On Writing


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Nose-to-grindstoneDear friends,

Even the queen of procrastinators (yours truly) eventually has it all catch up with her!

I am currently working on the first of a three-book series about three young (mid-twenties) women who attended the same girls’ boarding school in their teens.  Although the three come from well-connected families, they are all independent-minded “bluestockings” who operate, not at all unhappily, outside the central circles of society.

Getting the first book off and running has been something of a chore—and remember: I am the queen of procrastinators!  The deadline for the finished first novel is June 30.  (Arrgh!)  I have five chapters written (of a projected 22-25).

Hassles aside, I’m enjoying the work. It is a take-off on the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady story with my heroine taking the Pygmalion/Professor Higgins role.  Set in 1814, it also involves political intrigue around Napoleon’s exile to the island of Elba.  I hope you will like it.

So—I am taking leave of the blogosphere for a while—at least a month—but I shall return!  Hope to reconnect (resume?) with you then.


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Several writers provide “go to” therapy when I am feeling down, or when my own writing hits a glitch and I want to get away from it for a while. But if a work by one of these fails to lift me out of the slump (of either kind!), I am hugely—profoundly—monumentally disappointed. And this happened to me recently. 😦

No, I am not naming names. Suffice it to say that this is a writer who has written dozens of books and I have enjoyed almost all of them. But not this one. And this was neither an early work nor her latest offering. (Yes, it was a female writer and yes, it was a romance novel.)

Let me make perfectly clear that the writing itself lived up to the author’s usual excellence. (Sheer professionalism can make up for many a fault.) The sentences flowed nicely. Details were chosen carefully, giving the reader adequate grounding in setting. The basic premise of the story could have worked very well.

So, what, then, did I find so off-putting? This very experienced writer fell down in areas that one is more likely to see in the works of a newbie.

The characters—even the hero and heroine—were merely “stock figures.” You know: those that scream to the reader “I am an irresistible hero/heroine of a romance.” Perfect people—he, big and handsome and masterful and immediately able to solve every problem; she, not only tiny and beautiful and (of course) “feisty,” but also so damned knowledgeable and quick-thinking that she could have resolved all those issues all by herself but for the fact that the story (or an editor?) required lusty male-female sex scenes. The minor characters, which included a bitchy old dowager and a requisite set of villains, were simply clichés.

The story itself was weak. From the beginning (the very entrance of the hero!) the story is so dependent on coincidence that it challenges even the most willing reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. The resolutions to all the problems that beset the h/h come far too easily—and too often from outside themselves (fairy godmother figures sweep in to save the day).

Finally, in a manner typical of many less able writers, this one fails to provide a sense of “value” to many of the descriptions. The reader is often distracted by extensive (albeit well-written) passages about things or incidents that are not important enough in the story to warrant that much attention. When everything is of equal importance, nothing gets special attention. In other words: the pacing is off.

Will I read any more by this writer? Of course I will. Anyone can have an “off day” now and then.


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Some people seem to think a great novel or painting or piece of music just springs fully developed out of the artist’s head like Athena in full armor from the head of Zeus. Nor do those make any distinction between the works of, say, William Faulkner and Jane Austen and those of John D. MacDonald and Nora Roberts.

For years I had the occasional student (or parent) who accused me of being an intellectual snob because I refused to teach the books they were enjoying so much on their own. I think I finally did convince some of them (by no means all of them!) that, indeed, there are many kinds of novels available to us and we may enjoy all of them for what are and for the pleasure they give us, either momentarily or repeatedly. (I always tried to avoid terms like levels of appreciation or meaning.)

Meanwhile, I continued to teach works that merited the class time for discussion and the students’ time and effort in writing papers delineating their own views of a given text. Even as I was teaching Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare, I would go home and read Georgette Heyer. And I make no apology for what may seem a double standard (if not hypocrisy!). I think occasionally we need to just lose ourselves in pure entertainment. As Francis Bacon said before the novel as we know it was even invented: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested . . .”

Nor do I make any apology for the fact that the books I write offer only a few hours of entertainments. (I would like to write a book like The Scarlet Letter or For Whom the Bell Tolls, but so far such work eludes me.) Nevertheless, I and thousands of others work hard at honing our craft. I think I have written in this space before that when I first started writing fiction, I had been teaching expository writing for an eon or two. I thought I knew it all about putting words into sentences and paragraphs, etc. Well, I did—so far as it went. Which wasn’t nearly far enough! Fiction is a whole different game (to resort to cliché).

So I devoured (and still do) “how to” books on writing fiction. Books on creating believable characters, on plotting, on the use of setting to establish mood, on writing dialogue, and so on. I read (and reread) John Gardner and E.M.Forster and Christopher Vogler and, later, Stephen King on writing fiction. I read Anne Lamott and Eudora Welty. I have learned hugely from these and many others, but mostly I have learned (over and over) from just doing it—that is, from just writing and then submitting my work to the crucible of critiques from other writers. For me, these were/are the members of Lone Mountain Writers in Carson City, Nevada. They never fail to help me make my work better!

The Jackson Pollack image aside, painters don’t just toss bits of color onto a canvas and hope it will turn out to be something. That is not the way we got the Mona Lisa or Guernica. Nor did Mozart or Copeland just effortlessly produce those sounds that move us so. Rodin made image after image before he had what he wanted in sculpture. Jane Smiley and Tony Morrison struggle to produce those award-winning novels. And I am here to say that so do those who are producing the who-done-its and the romance novels so many find purely entertaining!


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This should come as no surprise to any with whom I share even the briefest acquaintance: My favorite non-fiction reading is history. My favorite novels tend to be historical fiction.

When I was researching my WWII book, In Enemy Hands, I devoured the works of John Toland and Stephen Ambrose and a host of others. I marveled at the true experiences of women spies in the conflict and loved the “first person” accounts written by military men on both sides. I’m still very enthusiastic about that period and just read an enjoyable novel by David John, Flight from Berlin, which deals with the 1936 Olympics and the Hindenberg. (I know they sound totally unrelated, but John makes the story work.) Oh! And if you’ve not read The Book Thief, hie thee to a library or bookstore immediately!

For historical eras prior to the 20th Century, I like the diaries kept by women who traveled the Oregon Trail and dozens of other accounts of pioneers, including some only slightly fictionalized, like Honore Morrow’s On to Oregon. And going back even farther in the human journey, I love the eleven-volume
Series on western civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. Unfortunately, it ends with The Age of Napoleon. Their work is so well researched and so well written that it is truly a shame they died before getting into the industrial revolution and beyond. Their work is sometimes disparaged as “popular history,” but not many want to muck around in old archives with original documents, and the Durants give us marvelous portraits of the people who made history. Would that someone could pick up where they left off and bring us up to date. . . .

Many writers have tried to give us sequels to famous novels such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In that instance, they have mostly failed to live up to the standards of the original (but I admit to being something of a purist where JA is concerned). Ditto with that sequel to Gone with the Wind that garnered so much attention several years ago. However, I would very much have liked to see what Austen and Mitchell themselves might have done with the characters they created. I would also like to see the books Dostoyevsky had planned to follow The Brothers Karamazov. Or a Hawthorne prequel to The Scarlet Letter. Don’t you think the love triangle between the sensual Hester, her cold, scientific husband, and her devoutly spiritual lover would be a great read?

I would be willing to bet that J.K. Rowling did not originally plan that many books for Harry Potter, but she just fell in love with the characters. I’ve heard many of a writer saying, “I thought I was finished with thus-and-such, but so-and-so just had to have his or her own book.”

Did I mention I am in the throes of writing a series???


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I’m baaaaack . . .

As a writer, I mean.

As a “real” writer—of fiction. Imaginative fiction. (Not, mind you, that there’s another sort of fiction!)

I have suffered—fretted, subjected myself to all sorts of self-flagellation—with what is euphemistically labeled “writers’ block” for nearly a year. Well, sort of. I have, indeed, written—just nothing new. Obviously, I’ve written regular blogs, along with a few letters, some e-mails, and snippets on Facebook here and there. I also messed around rewriting several chapters of what I call my “wagon train book.” I’m maybe a third of the way through that one—and I’m stuck—again! Just cannot seem to get those folks very far into the Oregon journey.

But about six weeks ago I received some solid incentive. First of all, I got a large (for me) royalties check in the mail. Money is always a nice carrot to motivate the muse. The check, though, was followed by an offer of a contract for a series of three books! Regencies—but what the hey!—that is my period. At least one of them. So, back to the back burner with the wagon train thing. Will those folks ever make it to Oregon? I hope so. . . .

Ideas for Regencies have been fermenting ever since that check and the offer.

Yesterday, I sat at the computer all day and pounded out the first draft of the first chapter of the first book of my three-book series! The whole chapter! In one day!

You did note that I said “computer.” It remains to be seen whether I have really turned a corner, but—yes—I wrote the first draft of that first chapter directly on the computer! Heretofore, as some of you know, I have always written my first drafts by hand in cursive on standard composition paper with a no. 2 pencil. That was the way I started out a hundred years ago, and that is, by golly, the way I have carried on! Now, if this trend holds, I will surely have graduated.

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Or drag an obstinate senior citizen into the 21st Century?


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Christmas JoySome of my readers may be familiar with a novella I wrote a few years ago called “Christmas Joy” about a kitten that helps a little girl traumatized by her mother’s death. What many of you may not know is that I am not especially fond of cats.

No, I don’t dislike them; at worst, I’m indifferent and ignorant about felines. But I could not turn down an editor’s offer to write a novella even if it had to include a kitten. So I went out and bought a book on kittens and Googled cats and wrote the story. Wouldn’t you know “Christmas Joy” has been my most enduring success?!

Two years ago in late spring a TV repairman, searching for a good location for a cable said, “Those two kittens under your deck are real cute—and curious.” My reaction was, “Kittens? What kittens?” Turns out a mama cat had, a week or so before, decided that a spot beneath my deck was a perfect (purrfect?) place for her delivery room.

She was, of course, a stray, but she was not a wild, feral cat. She was obviously used to people. But her babies were not. And there were not two kittens, but six. Five with yellow and white stripes and one black and white one (I think I later identified both fathers as neighborhood pets.). Just as obviously she was a nursing mother and she and the babies were hungry.

What was I to do with seven hungry cats?! I called animal control who referred me to ARGONN (the Animal Rescue Group of Northern Nevada). Wonderful organization, that. It took a while for the rescue—nearly two weeks—during which I fed mama and her babies and delighted in the antics of the kittens. I had no idea there were so many kinds of cat food! And those babies were so darn cute!

Ignorant as I was/am about felines, I was sorely tempted to keep two of those kittens. But that summer I was to be gone for extended periods of time. It just was not practical. ARGONN assured me they would get proper care—shots, neutering, and then be given to good homes.

I was reminded of this adventure when a former student, Hannah Toon, posted a similar story on Facebook. I still kind of wish . . .

One More Day at 99¢

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People tend to get really upset if you mispronounce their names and are quick to set you straight (“No, it’s Carolyn, not Caroline.”)—even if you both know your acquaintance is to be very brief as one of you, say, writes out a receipt.

Well, we are just as persnickety about place names. A curse on you if you stumble over the name of someone’s hometown or home State. Never mind what Americans do to the names of some foreign locations. Anger in France is not a homonym or synonym for rage. It is “An’jay.” The Germans call one of their largest cities Munchen, not Munich. And in London Leicester Square is Lester Square, not Ly’cester.

Even on our own turf we are likely to run into issues. Perhaps those politicos seeking national office should have one of their aides deal with language when they are campaigning out in the boonies. Local pronunciations can be somewhat mystifying—but woe betide the pol who screws it up.

Some examples:

People in Illinois don’t pronounce that s on the end. Best you leave it off, too.

Folks in the “show me” State don’t say “Missouree” (sounding like misery). They call it “Missouruh.”

Out west you’d better flatten that first a in Nevada like the a in the word had. God help you if you say “Nevahdah”—even though that is the pronunciation most often used when discussing the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Oregon is NOT Ora gonne’ as in “gone and left us.” It is Ore’gun. Also in Oregon, that beautiful, fertile valley and its river is the Wil lam ette (middle syllable sounding like lamb), not the Will a mette (though, admittedly, that is a prettier way of saying it). Likewise Washington State’s apple producing Yakima Valley is the Yak i mah, not the Yakeema as at least one not-so-knowledgeable network reporter put it recently.

God knows how or why we have Kansas which seems easy enough, but Arkansas is Arkansaw. How’d that happen?

Are those eastern mountains the Appalaychans or the Appalatchans? Or something else?

Don’t you just love language and dialects?


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While I fully understand and endorse the modernists’ wish to be gender neutral in writing about general topics, I sometimes find their efforts to be politically correct so annoying that I lose interest in the points they are trying to make.

For example: A writer’s primary goal is to communicate clearly. He or she strives to present his or her information precisely in order to be sure his or her reader will “get” exactly what he or she is offering him or her. OK. I made up this ludicrous exaggeration, but I think you get the picture.

I recently read an otherwise quite useful book—on writing, yet!—in which the author attempted to solve the problem by using s/he. I found that slash thing even more irritating than having those pronouns spelled out—and somewhat pretentious at that. In discussing the possibility of writer’s being interviewed on television or radio as part of a book promotion, she (the author was, indeed, female) wrote this gem:

Don’t expect the host to make you look good. S/he wants to look good. It’s his bread and butter.

The word host is clearly masculine, and the writer acknowledges that fact in “his bread and butter.” So what the devil is the point of that distracting S/he in the second sentence? Other than wanting to impress her reader with her own grasp of what is and is not PC?

Teachers of English grapple with this issue all the time. A possible solution may be to use second person (you), but formal discourse is rarely presented in second person. Or, one may use the distancing one, only to find the problem cropping up later: Is that one a he or a she, a him or a her? I used to advise my students to use the third person plural forms (they, them, their) as a possible solution—but to guard against illogical problems in agreement (e.g., “a writer wishes to entertain and inform their reader”).

English is such a versatile language that there is almost always another way to phrase an idea.

“The Memory of Your Kiss”

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The Memory of Your Kiss