Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween!

Elizabeth Zelvin

What can I say about Halloween that hasn’t been said before? In the Middle Ages, when most people’s day ended with the fall of dark and midnight was really, really late, it was the eve of All Saints or All Hallows Day, the time when spirits roamed the earth and people got really, really scared at the prospect.
In Mexico, it’s the eve of the Day of the Dead, a national holiday that’s taken very seriously as a time to honor departed loved ones and remember one’s own mortality, with reminders in the form of skulls and skeletons. In the USA, it’s become a secular holiday that can be either cute or nasty.

In the innocent 1950s, when I was growing up in Queens, “trick or treat” was a benign tradition. In fact, I don’t remember anything but “treat”—going from house to house collecting candy, which we were allowed to eat, not all at once, but without the faintest shadow of a security check. By the time my son went trick or treating in Manhattan, there was no question of a nine or ten-year-old making the rounds without a parent’s supervision, unwrapped candy had to be rejected, and the kids had already had the lecture about how a bad person might insert a razor blade in an apple.

Nowadays, my granddaughters go only to known neighbors’ houses, dressed in adorable but expensive outfits, not the homemade costumes of my younger days. The older one’s been Cinderella, Hermione from Harry Potter, and Medusa, the little one’s been a cow and a fairy princess, and they’ve both been the Queen of Hearts. In my city apartment building, children trick or treat on the premises but only ring the bells of the apartments posted as willing on a list in the elevator. Jack-o-lanterns made with real pumpkins and candles are discouraged as a fire hazard and an excuse for playing with sharp knives. Parents already burned out on sugar-rush birthday parties and paying for expensive orthodontia are not eager to let their kids binge on candy.

Getting into costume is another story. In certain parts of Manhattan, including Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side, where I live, both grownups and kids dress up, and it goes on for as long as a week, even if you don’t make it to the legendary Christopher Street Parade. Cats with whiskers and fairies with wings are popular, and all the little girls get to be princesses and ballerinas. My granddaughters have plenty of options. They have tutus and grass hula skirts and leis and mermaid tails. In fact, for them, dress-up is not an annual event, it’s a state of being.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When an author visits your book club...

By Sandra Parshall

The burden of book promotion falls mostly on authors these days, and we’re all looking for new ways to reach readers. A lot of us are willing to talk by telephone or Skype with small book discussion clubs, or appear in person if the group is within a reasonable distance.

Sometimes it’s a rewarding experience, a chance to talk about our books with dedicated readers who want to explore themes, plots, character motivations, and everything that goes into creating a fictional world. If we’re lucky, we’ll make new fans who will buy our future books and recommend our work to friends. At the very least, we’ve had a good time.

But occasionally a book club meeting feels like a verbal mugging, with the writer as the invited victim.

Most of the groups I’ve met with have been great. Recently I had an experience, though, that was almost enough to make me swear off book clubs forever. And I’ve heard stories from writer friends about the times they’ve gone out of their way to attend meetings, only to spend an hour or more holding their tongues while a group of strangers trashed their books.

A Facebook thread on this topic brought an outpouring of comments from authors, readers, and librarians about what mystery writer Robert Walker called “get-the-author syndrome.” Everyone agreed that an invited writer should be treated like any guest, with courtesy, and hitting him or her with a barrage of complaints is rude and hurtful.

I’ve distilled those comments and my own observations into a few guidelines for book clubs that invite authors to their meetings. If your group is the slash-and-burn type that delights in shredding the work, egos, and hearts of writers, nothing I say will alter your treatment of guests. But the majority of readers are considerate people, and I hope those who fall into that category will take this as a helpful dispatch from the other side of the writer-reader divide.

If most of your group members dislike the book, don’t ask the author to be present while you discuss it.

Face it: If you dislike a book and have any consideration for other people’s feelings, you won’t speak as freely with the author present as you could in a private meeting.

You have a perfect right to hate a novel and tear it apart, if that’s the kind of “discussion” you enjoy. Out of common courtesy, you shouldn’t expect the author to sit and listen, in person or on the telephone.

The longtime co-leader of a mystery book club told me, “We don't invite authors of books that the majority of the group haven't cared for. However, we have never trashed an author even in absentia for her/his choices... When the group doesn't like a book, we determine why; writing, subject, location, interactions, whatever.” She added that if a group does nothing but criticize a book, “they don't understand the reason to have a book group.”

Remember that the author is your guest and behave accordingly.

Treat the author as a guest speaker. Let her talk a bit about the book, what inspired her to write it, what she hoped to accomplish with it.

With crime fiction in particular, you have many things to focus on: the story’s themes, the level of suspense, the plotting, the villain’s motives, the relationships between suspects and the victim(s), the protagonist’s motivation for solving the mystery and the way he/she goes about it. Ask questions about things that puzzle or displease you, but do it politely, and always respect the author’s choices. Don’t argue and insist the book should have been written differently. She has poured a year or more of her life into this work, and she hasn’t come to hear how you would have written her novel.

The book is finished and published. It was probably reviewed favorably, or you wouldn’t have chosen to read it. It is what it is, and the author won’t rewrite it and put out a new edition to please you. Announcing aggressively that you hated some aspect of it isn’t likely to generate an enlightening discussion. Ask what led the writer to make the choices she did and why she felt the story had to go in that direction.

If the novel has been widely praised by other readers, as well as professional writers and respected reviewers, perhaps you should try to understand why instead of telling the writer that everybody else was wrong and your negative opinion is the correct one. Maybe it’s simply not your sort of book and you shouldn’t have read it in the first place.

Amy Benabou, a librarian with Virginia Beach Public Libraries, said that in her 30-plus years of working in a public library, hosting many authors and currently facilitating a book discussion group, she has never witnessed anyone saying anything rude to a guest author. She believes that no one should expect a writer to turn up just to be bullied.

Remember that attacking the protagonist may feel like a personal attack on the author.

For many – probably most – writers, the creation of a lead character is deeply personal. A book’s hero or heroine comes from a more intimate part of the author’s heart and mind than other characters may. Writers live with their protagonists day and night, in some cases for many years, and feel close to them. There’s a reason many writers call their protagonists their children or their best friends or their alter egos, the people they wish they could be.

Don’t launch a “discussion” by flatly declaring, as someone did of my protagonist, that you disliked the lead character from the start and liked her less and less as the book went on, that you found her cold and selfish and didn’t understand any of her actions, that you “wanted to shake her” for doing some of the things she did, and you thought she was a poor choice for a protagonist because she was totally unsympathetic.

How is an author supposed to respond to such a breathtakingly rude statement? Frankly, she’d be justified in telling you to go to hell, then walking out. Stop and ask yourself: If you were in the writer’s shoes, how would you react to a group of strangers saying such things directly to you?

Instead, perhaps you should come up with courteous questions about the character’s motivation, the events in her life that have shaped her, how the author views her, how the character’s actions move the story forward or create conflict, and how her experiences during the story have changed her. You might also ask yourself why other readers and reviewers like and admire the character you detest.

A book club meeting with the author present can be fun and informative on both sides – but only if the group recognizes that writers are human beings with feelings, people who take pride in their work, and expect to be treated that way.

If you hate a book, that’s your right. Tear it to pieces in your meeting if that’s your inclination. But leave the author out of it. She has better things to do with her time, such as staying at home and working on her next novel.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Balance Game

Sharon Wildwind

Last week I wrote about ways to reduce, reuse and recycle ideas. Click here if you want to read that blog.

Writing isn’t just an ideas game. The history of writing is also the history of technology. Tools make certain results possible. When the typewriter came along, it upped the amount of writing that could be turned out.

Tools also set limits. When a tool is no longer made, or we’ve lost the knowledge of how to use it, possibilities disappear. When a new tool appears, possibilities increase. Therein lies a problem.

It takes a long time to learn the limits of a new tool. In the short story To Bring in the Steel by science fiction writer Donald Kingsbury, a character has a bad experience taking up pottery as a hobby. She’s stopped from giving it up by another character who tells her that she won’t know if she’s any good at pottery until she’s spent 1,000 hours getting to know the limits of both clay and the potter’s wheel. There’s a phrase in our house, “This is part of Kingsbury’s 1,000 hours.”

I once worked on a hospital unit where two women job-shared the evening unit clerk position. At shift’s end, there was frequently some clerical down time.

Typing e-mail and looking up lab results was the extent of their computer skills. One of the women used her down time to practice typing. At least that was more work-related than playing tetras or solitaire. The other woman started by exploring the word processing program’s Help feature. She moved on to learning what each drop-down menu button did. Can you guess which one got promoted within six months?

Essential writing tools are simple: a mark-maker, usually ink, pen, typewriter, or computer/printer with word processing software. A markable surface: paper or a computer screen. A way to check spelling and grammar. Everything else is gravy. It’s the gravy where we often get bogged down, especially if that gravy involves electronics, software, and the Internet. Social media is interesting. It’s a tool/method hybrid where we often have to learn both components at the same time.

Remember Home Improvements, the television program about guys and tools? Tim Taylor’s take on tools was bigger, faster, nosier, and  more powerful. Al Borland had a different idea. I like Al’s approach.

Know why I need a tool, and what the tool I’m buying does.
Compare similar tools from different manufacturers.
Buy the best tool I can afford.
Limit the number of tools on hand.
Use each tool in as many ways as possible. (Safely, of course)
Take care of tools. 
An old tool, in good repair, that’s still doing what I need may be preferable to a new tool.
A tool of any age, in bad repair or one that has stopped doing what I need, is a bad idea. It’s time to move on.
Be as green as possible when disposing of tools. Old electronic gizmos are especially toxic in landfills.

Method is voice. It is the filtering of ideas through the body and tools, across time and space. An idea never remains pure. Tools, space, and time distort the idea. Other ideas come along. A tool doesn’t work exactly as we thought it would. Our body surprises it in what it refuses to do.  All writing is layers, and by the time we lay the last layer down, chances are the first layer, the original idea, has all but disappeared.

Hands-on is the only way to develop good methods. Pen, ink, and paper were pretty easy to figure out. Computers, software and the Internet not so much. Hands up, all of us who use a writing program. My hand is up. Now, hands up all of us who understand at least 90% of the features on that program? 75%? 50%? 25%?

I figure I come in at about 35% on the programs I use. Even at that low level, I still manage to write books and plays. Imagine what I could do if, like that forward-thinking unit clerk, I’d devoted time to learning more features, one-by-one. I'd be strengthening not only my writing, but my method and voice as well.

Quote for the week
The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time.
~Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), American author, poet, philosopher, naturalist, tax resister, historian, and transcendentalist

Monday, October 28, 2013

Time Getting Faster--an Illusion or a Reality?

by Julia Buckley

If you Google a phrase like "Time is Accelerating" you'll get all sorts of interesting results.  Some science sites suggest this is actually true, especially the farther you are from the earth's surface (therefore, theoretically, time would pass more quickly upstairs than downstairs).  Another science site suggested that the "earth's pulse" was increasing, that it was currently at twelve, and when it reached thirteen it would stop and reverse direction.

Hmm.  None of that really helped with my dilemma of why my weekends always disappear before I complete my required tasks--not to mention how my whole year disappears before I realize that a whole year has actually gone by.

I found a  more workable solution at Psychology Today, which suggested that my perception of time is just that--my perception--and that aging makes me perceive it differently because I have fewer "firsts" in my life to make time seem to stand still, or to make moments last forever.

According to Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D, time can seem distorted around big life events--that is, things can appear long at the beginning, but then seemingly accelerate to a quick end, as in a long vacation.  On day one, Riggio asserts, the vacation seems eternal.  But then time seems to accelerate and the end is there before one knows it.

He suggests that this is partly due to perception and attitude, and that in order to combat this feeling of accelerating time, one must maintain positivity.  As a teacher, I see this phenomenon with students and teachers and the notion of summer vacation.  In May and June, summer seems endless and vacation seems long.  But the minute July comes along, a dread creeps in: soon it will be August, and with August comes  the return to school.  It actually affects the quality of enjoyment of these weeks off, and it is a self-inflicted punishment.

Riggio says that we should bring all elements of time together in our positive mindset, focusing only on happy memories of the past, living in the present as much as possible, and holding a pleasing and optimistic view of the future.

Probably easier said than done, but certainly a good mantra to help combat the accelerating time phenomenon.  It is, after all, in the way one thinks, and I tend to think in panic mode, as in "I don't have enough time!"

Perhaps I need to take a page from Riggio's book and try to enjoy the present moment, letting the future take care of itself.  This is a difficult task for a type-A, achievement-centered personality, but I think it's a healthier attitude in the long run.

Do you ever feel that time is accelerating? That your years are tumbling by more rapidly than they once did?  And what, if anything, do you do to combat the feeling?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Legend of Sleepy Hollow

By Jeri Westerson

I can't pass through October without watching Disney's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at least once, their take on Washington Irving's short story. You can't beat Buh-Buh-Bing Crosby's narration and singing in this very much of its time classic from 1949. My favorite song from it is, of course, the story Brom Bones tells at the Van Tassel's harvest party about the Headless Horseman with the tagline, "You can't reason with a headless man." Superb! And then of course the chase to the covered bridge!

I read this story many years ago now. The story was published in 1820, but is set in 1790 when the country was new. Set in the mythical town of Sleepy Hollow near the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town, New York, the stage is set for a creepy tale with the town's own legend. The Headless Horseman is supposed to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier who got his head blown off by a cannonball. But is this a real legend or is it trumped up by Brom Bones to scare off his rival the school teacher Ichabod Crane? In any case, Ichabod is trying to propose to Katrina, the only child of
the wealthy farm owner Baltus Van Tassel, but he is scuttled. That night, riding home from the party, Ichabod encounter the Headless Horseman and the next day his horse is discovered wandering and his hat lies next to a shattered pumpkin by the bridge. But Ichabod is nowhere to be found. Did Ichabod have a ghostly encounter with the Horseman and get whisked away as the women of the town think, or was it Brom Bones in disguise harrying the schoolmaster and scaring him out of town...or worse? Katrina ends up marrying Brom Bones who is said "to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related". The "Legend", it turns out, is not about the Headless Horseman, but about Ichabod's encounter with him.

Though thought of as a strictly American tale, it has its roots in European tales of the supernatural, of a ghostly chase, and even a headless horseman. German ghost stories seemed fond of featuring headless horsemen of varying kinds, usually a "huntsman" riding about the countryside dispatching those of loose morals. Even J.K. Rowling alludes to this in one of her Harry Potter books when the ghost Nearly Headless Nick bemoans the fact that he cannot join the headless hunt (he's not headless enough). Irving was in Europe at the time he wrote The Sketch Book, a group of short stories in which "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was included.

I know the story and cartoon influenced my childhood and the things I liked to read. It's a very moody piece. It's still influencing me now. In fact, my new urban fantasy series, THE BOOKE OF THE HIDDEN, is based in a small New England town with ghostly things happening. Oh yes. And I set it in the fall.

The Horseman and Sleepy Hollow have even returned in a new television series, "Sleepy Hollow," with an Ichabod Crane awoken after 250 years to try to stop the end times (the Headless Horseman being one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, apparently) with the help of a modern female sheriff. That Ichabod is worth fighting over! (See the picture above)

And then there was the ill-fated movie version with Johnny Depp. The less said about that the better. 

Here is a link to the Disney cartoon with the song "You Can't Reason With A Headless Man" where Brom Bones relates the story of the Headless Horseman.

And here's the end of the chase. Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 25, 2013

The End of the Trash Saga

by Sheila Connolly

I know you’re all waiting with bated breath for updates on my trash trove (that’s a joke, folks—I don’t know too many people who care about antique junk, especially when it’s reduced to small pieces).  But it would be nice to get the floor back in place in that connected shed, and I really do think I’ve salvaged all the good stuff.  Maybe.

There have been a few interesting finds, like the skeleton of an umbrella, and a cannonball.  Yes, a cannonball.  This house was built after the Civil War, and to the best of my knowledge, no battles took place on this site during that war (King Phillip’s War might be a different story, since this was a Wampanoag neighborhood—but I’ve never found so much as an arrowhead here.)

I mentioned the piles of broken china and glass, and the old shoes (which I still need to sort out and see if they were tossed out in pairs or as singletons—but who loses one shoe?).  And of course, there are the bottles, now numbering more than fifty.  Curiously, the last couple I pulled out were made in Paris, unlike any others.  Perfume?  I’m still trying to figure out what to do with my instant bottle collection.

But being a good archeologist, I wanted to know whose dump it was, and why it was there. And I think I’ve solved that mystery.

The first clue was a unique item:  a coffin plate, which though damaged could still be read.  In case you don’t know, coffin plates were medallions, usually metal (though not necessarily of high quality) that could be attached to a wooden coffin.  Some were specific to the deceased, with name and death date, while others were generic and said something like “Beloved” or “Darling Child” or “At Rest.” Later in the nineteenth century they became souvenirs, and the attendees at the funeral would take them home as a memento.

This coffin plate reads “Nancy Thomas,” and she died in 1863, at the age of 88.  1863 was before this house was built, so the plate must have been saved by a family member.  Of course I wanted to know who Nancy was, and as it turns out, she came from this town, and she was the grandmother of George B. Thomas, who lived in this house from 1897 to about 1906, when his son (also George) sold the house and built himself a new one next door.

I came across two fragments of drinking glasses amidst the trash that bore the name “Thomas,” which confirms my working hypothesis.  A third piece of evidence is that there was legislation enacted in 1906 that limited the use of over-the-counter patent medicines, so presumably all those bottles of mine date to the very early twentieth century.

How the coffin plate ended up in the trash, mangled, is still a mystery, but I have a theory. George junior (a plumber by trade) decided for some reason to sell the “big” house and build himself something slightly smaller and more modern on the adjoining property.  Dad George was getting on in years (he was born in 1841 and fought in the Civil War, so that cannonball may have been his souvenir), and might not have been in full possession of his faculties—so he didn’t protest when young George, in the haste of moving, discarded a lot of useless bric-a-brac that wasn’t to his (or his wife’s) taste.  Much of the trove under the floor fits the era, and I didn’t find anything much from earlier or later. It could have been the Thomas tradition for disposing of their indestructible trash, or it could have been a single deposit (for some reason I can picture someone in the family having a wild time smashing all the bits and bobs they’d hated for years and didn’t want in their shiny new home).

I’m leaving some of the trash where I found it, because it’s too much work to haul it out from there and dispose of it.  I’ve retrieved enough to work out which china patterns were popular (mainly English ironstone).  I want to reassemble of few pieces, mainly as a tribute to the Thomas’s, whose lives have now touched mine.  I’m particularly fond of one decorative plate that has an apple on it—it took me several tries to locate most of the pieces for it. Even though it seems a bit odd to resurrect pieces that were broken over a century ago and discarded, in most of my books I write about the intersection of the past and the present.  I thought I should try it in my own life.




And something new: Coming November, from Beyond the Page Press

Thursday, October 24, 2013

On Your Left! Exerstriding in the City

Elizabeth Zelvin

Working out with my Exerstrider walking poles by striding along a country road is one thing: using them daily in the heart of New York City is another. City folks are less willing to “share the road,” and the many tourists who visit Manhattan tend to be oblivious to the traffic—foot and otherwise—around them as they study their maps and stare up at the tops of buildings. Natives and visitors alike are as likely to be texting on their cell phones as watching where they’re going at any given moment.

“On your left!” is the runner’s equivalent of “Excuse me” or “I’d like to pass.” It can be said politely or belligerently. Faster runners call it out as they breeze by slower runners on the track around the Central Park Reservoir, which you’ve probably seen in movies and which must appear in every foreign guidebook, because so many different languages can be heard every day on the 1 5/8 mile circuit.

Central Park Reservoir track

Central Park, with its 58 miles of pedestrian paths (not counting the track, the bridle path, and the road that circles the park), is my favorite place to go Exerstriding. I’m only a block away from the entrance at West 86th Street. I need to put special tips on my poles for the dirt track, so sometimes I use the pedestrian lanes on the road instead. High-tech bicycles whiz past, horse-drawn carriages clop by, and young people with terrific calf muscles pedal pedi-cabs at $2.50 or $3 per minute.

Path along the lake in Central Park

I usually stride from 86th Street to the bottom of the park (Columbus Circle and Central Park South), then take one of the avenues back up—Columbus, Amsterdam, or Broadway, depending on what errands I have to do. If I take Broadway, I pass Lincoln Center, where I can stop and buy tickets to the Philharmonic or the Metropolitan Opera.

Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

Broadway gets kind of crowded around the popular Fairway market. I can stop and take a shopping break if I’ve remembered to bring along a big sling-type bag to put my purchases in: Exerstriding takes both hands.

Fairway, Broadway

New York is filled with life and color, and I love striding through it. I have only one tiny complaint: As in the country only more so, every few blocks someone makes a crack about snow or skiing.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

It's okay. I don't remember your name either.

By Sandra Parshall

I have forgotten most of the multiplication table.

I know what 6x5 and 6x7 are, and I can add another 6 to get 6x8=48, but 6x9... wait a sec, let me work it out. All of the 9x results are a little out of ready reach these days.

But why should I bother anyway? I have calculators for that sort of thing – several of them, so one is always handy.

Same goes for a lot of information I use to store in my memory. I don’t have to do that anymore because I always have a gadget – right now my favorite is my iPad – to look things up quickly. I don’t even own a smartphone, so I haven’t become dependent on one the way many people have, but I am dependent on my iPad and my computer.

Those don’t help, though, when I’m face to face with somebody whose name I can’t dredge up from the ooze that serves as my memory. I’m not alone in this. Sister writer Lorraine Bartlett (Lorna Barrett) has a big button that says, “It’s okay. I don’t remember your name either.” A lot of us should wear such a pin when we attend a conference with a couple thousand people.

Names bedevil most of it. You might think politicians have phenomenal memories for names, but what they actually have are aides whispering in their ears. Even the Pope has assistants to fill him in on the names of people he’s receiving, together with little details about their lives if they’ve met the Pope before. Having the Pope ask, “How is your mother’s health now?” or tell you, “I was saddened to hear of your mother’s passing” might make you feel important, but don’t get carried away.

Why do humans have so much trouble matching names to faces – and why does the problem get worse as we age?

The obvious answer is that everything gets worse as we age. The brain is just another organ of the body, and it ages along with our knees and hips and skin. And memory is a primary function of the brain.

Until a few years ago, neuroscientists believed that once the memory of an event was physically implanted in the brain, there it stayed in its original form unless destroyed by disease or injury. This theory was so widely accepted that one scientist was awarded the Nobel Prize for “proving” it.

Neuroscientists now know that instead of being hardwired into the brain, unchangeable, a memory is dynamic and can be altered by current experiences. There may be no such thing as a totally accurate memory.

Many experiments and studies have led to the same conclusion: memories are highly malleable, they have a lot in common with imagination, and we are constantly revising them. We frequently haul out our memories, handle them, share them, expose them to our current experiences, and every time we access them we may change them slightly. Our emotional state today can alter our memories of what happened years ago. The more often we recall an event, the more likely we are to embroider it with imagined details, but because it’s so clear in our memories, we’re certain it happened exactly that way.

Furthermore, science has recently learned more about the role of sleep in forming memories. Every living creature on Earth sleeps. That alone is proof that sleep is essential to life. The brain demands peace and quiet, a disconnect from the external world, in which to carry out functions that remain largely mysterious to us. (Dolphins, which spend their lives in water but must surface frequently to breathe air, meet this demand by turning off one side of their brains at a time.) While we slumber, our brains are busy doing... what?

Making memories, for one thing. Scientists have believed for a century that sleep is vital to memory, and in recent years they’ve found proof of that theory. Our memories tend to be better if we get adequate sleep. (All-nighters are not a student’s best route to high test scores.) One current hypothesis is that the sleeping brain sorts through the day’s experiences, emotions, and intake of information, clips away extraneous material to make it all manageable, and stores everything that made a strong impression or fits best with previously formed memories. Small wonder we have weird dreams when all that clipping and filing is going on in our heads.

But back to names. Why do we have trouble remembering them?

Paul Reber, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, answered the question in the November/December 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind. The problem, he said, is that names are arbitrary. Most of them don’t mean anything, so our brains can’t carry out the process of association that it uses to form other memories. What does “John” mean, after all? What does “Sandra” mean? Most names are just sounds. If you meet someone named Summer or Four-Wheel Drive, you’ll have a better chance of remembering what to call that person next time you meet. But with most names, our brain has nothing concrete to associate the sound with, so the name doesn’t stick as a memory.

You can use various tricks to remember a name, such as rhyming it with another word – but be careful that you don’t address Sally as Dally or Cass as Ass next time you meet.

And, yes, it gets harder as we, and our brains, age.

Maybe someone will invent a little gadget that will let us surreptitiously record the face and name of everyone we meet and magically retrieve that information next time.

How would you rate your memory for names? Has your memory in general grown worse as you've aged?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ideas: reduce, reuse, recycle

Sharon Wildwind

Instead of ending with a quote this week, I’ll start with one.

The most common obstacle to achieving a correspondence between imagination and execution is not undisciplined execution, but undisciplined imagination … The artist’s life is frustrating not because the passage is slow, but because the imagination is too fast. … One of the best kept secrets of art making is that new ideas come into play far less frequently than practical ideas that can be reused for a thousand variations, supplying the framework for a whole body of work, rather than a single piece.
~ David Bayles and Ted Orland (photographers, writers, and teachers), Art and Fear: observations on the perils (and rewards) of art and fear.

Reduce the number of saved ideas

The question isn’t “Where do we get our ideas?” The real question is how do we avoid getting too many distracting ideas? We may not do ourselves a favor by jotting down every new idea that comes along.
Ideas are too plentiful. They often distract us from our work in process. That’s a great idea for a play. I should stop working on my short story and write a play instead. This idea would make a terrific poem. Should I stop writing prose and try poetry instead?

 The first issue in idea reduction is, is it a good idea or not to collect every idea? Likely, raw ideas aren’t worth much. If it’s a viable idea, will it reappear until I pay attention to it or is it a one-shot deal where if I snooze, I lose?

Do ideas have a best-before date? I think they do. We grow as writers; the world changes. It’s highly unlikely that an idea I collected several years ago will still resonate now. Every idea saved raises the noise to useful information ratio, making it harder to find the ideas worth saving.

Storage and retrieval is an issue. The real question is not where to jot down ideas, but how to find what we’ve saved? I have about seventy journals that, among other things, contain story ideas. The possibility that I could find ten workable ideas from those journals is nil. There are too many other things in the journals for ideas to pop out at me.

Reuse ideas carefully

I came across a wonderful column by a writer named Jon Gingerich. His opinion is that there are ten common plots that never, ever need to see the light of day again. For details on his ten worked-to-death plots, go here. We can all make up our own lists of story lines we feel have been done to death.

Recycle by building a curated idea bank

So, if we’ve stopped or eliminated saving ideas and are avoiding the never, ever list(s), what’s left?

I suggest we change from raw idea collection to a curated idea bank. Curating was originally applied to museum and archive collections because objects available for salvage and display far exceeded the storage and display space available. The idea of curating information moved to the Internet for the same reasons.

How to create a curated idea bank

Step 1: Jot down ideas in a temporary piece of paper, such as a Post-It Note or index card. Toss all of those papers into a box.

Step 2: At least twice a year --- four times a year might be better --- book half a day for emptying that box. Yes, a real appointment, with the day and time written in our day timers.

Step 3: Discard ideas that now seem weak, flimsy, or have been done to death. Okay, if you’re really nervous about tossing out an idea you may need some day, put it back in the box. If you feel more like flying without a net, toss them out and see what happens.

Step 4: Where you re-record the keeper ideas is up to you, but I do suggest a dedicated idea book. Consider separate pages to each idea. It makes them so much easier to find later.

For the ideas that are still appealing, copy them into your keeper resource, and run them through a brand filter.

Brand contains the core values around which our writing revolves. What traits keep reoccurring in our characters? What values? What outcomes? What settings? I’ve blogged about brands twice before, so there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. If you want more on brands go here or here. If you’re still stuck about what a brand is, send me e-mail.

How does the idea relate to your brand? Where might it fit in your life-body of work? That ties into the idea that Bayles and Orland expressed about finding practical ideas that can supply the framework for a whole body of work, rather than a single piece. It’s not that we plan to write the same story ten times, but it might be that we want to look at different aspects of an idea from ten different angles.

Step 5: Write a 100-word synopsis of how the idea might play out. The secret of avoiding the same-old/same-old that Jon Gingerich thinks we should avoid is called mix-and-twist. Let’s take something from Gingerich’s list. It usually runs something like this: you killed my [fill in relationship], so in this book I wreak vengeance and/or bring you to justice, and likely kill a bunch of other people along the way. How about a mix-and-twist: you killed someone close to me and I mature to a point where I am able to forgive you?

Chances are an idea that won’t stand the brand and mix-and-twist tests won’t go anywhere. We might as well toss it into the idea recycling bin sooner rather than later.

I’m traveling today, coming back from the visit with my writer-friend that I wrote about last week. I won’t be able to respond to comments until Wednesday. Thanks for your patience.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Why Americans Need to Read More Books

by Julia Buckley

A study done in 2009 by the Endowment for the Arts showed some depressing statistics when it comes to reading, writing, comprehension and general enrichment of both young people in school and adults in the workplace.

This is a terrific resource for
writing well and reading effectively.
The overall message was that Americans were reading far less than they once did.  That young people were spending at least two hours watching television, but only seven minutes reading. The study says that  "The number of adults with bachelor's degreees and 'proficient in reading prose' dropped from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003."

The study also showed a statistic that has been discussed on this blog before--that people are reading less and buying far fewer books.

Add to those depressing statistics the recent article on The Huffington Post which stated that, based on a HuffPost/yougov poll, 28 percent of Americans did not read a book last year.

That article did have some happy news, including the fact that more respondents had read physical books than e-books in the past week--suggesting that the proclaimed demise of the printed book might not be as imminent as some doomsayers would suggest.

More troubling than the lack of books being purchased, for me, is the fact that young people AND adults are less proficient in reading.  We should all be troubled by that, for many reasons.  It's not just that it would be nice if people were all able to find the joy that reading can provide in an active way (rather than the more passive activities of watching television or playing video games).  It's also that we are living in a time when a lot of people are throwing around a lot of rhetoric--some of it genuinely crazy.  The less people are able to evaluate the nuances of language, the elements of a valid argument, and the logical fallacies that might be used to create a poor argument, the less we as a nation will be able to address our problems in a rational way.

As a teacher, I consistently ask students not just to read, but to reach higher, challenging their minds with text more challenging than their comfort level. I ask them to think of themselves as scholars, rather than to believe that only other people fit that role. I ask them to expand their vocabularies and to play with words, befriending them and realizing their power.

I'm grateful for every J.K Rowling and John Green whose work sends young people to the bookstores in droves. I'm grateful to all writers and readers and people who encourage reading in children who might not otherwise discover books.  I don't think the trends have to be permanent--but I do fear the direction in which they seem to be taking us.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Calling Dr. Freud...

...or Novel Writing for Fun and Self-Analysis

by Donis Casey

Over the course of my novel-writing career, it has occurred to me to wonder about the psychology of those of us who create whole worlds on paper and populate them with characters who do exactly what we want them to do. Are we indulging in self-psychoanalysis without being totally aware of it? I’ve often pointed out that what readers say to me about my books tells me more about them than it does about the books. So I’d better admit that what I write says a lot about what’s going on in this unfathomable (to me) little brain of mine.

Things change in the course of a life, and what did the trick for you when you were younger may not fill the bill after a while, and time may come for a change. The one constant in my life has been the love of storytelling. I started writing short stories when I was very small. The first story I remember writing was about a girl who turned into a cat. It had pictures and everything. I was an English major in college, and have always been a prolific reader, but I always felt I had to be practical and concentrate on having a successful career, be self-sufficient, make a living. 

I surely did not want to end up like my mother, who drove herself crazy trying to be the epitome of a perfect 1950s wife and mother. So for the bulk of my life, my fiction writing was just for me.  I have a trunk full of short stories dating from the early 1960s, but  before I wrote my first mystery novel, all my published works consisted of professional articles, including a book on U.S. Government tax publications. I’m sure you remember. It was riveting.

I was always fairly successful at my various career endeavors, but I found none of them particularly fulfilling. It took me half a century to realize that maybe I really didn’t want to be a captain of industry or a leader of men. So the day came when I asked myself, Donis, what has always given you joy in your life?  And I had to admit that I’ve always been happiest when I was telling a story.

So I took a leap. I sold my business and went home to write. And interestingly, the book I decided to put my heart into was entirely different than anything I had ever written before. All the earlier books and stories I had written had to do with cool people, usually unmarried, childless professionals, often scientists, always intellectuals, mostly messed up and angst ridden.

But this time I wrote a historical mystery series set in rural Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century, featuring a farm wife with a very large family: Alafair Tucker, who couldn’t care less about cool. How I conjured up this character I do not know, for she could not be less like me.  And yet she obviously is me to some extent, since she lives in my head.   

Am I wish-fulfilling? I don’t have the slightest desire to romanticize her lifestyle. It was tough.  Alafair lives the life I never did, or never could. I couldn’t abide it.  However, it seems I imbue her with all the virtues and strengths I do not have.  She knows what she knows and takes action.  Then once she has, she doesn’t second-guess herself.  I agonize over every decision and sometimes take no action at all.  She’s kind and tolerant of human weakness.  She takes care of everyone.  She’s patient with the follies of others.  Me: not so much. She’s a moderately well-adjusted mother of children, who doesn’t worry about her own shortcomings nor her place in the world, instead of what I am, which we won’t go into.

I never set out to deliver a message or make a statement when I write.  I just want to tell a ripping yarn. However, every time I finish an Alafair Tucker novel I do find myself wondering what Dr. Freud would say about the story.  Alafair is always much more successful at confronting her fears than I am. And she is never afraid to fail. She sticks herself out there.

For the first time in my fiction writing life, I created a character who isn’t hip or svelte or rich or independent or even particularly young. Or male. She goes against all conventional wisdom. Yet I had immediate success with Alafair’s first novel, The Old Buzzard Had it Coming.  Why it couldn’t have happened when I was young and thin and beautiful I don’t know, but we come to our authentic place in our own time, I guess.

Maybe I want to spend time with Alafair because she reminds me of some of the women in my past whom I loved, but didn’t fully appreciate at the time. She is funny, reflective, wise to ways of the world and the ways of kids, and a bit sad because of the losses in her life, like my own mother was.  She’s the center of her family, loving and giving to a fault, adored by her children, and a legendary cook, like my late mother-in-law.  With the best of motives, she’s all up in your business and can drive you crazy, too, like a relative of mine who shall remain nameless, lest she recognize herself (though she won’t. They never do.)

I may have created Alafair out of pieces of women I love, but she’s much more than the sum of her parts.  The great British mystery novelist Graham Greene said, “The moment comes when a character says or does something that you hadn't thought of.  At that moment, he’s alive and you leave it to him.”  I first put Alafair on the page, but then she stood up and walked away, and now I just follow where she leads. And what that tells me about myself I do not know.
Donis Casey is the author of six Alafair Tucker Mysteries, including the recently released The Wrong Hill to Die On.  Donis has twice won the Arizona Book Award and has been a finalist for the Willa Award and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her first novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, was named an Oklahoma Centennial Book. She lives in Tempe, Arizona. Readers can enjoy the first chapter of each book on her web site at

Friday, October 18, 2013

Digging Up the Past

by Sheila Connolly

I do seem to be wallowing in the past lately, don’t I?  Maybe it’s because it’s fall, which is the ending of another year, despite the glories of the foliage.

This time it’s close to home, and the digging is literal.  We live in a Victorian house built around 1870.  It has a barn that once housed a horse and carriage, with a hayloft above (house and barn and what little lawn that’s left occupy a quarter-acre—not large), which suffered a fire in the 1950s and lost most of its interior, and with that its period charm.  The kitchen and the barn are connected by a ramshackle structure that I’m guessing was either the summer kitchen or the laundry room (or both) in the past.

It’s an odd space, cobbled together with salvaged materials from who knows what.  It has four doors, none of which match each other, and two windows, which also don’t match.  And it has lots of rot.

Since my government-employee husband was furloughed and had some free time, we decided this week would be a good time to rip out the floor in there and fix it.  Of course we found more rot than we expected—doesn’t everyone?  But I also found what to me was a treasure:  the house dump.  In one corner of the space, under the floor, was a heap of discarded, broken household items—and I was thrilled.

Okay, I may be crazy.  But I’ve done the genealogy of the house—who built it, who owned it, and who lived here before us.  Early in its life the household included as many as eight people—the owners (a young couple), five boarders, and an Irish serving girl.  I’m still trying to figure out where they put everybody (there was only one bathroom!).  Then the wife’s mother moved in:  the boarders left, and some improvements were made, like heat on the second floor.  The family we bought the house from moved in the week they got married in 1943.

I must have been an archeologist in a former life, because I see a heap of trash and I have to start rummaging through it.  What people throw away tells you a lot about how they lived.  The organic waste is long gone, and paper would have been burned, so what remains is mostly glass and china shards (and a lot of women’s shoes, for some reason).  Most of the glass was broken, except for more than fifty bottles that held patent medicines, vanilla extract, and ammonia (others have no labels or stampings in the glass).  Most have their original corks.  More than a dozen of the bottles contained Atwood’s Jaundice Tonic, a popular cure-all that contained a lot of alcohol.

What I have learned from my dump digging:

--      glass lamp globes were broken with alarming frequency (they’re thin and fragile)—I found many, both plain and fancy.

--      whoever was washing the dishes was pretty clumsy and broke a lot of pieces, both plates and serving dishes, as well as drinking glasses

--      Dinnerware was much smaller back in the day (plates, glasses, serving china), which says something about how our eating habits have changed.
--      There was no discarded clothing, but there was a surprising number of ladies' shoes.

I also found the remnants of at least four chamber pots, plus one intact one.  That explains at least part of how they managed with only the one bathroom.

There were also a few interesting objets that are harder to identify or explain.  Plus one fork and the remains of a wooden toothbrush, the bristles long gone.

What intrigues me is how all this ended up where it did, because there’s no outside access to that corner.  The board above it had a hole cut through it, with traces of lead around the edge, so I’m assuming there was a sink or drain there, with some sort of plumbing).  Was there a loose board, where they pitched anything that wouldn’t decay or burn?  Over what period?  Why there?

Not all the broken pieces were utilitarian.  Some were simply pretty things, and I kept finding myself apologizing to them for someone, now long dead, having been careless enough to break them.  A few bits I may be able to salvage, with the help of SuperGlue.

Why would I do that?  Because together they carry a story about how people lived in this house, and that makes me feel more connected to the past here.  And their trash is a lot more interesting than ours will be to future generations?
P.S. I did find one clue for dating:  there was a broken glass with "Thomas" etched on it.  The Thomas family lived in the house between 1897 and about 1906, which fits well.
One final note (unrelated save that it involves an old house--which will no double reveal a trash dump sometime soon):  my most recent Orchard Mystery, Golden Malicious, was a New York Times Mass Market Bestseller in its week of release.