you, but after I’ve left here I can’t answer for anything.”

Tears blurred Sally’s eyes again, but this time an incredulous smile trembled on her lips. She said, her voice catching, “Harry—”

“Can you do it?” he said abruptly.

“Yes,” she said. She wiped the tears away with the back of her hand, almost a defiant gesture, and her other hand went out to touch Jim, as if that could restore her composure. “I’ll go over to Benson’s and tell them tomorrow. I’ll tell him to come after dark?”

Jim lifted a hand to her arm to interpose weakly. “He can’t—”

Harry paid him no attention; he spoke to Sally. “After dark but not after nine. He’ll have to pass the bridge pickets twice and any patrols you might meet, and it can’t be so late as to be suspicious. Tell him to drive past the crossroads and stop where our fence runs close to the road. I’ll come here after dark and see that you get there to meet him.”
To be continued...

Monday, August 3, 2015

Rewriting and Roses

Did it ever occur to you that writing is like arranging flowers?

Think about the process for a minute. Say you start with a bunch of a dozen roses; they make a beautiful bouquet in your hand. You put them in a vase, the stems all the same length—they're a little too tall for the vase and they lean around at odd angles. So you begin by trimming the stems, arranging the roses, moving one here and another there and tweaking the way they stand until you have a gracefully shaped bouquet. Then you surround it with ferns and baby's-breath, filling in the gaps and wreathing the edges of the arrangement till it's perfect.

Well, that's writing and editing. The beautiful bunch of roses in the hand is your first splendid idea for a story, full of raw potential. Plop it in a vase and there's your first draft, a little awkwardly shaped and tilting out at odd angles. So you clean it up a bit, rearranging scenes and cutting out things that don't belong (trimming the stems, stripping off lower leaves, moving the roses around in the vase), until the basic shape of your story is a little more settled. Then you go through again—you take those scenes that are fairly decent, but still feel a bit sketchy and not very absorbing, and you fill them out with scents, sounds, gestures, bits of description, better evocation of emotions and scenery (filling in the gaps and wreathing the edges with ferns and baby's-breath). You repeat that as needed till you're happy with your story—or your bouquet.

Rewriting One of Ours, I feel like I'm juggling two different stages of that process at once. I'm rewriting and sprucing up existing scenes, but I'm also adding a lot of new scenes that sometimes feel rather bare and basic compared to the rewritten ones. But I'm okay with that, because I know there'll be another go-round where I'll polish and fill them out to where they mesh with the rest. There's always a stray leaf in a bouquet that you tweak until it's just perfect, and there's no limit to how many times you can fine-tune a story until you're satisfied it's the very best it can be.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Five Essential Westerns For Beginners + Giveaway

I've written a lot about Westerns on this blog, mostly from the perspective of someone who's been familiar with the genre and fond of it all their life. I know some of you are the same; others of you might be just beginning to enjoy Westerns, or interested in trying them for the first time. I once found myself thinking about what movie recommendations I'd give somebody who was looking to try a Western and wanted to know which were good examples of the genre—so to close out Legends of Western Cinema Week, I thought I'd post the list of five that I came up with. These aren't necessarily my own personal favorites (for the record, my top two are Rio Grande (1950) and The Tin Star (1957), and if Legends of Western Cinema Week was twice as long I'd try to write about them too), but rather the five films that I think would make good introductory viewing:

Stagecoach (1939)
Stagecoach is to Western film what The Virginian is to Western literature—not the first, but an early notable that helped shoot the genre to public notice and popularity. If you try to put yourself in the shoes of a 1939 audience, and watch it as if you were seeing for the first time so many elements that became classics and eventually clichés of the genre, you'll notice what a well-crafted film it really is.

Red River (1948)
Red River may not be a perfect film—the romantic subplot leaves something to be desired, and the ending might seem slightly tacked-on—but it's still the classic cattle-drive movie. The middle section where the grand sweep of the drive itself is center stage is terrific.

Shane (1953)
Perhaps the best and most famous depiction of the conflict between settlers and cattleman, and of a figure that also became a fixture of the Western: the mysterious loner who comes to the aid of those in trouble, but must remain an outsider himself.

High Noon (1952)
Here again you'll recognize elements that have become familiar even to those who don't know the genre, and have been re-worked and riffed upon countless times: the showdown in the empty street, the man standing alone for justice while everyone else deserts him. So, as with Stagecoach, why not go right to the source and see where it all began?

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
I had gotten the impression from the film's trailer that it was mostly action, but I ended up surprised by how thoughtful a script it was—portraying the gunfighters as human, flawed men who realize what they lose in living by the gun, rather than superheroes. Plus it's a rollicking good adventure...and there's that unforgettable musical score.

So there you go. A five-film course that will introduce you to the lawman and the outlaw, the cattleman and homesteader, the stagecoach scenario and the shootout. And they're all pretty fine films on their own account, too, especially if you already enjoy classic movies in general.

And now, to top it all off, we've got a fun giveaway! I'm giving away a set of three hand-illustrated notecards from the brand-new Etsy shop The Western Desk. The set includes one of each design seen in the left-hand picture below. Enter via the Rafflecopter for your chance to win!

The illustration on the card seen at right is based on a scene from the movie Hondo (1953)—another good one for beginners!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This post is a contribution to Legends of Western Cinema Week, hosted at A Lantern in Her Hand and Meanwhile in Rivendell, so be sure to hop over there and see what movies other participants are talking about!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Skirmish at McKendrick's - Part IV

In the mid-afternoon Sally Kincaid walked down to McKendrick’s alone. It was not unusual for her to do so; and surely they might expect someone to come down and see how they had fared, knowing there had been fighting so near there that morning. So she reasoned with herself as she walked. It was a reasoning mixed with a little dread of knowing just what had transpired during the fight, and yet a need to know at least what the McKendricks could tell her.

She was welcomed by the McKendrick girls with perhaps a little less restraint than usual, in the lingering excitement of the day; and had soon heard all there was to tell. She was shown the broken fence-rails lying in the garden, the wreck of the henhouse and the bullet-scarred tree trunks in the orchard; and was treated to a number of opinions on what the action had meant. To these Sally could but listen and try not to let any tell-tale expression of her thoughts cross her face. She knew too much to join in this conversation.

Through all this Sally was only half aware of small Lucy McKendrick lingering near her elbow, following in her footsteps as she walked with the others, but never speaking. If she had paid closer attention she might have seen Lucy watching her, looking up at her with large eyes as if there was something about Sally that she was curious to know, or a decision she was trying to make about her.

When good-byes had been said, and Sally was walking alone across the yard to start for home, she found that Lucy was still with her. She had taken a fold of Sally’s long skirts in her hand, and her face was still upturned to her earnestly. The questioning in it was so palpable that Sally stopped, and leaned down toward her.

Lucy took her hand in both of her own as if to lead her somewhere. “I want to show you something.”

Her voice was hushed and important. Sally smiled down into her big eyes. “You do? What is it?”

“It’s this way,” said Lucy, tugging her toward the woods. “It’s a secret. You have to come and see it.”

Sally smiled again, and allowed herself to be led. Once or twice before she had let Lucy lead her, in what she knew was the imparting of a supreme confidence, to her secret haunt in the woods, where she had been shown a treasure such as a white stone from the creek bed or a bird’s nest in the heart of a honeysuckle bush. She expected another such confidence was in store now. She followed Lucy over the crossing stones in the creek, and deeper into the brush, climbing over the fallen dead boughs that the little girl crawled under.

They had gone what Sally began to think was quite a long way, out of sight and sound of the house. Aspen trees leaned together above them, and tall weeds filled the spaces around the trunks. Lucy stopped, and pulled at her hand again.

Sally looked—she had a glimpse of gray and her stomach jolted suddenly. For a strangely horrible second she was certain that the child had found a dead soldier lying there in the shade of the aspens. Then she saw the chalk-white face, the closed eyes and the bloody sleeve—a low cry escaped her. She rushed forward and fell on her knees beside him in the weeds. “Jim! Oh, Jim—”

Jim opened his eyes in dazed confusion as she choked back a sob. “Sally…how’d you…”

“Lucy brought me. Oh, Jim, are you hurt bad?”

“I don’t know. I got hit in the arm.” He closed his eyes again.

Sally turned to Lucy, who was standing watching with her finger in her mouth, and by an apt chance had the old tin cup in her other hand. “Lucy, will you take that and get me some water from the creek? Hurry.”

Lucy turned and went, and Sally feverishly dug out a small pair of sewing-scissors from the pocket of her dress. She ripped the bloody sleeve and pulled it away from the wound. She shuddered at the sight of the lacerated flesh, but the urgency of the moment overcame her weakness. Turning up the hem of her skirt, she tore a strip from the edge of her petticoat to use as a bandage, wielding the scissors so hastily that she just escaped slicing her own fingers.

Fortunately it was not a serious injury; the bullet had torn through from back to front, leaving an ugly flesh wound that had been bleeding slowly. Sally, with no experience in treating wounds, could not know this, but acted upon common sense. When Lucy returned in a few minutes, holding out the tin cup to her with wet hands, she washed the clotted blood away with another scrap torn from her petticoat, then wrapped the clean strip of cotton around Jim’s arm, tearing the ends and knotting them securely. Jim gritted his teeth and winced, but no sound came from him other than the hiss of his breathing through his teeth.

When she had finished Sally bent over him again, sliding her hand beneath his head. “Can you walk, Jim, if I help you? They told me at McKendrick’s that the Yankees are still looking for stragglers—they’ll come back and find you here.”

“I can try,” he said.

He pulled himself up, slowly, to a sitting position, and then with Sally helping him, managed to get on his feet. Sally put her arm around him, giving him her shoulder to lean on. But after only a few steps he shook his head, signaling her to stop, and collapsed against the foot of the nearest tree, trembling all over from the effort.

“It’s no good,” he gasped, shaking his head weakly. “My legs feel like water.”

Sally dropped down beside him. “But you’ve got to, Jim! You can’t stay here.”

He had his eyes closed again, leaning against the tree with his injured arm cradled in his right hand. “Sally, where am I supposed to go? The troop’s gone…they’ll have counted me dead or prisoner. The Yanks are all through the town.”

“If you could only get home—it’s just across the bridge. I could go over and tell your pa, and he’d come and get you—”

Jim opened his eyes. “No! Don’t let him come—with the Yanks crawling all round here, he’d get arrested if they caught him helping me—thrown in some stockade or hung.”

Sally wilted down disconsolately in the grass, her elbows on her knees and her fists clenched by her ears. “If you could just find someplace to lay and hide till the Yankees have settled down, or moved…not our place; they might search it…and you couldn’t walk that far.”

Suddenly she lifted her head. “The old smokehouse! Jim, remember? It’s not so far off—there’s the cellar underneath it. And it’s on the McKendricks’ land, too. The Yankees know they’re Union sympathizers; they wouldn’t search there.” She was on her knees, her hand touching his shoulder. “Listen, Jim—if you rest here till after dark, could you make it as far as the smokehouse? I’ll come back when it’s dark and help you. Then you’ll be safe for a little while, and we can think what to do.”

Jim nodded, slowly. “I can make it. Try, anyway.” He looked at her. “But Sally, I don’t want you taking any chances—”

“I won’t. I’ll be fine.”

She had forgotten, until she turned her head, that Lucy McKendrick had been standing by the whole time, watching them and listening. A new flicker of apprehension crossed Sally’s face. Hesitantly, she turned to the little girl and put both hands on her shoulders. “Lucy,” she said, “will you do something for me? Will you not tell anyone about Jim being here? It’s very important, Lucy—that nobody, nobody at all, knows about it till after the soldiers are gone—until—”

“Until the war’s over,” Lucy filled in.

Sally laughed a bit hysterically. “Yes, that’s right. Till the war’s over.”

“She knows,” said Jim with a faint smile. “I told her all about it yesterday.”

Sally gave him a quick look. “Yesterday? Then—she knew—” She looked at Lucy again, the pieces fitting together. Sally smiled, a little tremulously, and leaned forward and kissed her. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Lucy’s round eyes followed her as she stood up, perhaps not fully understanding.

“Try and crawl back here in the bushes a little,” said Sally to Jim, bending over him to help; “that way you can lie still in there, and if anyone comes by—they shouldn’t see you. Then Lucy and I’ll go home,” she said, “and I’ll be back—tonight.”

* * *

The old smokehouse, disused for many years, stood a few rods back in the woods behind the McKendrick farmhouse. It had been built against the side of a slope on a chinked stone foundation, with a small wooden door in the front giving access to the cellar-like space underneath. The older McKendrick children and their playmates had made good use of this dark and damp space in years past, turning it into a house, a fort, a cave at will; but of late years even this use had ceased, and the smokehouse stood silent in the green forest, the cracks between its boards widening and moss growing over the stone foundation and the crumbling roof.

After dark, when she was certain her mother and brother were asleep, Sally slipped out of the house, with two old blankets under her arm. Rolled up inside them was a small bundle of food, a pair of candles, and the rest of her torn petticoat ripped up for clean bandages.

The night was moonlit, with an occasional unsettling rush of wind through the treetops, and only the thought of Jim kept her going through the black shadows that strewed her path, her heart beating in small hammer-blows of nervousness. At the end of her journey, when she thought she had found the place under the aspens, it took her a few worried moments of groping about in the brush to find him—his whisper, once he was certain it was her, guided her to the spot. As she clasped his hand in the dark half her fears seemed to fall away; the warmth and life in it was enough to reassure her.

The trip to the smokehouse was made…long, slow and fumbling…though mercifully by the end of it both had lost all sense of time. Jim leaned heavily on Sally, forced to stop and take a breath what seemed like every few steps. In patches of blackness under the trees where the moon did not reach, both stumbled, unable to see what was under their feet. Branches impeded their path, reached out at them like the prickly fingers of silent adversaries surrounding them; and every once in a while Sally’s heart leaped into her throat at the uncouth shape of a bent tree gray-white beside them, transformed by terror into a silent watcher.

But at last the moonlight shone on the open space in front of the tall black shaft of the abandoned smokehouse standing up above, and the ordeal was over. Slowly still, they made the last few steps across the little glade. Jim slid to his knees and leaned against the mossy foundation of the smokehouse, while Sally felt along the little wooden door for the rusty hook that held it closed. She found it, fought with it a minute, then wrenched it open, and the door moved with a creak that made Jim start and jerk his throbbing head up abruptly.

Sally crawled in, battling her revulsion at the feel of the cold, damp, dirty ground beneath her hands, littered with crumbled old leaves and twigs which instinct told her were more than likely the remains of rodents’ nests. She worked open her bundle, struck a match with some difficulty against the uneven stone wall and lit one of the candles. Its flicker showed nothing more dreadful than the cramped, dirty space she had expected. But it seemed so much smaller than when they were children, as she wedged the candle in a corner and unfolded one of the blankets; too small even to spread the blanket all the way out. Sally could just sit up without her head brushing the roof.

She helped Jim drag himself inside and lie down; then pulled the door shut, wedging it with a stub of rotted wood to keep it that way. The candle wavered in a draft from some unseen chink in the stonework. Sally sheltered the flame with her hand and glanced uneasily up at the walls, hoping there was no crack big enough for the light to show through.

She crawled into the narrow space between Jim and the back wall, trying not to jar his wounded arm. She expelled a quick, short breath, and let herself down on one elbow beside him, feeling suddenly weary.

Very gently, she brushed his temple and the cheek with the thin scratch across it. Jim turned his head a little bit, to look up at her. The light from the single uncertain candle was too low for them to see more than the outline of each other’s faces.

He sighed, a whisper of a sigh that turned into a slight cough of pain. “All I’ve been wanting...for a long time,” he whispered, “was to have you near me…” He closed his eyes and smiled. “Took kind of a lot to get it.”

Sally did not answer; something held at her throat so she could not.

She looked up at the candlelight moving against the undersides of the old floorboards, hauntingly the same as years ago, yet the pattern of the wood unfamiliar from the years of moldering that had passed between. How much less painful life had been in those days when the battles they fought, and the wars from which they had taken shelter in the old smokehouse, were only the harmless wars of their own imagining.
To be continued...