Thursday, June 28, 2018

Sides of History

Quite often, we hear that someone or some idea is on the "right side of history." When I began talking about my project, Pavane for Miss Marcher, one of my fellow writers said, "Just make sure you stay on the 'right side of history'."

I knew exactly what she meant and the element of threat was blatant. Also obvious was the attempt to censor. Pavane for Miss Marcher is set in post-American Civil War Maine. I had read widely from all sides and aspects of this era in the history of the United States.

Although, like many Americans, I was very well aware of the heated emotions and often disputed facts of this period, I was determined to write the story I felt most clearly expressed my own ambiguous and conflicted  understanding of our shared history.

The main character is a young woman, Cathryn Marcher, who experiences the trauma and horror of the war while serving in a Union Army hospital in Boston. During her service, she becomes involved with an officer who takes advantage of her youth, loneliness and vulnerability. Their affair ends when he returns to his unit and the war comes to an end.

 Many years before, Cathryn had fallen in love with a young man from her town. Her service as a nurse was her contribution to the war, in hope that somehow Rupert Smith was being cared for by a good nurse wherever he was.

Rupert has spent the last year of the war in a prison camp. His courage and honor win him the respect of not only his fellow prisoners but also several of the Confederate soldiers who are assigned to guard the Union prisoners. When the war is declared to be at an end, Rupert is in no condition to return to his small town Maine home. The men from both sides of the conflict have formed a close bond that takes them West.

The encounter with the adamant writer actually sharpened my intention to write a story based on the realities of human interaction and the facts rather than take up camp on any side, right or wrong. In history, there is only one side: the truth with all its convolutions and contradictions.

This story has a happy ending which sometimes happens in life, despite the horror of war and the evil that surrounds us. When confronted by the demand that I "stay on the right side," I determined that I would: to write honestly about what I know.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Grammar and Usage Pet Peeves

We should be able to tell something about the speaker from a conversation. A person’s choice of words can be shorthand for characterization. In My Fair Lady, Professor Henry Higgins brags that he can tell from a person’s speech where they’re from, sometimes he can even pinpoint the exact address.

Although regional accents are fading, at least in the United States, one can still show who someone is by their words. If I had a character refer to their friend as their “bro,” you wouldn’t think the speaker was a middle-aged affluent woman.  You’d assume it was a guy, probably in his twenties.  

Similarly, if a character used the word awesome, you’d figure the speaker was either in his thirties or trying to appear younger than he is—which gives you a wholly different picture, but impression nonetheless.

Then there is usage that’s come into our language that isn’t necessarily correct or accurate but has been adopted by so many it’s become part of our language whether we like it or not.

“No problem,” is my candidate for an expression that doesn’t make sense. From the first time I heard “No problem,” said in response to a thank you, I hated it.  Even now, thirty years later, I have to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “who said there was a problem? I just said thank you!” 

But this is not the only one that bothers me. How about “he (or she or I or you) did good.” Am I the only one irritated by this bastardization? If I am, I imagine a time in the not too distant future where everyone will say, “he did good,” and I’ll be prim and proper old lady hanging on to an outdated concept.  Slowly but surely “he (and whoever else is to be included) did good,” has crept into our usage.

In closing, I should set the record straight before anyone thinks I’m the grammar police.  I’m so not by birth or family of origin or practice. My birth family was and is made up of avid and serious readers who pride themselves on their intellectualism but who play fast and loose with the objective case.  “Between you and I,” could have been said in my house growing up without offending anyone.  On the other hand, Dylan Thomas, Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy were all patron saints.

But I married into the Nolan family who, though not all readers (there are a few notable exceptions), were raised, from all accounts, by the grammar Gestapo.  Suffice to say that with my 40th wedding anniversary coming up this year, I’ve cleaned up my act.  But my husband and my critique partners will tell you, I still make plenty of mistakes.  But as it is true with religion, it is also true with grammar, “there’s no one more scrupulous than a convert.”

I assume that anyone reading this has their own grammatical and usage pet peeves and I would love to hear about them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sharing the Joy

by Sandy Cody

I once had the pleasure of interviewing Jane Hamilton (author of Book of Ruth and  A Map of the World, to name just a couple of her books). I asked her which part of writing she most enjoys. Here's her answer:

 HAMILTON:  I love it when, with some kind of magical harmonic convergence, everything starts to hum along, and you hardly know you yourself are present at work. (This is not a usual occurrence). It’s as if you’ve spun gold from straw; you look up and think, How did that happen? Also, I enjoy reading my work out loud to myself when it’s going well, when I can take pleasure in my own sentences and story.”

 I think one of the reasons Ms. Hamilton’s answer resonated so strongly with me was the contrast with some (most?) of the things I say when I talk about writing. I speak too often about the difficulty of writing and too seldom about the joy. I share those moments of inadequacy when the words won’t come and fail to mention the rush of joy when they do come, those all-too-rare moments when I feel that I've “spun gold from straw” or the pleasure of reading aloud a description or a bit of dialogue that got it right.

 Since I know a fair number of other writers, I know this is common. Writers complain a lot … about the loneliness of writing (then turn around and say we can’t write because no one will leave us alone); about the discipline required (as if anything worth doing doesn’t require discipline); about the lack of time to write (which might be less of a problem if we’d stop complaining and just write); about the demanding people in our lives (what would we write about if we didn’t have them?).

Why do we do this? I’m not sure. I think it’s at least in part because we’re obsessed with writing and don’t know how else to talk about it–possibly due to a misplaced sense of modesty. We’ve been taught that it’s not nice to brag. Fair enough. But is it any nicer to subject those around us to a litany of imagined woe when, in fact, we’re doing what we love? Granted, realization of the pain of writing is a necessary part of birthing a novel, but maybe we need to lighten up and broadcast the pleasures of our chosen vocation. Let’s share the joy.

So ... here I am ... saying it out loud. I am a writer and that is a privilege and a joy. I am living my dream.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

How to Take a Selfie

by Victoria M. Johnson

Of all the important holidays in June, National Selfie Day is gaining in popularity.  Invented in 2014 and celebrated on June 21st, its purpose is to honor taking a snapshot of yourself.  People can chronicle moments in their lives or use a selfie as a form of self-expression.  Taking selfies is certainly faster than constantly asking strangers to take a photo of you or your group.  And they are more spontaneous than "posing" for a photo. Taking selfies with others requires that everyone squeeze in close, you can't help but smile.  Well, okay, technically they are posed for because you have to get everyone in the shot but they look more fun and spur-of-the-moment.

The Most Famous Selfies

Many people have gained notoriety, both good and bad, with their infamous selfies.  Some have risked their lives to take the ultimate selfie, which is taking the practice too far (like the guy who's running from stampeding bulls in Spain).  Here are a few notable ones:

1.    UK astronaut Tim Peake's selfie of his spacewalk is the first selfie from space.

2.    Celebrity Ellen DeGeneres set Twitter on fire when she took her star-studded group selfie live during the Oscar show—and posted it while the show was live!

3.    Russian daredevil Kirill Oreshkin takes outrageously dangerous selfies of himself atop towering structures.

4.    A climber's selfie at the peak of Mount Everest proves the world isn't flat.

5.    Nonprofits like the MidManhattan Library use selfies to promote a cause, in this case to bring awareness to banned books.

selfie tips by Victoria M Johnson
Your selfie doesn't have to be perfect.

How to Take a Selfie 

By now you're eager to take your own selfies.  The experts suggest these top tips:
  * Raise the camera at an angle above you.
  * Natural light is best.
  * Smile or not.  But have fun with it.
  * Be aware of the background.
  * You can always edit a photo before sharing.
 * Practice.  Practice.  Practice.

Here's a video of simple selfie instructions from W Magazine.  Click the arrow in the center to view.

The Oxford Dictionary recognized the word "selfie" in 2013.  There's no longer a reason to let a moment go by where you say, I wish I had a photo of me doing xyz but there's no one here to take it.  Take a selfie.  Remember to share your selfies on social media using the hashtag #NationalSelfieDay.  Why not take one right now?  Post the link to your selfie in the comments below. 

How to Take a Selfie by 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 for inspiration and tips and find her Amazon author page or connect with her on Pinterest and Twitter.

Monday, June 4, 2018

You Do What?

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Every so often one of my writers' groups will conduct a workshop on 'how to create a character.' I've taken a few of them and the methods range from a half-dozen point checklist to a six page questionnaire that goes into such depth as the character's favorite flavor of Jello, the schools he attended, what kind of pet he had as a child.... You get the idea.

I've tried them all, and each time created a deep, multi-faceted character. A completely dead deep, multi-faceted character. They had all the proper points, but they never came to life on the page. Working with them resulted in all the joy and sparkle of Silly Putty. Oh, they moved from Point A to Point B when I directed them, and spoke the words I put in their mouths, but they were reminiscent of nothing so much as Gumby or King Kong - their movements were obviously stop-animation instead of really coming to life.

So I quit taking classes and went back to what I've always done - letting the character come to me. Almost every writer has snorted with disbelief when I tell them about the birth of my characters, but - other than my occasional forays into how-to-create-characters classes - it's always worked for me.

So what do I do? Nothing. My characters simply walk in, tell me their name, and start fitting into the vague storyline that I've started with. And yes, they tell me their names. Once I really didn't like a character's (the hero!) name and changed it. He didn't like it, so he shut up and refused to speak to me again until I changed it back to what he wanted some three weeks later.

Who said writers had complete control in their own world?

I know this technique (technique? maybe dictatorship?) wouldn't work for all writers. Huh, it may not work for any writer besides me, but that's the point. Even if I'm the only one it works for, it does work for me. I know the character's-favorite-Jello system works for some people. It doesn't work for me, but I'm glad it works for them.

What I'm trying to say is that there is no one singular this-way-only technique for writing a book. The only thing that we all should do is write a good book. How we write that book is up to us. There are many good techniques, probably some I've never heard of. The important thing is that each writer has to find the one that works for him. Or which ones work for him. There's no rule saying you can only use one technique. As long as you turn out a good book, it doesn't matter.