Summertime is Class Reunion Time

This past weekend, I returned to my small hometown in the middle of Nebraska and met with former classmates and friends from high school.  We have been out of school long enough that we no longer try to impress each other with fancy cars, clothes and prestigious careers or opportunities.  We are in the “glad to see you are still alive and kicking” stage.  We have all had our ups and downs and no longer feel the need to discuss our achievements (unless you count getting out of bed in the morning) or status symbols (unless you count the number of surgeries or joint replacements).

This year I had the honor of coming up with the “awards.”  Here is what was presented at our banquet.
Marco Polo Award to the classmate who traveled the farthest to the reunion. A photo album with a map cover on it was given.

The One-Step-Ahead-of-the-Law Award for living the most places since graduation – received “Change of Address” cards

“Thank You for Your Service” Award to the classmates/spouses who served in the military – received American flags

The Home is Where the Heart Is Award to the classmate who has lived in their current home the longest – received a Home Sweet Home plaque

The “Go Forth and Multiply” Award for having the most children – received a little wooden sign that read “You can’t have too much fun!”

“Greatest Legacy Award” for having the most grandchildren – received Washable Magic Markers.

The “For Better or Worse” Award for being married the longest – received a lovely little white picture frame with doves on it.

“Foot Loose and Fancy Free” Award for being single the longest – received “The Party Is Here” banner.

The E-Award went to the person with the most electronic devices and social media signons (Facebook, Twitter, etc) – received a “Connect the Dots” game.

The “Auld Lang Syne” Award went to several people. It was for attending the most reunions. -received their very own “Hello, My Name Is…” name tag.

The “Six Million Dollar Bionic Person” Award went to the person with the most joint replacements – received a toy “reacher” and mechanical hand filled with candy.

“The Doctor Is In” Award went to the person with the most surgical procedures in a lifetime – received a doctor’s kit.

The “I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends”Award went to everyone who requires any assistive devices such as glasses, hearing aids, canes, pacemakers – all but three received this award, a pair of dark glasses, but no canes.

The “Cheer, Cheer Award” went to the person who could remember all the words to the school – received a memory game.

The crowd enjoyed the awards and I enjoyed coming up with them. Fun times!

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Timing is Everything

As I read an excerpt of my novel to my writers’ group at our last meeting, one of the writers said that she envisioned my main character as 65-years-old. Oops! He is supposed to be 45! Where did I go wrong?

It didn’t take long to discover that my flashbacks and my current setting were confusing the time. My character grew up in the 1960’s but my story takes place in 1995. I hadn’t given clear clues to help the reader know how old my character was. I had to come up with a solution, short of saying “Jake is a 45 year old white man.” (Not a good idea.)

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It seems that when people read (unless it is made clear that is it a period piece or science fiction or futuristic) they are in the present time. An author has to make it clear if the story is taking place at a different time. It is easier to write a period piece that is far in the past or far into the future than it is to write a story happening 20 years ago.

Thank goodness I have tgaminghe internet. I can’t imagine doing the research for this without it. I can google a year and find out current events, technology, fashion trends, music, movies and common slang. It helps remind me of what was going on back then.

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I am going think about specific things that identify the 1990’s such as CD-based gaming consoles, Windows 95, the dawn of email, portable CD players with earphones, digital cameras and the new use of the word “pixels.” Air Jordan tennis shoes, Hootie and the Blow Fish, the Goo Goo Dolls, Clinton as president, Newt Gingrich as speaker, the OJ trial, Bill Gates the richest man in the world at 12.98 million, Bosnia-Serbian war.

toy storySomehow I need to incorporate enough of these references in order for the reader to know that the story is taking place in 1995 and the main character is in his 40’s. He remembers things from the 1960’s but the reader needs to know that the current time is not 2014.

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I am disappointed that I hadn’t made the time frame clear. I was having such a good time writing my flashbacks but it only served to confuse my reader. I have spent a lot of time on my story and am disappointed that I must do a major rewrite. On the other hand, I think I will have as much fun adding the 1990’s hints as I did the others. Let’s hope!

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A Little Pick-Me-Up

Do you send short pieces to magazines, newspapers, online sites or contests?

Writing a novel can be a long, arduous process and taking a break once in a while is fun.  If I run across a request for an article or “name that caption” or other feature, I sometimes stop and write a short piece just to give myself a break from writing my novel.  It invigorates me and helps me change my mindset enough that new ideas spring forth for my novel.  It’s like taking a walk after sitting through a three-hour conference.

Today I saw a blurb in a magazine about “sharing your secrets to a happy marriage.”  I thought it would be fun to think about and jot some things down.  My husband and I are celebrating a milestone anniversary in June so it seemed like a timely subject to consider.

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Most of the time, the little articles or blurbs don’t bring any money in, but I am surprised by the number of people who see some of the things I have written.  It’s fun to hear their comments.  It reaffirms that maybe I do have something to write about and contribute to people’s enjoyment.

I once wrote a blurb for the city newspaper’s “Name the Caption” segment that they publish every Friday.  The picture was of several Canadian geese crossing the road at a stoplight.  Several geese (20-30) were stopped in the middle of the street.  Some looked as if they were watching for traffic.  Most of the geese were facing away from the camera with their backs to the reader.  My caption was “Your incessant honking is not going to make the light change any faster.”  I received so many positive comments from people on that one little sentence.

Another time I sent a short piece to a publication that was looking for “Hidden Gems.”  I had just visited a high school friend who lives in a small town.  I found it interesting that the little town of 2,200 people had some very unique features.

Its water tower had a baseball player painted on it.  I found out that a famous major league player grew up in the little town in the 1900’s. Because of that claim-to-fame, the town had a baseball museum. Image www.nebraskabaseballmuseum.com/home.html 

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My husband and I decided to tour the museum.  First, we had to call the telephone number of the gentleman who had the keys and wait for him to come unlock the doors.  His number was on the front door. By the time he arrived another couple had shown up to see the museum.  

I was very impressed with the little museum as well as an area near the municipal hall where buildings from the 1880’s had been preserved.

Gate to historic village

 We ate a restaurant that held over 3,000 cookie jars.  With the baseball museum, the historic village and the cookie jar restaurant, I decided this truly was a hidden gem.  I wrote the article and it was published.  People in the small town were thrilled.  My friend called me their goodwill ambassador.

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The Sweet Shop (the cookie jar restaurant)

As a writer, I constantly look for interesting things, places and people.  I “store” them away in my mind until I find a story to put them in.  Sometimes they end up in a short story or sentence that I submit for publication.

None of these pieces have taken much time or effort to write, yet I have received many accolades for their creation.

I enjoy writing short pieces as I write my novel.  It is like having a cool beer on a hot day–a little something to cool down the overloaded senses and pick up the spirit.

When the Past is Present

My novel is a “historic urban fantasy.”  In it, my main characters have flashbacks into the 1960’s and ’70’s.  It is important that the reader can differentiate between past and present in my story.  I think I have it nailed because people who are looking at my novel comment on the technique that takes them from past to present and vice versa. I haven’t really analyzed it to see how I am doing it, but maybe I will try now.

I read some comments online that various authors made about flashbacks.  Some say to avoid using flashbacks altogether.  Others say to use them sparingly.  Most recommend only using flashbacks to move the story along.  I hope I am doing that.

My novel has many flashbacks so I am breaking the first rule–avoid using flashbacks.  The flashbacks in my story are triggered by a memory.  For example, Jake, my protagonist is sitting in his enclosed luxury car, waiting to die.  He hears a song on the car radio that reminds him of his childhood.


Jake hit the buttons, “Damn!  I hate 80’s music.  It’s 1995. You’d think disco would be dead by now.” Finding a “Golden Oldie’s” station, Jake settled into the car seat. “That’s more like it.”

Anybody here seen my old friend, John? Can you tell me where he’s gone? He saved a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young,” the balladeer crooned over the radio.  It was an old classic.  He remembered it well.  “It was a safe time then,” he thought.  It seemed like a safe time.  John and Bobby Kennedy would not agree, nor would Martin Luther King.  It seemed safe to a ten-year-old Midwestern boy.

Jake was at the city pool that afternoon in 1960.  His shoulders and neck tingled after two hours in the sun.  His skin felt hot as it started to glow darker pink with time.  His mother warned him about using suntan lotion, but Jake was too busy laughing with his friends, splashing, diving from the low board and doing belly flops.  He could almost smell the white, cool cream his mom would gently apply to his scorched back when he returned home.  He didn’t mind the medicinal smell because he knew the burning would cool when the cream coated the sunburn.  As Jake walked in the unlocked front door of the small bungalow on Pepperdine Street, he called, “Mom, I’m home.”


The song from the past causes Jake to remember a particular summer.  The transition from thinking about the safe Midwestern boy to the scene at the city pool pulls the reader into the flashback.  Other flashbacks in the book are triggered by sight, smell, touch.  The senses are good triggers to lead into a flashback.

I don’t think a flashback should be the first thing a reader sees in a story.  I have seen that done and it is confusing.  The reader needs to know what is happening “now” in the book before reading about what has happened in the past.  Flashbacks are events that have already happened..  A flashback should follow a strong scene.

The above example doesn’t show the entire scene I wrote.  My first sentence of the novel is “Carbon monoxide filled the enclosed luxury vehicle in the garage.”  Right away, the reader knows something is wrong.  “He ran his hand across the smooth leather as he sat in the car with the windows up. He had planned it this way.  He would come home from work, connect a hose to the exhaust and sit in the car.”  The charater has planned to commit suicide and is in the act of doing so.   Flashbacks come after the scene and are used as a way to do a life review and eventually (possibly) explain why the character is doing this.

Another way to segue flashback smoothly is verb tense usage.  Using past tense and past perfect can signal the beginning or end of a flashback.  If done correctly, the reader won’t even notice the tense, but will understand that the time has changed and the story is now happening in the past.  “He recalled his father coming home from the factory smelling of oregano.  His dad would bellow as he tossed the newspaper on his easy chair, “Is your homework done?”

“Recalled” is what the character is doing while he sits in the running car.  The memory triggers the flashback and the verb tense is changed. The use of “would” puts the reader in the past.

So, what do you think about flashbacks?  Do you put flashbacks in your stories?  Let me know.  I appreciate any tips you might have for me.

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What if…?

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“What if I could catch that little white hand that is moving around?” —My curious cat, Daisy

Where do you get your story ideas? How do you develop your characters? What plot(s) do you choose?

At a recent writers’ group meeting, we worked on a prompt inspired by what someone read about Stephen King. Apparently, some or most of his novels started with the thought, “What if?” What if a dog terrorized people? What if an outcast girl had telekinetic abilities?

As I think about it, my current novel started out as a “what if?” What if a man commits suicide and can redeem himself somehow? What if Hell is other people like Jean-Paul Sartre proposed in his play ‘No Exit’?”

The prompts the writers in our group came up with were very interesting. Some were simple:
What if I took a wrong turn while driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood?
What if I found a blue pine cone?
What if my clock started to rewind on its own?

All of these “what if’s” could lead to an interesting story if we use our imaginations. We would come up with different scenarios and characters using the same “what if.”

It is interesting to think about.

Slaying the Editing Monster

 

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” William James

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Do you sometimes feel like you are just rearranging your writing?  Constantly editing?  Revising?

We edit for spelling, grammar, word usage, structure, consistent verb tense and content.

At a critique group session last evening, I mentioned some verb issues to a novice writer.  She went from past to present tense several times in a paragraph.  When I pointed it out, she said, “But I did that in the past and now I’m doing this in the present.”  It made her story very confusing to read.  When the tenses were congruent, it was easier to read and rather interesting.  The rhythm of her story (which was about running) was excellent. The sentence structure became shorter and shorter as the story progressed, showing the runner working and breathing harder.  It was a great technique, but her verb tenses disrupted the pace.

Verbs   When I edit my works, one of the first things I do is underline all the verbs in my sentences.  Are they in the same tense?  Are they action or passive verbs?  I change the passive verbs and revise the tense to match the paragraph.  If I find I need to use past tense in a sentence with present tense, I determine if I need a new paragraph in past tense.

Structure   One editing technique that works for me is to read my story backwards.  Start with the very last sentence and read it.  Does it make sense?  Does the sentence read well alone?  Then I read the second to the last sentence and so on and so on.  If a sentence can stand alone, it is probably in correct form.  I usually use this technique when I have already checked grammar and verb usage.

As in many things in life, prevention is the best “treatment” for a healthy manuscript.

Content editing  

“Just the facts, ma’am.”

We have all read books that have made us scratch our heads when we run across a fact or image that doesn’t fit.  I remember the first time I noticed that was in a Michael Crichton book where he described a baby that had meconium-aspiration.  As an NICU nurse for many years, I have taken care of babies with meconium aspiration pneumonia and what he described in his book didn’t make sense to me.

I was surprised that Crichton had made such a blatant error.  He already had several books out and must have had a group of editors read his manuscripts, but somehow that error was missed and it made a difference to me as a reader.  It made me stop trusting his story.

There are things in various fields that we may insert into our books.  We want to make sure we have the facts right.  If in doubt, have an expert read the sections of your book that contain medical or technologic or legal issues that you “kinda” know but maybe don’t have entirely correct.

With a novel, I found that it is useful to have a timeline.

A friend pointed that fact out to me as I was floundering and getting lost in my novel.  He suggested I make a timeline for my characters so that the characters are where they should be in the story.  Prior to developing the timeline, I had difficulty bringing my characters together when they needed to be together. He helped me create a linear chart with scenes on it.  (Unfortunately, I am not techno-savvy enough to insert it into this post.  Tried and failed.)  It contained scenes like:

  1. Jake in the car ready to commit suicide
  2. Flashbacks to childhood and parents
  3. Flashback to delivering newspapers
  4. Flashback to Kennedy election

Each scene in the book is mapped out so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

I recently found another excellent tool that I wished I had had at the beginning.

It is a character chart.  The author lists characteristics of each character, even though most of the information will not be used in the novel.  It is a way for the author to know the character.

  • What is the character’s full name?  What is his or her nickname?  How did the nickname come about?
  • Where is your character’s hometown? What year was he or she born?  How old is the character now? (Your story may take place in a different era, so age can become confusing at times, so write it down so you remember.)
  • What color are his or her eyes?  Hair? Type of body build? Skin type and tone?  Distinguishing marks such as scars, birthmarks, freckles? Predominant feature–what do people notice when they first look at your character?  Is your character healthy?  If not, what condition does he or she have?
  • What was the character’s first memory?  What was his or her childhood like? Was there an important event in childhood that continues to haunt your character now?
  • List of favorites–what is your character’s favorite color, food, music, book?  How does your character travel–car, bus, bicycle, airplane?  Is he or she a careless or cautious driver?
  • Does your character use any expletives or common expressions a lot?
  • What are your character’s vices? Does your character smoke or drink?  If so, how much?
  • Name your character’s hobbies and interests.  What does he or she do during the winter months, summer months, when it’s raining or snowing?  Does your character go on regular vacations?  If so, where?

I will end with this wonderful statement from Woody Allen.  To me, it represents editing at its worst.  It is a delightful paragraph and I enjoy the imagery, but it is confusing.  Basically, he asks if he should be a writer and Gertrude Stein says, “No.”  He ignores her.  Woody uses over 50 words to tell us that.

“In the afternoons, Gertrude Stein and I used to go antique hunting in the local shops, and I remember once asking her if she thought I should become a writer. In the typically cryptic way we were all so enchanted with, she  said, “No.” I took that to mean yes and sailed for Italy the next day.”  — Woody Allen

How would you edit Woody’s paragraph to “cut to the chase?”  Post your reply on my blog.

 

“Fifteen Minutes of Fame” and Other Adages

 

IMG_0972Most people know that the saying, “Fifteen minutes of fame” originated with Andy Warhol.  The expression was first used when a catalog of an exhibition of Warhol’s work was published in 1968,  In it, Warhol discussed the nature of celebrity and wrote, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.”  The phrase caught on and was shorted to “fifteen minutes of fame.”

It is interesting to research the origin of common expressions.  Some expressions are so ingrained in our language that we don’t give them much thought.

After being out the night before, celebrating their birthdays, my adult son and his friend debated the practice of having a “hair of the dog” and it’s efficacy or lack thereof.

“Where did that expression ever come from?”  his friend asked.

In this world of SmartPhones and the internet, they found their answer in a flash.  It comes from ancient Rome where similia similibus curantura was common medical practice.  Back then, if one was bitten by a rabid dog (or even an uninfected dog), treatment was putting a hair from that dog onto the wound and bandaging it up.  The thinking was, that the very thing that caused the illness could cure the illness.  The practice of the dog hair on a bite wound was in use for nearly 200 years before it was called into question.Funny_dog (2)

In time, the popular saying came to mean taking an alcoholic drink in the morning cures a hangover.

What adages interest you?  Here are a few of my favorites:

“I’m on cloud nine.”  This expression means that a person is extremely happy.  The U.S. Weather Bureau is responsible for this one.  Clouds are classified by the Bureau into nine types. Cloud #9 is cumulonimbus, a cloud that becomes very large and high.

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“Pass the buck”  Meaning to blame someone else, “passing the buck” originated as a poker phrase.  The “buck” was the token passed to the next person up to deal the cards.

Originally, the buck was a buckhorn knife.  The handle of the knife was made from the horn of a male deer or “buck.”  The phrase was written down by Mark Twain in 1872, the earliest recorded version.

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“Sleep tight.”  There are a couple of theories of origin for this one.  The first explanation I ever heard was that it was a nautical phrase.  Since sailors slept in hammocks, they tightened the ropes at night.  Thus, “sleep tight.”

Another theory is that “tight” is old English for soundly, properly, efficiently.  Personally, I like the sailors’ version better.

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“Snug as a bug in a rug.”   It is hard to pin down this expression, but it can be broken down word by word.  The origins may not have anything to do with bugs or rugs.  The expression means to sleep comfortably and soundly and is thought to be a whimsical adage from the 18th century.  “Snug” can be traced back to the 16th century when it meant a parlor inside of an inn or pub.  This form of “snug” is still used in Irish pubs where small walled off areas provide privacy for couples and small groups.

According to several sources, “snugge” meant “neat, trim, well-prepared” until 1630 when John Lane used the word “snugginge” to mean comfortable.  “Bugge” meant ghost or ghoul.  In 1642, Daniel Rogers used the word “bugge” to mean insect.

It is believed that the expression “Snug as a bug in a rug” was in full use in 1769, but rugs as we know them were not around.  At the time, a “rug” was a thick woolen cover for a bed–basically, a blanket.

So, the origins of “snug as a bug in a rug” could actually translate as “well-prepared as a ghost in a blanket.”

Benjamin Franklin is usually credited with the adage. However, evidence shows that the expression was around long before Poor Richard’s Almanac.  Benjamin Franklin used it as a epitaph in 1772 for a pet squirrel named Skug.  “Here Skug lies snug as a bug in a rug.”

In 1769, a Shakespeare  festival advertisement in the Stratford Jubilee printed, “If she has the mopus’s, I’ll have her, as snug as a bug in a rug.”thWH1180F4

Many adages are from the Bible.  Some are verbatim while others are based on words or stories in the Bible.  These include:

  • An apple of one’s eye (Psalms 17:8)
  • To the bitter end (Proverbs 5:4)
  • By the skin of your teeth (Job 19:20)
  • Cast the first stone (John 8:7)
  • The eleventh hour (Matthew 20)
  • An eye for an eye (Exodus 21:24)
  • Kiss of death (based on Judas’ kiss in Gethsemane)
  • Old as Methuselah
  • Pride goes before faith (Proverbs 16:18)
  • Wash one’s hands of it (based on Pilate’s washing of his hands)
  • Wolf in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15)open-bible-hi

Can you think of others?

Some adages are ancient while others are fairly new.  It is fascinating to look at our language and its roots, contemplating how we, as writers, create our stories.  Who knows?  A sentence you write may become the next popular adage.

Write your list of adages in “comments” below.