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.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spring Flowers

My husband surprised me yesterday with my favorite flower: daffodils. I love them because of the silly and old-fashioned name, because they’re bright and cheerful, and because of the lovely but not overwhelming scent. But most of all, I love daffodils because they tell me that even though we still have snow, somewhere spring flowers are blooming, and it’s only a matter of time before spring comes to Alaska.

A bouquet of daffodils = Happiness 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing Backstory

When I meet someone new, we start to talk about what we have in common, and if we hit it off, we tell stories. Stories of events, where we came from, the people in our lives. In other words, backstory.

We share these things because the events in our lives have shaped us into the people we are today. It’s the same with characters in a fictional story. She stood at the crest of the hill, her short sun-bleached hair tousled by the wind. Mud streaked across her NAU sweatshirt. Okay, we have a snapshot of her, but who is she?

In order for that character to seem real, we need to know her background. Was she an only child? Did she have any pets? Did she stomp in mud puddles or did her mother keep her indoors? Writers know these things, and since we’re trying to introduce the character, we want to tell the reader everything we know, as soon as possible.

That’s where we run into trouble. If that person I just met immediately bombarded me with all his history and his most intimate details, I’d probably back away. A story here, a snippet there: that’s how we get to know someone.

I once had a dog named Barney. We left him home alone while we went to a movie, and when we got home, a bag of two dozen dinner rolls was missing from the kitchen counter. We couldn’t believe a fifteen-pound terrier could have eaten all those rolls, but they were gone. Only the empty bag remained. Then we began to find them. One was in the shower. Another behind the toilet. Two behind the laundry hamper. He’d even scratched up the carpet in the corner of the bedroom and hidden one underneath. We were finding rolls for weeks.

We need to hide our backstory the way a terrier hides food. A comment here about a camping trip. A memory there of being forced to wear a scratchy dress to a wedding. A hint now and then that there’s a story behind the story. If we do it right, the reader is turning the pages, eager to find out more. And by the end of the story, we’ve made a friend. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Joshua Trees

This week, I saw my first Joshua tree. I’ve seen pictures, but never before seen them in person. Their scientific name is Yucca brevifolia, so they’re more closely related to yucca than to trees, but they seem to grow like trees, even to the point where they appear to have bark.

The legend is that they were named by Mormon pilgrims, because the upraised arms reminded them of Joshua, the man who led the Jews into the promised land, and they were on the way to their own promised land. There seems to be some debate about whether the name is really that old, but whether it was pilgrims or latter inhabitants, they were named after Joshua because they seem to raise their arms to God.

One of the stories in Joshua (10:13) says that Joshua asked God to hold the sun still, and it stopped in the middle of the sky for a whole day. I wonder if this was the verse they had in mind when they named the Joshua tree. Traveling through the desert in the summer, it must sometimes seem as if the sun isn’t moving, that it’s hanging in the middle of the sky, pouring down heat on the poor travelers below.

Regardless of exactly who named them, or exactly why they got their name, Joshua tree is a wonderfully evocative name for a very unusual and strangely beautiful plant, and I feel lucky to have seen them.