Thursday, May 21, 2015

Whatever the Weather

I've been planning on sharing my summer reading list, as I've made a habit of doing, but thought I'd wait until a little closer to the beginning of June. It would seem a little odd to be talking about summer reading when I honestly don't know what season we're having just now. Once the long-lingering winter chill had finally gone away, we had a burst of unseasonable oven-roasting heat for a few days, and then by the end of that same week we were back to running the furnace and wearing flannel at night. I've given up trying to guess what the weather will be next, and I certainly don't trust any weatherman to do it.

Life has basically been built around working on my novel. I'm enjoying it, even the tough parts. I feel like this rewrite has been a tremendous learning experience for me—I'm not just learning about this book or my own writing; the process has brought me all sorts of little illuminations about art, storytelling and creativity in general. I may talk a little more about that in future posts.

Also along the lines of plans for summer (whenever summer decides to get here), I've been toying with the idea of serializing a story on my blog, maybe in July and August. It would let me relax and step back from blogging a bit during summer vacations, without letting the blog go completely silent; and give me a chance to "audition" a story I'm not sure what to do with and see if there's an audience for it. I have a couple different manuscripts I'm looking over and considering for the part. What do you think?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Weekday Odds and Ends IV

To begin with, bargain news! Corral Nocturne is on sale for 99¢ from today through Wednesday, so if you've been thinking about reading it, now's your chance! If you've already read and enjoyed it, do tell a friend. In the meantime, here's a selection of various interesting and entertaining links from the past few weeks:

  • A delightful audio artifact: a rare 1929 recording of A.A. Milne reading aloud the chapter “In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle” from Winnie-the-Pooh.

  • Here's an interesting list: Civil War novels published before 1957. Now, you know me—old books are automatically intriguing, and I think it's interesting to dig back into Civil War books written not too long after the war itself, and before Gone With the Wind stole the spotlight. Wouldn't that be a good topic for a Goodreads Listopia—pre-Gone With the Wind Civil War books? 

  • If I ever have a big garden, I definitely want one of these literary signposts in it. I think I'd have "Pemberley" and "The Hundred Acre Wood" on mine. (A Pinterest search shows lots of variations on this idea.)

  • Some staggering numbers here on the clutter in the average American household: 21 Surprising Statistics That Reveal How Much Stuff We Actually Own. 'Tis statistics like those that make minimalism, or simplifying, or whatever you want to call it, look attractive.

  • Another addendum for my series on vintage color photos: 27 stunning color photos from WWII, shared on Twitter by Melissa Marsh

  • Finally, here's a beautiful rendition of "Shenandoah" by John Williams and the Boston Pops (who else?).

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Anything You Can Do

I had a bit of an epiphany about artistic influences yesterday. It may seem obvious, but it was the first time the thought crystallized clearly for me. It kind of relates to a comment Suzannah Rowntree made in the discussion on this post—how she had included a certain element in her own novel because she was dissatisfied with the way many other books handled it. When I was considering some of the influences on my own novel One of Ours, this clicked in my head. We all emulate things we like about others' work. But don't we often like something, but at the same time think, "I still would have tweaked this one element, and then it would have been even better." We see it as good, but imperfectly good, and the impulse to correct or experiment with that one little change leads us to create something of our own.

For instance. Among the curious array of things that have influenced the development of One of Ours—books, songs, films, poems, historical incidents—I find the 1947 Western movie Angel and the Badman, which deals with the romance between an outlaw and a Quaker girl. They share a basic starting-point: a stranger being forced to stop at a small family farm/ranch, and his connection with a daughter of the household affecting further events of the plot. There the similarity ends.

Now, here's the thing—Angel and the Badman is a pleasant, enjoyable film, but I was never wholly satisfied with the behavior of the Angel. Here is an evidently gentle, devout Quaker girl: in the first scene an intriguing outlaw collapses in her arms and she immediately goes head-over-heels for him. As I recall it, the fact that he's an outlaw, that there have been other women in his life, that he doesn't share her faith—none of this seems to trouble her. She's in love with him and that's that. Because this is, after all, a pre-1960s John Wayne movie, we've got a pretty good idea all along that the Badman will reform and everything will come right by the end. But for me that still doesn't quite validate the inconsistency of the Angel's attitude. Love may sometimes conquer all, but the path to that point is not always that simple and easy.

So I think my development of my own heroine, Alice, was partly a half-unconscious reaction to what I saw lacking there. Here's another gentle, devout girl: into her life comes a man who, among other things, is in trouble of some kind, is hiding something, is cynical towards life and God. She's attracted to him and feels compassion toward him, but here's the thing: she has doubts. Initially she tries not to acknowledge her feelings; all throughout the story she questions whether her own actions are right. There's no question about the genuineness of her feelings, but she doesn't just go blithely ahead without weighing things in the light of her principles.

So this particular thread of my plot (and it's only one of many) is like a tribute and a rebuttal in one. Artistic influence can be like a game of literary one-upmanship which results in new riffs on the same theme. We emulate what we like, but we also try to fill a hole or correct a small flaw in what we like, and in doing so create something entirely our own.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Book Spine Poetry

I think I'd heard of book spine poetry somewhere before, but when I saw Amber Stokes' blog post featuring spine poetry this past weekend, I couldn't resist trying it for myself. I've never done it before, so I don't know how good my efforts were (and it was a bit tricky since most of the titles I could find on my shelves were rather story-specific), but it was fun. Here's what I came up with:



City editor
simple and direct,
No time on my hands,
nothing daunted.


Mornings on horseback,
swift rivers
open land,
"A funnie place, no fences"—
Westward ho!

It's rather fun, isn't it? Have you ever tried book spine poetry?

Friday, May 8, 2015

Quote: Learned From Good Writing


Good writing can only be learned from good writing...we learn not from studying a book, but from enjoying it.
~ E.M. Forster

(See also Louis L'Amour on this subject.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

April Snippets

Sometimes letting your imagination run away with you can be a good thing. At least when you're writing a novel. I'm busy writing a set of brand-new scenes into the second draft of One of Ours, and I realized that several of them have something in common. In the space of time since I finished the first draft a few years ago, I occasionally let myself do some daydreaming about things that could happen to the characters after the events of the novel, or even concurrently, just outside the frame of the plot. But when I came to redo the outline, it suddenly hit me that I could adapt some of those events to be used within the timeframe of the novel itself, to strengthen the main storyline and one of the subplots. And now I'm having a great time writing them.

Meanwhile, here's some snippets from the past few weeks:

But Grandpa was not like that. Once he'd made up his mind on what was right—even if it was right—all subtler points of reasoning, whether for or against, were lost on him. He'd taken his stand and that was that.
 
It was the shrewd stab he had been waiting to make all this time. And the thrust was true, for the only way Britt could turn it aside was with a lie—something that it was not in his nature to do—and the second of silence that had already passed would make the lie plain.
 
"If the boss is short on anything, it ain't ambition."
 
The breeze was gone, all too soon, and left silence. Phil looked again at Britt. Britt's head was bent; he was staring unseeingly at the trampled soil and slowly tapping the edge of the pickaxe against the outside of his boot. His hat left most of his face in shadow.

His hand found the holster beside his bunk, closed on the gun and dragged it out; the feel of it in his hand seemed to bring him more awake. He sat up. The darkness in the faintly musty, hay-scented lean-to was thick and smothering as black velvet.

Rosa wanted to run; she would have plunged recklessly into anything, but Britt knew the dangers of an unfamiliar road in the dark...He kept the gray glimmer of the pony just ahead of him, its pale whisking tail like the twistings of a heat-conjured ghost in the black night.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Meet the Notebooks


The other day, I got chatting with some writer friends on Twitter about our notebook collections, and it struck me that this would make a fun topic for a blog post. Whatever method we use to actually write our stories, I'm sure most of us have a stack of notebooks for plotting, outlining and scribbling ideas...and I'm no exception. I did a count of mine, and the total is...

23 notebooks and 3 binders or folders. This doesn't count blank notebooks, or the big thick notebooks in which I actually write my first drafts. That number just covers note-taking/plotting/outlining notebooks.

To break it down a little further, nine of those notebooks/binders/folders are devoted to a single novel or project, while the rest contain multiple projects or hodgepodge notes. I've developed my own system of initialing the corners of pages and leaving the first page blank to add a table of contents, which helps me find things quickly in those. Three are 'nonfiction'—I have one that's basically a database, filled with lists of first names, surnames, town names and title ideas for future stories. Another I use for rough drafts of nonfiction articles and blog posts—oddly, that's the only one in which I write in pencil instead of pen.

The ones in the picture above pretty well represent the range of their appearance—from pretty to battered to cute puppies. On the left is a genuine hodgepodge notebook in which I write random scraps of dialogue, phrases, plot points, anything that might be useful someday if I need inspiration. The next one is devoted to a historical novel in the "someday" stages. That green one is my favorite, in appearance, of any I own—I have a couple in the same pattern in pink and lavender too, and I wish they hadn't discontinued the series! I did a more detailed look inside the middle one (that's New York Giants, est. 1925) here on the blog once before. The red composition book came to me as a hand-me-down from my youngest sister, with only about a quarter of its pages left, but it sure served its purpose—it holds all the notes and outlining for Left-Hand Kelly. (I never refuse hand-me-downs; the projects they hold always seem to turn out well.) And the almost-filled puppy notebook is crammed with notes for short stories, including a number from The Ranch Next Door and Other Stories.

The rest are mostly plain primary-color single-subject notebooks, the kind you can go crazy stocking up on during Back to School sales—the Mrs. Meade Mysteries are housed in navy blue, The Summer Country in purple (another hand-me-down!), Based on a True Story in yellow and the second-draft notes of One of Ours in red.

Once you get started as a writer, your family quickly discovers that notebooks are always welcome gifts. But after a few years' worth of notebooks at Christmas, birthdays, Valentine's Day and so forth, my backlog of blanks reached bursting point and I had to say "Enough!" Now I staunchly avoid the tempting notebook aisle at the grocery store, and cheerfully but firmly decline suggestions that I might like more notebooks for Christmas. I have no doubt I'll eventually work through that backlog, but till then, no more!

What's your notebook collection like? I'd love to see some pictures and hear all the fun details about how you use them, if anybody would like to share on their own blogs!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Spring Term

Spring this year has been a long, slow, chilly time in coming. The trees are still just barely budding, whereas in other years the leaves have all been out by early May. Temperatures are staying down too—which means that after switching all my light summer clothes into my closet, I'm stuck wearing the one or two warm pieces I left out over and over again. I keep wanting to imitate old Anthony Chuzzlewit: "It's a cold spring!" But I'm not as good at imitations as all my siblings are.

- Writing -

Camp NaNoWriMo was an unqualified success! For a naturally slow writer like me, I think the ability to choose your own goal and keep it manageable takes a lot of the stress out of the challenge. I estimated the length of the scenes I wanted to finish at about 10,000 words, and without working weekends, I clocked in at approximately 14,845 on the 22nd. That puts me at the halfway point of my first draft of One of Ours. But next I'm heading into a section where I'll be adding several entirely new scenes, which should be...interesting. I shall have to do another snippets post when I'm further along, but I've been sharing a few bits on Twitter for #wordplaywednesdayhere, here and here.

Following that, I took a couple days' break to type up the first draft of The Silent Hour, my next Mrs. Meade Mystery. Which was fun, since after a month's break from that, I was pleasantly surprised to find it looked a lot better to me than it did the day I finished the draft. Autumn 2015 is the projected release date.

- Reading -

I've noted before that intensive spells of reading and writing always alternate with me. Earlier in the year I was reading constantly and finding lots of books to enjoy; but since I've been so deep in concentrating on One of Ours my reading's been a bit patchy. Not much more to my credit lately than a couple of lightweight, moderately entertaining old mysteries (Call Mr. Fortune by H.C. Bailey and The House of a Thousand Candles by Meredith Nicholson). I did, however, read G.K. Chesterton's epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse earlier this month and enjoyed that quite a lot. While I didn't agree with everything P.D. James had to say in Talking About Detective Fiction, which I read back in March, after four volumes of Father Brown stories and this poem, I concur with her assessment that "Chesterton never wrote an inelegant or clumsy sentence."

- Otherwise -

We recently decided to hardwire our house, so we wouldn't have to live with the unhealthy radiation of a constant wireless signal. So my dad moved our modem and router to the cellar, ran new cable wires and installed jacks for plugging in an Ethernet cord in a few convenient locations throughout the house (I'm not sure there's anything around the house that he can't build or fix). I'm finding that the new system definitely refines one's internet usage. The deliberate process of sitting down at a table and plugging in an internet cord, instead of just being able to flip open your laptop anytime and anywhere to check email or Twitter, makes you a bit more focused and productive with the time you do spend online. It's also very convenient for typing fiction without the distraction of the Internet—you simply don't plug it in, and there you are.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Chatterbox: The View in April

Short and sweet this time. The subject of April's Chatterbox is travel by foot, and not finding a good instance of that in any of my current projects, I sort of extracted an idea from an unfinished bit of short fiction that's been languishing in my files for years, and wrote this little independent scene. 'Tisn't much, but it was fun to write. Because springtime always has to spill onto the page a bit at this time of year.

Les straightened up, looking around for something to wipe his blackened hands on besides his clothes—unsuccessfully—and then wiped them in a slightly furtive way, as if he hoped no one would notice. “I’m sorry,” he said sheepishly. “The spare is no good either. I should have checked it a long time ago.”

“Hmmm?” said Mariel, lifting her chin from her hand and looking at him. She was sitting on the hood of the car with one leg crossed over the other, and had been staring into the distance without speaking for the last few minutes. “Oh. Well, I guess we’ll have to walk, then. It’s only a mile or two, isn’t it?”

“Not much more…are you sure you don’t mind? I mean, I guess you don’t want to wait here by yourself—”

“No, I’ll go with you. I don’t mind at all.” Mariel slid from the car and inspected her shoes, then looked up with a smile, tossing her short golden-brown hair back from her face. “My shoes weren’t exactly made for walking, but then I’ve never found a pretty pair that were.”

Les was too mortified over the faultiness of the spare tire to think of a reply for this, so he only smiled half-heartedly and they started off down the road together.

The pavement of the road looked oddly bare and clean, only a few weeks out from the last melting of snow, and the strips of grass on either side were a rich, fierce new green, the blades just brought to the surface by the spring sun. A faint spicy smell came from the crisp pale tangle of last year’s dried weeds, a half-flattened border beyond the few yards of grass; and a tall silver maple leaning over the road was starred with fuzzy red buds like tiny curled caterpillars. Mariel walked with her head turned slightly aside, gazing into the sun-warmed brown woods, with deep green pines lurking behind the bare trees like the velvet curtains of a theatre in the middle of having its scenery changed. The tiny squeaks of a goldfinch and the singing of a dozen other small birds sounded from overhead.

When they had walked a little ways, Les ventured again, “I’m really sorry about this. Are you sure you don’t mind—”

“For about the tenth time, no—no—and no!” said Mariel with a laugh. “To be honest with you, I don’t know if I’ve ever driven somewhere without wishing in the back of my head that something like this would happen.”

Wished for it?”

“Yes. I feel like I’ve spent my whole life being rushed past places that I wanted to just stop and linger and look at. Right from the time I was little, and we’d go shopping downtown. There were so many fascinating things in store windows that I’d want to look at—not things to buy, just things to enjoy staring at for a little while. But of course a grown-up would have me by the hand and I’d be pulled along past everything because we were on our way to somewhere else. And it’s a thousand times worse with cars!” she exclaimed, with an earnestness that Les privately thought was adorable. “You’re whisked past a thousand things that you’d like a closer look at, but never get more than a glimpse as you go by, because of course you’re on your way to somewhere else.” She stopped for a moment. “If we weren’t walking, would we be seeing that?”

She nodded toward a gap in the trees. Through it they could see a range of hills, the bare budding trees misting them in shades of mauve and lavender patched with green pine; and a startlingly blue sky above, reflected in a small shining mirror of a pond at the base of the hills.

Les shook his head. “Only for about two seconds, if you happened to be looking straight that way,” he said. “Even if it weren’t for the trees here, the angle would change every minute as you drove along.”

“That’s true,” said Mariel with additional wonder. “Hills are always different depending on where you look at them from.”

She glanced up at Les as they started to walk on, with that pretty questioning lift of the eyebrows. “You don’t mind walking, do you?” she said.

“No,” said Les, smiling back at her, “I can’t say that I do.”
photo by myself   

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

To Write "Z" is Human, to Notice the "S" is Divine


For many years the name of the late Miss Elisabeth Marbury was a terror. It seems simple enough, but all new reporters would misspell it, and there were copyreaders who went through life without having learned that her first name was not spelled "Elizabeth."
~ Stanley Walker, City Editor

There are many things that can give you a unique view on life, and one of them is being christened Elisabeth with an S. Anne with an E is one thing—the Annes of the world have L.M. Montgomery to thank for having immortalized their plight, and anyway the E is easy to tack quickly onto the end when someone has noticed the mistake. But being an Elisabeth with an S brings with it a peculiar inheritance; it makes you the manager of a lifelong campaign (with losing odds) to have your name spelled correctly.

Years of patient education eventually engrain it upon the memories of extended family, but with strangers it's another matter. There is always a feeling of anxiety attendant to scanning concert programs and prize lists where your name is supposed to appear, and the remark "Got it wrong again," takes on a tone of resignation as the years go by. Birthday cakes and graduation cakes arrive with that tell-tale smudge in the frosting about the middle of your name, which means your father opened the box to check before leaving the bakery and had to request a correction (after having carefully spelled it over the phone while ordering, of course). I have always felt very kindly toward my orthodontist and his staff, the only group of people who have consistently gotten it right over the years (many years; my teeth needed a lot of work).

It puzzles me greatly sometimes. I send out business emails (name clearly signed), reply to forum posts or comment threads (name right there in my username), or leave my business card (name plainly spelled out), and a good 75% of replies are bound to address me as Elizabeth. I begin to wonder sometimes—is the S really so hard to see, or is it playing tricks behind my back and turning into a Z whenever I'm not looking?

I suppose it's partly because there's not too many of us. I've only run into a couple other people named Elisabeth in my lifetime, and there's always a kind of instant recognition and sympathy among us; we all know what it's like. I've spotted a couple actresses in classic movies with the name: Elisabeth Risdon and Elisabeth Fraser. I'll bet they knew too. Even the Empress Elisabeth of Austria occasionally appears in print as the Empress Elizabeth—perhaps that's why she went by Sissi. (I discovered in recent years, incidentally, that one of the diminutives of Elisabeth—that being a German spelling of Elizabeth—is Liesl. I don't think adopting it as a nickname would help much, though, since in all my years of being a Sound of Music fan I've noted "Liesl" has a misspelling rate of about 50%.)

With all that, what are the odds of there being two writers named Elisabeth Foley? But when I came to publish my first book I found that there actually was another, a writer of textbooks, apparently. Hence my decision to include my middle name in my pen name. So I occasionally receive replies addressed to Elisabeth Grace, or—yes, you knew this was coming—Elizabeth Grace. But at least nobody has misspelled the middle name yet.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Western and an Element of Humanity

The other day, I was considering the question of why I like some of Louis L'Amour's books very much, yet others of his leave me fairly unenthused. Mentally comparing a few titles, I recognized a pattern in the ones I found less satisfying: after setting up an interesting situation in the first half or two-thirds of the book, the final section is almost entirely devoted to a long running fight, usually with the book's hero trying to escape rather large odds of villainy. Any questions or mysteries involved in the plot have either been summarily solved or put aside, and the only question left is one of will-they-escape.

For instance, the last L'Amour I read, The Man Called Noon, started off with a fascinating premise: in the opening sentence the protagonist regains consciousness after a fall to find that he's lost his memory...and he's being hunted without his knowing why. The first half of the book, as he tries to piece together the clues to his own identity and stay a step ahead of whoever wants to kill him, is well-constructed and compelling. Then about midway through, the focus of the story shifts a little to a cache of money that the villains of the book are out to get. The young woman who is the rightful heir to the money is unaware of its existence, and when she does find out, doesn't care greatly about having it; all she wants is her ranch free of the outlaws who have seized control. And that right there is as deep as L'Amour goes—he doesn't explore in the least the drama inherent in the idea of a girl being unaware of her inheritance, or the moment of her discovering it, or why she doesn't care about it. The only real reason the hero is fighting from then on is to keep the money away from the villains, who obviously shouldn't have it, and of course to keep himself and the heroine from getting killed by the villains in the process.

The Man Called Noon was an entertaining read, and yet for me it lacked a certain something that I've found in other books, even other books by the same author. And pondering why crystallized some ideas about the Western in my mind. I like Westerns, and I'm no snob about the tropes of the genre—I'll enjoy a good sharp fight or a suspenseful chase scene as much as anyone, provided it's not overdone. But for a Western story to really draw me in and make me care about it, there has to be a strong human story underpinning whatever familiar tropes are used. The question of the plot can't be as simple as whether we're going to get the stolen money back from the bank robbers, or catch the outlaw who shot a man, or whether the cattle drive will get to Abilene. Who does the theft of the money or the death of the murdered man affect—why—how? Why are the pursuers bent on catching the criminals—simply for justice, or are there personal reasons? Who stands to lose if the cattle drive doesn't get to Abilene, and what will they lose? Who feels the responsibility for getting it there, and why?

And I realize it doesn't just work for me this way as a reader; that's the way my mind works when I'm inventing a story of my own. I instinctively grab hold of the end of it that involves people first. If you can get this kind of thing in your story, and make the reader really care about the characters involved, then I don't think you have to worry about situations being clich├ęd. Human nature is capable of infinite variations, and when a gunfight or a chase becomes the stage on which those variations are played out, then a Western can be as compelling a drama as any other genre.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Left-Hand Kelly is an awards nominee!

Today I have some exciting news.

Left-Hand Kelly is a nominee for Best Independently-Published Western Novel in the Western Fictioneers' Peacemaker Awards!

This was my first time submitting anything to an awards competition, and I really didn't know what my chances would be, so I was determined to keep my expectations down. I woke up yesterday morning, remembered that it was the day for the announcement of nominees, and couldn't keep down a little thrill of excitement in spite of low expectations. I took myself firmly in hand. "You were not nominated," I told myself. "Remember that. You were not nominated, so you will not be disappointed."

But when I arrived at the website, there was Left-Hand Kelly on the list of nominees. At least, I think it was. I'm still getting used to the idea that this actually happened. All yesterday I had moments of unreality where I thought, "Did I really see that this morning, or am I the victim of an exceptionally vivid imagination?"

But yes, it did actually happen. You can read the official announcement and lists of all the nominees at the official site or here at the Western Fictioneers blog. The winners will be announced on June 1st.