Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Guest Post by Sonia Koso

Smart Blondes
by Sonia Koso

Austin socialite Carrie Pryce has no clue her criminally charming husband is carrying on with another woman until she returns home unexpectedly, mistakes the sounds of passion for a home-invasion robbery and accidentally shoots him in the backside. Stunned, Carrie drives all night to her quirky hometown and collapses in a near-catatonic state.

A crew of ladies spanning three generations realize it’s up to them to help Carrie get her life out of the ditch. Known as the “Presbyterian Mafia,” these are not sweet old gals. They have a book club that never reads, a garden club that doesn’t garden, and a bible study class that gossips about the Methodists. They’re known around town for antics including catfights, car chases and Voodoo rituals. The women enlist Carrie’s former childhood best friend Portia (now a lawyer) and her flamboyant cousin Eric (recently returned from New York) in their effort.

While dealing with the after-effects of her imprudent gunplay and managing a hair color disaster, Carrie meets Rhett Richards. He’s an attractive oil field worker who can make women think un-Christian thoughts by the mere act of wearing a pair of tight wranglers. Carrie soon learns that hometowns can be the perfect places to bury old scandals and create new ones.

Read an excerpt:
“Baby, put the gun down,” Jake said in a tone of voice one would use with a naughty three year old. “It’s…it’s not what you think.”

Carrie froze. She couldn’t have lowered her arms if she tried. As she scanned the room, she saw the remnants of a well-planned romantic event including champagne, massage oil, and discarded lingerie.

Jake was slowly moving away from the defiled kitchen island and found a potholder to shield his now deflating manhood.

“I wanted to tell you for a while,” Jake started. “I hate that you had to find out about it this way.” Carrie recognized this as his salesman tone of voice—over-articulated, round tones that were completely full of shit.

“This has been going on for a while?” Carrie asked. Jake looked down and then nodded his head.

He exhaled slowly and gazed downward, his default action before saying something awful. “We’ve been having problems...I’ve tried, but the excitement is gone.”

Excitement? Carrie immediately knew this was man code for I want to trade you in for a new one. She’d seen it many times but never thought it would happen to her. The phrase I’ve tried but the excitement is gone would run through her head in a relentless loop a thousand times.

“I need to be on my own for a while,” Jake continued in round tones. “With you and Kayley around, I can’t figure any of this out. I can’t be a grown man. I need fewer responsibilities…”

“You want me and Kayley to leave so you can figure out how to be a grown man? Jesus H. Christ!” Carrie screamed it more than speaking it. She couldn’t help herself.

“Maybe you need to get a few things,” Jake began, “And I’ll call the Driskill Hotel and get you a suite. We’ll talk in a day or two after we both cool down.”

“Let me get this straight. I walk in on you with your cock in the help… and you think I need to leave?” She firmed up her grip on the tiny Kel-Tec pistol. “I’m not leaving this house, this room or even that damn Aga!” It was an out-of-body experience. She wasn’t sure why she did it but Carrie fired the pistol at the stove.

There was bang followed by a ping and a whoosh and Jake’s scream. The bullet hit the front of the Aga, ricocheted off the cast iron and bounced into Jake’s naked butt cheek.

The next few seconds seemed like a year. Jake’s hand went to his ass then up to his face where he saw blood.

“Holy shit, Carrie!”

AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Sonia Koso grew up in the eccentricity-filled piney woods of North East Texas. She has been writing since an early age and considers it her first love. After receiving a B.A. in English Writing, her life took a drastic turn and she went to law school. Sonia practiced law for over a decade but was drawn back to writing in 2012. Sonia's stories feature strong women, good-looking guys, legal dilemmas and a dose of humor. Smart Blondes borrows many characters from her childhood as well as her legal career.

Sonia does most of her writing at her condo in Austin’s hip SOCO district. It’s in walking distance from landmarks including Lady Bird Lake, the Continental Club, and the Congress Avenue Bat Bridge. When not writing, Sonia divides her time between the live music of Austin and the sunshine of Boca Raton. She loves Tex-Mex food, blue water, cocktails and good friends. Sonia often dreams of a man who can do his own laundry and a walk-in closet with a chandelier…but not necessarily in that order.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

“Who was that character based on?”

Recently a friend I have known since we were in college read my novel The Old Mermaid's Tale. She called me when she finished it and said, “I loved Pio! That was Tony (not his real name), wasn't it? I recognized him immediately.” Actually, it wasn't Tony—in fact I'd pretty much forgotten about Tony and, except for the fact that Pio in my story and Tony in real life are both Italian-Americans, they really bear no resemblance.

I say that because, while they bear no resemblance to me, they obviously did to her. This is a phenomenon that both baffles and pleases me in my readers. Very often I'll get an email or be talking to someone who tells me how much they loved a certain character—or hated—and they want to know who it was based on. Honestly, with very few exceptions, and all of those in my Marienstadt stories, I never base a character on a person I know.

Now, to be fair, I do sometimes find that I am creating a character who faces challenges similar to those faced by someone I know or who has personality quirks. When I created Miles Wainwright, the honest, loyal fisherman in Depraved Heart, I thought a lot about my dear friend Mark (it wasn't until much later that I realized they had the same initials.) But I do try to keep my characters original.

Often, when I am developing a character, I will cruise the internet looking for pictures of people who appear similar to what I have in mind. When I started work on The Crazy Old Lady's Secret I was obsessed with a new character named Ramin Aria. He is an Arab who grew up in Paris and is now a very wealthy art dealer. He's also mysterious and sexy. As a young man he boxed and has a scar across his nose and under one eye. I found a photo that was nearly perfect—I added the scar and changed the color of his eyes and I kept the picture on my desktop while I was writing scenes with Ramin in them. I had no idea who the man was—it seemed as though someone had taken a photograph of the inside of my head and captured him nearly perfectly.

Later, quite by accident, I saw the photograph on an article about an actor named Joe Manganiello, who is actually Italian. I was thrilled and delighted when I found out he was from Pittsburgh (and refers to himself as a “Pittsburgher” on his Facebook page) and even more delighted when I saw a couple pictures of him wearing a Steelers jersey. I obviously have good taste in picking models.

One of the best parts of writing for me is slipping into my world and describing it, populating it, bringing it to life. It's almost impossible to describe how real and full that world is when I am in it. Rarely does my real life intrude on my fictive life. As a writer it is my goal to bring my readers into that world with words—to let them experience what I experience when I go there. Whether or not I succeed only the reader can say.

The Crazy Old Lady's Secret is nearing completion. I have the first draft done and am now going through the painstaking process of massaging the order of events into place—ever trying to tease, tempt and tantalize without giving too much away. Will readers recognize people they know when they read it? I just hope they recognize people they long to know.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Guest Blog from Ray: Spook Hollow

by Ray Beimel

I am an Eagle Scout. I was involved with Boy Scouting for 18 years. I went to a World Jamboree. I was a member of the Order of the Arrow. I worked on the staff at Camp Mountain Run for two years. I was on many 50 mile hikes and a couple of 50 mile canoe trips. People sometimes ask what was the best part of all that. Read on to find out.
In 1973 I was the Field Sports Director at Camp Mountain Run. Those were halcyon days, sleeping in a tent, working outdoors, spending my hours doing enjoyable things with like-minded folks. Each week followed a pattern. Sunday night was the welcome campfire, Wednesday the chicken barbecue, Friday the Order of the Arrow tapouts. But one night stood out from the the others. That was Spook Hollow night. This Camp Mountain Run tradition was a creation of Charlie Snyder, the camp ranger. Any campers who dared to come along met at the gate on the dirt road that led up toward the Boone Mountain fire tower.

A few of the staff workers were there to help keep order. They told the campers to make sure their shoes were tightly tied and that their flashlights were working. Then Charlie would drive up accompanied by two of the older staff members. His arrival always got attention because the two guys with him were armed. One was carrying a shotgun; the other had a bolt action rifle. That was me with the rifle. Charlie toted a Coleman lantern and led the group up the old road. The other staffers would tell the campers to be quiet on the walk. It was dark and most people feel some primal apprehension in the woods at night. Charlie hadn’t said a word yet and already the stage was set to put the campers on edge.

When the group got to a place where there was a grassy bank along the road, Charlie would stop and tell the campers to take a seat there. Everyone sat down except Charlie and the two guys with the guns. The lantern was set on the ground. All the flashlights were out. Charlie was in the circle of light, the armed guys were back in the shadows but still visible. He started his stories by noting how quiet it was, how you could no longer hear the gurgling of the stream that paralleled the road. From there he went on to speak of the many strange things that happened in that area. There was the mystery of the panther’s behavior in Lambskin Hollow. He spoke of the strange beasts from old Indian legends, among them the Hodag, the most feared creature of the north woods. And there was the story of the odd character called Hatchet Hands, a poor cripple whose misshapen hands gave him that nickname. Ridicule had driven him to being a bad tempered recluse. Seldom seen but always wearing a long raincoat and a slouch hat, he was often accompanied by a large white dog whose eyes glowed red in the light.

Then he became a bit more solemn as he spoke of his experiences there in years past. He told of being there with Bill Shobert and John Kriner, old Scouters, one from St. Marys, the other from DuBois. He said they felt a strange chill in the air as they walked up the road past the place where the campers were sitting. An unexplainable paralysis hit them and they felt they were in great danger even though they could see nothing. Whatever it was struck all three at once. They all had the same unnamed dread, a consuming fear even as they could see nothing and could only hear the chill wind blowing down the hollow. The three retreated from that spot and talked about what they felt. Kriner and Shobert decided they would return in the daylight and place a can in that area that had a substantial sum of money in it. It was there for anyone who could go up into the hollow at night and retrieve it. To this time, no one had ever succeeded.

Charlie then asked if there was anyone in the group who wanted to attempt to get the can. Often enough a volunteer would step forward, usually a kid around 12 or 13, never one of the 11 year olds. Charlie would ask the kid some questions about his health, wanting to make sure that he was up to the challenge. Then Charlie turned to the group on the bank and advised them to stay still and quiet but if they heard gunfire to immediately head back to camp. Then the kid making the attempt, Charlie, and the two staff members with the guns started up the road. They walked maybe 50 yards until Charlie stopped. He told the kid that he wouldn’t go any further but if the kid just kept going straight ahead, soon enough he would see the can. As the kid took his first hesitant step up the road, Charlie would say loud enough for the kid to hear, “you guys should lock and load.” The kid heard the distinctive sound of the pump action of the shotgun being worked and then the characteristic four part click of a bolt action rifle chambering a round.

The faint beam of the kid’s flashlight slowly going away from us showed where he was. Usually he got 30 or 40 feet away before his nerve failed. The kid would turn and start running back. That would be the signal for us to fire a few shots in the air. And that was the signal that sent all the kids on the bank running back toward camp. Everyone was running except Charlie and the guys with the guns. We walked back slowly by the light of the Coleman lantern accompanied by the sounds of Charlie chuckling and dozens of sneakers pounding down a dirt road.

Being trusted by Charlie to carry the rifle: that’s the best thing I did in Scouting.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Wisdom from Stephen King

Stephen King's On Writing is one of the best writing books of all time. I have not always liked all of his stories, but I love the way he writes. Here are some hints from On Writing:

1. Stop watching television. Instead, read as much as possible. (Totally agree with this! -KV)
If you're just starting out as a writer, your television should be the first thing to go. It's "poisonous to creativity," he says. Writers need to look into themselves and turn toward the life of the imagination.

To do so, they should read as much as they can. King takes a book with him everywhere he goes, and even reads during meals. "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot," he says. Read widely, and constantly work to refine and redefine your own work as you do so.

2. Prepare for more failure and criticism than you think you can deal with.
King compares writing fiction to crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub, because in both, "there's plenty of opportunity for self-doubt." Not only will you doubt yourself, but other people will doubt you, too. "If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that's all," writes King.

Oftentimes, you have to continue writing even when you don't feel like it. "Stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea," he writes. And when you fail, King suggests that you remain positive. "Optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure." 

3. Don't waste time trying to please people.
According to King, rudeness should be the least of your concerns. "If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway," he writes. King used to be ashamed of what he wrote, especially after receiving angry letters accusing him of being bigoted, homophobic, murderous, and even psychopathic.

By the age of 40, he realized that every decent writer has been accused of being a waste of talent. King has definitely come to terms with it. He writes, "If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It's what I have." You can't please all of your readers all the time, so King advises that you stop worrying. 

4. Write primarily for yourself.
You should write because it brings you happiness and fulfillment. As King says, "I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever."

Writer Kurt Vonnegut provides a similar insight: "Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about," he says. "It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style."

5. Tackle the things that are hardest to write.
"The most important things are the hardest things to say," writes King. "They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish your feelings." Most great pieces of writing are preceded with hours of thought. In King's mind, "Writing is refined thinking."

When tackling difficult issues, make sure you dig deeply. King says, "Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground ... Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world." Writers should be like archaeologists, excavating for as much of the story as they can find.

6. When writing, disconnect from the rest of the world.
Writing should be a fully intimate activity. Put your desk in the corner of the room, and eliminate all possible distractions, from phones to open windows. King advises, "Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open."

You should maintain total privacy between you and your work. Writing a first draft is "completely raw, the sort of thing I feel free to do with the door shut — it's the story undressed, standing up in nothing but its socks and undershorts."

7. Don't be pretentious.
"One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones," says King. He compares this mistake to dressing up a household pet in evening clothes — both the pet and the owner are embarrassed, because it's completely excessive.

As iconic businessman David Ogilvy writes in a memo to his employees, "Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass." Furthermore, don't use symbols unless necessary. "Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity," writes King.

8. Avoid adverbs and long paragraphs.
As King emphasizes several times in his memoir, "the adverb is not your friend." In fact, he believes that "the road to hell is paved with adverbs" and compares them to dandelions that ruin your lawn. Adverbs are worst after "he said" and "she said" — those phrases are best left unadorned.

You should also pay attention to your paragraphs, so that they flow with the turns and rhythms of your story. "Paragraphs are almost always as important for how they look as for what they say," says King. 

9. Don't get overly caught up in grammar.
According to King, writing is primarily about seduction, not precision. "Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes," writes King. "The object of fiction isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story." You should strive to make the reader forget that he or she is reading a story at all.

10. Master the art of description.
"Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's," writes King. The important part isn't writing enough, but limiting how much you say. Visualize what you want your reader to experience, and then translate what you see in your mind into words on the page. You need to describe things "in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition," he says.

The key to good description is clarity, both in observation and in writing. Use fresh images and simple vocabulary to avoid exhausting your reader. "In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling," notes King.

11. Don't give too much background information.
"What you need to remember is that there's a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story," writes King. "The latter is good. The former is not." Make sure you only include details that move your story forward and that persuade your reader to continue reading.

If you need to do research, make sure it doesn't overshadow the story. Research belongs "as far in the background and the back story as you can get it," says King. You may be entranced by what you're learning, but your readers are going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.

12. Tell stories about what people actually do.
"Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do — to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street," writes King. The people in your stories are what readers care about the most, so make sure you acknowledge all the dimensions your characters may have.

13. Take risks; don't play it safe.
First and foremost, stop using the passive voice. It's the biggest indicator of fear. "I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing," King says. Writers should throw back their shoulders, stick out their chins, and put their writing in charge. 

"Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, toss it," King says.

14. Realize that you don't need drugs to be a good writer.
"The idea that the creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time," says King. In his eyes, substance-abusing writers are just substance-abusers. "Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit."

15. Don't try to steal someone else's voice.
As King says, "You can't aim a book like a cruise missile." When you try to mimic another writer's style for any reason other than practice, you'll produce nothing but "pale imitations." This is because you can never try to replicate the way someone feels and experiences truth, especially not through a surface-level glance at vocabulary and plot.

16. Understand that writing is a form of telepathy.
"All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing is the purest distillation," says King. An important element of writing is transference. Your job isn't to write words on the page, but rather to transfer the ideas inside your head into the heads of your readers.

"Words are just the medium through which the transfer happens," says King. In his advice on writing, Vonnegut also recommends that writers "use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted."

17. Take your writing seriously.
"You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or despair," says King. "Come to it any way but lightly." If you don't want to take your writing seriously, he suggests that you close the book and do something else. 

As writer Susan Sontag says, "The story must strike a nerve — in me. My heart should start pounding when I hear the first line in my head. I start trembling at the risk."

18. Write every single day.
"Once I start work on a project, I don't stop, and I don't slow down unless I absolutely have to," says King. "If I don't write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind ... I begin to lose my hold on the story's plot and pace."

If you fail to write consistently, the excitement for your idea may begin to fade. When the work starts to feel like work, King describes the moment as "the smooch of death." His best advice is to just take it "one word at a time."

19. Finish your first draft in three months. 
King likes to write 10 pages a day. Over a three-month span, that amounts to around 180,000 words. "The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season," he says. If you spend too long on your piece, King believes the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel.

20. When you're finished writing, take a long step back.
King suggests six weeks of "recuperation time" after you're done writing, so you can have a clear mind to spot any glaring holes in the plot or character development. He asserts that a writer's original perception of a character could be just as faulty as the reader's.

King compares the writing and revision process to nature. "When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees," he writes. "When you're done, you have to step back and look at the forest." When you do find your mistakes, he says that "you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us."

21. Have the guts to cut.
When revising, writers often have a difficult time letting go of words they spent so much time writing. But, as King advises, "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings."

Although revision is one of the most difficult parts of writing, you need to leave out the boring parts in order to move the story along. In his advice on writing, Vonnegut suggests, "If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Wisdom for Writers

I have been so caught up with finishing The Crazy Old Lady's Secret, Volume 4 of the Beacon Hill Chronicles, that I have not had time to do anything--including blogging. So here are a few pretty item with words of wisdom for writers. Enjoy!!!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Blending Fact With Fiction

Sometimes the Universe gives writers gifts that are just too irresistible. Six months ago, as I was contemplating whether to write another Crazy Old Lady book, I came across an article on the internet about a fabulously beautiful theater with perfect acoustics buried four stories underground in Boston. I started doing searches on it and was amazed at what I discovered.
Steinert Hall, four stories under Tremont Street

As I was doing these searches I found a couple other stories of interest. One, of course, was about the 1849 murder of Doctor George Parkman at Harvard Medical School. Not only was he murdered there but his body was chopped up into pieces and hidden in various locations around the building.
The murder of Dr. Parkman by Dr. Webster, 1849

Another story involved one Captain Grunchy, a privateer licensed by the King of England to intercept and plunder French ships. During his plundering, Captain Grunchy took 4 beautifully carved angels captive and carried them through the tunnels from his ship to Old North Church in Boston where you can still see them today.
Captain Grunchy's Angels, Old North Church, Boston

These three stories were just so delicious I had to find a way to build my story around them and for the past six months that is what I have been trying to do. It has been slow going at times but it has also been tremendous fun. Over the weekend I wrote the big climactic scene and now it is just a matter of wrapping everything up. I hope to have this book ready for re-writes within a week and then I can begin the process of massaging everything into place so it all fits together.

I suppose there is a case to be made that we find what we go looking for and when I went looking for interesting legends/stories based in Boston, I found them but sometimes I think it is a little more magical than that. I've always believed that there is an alternate universe filled with fictional characters who are in search of someone willing to write down their stories. I try to leave myself open to that when I write.
Fenway Artist's Studios, Boston

This story is full of “Boston.” There is an art gallery in a fabulous mansion on Commonwealth Avenue, GrammyLou's mysterious townhouse now under new ownership, and a long ago murder in the legendary Fenway Studios. I am having a great time now that history, legends, and story are finally coming together. I hope my readers will enjoy The Crazy Old Lady's Secret!

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Guest Blog by Ray: Camping with 21st Century Boy Scouts

This is a guest blog by our good friend Ray Beimel in St. Marys, PA. Thanks, Ray:

I spent 18 years in the Boy Scouts, 6 as a boy, 12 as an Assistant Scoutmaster. I left the organization in 1980 and never looked back. I learned a lot, I taught a lot, I got a lot of good stories. After I left, occasionally I would see a Scout troop on the trail somewhere and nothing I saw made me feel I was missing something. Then last week, my good friend and Scout from the old troop 99, Joe Labant, asked me if I wanted to go along with his troop on a two night backpacking trip. I hadn’t done any backpacking since the week after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 so I said yes right away.

Part of the fun is the packing, making a list, finding all the gear, figuring how to fit it in the pack. I would be on the trail without my long time travelling companions, Brad and Chris, so I couldn’t count on their carrying their share of the common gear. I would have to pack it all myself. The big decision was whether to tent camp or tarp camp. The weather would be fine if the weather guessers knew anything so tarp would work. But we were hiking on the Quehanna Trail and camping near streams which made me think there would be mosquitoes and flies. That meant taking the tent. I offered to do the cooking for Joe and me so there was some shopping to do. But come Friday afternoon everything was in the pack and I was already.

The hike would be a on the Quehanna Trail, a 70 mile loop whose westernmost point is Parker Dam State Park. We weren’t anywhere near there. The hiking started easily enough, following an old dirt road. But soon enough, it veered off into the woods and became not so much a trail as a series of blazes. Relocation had happened and it is my experience that they never put the relocated trail in a better place. It reached a nice overlook and we gazed down into a deep gorge in the shape of a wye. Joe said we were going down there. This would have been fine had it been a trail of well-engineered switchbacks. But it went almost straight down. It was the nearly steepest descent I ever made in all my days hiking. I was afraid that the slightest slip meant a really quick to the bottom. The boys took it all in stride and cheerfully made it to the bottom without incident.

At the bottom of the hill we ended up on an old railroad grade of the Central Pennsylvania Lumber Company. This was our campsite for the night. It was flat, hard by Mix Run, and in the middle of a hemlock grove. We didn’t have a lot of time left before dark to get the tents up and firewood gathered. The boys pitched their tents right on the grade while I found a flat spot for mine just a few feet away. The boys started their cooking, most of them over the open fire. One kid had an alcohol stove that he fueled from a large bottle of 91% isopropyl. Given the weight of the fuel bottle, I am not sure he was traveling lighter than I was with an MSR canister stove. I cooked steak fajitas for Joe and I. This cooking thing felt a little funny as normally Brad would be doing that. I was using the smaller of my two frying pans. The bigger one makes everything stick. The smaller one does not stick but of course, it holds less. There was a log there and I put my seat pad on it and had a comfortable place to sit and cook. That was more than faintly reminiscent of many nights with the troop and the Travelling Circus. It was nearly dark and we were at the bottom of a deep hollow so the carbide lamp was fired up to the usual chorus of oh wows! The kids had never seen anything like that so I explained the process using the technical terms. Water added to calcium carbide releases acetylene gas and leaves behind calcium hydroxide. The gas burns with a bright yellow flame and with a polished reflector, lights up the whole kitchen area. The boys went to bed surprisingly early so Joe and I and Duane, the other adult along, spent a pleasant time sitting by the fire trading anecdotes.

The night was clear and cool. I soon learned that my lightweight summer bag required my wearing more than underwear to be comfortable. Once I put my long pants on, I slept well enough. Of course, the kids were up earlier than me. They spent the time eating. It could be argued that they spent half of the daylight hours eating. I marveled at the amount of food they brought and how much they ate. I made scrambled eggs with crumbled sausage for breakfast. And of course, they were served in MexAmerica tortillas, a most excellent product made here in St. Marys. I filtered water from Mix Run for the hike ahead. Since there was less than 6 miles to hike there was little time pressure to hurry. The trail led upstream on a branch of Mix Run, crossing several times. The bridges were made of aluminum I beams and were several feet about possible high water. They all survived the great floods of late May so whoever designed them did well. What we couldn’t figure out is how they got the beams into that location as it was quite some distance from a road. We also marveled that no one had stolen them for the scrap value. Sometime the trail was in the bottom, sometimes it slabbed along the hillside. Often it was very muddy. Occasionally it was rocky.

We stopped for lunch at a rustic camp that had a picnic table outside. For Joe and I lunch was chicken salad flavored with Cajun Spice and Caribbean Jerk Seasoning, a recipe I got from my friend Chris. Again I was impressed with the pile of food they put away. The trail followed the branch but the hollow grew steeper and we got into some uphill hiking. The day was sunny and warm and the uphill lit off the sweat pumps but the kids continued hiking at a good pace. Finally we crossed the crest and had level walking all the way to the campsite. This site was a largely open area but covered with small shrubs and ferns. 

There was a very small stream very close that was the color of weak tea, the characteristic look of waters that pass through wetlands. The color comes from tannic acid. When run through a pump filter, it tastes fine. In a dryer summer, it might be hard to find enough water at this site.

Since we got there early in the day, the boys had a lot of time to kill. Mostly, they ate. They had eaten lunch just two hours before. And now they were eating again. One kid who probably barely weighed 90 pounds ate a whole can of Spam in one sitting. There were beanie weenies, Vienna sausages, homemade sausage, candy bars, Pringle’s, other starchy salty snacks, and more. Of course, there was nothing that could remotely be called a vegetable or a fruit. After ingesting considerable calories, some of them decided to build a bridge over the little stream. They actually did finish the project with nothing more than one saw and one axe.

One of the younger guys, out on his first trip, started periodically throwing up. After several bouts of barfing, we decided it was more than punk grub and Duane evacuated him back to St. Marys. Duane took advantage of being home to get a shower and bring two hammers and some nails to put the finishing touch on the bridge. When it got closer to traditional dinner time, the boys started eating again. There seemed to be no end to the grub they carried. For my part, I made a dish that we used often on trips of the Travelling Circus. A can of white meat chicken in a pot of a Lipton instant noodle dish makes a tasty meal. Joe had not encountered this before and thought it was a good thing to eat. I also had some carrots, celery, and green peppers. These constituted the sum total of vegetables present. I had a lot and Joe had some. I offered them to the boys but they declined this unusual (by their view of it) food.

This night the boys stayed up later but I went to bed shortly after it got dark. Since most of my recent backpacking has been in late fall, the idea of it still being light at 9PM was a little odd. It was a warmer night and I slept well. Since there was no need to be up and out early, the morning was leisurely. Of course, they boys were eating again. I just had peanut butter on MexAmerica whole wheat tortillas. There was the usual business of cramming it all back into the packs. It was easier for the boys since most of what they brought was food and they had eaten very nearly all of it. It was a short hike out to the trucks and once on the trail, the troop was hiking like horses headed for the barn. We lost sight of them in the first 50 yards. But I have to compliment them for hiking in a compact group with no laggards.

And that’s my most recent outdoor adventure. It is always good to be out on the trail and it was a fun time with these guys. They restored some of my lost faith in Boy Scouting.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Robert Goolrick's Heading Out To Wonderful: #Review

When I read Robert Goolrick's novel A Reliable Wife, I fell quite madly in love with Ralph Truitt. He was a man with a lot of flaws and in many ways not very likable but over the course of the story he won me over and by the time it ended I was in love. When I saw that Goolrick had a new novel I wanted to read it but was, at the same time, afraid I would be disappointed—I need not have worried.

Set in the Shanandoah Valley of Virginia in 1948, Heading Out to Wonderful is the story of Charlie Beale, a handsome young man, who has drifted since the end of the World War II looking for a place to call home. He finds it in Brownsburg, a small town filled with friendly, charming people. Charlie finds work as a butcher in a small store, makes friends with the owners of the store, especially their little son, Sam, buys house and a dog and settles happily into small town life. As a writer Goolrick's powers of description of the town and the people in it are so winning that I fell in love with all of them just as Charlie did.

But, of course, trouble is on the way and arrives in the form of the very beautiful teenage wife of the town's richest man “Boaty” Glass. Sylvan Glass is both beautiful and pathetic. She is a dreamer with a head full of movie stars and day dreams who was purchased from a deep country family by the unscrupulous Boaty. She has accepted her lot in life and is content with it as long as Boaty does not object to the amount of time she spends at the movies and the amount of money she spends on clothes copied from them. Her only friend is Cicely, the town's most gifted seamstress, and some of the most lovely writing in the book is about Cicely's love for and mastery of her craft. And then Sylvan sees Charlie—and Charlie sees Sylvan—and no good can come of this.

One of the things I love about both Ralph, in A Reliable Wife, and Charlie in this book, is that they are men who fell madly, deeply, irrevocably in love. Goolrick has an absolute genius for writing about men in love in such a way that, as a woman, I cannot help but love those characters for being so nakedly vulnerable and so hopelessly lost in love. This is not a story with a happy ending. It is a story of people who some might say made bad choices but to them they had no choice, they did what they believed they had to do—and following that path leads to inevitable pain.

This is also something of a morality tale but not in the traditional sense. For a long time the people of the town turn a blind eye—even an approving blind eye—to the relationship between Charlie and Sylvan. But when things go wrong and the Christian preachers call down fire and brimstone on anyone who fails to properly condemn the ill-fated lovers, all those good people turn their backs rather than risk the disapproval of their neighbors. It is sad and, in a perverse way, the judgment levied on Charlie by his former friends, leads to the ultimate tragedy.

Robert Goolick is an exceptional writer with a deep and visceral understanding of human frailty. He creates characters that are deeply flawed and deeply touching at the same time. He appreciates the subtlety and nuance of country people and he paints pictures with words that linger in memory. I think this book may be hard for some people—nothing is tied up neatly with a bow. But there is great beauty in truth and Goolrick's characters ring true.

Thanks for reading. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Dancing and Praying in the Street: Buona #Fiesta

Some time back I got into an online discussion with a woman who was complaining that her Christian beliefs were being “persecuted”—I never did find out how—by atheists. Now, I am a person of Faith and I know a lot of atheists and the closest I've come to being “persecuted” by them is when they say they don't know how I can believe nonsense. To me that beats being thrown to lions, but I digress. Anyway, while we were talking I told her about the many public expressions of Christian faith that take place in the town I live in all the time. She said she didn't believe me.

A large segment of Gloucester's population is Italian and they are very publicly Catholic throughout the year. In March they celebrate St. Joseph with feasts and special breads, decorated altars, prayers and song. In June there is a celebration of St. Anthony. In September comes my personal favorite when the Mother of Grace Club has a three day celebration during which their altar is moved out into the street, there is singing and praying and dancing and lots of food. But the most colorful and popular of all these celebrations is St. Peter's Fiesta at the end of June.

St. Peter's Fiesta actually begins 9 days before the public events begin with novenas in the homes of the participants. During this time, men build a stage in St. Peter's Square, a harborside marina downtown, just a few blocks from my house. Fiesta includes many activities: a road race, seine boat races, dances, a carnival, lots of food, dances, concerts, and the famous Greasy Pole walk. But at the heart of all the activity is religious devotion and gratitude.

St. Peter is the patron saint of fishermen and we are a fishing town. At both the beginning and the close of Fiesta a statue of St. Peter is carried on the shoulders of fishermen through the streets of the town with music, singing and prayer. It is flamboyant, yes, but I find it deeply moving. I love the beauty of these expressions of faith. Often non-Catholics ask why Catholics “worship” saints and, during these celebrations, it might look like we do but that is not the case. To the Catholic mind, saints are our intercessors, they speak for us. The way I always explain it is that it is like instead of asking your dad for money to go to the movies, you get your mom to ask your dad for the money—it just seems friendlier. Of course we can ask ourselves but sometimes having a go-between is somewhat more reassuring.

So tonight St. Peter will be carried through Gloucester's streets to the altar where he will be honored for the next three days. This tradition has gone on for eighty-years and I hope it goes on for eighty more and then some. It is a beautiful, sweet, touching tradition that I love. So, as they say over and over here, “Viva San Pietro.” Buona Fiesta.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thoughts On My #RachelintheOC Guest Blog

Yesterday I was the guest blogger on Rachel Thompson's blog Rachel in the OC, Feel, Think, Share. Rachel has been a leading voice in dealing with sexual abuse and rape. Her book Broken Pieces has won numerous awards for its poignant, heart-breaking beauty about her own struggle with past sexual abuse. I can only read little bits of it at a time because it tears at my own heart.

I chose to write about how a past trauma of my own—one that I was thoroughly convinced I had dealt with—showed up when I was writing my novella The Monday Night Needlework & Murder Guild and how it startled me that I could, after four decades, feel so much emotion while writing it. The only other time I felt that level of emotional intensity while writing was when I wrote The Confession of Genny Franck in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall. That story was based on the real-life experience of an elderly family member of mine who is long gone but I have never forgotten the pain she went through when she told me about it.

Both as a writer and as a reader I do not like a lot of gratuitous misery in stories. I've ranted before about the “miz-lit” genre and have wondered about the appeal of reading about someone's horrific experiences. But writing the two stories I just mentioned taught me something—writing truthfully about pain is important. It needs to be done. The trick is to walk that balance between sharing with empathy and inviting voyeurism. That is not easy.

There is this tricky little game that sometimes gets played when people share their hard things. It seems there are always a few people who lap up the details and then say, effectively, “Wow, that's terrible. I'm sure glad I never had to go through that.” That dynamic has always interested me because I find something a little creepy in it—it is like the person doing it finds comfort and reassurance in another person's pain that they are a little bit superior for having avoided a similar situation. A cross between voyeurism and egotism that intrigues me—I always wonder what it covers.

As I said in my post for Rachel, I firmly believe that fiction's greatest gift is that it can tell the truth unencumbered by the facts. I have written about domestic violence, incest, child exploitation, sexual abuse, rape, and abortion. Tough subjects. But I write about them as fiction because it is my belief that readers can relate to the character more strongly than to the author. The characters become the object of emotion—the author steps aside. I think this is a good thing. I think it is important to let others explore their own experience without feeling they need to respond to yours.

Writing for Rachel's blog was a powerful experience for me. Telling how Cece McGill (the main character in The Monday Night Needlework and Murder Guild) came to be a murderer gave me insight into why I write. I write to share. I write to give hope and comfort. And I write not to kill anyone—except on the page.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 23, 2014

#Knitting My Silk Bag and Smoke Ring

About three years ago I bought a bag of recycled, pure silk yarn on eBay in a luscious color called "Lilac." I have started three or four projects with it then gave them up because I wanted to use the yarn for something I would love. A couple weeks ago I got the idea to  knit a little shoulder bag and I decided to use the silk yarn. The results are great.

In order to make it good and sturdy I double knit the bottom by casting on twice as many stitches as I wanted and K1, S1 on both sides. This takes forever but it makes a nice, dense, thick bottom. Then I picked up stitches all around the bottom and knit with 5 double-pointed needles until I could transfer it to a circular needle.

I use double strands of yarn and knit on size 3 needles so it would be quite dense. The Aran patterns were perfect for this.

 I loved the nested hearts design which you can see better on the back. For the strap, I picked up stitches that were knit in a 3 over 3 cable pattern. The strap is just P2, K6 (cable), P2.
I finished around the opening and the flap in a 3 stitch I-cord. I-cord gives such a "finished" finish. I made a loop at the point of the flap for a button closure.

As you can see below, I lined it with some beautiful, bright lime/turquoise silk dupioni left over from another project. I made 2 pockets in the lining then hand-stitched it into the bag.

The Czech Glass button has been in my collection for years so it made an ideal closure.

Then, since I still had more yarn I made a Smoke Ring--a Smoke Ring is like a cowl only looser and lacier. It designed more for beauty than for warmth.

I still have a couple balls of the silk so I'll think of something to do with it but, in the mean time, I cannot wait to use my little bag.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Mystique of Abandoned Places

Last night my youngest sister, Beth, called me and we got talking about ridiculous, risky things we did when we were kids. Beth is sixteen years younger than me so we don't share a lot of memories. When I was born—the first of my parent's eight children—my folks were young and ready to take me on adventures. By the time Beth, the youngest, came along, my folks were basically pooped and the younger ones sort of made their own adventures. But either way, we lived in a rural area outside of a medium-sized town with a small town atmosphere. And we were surrounded by woods.

While we talked I asked Beth if she remembered Bum Seelye's, an abandoned house on top of a hill far out at the end of Vine Road. Beth said she didn't and I realized it had probably been torn down years before she was even born. When I was a kid it was a favorite place to explore despite the fact that we were strictly forbidden to do so. I remember going there with my friends and it was always an adventure.

The place was falling apart. There was evidence that people camped out there—hobos perhaps—but at one time it mush have been a nice house. Most of the staircase to the second floor was intact and we'd go upstairs to look out of windows from which the glass had been gone for ages. Because the house was at the top of a hill there was a great view. There were odds and ends of broken furniture and clothes strewn about—old magazines, remains of dishes, and pots and pans. Once during one of our clandestine visits I stepped on a nail and had to hobble the half mile home with a shoe full of blood. After yelling at me, my mother put me in the car and took me to the doctor's for a tetanus shot. I actually got quite a few tetanus shots when I was a kid.

Beth said she wished she had been around in those days but we talked about the never-ending wonder that was Mary Opelt's Woods, right across the street from our house. There was the foundation of an old house there, too. The one Mary Opelt had lived in. I remember digging around that thinking we were young archaeologists and coming home with broken teacups, half-rotted shoes, and rusty spoons and forks. How our mother put up with us I'll never know.

Beth remembered sawdust piles along the edge of the woods that I forgot about. There was a cabinetry business where they planed and cured wood in these great oven. I'll never forget the whooshing sound echoing through the woods when that oven was opened during the day. Beth remembered sliding down the piles of sawdust and also picking Indian Pipes, a kind of wildflower, and picking teaberries.

Years ago, when I was living in Maine, my friend and I took a walk in the woods up by Sebec Lake and while we were climbing over rocks and roots and fallen leaves we realized that underneath all the vegetation there was a stairway made of stone. We even found the remains of an iron handrail that had fallen off and lay buried in moss and ferns. Someone had once lived there—someone who had built a stairway of stones with a fancy, iron rail. We spent the rest of our hike imagining who it might have been and why they were no longer there.

There is mystery and magic in abandoned places—echoes of people who once lived there. They speak to us through what they leave behind and we dream dreams of them and imagine their stories—and make memories of out own.

Thanks for reading.  

Monday, June 16, 2014

An Old-fashioned Corn Roast

“They should be knee-high by the Fourth of July.” 
- Old Farmer's Adage about corn stalks

In the Allegheny Highlands of Pennsylvania—which I see is now being called the Pennsylvania Wilds—late summer meant one thing for sure: corn roasts. Growing up we looked forward all summer to fresh corn-on-the-cob and, though there's really no bad way to serve it, open fire corn roasts are the best. I've been thinking about this because I've gone to our local farm stand several times lately and they already have fresh-picked corn available.

My mother was of the opinion that the faster you could get corn from the stalk into the pot the more delicious the corn would be. There was a man in our neighborhood, Mr. Brown, who lived on the edge of Mary Opelt's Woods and who grew the best corn. His was always the first available and as soon as it was ready Mrs. Brown would call my mother. Mom would send one of us up to their house with a little red wagon and usually a loaf of her home-made bread or cinnamon rolls. We'd come back with 2 or 3 dozen  ears of corn in the wagon and the shucking would begin. Many times the corn would go from the stalk to the pot in less than half an hour.

Outdoor corn roasts were even better. These were often at my Uncle Gus's camp or at a state park that allowed open fires, or just in the field below our house. Dad would build a fire with 2 cement blocks carefully positioned on either side of it and he'd get out his home-made corn steamer. He made several of these over the years and it was quite an invention. He took a metal barrel with a tight fitting lid—I have no idea where he got these but he was always on the lookout for one. I remember him eyeing up a barrel at a garage sale or junk yard and saying, “That's make a good barrel for steaming corn.” He would drill holes in the lid and make a metal wire rack that fit down inside the barrel about halfway.

When the fire was good and hot the barrel would be wrestled onto the cement blocks and filled with water up to a couple inches below the wire basket. The corn would be nestled into the basket, the lid secured, and the steaming would begin. Once the steam was rising from the holes it was 20 to 30 minutes until the corn was ready and what a treat it was.

Preparing the corn was the interesting part. We peeled away the tough outer husks. Then we'd peel back the tender, pale green inside husks just enough to remove the silk. Then pull the inner husks back over the corn and give the end a twist. Mom always claimed that steaming the corn inside the inner husks gave it extra flavor. All I know is the flavor was outstanding. When the corn was ready we'd peel the husks back and use them as a handle as we rolled the corn in butter and sprinkled it with salt and pepper. With garden fresh tomatoes and a salad of sliced cucumbers and onions marinated in oil and vinegar, that was all we needed for dinner.

Of course, you can also roast corn on a rack over an open fire. Last year I prepared fresh corn as described above and steam-baked it in my Ninja. It was delicious but, of course, I missed the smoky fire taste and the company of cousins and friends.

I don't know how high the corn in Elk County Pennsylvania is right now but here in Gloucester you can find it at the farm stands, so I know I'll be enjoying it soon. I remember Dad mourning when one of his roasters developed a crack that couldn't be repaired and then starting a search for a new barrel. It just wouldn't be summer without a corn roast.

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