Worth the Wait!

elizabeth strout anything is possible
A friend gave me Anything Is Possible for my birthday. At the time, it wasn’t yet published. When it actually arrived, I was reading something else and my husband—a great Strout fan—eagerly enjoyed my present. He just finished, and I interrupted what I was reading and took it up. And as the headline says, it is worth the wait.

 

This book is another gripping example of linking short stories to form the whole. Remember Olive Kitteridge? It won the Pulizer Prize in 2009, and has since sold over a million copies.
olive kitteridge elizabeth strout
[Source: Amazon]
That was my first exposure to Strout. I love that book. It inspired me to put together a collection of my short stories with a working title of Almost Family. Well, my book is still almost, but in the meantime, Strout wrote The Burgess Boys (among other things).

 

worth wait elizabeth strout burgess boys
[Source: Goodreads]
Frankly, although well-written as always, I didn’t like The Burgess Boys so much; it’s much darker than Olive Kitteridge. So far, Anything Is Possible is promising a great read.

 

It starts with Tommy Guptill, who inherited a dairy farm from his father. The barn and house burned down one night, and Tommy is still haunted by nightmares of the trapped cows. Okay, so that sounds pretty dark. But he moves into town and takes a job as a janitor in the local school and… well, I won’t tell you too much about it. No spoiler alerts here.

 

long homecoming ariel levy
I mentioned recently that The New Yorker of May 1 had an article about Strout by Ariel Levy titled “A Long Homecoming.” The article provides interesting insights about the relationship between the writer and her writing. Her take on Anything Is Possible is “The tone of Strout’s ficton is both cozy and eerie, as comforting and unsettling as a fairy tale.”

 

I’m taking Anything Is Possible on a road trip this weekend. I’ll check back in when I’ve finished the book!

Choosing the Pronoun for Your Purpose

bedford handbook
I read a lot. And the more I read, the more often I’m irritated or distracted by writers who misuse pronouns. Pronouns can be subject (I/you/he/she/it), object (me/you/him/her/it), or show possession (my/your/his/her/its).

 

I came to see you. She gave it to him. The book is yours.

 

Of course, not all pronouns are singular. The plural pronouns serve all the same functionssubject (we/you/they), object (us/you/them), or possessive (our/your/their).
The most frequent offense to my readerly sensibility is confusing subjective and objective pronouns. For example, “Joe and me walked into town.” Or, “The Queen nodded to James and I.”

 

Writers seem most prone to these errors when a pronoun is in a series with proper nouns. In such cases, taking out the nouns makes the correct pronoun obvious. Few would intentionally write “Me walked into town” or “The Queen nodded to I.”

 

Another quick check is to replace the series with a plural pronoun: “Us walked into town” or “The queen nodded to we” glares like a spotlight.

 

Ultimately, correctness depends on intention. “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than I.” What is correct depends on how that sentence would be completed to give the intended meaning. “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than I (am)” indicates regretting poor manners. If it should be expanded as “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than (he is to) I” the “I” should clearly be “me.” In either case, the meaning should be clarified.

 

The above having been said, there are times when a writer can legitimately use grammatically incorrect pronouns. Using the objective as subjective can indicate a lack of education or intellect; alternatively, it can signal a child speaker. For example, “Joe and me went fishing.”

 

Using the subjective as objective can indicate someone striving for elegance, to give the impression of refinement. “The countess was excessively kind to my sister and I.”

 

Technically, the pronoun after is, are, was, or were should be I, he, she, we, or they. “May I speak to Ms. Lawry?” “This is she.”  equals a grammatically correct exchange. If you want to convey formality—or perhaps superciliousness, stuffiness, or age—use this formal construction. However, if you intend a conversational exchange or a casual tone, rephrase.

 

TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS: Know the rules of grammar so you can use them or abuse them to suit your purposes!
 
writers harbrace handbook cheryl glenn loretta gray

The Gift of Rainy Days…

…is that they are the perfect excuse to read instead of weed!
 
Marcel Proust
The only question is, what shall I read? One favorite is a big, fat book to take me through the day and the rainy days to follow this week. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, Proust wrote the longest book in the world—a novel in 13 volumes. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how it differs from a more modern series, such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and subsequent installments. However, I don’t have the former and I’ve read the latter, so I must look elsewhere.

 

flow menstruation
I’m fond of off-beat cultural history, and I haven’t yet read Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation, so that’s one possibility.

 

breath and bones susann cokal
Then, too, a little sex can be entertaining. A few years ago, Susann Cokal gave a talk at the James River Writers Conference on writing effective sex scenes. The main thing I recall is her advice not to put in too much clinical detail and don’t be too explicit. Publisher’s Weekly called this novel “Steamy… [a] literary bodice-ripper.” AND she creates a great historical voice. So, definitely a contender.

 

girl who wants to write
Then again, maybe I’ll go for really non-traditional. The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel in Pictures by Caroline Preston is just that. Each page is covered in pictures, with very few words. My only concern is that it wouldn’t even get me through today.

 

On the other hand, with all the rain predicted this week, why choose just one?

 

Time to stop typing and start reading!

Use Slang and Clichés Effectively

see you later alligator
In my opinion, the best use of slang is setting the time of the story. Using any of the above farewells screams the 1950s. “Gag me with a spoon” is soooo 1980s.

 

Slang has always been with us, evolving from docks, gutters, gambling dens, and society soirees. It changes with the times. That is its strength and its weakness. Used effectively, it lends authenticity to dialogue. But if writing about any time other than the present, tread carefully. Inappropriate slang can ruin the tone and undermine the credibility of the entire story.
dewdroppers waldos slackers rosemarie ostler
As with so many things, there are books for that! When writing “historical” fiction in any genre, books such as this should rest alongside a good dictionary and a convenient thesaurus.

 

A seldom recognized use for really old slang: when used judiciously, it can add freshness to writing.
The Vulgar Tongue Francis Grose
When the meaning is clear but the phrase isn’t current, it can sound creative. E.g., cow-handed to mean awkward, brazen faced to mean impudent or shameless, sugar stick to mean a penis.

 

When not to avoid clichés: when adding authenticity to dialogue. Some say you should avoid clichés like the plague, but at the end of the day, using them is as American as apple pie. Why reinvent the wheel when there are so many kick-ass expressions already out there? Don’t overdo it, but recognize that people really do say things like, “I’m wound tight as an eight-day clock” or “nutty as a fruitcake” or “Keep a stiff upper lip.” Sometimes a repeated cliché can be an effective speech tag for a specific character.

 

Last but not least, browsing a good book of clichés can be informative. Kick the bucket has meant to die since at least 1785!  And keep your shirt on, meaning to stay calm, predates 1854. On the other hand, kick up your heels, meaning show spirit or having a great time, is a far cry from 1500, when it meant to die. So, one more for the reference shelf!

 

use slang cliches effectively dictionary cliches james rogers

Travel Reading

savoring spain portugal
This fall my husband and I are traveling to Portugal and northern Spain, so we are starting our travel reading.

 

For many years, wherever I traveled, I bought a cookbook as a memento of the trip. Three problems with this approach emerged. First, I couldn’t always find a local English language cookbook. In Rome, I went to great lengths to find an English language bookstore only to discover that the cookbooks had been printed in the U.S., and often written by people in the United States! And, of course, there were times when I couldn’t find any cookbooks in English at all.
my portugal
The second problem with buying books while traveling is that there is too much to see and do to read more than bits and pieces.

 

spanish cooking
And, finally, I realized that I’m more likely to read about where I’m going than where I’ve been! So now I read ahead.

 

No doubt you’ve noticed a common element among the books pictured so far. I have a long-standing cookbook collection. But these books are more than recipes! The first two give a great deal of cultural history and geography, talking about ethnic foods and how they came to be. My Portugal is more personal. Although a renowned chef in NYC, his roots are in Portugal. This book contains stories of his time in Portugal, his family, and his experiences as a chef. And all of them contain spectacular pictures of the places as well as the food!
journey portugal jose saramago monica ali alentejo blue
My husband chose Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal’s History and Culture. It is a travelogue—not my usual choice in reading. However, José Saramago was a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, so perhaps I’ll put aside my biases in this instance. Alentejo Blue appeals to me more. It is fiction, set in a village in Portugal, and the author (Monica Ali) is highly praised.
spain reading
One of my favorite ways to enjoy “foreign fiction” is to read some of the country’s best contemporary writers. The Traveler’s Literary Companion is a series, published by Whereabouts Press. Check it out.

 

Perhaps I haven’t convinced you to read your travels, but why not give it a try?

Why Do I Write?

If you aren’t writing to put food on the table, you’re writing to feed your soul. And if you are writing to put food on the table, you are likely on a starvation diet!

 

how much do writers earn less than you think
As you can see from the blue and yellow bars on the graph, the vast majority of writers report earning less than $1000 a year. So what’s in it for us?
 
From college till I left paid employment thirty years later—excepting the occasional lines of private poetry—I wrote only academic articles and research reports. When no longer employed, with no title and no built-in social network, I found myself lost. And depressed. That’s when I started writing Dark Harbor. Mysteries had been my favorite escapist reading, so of course I could write one! I quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing and enrolled in a writing class at the VMFA Studio School. And here I am, three books and more than fifty short stories later, still writing.

 

So why write? Because it’s good for you! In the February 10, 2017, Writers Digest published “11 Reasons Writing is Good for Your Health” by Baihley Grandison. According to Grandison, there are 11 science-backed ways writing improves your mind, body and spirit. Read the whole article, but in the meantime, here are the topics covered:

 

  1. Communicate better
  2. Be smarter
  3. Achieve goals
  4. Increase memory capacity
  5. Boost job prospects
  6. Healthier immune system
  7. Reduce blood pressure
  8. Improve lung function
  9. Boost athletic performance
  10. Heal traumatic and upsetting experiences
  11. Gratitude
6 unexpected ways writing can transform your help
Writer’s Digest isn’t the only source of such assertions. As far back as this Huffington Post article from 11/12/2013,  Amanda L. Chan extolled the virtues of writing by hand to better retain information and build motor memory. Other benefits of writing listed were:

 

  • Expressing emotions through words may speed healing
  • Consider it a fundamental part of your gratitude practice
  • Writing what you’re thankful for could help you sleep better
  • It makes your mind—and body—better
  • It could help cancer patients think about their disease
My own experience with breast cancer and its treatment gave rise to three publications: a magical realism piece, “Beast and the Beauty”; a memoir titled “Hindsight” about altering my view of my mother’s invalidism; and a newspaper essay titled “Repair or Redecorate After Breast Cancer.”
10 reasons why writing is good for you
Jordon Rosenfeld cited ten reasons for writers to keep writing regardless of publication or income. Rosenfeld encouraged sharing his post, so here’s his list:

 

  1. Creativity has been proven to have positive effects on health, self-esteem and vitality
  2. Writing is good for your brain, creates a state similar to meditation
  3. Writing hones your powers of observation, giving you a fuller experience of life
  4. Writing hones your powers of concentration and attention, which is more fractured than ever thanks to technology and TV
  5. Writing connects you with others through blogging, writing groups, live readings, and self-publishing outlets like Scribd and Smashwords
  6. Through writing we preserve stories and memories that may otherwise be lost
  7. Writing entertains you and others, and having fun is an important part of good health
  8. Writing strengthens your imagination, and imagination is key to feeling hope and joy
  9. Writing helps heal and process wounds and grief, clearing them out
  10. Life is too short not to do what you enjoy
vivian lawry author
Why do I write? It keeps my brain sharp. I learn new things when researching stories—everything from the effects of ketamine on humans to the price of gasoline in 1930 to the characteristics of Buff Orpington hens. I understand myself better in relation to my family. I meet interesting people. (I’ve never met a boring writer!) My journal helps me keep track of personal events, thoughts, and trivia. Publishing—even without much financial reward—is good for my self-esteem. And now that I am a writer, I no longer define myself by what I used to be—as in, “I’m a retired academic.”

 

Why do you write?

Writers are People, Too

Last weekend I attended my husband’s college reunion. The part that is relevant to this post is that we meandered through the English Department. Lo and behold, the corridors were lined with pictures of writers.

 

mark twain
When I saw the picture of Mark Twain, I remembered last week’s discovery—that he had published a short story mystery unbeknownst to most. So when I picked up the May 1 New Yorker and saw an article about Elizabeth Strout—author of Olive Kitteridge—I was immediately interested. It’s a great article.

 

long homecoming ariel levy
But back to the English Department. Below are several writers honored in the halls of higher education. Choose one—or any author you prefer—and investigate their peopleness (if I may coin the term). Find an article. Pick up a biography or memoir. Do an online search. You’ll surely be entertained, and perhaps surprised.

 

Let me know who you chose and why!

Characterizing Characters

characterizing characters building believable characters
This is a great book—especially for the the obsessive and/or anxious writer. It has a 14-page questionnaire intended to help you to really understand your character, so thoroughly that you just know how s/he would behave in any given scene. Then there are chapters on everything from Face and Body to names from around the world.

 

So why not just stop with an endorsement? What more is there to say? Just a few things about making characters vivid and memorable.

 

Actually, I can’t quite imagine eyes like butterflies. Nevertheless, this book highlights two methods of ramping up characterizations: similes and metaphors. Essentially, saying a character is like something, it’s a simile. E.g., “Her smile was like sunshine.” Saying a character is/was something is a metaphor. “He was a rock when Mother died.” As in all writing, avoid the clichés. “She is a diamond in the rough” is a tired example.
 
So where does one look for fresh ideas? Consciously visualizing a character in non-human terms might help. 
 
What animal would X be? Consider the differing implications of spider, rat, rabbit, toy poodle, wren, cow, mule, pig, chicken, etc., etc., etc. Various animals are associated with specific personalities and actions, and labeling a character that way can convey a lot of meaning. Think lap dog.

 

What is X’s astrological sign? Whether one believes in astrology or not, various signs carry lots of implications. The title Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus works on many levels: Mars is the god of war, Venus is the goddess of love, and the planets are millions of miles apart. The Chinese sign one was born under has similar implications. I was born in the year of the Cock, and apart from the personality implications, this should be a very good year for me!
characterizing characters book stones
What stone would X be? Again, some stones carry a lot of weight already. For example, diamonds are hard, bright, glittery, and expensive. What characteristics do you associate with pearls, emeralds, jasper, agate? What about abalone? Quartz? Cubic zirconia? And what about metals? Is X gold, silver, platinum, aluminum, iron, brass, bronze—or maybe mixed metals?

 

What plant would X be? What are the associations with oak tree vs. lily? Rose vs. dandelion? Wheat vs. redwood? I won’t belabor the point. You get the idea.

 

Bottom line: Characterize characters in unexpected ways. You could come up with this sort of writing.

 

attributing words characters

Am I the Last to Know?

extra literary sleuths
Most academics subscribed to the belief that Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) was the first detective story to appear in print, not succeeded in American print media till 1891 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series was syndicated. LeRoy Panek and Mary Bendel-Simso beg to differ. Approximately 10 years ago, they found evidence to the contrary.

 

early american detective stories
The co-authors first collaborated on an anthology of these stories. I’ve just ordered it! 
Also, as archives have been made available online, these two English professors at McDaniel College created the Westminster Detective Library, a unique online collection of more than 1300 (!) pieces of crime fiction published in newspapers and magazines. You can visit it at wdl.mcdaniel.edu. The earliest found so far was published in 1824.

Most are published anonymously and many were pirated by other publications. But according to the article, “…some famous names appear as authors, including Mark Twain and Walter Whitman—before he was the poet Walt Whitman. Abraham Lincoln’s ‘The Trailor Murder Mystery’ was published in 1846 in the Quincy Whig. Charles Dickens published ‘Hunted Down’ in The New York Ledger in 1859.” (Bolding added.)

 

essential elements detective story
I’ve also ordered their new release, The Essential Elements of the Detective Story, 1820-1891! Also, check out the dozens of Panek’s books now available, covering many aspects of mysteries over the centuries. He is an internationally recognized expert.

 

According to Bendel-Simso, some basics of forensics were first imagined in early detective stories. “Fingerprints and blood were both used as evidence in fiction 20 years before they were accepted as such in real life.”
13 discovered whodunits
Even if you aren’t already inspired to dive into this treasure trove of books—they are expensive—at least check out a few sample stories at https://wdl.mcdaniel.edu!