Monday, October 29, 2018

Bucket Lists

I’m not sure when “bucket lists” became the rage. I don’t know if they’re only so with my generation, but I can tell you that these days it seems everyone I know has one.

It might be because so many of my friends are at an age where they’re suddenly aware of the limitations of time and energy. If they don’t do it now, they may never.  I get that.  Until recently, when I’d go on a trip, if I didn’t see or do everything I planned, I’d reassure myself that I’d return someday and have another chance.  But now, realistically, there are too many places in the world for me to return to.  I still have so many places I’ve never been.  I guess those unknown places constitute my bucket list.

But that’s my age group—those who have time limitations.  There are also people who have always had bucket lists.  They’re the ones who had goals they wanted to accomplish—seemingly from grade school on. We may all have goals. But I’m talking about people with much more specific and ambitious goals, such as being President, writing a best seller, becoming a billionaire.

People with big goals—or ambitions—in my generation—were usually men.  The guys who worked hard, kept their nose to the grindstone, sometimes in the same company, for their whole career. For many of them, as they reach retirement, they don’t know what to do next.  

For some, golf is their only interest, but even then unless you’re a pro, you can’t play every day. For others, golf was never interesting, but they haven’t developed any other hobbies. For these guys, their goals were job related and now the job is gone. It’s probably hard for someone in the middle of life to imagine, but many of these men have no idea what to do with themselves.  They have no real yearning to travel, never had bucket lists that included anything but work goals and don’t really care for museums, theatre or other urban pleasures. They’re usually not gardeners or putterers and now greet the endless days ahead of them with dismay. 

Men like this are from my generation when the work force was owned and dominated by men.  Women in my youth were usually relegated to subservient roles or jobs that were traditionally for women.  Early on we learned to adjust, either lowering our expectations or developing enough interests to deflect the disappointment and frustration of seeing a man get more opportunities for advancement, fun and challenge at work.  Whether by choice or circumstance, many women stayed home when our kids were young. Between getting them off to school, baking for the PTA fundraiser and driving car pools, we had a chance to connect with ourselves and figure out what was important to us and what we were good at.  We were and are, in hindsight, the lucky ones.  We know what to do with endless days and no schedule.  We’ve faced those days before. We don’t have to define our lives by making bucket lists, though sometimes they’re fun to do so we’re ready when the next vacation opportunity looms in front of us.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Inspiration II

 I had been tempted to leave this a blank page to emphasize the dearth of this essential element in a writer’s repertoire in my own circumstances.
Then, lo and behold, this magical ingredient returned and I had a thought for a sequel to my American historical, Pavane for Miss Marcher.

Inspiration struck just as I was having a conversation about a mug that my son sent me as a birthday present which reads “Please do not annoy the writer, she may put you in a book and kill you.” The conversation happened to be about a distant cousin-in-law and I commented that, many years after this CIL had annoyed other members of my family with her “I’m so far superior to you” attitude, I had taken a tiny bit of revenge by casting her attitude as the reason the parents of my character, North (in Pavane for Miss Marcher), refused to attend his wedding.

What has that to do with Inspiration, you may wonder.

North is a veteran of the American Civil War. He and his brother-in-law, Aurelius, have been on my mind since, as secondary characters, they made their presence known — in the proverbial ‘pantser’ form of writing — by appearing as the story unfolded.

Following this conversation, I sat quietly for a moment. A progression of images appeared as the tissue of an idea for North’s story unfolded. Except that his tale will have a happy ending, where it goes from this inspired moment is a mystery.

And I like it that way.

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, 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

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!