Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Naive and Sentimental Reader

Like most writers I read a lot and, like most people, I don't have nearly as much time to read as I would like. Much of my reading is research—I've recently read a number of books on different aspects of the Civil War, all as research for The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk. But finding time to read for the sheer pleasure of reading often eludes me. I invariably have several books going at the same time—an audio book to listen to while cooking, sewing and knitting; a DTB book for the car and/or the back porch; Kindle books—fiction and non-fiction—in bed at night. I get a little covetous about my reading time.

Orhan Pamuk
Last night I was reading in bed—the story was a contemporary thriller by a writer whose work I have read before. It was reasonably interesting—a murder was committed and a group of people were conspiring to keep it covered up; a burned-out detective, still lusting after the wife who left him because she wasn't getting enough attention, etc. etc. The writing was good, the characters were semi-interesting. I don't want to blame the book because I think it was just me. I wasn't getting anything out of it and I couldn't figure out why. Finally, I decided to try something else and I switched over to Orhan Pamuk's The Naive and Sentimental Novelist: Understanding What Happens When We Read And Write Novels.

First, let me say, though I have not read all of Pamuk's work, I have loved everything I've read. Like Salman Rushdie and Isabelle Allende, he has the ability to paint landscapes that draw you in and stay in one's memory so visceraly it is almost possible to believe you have once visited there. This book is a collection of essays about the experience of reading and I have been savoring the essays one at a time—giving myself time to think about them between each. As I was reading I was, again, struck by the distinction Pamuk makes between the “naive” novelists who are unaware of the novel's artificiality, and the “sentimental” novelist who build the story around self-reflection and a relationship to the story. And, as naturally follows, the reader of naive work and the reader of sentimental work will experience the work accordingly.

I had this idea that maybe that was the problem with the thriller I was trying to read. On the surface there was nothing wrong with it except that I just didn't feel any sense of engagement. It was just a well-written story of some artificial characters in an artificial setting doing artificial things. It was all about what happens next. There was nothing wrong with it—I just felt no engagement with it.

Luay Hamza Abbas
Another book among those that I am juggling is Luay Hamza Abbas's Closing His Eyes: Iraqi Short Stories. I picked it up after reading an article about someone who decided to read a book by an author from every country on the planet. Also, it only cost a dollar. The stories are short—some only a few paragraphs. In many the main character does not have a name. Like Pamuk's essays, it would be a mistake to read these all at once because each story is so filled with imagery and so evocative that they must be digested slowly. Because Iraq is a country that has been torn apart by violence both from within and without, violence is often the theme, but in such a subtly beautiful way. There are no politics in these stories. No judgements or ideologies. They are just stories about people who have to live in this place and go about their lives and do the best they can in the face of horrors.

In one story a person just wants to go to work and do his job, another just wants to tend his garden, another, another wants to make tea for her family, or roast fava beans. They are going about their days like any average person anywhere in the world goes about a day. But then a shot rings out and someone drops dead. Men drag someone into the street and an execution takes place. They are just stories—stories from a place where if you happen to glance into a ditch as you walk home from market, you just might see a pair of white-coated, lifeless eyes staring at the heavens. The reflection they produce is unavoidable.

Sometimes a naive story is just what we need to slip out of the world and let our minds take a break. But other times we need that sentiment—we crave it, because in it we learn more about ourselves and the world in which we dream.


Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Things We Find Doing Research, Memories of Ibrahim Farrah

Bobby Dancing
I blogged this week about a novel I am doing research for and today that research resulted in a picture from long ago and a trove of memories from way back in time. One of the characters in this book is named Astarte Safiya and she is a Ghawazi dancer descended from the Nawar people of Egypt. Back in the 1980s, when I was studying danse Oriental and taking classes and workshops, one of the most revered teachers of that time was a man named Ibrahim Farrah. Everyone called him “Bobby” and he was a magnificent dancer.

Today, as I was watching YouTube videos of various Middle Eastern dances, I came across a video of Amoura Latif dancing Bobby's choreography for a Cafe Dance. I hadn't thought of Bobby in years and, with a little bit of research, I discovered he died in 1998—such a loss to the world of Middle Eastern Dance.

It's a funny thing how I even got into dancing in the first place. A friend and I had decided to take an evening watercolor class for six weeks, but when we went to sign up, the class was full. We looked at the list of available classes and one was Intro to Belly Dance. Out of sheer silliness we signed up. My friend quit after two classes. I kept dancing for five years. In fact when I decided to leave Houston and move to Maine, my going-away party was held in the belly dance studio and dozens of dancers came to dance with and for me in farewell.

Penn State's The Corner Room
I was not a particularly accomplished dancer but I loved it. As a big, blond, American woman of German heritage I often thought I had no business doing this sort of dance. But every time I danced in public it was the Middle Eastern men who would praise and encourage me. These beautiful, copper-skinned, dreamy-eyed men would scream and clap and go crazy when I danced. They'd call “you're beautiful, I love you!” It was heady, addictive stuff. Bobby was like that. He could make you feel like you were the most desirable creation ever.

The first time I met him something sort of wonderful happened. He was coming to Houston to teach a workshop and needed a ride from the airport to the dance studio. His plane was arriving late at night and I offered to go pick him up. I only knew him by reputation so I was excited. He came off the plane, a handsome, but very normal looking guy in jeans and a white dress shirt—no elaborate costumes for something as ordinary as a plane ride.

My dancing days
As we headed back to Houston I asked if there was anything he needed. He said that, actually, he was starving and would love to stop at a restaurant. So I took him to a favorite place of mine in River Oaks. It was a cozy, charming place with high-backed wooden booths and a good variety of dishes. We ordered and he proved to be a delightful dinner companion. When we were about to leave he leaned back, looked around, and said, “I love this place. It reminds me of a place I hung out at when I was in college.” Really? I said. Where was that? “It was called The Corner Room. It was right across the street from campus,” he said.

I stared at him. Penn State? I managed at last. “Yes.” He grinned. “Have you been there?” I graduated from Penn State and spent a lot of time at The Corner Room. We were instant buddies—two Penn State alums in the far-off land of Texas.

For the rest of the weekend, at any given moment Bobby would begin singing “Fight On, State” just to make me laugh. I danced in the final show of that weekend and I drove him back to the airport. It was such a wonderful experience.

So now my dancing days are over. Bobby is gone from this earth. But I have Astarte Safiya to create and I look forward to the experience.

Bobby performing with Dahlena at Club Cleopatra, Sacramento California, 1964.
Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Moving Right Along: My Next Project

It is always bittersweet when a writing project I have been working on for a long time is coming to an end. The first Volume of The BucktailCap in the Trunk: More Secrets of Marienstadt is now available for Kindle and the next 2 volumes are nearly ready. A paperback will be coming out with all thirteen stories as well. I still have polishing to do on them but I'm also thinking about what comes next.

For a long time now I have had a story in the back of my mind that has been nagging at me and I think it may be my next project. It is a full-length novel set mostly in the back country of the Adirondacks—a setting I love.

The story starts with a young woman named Lydia Morningstar who grows up in a traditional suburban home with nice, middle-class parents and lots of promise and possibilities but Lydia is a different kind of kid. She wants to be a farmer and it sort of drives her parents crazy. She starts by planting carrots and lettuce around her mother's rose bushes and growing watermelons and peppers behind her father's garage. Her gardens grow and expand and soon take over the entire yard, much to the annoyance of many of the neighbors. Her parents aren't exactly pleased by this but they are modern parents who want their child to develop into her full potential.

By the time Lydia is in college, she is consumed with sustainable living and spends a year in Europe working on various farms. Back in New York she hears about a farm that was started by a couple of hippies that is a model of sustainable living. It is in a remote, wooded area and for many years people visited it just to marvel at how creative and productive it was. But now there are problems. The husband has died and the wife is looking for someone to come, live with her, learn to run the farm, and, ultimately, inherit it. Lydia and her boyfriend decide to give it a try.

Now available for Kindle
A few years go by and Lydia is now the sole owner of the farm. Her boyfriend didn't last long—it was too much work for him. She loves the farm but it is a tremendous amount of work for one person. Then a strange thing happens—she becomes aware that there is a boy living in the woods behind her farm. Slowly she coaxes him into trusting her. At first she thinks he is a feral child who was abandoned or lost. He is a dark, strange, homely child, who is very guarded and fearful but, once he begins to trust her, she realizes he is much more than he seems. He tells her his name is Asher and he is twelve, but he does not want to talk about his past. He is very willing, eager even, to work on the farm in exchange for room and board, but he doesn't want anyone to know where he is. She knows he will take off if she pressures him about anything.

Slowly, Lydia discovers that, while he has some education, there is much he is totally unaware of. He reads well and is very good at math, but has no idea that there are other countries in the world, or that people in them speak other languages. He has never seen television or been to a movie. But he has strange, mysterious powers that may or may not be natural.

Well, that's as far as I've gotten but I think Lydia and Asher are going to be good companions for the next few months as I gradually get to know them. I'll keep you posted.


Thanks for reading.    

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Crafting Story from Tall Tales

William Hoehn from my hometown, St. Marys, Pennsylvania, told me a great story about "Roaring" Jack Dent--an old-time log drover. So, naturally, I just HAD to work into my current work-in-progress. This is from Peeper's Treasure Hunt which will be part of The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk: More Secrets of Marienstadt. Take a look:

In the pantheon of Marienstadt’s “colorful characters” Blaise Hanes was a star. No one ever knew for sure if any actual Native American blood ran through his veins but his appreciation for and knowledge of the Seneca tribes of north central Pennsylvania was vast. He was a solidly built man with warm, dark eyes surrounded by laugh lines, and hair that was more gray than black now that he was in his fifties, hanging in a single, thick braid down to the middle of his back. His taxidermy shop behind the modest house in which he and his wife, Sara, had raised twelve children, was a wonderland for the school children and Cub Scout dens that regularly visited it. Not only were there dozens of stuffed animals but all manner of Seneca artifacts displayed in cases. For over three decades children were welcomed there and had been dazzled as Blaise told them stories and legends about the early days of The Great Buffalo Swamp and The Wildcat District, as their environs had once been known.

His latest carving, commissioned by Boone for the tavern, was a tribute to “Roaring” Jack Dent and his band of log drovers who once opened splash dams and floated logs of chestnut and white oak down the Sinnemahoning Creek to the Susquehanna River. Blaise’s carving showed the men in corked boots laced to the knee and carrying cant hooks, as some of them waded waist-deep into the freshet of melting snow at the end of winter, dodging rattlesnakes as they worked.
“That’s a beauty,” Boone said when Blaise carried it into the tavern and propped it up on a pool table. “You outdid yourself on this one.”
“Thank you.” Blaise stood back, smiling, his thick arms folded across his chest. “I think it turned out okay.”
“I’d say it’s a lot more than okay. When Lucius comes in I’ll have him help me hang it. Come on over to the bar and let me buy you a drink. Or a cup of coffee.” Boone corrected himself. It was well-known that Blaise didn’t drink alcohol.
“Coffee would be great.” Blaise sat down at the bar and studied his carving of elk behind it. “I sure appreciate your business.”
“I sure appreciate your talent.” Boone poured coffee and placed it on the counter. “Peeper,
you ready for another one?”
Peeper Baumgratz sat two stools down nursing a draft as he did most weekday afternoons.
“Sure.” He drained the last few drops from the glass and pushed it toward Boone.
“I’ve been thinking about another one,” Boone said to Blaise as he drew Peeper’s beer. “A guy was in here a couple weeks ago and he told me about the forty thousand dollars from a hold-up that’s supposed to be buried over in Mount Jewett under the Kinzua Viaduct.”
“I’ve heard that story,” Blaise said.
“I think it would be great if you could show the Viaduct before it blew down, what do you think?”
“Forty-thousand dollars?” Peeper’s ears perked up. “Up to the Kinzua Bridge, is that where you’re talking about?”
“Yeah.” Blaise turned toward him. “That story has been around for years. They say a guy held up a bank in Emporium and got clean away but on his death bed he confessed and said he buried the gold under the bridge.”
“And ain’t nobody ever found it?” Peeper’s eyes were enormous.
“Nope. If you believe tall tales there’s treasure buried all over these hills. Back in the sixteen nineties the French warrior Louis de Buade de Frontenac was supposed to have brought barrels of gold coins up from New Orleans to finance his endless wars against the English and the Indians. But something happened and they say the gold was buried up around Coudersport somewhere.”
“No shit?” Peeper was enthralled. 
“No shit.” Blaise appeared to be enjoying himself. “But the real mother lode of lost treasure is the gold that was lost during the Civil War down in Dent’s Run. Did you ever hear about that?”
“Oh, crap.” Boone covered his face with both hands. “I forgot all about that. Me and my brother Kit and Lucius and Jim Loeffler went hunting for it one summer when we were in high school. We spent five days camping down there and all we came home with were sunburns and ten thousand mosquito bites.”
Blaise laughed a deep, hearty laugh.
To be continued...

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Allure of the Deeply Flawed Character

As a writer I am continually amazed by the reactions readers have to certain characters. I can never quite predict which character my readers will take a fancy to and am often delighted, although surprised, at their choices. I like this though because it is easier to write about characters filled with flaws than the unnaturally good ones. I suppose there is something in us that relates to these people and their search for redemption.

When I created Vivienne Lang in the second crazy old lady book I wasn't sure if people would like her or not. I wasn't sure if I liked her. She was raised by her grandparents who were wonderful but then at the age of twelve her mother forced her to move to California and used her as bait to attract lovers for herself. Out of both grief and desperation, Viv turned into a careless, promiscuous young woman. She also turned to martial arts as a defense against being used against her will. Eventually, this gave her the skills to be a force to be reckoned with but a force that was fragile and broken inside.

As I wrote about her I fell more and more under her spell and by the time I wrote the fourth book, The Crazy Old Lady's Secret, in which she is now married and a mother, I wanted nothing but good things for her. I'm not quite sure how that happened.

Last week I wrote about dangerous characters and I mentioned my fascination with Sayid Jarrah, the Iraqi soldier and former torturer, on the old television show, Lost. Since then I've read a few articles in which his character was discussed and one of the writers for the show said they originally had intended him to be an irredeemable character that the audience would love to hate, but that isn't what happened. The audience loved him—they saw him as a romantic, tragic, and even heroic character. The writers had to do a lot of rewriting and by the time the last season came around, even though he had continued to be a relentless killing machine, he died the most heroic death they could give him. I got a lot of comments about that blog post and most of them said that they loved him.

Something similar happened with my first novel, The Old Mermaid's Tale. The main character, Clair, has romances with two men in the book—Pio, a delicious, sexy, Italian fisherman, and Baptiste, a man 20 years her senior who ran away from home at 16 to go to sea and, following an accident in which he lost his leg, became a vagabond and a drunk until he straightened himself out—sort of. I have always been both pleased and a little bit astonished at how many women tell me they love Baptiste. How sexy and desirable they find him. Of course, to me both Baptiste and Pio were very alluring but I suspect Baptiste's many flaws make him somehow more delicious.

I think about these things and I wonder what we see in these characters. Do we romanticize their broken places? Do we identify with them? Do we think we could redeem them? I've mentioned before how I am dumbfounded by the women who love Christian Grey in the 50 Shades books. To me he is a twisted, manipulative stalker but a lot of women—millions of them—find him delicious.

As a writer I doubt I'll ever understand this but I continue to pursue my fascination with characters who are both a mess and mesmerizing. I seek them out, I want to read about them and I want to create them. This is all very mysterious—a mystery that borders on obsession and I love it.


Thanks for reading.  

Friday, May 01, 2015

Guest Post by Christian Galacar: Writing Advice: Or (How One Writer Writes)

My young friend, Christian Galacar, is a very talented writer. You can read more about him on Amazon and Goodreads and follow him on Twitter. His blog is The Honest Scrivener. I am very pleased to have him as a guest on my blog.

My girlfriend and I just signed a lease on a new apartment. That is exciting news in and of itself, but something equally exciting happened to me this weekend while I was cleaning out my bookshelf and boxing things up: I found my copy of Strunk's The Elements of Style. Immediately I recalled how fun and terrifying those first baby steps into the perilous world of writing were. The feeling was a strange combination of fear and longing that made me thirsty for a cold beer with old friends. I missed those earlier times.

Ahhh nostalgia, what a fantastic and powerful drug. *Long thoughtful sigh*

Moving on now. 

Even better than the book discovery, was when I cracked it open and leafed through the pages and the receipt for it fell out (Spirit of '76 Bookstore, which, coincidently, is now carrying my first novel, Cicada Spring). The receipt was faded and creased in all kids of strange ways that seemed impossible, especially when you considered that it had spent nearly three years pressed flatly between pages. But there it was in all its magnificent glory—proof of a beginning. For all intents and purposes, it was my birth certificate, a reminder of when I decided writing was what I wanted to do.
According to the tiny piece of paper, May 20th, 2012, was when Christian the Writer was born. I'm still a lot of other things: Christian the Banker, Christian the Over-Confident Golfer, Christian the Hungry, Christian the Habitual Line-Crosser. But Christian the Writer is certainly my favorite of all these identities. He is the one who feels most at home in his awkward and often sunburned skin. Christian the Writer doesn't tan well.

It's funny to think about how three years can feel so short yet so long at the same time. From my current standpoint, it flew by (a tad cliché, I know), but when I try to place myself in my younger self's writing shoes, I can only remember time passing in a grim slog of impatience.

When I was first starting, pumping out short story after short story, all I wanted to do was get better. I wrote hard and fast, with little regard for the rules. I was aware I was making mistakes, but I didn't care. Damn it, I wanted to be good NOW! Get out of my way punctuation and grammar! However, deep down, I knew there was work to be done. Very. Hard. Work. Talent, in my opinion, is less about the 'genius' you think you have inside you, the gift you believe you were given, and much more about how hard you are willing to work to coax it out of you and shine a light on it. It'll be an ugly bastard at first--squinty eyes, no teeth, opaque pink skin (picture a baby rat)--but eventually you can pretty it up some and maybe even find someone who'd be happy to date it.

What I'm getting at is this: I knew that if I kept at it, if I promised myself that no matter what happened, if at the end of the day I never gave up, then inevitably I would get better. And sure enough, I did. At least I think so. The progress was slow. The results, I was certain, would never come. But bit by bit, word by word, then sentence by sentence, things started to get better and easier. I have no delusions of being a genius writer, but I do, however, think that the talent I felt simmering inside me is finally a little easier to transition from my head to the blank page. In short, it's gotten easier to say what I want to say the way I want to say it. And in writing, that's pretty darn important. It is your voice.

So, while I know 'writing advice' is an over-touched-upon subject, and one I'm not even sure I am qualified to discuss, I would still like to talk a little bit about what I picked up along the way. Bits and scraps from here and there. Things that worked for me. Some might be helpful. Some might be better suited as dog food. But if you, dear reader, should glean even the tiniest morsel of inspiration or insight from it, I will be satisfied. Think of this less as advice and more of me telling you what has worked for me. There is no one size-fits-all with writing, so read this and interpret it widely. These things are simply the things I've noticed I was doing when I felt most in control of my craft.
Let's begin.

1) Write Honestly
This is something of a staple in almost any book on writing you will ever read. My favorite, of course, is Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and he discusses the topic the way only Stephen King can. I doubt he would claim to have invented the notion; it is simply something any writer worth his or her salt learns along the way—that the words are best and have the greatest impact when they aren't dumbed down out of fear of what people might think or who might get offended.
Many writers, I have found, are the sort who were often thought of as weird in their adolescence. Not because they were actually weird necessarily, but because they would say things with little care of what others would think of them. Little did we know we were preparing ourselves at such a young age to say what we wanted to say the way we wanted to say it.

So what exactly does 'write honestly' mean? It can mean many things to many people, but to me it means don't hold back. For example: If you want to make a character convincing, say a character who is supposed to be devious and evil (serial killers are a good blank canvas for the dark inclined mind), then I hate to tell you this but you're going to have to conjure up some dark thoughts that disturb you. And when you finally go to put them down on the page, cringing as you type the words, second guessing yourself as to whether or not it's too much and you've crossed a line, you need to know that that's when you should keep going. If you aren't feeling it as a writer when you're writing it, then you better believe the reader won't feel it when they read it. That goes for any emotion—fear, love, lust, anger, humor, sadness.

To write honestly you need to know your characters inside and out. They have to think and behave the way they were meant to, and often times the way that they want to; they can easily take on a life of their own and say things that catch you off guard. So if they decide to speak up, for the love of God do not censor them. It's an unforgivable sin, if you ask me, and you should be nibbled to death by a duck.

2) Surprise Yourself
When it comes to twists and surprises you need to avoid doing the first thing that comes to mind. You are the writer, but you are also the first reader. If you get to a point in your story where you can see the setup/opportunity for a plot-twist coming, take a break for a moment. During that break, think of the first two or three scenarios that would best fit that twist... then throw them away. If you thought of them that fast, then chances are a reader will too. Sometimes the cleverest twists are the ones that seem more obvious (sounds counterintuitive, I know), but people automatically look for the obscure when they start to realize things aren't what they seem. Hiding in plain sight isn't always bad if it suits your story. Points for clever twists are always good, but not the ultimate currency in storytelling. Stories are so much bigger than gimmicks.

In a roundabout way, I think I am trying to say to be real as often as possible. Root your lies in grains of truth to lend them believability and ground them in reality.

3) Find What Works For You and Do It
Writers are creatures of habit, if nothing else. We have our routines and our environmental requirements in order for the words to flow freely. Some writers like to drink or smoke a cigarette or wear aluminum foil on their feet. Find what works for you, your comfort zone, and stay there for the duration of your writing session, whatever it may be. Me? I need to be warm. Scratch that—I need to be blazing hot. I bundle up and turn the heat to 78 degrees. It's the only way I can relax enough to get things moving along. By the time I've managed to get down a thousand or so words, I'm usually a sweaty medium-rare and ready for consuming.

4) Write, Damn it!
This one should go without saying, yet I cannot tell you how many "writers" I have met who tell me they want to write something. It's usually at this moment that I am overtaken with ungovernable rage and want to grab them by the lapels and shake them, all the while screaming "Well then write it, damn you! Don't tell me you want to write... WRITE!!" 

What I am getting at in a not-so-subtle way is that if you want to write, you need to write. Even if it is only a hundred words a day, you have to write. It is the only way to get better, and it is the only way to be a writer. Hence the old chestnut: A writer writes. It's old and it's a chestnut because it is true. I have a minimum goal of five hundred words per day, and I always hit that no matter what, even if the words are crap. If I don't, I honestly have a hard time sleeping. Writing, as with so many other hobbies, can quickly become a compulsion and an obsession that demands things from you. It is not unlike an unruly child without manners. It wants what it wants when it wants it. So feed it and you'll be happy.

5) Read Everything
That's all I have to say about that.

6) Dialogue
Dialogue can be tricky. I have always been jealous of those to whom it comes easy. My brother, for instance, can write clever and witty dialogue as if he has been doing it for his entire life. I should mention he is not a writer and the dialogue he does put down on the page is usually just part of some funny email he has decided to send me when the hours of our day jobs are ticking by slowly. But still, he is damn good at it. The trick is, I have found, to remove the boring parts (Elmore Leonard says the same about all writing, in fact). Dialogue should always move the story along or build a character's depth and reveal subtle motivations. It's a great way to show instead of tell.

If you want to try an exercise that can help you improve your skills, try this: listen to conversations on a train and transcribe them, then after you've creepily jotted down everything the couple next to has said, take out all the parts that didn't lend a person character (mannerisms and stall words etc) and take out all the stuff that didn't advance the conversation. What you are left with is the good meat.

7) Finish Something
One of the biggest confidence boosts I got when I was first beginning to write was when I finished my first story. I had a wicked habit of starting things and putting them down, never to be finished. The problem is that when you first come up with an idea to write, there is this initial euphoric blast of adrenalin and excitement. You are like a child with a new toy. But after a few thousand words the excitement wears off and you are left with a bill for the hard work required to finish it. This is where the men are separated from the boys, the women from the girls. This is where it's time to show that story who the hell's boss. So do it. Come to the page every day and finish that story. Even when it gets hard, even when the idea seems stupid at second thought, even when the characters don't resonate, finish it. I promise you when you sit there at the end of it all, finished first draft in hand, it will all be worth it. One cruddy but finished story is far better than a dozen brilliant first paragraphs. And besides, first drafts almost always stink anyway. It's okay. Rewriting and editing is an equally important craft to hone, and you will do just that, grasshopper... you will. It just takes time and practice.


For now I think I have said enough. There is more kicking around in my noggin I am sure, but much of it is probably nothing more than opinions on what you should eat for breakfast and what brand of tea to drink while writing (Earl Grey). So I shall depart posthaste, before I lose your attention, dear reader. But first I would like to thank Kathleen Valentine for the opportunity to write this piece for her blog. The advice she has given me over the past few years has been invaluable.
Thank You.


Monday, April 27, 2015

From Sayid to Snape: Dangerous Characters

There is no denying it—most readers love dangerous characters in books. You can fall in love with a hero or heroine but there's something just so alluring about a dangerous character. I started thinking about this because, though I have not had cable TV in over 30 years, when I am doing a lot of knitting I tend to binge watch TV shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Recently, I got hooked on the ABC series Lost which ran from 2004 to 2010. Three episodes in I wasn't sure if I liked the program but I sure liked one of the characters, Sayid Jarrah, as played by actor Naveen Andrews. There's just one teeny problem—the character is a former Iraqui soldier, a former Republican Guard, and a torturer. But there's just something about him.

I mentioned my fascination on Facebook and was astonished by the number of women who agreed with me. There's just something about him... Of course the muscles, and the copper skin, and the dreamy eyes, and the accent don't hurt, but there are lots of muscles, and good looks, and sexy accents (Desmond the Scot!) so what makes Sayid so mesmerizing?

Most of the dangerous characters I've loved have been in books. Julian Cash in Alice Hoffman's Turtle Moon immediately comes to mind. Anne Rice's Lestat is another. And there are dangerous characters that, though I didn't love them, I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about—Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men haunted me for weeks. Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist and Captain Ahab and Severus Snape. Some of them are evil, some are not, but all are very, very deadly. And all of them have a core of vulnerability inside that dangerousness.

As a writer I've created a few dangerous characters of my own—including two female characters. One is a sweet, beautiful woman who bakes delicious treats but just happened to kill her husband. And then there is my emotionally fragile but physically lethal Vivienne Lang in the Crazy Old Lady books. What makes these characters so incredibly fascinating is wondering how did they get this way?

One of the things art is supposed to do is make us think. For that reason alone Sayid Jarrah is a fascinating and important character. The character came into American homes when our country was at war in Iraq and when scandals about torture were everywhere. If you say “this character is an Iraqui soldier who tortured people” the first reaction would be negative—what a loathsome individual! But as we get to know Sayid we come to understand how he became what he did—and how he wants to leave that part of his life behind but cannot. We feel bad for him. We want him to find happiness. Dear readers, this is important stuff! We are coming dangerously close to feeling empathy and compassion for someone we should be horrified by—and that is the triumph of really good art.

I imagine a lot has been written about that character over the years and I am coming late to the party but I am glad I met him. I'm glad so many people loved him on Lost. I read somewhere that when the actor, Naveen Andrews (who is British/Indian), was asked how he felt about playing an Iraqui torturer said, “I felt it was a great responsibility.” That is what we writers should feel when we create these characters, too. Great responsibility to the person inside the danger.


Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

O is for Oliver: Blogging the #atozchallenge

Oliver Eberstark is a larger than life character who is a central figure in all my Marienstadt stories. He is a big, rugged former forest ranger who now owns Opelt's Wood. I love Oliver for many reasons, not the least of which is that much of his character and woodsman's knowledge comes from my brother. Oliver--and his dog, Toots--started out in The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, then The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall, then The Christmas Daughter, and he will be a main character in The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk.
This is not Oliver, this is the Steeler's huge #99 Brett Keisel
but in the story one of Oliver's friends comments that his
beard makes him look like Brett Keisel. Works for me.
from The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall:
The road evened out and Henry saw the hulking shape of Eberstark's Sawmill ahead. There was smoke drifting up from the chimney of the mill's workshop. He pulled up next to Oliver's Ram truck and got out of the cruiser. The rhythmic thunk-thunk-thunk of someone chopping wood echoed through the hollow. He walked across the snowy yard between the workshop and the back of the stone and timber house. The river sparkled in the sunshine and the air was fragrant with woodsmoke, pine, and the crispness of coming snow. A big, handsome black dog appeared and gave a soft woof at Henry. Oliver, dressed in jeans, a
flannel shirt and a down vest, was in mid swing bringing his axe down hard onto the trunk of a white birch tree that appeared recently felled.
“Oliver.”
He straightened up and turned. He was a big man, a couple inches taller than Henry and brawny, with wide shoulders and a barrel chest. He had dark hair and an impressive beard that gleamed red in the sunlight. His face was ruddy from the combination of cold and exertion.
“Henry,” he said. “What brings you down here?”
Henry had known Oliver since boyhood. Oliver was a few years behind him in school but Henry remembered watching Central Catholic's football games when Oliver was on the team. Everybody back then said he'd wind up in the pros. He had gone to Penn State on a football scholarship and pursued a career in forestry. After ten years working in the Susquehannock State Forest up in Potter County he moved back to the sawmill a few years back when his grandfather was dying.
“You're not going to believe it when I tell you,” Henry said. “How are you?” He stuck out his hand and watched it disappear into Oliver's huge one.
“I'm good. You?”
“Good. Did you just chop that down?”
“Yeah, it was starting to rot on the one side and it was too close to the house for comfort.” He swung the axe down and let it lodge into the wood.
“Most people would use a chainsaw.”
Oliver shrugged. “I need the exercise.”


from The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood:
The sunlight on the river glittered through the trees and, as she approached the bottom of the hill she spotted Oliver in his red and black plaid jacket, coming out of the workshop part of the sawmill carrying a bushel basket. Toots trotted along at his side.
She rolled down her window and called, “Hello.”
“Hi,” he said. The basket was filled with apples and looked heavy but he handled it with ease. “I'm just going to put these out for the deer. Wait here and I'll be back.”
“Sure.”
She parked, got out of the car, and wandered over to the workshop where the door stood open. She had only been inside once with Dan many years ago but the fragrant scent of sawdust and wood shavings filled her head with memories. It was much as she remembered it. A pot-bellied stove showed flickering flames through the grate on its door and there were over a dozen clocks in various stages of completion along one wall. Stacks of lumber and tools were everywhere but all of them were neat and organized. One set of shelves held different types of clockworks and tiny figures suitable for cuckoo clocks. She picked up one of them, a little red bird with its beak open in a cuckoo.
“I should make you a cuckoo clock for your shop,” she heard him say.
“Are you making clocks again?” She turned and smiled. Annie was right, he was still pleasant to look at.
“I've been finishing up some that Grandpop started but he left enough stuff in here to make a whole lot more. All the ones I'm working on are already spoken for. Jim Loeffler at the antique store downtown said he was pretty sure he could sell anything I wanted to bring him.”
“That sounds like a good project for the winter.” She realized that this wasn't going to be as easy as it seemed when Annie talked about it. Oliver had a wall and it was very rare for him to let it down.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How Writers Have Fun

Writers are crazy people. We live with entire worlds floating around in our heads and have long conversations with people no one else can see. We stand at the kitchen sink washing dishes and wondering what our current imaginary friends had for dinner and sometimes we think we see them going into a shop or driving by in a car--or on a horse.

Sometimes we create characters who just won't leave us alone. This happens to me a lot. I am writing a story about one thing that requires minor characters but those minor characters stay with us. So, sometimes, even though we have no idea where we are going with something, we invite them to play with us to see what might happen. One of the side characters from one of my Marienstadt stories just won't leave me alone. I don't know if this will evolve into anything but I had fun writing this part anyway:



The Legend

Hunting season was not Lola Eckert’s favorite time of year. Though the dense forests of Elk County were a popular destination for hunters from all over the Eastern states, and a boon to the local economy, she was beginning to question her decision to open her strudel shop two hours early to accommodate men headed out into the woods. She glanced out the window and, though she knew it would be at least another hour until Henry Werner, Marienstadt’s Chief of Police, and Lola’s future husband, came on duty, she kept hoping he might come in early.
“Hey! Doll baby! Come on over here. I want to ask you a question.” The man speaking was clearly a hunter, most likely from Philadelphia or Baltimore from the look of his brand new camo-gear. He sat at a table close to the counter with three other men comparably dressed and, from the way they had stumbled into her coffee shop the minute she unlocked the door at five, Lola was pretty sure they had spent the night on Market Street. The bars that lined Market Street did a rip-snorting business every hunting season, all except for Fred Sarginger’s Snuff Box. Fred, the town’s former police chief, took a dim view of tourist hunters and had gained a reputation for kicking them out of his bar when they got rowdy and started hitting on any of his female customers.
“These ladies are my customers all year round,” Fred said, “and I won’t stand for them feeling like they have to stay away because of a few knuckleheads that are only here for a week.”
“Come on, princess,” another hunter at the same table called, holding up his coffee mug, “sweeten this up for me, will ya?”
Lola wished Henry—or Fred—were somewhere in the vicinity. The first glow of dawn crept up behind the tree-covered hills around the town and the snowy streets sparkled outside her window, but there weren’t many cars out. She knew she could call the police station which was only a few doors away in Town Hall but she hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.
“Where do these idiots come from?”
Lola stepped behind the cash register and took the check and cash that Gibby Stauffer held out to her. Gibby and his wife, Maxine took advantage of Lola’s early hours to have breakfast together since most of the year Gibby was at work before seven.
“You tell me, Gibby.” Lola handed back his change. “You’re the mayor—can’t you do something about them?”
Gibby flushed with embarrassment. Though he was in his third term as mayor, it was pretty widely known that he was mayor because no one else wanted to be and, other than showing up for unavoidable meetings, he was fairly disinterested in his duties. “Want me to go see if Henry is in yet?”
Lola shook her head. “I’ll be fine. Belva’s coming in to help out this morning so she should be here soon.”
“I heard Belva and Lucius bought a house,” Maxine said.
“Actually, they’re buying Henry’s house.” Now it was Lola’s turn to flush. “We’re getting married in the spring and since I own this building we decided to live upstairs. It’s so convenient for both of us. Henry wants to buy a cabin or cottage up by East Branch Dam for us to go to when we have days off.”
“Oh.” Maxine pressed her hands to her heart. “That’s so romantic! You’re so lucky, Lola. Henry is just about the most handsome man I’ve ever seen.”
Gibby looked down at his wife and cleared his throat.
“Next to you, of course, honey.” She wrapped her hands around his arm. Since Gibby bore a striking resemblance to an elongated scarecrow, Lola did her best not to smile.
“We’ll see you again soon.” Maxine glanced back at Lola with a wink and giggle as she accompanied her husband to the door.
With them gone Lola made note that, other than a solitary man seated at a table by the window, she was alone with the hunters.
“’Kissin don’t last, cookin’ do’,” one of the hunters read aloud from the napkin he held. The words were the slogan Lola used for her strudel shop. “Well, I tasted your cookin’, sugar lips. Why don’t you come over here and let me taste your kissin’.”
Lola turned her back to them trying to control her emotions. The bell over the door jingled and Belva Dearheart Wickett came in, stamping the snow off her boots.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said, shrugging out of her coat and hanging it on the rack inside the door. “Lucius isn’t here yet?”
“No.” Lola turned toward her. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“This town sure has a lot of curves in it, doesn’t it, fellas?” one of the hunters called.
Belva, a short, plump woman with long hair pulled back in a braid, glanced at them as she tied on an apron. “Who are the jerks?” she asked.
“Ignore them.” Lola stepped up on a stool to get the chalk board she wrote each day’s specials on.
“I don’t know about you guys,” another hunter added, “but the hell with hunting, I think I’m going to just stay here for the rest of the day.”
His friends laughed and made panting sounds.
“I think you fellas have had enough breakfast. Time to hit the road.”
Lola and Belva both turned at the sound of the new voice. The solitary diner stood next to the table full of hunters. He buttoned up a battered sheepskin-lined suede jacket and reached in his pocket for a pair of gloves.
“And just who the hell do you think you are?” The largest and loudest of the hunters stood up and turned to the man.
“Nobody special,” the man said, though his words seemed to contradict his behavior. “Just someone who thinks you guys have embarrassed yourselves enough for one day and need to sleep it off.” He picked up a brown outback hat from the table behind him.
The other hunters at the table grumbled but seemed a little bit stung by his words. They reached in their pockets, pulling out wallets, amid incoherently complaints, but the standing hunter stepped closer to the stranger.
“I think you and me are going to have a problem,” he snarled.
“Belva,” Lola said, “call the police.”
Belva reached for the phone but the stranger held up his hand. “These gentlemen are leaving.” He spoke with a faintly southern drawl. “No need to call the police.”
“I’ll get this,” one hunter said as the others shuffled toward the door. He placed five twenties on the counter. “That should cover it.”
“Let me get your change.” Lola reached to open the register.
“Forget it. Sorry if we were out of line.” He waved as he followed his friends out the door.
Lola looked up at the solitary diner who crossed the room toward her. He was a rugged looking man with the deeply lined face of someone who spent most of his time outside. His thick, steel gray hair was pulled back in a short ponytail, and he wore a neatly trimmed, gray beard.
“Thank you so much for stepping in,” Lola said.
“No problem.” He handed her his check and some cash.
“Please.” Lola held up a hand. “Your breakfast is on me. I appreciate what you did.”
“Maybe some other time,” he said, placing his money on the counter. “I’m glad I could help.” He put his hat on and stepped out into the cold.
“Who the heck is that?” Belva asked staring after him as he walked down the steps.
“I have no idea,” Lola said.
It was getting light out and, as they watched the man wait to cross the street, they saw Lucius get out of his Ridgeline and walk toward them. He looked up suddenly at the man in front of him and his scarred face split into an enormous grin. Lucius reached out with one hand and in a second the two men had their arms around each other, back-slapping, and laughing.
“It looks like your husband knows him.” Lola glanced at Belva who stared with her mouth slightly open.
“I’ve never seen Lucius that happy to see anyone.”
The men talked for another minute then, with more hand-shaking and back-slapping, parted company. Lucius ran up the steps to the shop, grinning like a mad man.
“Boy, what a way to start the day,” he said as he came through the door. “I never expected that. Hi, baby.” He leaned down and kissed Belva.
“Who is that?” Lola asked.
Lucius turned to her. “You didn’t recognize him?”
“No. Should I?”
“If I remember right you used to be friends with his sister.” Lucius turned to the window in time to see the man step up into a large truck and start the engine. “That, lovely ladies, is the legendary Kit Carson Wilde. Boy, is he a sight for sore eyes.”
“Boone’s brother?” Belva asked.
“One and the same. And Sister John Paul’s, too.”
“I don’t believe it,” Lola said, barely able to catch her breath.


To be continued... or not...

N is for Nick--Father Nick: Blogging the #atozchallenge

Father Nicholas Bauer is one of the central character in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall. He grew up in Marienstadt and he loves his home town. As a priest, he was thrilled to be assigned to be the pastor of St. Walburga's, his hometown parish.


from The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood:
Father Nicholas Bauer loved his hometown with a ferocity he thought should properly belong only to God. But he consoled himself that the Almighty approved of love, real love, wherever it occurred and would forgive him his devotion to his home town and its people. Ever since he was ordained it had been his dearest wish to be assigned to St. Walburga's, the parish he had grown up in, and when the chance came six years ago he had grabbed it. Returning to Marienstadt had been the happiest event of his life and being the pastor of St. Walburga's, as well as the chaplain for the local Benedictine convent, St. Joseph's, filled his days with purpose and satisfaction. There were fewer nuns now than there had been when he was a boy but a few of the older ones had been his teachers when he was a student. Now he pushed open the door of the ceramics shop where the sisters created handmade statues, rosaries, and nativity sets. Sister Hilda was seated with a group of local ladies painting glaze onto white bisque figures of angels.
“Good morning, Father,” she said. This was followed by a chorus of the same greeting from the ladies.
“Good morning.” He rubbed his hands together briskly then peeled off his mittens. “It certainly is a cold one this morning.”
“You came to see the new Belsnickels, didn't you?” Sister Hilda pushed back her chair and stood up. She was one of the older nuns and still wore the traditional Benedictine habit with a white wimple and long black veil. Over her habit she had tied a cotton bib apron with a pattern of flamboyant red and green poinsettias on it.
“How did they turn out?” He followed her across the room to the shelves by the windows. The entire room was lined with shelves crowded with statues in various stages of completion – the greenware clay still moist from the mold, the pale bisque forms that had been fired once and awaited glaze, and the hundreds of brightly painted figures ready to be sold in the convent's gift shop or in one of the downtown stores that carried the Sisters' ceramics.
Sister Hilda nodded. “They're cute. I found molds for six different designs so there are some interesting variations. Have a look.”
Each of the statues was between four and six inches tall and all of them depicted an old man with a long curling white beard, wearing a cape with a pointed hood and lots of fur trim. Some held little fir trees, others bags of toys, and one had a brier pipe in his mouth.
“Well, aren't they just the handsomest fellows,” he said, lifting one wearing a sparkling blue robe, carrying a tree in one hand and a lantern in the other. “These are wonderful.”
Sister Hilda nodded. “We've already got orders from shops all around the area. Sister John Paul came in and took pictures to put on the web site.”
“Excellent idea,” he said. The fact that the Sisters had a web site for their crafts work still delighted him. Sister John Paul was one of the younger nuns and had set it up complete with PayPal links for ordering. “I've been thinking, maybe next year we could expand Belsnickel to include a little festival. Instead of Belsnickel visiting the children in their homes we could have a party and maybe a dinner with locally made, good, old-fashioned food. Maybe a sauerkraut dinner with pork roast and potato dumplings. I was talking to Bob and Mandy Herzing out at the Sugar House about getting some Belsnickel candy molds and making sugar Belsnickels.”
Sister Hilda turned slightly and ducked her head so her veil could drift forward and hide her expression. Just what we need, she thought, another of Father Nick's bright ideas.

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