Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dark alley and creative juice

Ever wander down a dark alley and find a surprise? There's a pretty hilarious one in the alley in this photo, which I'll reveal in a moment.

 But, first, here's a different surprise, and it's amazing--a fabulous free manuscript edit giveaway by DearEditor, aka Deborah Halverson. This one ends March 22. Deborah does these giveaways periodically, so be sure to subscribe to her site where she answers just about any question you might have about writing and publishing.

Now, about that alley...

there is a robot...

and strange folk...
and gum, lots of gum...

Yup. This alley is full of old gum--chewed up, spit out, flung, pressed, and arranged into a bizarre wonderland. Thank you, Seattle, for the silly and the creative spirit.

Hope this makes you smile as much as I did.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Bringing back stories: Marilyn Cram Donahue

Marilyn Cram Donahue grew up in a family that cherished its history and storytelling. At gatherings she’d soak up tales of bear fights and Indian encounters, of flooding rivers and parched land, of deadly fevers and homemade remedies, of love found and loved ones lost, of painted ladies and gunslingers, of fields of wildflowers and snakes in the grass.

From this childhood Marilyn discovered that real history isn’t dates and facts. It’s people and how they face life and each other, and that’s how she writes historical fiction by creating characters real as a neighbor.

 Many of her family’s stories would later inspire her novels, including Straight Along a Crooked Road and The Valley In Between that have been out of print for years and have just been released as e-books (on sale as I post!).  These are what I might call quiet novels in today’s market of action-action-action, but these are characters to care about. I actually woke up dreaming about one of them and the predicament she was in.

 I’m going to mini-review them here, so I will also give a disclaimer. Marilyn is a friend. I was in her critique group for several years in California before I moved to Seattle. I miss her warm heart, sharp wit, and each new and wonderful story she imagines.

In the 1850s Marilyn’s ancestors made the arduous trip by wagon across the sprawling lands of North America to be among early settlers of farm country in Southern California. Her family planted the first orange groves in Highland nestled in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. Marilyn stayed close to those roots, graduating from Pomona College and becoming a teacher and writer who has published more than thirty books and taught more than four hundred workshops and seminars.

Straight Along a Crooked Road, which was originally published in 1985 and is now released as an e-book, is the tale of a family leaving their Vermont home and driving a covered wagon past the Great Lakes, across the plains and its restless tribes, and over a scorching trail south through the Mojave Desert.

 While there have been many westward-ho stories what makes Marilyn’s special is her ability to bring characters alive, to show their faults and strengths, their pettiness and their nobility. It’s told through the perspective of fourteen-year-old Luanna Hamilton who loves Vermont so much she swears to never leave. Her father has other ideas, which not only tear her away from her best friend but from her dream of continuing her education.

 When a wagon train of people leave their homes for the unknown, there’s going to be friction. People argue. They make bad decisions. Some people aren’t just irritating they’re dangerous. One in particular makes Luanna’s skin crawl. Mine, too.

Since Marilyn aims for a middle-grade to young-adult audience, the scenes, even of death, are not graphic. Some readers may want things a little grittier, but these stories shouldn’t be too disturbing for even the youngest and most sensitive readers. They are certainly a great tool for teaching elementary and middle-grade students about migration, history, and changing societal customs and beliefs.  Discussion should be held on the place of women in this society and on attitudes about Indians and people of differing religious belief.

A good story needs humor, and this delivers, particularly through interaction between a lively bunch of characters.

The Valley In Between is a sequel to Straight Along a Crooked Road. Marilyn has used the tales handed down by her great-grandparents, as well as her own love of the land, to infuse the story of Emmie Hamilton, a headstrong thirteen-year-old and Luanna’s younger sister, discovering life in California where law and order is pretty much up for grabs.

 I hadn’t realized how far West the Civil War reached until Marilyn’s words brought home the chasm that developed between these pioneers, who had worked shoulder-to-shoulder to get their wagons and families to the golden land of California. But as the election arrived that would make Abraham Lincoln the country’s President, the division caused some secessionists to steal horses from neighbors so they could ride to Texas and join the Confederacy while other settlers requested Union soldiers for protection.

Marilyn deftly gives Emmie two beaus, one from the South and one from the North.

To give you a sense of how Marilyn masterfully weaves character and plot development with a sense of place, here is a snippet from an always outspoken great-aunt commenting on the unexpected arrival of a young man kicked off the wagon train for stealing: “It does seem fitting,” Aunt Clara muttered, after Belvidry had gone home, “that Tawny is blowing in on a Santa Ana. I never did see anything like a north wind for picking up trash and dumping it on the valley.”

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Short days, warm hearts

Happy Winter Solstice! I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season whatever you celebrate.

Yesterday we had the sweetest snowfall. I awakened, drew back the curtain and found an inch of white had drifted silent and soft upon the world.

I pulled on my fuzzy-lined snow boots and my hat and jacket and went out walking, letting snowflakes land on my nose and eyelashes. There were magic things like pink ornaments with snow tops.

Kids swarmed out of houses, packing up snowballs and chasing one another, laughing and beaming with excitement.

Under foot, the crunch of snow, while the flakes still came down in silence.

I'm settling into my new space, my new life, feeling as excited as the children in the snow. There is a freshness and sense of seeing the world anew.

I loved coming upon this still snow-covered street with its wide-open view of hills beyond. On clear days, the Cascade mountains can be seen along that horizon.

As the chores of house-selling, moving a thousand miles and setting up in a new state begin to wind down, I've been finding time to read again and plan to post some year-end reviews. I feel the writer in me stirring with anticipation after such a long hiatus.

Soon I hope to start filling my pocket notepad with haiku as I ramble the new walking trails I've discovered (photos to come!) and to open my neglected manuscript. I'm sure that will be a shock!

This snowy birdbath looks kind of like a giant mushroom, yes? I'm ready for adventures large and small.

I miss my blogging friends. *waves* *blows kisses* Let me know how you are!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Dawn, sunset, and a good book in all their glory

Dawn from my backyard deck in my new home a thousand miles from my old home.

Dawn. Such a literal as well as philosophical cusp—the shedding of darkness for light, a portal from past to present.

One of my favorite middle-grade classics, BELLE PRATER’S BOY by Ruth White has a theme based on this beautiful Rumi poem about dawn:

The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
Don't go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open
Don't go back to sleep!

I’ve always found dreams to be a chance to sort out problems and recharge, and dawn brings a golden opportunity to DO something, to take what I’ve discovered and run with it.

I realize I’ve never written a review of Belle Prater’s Boy, even though I’ve listened to the audio version countless times. I love the reading by Alison Elliott and the lyricism and authentic voice of Ruth White’s storytelling.

Here’s the opening line: “Around 5:00 a.m. on a warm Sunday morning in October 1953, my Aunt Belle left her bed and vanished from the face of the earth.” A few lines on: “Never before had anything like this happened in our county, and once the word got out, folks were fairly jolted out of their ruts.”

The story is told by 12-year-old Gypsy whose cousin Woodrow comes to live next-door in their grandparents’ home in Coal Station, Virginia. Gypsy is one of the more privileged in this mining town, living in a ranch house with new appliances, while Woodrow once showed up at a party in hand-me-down pants held up with a piece of rope. Like a junior Nancy Drew, Gypsy peppers Woodrow with questions about his mother, trying to solve the mystery of her disappearance.

But if Woodrow knows anything, he’s not talking, although he talks plenty about everything else. He’s a natural-born storyteller, who makes friends easily despite having a crossed eye. He is also adept at using his wit to deal with bullies and busybodies.

These two kids stole my heart. They are compassionate, smart, and tough, even though each suffered a terrible abandonment and has a bitter truth to face. They find real beauty and friendship as their story unfolds.

I’ve asked myself why I like to listen to this story again and again. I think it’s because I feel at home in the story, even if I didn’t grow up in Appalachia. That is one of the greatest gifts an author can give her readers.

That brings me back to my new home, where I actually live. It’s in north Seattle, nestled among towering pines and maples.

 This is my street a month ago.

This is that maple now that its leaves have fallen.

 I’ve always loved bare tree limbs against the sky.

It’s stark and structural.

And here, for old time’s sake, is one of my last sunset walks on Venice Beach before moving.

I still love it with a passion, even though I’m falling in love, too, with the Pacific Northwest.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Moving on

Moving is defined as producing motion. Change of residence, transfer of furnishings, vehicle in motion. The second definition is something that evokes a strong emotional response, that stirs one deeply.

All the above applies. I've been looking for a new home, leaving an old one that has decades of family history seeped in its walls.

 Went here recently, just wandering:

and here, where the view from this lot was breathtaking (hard to see in the shot):

and here to have a cup of tea and get out of a downpour:

 oh, and since it's October, I stumbled across a very scary abandoned day care when checking out another neighborhood:

None of these pictures are great photos, since taking pictures was an afterthought of four days covering almost 500 miles of driving in Seattle-Tacoma looking at rental properties. Yes, that is where I'm going to move, leaving Southern California for the Pacific Northwest.

The area is beautiful, and there are lots of writers and artists, so I expect to enjoy myself, fit in, and finally have time to get back to writing.

Any of my blog buddies or SCBWI folks up there? I'd love to meet you sometime. I expect to be settling in during November.

All my SoCal friends I will miss terribly, but I'll come back for visits. That's a promise.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Finding childhood and the fabulous Neil Gaiman

I came close to drowning in the Atlantic when I was four or five. My sister, who would’ve been fourteen, had taken me to the beach near our house in Oceanside, N.Y.

The funny thing is that I barely remember the fear. The image in the far reaches of my memory is a neighborhood girl a few years older than me deciding that I’d been using my inner tube long enough and she should have a turn. So she yanked it over my head. My initial reaction was outrage at being dumped, but that immediately turned to surprise that without the tube I sank. I hadn’t been taught how to swim. I flailed up and went under again. At some point, my sister who was chatting with friends on the beach noticed and came to rescue me.

There was helplessness in being so little and suddenly unanchored in the vastness of that water, of it rushing over my head. Each memory I have of those early years may be fading on the edges but every one of them carries some visceral punch: the blue-and-white feathers on the floor that were all my dog left of my parakeet; sitting abandoned at the kitchen table peeling the “skin” off canned peas I had to eat; fever dreams of hulking beings whose shadows and crazed chatter bled into waking hours; being swallowed by the skyscraper canyons when we went to the city; euphoria and power in becoming a witch or gypsy at Halloween.

Amazing as it is that we remember events from our early childhood, it’s even more awesome when a writer can settle deep into those moments, pulling up raw truth and turning it into a story new as dawn and old as time itself. Neil Gaiman’s THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is one of those books for me, and is the reason I rummaged around my head for those early memories, wondering what I’d find, and then being awed yet again by Gaiman’s ability to wander the paths of childhood and unearth its joys and terrors.

The novel is only 178 pages but packs in a vivid story of mythic proportion. A middle-aged man attending a funeral decides to drive past his childhood home and finds himself continuing to the end of the lane where an old farm reveals his forgotten past.

 Truly frightening at times, it weaves the nebulous quality of memory and the ability of a child to see with both confusion and absolute clarity; there’s an honesty to children’s observations despite lack of experience (or maybe even because of it).

All sorts of labels could be attached to this book—fantasy, horror, magical realism, fable. To me, it’s just storytelling at its finest, the kind of tale that is true down to its very bones.

Here are some snippets in Mr. Gaiman's words:

It was dark, and our candles cast huge shadows, so it looked to me, as we walked, as if everything was moving, pushed and shaped by the shadows, the grandfather clock and the stuffed animals and birds…

Ursula Monkton smiled, and the lightnings wreathed and writhed about her. She was power incarnate, standing in the crackling air. She was the storm, she was the lightning, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty. She winked at me.

“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters.”

The water was cool on my foot, not cold. I put the other foot into the water and I went down with it, down like a marble statue, and the waves of Lettie Hempstock’s ocean closed over my head.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Dead or alive?

I just finished 82k in rewrite--and I do mean rewrite. I feel a little like this drawing I found on the beach. Is it a flipper-person, a forensic drawing? I'm not sure if it's embracing the world or collapsing. But I love it, just like I love discovering anything someone has created for the joy of it. I may be exhausted, but I'm still ready to happy dance.

I am ecstatic to have written "The End" even though I know I'll need to let it rest and read it for continuity, gaping sinkholes, etc. But I have the perfect excuse for letting it rest since I'll be at the SCBWI conference for the next four days. Can't wait to soak it all up, to listen to people talk about storytelling and how to make it better and better.

See you on the other side...