Tuesday, October 9, 2018

It's How You Play The Cards You're Dealt

One of the things I do when I'm not writing is volunteer at Pearl S. Bucks International. As a docent, I not only get to show guests the home of a remarkable woman, I get to share some of the details of her richly-lived life. Most people who visit Green Hills Farm have read The Good Earth and have an inkling that its author spent a good part of her life in China. Few know much more than that.

Telling some of the stories of how Ms. Buck became who she was is the part I love most. I referred to her life as richly-lived and it was - not because of the cards she was dealt, but because of how she played them. At first glance, her life may seem like the perfect hand. Pictures of her reveal a pretty child who became a beautiful woman. Accolades of her writing indicate intelligence even greater than her physical beauty. Hearing a bit about her background suggests an exotic life, filled with inspiring experiences. But those gifts are only half the story. It may seem that she was dealt all aces; she wasn't.

The blond curls and blue eyes that seem so lovely to western eyes were a mixed blessing to a little girl growing up in China. Most of the children with whom she came in contact had never seen anyone who looked like her. To them, she seemed not beautiful, but strange, even fearsome. Their only experience of eyes like hers was Chinese theater, where the monsters and beasts all had pale eyes. Inevitably, they teased her, saying she had wild beast eyes. Her mother told her it was different in America, that this was a country where people were not judged by the color of their skin (or eyes). Imagine Pearl's disappointment when she went to a girl's college in Virginia. Despite her appearance, she was more Chinese than America and, again, she was deemed different and referred to as that "dreadful girl from China". Her only birth child was born with a genetic disease that kept her from developing mentally. Her first marriage ended in divorce, a sign of failure in the early thirties, a stigma. When Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, some of the most prominent male authors scoffed, one famous poet even saying, "If she can win, anyone one."

Any of these things could have turned her into a bitter, cynical person, someone who perceived the world as cruel and unfeeling. Instead, she became a humanitarian. She knew injustice and refused to accept it. She bore no ill will for the teasing she'd experienced in her childhood; she loved the people of China and spent her life trying to bridge the perceived differences that separate East from West. She won over the college classmates who didn't understand her unusual background and was president of her class by the time she was a junior. About her child, whom most people of that time (Carol was born in 1920) would have hidden away, she wrote a book, sharing her anguish and paving the way for all of us to understand that people who are differently-abled have a right to a full life and, indeed, have their own gifts to offer. After her failed marriage, she dared to love again, to re-marry, and to adopt a number of children, creating the big family she'd always dreamed of. When presented with a child who was considered unadoptable because he was bi-racial, she founded her own adoption agency, Welcome House, which eventually morphed into Pearl S. Buck International.  And I can't resist telling you her response to the poet who questioned her right to the Nobel Prize: "Well, I didn't nominate myself and I didn't vote for myself and if Mr. **** isn't happy about it, he can take it up with the King of Sweden." I love that! No name-calling, but no backing down.

So ... what made Pearl S. Buck who she was? I think you'd have to say it was attitude. Instead of bitterness, she cultivated empathy. Instead of judgment, she sought understanding. Instead of vengeance, she chose love. Negatives became positives. She played her cards well.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

A Lesson Learned

by Fran McNabb

NOTE: Posts on the first Thursday of the month are usually written by Victoria Johnson. She has asked me to fill in for the October, November and December blogs. I am honored to help her out.

Technology is a wonderful thing. I keep telling myself that even when it drives me completely insane. I love my computer and am on it way too much. My old computer is trying to go out so I bought another one and have yet to conquer all the differences. Being "untechy" and not wanting to deal with getting my new computer ready to use, I look at it, close it, and go back to my old computer and decide I’ll deal with the new one later.

Phones can be just as frustrating. While on vacation in Fort Lauderdale, I woke up one morning to find my phone completely dead even though it had been plugged in all night. I panicked.  I was expected at my DIL’s house and had no way to contact her except from the hotel lobby phone, but once I got there I realized I didn’t know her cell phone number nor anyone else’s except my husband’s. He was on a boat in the Atlantic fishing and I knew he was skeptical about answering a number he didn’t know. Luckily the lady at the front desk let me use a phone and my husband answered and had my son text his wife.

Long story, short, it took three hours for my DIL and I to figure out it was my charger gone bad and not my phone. That was a relief, but in the process I learned a lesson. Today we take for granted the ease at which the computer, the internet, and cell phones make our lives so much better, but I think we rely on them way too much. I made a vow to write down all of my important contacts and their cell numbers in case something like this happened again. We no longer have telephone books for cell phone numbers nor do most of us memorize phone numbers. (Gosh, I still remember the 7-digit phone numbers of my childhood friends.) I feel much more connected knowing I can rely on a paper list of my important contacts. Do you have one?

Now that I have my phone working again, a list of emergency numbers stashed away in my purse, and a new computer I've almost conquered, I can sit back and enjoy this tech-21st Century and pretend I understand it and am part of it!

FRAN MCNABB grew up along the Gulf Coast and writes sweet romances sometimes set along the coast. Her newest book, A SOLDIER’S HONOR http://a.co/d/cJ6y5U8, is set on the Gulf Coast as well. She and her husband live on a bayou harbor and enjoy the activities and beauty of the water. 
Visit Fran at www.FranMcNabb.com

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Importance of Bibles

by Janis Patterson

Be at ease – this is not a religious rant. I am using ‘bible’ in the purely secular definition, i.e., ‘a book that is considered the most important one for a particular subject.’ (Just to put things straight, Bible with a capital ‘B’ is the religious book; bible with a small ‘b’ is the definitely un-religious context I’m using here.)

I’m talking about the book about your book.

Confused? You shouldn’t be, either about bibles or books that obviously haven’t had one. We’ve all read a book where a minor character changes names somewhere in the book – Mavis the bookkeeper becomes Maura somewhere around chapter 22, for example. Or a location shifts without reason or warning – the crime scene is located north of the river for most of the book, then suddenly migrates to south of the river for a chapter or two, then miraculously appears back on the north side. The detective who favors a Beretta suddenly and without justification starts carrying a Glock. Such mistakes are not only confusing and irritating to the reader, they are the sign of a lazy writer.

When I become queen of the universe, one of my proclamations is going to be that everyone writing a book has to do a bible. Many writers – especially the good ones – already do. There are all kinds of formats for bibles, from expensive software to cheap spiral bound notebooks, but however they work all serve to keep your characters, locations, timeline and odd facts straight.

I do a bible for every book I write, and mine are about as simple as you can get. (Warning – I’m a pantser, so if you’re a plotter or some other kind of writer, you’ll have to adapt this to your particular process.) When I open a new file to start a new book, I open two – one for the manuscript, one for the bible. As I write and something (character, location, whatever) appears, I flip over to the bible and make a note of it. Just a short note with all the pertinent information – the bigger part that particular whatever plays in the story, the bigger note it gets. Later on, if I reveal something more about that whatever, I add it to their entry in the bible. Entries are usually single spaced with double spaces in between one and the next to set them off.

I don’t bother to alphabetize or rate entries according to importance – I just note them down as they appear. Believe it or not, this doesn’t create a problem when I have to go look something up several chapters later. As I said, the entries are short and very factual, and for most books the entire bible doesn’t run more than 3-4 pages – a lot easier to flip through than going back through the whole manuscript to find the name of Lady Bellingstoke’s butler or whatever.

The one exception to this generality was my semi-paranormal gothic INHERITANCE OF SHADOWS – the bible for that ran almost eighteen (yes, 18!) pages of dense copy. In my defense, however, I will say that book was more complex than any other I’ve ever done, with a romantic storyline, a father/daughter storyline, a sort-of-ghost story and seven different books written about seven different worlds, all of which had a direct bearing on the main action of the novel! All in one book… When I sent in the final conceptual manuscript to my editor I also sent in a copy of the bible, for which I got an almost sobbingly-happy letter of thanks from the copy editor.

Writing a book is hard enough without tripping yourself up on the minutiae. Keep a bible, write down every fact and name as it happens, and your life will become so much easier – and so will your editor’s!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Lazy Fingers & Cognitive Assumptions

Every writer faces the task of proofreading at every stage of the writing process. We sometimes do this onerous task at the end of a writing session or we wait until the entire work in progress is commented to paper or even to the last minute before the novel is published.

Competent typists are usually accurate to within a very small percentage point. Two-finger typists, commonly called the “hunt and peck” variety can actually be better at accuracy but much slower. Whichever we are, we occasionally make assumptions about the manual aspects of producing a written work.

Last year, I happily published my seventeenth novel of twenty written works with my name on the cover. While considering a new cover and further research into that period of American history, I reviewed a small section of the novel and—shock horror—even after careful and intense proofreading of the “Advanced Reader’s Copy,” I discovered a typographical error.

Not much further along, I found another error—the “My brain thought this word but my fingers typed that one” kind. During proofreading, the brain often wins the argument, making the assumption that the word typed was the word thought.

With more than one such error, I began at the beginning of the novel, making note of the errors in pencil and marking the pages with strips of multi-colored plastic stickies (my stash of these useful writers’ tools are well-used).

The whole process of re-proofing an already published novel taught me yet another lesson: Proofread more than once and proofread backwards. If you’re self-publishing, asking a friend or paying a professional editor are options. Even so, there will be the occasional missing letter, word or punctuation mark.

In that instance, take the philosophical approach: No one is perfect.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Preparing for a Trip

My husband and I are going to Europe, Germany, France and Austria, for ten days in October for our anniversary and his college study abroad reunion. Besides the need to pack lightly and efficiently, I’ve been wondering how to get the most out of this vacation.

In the course of talking to friends I realize that we don’t all have the same approach to travel. It seems most of my friends, and one in particular, do extensive research, making restaurant reservations and booking tours months and weeks before they leave home. One friend plans each day down to the minute.  I’m awed by her thoroughness and impressed, but I’m not sure it would be the right approach for me.  

Yes, I know there will be something I miss that I’ll only discover when I get back home. It has happened. There will be the restaurant we’ll miss because I should have made a reservation a month before. I’ll also admit, when I do get the recommendations from friends about places they have gone to, I feel a strong compulsion to follow it and fret when I don’t.  But I don’t think it’s really how I want to travel.

The trip, Germany, France and Austria, unlike many business trips to Europe that I’ve gone as the accompanying person, is different.  It’s for our anniversary and where we’ve chosen to go. My husband speaks German, so that will be a plus.  I studied French in high school and need to brush up, but we will get by.  The cities and towns are small and not on the usual bestseller route so they shouldn’t be filled with tourists and we have a general idea of what we want to do.  

We’ll be in the Alsace region of France and the German wine country so I’m thinking we’ll spend one day going from vineyard to vineyard. Another day will be in Strasbourg, a small city in Alsace, that the guidebook says is ancient and charming.  I’m thinking we can follow out noses in the city and the rest of the trip will take care of itself since besides the Rhine valley and Alsace we’ll be driving through the Black Forest, Grimm’s Fairy tale country. Then it’s only four days until we meet up with my husband’s classmates for their 50threunion.  

Do I want a guided tour of the castles we pass? I don’t think so.  I’m more curious about the people we see and the encounters we have. Do I need to eat in the best restaurants?  I’m thinking not.  I live in New York City where fancy food and dining is always available Though I did just read that Jean-Georges Vongerichten is from Alsace and worked at a Michelin starred restaurant there so I may have to rethink.

I’d love to hear how others plan their trips.  As a writer, I’m a pantser.  I don’t make outlines, but follow my nose until the plot is obvious.  My friend who plans down to the minute, if a writer (she a photographer) would be a plotter.  I’d be interested to hear how other people figure out their vacations and if my friend’s method is more common.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Walking Into Well-being

by Sandy Cody

It’s funny how things evolve. A few days ago, Karen wrote about the delights of walking. Her post was inspired by a recent trip she took to visit her family in England. She tied this into another recent post, written by Victoria about the importance of the connection between grandparents and their grandchildren. Karen’s thoughts on the benefits of walking brought to mind a quote I read some time ago. I searched through the jumble of files on my computer, found it, and ... you guessed it ... it prompted my post for today.
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”― Søren Kierkegaard
I think Kierkegaard is right. If one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right. Maybe not perfect or exactly what you’re hoping for, but better. The mere fact of moving forward does help to put things into perspective and gets you through times that are, to use Kierkegaard’s word, burdensome. On the other hand, sitting still, can lead to a feeling of helplessness and even illness.
We all have our favorite places to walk. My dream walk is an outdoor trail, away from the distractions of everyday life. If the path is carpeted with leaves that crunch underfoot, adding a unique music to my ramble ... perfect. 

It's not often that I (or, I suspect, most of you) have time to take off and find the perfect spot, but one of the nice things about walking is that the spot doesn't really need to be perfect. A walk through the neighborhood can be just as refreshing in its own way. Meeting and stopping for a quick chat with a friend you usually just wave to as your cars pass on their ways to your separate lives can be a pleasant change. When I think of my perfect walk, the first thing that comes to mind is solitude, a chance to let my mind wander and my thoughts grow, but thoughts can grow in other ways too. A stroll through a crowded mall with the a chance to people-watch is rewarding in a completely different way. 

Okay ... enough for now. I'm going to release these rambling thoughts into the cyber world, turn off my computer and ... take a walk.

Happy trails to all of you - and if you can't get out for a walk, I hope your thoughts take you on a pleasant journey. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Delights of Walking Everywhere

by Karen McCullough

(I didn’t know today was Grandparents’ Day when I wrote the post a week or so ago, but it seems appropriate!)

Roses and other flowers blooming along
their driveway
My husband and I have just returned from a visit to our son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren in England. It was a wonderful trip, filled with good times with all of the family and a bit of sight-seeing in their area. We did a lot of walking and it enhanced the trip in so many ways.

They live in Hythe, Kent, an area known as England’s Garden, and with good reason. Nearly every house has extensive gardens filled with profusions of blooming roses, dahlias, fuchsia, butterfly bush, hollyhocks, hydrangeas, and many others. The picture shows the gorgeous row of flowers beside my son’s driveway.  Given how hard it is to keep anything alive, much less blooming, through the hot summer in our central North Carolina home, it’s safe to say I have garden envy.

Of course that’s mostly the result of a climate that stays moderate and rather rainy most of the time. Daytime temperatures over eighty are considered hot and several days in a row of those highs are a heat wave. We were there in August and day-time highs hovered in the upper sixties to low seventies, which they agreed was pretty much normal. We agreed it was pretty delightful. We were fortunate that it only rained on us a couple of times.

Looking out over Hythe from the hill. The English Channel is
 in the distance.
Hythe is just southeast of Dover and Folkestone along the Channel coast and it’s a lovely old town. The High Street is lined with an assortment of shops that cover most necessities and a lot of fun things. “Charity Shops” abound. (Think small versions of the Goodwill and Salvation Army stores.) There’s even a charity bookshop, where I found several interesting tomes I’d never seen in the U.S. There are a couple of restaurants and quite a few coffee shops. Sidewalks are narrow and crowded but for part of the day the road itself is closed off and turned into a pedestrian walkway.

One of the great benefits of this part of England is that you can walk almost everywhere, a great feature for us since we couldn’t all squeeze in my son’s car at one time. And walk, we did. We spent a couple of happy mornings wandering around the old town of Hythe, but we also walked with the family from their house, situated on a hill well above the town, down to the seashore, a distance of about a mile and a half. We also traveled on foot to shops, coffee houses, and even the grounds of the Hythe festival.

When we made treks to other places, like Rochester Castle, and Dungeness, we took the train, and then walked from the station to wherever we wanted to be. Generally it wasn’t a very long journey.

Because of the small children, we didn’t eat out as often as we might have. But there was a Sainsbury’s grocery store on the route from the town center of Hythe to my son’s house, so we frequently stopped there to get ready-made meals or ingredients for putting something together and schlepped them up the hill to their home.

We walked and talked and gazed and walked and talked some more. The pedometer app on my phone said I did about 14,000 steps most days, which added up to about 5 miles of walking per day.
Long strolls gave us plenty of opportunity to interact with each other, share stories, and compare notes on a wide variety of subjects. Walking let me stop to admire gorgeous views from the hillsides, glorious flowers everywhere, interesting and different birds, and the neatly compact houses that are hallmarks of English homes. We stopped frequently to pluck the blackberries growing in abundance all over and pop them in our mouths.

The scenery is beautiful and because the area is new to us, every corner and turn seemed to present something new and interesting. I blessed the new pair of sturdy walking shoes I’d bought shortly before we left because they supported me well through the many miles I put on them.

Back at home my husband and I walk most days, long marches through our neighborhood early in the morning in summer, to avoid the heat. It’s good for us and feels good, but it isn’t as pleasant as being able to walk to so many interesting and different places in Hythe, Kent.

And I miss the company and chatter of my son, daughter-in-law, and especially their two children, Freya (4), and James (2).