Sunday, November 28, 2010

No, it's not a gingerbread house

This is not a gingerbread house, although it sure looks like one on this magical night.

Once upon a time a man built an adobe house in the arid inland region of Southern California. He turned it into an inn for coach and rail travelers, for people coming from the East and Midwest seeking dry air and a venture in citrus farming.

The man's son, Frank Miller, turned the modest hotel into an architectural marvel of Spanish and Moorish influences that covers a city block. Visitors walk under arched arcades similar to the California Missions, but, the Mission Inn was never one of Father Serra's missions.

I've had the luck to spend time in the spooky, mysterious, off-limits catacombs under the hotel when I was a reporter covering the making of an independent film.

A few times I've been able to roam throughout the hotel and followed hidden circular staircases and discover other wonders. There are stunning domed towers, a fountain from Seville, flying buttresses, Tiffany art glass windows and a chapel with an 18th-century gilded altar. If you're ever in Riverside, take the docent-led tour and visit the museum operated by the non-profit Mission Inn Foundation.

So magnificent is this structure , it drew U.S. Presidents and other famous folk--William McKinley, John D. Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, William Howard Taft, Andrew Carnegie, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry Ford, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan.


But the hotel fell on hard times, turning into low-rent apartments and going into foreclosure. Redevelopment took over, and the inn became a National Historical Landmark in 1977. A two-year restoration by investors ended in another foreclosure, leaving the once-grand building empty, derelict, fenced off. Up for sale again in 1990, businessman Duane Roberts acquired it.

The hotel is a wonder to behold again, and since Mr. Roberts loves Christmas, he initiated a Festival of Lights that features millions of lights on the structure and draws tens of thousands of people for an after Thanksgiving fireworks show.

Even though I'm not much for crowds, I joined the throngs this year and was bedazzled. What a kickoff for the holiday season.

Because of gridlock, I could only photograph the show from one vantage point, so it's not a complete view of the hotel. Click this link to learn more about the history and architecture.
Hope you find a spark of wonder somewhere, too.
Addendum: Since Sarah brought up in the comment section that this sounds like a great site to set a novel, I'll mention that it's been done. The latest was Anne Rice's ANGEL TIME, released last year as part of her Songs of the Seraphim series. The novel features an assassin who stays at the inn. Fans of Rice's vampire books will recall her detailed settings rich in art. The Mission Inn is a perfect choice for her. The inn's owners put up a dedication on the suite she stayed in. This place has inspired many artists, as well. It is a stunner.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Finding gratitude

Things I'm grateful for. Past. Present. Forever.


Number One: As always, this planet Earth, which shelters us in the vast, mysterious universe. This is where every other thing I'm grateful for lives.(Photo credit: NASA)

Family holidays can bring out the best and worst in people. When I awakened at 2 a.m. and began to fret and mull, I stopped myself by pulling out a journal and writing down miscellaneous things that have brought me joy.
Here are some things I'm grateful for, including a holiday that suggests we consider our blessings. This isn't meant to be comprehensive or chronological. It just is.
My father's weekend waffles, so golden and warm.
Hawks adrift above me.
The first time I looked into my daughter's eyes.
Candlit dinners in my mother-in-law's house. I knew I'd found home.
Snowy peaks floating in oceans of clouds.
Visiting ladybugs.
The boys who showed me how to catch tadpoles in murky ponds.
The babysitting job that earned me cash for my first surfboard.
My grandmother's love. No matter what.
Maple syrup on fresh snow.
Waves as translucent as emeralds.
Reading Yeats by a peat fire in Sligo. Painting at a window looking at Ben Bulben.
Whiskey and a pint on a blustery night in Dublin.
Friends who hold drum circles to celebrate life.
Critique buddies who laugh at my jokes and believe in my characters and still point out how I can make it better.
My teenage discovery of Tolkien, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Hesse, Hardy.
Coconut body butter.
Standing in a room full of Van Gogh paintings in Paris. Surrounded by Botticelli and Da Vinci in Florence.
The morning's first cup of coffee.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Blue moons and haiku



evening settles in,

the lake holds still, barest of

ripples--antique glass


I am in need of lightness and levity. A couple of things upset me this week, so I'm glad to have found some peace, film delight and a real laugh to share.

First, yay, Deathly Hallows. I'm not going to spoil it if you haven't seen it, but what did I love? Harry, Hermione, Ron and then the spot-on adult actors who play them in the Ministry of Magic, Bill Weasley, the animated Three Brothers tale, the Seven Harrys and, well, I could go on and on. I have to see it again!


Okay, so this photo is very dark, taken on my walk home. But I love the spooky, mysterious atmosphere of the almost-full moon rising in a cloudy sky over this old house.

And that brings me to blue moons. According to, the full moon tonight is a rarity, because it will be one of four full moons this autumn. Or not. There's some controversy over this. Read more here.

But whatever you call it, there's a full moon and it's awesome.


And for the promised laugh-until-you-cry, visit DamnYouAutoCorrect. These real screen shots of hilarious autocorrections on mobile devices left me cackling, but, um, these are NOT G-rated, if you get my drift. Tip: Keep reading through the pages. I swear there are you-didn't-say-that! gems on many of them.
In case you're taking off this week for family gatherings, I wish you a safe trip and Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Getting right down to dialogue

This post is inspired by Susan Kaye Quinn's post highlighting an agent's first-page tips. The unnamed agent is a fan of dialogue as a way to show character and went so far as to say lack of dialogue on the first page might be a red flag. I'd never thought about the importance of first-page dialogue to show voice, but it feels like a no-brainer in retrospect.

I went searching through some good reads to see what I could find along those lines and was surprised that character-revealing first-page dialogue is hard to find. Really hard to find. There were mundane scraps of dialogue on Page 1 or more catchy stuff arrived a few pages later in an assortment of books I would rate four or five stars. In novels that are first person, the need seems lessened, because the story is told in internal voice anyway.
Still, I think this tip is worth pursuing. Here are some examples I did find of excellent books that have spiffy dialogue on the first page:
*PARANORMALCY by Kiersten White jumps right into its snappy attitude on Page 1.
"Wait--did you--You just yawned!" The vampire's arms, raised over his head in the classic Dracula pose, dropped to his sides. He pulled his exaggerated white fangs back behind his lips. "What, imminent death isn't exciting enough for you?"
"Oh, stop pouting. But, really, the widow's peak? The pale skin? The black cape? Where did you even get that thing, a costume store?"

FEED by M.T. Anderson sets the tone right away of a dystopian world where the language is slightly changed but the teen attitude is for all time.

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Atwater was like, "I'm so null," and Marty was all, "I'm null, too, unit," but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them.

REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly delves into the emotional darkness of a girl who comes from a privileged life but suffers an inconsolable loss. The opening sets the tone and her sharp world view.
Those who can, do.
Those who can't, deejay.
Like Cooper van Epp. Standing in his room--the entire fifth floor of a Hicks Street brownstone--trying to beat-match John Lee Hooker with some piece of trip-hop horror. On twenty thousand dollars' worth of equipment he doesn't know how to use.
"This is the blues, man!" he crows. "It's Memphis mod." He pauses to pour himself his second scotch of the morning. "It's like then and now. Brooklyn and Beale Street all at once. It's like hanging at a house party with John Lee. Smoking Kents and drinking bourbon for breakfast. All that's missing, all we need--"
"--are hunger, disease and a total lack of economic opportunity," I say.

I'd love to hear from any of you, if you know of other examples where first-page dialogue really sets voice. I was surprised how hard it was to find examples.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What the tide revealed

Tides come. Tides go. In and out. Ebb and flow. On some beaches, low tide means easier walking on flat sand. On others, rocky pools are revealed. And there is the wonder.

I found these starfish--three different colors together--on the far-end of a jetty I've never seen out of water.

I didn't even care that a little girl, as excited as I was, splashed me thoroughly as she raced by. All I cared about was the revelation at my feet and that the camera phone was dry and working.

I've been taking walks along Venice Beach for decades and never seen the tide pull back like it did this last weekend. A huge swath of the pier was out of water, the damp sand displaying patterns while sanderlings scurried back-and-forth, searching for food revealed by the receding water.

I felt like I was peeking behind the Wizard's curtain, glimpsing the secrets of the intertidal zone, spying on its shy inhabitants.

All these years of digging my toes in wet sand, swimming in surf and climbing out on the jetty rocks, and I'd never seen these creatures here although this is where they've always lived.


Fat starfish cling to barnacle-covered jetty rocks.
Another gets a ghostly dusting when a rough wave stirred up the sandy bottom.



Carpets of anemones wave their tiny arms just below the shallow water. Those uncovered by the tide, close up like tight fists and wait for water to return.



Goose barnacles--don't they deserve that name?

The pier pilings were encrusted with shelled creatures and starfish.


I found a world of wonder in a place I thought I knew.

Perhaps that would be a good writing or photography exercise--to roam a place we consider mundane because we've seen it so much and look closely for what we may be missing. Turn over a few rocks and see what's there.

I've thought about this when traveling to other countries. What is ordinary to the inhabitants, whether it's their architecture, landscape or animals, is exotic to me and, thus more vibrant, more exciting.

But, really, it is every inch of our planet that holds wonder.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tangled up

I'm all tangled up. I confess to some serious doubt going on. I've been trying to take those steps forward on my novel that I tell others to take, but my knees got kicked out from under me again.

Hence this tree of scary limbs. Does it not look like it will swirl the unwary up and away?

As some of you know, I was dealt a set-back when another book was released this fall that had some similar story elements to the novel I've been working on all year. So I set to work changing my book to eliminate the common traits and focus on the those that were different. Because there are major differences. But then I read that the other author is working on a sequel and I thought, 'What if that one ventures into territory I'm in now?'

Maybe it's time to crawl in a hole and hibernate. This tree looks like a place to hide and pout.

You see where I'm going with this? Woe is me. Waaaaaa!

I don't like that. I will try to take my own advice and keep working on my rewrite.
Or perhaps, I need to take the Storyqueen's advice, as well. She advocates spending time with another manuscript, which I've neglected. It's a fun one and would give me giggles and joy if I let it.
One of my crit partners sent me a note from yet a different character I'd stuck on a shelf. "Time to dust me off. I'm ready!' it said.
Hello? Are you still speaking to me, my darlings, my dears, my other loves?


Then again, I could always try a steampunk for new horizons. Is not this tree wearing steampunky goggles?

Hope you're all less tangled up. Send me a message in a bottle. You can parachute if from an Aerocycle. I'm just sitting here seeing faces in trees.

P.S. Don't call the paramedics. It's not that bad.
P.S.S. I stepped out on my balcony to find a dawn sky of robin's egg blue with golden jet streams and wispy clouds of pink and pure white. Geese winged silently above. And I thought, thank you for the reminder that birds can fly high and clouds can be golden.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Contest winner, ropes for NaNoers and haiku, oh yeah

See the guy who fought his way up that pile of boulders to the top of the mountain? That's for you courageous writers tackling NaNoWriMo this month. I know you've got your gear in shape, all you've got to do is press on each day, scrambling upwards bit by bit.

I'll be cheering you on, even though I'm sitting this one out in order to rewrite.

My best advice is take it a step at a time. When it seems you can't go on, when you're exhausted or stumped, go on anyway. If you've got 800 words and don't see how you'll double it before bedtime, keep going. I was shocked to find energy if I didn't let myself give up. It's possible to make your goal, but, if life gets in your way and you can't, then look at it as a chance taken, a grand adventure into possibilities. It was never about winning or losing. It's about the challenge and opportunity. Best wishes to you all.

Now for the winner of my book giveaway for All Hallow's Read, which I sorted from my witch's hat, of course. A hardback of Carrie Ryan's THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH goes to:

Kathryn Jankowski

Please send your mailing address via email to me.


And when I came upon this mysterious hunk of granite, which speaks to me of ancient ceremonies or cosmic magic, I had to write a haiku.


the ancient boulder

wears its sun face forever

written in stone


Whatever you're doing this November, may you stumble on wonder and reach the top of a mountain.