Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Place as Character

When was the last time you read a book or saw a film that had no physical setting? That is, was not placed in a location you as reader or viewer recognized as at least a possibility?

I’m currently watching a rerun of Star Trek Voyager. The characters are familiar. The dress and language are recognizable. The location is … somewhere in the Alpha Quadrant. Who knows where or what that is?

Fans of the Star Trek franchise are familiar with these vast stretches of the imagination. We expect it, embrace it and depend upon it. It’s Science Fiction, after all. Fantasy at its finest.

But what about other genre fiction: Mystery, Crime fiction, Westerns, Contemporary, Regency Romance? In these fictional worlds, we’re not that comfortable with entirely imaginary places. We like to know that the London of the 19th Century has the accoutrements we know from history and the novels of Eliot, Thackeray, Austen and Dickens. And that the Alamo is as dusty and dry as we’ve been led to expect from legend and Hollywood film.

Why are we less willing to suspend our disbelief when we read these genres? Why do we depend upon these anchors in reality when we are well aware that we entering a fictional world?

In my novel, Wait a Lonely Lifetime, the first part of the story is set in Florence, the second in San Francisco. I first visited this northern Italian city in the Fall. The city was not overwhelmed by tourists at the time of year, nor was the weather too fierce. The story itself could have taken place in any city or town anywhere in the world but I had visited and fallen in love with Florence.

Although, at the time of my visit I was working on another novel, Salsa Dancing with Pterodactyls, set entirely in San Francisco (with the occasional pop over to the Central Valley and Marin County), the story set in Florence swept me off into that world of piazzas, Mentana freedom fighters, Mafia atrocities and Cosimo Medici. None of these details were essential to the actual story I wanted to tell about Sylviana and Eric, but they all added physical depth, flavor and a sense of place.

When the time came to return to writing Salsa Dancing with Pterodactyls, I had used many of the landmarks and features that are remarkably San Franciscan in Wait a Lonely Lifetime: boating on the Bay, steep hills, narrow alleys, those that best reflected the daily lives of a woman, recently divorced and raising two young girls. For the love story Emily and David in Salsa, I chose commuter trains, office buildings, dance venues, Victorian houses and restaurants, the Golden Gate Bridge and redwood-lined highways.

These physical attributes of a place lend authenticity and grounding where Sci-Fi and Fantasy rely on the lack thereof to create a sense of displacement and wonder.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

A few small adjustments

On the last Saturday in August, my husband and I arrived in Kayenta, Arizona. We have come here, to the heart of the Navajo Nation, to work in an addiction recovery program called The Good Way. We are already learning to love it here, but there are a few differences between our new home in Kayenta and our former home in the Sacramento Valley. We are making some small adjustments.

For one thing, we are adjusting to an entirely different kind of natural beauty. Our former home was surrounded by brilliant green rice fields and peach orchards. Here we are less than a half-hour's drive from both Mexican Hat and Monument Valley.

  In California, our garage was about four feet above street level. We had a nice, smooth concrete driveway that rose gradually from one level to the other.

Here the street above our home is substantially above our home--about fifteen feet or perhaps a little more. Our driveway is somewhat different as well.

The cattle guard at the bottom is also a difference. Here the livestock roam freely while the people are fenced in.

Our little city car is getting used to driving on pitted dirt or gravel roads as well.

Our living space is also somewhat smaller than we had grown accustomed to. How much smaller? We are living in half  of the building shown below. We have decided to call it cozy.


Much is different here on the Navajo Nation. We are adjusting to the weather as well. (When the wind blows here, it really blows! Dust storms are common.)

We are getting used to driving two hours in one direction or three in another to get anywhere with major shopping centers, but that's okay too. Everyone here does that--unless they're shopping in the Kayenta Township flea market, open every Wednesday.

Much is indeed different, but people here have been wonderful, warm and kind. We are learning to "walk in beauty," a reference both to the Navajo Beauty Way and the sandstone formation just above our home, known locally as The Toes.

May you also walk in beauty.

Susan Aylworth and her husband, Roger, are full-time missionaries serving in the Navajo Nation. They have recently moved to Kayenta, Arizona. They are the parents of seven and grandparents to twenty-five. Susan is the author of fourteen novels. Find them at Amazon or at other e-book platforms or at www.susanaylworth.com. You may also reach her @SusanAylworth on Twitter or at susan.aylworth.author@gmail.com. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

We Are All One

by Fran McNabb
We’ve just returned from a wedding of my husband’s great nephew in West Virginia. It was such a sweet wedding—so personal, so much like the bride and grown, and so very special. It was a long trip for us, but I’m so glad we did it.
It's been quite a few years since I visited WV. I remembered the mountainous terrain, but I had forgotten just how high and steep the mountains were and how curvy the roads were. I was in awe at the beauty of the landscape with its lush greenery just starting to turn fall colors, the winding little streams showing themselves when you least expected it, and the wildlife (We saw at least 30 deer along the roadways and even a black bear cub crossing the road). I loved all of it, but since I live in the “flatlands” of the Gulf Coast I cringed as we drove up one mountain and down another.

Driving through the countryside made me think about how different yet how similar the people in our United States are. Those who live in West Virginia and other mountainous regions have learned to live with mountains and snow and sometimes dangerous driving conditions. They accept their terrain just as others who live in different parts of our country have learned to accept theirs: hurricanes in the coastal regions, fires in the west, and horrible traffic conditions in big cities.
We all live differently, but we are so very similar. We have lives that usually revolve around family. We celebrate births and weddings and holidays. Our traditions might be slightly different, but the sentiments are the same. There is something universal that draws us all together no matter where we live. As writers and readers we enjoy stories that bring these universal elements to light. Love and fear, anger and joy, births and deaths are understood by everyone, no matter where we call home.

To the young couple who began their lives together this past weekend, I’m so glad I got to be part of your union, and to all the families around the world who celebrated other memorable milestones this weekend, I wish you the best.

FRAN MCNABB grew up along beaches, islands and waterways of the Gulf Coast and uses this setting in many of her novels. She has also included other regions in her writings. In A LIGHT IN THE DARK http://a.co/0KU6rIy  the setting is in West Virginia where she just visited for a wedding. Visit her at www.FranMcNabb.com or at mcnabbf@bellsouth.net.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Keeping Perspective

by Karen McCullough

I’ve run my own web design and development business for the past twelve years, ever since I left the corporate world. It’s been a great ride. Most of my clients have turned into friends and I’ve enjoyed working with them to try to make their sites the best possible for them. I’m now in the process of retiring, due to my age, my husband’s retirement last year, and the fact that I’m traveling more to visit my far-flung family.

But I do still work with my existing clients and have told them that I plan to continue for as long as I’m mentally and physically able.  For the most part it’s a pretty low-key job. My clients send requests and I get them done as quickly as I can.

This past week, though, I had one of those issues that stretch my patience with the job. Or not so much the job as some of the services I have to work with. In this case it was the hosting service for my client.

The client has a Wordpress site I customized for her a while back. She’s done a great job of managing the site on her own, but a couple of weeks ago, a gremlin hit (probably during an attempt to upgrade the Wordpress software) and it brought her site down.

I tend to be compulsive about keeping things running smoothly so I went to work on fixing the problem. And quickly discovered it was going to be a slog. I played whack-a-mole with the errors – fixed one and two more popped up. I finally decided the best option was to restore the site from a recent backup.

Neither I nor the clients had one. I had an old backup from when I did some renovations on the site, but using it would mean losing a lot of data. The clients didn’t have any backups, presuming the hosting service would have them. Most do.

This one didn’t. Or at least claimed they didn’t because that’s a service for which they charge extra.  I called BS on that. They finally admitted they did have backups (of course they did!) but would charge for restoring it. And they wouldn’t restore the site as it was, just dump the files into a backup directory.

It’s an a*****le move from an a******le hosting service.  I’m not listing the name but you can email me for it.  It’s a name you’d recognize.

Anyway, those backup files did provide what I needed to get the site up and running again. The whole thing cost my poor clients a LOT more than it should have to restore their site.

But what I really want to focus on is something one of the clients said to me in a phone conversation as we discussed options for restoring the site. “It’s just a website. No one dies if this website goes down. And if we have to rebuild it from scratch, we can do that.”

It was a wake-up call I needed.  I get so compulsive that I lose site of the bigger picture. Except for some critical services provided on the web, most sites are not really a big deal in the overall scheme of things.  That’s something I need to remember.

I had a similar experience on the writing front recently. I’m in a great anthology called Carolina Crimes: 21Tales of Need, Greed and Dirty Deeds . My story is called "Dead Man’s Hand."

I like the story a lot and I’m proud of it, but it went to press with an error. One that is big and obvious and stupid.  I’m not sure how it got past both me and the editor, but it did and it’s there in black and white. I was completely chagrinned when I realized it.

I was relating this story to another author at the recent Killer Nashville conference.

She asked, “Does it ruin the story?”

I had to admit it didn’t. It didn’t impact the plot at all.

She said, “Don’t worry about it then. Half the readers won’t even notice and the half that do will just shrug and wonder how that got by the editor. It won’t ruin the story for them.”

And you know what? She’s right. That error looks so huge to me, but the first few people who read the story and talked to me about it split pretty evenly between those who didn’t even notice and those who wondered about the question. They all said they still enjoyed the story.

Perspective. It’s a hard thing to keep in mind, but so necessary!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Weather As Character

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Picture a bright blue sky glowing with golden sunshine and dotted with friendly, fluffy clouds. Now picture dark grey looming clouds hanging so low you can almost grab a handful of them, while an icy wind scours the land with frigid teeth.

Which would you think of as setting for a lighthearted romantic comedy and which for an angst-filled mystery where terrible things lurk just under the next breeze?

Admittedly, those are two extreme examples, but weather does affect our perception of genre and tone. Now before you jump all over me crying that so-and-so did a terribly horrifying story set on a sunny beach or a rom-com in a storm-lashed castle, I will agree with you. There are always those writers who can take a trope and turn it on its head with great effectiveness. A truly skilled writer can do almost anything – as all of you skilled writers know – but the stormy rom-con and the sun-drenched murder have been done so often that they are almost tropes in themselves.

It’s a lot harder to take a pleasant, sunny location and make it a place of crime, apprehension and horror. I say let your setting work for you – sometimes. Never do anything exactly the same way every time. Keep your reader on her mental toes. And let’s face it, it’s easier to ratchet up the tension in a dark and shadowy place where who knows what is lurking in that lightless corner we must traverse, just as it’s delightful to see the hero’s eyes crinkle in appreciation on a sunny beach. Proper use of the weather can almost turn it into a character in and of itself, and give both depth and foreshadowing to your story.

People have certain expectations and reactions to the weather. I say use them, or, if you use them in reverse, do it whole-heartedly. One of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever watched was the end of the old movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where George Peppard (a singularly interesting bit of casting) and Audrey Hepburn find the cat and declare their love in an ugly NYC alley in a pouring rain. Switch upon switch upon switch.

On the other hand, most readers have certain expectations; I’m a firm believer that as writers, especially genre writers, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. At least, not every time.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Holiday Overload... Well Before the Holidays

by Victoria M. Johnson

In July while hunting for a beach umbrella and chairs, I expected to encounter back-to-school supplies.  I was not prepared to find Halloween decorations on the shelves.  Something about jack-o-lanterns juxtaposed with flip-flops just didn't seem right.  Then in August, while trying to locate summer picnic items—after all plenty of summer still lay ahead—I was shocked to see Thanksgiving items in place of outdoor entertaining necessities.  This disconcerting circumstance wasn't just at one store.  I come across it everywhere: coffee shops already have pumpkin spiced beverages for sale, grocery stores have the Fall merchandise out, and apparel shops have Fall clothing in their windows.  It's still 99 degrees outside!

What's the rush?  Can't we enjoy our summer without the added stress of thinking about school and holidays?  Okay, I get—even though I don't agree with—the back-to-school displays overlapping with Halloween.  Harried parents buying backpacks and lunch boxes may have eager children pulling on their hems saying, "mommy, buy me this costume."  And that harried parent is thinking about saving a shopping trip to buy costumes a month later.  I understand the reasoning behind that.  But Thanksgiving items for sale in August?  Really? 

Now that it is September, I fully expect to hear Christmas carols playing in stores.  And I haven't even discussed the internet ads yet.  Yes, I've seen the first Christmas ebook ad on Twitter.  Ugh.  Too soon, people.  I am happy to read that ebook in November.  But at the moment I want to frolic in the ocean.  Christmas is too stressful to think about in the carefree days of summer. 

I know Christmastime doesn't have to be stressful but it's just that it falls at that time of the year when so much else is happening in life.  Family commitments, work pressure to meet end-of-year targets, and forgotten personal goals we scramble to make an attempt to tackle. On top of this I haven't mentioned how much I get into the spirit of the season.  I like to attend the Christmas pageants of my youngest relatives, attend holiday festivals, and decorate my home for the many visitors who will stop by.  I love to shop, wrap, and give to my loved ones.

As if all this weren't overload enough, I also happen to adore Christmas movies.  Typically during the season I might watch two in one week.  However, today I found out that the Hallmark Channel has plans to render me useless for the month of December.  They plan 33 new original movies for the 2017 holiday!  What?  How am I supposed to manage that on top of everything else?  I still have movies on my DVR from last season I haven't watched yet.  Click on the image above to see a preview of the new lineup.  (Or click the link here.) This announcement adds anxiety to my holiday planning.  I realize I must start everything sooner.  Perhaps I should bump things up a month to free up my time.  Maybe the retailers have it right.  Maybe the elementary schools could have their Christmas pageants in November, which would move Thanksgiving to October, and Halloween to September.  I think I should begin wrapping gifts now...

Is anyone else feeling rushed with holiday stuff being thrown at you too early?  Or are you happy, yet panicked, that Hallmark has 33 wonderful, uplifting movies coming out this holiday season?  Let me know in the comments below.

author Victoria M. Johnson
Victoria M. Johnson knew by the time she was ten that she wanted to be a writer.  She loves telling stories and she's happiest when creating new characters and new plots.  Avalon Books and Montlake Romance published Victoria's fiction debut, The Doctor’s Dilemma.  Her other fiction book is a collection of romance short stories titled, The Substitute Bride and a novella, Hot Hawaiian Christmas. She is also the writer and director of four short films and two micro documentaries.   Visit Victoria's website at http://VictoriaMJohnson.com for inspiration and tips and find her Amazon author page or connect with her on Pinterest and Twitter.