Sunday, November 22, 2015

The People In My Head

Every now and then someone will ask me what a book I have written, or am working on, is about. I know all the book marketing sites tell you to prepare “elevator speeches”—brief descriptions that you can deliver when asked that question but I've never been any good at that. I try, but it always sounds too practiced and somewhat pretentious to me. Like I had a set speech prepared in case I was asked that question—which I did. Delivering an elevator speech would save me from certain reactions though.

The last time someone asked me about the book I am currently working on, this was a few days ago, I did my usual awkward, “Well, you see there's this guy and a long time ago this thing happened and...” The person I was talking to started laughing and said, “My lord, you talk about these characters like they're real people.” Really? They aren't???

I am writer of fiction, consequently I walk around every day with a head full of people. I've written half a dozen novels, and more than a few novellas and short stories. Some of them, the ones that are part of a series, use the same characters over and over, but the more I write about them, the more I know about them, and the more real they seem to me. Are other writers different? I don't know.

For my complex series—particularly the Marienstadt Stories and the Beacon Hill Chronicles—I've made use of Scrivener's function that lets you set up a card for each character. I even use color codes to track who belongs to which family. I find this very useful. I read once that J.K. Rowling writes out complete biographies for her characters. Perhaps that is why they seem so real and so natural.

As a reader, I am very, very aware of superficial characters and I lose interest in them quickly. I am less put-off by a stereotyped character that seems thoroughly believable—like someone I've actually met—than I am by superficial characters who might be unique but shallow. There's a lot of that around it seems. I've started several books lately that got tossed within a few chapters because I could not get a feel for who these people were and why I should care about them.

How does a writer avoid this? I think you have to live with your characters. You have to spend time thinking about them—where would they go for breakfast and what would they order? What kind of vehicle do they drive? Are they the sort of person who would spend a day shopping at a mall or would they have to be bound and gagged to go to a mall? Occasionally I have amused myself by taking the kinds of personality tests that we see so often on social media, pretending to be one of my characters—the outcome is often fascinating.

I am a writer and that means there are a lot of people in my head. Sometimes they are noisy and want attention and they keep me from participating in what is going on around me. And I love that about them. I love it when one of them says to me, “did I tell you about when I did this or that?” I want to hear their stories so I can build it into my stories. This means I am weird to a lot of people but I am okay with that.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Writer's Inner Voice

Yesterday, as I walked past the table by my bed which is piled with books, I noticed an envelope with some scribbling on it sticking out of one of the books. As soon as I picked it up I remembered that a few nights ago, in the middle of the night, I had a bright idea. The book I am working on is a bit more intense than most of my work—at least in my Marienstadt series—and I had been trying to imagine how to wrap it all up.

The writing on the envelope was barely legible but I really only just needed a reminder for the idea to come back to me. Frankly, I had forgotten all about it and if I hadn't scribbled that note, a really good idea would have gotten away. I hadn't even turned on the light—I just grabbed a pen and the first piece of paper I found, which turned out to be the envelope a card came in. I scratched it out and went back to sleep.

The entire story in this book takes place in the month of December and it ends on Christmas Eve. There are a number of characters in the story and I was having trouble figuring how I could bring them all together in a way that would be logical, answer a few questions, and have a sweet, joyful end. The idea I had was to not bring them all together, but rather to write a series of vignettes that would show how each of them was spending Christmas Eve. I started work on it last night and I think it is going to be good. People are in love or getting there, a baby is on the way, a couple who were worried about how they would manage Christmas have a wonderful surprise. I'm really enjoying this and I think my readers will, too.

The mind of a writer is a strange place. I find that I need a lot of alone and quiet time to let the ideas in. Sometimes when I am juggling too many projects that isn't easy. I have to let myself not do anything for awhile.

I've learned to pay attention when something nags at me, when it just doesn't feel right. I try to make note of that and file it away until I can find a solution. Yesterday something about one of the character's names was nagging at me. I couldn't think what it was until finally, while washing dishes, it came to me—all the “bad guys” names began with the same letter. I have to fix that today.

The Legend: A Marienstadt Story might be ready for Christmas—I'm not sure yet. But I think it is a powerful story about one man's quest to find a horse that was taken from its owner. I've learned a lot about horses working on this story—and about some very unsavory people. I never knew anything about horse slaughter, kill-buyers, and very little about dogfighting. It hasn't been easy and I've had to work to balance the horrors with a lot of goodness. I hope it works.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

A Couple of Tricks for Writing Fight Scenes

The other day I saw a blog post with that title and, because I do write fight scenes, I clicked on it—you never know when you might learn something. It was disappointing because the author went on and on about how unpleasant they were to write and finally concluded that writers just had to do their best because it was very difficult to do. Why did someone feel the need to even write that post?

For my fight scenes I have always found it easiest to think of them in terms of choreography. If you have ever taken dance classes, or studied something like Tai Chi (I've done both) it is easier to understand. It's all about balance until it isn't, and once it isn't, the fight is usually over.

Some years back I read advice by a writer I respect (whose name I have since forgotten) who said, when a fight begins, find a way to step back and slow it down. I have found this to be particularly useful advice—in the midst of the violence, pull back, write about something else, let the reader breathe. Then—BAM!—bring it home. In the following scene from The Old Mermaid's Tale, a young woman is in a bar with a man she is falling in love with when another man grabs her and tries to kiss her.

Suddenly, as quickly as he had moved on me, he flew backwards out of my reach and slammed into one of the rough timber posts along the bar. An enormous hand gripped his jaw, the veins of it popping out in thick, blue rivers. The guy kicked feet that were inches above the floor and struggled for breath. His mouth was moving but only strangled gasps escaped. A large body moved between us and I scarcely recognized Baptiste’s face as he brought it close to that of the man he held dangling in his grasp. His features—those features I so loved—twisted beyond recognition in a raging fury that froze me and I could see the gleam of his teeth bared in a snarl as he moved his face closer to that of the man he held pinioned against the post.

Baptiste,” I screamed, grabbing his arm, “don’t.”

As frightened as I was by the guy’s attack I was far more frightened by what was happening now. The words he had said last night in the erotic mystique of the castle conservatory—‘you don’t know the kind of man I am capable of being’—seared through my brain. ‘A dark angel’, he had said, ‘for you I am a dark angel’. Now his darkness enveloped him and left me powerless. I tore at his arm but he shook me off without a glance. Baptiste’s face was inches from that of the terrified mariner whose eyes were bulging from a face that was turning darker by the second. He was saying something in a language I didn’t recognize to the guy who was struggling and growing weaker. I lunged at him a second time trying to grasp his arm but he shifted his weight blocking me as he leaned into his prey.

Please, Baptiste” I was screaming. “Please.” In a split-second Nat vaulted over the bar and shoved me aside.

As you can see, in the underlined part, Clair takes us momentarily out of the action with her reminiscence of the previous evening's event. Then the action resumes. Such a passage acts as a rest in music—it lets one relax and then the crescendo becomes more intense.

One of my favorite characters in all my books is Viv Lang, the heroine of 3 of my Crazy Old Lady books. Viv is a fragile woman with not a lot of self-esteem but she is fiercely loyal and she's also a deadly martial artist. This scene is from The Crazy Old Lady's Revenge.

Sirens screamed into the street below. There was a crash as the front door shattered. I heard the sounds of people running; Lindgren turned toward me. It was only then that I saw the gun.

No, Viv!” Joe grabbed my arms and twisted me around, blocking me from Lindgren with his body. Two blasts exploded in the small room. Joe looked startled, staggered slightly, and fell forward.

Joe!” I tried to break his fall. When I looked up, Lindgren aimed his gun at me.

For close to fifteen years I had studied martial arts and fighting, always wondering if I'd ever be able to inflict damage on an opponent if I had to. Fighting in a gym was one thing but fighting in the face of danger seemed quite another. But my body had none of the reservations that my brain had. Before Lindgren could get off another shot, I leaped forward, kicking him square in the chest with one foot while bringing my bent elbow down, sharp and precise, directly onto his windpipe. His scream was stifled by collapsing cartilage. Blood gushed from his mouth. I spun, wrapping my legs around his neck, bringing him to the floor.

By stepping back and reflecting on her doubts about her own abilities, Viv does the same thing—she slows the tension down, then slams it home.

Naturally there is a lot more to writing fights than what I've written here but this as good a place to start as any. Try it and see if it works for you.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

What's In A Name? or How Abbie Hoffman Stole My Imagination

On Friday Susan Oleksiw wrote a post on her blog that has had my head spinning ever since. She called it Memorable Titles and she gave a list of interesting, catchy, and/or thought-provoking titles that she liked. When I read her first paragraph the first thing that popped into my mind was The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks and, sure enough, Susan had it on her list.

I have had a love/hate relationship with coming up with titles for books ever since I started writing. My first novel, The Old Mermaid's Tale, sort of named itself but it is a good title and a few people have told me they bought it just because they liked it.

Likewise, The Crazy Old Lady in the Attic's title came from a line in the book. When young Mattie came to live with her grandmother in Boston after her parents were killed, the noise of the city frightened her and when she woke up at night to strange sounds, her grandmother would say, “Oh, don't worry, that's just the crazy old lady in the attic.” I have said before that I never intended to write a sequel but people kept asking for it and a few women told me that their husband's bought the book for them because it was about her. So, when I finally did I named it The Crazy Old Lady's Revenge, then The Crazy Old Lady Unleashed, and most recently, The Crazy Old Lady's Secret. If I ever write another one, I'll have to keep that up.

Both my Halcyon Beach stories and my Marienstadt stories have what I think are interesting titles. The Halcyon Beach stories are ghost stories, hence Ghosts of a Beach Town in Winter and Ghosts of a Lighthouse in Autumn. My two collections of Marienstadt short stories are The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall and The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk. Where I can go from there I have no idea.

But after reading Susan's post my head began humming with more. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hujelos has always been a favorite title as well as a favorite book. I started thinking about the fact that I was young in an era when a lot of books had crazy titles—titles that were hard to forget:

  • Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan who also gave us The Pill and the Sprin Hill Mining Disaster and Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork
  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe along with Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and The Bonfire of the Vanities
  • One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, A Generation of Swine, and Songs of the Doomed by Hunter S. Thompson

And, possibly one of the most provocative titles of all time, Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman. I still have my original copy which was given to me by someone who swore he stole it. I've tried to come up with a title that would be as catchy as that but so far have failed.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Social Media Tedium

As an author trying to promote my work, I am always reading about “author platforms” and “social media presence” and I'm starting to wonder if there is a point at which social media becomes the robo-calls of the internet. Recently I redesigned both my author and my publishing web sites to make them more mobile friendly and I added icons for all the social media where I have a presence. These include:
Amazon Author's Page
Facebook (author's page and personal page)
Goodreads Author Page
Word Press
Google Plus
You Tube

Now, the thing is, I've managed to set a lot of these up so that they are interconnected so when I post to, say, Goodreads, or Pinterest, my posts will automatically post to Facebook and Twitter. I've connected my blog to a service that posts new posts like this one to Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Goodreads—I'm all over the place! Which begs the question, does anybody really want to hear from me that much? I don't know.

There are a lot of top tier authors who are very active on social media—Anne Rice, Craig Johnson, and Mary Doria Russell immediately come to mind. They know how to keep their friends and fans happy and they work those sites nearly every day. I admit, I get a little thrill when someone whose work I admire “likes” or “comments” on one of my posts. Anne Rice has been very pleasant and Craig Johnson has made some genuinely funny observations on my posts. The other day I commented on one of actor Michael Madsen's posts and was delighted when he replied.

But I'm not any of these people. Does anyone care how many recipes for pumpkin-spice cheesecake I've pinned on Pinterest? Does anyone really want to know how much progress I have made in the book I am currently reading? Does anyone want to know which YouTube videos I've watched and given a thumbs up? I have no idea.

I used to be a much more prolific blogger than I am lately. It seems I don't have a lot to say. I'm working on a new Marienstadt book that involves a lot of research and by the time I get enough research done to write and then write, I'm out of words. Someone just told me I need to be on InstaGram. Do I? Why?

Lately I've been thinking about social media like I thought about the bars in my hometown when I was in my 20s. Every Friday and Saturday night there was this circuit that everybody made. You started out at one bar then moved to the next and then the next until it was closing time. You pretty much saw the same people along the way and talked about the same things and, aside from the alcohol and sex, one night was like another. I'm way too old for bar-hopping, and cruising for partners—though I can still hold my own with alcohol. As long as I am at home, in my pajamas, close to my bed.

Sigh. Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Confessions of a Newly Created Horse Lover

When I was a kid my parents had friends who had two horses—a beautiful, big palomino and a feisty young pinto. Sometimes we would go to their house way out in the country and we would get to ride them. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. I liked the horses—they were sweet and affectionate—I just didn’t really like riding them. Honestly, I don’t know why.
Later, when I moved to Texas, I had friends who owned horses and stabled them at stables west of Houston. A couple times I went with them to see their horses and I loved them but, again, I didn’t really like riding them but this time I knew why—I felt bad climbing on them and expecting them to carry me around and do what I told them to do. I know that sounds strange but the horses seemed so regal and noble that I didn’t they should have to haul me around like that. I didn’t like the idea of dominance that riding entailed. I know that sounds strange since I grew up on cowboy movies where everybody rode horses but I could never make myself feel right about doing it.
 Consequently, I never thought I would write a story that focused on horses even though I knew a lot of people loved them. Then a few months back I started paying attention to the posts made by a woman from Canada who is an ardent horse lover, breeder, and advocate. She posted a lot about the horrors of kill-buyers, people who gather up horses by the thousands, transport them under absolutely brutal conditions, to Mexico and Canada where they are slaughtered by the most horrific means, and their meat is sent overseas for dog food or even for human consumption. I knew I wanted to write about this.
Black Forest Horse

In my Marienstadt stories I have two characters who are horse people. Kit and Boone Wilde as young men worked for their uncle in Kentucky who ran a horse stable. Boone spent a few years herding cattle in Montana before returning to Marienstadt but Kit had stayed with the horses. A story began to form in my brain and for the last few weeks all I have done is research and write, research and write, research write. The story began to take shape.
Gypsy Vanner

While doing research I discovered something else that interested me—therapeutic riding. Because of the sweet and gentle nature of some horses, especially draft horses, they can have a beneficial effect on people with disabilities or who have experienced trauma. There is a physical component to this. Because horses move with the same sot of gait that humans do, people with mobility issues can benefit from the experience of riding horses which also helps them strengthen core muscles just to stay on the horse. And, because of the gentle nature of these horses, they can help heal emotional wounds just by being so calm and affectionate.
Norwegian Fjord Horse

So I started to build my story and I decided that the core of the story concerns a beautiful Friesian stallion named Sultan who was taken from his owner, a lovely woman, by her jealous husband and sold, to whom nobody knows. Kit enlists the help of his brother Boone to help track down the horse and, along the way, the encounter an old friend from their biker days, whose motorcycle club is now on a mission to break up dogfight rings.
Writing about this is getting excited. I’ve done a lot of research on both kill-buyers and dogfights and it is heartbreaking. And I’ve fallen in love with draft horses—Friesians, Black Forest Horses, Gypsy Vanners, and Norwegian Fjords.
The story is getting exciting and I need to get back to work in it but here are a few pictures of the breeds I am writing about. Their beauty astonishes me and keeps me hard at work on this story.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The shootings are not senseless by Jim Dowd

In the wake of yet another senseless and unforgivable school shooting at Umpqua Community College, I continue to wonder why in God's name this keeps happening. In this excellent post on The Gloucester Clam, Jim Dowd presents a very excellent analysis:

The shootings are not senseless

Every time there is a mass shooting (which on average is every sixty four days) one of the key words we hear describing the tragedy is “senseless.” This would suggest the action was without meaning or purpose.
I hate to tell you this, but nothing could be further from the case.
The most recent attacker, Christopher Harper-Mercer, follows the strict pattern of highly-aggrieved men trapped in a cultural paradox from which they cannot escape. His and the other attacks like it, congruent down to sporting military-style clothing, are an attempt to call “society” to task for leaving them behind. To these men, who perceive they are not receiving the level of respect to which they feel deeply entitled, it’s nothing less than a revolution. When you read their posts online they discuss previous attackers like the Dylan Klebold of the Columbine massacre and James Holmes of the Aurora theatre shooting and now Harper-Mercer as a martyr, a hero and most disturbingly, a “warrior” for the cause.
These young men, when you read their writings (and they write a lot), are trapped in ideologies insisting on a natural order where the strong dominate the weak.  Overwhelmingly their stunning number of journals, manifestos and posts show them to be captivated by thinkers and leaders like Nietzsche, Rand and Hitler. Ironically, these typically introverted outsiders fully buy-in to the idea that there should be a ruling class over the “undeserving” in society. Yet, in each case they have come to realize through a pattern of personal setbacks and failures they themselves are not exactly the √úbermenschen ole Friedrich described in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.Additionally, they all suffer from acute paranoia, developing a blind rage at those whom they feel have unfairly usurped the power that is rightfully theirs. Read the rest on The Clam

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Read-The-World: Afghanistan, France, Philippines

In the last month or so I have been reading books other than those on my #readtheworld list but I have a few books to add so here they are. You can learn more about my read-the-world endeavor on a separate page on this blog.
Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I had already read Hosseini's The Kite Runner but everyone told me I had to read this one and I am very glad that I did. Hosseini is a writer of incomparable power both for his use of language and for the characters he creates. In this novel we get a look into the lives of Afghan women and it is a terrible, bleak, and frightening world, yet within the world there is such strength and beauty between people who band together for mutual support. At the core of the story is the relationship between Miriam and Laila, the first and second wives of the cruel, despotic Rasheed. As the first wife, Miriam tried to do everything she could to please Rasheed and, for awhile, it seemed as though he was trying to be a good husband to her but when she failed to produce children, Rasheed turned cruel and violent. When he took the beautiful, fragile Laila as his second wife, Miriam was devastated and did everything she could to make Laila's life miserable--which was already pretty miserable. But eventually, thanks to Laila's tenderness and sweet nature, Miriam changed. It is a sad story and probably an all too common story--a glimpse into lives we are lucky to have little knowledge of. In the end, it is Miriam's love for Laila that is utterly heartbreaking and beautiful. Not an easy story to read but one that left me in tears and grateful that I'd had this experience.

Francine Prose
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose
A friend suggested I read this book and it has been a long time since I loved a book as much as I did this one. I've already read a good many books by French writers including Marguerite Duras, Anais Nin, and Colette but Francine Prose writes with an authority that is delicious and seductive. The book's title refers to the name of a photograph taken by a Hungarian photographer of the book's central character, Lou Villars, a lesbian, cross-dresser and remarkable athlete who becomes a distinguished race car driver until her career is ended by a jealous police commissioner. The book starts out in the 1920s in Paris and has much the flavor of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, one of my all time favorite books. There is even a Hemingway-esque character, Lionel Maine, a poor, American writer who spends a fair amount of time complaining about Hemingway. As the story moves through the 1930s and then into the years preceding World War 2 much of the action takes place in the Chameleon Club, where characters of all sorts go for entertainment. Much of it had the feel of the movie Casablanca. Then Hitler's troops occupy Paris and the lives of all the main characters are turned upside down.

The story is told in alternating voices--through letters, excerpts from books, diaries, and newspaper articles. It is a story of such intensity I felt nearly breathless at times and, in the end, we are left wondering what just happened. This is a great read and one that I'm pretty sure I will return to again.

Lysley Tenorio
Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
This collection of short stories are set in both the Philippines and in Filipino communities in the United States. The eight stories in the collection are at times funny, at times tragic, and all seem to focus on the love/hate relationships that exist within families. We love the sense of belonging and long for that warmth when we are away from the family, yet feel smothered by it when we are in the midst of family. Among the stories were three that I particularly loved: 

  • Felix Starro, about two Filipino faith-healers who travel the country taking advantages of gullible immigrants
  • The View from Culion, a sad, heart-wrenching story set in a leper colony and the love of a young girl for a World War 2 American soldier also afflicted with the disease.
  • L'Amour, California, which tells the story of the author's family's immigration to America--a sort of Filipino Angela's Ashes.

Powerful story-telling with wit, insight, and tenderness.

I've acquired so many more books for this project--I have no idea when I will have time to read them but this is such an education. One of the next books on my list is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle and Mario Vargas Llosa's Death in the Andes. I am finding that some of the writers I have encountered--especially Llosa, Hosseini, and Nadeem Aslam, are so fascinating that I want to read more of their work before moving on to another country.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Winter Warmth--Win Hand-knit Cowls and Hats

I'm finally unraveling the mysteries of doing an online giveaway and I think the prizes are pretty special. All of them are hand-knit by me from Lion Brand furry yarns. All of these yarns are synthetic--no animals were harmed to make them.

At present I plan to give away six items, shown below. The first round will be announced during the last week of September and the winner will get to pick their choice from one of three items. I'll add another item for the next round and we'll keep going as long as there is continued interest in the contest or until I run out of stuff.

The contest is open in the United States only (sorry but the shipping outside the U.S. is costly.) To be eligible you must either subscribe to my newsletter by going to the contest page on my web site and signing up or by Liking my Kathleen Valentine's Books page on Facebook. I'll announce the beginning of each round in both places. Below are the items I plan to give away first. The small cowls can be used as neck warmers or head bands. The large cowls can be used over the head and around the neck. I'll post actual dimensions at the time of the contest opening.

Faux Fischer Fur Hat

Shimmering Champagne large Cowl with Double Twist

Faux Chinchilla Medium Cowl

Fluffy Indigo Large Cowl--looks perfect with jeans

Faux Mink Small Cowl

Shimmering Lilac Small Cowl

I hope you like them and I look forward to this contest. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The 42nd Pennsylvania Reserve Regiment—The #Bucktails

I grew up in Elk County, Pennsylvania, and, as my readers know, that county is the setting for my Marienstadt books. In the past several years I've written 2 collections of short stories set there—The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall and The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk, and one full-length novel, The Christmas Daughter. I am now working on another novel. In writing these stories, I've drawn heavily on family legends, local folklore, rumors, traditions, food, colorful characters, etc. All of that was fairly easy to find and some very good people have shared some very good stories to encourage me.

But the one story I most wanted to write, the title story for The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk, got me to thinking about something—why did we never learn about this in school? I was good history student during my twelve years of Catholic education. When I started college at Penn State I exempted several freshman courses because my high school had done a good job of preparing me for college. But it wasn't until about ten years ago that I ever even heard of The Bucktails and I can't help wondering why that is.

For those who don't know, the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, also called the 13th Regiment, the Elk County Rifles, Kane's Rifles and more names than I can remember, began in Elk and McKean Counties early in the Civil War thanks to Thomas Leiper Kane. Kane was a distinguished businessman who, after the war would go on to conceive of and build the Kinzua Viaduct—the tallest bridge of its kind in the world at that time. When president Abraham Lincoln put out a call for volunteers, Kane determined to form a regiment of the finest sharpshooters and most rugged woodsmen he could find. He knew there was no better place to find these men than in Elk and McKean Counties and find them he did.

The story goes that as the regiment was forming in Smethport, PA, one new recruit cut the tail off a deer hanging outside a butcher shop, attached it to his kepi cap and declared himself a Bucktail. Others followed suit and soon the cap with bucktail sewn on it was the symbol of the regiment. They were one of the most distinguished regiment in the war, fought in every major battle, and were showered with honor. And yet, as a school kid in the middle of Elk County, I knew nothing about them.

Even doing research was difficult. Fortunately, I had as a resource a couple of men who knew as much as there was to know about them. I purchased a number of books about them that turned out either to be endless reprints of old historical records, or fairly silly stories with rootin'-tootin' dialogue and nearly no character development. So, I used my imagination and the
guidance of my consultants and created the four Fritz brothers—Jacob, Bartholomew, Tobias, and Emanuel. Though the story has been out for nearly 2 months I have not received much feedback but I am patient. Late summer is not the best time for book reviews.

Having said all that, I wish there was a way to convince educators in my home area to develop and teach more about these amazing men. Many of them died when they were not yet twenty-one. They were valiant soldiers and they played a pivotal role in many battles. But most importantly—they were from our area. They were ours—their stories should be told. School children should learn about the very stock they come from.

So I decided to just put that out there. I learned so much writing my story and there is even more to be learned. I hope someone will take the challenge.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Kerouac's Hauntedness-of-Mind

Recently, I came across a wonderful quote by Jack Kerouac that has me a little unnerved. He wrote, “A scene should be selected by the writer for haunted-ness-of-mind interest. If you're not haunted by something, as by a dream, a vision, or a memory, which are involuntary, you're not interested or even involved.” BAM! Right between the eyes. I think I know why writing has been difficult lately.

Whenever a writer tells a non-writer that they are having difficulty writing, the non-writer asks if you are blocked. I suppose some writers get blocked, personally I have never had that problem. Once a reader asked Ray Bradbury where he got his ideas and Bradbury replied, My problem is not getting ideas, my problem is not tripping over them when I get out of bed in the morning. I love that because I identify with it. I always have more ideas than I have time to deal with them. And now I think I know what the problem is—lately three ideas have been competing for my attention but they are very different sorts of stories and I cannot stay focused on one without being interrupted by another one.

Stories are like children. They all want to be your favorite. They all want all of your attention. When I wrote my first novel, The Old Mermaid's Tale, that story had been haunting me, quite literally, for years. It began when I was a child spending summers in Erie, Pennsylvania, and my uncle would take me down to the docks to watch the ships come in. It grew when I was in college and working the night shift in a diner there. It blossomed when I was in my 30s and discovered that the tavern that was the object of my fantasies had been torn down. But it wasn't until I was in my late forties that I began to write about it.

This was also true for many of my short stories and subsequent novels. These ideas—sometimes instigated by something as simple as a photograph or a newspaper article—nagged at me until I finally sat down, got quiet, and let them take control. For me writing does not empty the well, it makes space for more to pour in and I think lately I have lost the ability to manage the flow.

Over the last few days I read a book, The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo. The book did not get great reviews and yet I found myself totally sucked into it. Naturally, because it was about Boston, my favorite city, that helped. And, among the themes of the book were two of my favorite subjects—Herman Melville and the George Parkman murder. For the hours that I was reading, I was completely immersed in this haunting world in which I have spent many hours on my own. What I realized, as I finished the last few pages, was that I need to be in a state like that to get back to writing.

There is a scene in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff cries out to the dead Cathy, saying, “You said I killed you--haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe--I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always--take any form--drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” It is wild and passionate but it is from such a place that I most love writing. I need to get back to that place in order to write again. I am so grateful that Kerouac and Roseanne Montillo and Heathcliff reminded me that I can go to a place of utter besottment and write wildly—I just have to let myself do it.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

In Praise of Porch-Sitting

View from my porch
I come from a long line of porch-sitters. My parents and both my grandmothers lived in houses with big porches with swings on them. Most of my happiest memories involve sitting on someone's porch. It's a beautiful past-time. I've written before about how my Gram Werner would spend Sunday mornings on her porch with two of her brothers. Uncle Eddie and Uncle George would come with rye bread, liverwurst (we called it braunsweiger), onions, mustard, and beer. We would eat sandwiches and drink beer on the porch while they reminisced about old times. I loved every minute of it and it made me the story-teller I am today.

The house I live in has a narrow porch that runs along the back of the house. It overlooks the oldest Universalist cemetery in America. It is a quiet, shady place where people walk dogs and come to read headstones. Most people don't even know it is there. For years I rarely went out there except to hang a towel out to dry or sweep off the leaves. The porch is very narrow and didn't offer a lot of space for furniture.

Then a few years ago I saw a nice canvas camp-type chair. I bought, brought it home, and found it fit quite nicely on the porch. For that entire summer I spent as much time as I could on the porch. It was wonderful. I read, knit, day-dreamed, bird-watched, star-watched. Ever since that aha! moment I have spent most of winter longing for porch-time.

I am now on my third collapsible chair. This one is a real beauty with lots of pockets to store things in—my reading glasses, binoculars, bird book, etc. I made some cushions covered in water-proof blue and white striped fabric, and I look forward every day while I am working to porch-time. I take my iced tea and my book or Kindle and head for the porch. This summer I have been exceptionally greedy about porch-time. I've read nearly 2 dozen books out there, plus it gives me a chance to visit with the neighbors. It's just a delight that I get to catch up with people I haven't seen all winter. When they see me out there reading, they come by to say hello and that always makes me happy.

There are quite a few porch-sitters in the houses surrounding the cemetery. I hear people talking and laughing together coming from several directions. The other day I heard one group of porch-sitters singing Happy Birthday to someone. I love the sounds of people being happy.

And we have critters—lots and lots of birds, squirrels, and this year we have a bunny. He hops out of the hedges while I am reading and spends the afternoon or evening scavenging the yard for clover. My one neighbor has been putting out Cherrios which the bunny likes and kale which he does not. Another neighbor puts out birdseed and it is always amusing to watch the birds compete with the squirrels for seed. We have lots of sparrows and wrens, some cardinals and blue jays, and this year there have been gold finches. There are also butterflies and moths. It is a wonderful place.

August is winding down but as long as I can sit outside even wearing fleece, I will do it. Sometimes I have had to brush falling leaves off my book as I read. Autumn in New England is unpredictable. There have been years when I was stilling sitting on the porch at Thanksgiving and there have been years when I had to take the chair in by Columbus Day.

There is something so beautiful to me about porch-sitting. It is part of my heritage and it nurtures my soul.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Is Publishing Paper Books Worth It?

A fellow author recently asked me if I thought it was worth it to produce books in paperback these days. She said that several of her books sell well in digital but hardly at all in paper. I had to agree with her—my experience is pretty much the same. I have an advantage over a lot of independent authors in that I was a book designer long before I was a writer so I can create my own paper books. If I had to pay someone else to do it I might not bother. Also, because several of my books series are short works, they simply would not be practical to produce in paper. However, once I have three or more books in a series, compiling them in an omnibus paperback is easy to do.
Civil War Re-enactor wearing a Bucktail Cap

That being said, I have two new paper books available from previously published e-books.

The first three Beacon Hill Chronicles—The Crazy Old Lady in the Attic, The Crazy Old Lady'sRevenge, and The Crazy Old Lady Unleashed—were relatively short works available in digital only. However with the third one I had enough to justify an Omnibus edition in both paper and digital. Sales of the paper version have been slim but, since sales in digital are good, I don't feel bad about that. So, when I wrote Volume 4, The Crazy Old Lady's Secret, a full length novel, offering it in paper was easy enough to do. Because the story is set in Boston, and is jam-packed with Boston locations, legends, history, and folklore, I decided to create a Bonus feature for the book. It is a gallery of the locations and legends in the book with more information and resources for further exploration. I recently created a Pinterest board as well for my gallery.

This whole series has astonished me with its popularity. It all began when i was trying to come up with a story in time for Christmas. I wound up writing The ReluctantBelsnickel of Opelt's Wood based on a tradition practiced in my home town for the Feast of St. Nicholas. That grew into the novel-in-eleven-stories, The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Secretsof Marienstadt which I first released in Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3, then in a digital Omnibus and finally in a paperOmnibus. The paperback has sold well around Christmas time. I followed that with The Christmas Daughter: A Marienstadt Story in both digital and paper. Now, after two years of laboring on it, The third book is read. It is called The Bucktail Cap in theTrunk: More Secrets of Marienstadt, which consists of thirteen stories. The title story is special to me because it is based in a very, very proud part of my hometown's history—the men who fought in the Civil War as part of the Elk County Rifles. They were one of the most feared and relentless regiments in the war, also known as the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment or The Bucktails.

This new book is available in digital Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3 and now also in paper with all thirteen stories included.

It may take awhile but I have a sense there may be another book in this series—I can't talk about it right now, it is still in the planning stages—but the working title is The Legend: A Marienstadt Story and I'm excited about it.

So, ever onward. I am currently at work on a third story in my Halcyon Beach Chronicles to be called Ghost of a Dancer by Moonlight. When it is ready I will think about whether a paper book of all 3 Halcyon Beach stories is worth while. We shall see.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Read-The-World: Afghanistan, Germany, Iraq

Three more books in my #readtheworld adventure:


In 2001 shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan, journalist Anna Badkhen made the arduous journey to Northern Afghanistan. There she developed friendships with many people and fell a little bit in love with their culture and their openness and humanity. At the time they welcomed what they believed would be protection from the Taliban. Nine years later Badkhen returns to the north to see how their friends were doing. This book is a travelogue of her journey. As she reconnects with her friends she is both pleased by their happiness in seeing her again, and heart-broken over what they have suffered. Life is, if anything, worse, not better but still they persevere and live their lives with courage, fortitude, dignity, and no small amount of humor. This is a short, quick read but packed with detail and inspiration.

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant

This book started out great! I loved the setting and the description of the town. I really liked the characters and the descriptions of the rituals. Much of the folklore (which I always love in stories) was just fabulous and the holidays and much of the dialog reminded me so much of my own German grandma. The town itself became a character on its own.

But then about two-thirds of the way through something happened. It deteriorated into a slightly more colorful Nancy Drew mystery--okay, but certainly a let down from the beginning!

The author is a gifted writer and she did a great job of setting up an intriguing plot. I give it an extra star just for the beautiful intermingling of folktales. But I wish she had made the mystery more compatible with the rest of the story. Plus I really liked Wolfgang and Pia seemed to adore him and he just got dropped from the story. This is a good book if you appreciate colorful settings, rituals, and mythology, but as a mystery it was rather flat.

Iraq (again):

This book is just devastating! The end had me too weepy to actually read. The story begins in a Beirut hotel where the unnamed narrator is about to carry out a mission he refers to as “the greatest operation ever carried out on enemy territory.” We learn that he was a university student from a small village in Iraq but after the invasion the university closes and her returns to his small village. For awhile life is as it has always been. He is restless and wishes he could return to school or at least find work but then reminds himself that at least the war has not affected his village. Then things change.

Following the killing of a mentally handicapped village boy by soldiers at a checkpoint and the then the bombing of a wedding party, young men from the village grow increasingly restless and begin leaving for Baghdad, hoping to fight back. The narrator grows increasingly frustrated. When his family home is invaded and his father humiliated in front of the family, he can no longer bear it and he too leaves for Baghdad. At first he tries to lead a normal life but conditions there make that impossible. He winds up on the street and after weeks of being homeless he discovers his cousin Sayed has a prosperous business selling appliances. Sayed takes him in and gives him a job. In no time the narrator discovers that his cousin's appliance business is a front for much more dangerous operations, which he is ultimately recruited into.

One of the things I found most touching about this story was the way the young men of the village, trying to make sense of the invasion, cling to the belief that sooner or later the West will understand the beauty of their culture and leave them alone. They cannot believe that technology and capitalism are any match for their long history of art, music, mathematics, and creativity. They say, “when the West realizes how much beauty we have, they will leave us alone.”

The ending of this book is just shattering. I won't ruin it for other readers but let me say that the mission he eventually undertakes is so horrible and the reason for his ultimate decision is so beautiful it just tore at my heart. I will not forget this book for a very long time.

Even though I have read a book for Afghanistan I think I'm going to read another one, A Thousand Splendid Suns, which I have been wanting to read for awhile. It is going to take an incredible book to live up to that last one. The adventure continues.

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