Saturday, June 20, 2015

Simple Joys of Summer

Happy Solstice!

AKA First Day of Summer

Hanging Baskets

It's officially summer, and while vacations are great, some of the best things about summer happen right here at home. As of today, we have nineteen hours and twenty-one minutes of daylight in Anchorage, and the other four and a half aren't really dark, so there's plenty of time for summer fun. Here are a few of my favorite things about summer. 

Summer Fruit


Duckings, all in a row

Reading on the Deck

Sun Tea 


And I'm not the only one who loves summer.

Hope yours is just as joyful!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Lilac Time

It's lilac time here in Anchorage. In yards all over the city, the bushes we ordinarily never notice are covered in floral plumes, diffusing their distinctive sweet scent that even smells purple. Lilacs spend fifty weeks a year as an ugly duckling, tall, scraggly, and awkward. It's a little like those old movies where the girl wears ugly glasses, baggy clothes, and pulls her hair back into a tight bun. But then one day Carey Grant removes her glasses, and says she has beautiful eyes. That's the budding phase of the lilac. 

Then in the next scene, dressed for the ball, she's breathtakingly beautiful, sweeping the hero off his feet. And somewhere along the way, she gains confidence and grace and you know she'll never again be that ugly duckling. Now she's a graceful swan.

And that's were the similarity ends. Lilacs live a long, long time, but they don't live happily ever after. Once they finish out their blooming cycle, they revert to the background, with twiggy branches, uninteresting foliage, and a tendency to sprout suckers. But once a year in early June, lilacs will once again be the belle of the ball. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Gardening and Stories

 It's summer again, and if it ever stops raining, I have work to do in my garden, and a mother's day gift of two new garden gnomes to introduce. I've been gardening on this lot for twenty-four years now, and over that time, the garden has changed and evolved. The former owner had established a perennial bed out front with globeflowers, campanella, cranesbill, and lilies. The lilies have started to fade away, but the others have self-seeded over the years, filling the bed, and I've added new flowers. 

The one rhubarb plant in the backyard is now five huge clumps in different locations around the house. Ferns have multiplied to fill the shady spots. And there are more shady spots than ever, as the trees have grown and spread.

Not long after we moved in, we build a fence, which created an awkward little pocket on the side of the house. I made that pocket my secret garden, a little private oasis filled with lacy foliage and pink and blue flowers, where I could escape and let my mind roam. 

Years later, the secret garden had to go to make room for an addition. A few of the plants are still there, a big lilac and some Jacob's ladder, but most of the remaining space that isn't covered by house is a walkway. I built the retaining wall myself, with my husband hauling gravel for me in the evenings after work. I think it turned out fairly well, but it's not nearly as pretty as the flowers and trees it replaced. The addition is great; I've thoroughly enjoyed the new master bath with a big soaking tub and the dedicated home office, but I do miss that garden. 

My writing life has been a little like my garden. My all-time favorite writers are Agatha Christie, for the wonderful puzzles she crafted, and Rosemunde Pilcher who created characters who were more real to me than many of the people I interact with every day. My first few stories were mysteries, but on a lark I wrote a short story romance. Well, it wasn't technically a romance because of the ending, but I liked the main character so well I wrote her another story and did give her a happy ending. And that story self-seeded into yet another and another, and before I realize what was happening, I became a romance writer. 

Writing and gardening have a lot in common. Both are organic, but do best grown within a structured environment, and because of the fluid nature of the process, both can yield surprising results. Thanks to weather, soil, and luck, no two years are ever the same in a garden. And no two books are ever the same. Each one is an individual work of art.
And like gardeners, writers learn from experience what works and what doesn't. With enough care and attention, a gardener can sometimes nurse along an exotic plant that isn't really suited to local growing conditions, but it's so much easier to choose the plant that fits the conditions and let it thrive. Writing is the same. A story that grabs the writer's imagination and runs is so much easier to write than following the trend of whatever is popular, and  it shows. The story grows and thrives, rather than struggling to remain alive. Not to say it won't need care and pruning, nurturing and shaping, but the author's voice will come through and make the story bloom.  Whether it's a native wildflower garden, or a cozy cottage garden, or a formal French garden of symetrical geometry, a garden is a thing of beauty. And so is a story.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Love Letters

I recently had the pleasure of a visit with a remarkable woman. She has ninety-one years of experience on this earth, and seems to have lived each one fully. She showed me a map of all the places she and her husband traveled in their Airstream trailer, and it included every state except Hawaii and several places in Canada. Pictures and souvenirs of their life together cover the walls of her house.

I asked her how a farm girl from Illinois happened to meet a boy from the Texas panhandle. It seems she was in St. Louis, working as a secretary for the Air Force (Army Air Corp then, I believe) and they needed a typist to accompany an investigation team to Amarillo. She was single, and so eligible to go. She went to check into the hotel for the first time in her life. In the lobby, a good-looking airman tried to strike up a conversation, but prudently, she wouldn’t give him her name. He convinced her to go to dinner across the street, though. She wasn't sure who he talked to, but he managed to find out her name and all about her.

Three days later, she returned home, but this airman didn’t give up easily. He wrote letters and called her on the phone once a week. She said he was shy and didn't talk much, but he wrote beautiful letters. Eventually, he asked her to marry him. Her mother suggested she might want to meet his family before agreeing, so she and a friend traveled to his hometown in Texas and he came to meet her family. They were married for fifty-seven years.

As a writer, I’m awed by this story. There is something special about discovering a real, paper letter waiting in the mailbox, hiding among the bills and junk mail. It's like a little packet of love. Still, imagine inspiring someone to fall in love with you with the words on a page. From now on as I write, this is the gold standard I'll keep in mind. In the meantime, I just might write an actual paper letter or two. How about you? 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Rules of Writing and Dan Brown

I’ve heard the best way to become a better writer is to write. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but writing the same thing over and over gets me nowhere. I need to hone my skills and try to get better with each book, each chapter. With this in mind, I’m always reading books, articles, and blogs on how to improve my writing. I often find lists of tips or rules. For example:

Photo by Chance Agrella
Ø      Never start with a dream sequence. Misleading your readers isn’t a good way to earn their trust.

Ø      Amnesia is gimmicky, overdone, and unrealistic. Don’t use it.

Ø      Let your reader get to know your main characters so that they will empathize with their struggles.

I’ve just finished reading Dan Brown’s Inferno, and realized about 30% into the book he’d broken all three of these rules, as well as indulged in a little head hopping. We start off in a dream sequence, almost immediately realize Professor Langdon has forgotten the last few days, and everything happens so fast we learn almost nothing about Sienna Brooks, other than some intriguing information in a sort of portfolio Langdon discovers.

I also realized it didn’t matter, because what Dan Brown does so well is compel his readers to turn the page. He sets the stake early on, and makes them huge. He’s a master at pacing, keeping the story roaring ahead at anywhere from a slow simmer to a rolling boil. At the same time, he manages to work in a considerable amount of esoteric information without ever slowing the story with an info-dump. I have to admire Langdon’s ability to instruct us on the fine points of historic art treasures while riding on the back of a motorcycle, fleeing for his life.  

Although Brooks remains a bit of a mystery, Langdon comes through loud and clear. Dan Brown’s books are a little different than the traditional thriller, with equal parts treasure hunt and run for your life. The charming Professor Langdon, with his passion for symbols, gentle sense of humor, and the ability to keep his head in any crisis, is the perfect protagonist.  

By the end of the story the loose strings have all been tied up, and Brown’s very good reasons for breaking the three rules above have become clear. The ending breaks another rule, in my opinion, but I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet. 

Rules are rules for a reason. I think what Brown’s book illustrates is that they can also be broken, for a reason. A secondary lesson is that once an author has sold a bazillion books, he gets a little more leeway on breaking the rules. Because rule number one is to entertain the reader. If we do that, the story is a success.  

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Easter Traditions

In our family, holidays tend to be a mix of tradition and new ideas, or at least variations on old ideas. Today, I’ve been preparing for Easter: making a pie, planning a menu, and dying eggs. I no longer have small children and no grandchildren yet, so nobody is too interested in dying eggs with me. I decided to try a natural dying method, which has the advantage of also saving a step.

I hard-boiled these eggs as usual, but added the onion skins to the pan, purple in one and yellow in the other. I like the results. The colors are earthy rather than the customary pastel, but quite lovely. Surprisingly, the yellow onions seem to have more pigment, or at least dyed my eggs a much deeper color, than the purple.

I’ll peel some of them tomorrow and make deviled eggs as an appetizer. There’s a certain irony to serving deviled eggs for Easter, but we can live with that. The rest of the eggs will probably appear in tuna salad later in the week, once the leftover turkey is gone.

I’d love to hear about your holiday traditions and original twists. Happy Easter.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Getting Away

Last weekend I went on a woman’s retreat. Nine of us shared an unstructured two days in a cabin in a lovely little town in Alaska, eating too much snack food, playing board games far into the night, and talking.

I’m an introvert. Most writers are, to one degree or another. Writing is a solitary exercise and it’s easy to populate my world with imaginary characters from my books and the books I read. It’s good for me to spend time with a group of real woman, interacting, listening, and sharing one bathroom.

Life isn’t smooth for all of them. Some of these women are facing custody battles, health problems, depression, neighborhood feuds, financial difficulties, and romantic friction, but their courage is ongoing, and they haven't lost their sense of fun.

These are strong women. I wish I could write each of them a happy ending, but they don’t need it. They will soldier on and eventually create their own happy endings, because the only alternative is to give up, and that's not what these women do. I'm honored to call them friends.