Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sister Christian

I'm going to branch out from a lovely blog tree-trunk that's been growing today; that is, what is writing to you?

Fantastic topic, so to push it a bit further I want to know what moves you into a writing mindset?

For me, it's a challenge to ever turn off the writing mindset. One of my favorite tales of the writer's life is from James Thurber:

I never quite know when I'm not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, "Damnit, Thurber, stop writing." She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, "Is he sick?" "No," my wife says, "he's writing something."
(Interview with George Plimpton and Max Steele. Paris Review, Fall 1955)

The first time I came across this story I blinked and reread it, all the while thinking "Hey, that's me!" (And my husband rolls his eyes and nods).

I am always writing, it takes very little to push me into story-crafting, imagined dialogues, and scene painting. Tearing myself out of the writing world is much, much harder and quite painful.

This process (lifestyle?) came to mind when I arrived at Target yesterday. I passed through the sliding doors at precisely the same moment as an elderly nun.

Now, as the daughter of a Protestant minister I haven't had a lot of quality nun time in my life.

(Looks like I might have missed out on all the fun)

These days most nuns have eschewed the traditional habit, so they move through the world garbed like the rest of us civilians. Invisible saints.

But this nun was fully bedecked in meditative black and long wimple. I'd guess she was in her eighties. I immediately began to muse about her life and the reason for her visit to Target.

After gathering my Target goods and heading to the check out. I was rather startled when the nun turned up in line right behind me. Her shopping cart contained just a few items...three or four packages. All clothing for an infant.

Moments like these bulldoze me into a writing mindset, as if the universe is channeling a story my way. I've never believed in coincidences.

Questions ballooned in my mind. Why would a nun buy baby clothes and only baby clothes? Orphanage? Relief work? Grand nieces or nephews? Her own grandchildren from a life prior to getting to a nunnery?

The entire scenario struck me as incredibly bizarre.

Stories manifest all around me; from snippets of conversation I overhear, to the way shadows wrap around a tree, to nuns at Target.

Where do your stories come from? How do they evolve?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Research Tactics

One of the things I've discovered through writing are the myriad ways in which my interests in history tie into the novels I create. In the many blogs I read, writers bemoan the frequency with which their creative efforts aren't recognized as "work" by non-writers, but are instead dismissed as a "hobby."

I empathize with this frustration, though I'm fortunate to have family and friends who understand the blood, sweat, and tears that go into writing. Part of the heavy lifting that happens as I write is the research involved in constructing a living, breathing world. To have a well-crafted tale requires significant investment of time and detective work well beyond one's own writing. Each writer creates his or her own methods to get from blank page to finished manuscript.

I began to mull over this process when I read Neil Gaiman's blog entry yesterday. When queried about his research for The Graveyard Book, he mentioned Carlo Ginzburg's The Night Battles. Upon reading this citation I hooted in triumph - I teach this text in my upper level history courses when discussing the intersection of religion and the occult in early modern societies. But I also began to wonder about the whys and wherefores of research for novels - and even more than the whys, the whens.

When and how do you research?

My novels evolve from characters and scenes that seize me, and when I say "seize" I'm not exaggerating. I spend a lot of time daydreaming and often a new character will appear in my mind, demanding all of my attention, with whatever thought, feeling, or problem he or she is facing and the threads of a book begin to weave a pattern in my mind. The novel is the finished tapestry woven from those first threads.

In my writing research adds fine detail to the tapestry and assists my characters in their movement through the plot. My characters hand me research questions to answer, I have yet to encounter a writing project where the birth of a novel was predicated on research. In my current project, the protagonist struggles with her rigidly-structured life, which sent me hunting for philosophies of governance and the natural world. At the end of the day Thomas Hobbes became a major figure in my writing, but he wasn't there at the beginning of the story.

Research gives flesh to the bones, but the essence of the story existed first.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bumper Sticker Dialogues

While my own car doesn't sport any, I like to have imaginary conversations with bumper stickers. Pasted images and taglines on the backs of cars reveal a lot about the state of the world. This afternoon I pulled up abruptly in a parking lot to read this:

"Your body is a temple. Mine is an amusement park."

This line propelled me into a mental conversation that was a more of a confession about my own penchant for clandestine reading of romance novels. As a Ph.D. and P.K. (pastor's kid), such an activity is frowned upon by both academic and spiritual camps. My acts of contrition go like this: if I read three "lit" books I get to read one "romance," much in the way of if I go for that jog I can eat all these french fries. And lo, the guilty self-abuse cycle goes on. But I've decided it's time to come clean and break free. The lovely ladies at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books make the process a little less painful.

Face it. Romance novels are fabulous. It's a great genre, an audacious fearless genre, and it holds the highest market share of the publishing world. Snap.

When I was a little girl I hid romance novels under my bed so I could consume them without discovery (sorry mom). I think the secretive ritual made reading the books all the better. Maybe now that I've written this post my romance novel cravings will drop. But I don't think so. Why? Because those romances that are truly well executed demonstrate the master craft of sustaining tension. The taut emotion and pacing of this genre are what draw such massive readerships.

So I was more than little surprised when in the midst of my last indulgence I slammed up against a tension-ruining wall. It came in the form of a single word.


I kid you not.


Dear author, I appreciate that you're writing a historical romance that takes place in the early nineteenth century and focuses on the lives of the oh-so-proper British upper crust. But please, please do not believe you sustain my rapture if you force me to swallow a word like PULCHRITUDE as a descriptor. To refer back to my previous post about words I can't handle, let's add pulchritude to that list. Stat.

For me pulchritude does not evoke "beauty which pleases the eye," it brings to mind "one who is adept at projectile vomiting."

In the midst of satin stays, heaving bosoms, and sultry gazes I cannot stomach pulchritude. Not for the sliver of an instant. And yet, much to my dismay the word appears not once but a few dozen times in the narrative.

I've somehow found myself in a romance novel that rides like bumper cars.
Hmmmm, this?


Maybe a body like an amusement park isn't the best idea after all. When it comes to the land of love I'd rather be worshiped than jerked around.

Pulchritude?...nuh-uh. It is no good. No good.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

So They Say It's Your Earth Day

Anyone who knows me is aware that I'm a Joss Whedon fan (freak, fiend, fetishizer...well, not quite). My morning ritual involves drinking coffee and catching up on Dollhouse via Hulu. But I caught up and then they ran a silly two-hour Prison Break episode and there was no Dollhouse for me to watch!

To soothe my irritation I decided to watch Firefly again, a brilliant show that led to the film Serenity but sadly Fox cancelled after only one season.

The introduction to Firefly begins with this voice over:

"After the Earth was used up we sought out new planets."

Throughout the series there are sporadic references to "Earth that was."

On Earth Day 2009 I was chilled to the bone by the phrase "after the Earth was used up." The words hit home because I'm working on a YA dystopia that involves ecological catastrophe. To research this novel I turned to two thought-provoking works about the possibilites and problems of human interaction with our home planet. Alan Weisman's World Without Us and Edward O. Wilson's The Future of Life both provocative and enlightening books that I'd highly recommend.

One of the most influential short stories I read as a child involved a couple going to sleep the last day the Earth would survive before being burned up by the sun. They were among the few humans who'd opted to remain on Earth (and knowingly die) rather than board the colonizing ships that departed the planet in search of new homes. (Does anyone know who wrote this story? I swear it was in one of my textbooks for middle school 'Reading' but I can't for the life of me remember the author).

I still get shivers when I think of that story. As much as I love to speculate about other worlds, space, and the future I am deeply tied to this one. I imagined that I would be one of those who stayed behind to die with the Earth (space ships give me terrible claustrophia - in theory. I've never actually been on one, but I totally freaked out on the Ten Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ride at Disney World when I was eleven).

I hope that we can demonstrate wisdom enough so that our Earth isn't ever "used up" and that "Earth that was" results from natural phenomena and not the errors of our poor species.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fruit Basket

All smiles. I just got nominated by two great fellow bloggers for a blog award. I didn't know such a thing could even happen. Thanks to Eric and KLo for reading the blog, for sticking to the writing life, and for the kind props!

The Lemonade Stand Award has a lovely pay-it-forward requirement, so I need to nominate ten blogs. I would have sent the awards right back to Eric and KLo but since they already won I'll go to:

History's Sideshow
Inky Girl
Just Jules
The Urban Muse
Twilight Guy
Bo Burnham
The Muppet Newsflash
Riot Wife
I Stare at People
Nicole Reillan

Happy Reading!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Urban Wild

This morning I turned the corner at the busy intersection of Franklin and Seymour in Prospect Park (my neighborhood) and startled a wild turkey.

Now I understand that those living far from Minneapolis/St. Paul may be inclined to imagine that the entire state of Minnesota is a National Park and/or farms. Contrary to fallacious coastal constructions of the Upper Midwest the Twin Cities are indeed a metropolis, and my neighborhood is not suburban. Our home is near downtown Minneapolis (view from the park's water tower, also known as the Witch's Hat).

Although this isn't my first turkey sighting on a local stroll, it still surprised me.

I don't know how the turkeys got into our neighborhood. Most likely someone set them loose in the park and now they wander through the streets foraging and apparently thriving.

Turkeys are fascinating birds. They move with surprising grace and silence. Gobbles are warbling, low and sonorous. I find it comforting to have something wild make unexpected appearances in my quotidian urban life.

Benjamin Franklin wanted turkeys to have the honor of being the United States' national bird rather than the bald eagle.

Would this decision have caused a ruckus around Thanksgiving? Maybe. Maybe not.

If we'd take a page from Buffy the Vampire Slayer it might make the entire holiday more interesting. In Season 4 "Pangs" Willow and Buffy decide that they'll skip Thanksgiving because the holiday is politically incorrect (they're right, it totally is. Incidentally, I use this episode to teach my students about the problems with mainstream depictions of indigenous histories). Here is Anya's (a sassy ex-demon) response:

Anya: Well I think that's a shame. I love a ritual sacrifice.

Buffy: Not really a one of those.

Anya: To commemorate a past event you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice. With pie.

Zazzle even has a t-shirt to honor this unforgettable exchange.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Spring Musings

It's warm enough to bask in the sunlight sans jacket or sleeves. I sometimes think the brutality of northern winters is worth the ecstatic shock of change when the days finally lengthen and the earth pulses beneath your feet, full of heat and life.

It makes me feel like this:

Or this:

In other news, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick passed away this weekend. Her pathbreaking scholarship had a major influence on my own intellectual trajectory. Here is a great discussion of her contribution to scholarship.

I was terribly disheartened by some the comments following the article, which reveal that despite phenomenal studies like those produced by Sedgwick, we still have a long, long way to go. Along with #amazonfail, it's enough to call in the rainclouds to darken my lovely spring mood.

Let go of the hate, people. Please.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Word Friction

I spend much of my day mulling over words. For the most part I adore words, but a few bother me to the point of distraction. The reason: the sound of the word negates its meaning.

Two key culprits - bucolic and sanguine.

Bucolic. This word purports to evoke benign, pastoral, even soothing settings. For me it's much too close to bubonic. When I picture a bucolic meadow, an image of undulating grasses kissed by a summer wind manifests...but the field is littered with bodies in various states of decay. Like this:

Sanguine. The problem with this word is its relation to sanguinary - one of my FAVORITE words. For any of you who don't know sanguine = enthusiastic, cheerful, optimistic, whereas a sanguinary event involves lots and lots of blood. Or better yet, if you've been exsanguinated you had a date with a vampire that went badly for you, but had a happily-sated nosferatu at evening's end.

Though sanguine has come to dominate the lexicon, sanguinary is the older word, from which sanguine derived. In the past the two words had a more direct affiliation, sanguine also meant a ruddy, flushed complexion (get it? from blood rushing to one's face....aha!) but as language is always evolving and words grow distant from their own origins, at some point the relation of these two drifted apart and now the two meanings have become oppositional.

I stand firmly in sanguinary's camp.

So for me a sanguine pastime equates to turning lazing laps in the pool at your Beverly Hills Estate...but the pool is filled with AB negative instead of water.

(Hmmm, I'm really not sure what to make of the fact that I actually had a successful hit upon Googling "pool filled with blood"...I guess their "Don't be evil" motto went out the window (or was defenestrated for any fellow word freaks out there).

If anyone else has a word they can't stomach, let me know. I'd love to hear your own word sound/meaning divergence quirks.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Not Enough Tears

Sorry for the lack of posts this past week. My aforementioned eye issue came on with a vengeance and sent me running to the doctor's office.

When I sat with blurred vision from my oh-so-dilated eyes, I bit the insides of my cheeks so I wouldn't laugh at the doctor. He'd affixed a contraption to his head that looked like something Christopher Lloyd would have worn in Back to the Future.

The tools of an optometrist hearken back to the 19th century and this office visit convinced me that should I ever write steampunk (which I hope to at some point) I will have a character whose home features mad inventions like those I saw the eye doctor wearing yesterday.

To the diagnosis:

My tears are evaporating too quickly. In less than three seconds. According to the doctor, anything less than ten seconds is a problem.

Apparently the world is so tragic that my tears are madly fleeing into the atmosphere in an ongoing hydrologic/emotive cycle; thus leaving my eyeballs dry and ravaged.

I was sent home with industrial-strength prescription eye drops and a new prescription for my glasses that is supposed to protect my poor eyes from computer glare.

Speaking of sad things, David Arneson one of the co-creators of Dungeons and Dragons passed away this week.

There is a lovely remembrance of him here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What's All This Writing About?

I'm getting a lot of questions about the book, so here's a basic overview.

Title: A Fine, Feathered Fate

Genre: Teen Fantasy

Synopsis: Eliza can't face another day working on her family's farm. She's tired of smelling like manure and pulling straw from her tangled hair when she goes to bed at night. Even as she plots her escape whilst gathering eggs in the hen hutch, Eliza reaches under a clucking chicken and pulls out an egg that is...hollow.

Not only does this egg lack a scrumptious yolk, but its tiny golden latch springs open to reveal a tightly curled note that reads: Wait.

Day by day Eliza returns to the hen hutch to find more and more notes tucked within hollow eggs. She can't bear to leave the farm without unraveling the mystery of each message. Where are the hollow eggs coming from? Who is writing the notes?

The chickens seem pretty normal (and illiterate) except for the rooster, who has taken to following Eliza everywhere she goes on the farm. He's always crowed by Eliza's window at dawn, and his eyes sparkle with intelligence uncharacteristic of vapid chickendom. What could the rooster's strange behavior mean? Is he really a rooster at all? A villain? Prince charming trapped in a feathered, beaked body? Can Eliza save them both from a life of monotonous plowing, planting, and commercial farm production?

The world may never know.

Happy April Fools.

Seriously now, since my novel is with an agent and about to be submitted I can't post about it. When I'm able I will and hope to share lots of good news with all of you.

It's snowing in Minneapolis today - an April Fool's joke from Mother Nature that seems to be repeated in Minnesota every year.