Reading Whatever Comes to Hand

From April 13 to September 30 the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is displaying sculptures by Kevin Box. Each piece begins as a paper-inspired design. His process of turning that paper inspiration into bronze, aluminum, and/or steel requires 35 steps and takes 12 weeks. I read about it in Volume 1, Issue 1 of the new Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden Magazine. Also included in the magazine are five tips from a nature photographer and using natural enemies for pest management, among other articles.

 

reading whatever comes hand
By reading the back of the map of the Sea Pines Forest Preserve I learned that the Indian Shell Ring is 4,000 years old and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
And there you have it: I read virtually everything that comes to hand—and usually learn something from it! All last week I was on Hilton Head Island, with a day trip to Savannah, GA, for a tour of hidden gardens. The tour ticket included a “southern tea” at the Green-Meldrim House.
reading whatever comes hand
The information card about the house gave all sorts of facts about the history, construction, and ownership of the house. But it also included this bit of information: “…upon the invitation of Mr. Green, General William Tecumseh Sherman used the house as headquarters when the Federal army occupied Savannah during the Civil War. It was at this time (December, 1864) that General Sherman sent his famous telegram to President Lincoln offering him the City of Savannah as a Christmas gift.”  Who knew? Not I—in spite of growing up near Lancaster, Ohio, home of William Tecumseh Sherman, having toured his home, and having written several short stories set during the Civil War.

 

Not surprisingly, this little freebie contains an article on how tides work—always relevant to sailors—along with the legend of the Jake, the Salty Dog. I had to laugh when I read the 2-page spread on why dogs aren’t allowed at the Salty Dog Cafe these days.

 

reading whatever comes hand
Back in 1987 dogs of all shapes and sizes accompanied their owners to lunch, dinner, and happy hour. That ended when the owners realized that “If you allow several dogs of any variety in close proximity to each other, add children with cheeseburgers and ice cream cones, throw in a margarita for the dog owners, the problems can and will begin.” Duh! The info then went on to give examples. BTW, food at The Salty Dog was excellent.

 

reading whatever comes hand
I found this religious tract in a restaurant booth. Even here I found something to enjoy. I read the Bible twice, cover to cover, in my youth and memorized verses at church camp in the summers. Every page of this booklet contains a quote from the Bible, and seeing which verses were attached to which misbehaviors was interesting.

 

reading whatever comes hand
As I recall, this booklet was included with a Virginia Rep play program. I can’t imagine why, so maybe I’m mistaken. But here it is, and very interesting it is, too. Did you know that the first Civil Rights Act was passed in 1866? It gave African-Americans the right to make and enforce contracts, sue and be sued, “give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings… as is enjoyed by white citizens.”

 

reading whatever comes hand
This publication follows the history of housing in Virginia from those earliest days through 2011, and it’s well worth a read.

 

reading whatever comes hand
My penchant for reading virtually anything and everything is so well known that one of my daughters sends clippings from her local paper that she thinks might interest me. For example, Sweet is the story of a family whose attic filled with thousands of honeybees, producing so much honey that it dripped down the side of the house.

 

reading whatever comes hand
My most recent read is the April/May 2018 issue of Discover Richmond. As usual, there are lots of good things here, but as a former college teacher, I was especially interested in the article “Then and now: new views of old textbook passages.” Virginia history textbooks in use from the mid-1950s into the 1970s presented a view of the past so warped as to be laughable—if it weren’t also so hurtful. For example, “ON SLAVERY—The slave ‘did not work so hard as the average free laborer, since he did not have to worry about losing his job. In fact, the slave enjoyed what we might call comprehensive social security. Generally speaking, his food was plentiful, his clothing adequate, his cabin warm, his health protected and his leisure carefree.”
reading whatever comes hand
BOTTOM LINE: Read whatever comes your way and you, too, could know that kites were used during the Civil War to deliver letters and newspapers, that drinking water after eating reduces the acid in your mouth by 61%, that 9 out of every 10 living things live in the ocean, that the University of Alaska spans four time zones, that peanut oil is used for cooking in submarines because it doesn’t smoke unless it’s heated above 450 degrees Fahrenheit…

Pets: A Treasure Trove for Writers

pets treasure trove writers
This insert with the Sunday Richmond Times Dispatch has been lying around since March 11, thoughts of ways it might be useful to writers niggling at me. It’s finally come to fruition. And I can testify—on the basis of my middle daughter—that the points made in this brief article apply to pets other than dogs!

 

pets treasure trove writers
Most obviously, you might have a character who is overboard on his/her pet. (If your character owns a cat, surely you can get comparable info online.) Indulging a pet could lead to teasing, ridicule, even ostracism.
pets treasure trove writers
But moving on: What about the pet service providers? Suppliers of pet party items. People make and/or sell pet gifts and toys. Someone who runs a pet daycare. People who design, make, and/or sell pet clothes. Any of these could provide an interesting job for a character.
 

What about pets as a source of conflict?

Last year pet owners spent almost $70 billion on their pets, approximately a 70% increase over a ten-year period. Money spent on pets could be a source of conflict between characters, or a source of financial difficulty. The American Pet Products Association says dog owners shell out about $3,000 per year, depending on the breed. But owners say they spend $8,000, $10,000, or more on everything from pet health insurance to new furniture to travel. (Nearly 40% of dog owners take them on vacation.)

 

pet vacation
And what about other heirs of the 44% of dog owners who provide for their dogs in their wills?

 

More than half of dog owners let their dogs sleep in their beds. What if the spouse/partner/love interest doesn’t like that?

 

The Emotional Upside to Owning a Pet

pets treasure trove writers
 
Scientific studies have documented the positive effects of pets on mood. Your body produces oxytocin and endorphins, hormones that lift mood and strengthen the emotional bond between owner and pet. Oxytocin is the hormone that creates bonds between mother and child or between lovers. So how dependent is your character on animal love? And at what cost?
 

Other Bits that Might Come in Handy

 
My oldest daughter trained with her rescue dog to make therapy visits. Is that something your character might do? What about a character who is the recipient of such visits? Where might that lead?

 

My youngest daughter is surgical veterinary technician. During a recent visit, she gave us a tour of her workplace.
pets treasure trove writers
Most of us are vaguely aware that animal hospitals do things similar to human hospitals. But to actually see the oncology lab, the MRI equipment, the physical therapy suite, the surgical areas, the precautions for animals in isolation, the incubator for preemies, and the site of the future serenity garden brings home the parallel.

 

pets treasure trove writers
But one unusual bit: this hospital maintains blood banks for dogs and cats.
 
pets treasure trove writers
The dog blood bank is filled by donations from the pets of staff and clients. Star donors (like Bruce Lee, above, who is a universal donor) donate blood every six weeks or so. Each donation can be used to treat more than one patient.

 

The hospital maintains colonies of cat blood donors. The cats come from animal rescue. At the hospital they are treated, vaccinated, and spayed. Even so, there are separate colonies for males and females. The cats are maintained as donors for a year and then placed for adoption.

 

  • Cat donors must be 1 yr old and at least 10 lbs
  • Dogs must be 1 yr old, at least 50 lbs
  • Both: no blood born diseases, no condition requiring chronic medication except NSAIDS, hypothyroidism, or meds for flea/tick/heart worm
  • Bruce Lee (the dog donor pictured) is 6 yrs old, has been a donor for 18 mos., and donates more than 6 times per yr. He’s a universal donor, like Type O for humans.
What if your character has a pet that is or was a blood donor?

 

I would have adopted Olaf in a nanosecond but he isn’t yet available. He’s affectionate AND has one blue eye, one green one.

 

pets treasure trove writers
Bottom line: Consider the value of pets in your writing!

Hop, Skip, and Jump Reading

I’m an all-or-nothing sort of reader.  When I get into a series, I start at the beginning and binge straight through. But recently I find myself sampling broadly among one-offs.

 

There’s still fiction. On Kindle I just finished What Comes Between Cousins. I find Jane Austen fan fiction enjoyable escapist reading. This particular one has a fresh story line, so I read it through—though I must admit it could use a good edit. I’ve nearly finished The Mad and the Bad, a fascinating mix of craziness and gore. And then I will move on to Elizabeth Strout.
I loved Olive Kitteridge, so the Strout is pretty much a sure pleasure. The DeStephano book is an unknown quantity. A friend passed it on, saying it’s a well-written, creepy tale of genetic engineering. I’ll keep you posted.

 

hop skip jump reading sister age fisher among friends
At the same time, I’m involved with nonfiction—memoir, for example. I’ve long been enamored of M.F.K. Fisher as a food writer. Recently I came across two memoirs by her: Among Friends, about growing as a non-Quaker in the Quaker stronghold of Whittier, CA, and Sister Age, a collection of fifteen stories she wrote over the years about the art of aging and living and dying.

 

And then there is Sherman Alexie, poet and story teller, about whose You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me the San Francisco Chronicle declared, “Emotionally spring-loaded, linguistically gymnastic, and devastatingly funny.” And besides that, my husband loved it!. He often laughed aloud and read excerpts to me. It’s an impressive blend of narrative, dialogue, and poetry.
[Source: Feminist Texican Reads]
If memoir doesn’t appeal to you, consider some of these other Sherman Alexie books.

 

hop skip jump reading
Of course my food reading continues. I recently acquired collectable copies of these two books.The Art of Eating is actually a collection of her first five books:

 

hop skip jump reading
How to Cook a Wolf is a long-time favorite, but Consider the Oyster is gaining ground. Who would ever have thought a whole book about oysters could be enthralling?

 

Last but not least on my current revolving bookcase is The Physiology of Taste—which I admit doesn’t sound like entertaining reading. Originally published in France in 1825, this work by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin is the most famous book about food ever written. If you search online, you can find several sites that offer from a few to as many as 1567 quotes. Many are already familiar, such as, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”

 

M.F.K. Fisher’s translation, published in 1949, is incredible, not only because of the readability of the 30 “Meditations” and the 100+ pages of “varieties” but also because Fisher’s annotations themselves are informative and enjoyable.

 

So, for the time being, I am happily hopping, skipping, and jumping among these eight books. How many books do you have in progress? And what are they?

Accidental Gems

accidental gems
My husband’s doctorate is from Penn, and so I was fortunate enough to have access to their spring/summer issue—a treasure trove for writers. You, too, can read these gems at omnia.sas.upenn.edu!

 

accidental gems
Carmen Maria Machado, current Writer-in-Residence, combines sci-fi, horror, folk tales, and pop culture in stories focused on women’s experience. Her debut collection Her Body and Other Parties was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award. She responds to three questions.

 

  1. What do you like about the short story format?
  2. How do you start writing a story?
  3. Your stories reference folk legends and contemporary pop culture. How are those tools for you as a writer?
accidental gems
Jennifer Egan, class of ’85, won a Pulitzer Prize for 2011’s A Visit from the Good Squad. In her interview, she answered numerous writing questions.

 

  1. When did you first feel like a writer?
  2. What is your writing and research process like
  3. Do you seek input from other writers?
  4. Many reviews of your latest book, Manhattan Beach, have noted how different it is from your other fiction. Did you feel that it was a departure for you?
  5. What was the experience of writing Manhattan Beach like?
  6. How did your undergraduate experience shape you as a writer?
  7. What advice would you give to students interested in a career in writing?
accidental gems
I’m not a translator of literature, but really good translations are out there. Apparently Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey is one of those. “I think because I’m living in, writing in, thinking in my particular cultural context, I’m able to see things in this old poem which maybe weren’t visible before, and I don’t think that’s about imposing something on it that isn’t there. It’s about bringing something out of it.”

 

I doubt it’s my background as a psychologist that makes me see the work of Angela Duckworth, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, as relevant to character building and plot development. Her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance was on the New York Times Bestsellers list for more than 20 weeks. Read more about her!

 

accidental gems
But wait! There’s more! This magazine has fascinating articles on everything from history to economics to micro-science. Enjoy!

Poetry Power

national poetry month
 
Since 1995 April has been National Poetry Month. I’m not a poet, but when my Creative Nonfiction teacher (Amy Ritchie Johnson) gave the class an assignment  to write a nonsense poem, I had to come up with something—and here it is!

 

SCHIZO
What’s the difference between a beet,
A round, red, sweet beet?
It must be trees—a trillion trees
With billions of buds and billions of bees.
Why that answer? Why? Why?
Because two salmon swim in the sky.
A motorcycle has no doors,
No roof, no windows, no mats for floors.
But that’s okay. It does not matter.
We’re saved by chocolate peanut batter.
And Grandma rides old lady bikes
With three tall wheels. She vaults over dykes.
And when those thoughts go bump in the night,
They leap from corners to laugh in the light.
I cover my eyes. I cover my ears.
I shake in my shoes and scald in my tears.
My brain is swollen, cracked and black.
Six special spiders sit stitching it back.

 

It was a fun exercise.

 

poetry power
I first became aware of poetry in high school when Mrs. Fischer, my English teacher, gave us a quote for the day to memorize. It was often Emily Dickinson, but sometimes Shakespeare or Poe. I memorized “The Raven”—also “Bells” and “Annabelle Lee.” Poe has been a favorite ever since, along with Sherman Alexie, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan.

 

poetry power
The Academy of American Poets was founded in 1934 in New York City with a mission of supporting American poets at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry. On their website, poets.org, you can buy books, keep up with poetry, and sign up for a poem a day—for free!

 

poetry power
If you’re not a poet, why bother? Consider the words of Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate.
poetry power
Who are your favorite poets?

Across Years and Miles

dark harbor vivian lawry
In 2012 I received a letter from a man I had dated in graduate school. I had not seen or heard from him in decades. He told me that he owned a small villa in northern Italy which he rented during the season but spent time there himself in spring and fall. While there in October, he found a Kindle some renter had left behind. He browsed the library, didn’t recognize titles or authors, but read Dark Harbor. He liked it. He decided to check out the authors. As soon as he saw my website, he recognized me and decided to get in touch.

 

That whole circumstance was so flattering that I told numerous friends and fellow-writers. Who knew my book would make it to Italy? I mention it now because it’s happened again! Only this time with a twist.

 

His letter began, “Dear Ms. Lawry—I‘ve just competed a most pleasurable reading of your novel Dark Harbor. What a cast of suspects! My primary feeling at the end is happiness that the foul victim got what he had coming….[sic]” Then came the twist: “But the principal reason I am writing concerns an unusual document of which you’ll find a copy enclosed.”

 

across years miles
“This turned up on my desk a couple of weeks ago, mixed in with unrelated papers, and caused me to think of the co-author of your book, who composed this page very nearly fifty years ago. I was a student of Professor Gulick’s at Dartmouth, lo these many years ago, and as you will see from this page, he was not only an inspirational lecturer in the realm of sensory psychology but also a droll and vigorous defender of the English language!”

 

In case you can’t read the photo, I will copy what Gulick said about grammar and syntax in writing laboratory reports.

 

Grammar & Syntax
1. Don’t use no double negatives.
2. Make each pronoun agree with their antecedent.
3. Join clauses good, like a conjunction should.
4. About them sentence fragments.
5. When dangling, watch your participles.
6. Verbs got to agree with their subjects.
7. Just between you and I, case is important.
8. Do not write run-on sentences they are hard to read.
9. Do not use commas, which, are not necessary.
10. Try not to ever split infinitives.
11. Proofread your writing to see if you any words out.
12. Correct spelling is esential.

 

Later in the letter: “I looked in vain for an e-mail address for Professor Gulick… And in [reading Dark Harbor] I discovered your website and blog and your physical address… Hence this letter. I wonder if you would be so kind as to pass this along to Professor Gulick? I hope he might smile over the notion that his little document has endured for so long as both a pedagogical tool and source of chuckles.”

 

Of course I did so. A subsequent email from the letter writer complimented Tiger Heart and asked, “Dare I hope there will be a sequel?” My response was “…thank you again for the compliments on our mysteries. I doubt there will be a sequel. Lawry is approaching his 91st birthday and no longer owns a boat (the prototype for Nora’s boat).  Although he started teaching me to sail in 1995, he was the expert. I’d never sail alone and know no one else with a sailboat at this time. I’ve toyed with the idea of continuing with the cast of characters but making it less water-related. We shall see.”

 

across years miles
This exchange has made me think a lot about language and its evolution. My coauthor had several language preferences that seemed to me old fashioned, among them his preference for ’til over till, and expertness over expertise. I strongly prefer to set priorities rather than prioritize. We both share an abhorrence of the word “data” coupled with a singular verb, as does the letter writer. His sons, both software engineers, “…persist in using the construction ‘data is’…..[sic] I suppose it is so much in use these days as a collective noun more or less equivalent to ‘information’ that this is a battle which I’m not going to win!”

 

And that brings me to Bill Bryson.

 

bill bryson mother tongue
[Source: Goodreads]
I urge every writer to read Bill Bryson’s book Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way. Not surprisingly, it’s about the evolution of English. At some point he writes that people believe that the correct ways to speak, write, and spell are whatever was being taught at the time they finished formal schooling. The language continues to evolve—and every writer should take care that the language is true to the time and place of the story.

Shot in the Arm

shot arm
I spent Saturday afternoon at the Bon Air Library at Mysterypalooza 2018.  A great afternoon to reconnect with my Sisters in Crime/CVA. I chatted with people I didn’t know heretofore. But of course, the real meat of the afternoon was the panel—a great group of women with dozens of books in print.
mysterypalooza vivian lawry
Mary Burton moderated the panel deftly. The panel (not surprisingly) were articulate in discussing their varied pathways to publication. Some were traditionally published, some self-published, some both.
mysterypalooza 2018
Energy hummed through the room as the panelists assembled for the presentation. The audience contained many writers and aspiring writers, and topics covered included tips about agents, the pros and cons of each route to publication, and lots of insights into the varied methods of self-motivation and making time to write.

 

One particularly interesting tip: if you get stuck, take on the persona of one of the characters and write from that POV. I might not/probably won’t make it into the final book, but knowing your characters from the inside out makes the writing richer.

 

vivian lawry author mysterypalooza 2018
I wasn’t on the panel this time, but I was there to sign copies of Dark Harbor, Tiger Heart, and Mysteries Most Historical.

 

vivian-lawry-books
My book signing gigs generally yield very little money, and this was no exception. BUT, talking to attendees, whether they buy books or not, is always a treat. As some (many?) of you know, I collect carved wooden Santas, now numbered more than 450. And now I’ve actually met Santa and Mrs. Claus! They are frequently cited during the season in Williamsburg, VA.
shot arm
AND I know what they do in the off-season: they attend Mysterypalooza!

 

shot arm
In fact, Santa is also a writer! And his fiction has nothing to do with Christmas. Check out Bradley Harper’s historical fiction, entangled with Sherlock Holmes.

 

[Source: Bradley Harper]
The event was rife with useful tidbits. Check out the MFA program at Full Sail. Check out Stumble Upon. Check out the Independent Authors Association and what they might do for you.
mysterypalooza 2018
Last but not least, the next Sisters in Crime/CVA anthology is now officially open for submissions. Check the website for requirements if you are interested.

 

Bottom line: there’s lots of local writing talent. Check them out!
 

Whiplashed: A.K.A., an Eventful Week

whiplashed eventful week
Last Saturday I participated in a memorial service for my beloved friend. It was one of the best celebrations of a life I have ever attended, so perfectly reflecting the accomplished, funny, strong, loving woman I remember. I first came to know Rita through writing classes—maybe 15 years ago? In years, I was one of the people there who knew her least. But through writing, we quickly came to realize we were more than classmates. She and I joined with 3 other women writers to form the Pentadames. A few times a year we would get together for a few days in the mountains, on the Bay, or at the Outerbanks. We talked writing, of course—and reading—but also families, personal histories, health. And we laughed a lot!

 

I don’t remember death dates. I choose not to. Instead, I remember and celebrate special people on their birthdays. I do this by having food that she often prepared or that he especially liked. Rita shared her birthday with another of the Pentadame, now also deceased. On March 29, I shall remember them both with a lentil/vegetable stew, a meal Pentadames often shared.
whiplashed eventful week
On Sunday I made real progress on a fantasy short story I have promised my granddaughter. It’s about hanahaki disease. You can look it up!
 
In the creative nonfiction class on Monday, one of the timed writings was to use a piece of art as a prompt. I chose the displays of artists’ collections on the first floor of the VMFA Studio School.
whiplashed eventful week
I wrote a rather lackluster bit about my many collections: rocks, dictionaries, cookbooks, napkin rings, placemats, Depression glass measuring cups, tableware, and drinking glasses…  I didn’t even remember to include the (approx.) 450 carved wood Santas, dozens of mah jong sets, or skull jewelry. Looking back on that bit of writing, I am struck that food and eating are strong themes in my collections.

 

whiplashed eventful week
Tuesday included new (to me) insights into Thomas Jefferson. Travis McDonald has been the director of architectural restoration at Jefferson’s retreat, Poplar Forest, for nearly 30 years.  He’s articulate and incredibly knowledgeable.

 

whiplashed eventful week
We had lunch together after the talk. (Always food!) I came away from it with a much enhanced admiration for Jefferson as a mathematician and an architect. And not to put too fine a point on it, he well might have been OCD: while president, he sent incredibly detailed instructions to those working on the Poplar Forest house, and he came down from DC to help lay the brickwork foundation for the octagonal house to make sure the workmen got it right.

 

I went from lunch to Core Basics to a meeting of the Ashland Women’s Club, where a friend of mine presented a paper on oystering. It wasn’t a topic I would have gravitated to on my own, but it was a pleasing blend of science, history, and humor. In the course of the talk, the speaker quoted M.F.K. Fisher’s book, Consider the Oyster. 
 
whiplashed eventful week
“An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life. Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrow of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean, smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion, and danger. He—but why make him a he, except for clarity? Almost any normal oyster never knows from one year to the next whether he is he or she, and may start at any moment after the first year, to lay eggs where before he spent his sexual energies in being exceptionally masculine. If he is a she, her energies are equally feminine, so that in a single summer, if all goes well, and the temperature of water is somewhere around or above seventy degrees, she may spawn several hundred million eggs, fifteen to one hundred million at a time, with commendable pride.”
whiplashed eventful week
The quote reminded me of what is (arguably) my favorite M.F.K. Fisher book, How to Cook a Wolf. This book was first published in 1942, when WWII shortages were at their worst. In the opening chapter, Fisher says, “Wise men forever have known that a nation lives on what its body assimilates, as well as on what its mind acquires as knowledge. Now, when the hideous necessity of the war machine takes steel and cotton and humanity, our own private personal secret mechanism must be stronger, for selfish comfort as well as for the good of the ideals we believe we believe in.”

 

Although Fisher’s books are dated in some ways (she makes no mention of microwaves, to mention only one) her recipes, philosophy, and stories are timeless.

 

whiplashed eventful week
In browsing my M.F.K. Fisher books, I was touched to realize that my mother gave me With Bold Knife and Fork—as a second-hand book published thirty years earlier—the year before she died.

 

So, come Wednesday, a fellow writer who knows I’m a John McPhee fan sent a link: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1972/05/13/the-conching-rooms.

 

whiplashed eventful week
Remembering the incredible conch salads made before my eyes in the Bahamas many years ago, I was thinking mollusks. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the article dealt with the making of chocolate!

 

I visited Hershey’s Chocolate World last December. Now the tour isn’t of the actual working factory, and I didn’t see chocolate actually being conched. So McPhee’s essay was interesting—as always—and it’s about food, so that thread of the week continued. And FYI: Hershey chocolate contains minute traces of New England granite from the conching machines. Who knew?
whiplashed eventful week
We had 4” of snow Wednesday, allowing me to mouse around the house in comfy fleece and let one cookbook lead me to another. Somewhere along the line, M.F.K. Fisher mentioned 19th century cookbooks. I pulled out my oldest. It isn’t in good shape—as might be expected given it was printed in 1843.

 

But there are several interesting aspects. First, recipes are presented in paragraphs. For example, this recipe for BEEF CAKES. “Take some cold roast beef that has been under-done, and mince it very fine. Mix with it grated bread crumbs, and a little chopped onion and parsley. Season it with pepper and salt, and moisten it with some beef-dripping and a little walnut or onion pickle. Some scraped cold tongue or ham will be found an improvement. Make it into broad flat cakes, and spread a coat of mashed potato thinly on the top and bottom of each. Lay a small bit of butter on the top of every cake, and set them in an oven to warm and brown. Beef cakes are frequently a breakfast dish.”

 

Then, too, there is an entire section on perfumery. And an interesting list of equivalents and measures.
whiplashed eventful week
Thursday, we re-ordered canned goods in the pantry to use the oldest first and I continued to dip into my cookbooks. By 1880 and 1887, Miss Parloa was something of a household authority on everything from kitchen equipment to marketing and the layout of the ideal kitchen, but by far the bulk of the content was recipes.

 

whiplashed eventful week
Over the course of the week, I realized that I like reading food writing almost as much as I like savoring new recipes. I like cookbooks with personality—of whatever vintage!

 

whiplashed eventful week
This essay may seem pretty tangential to a blog for writers, about writing—but bear with me! I now realize that the best food writing is, indeed, excellent creative nonfiction. M.F.K. Fisher lives!
 
whiplashed eventful week
So, the week started with fantasy, wended its way through history and food, and will end tomorrow with Mysterypalooza!

 

mysterypalooza vivian lawry
There will be a panel discussion on paths to publication and book signings by local authors. Come on down! I’ll be wearing skull jewelry.

 

IMG_1707

The Worth of Flexibility

It’s never right to lie… unless you’re a writer. If you’re pulling your writing from real life, you mustn’t be bound too much by reality–e.g., just because someone said something that way doesn’t mean it’s a good way to say it. Just because it really happened doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

worth flexibility

Furthermore, just because it happened in 1964 doesn’t mean you can’t set it in 1934–and vice versa. Of course, if it is something famous, like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, you can’t move it around too much, unless you are writing sci-fi or magical realism. But if you have a story about a great uncle who was married five times (that the family knows about), there is no reason you can’t write about such a character in current time.

Similarly–with certain obvious exceptions–just because the actor was a male doesn’t mean you can’t attribute the action to a female. Ditto parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins.

worth flexibility

Bottom line: Be flexible when it comes to reality.

Unwritten History of a Thriver

womens history month
[Source: Affinity]
No doubt the media are rife with information on women in science, literature, politics, business—you name it. But today I want to focus on my personal history, and the crucial role played by my paternal grandmother. Granny was a thriver—which is to say, she did a whole lot more than just survive hard times, grief, and heartache.

 

unwritten history thriver
Margaret Louisa Butcher, the ninth of twelve children, was born on Yost Branch in Johnson County, Kentucky. She quickly became “Lucy” because that’s what her siblings made of her name.
unwritten history thriver
By the time I came along, she was long married and officially Lucy Butcher Parker. She’d married Allie Howard Parker and they lived at the head of Old House Creek in Rowan County, Kentucky. This is a picture taken there of Granny Parker, my father, Great-granny Butcher, and me.
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The Old Home Place (as everyone in the family called it) was four rooms and two porches. The front porch was for rocking, swinging, and whatever household work could be taken outside. The back porch was for churning butter and washing clothes. Eventually there was a wringer washer, but before that it was a washboard and two tubs. The house had electricity by the time I knew it, but no running water or indoor plumbing of any sort. The well was in the backyard and the outhouse sat over a little tributary to Old House Creek. Granny cooked on a cast iron, wood-burning stove and two of the other rooms were heated with potbellied wood/coal burning stoves, similar to those pictured below. Cornbread and biscuits were staples.

 

I used to play on the stacked wood behind the kitchen stove. On the wall above me were strings of dried apple rings and leather britches beans (dried green beans).

 

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One time I sneaked a snack of dried apple and it tasted so good I ate the whole string. Then, being really thirsty, I drank dipper after dipper of well water. As the apples rehydrated in my stomach, I thought I was going to burst and hurt something awful. Granny didn’t punish me for the apples. She said the apples would punish me for her. Once the stomach ache passed, I had diarrhea so bad I had to run to the outhouse again and again.

 

Granny had a vegetable garden, chickens, and milk cows. She churned her own butter and sold some of it to the general store out on the highway. I sometimes helped churn, though I didn’t have the stamina to do the whole job. The churning rhyme was to help keep the rhythm smooth, moving the dasher up and down word by word.

 

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Churn, butter, churn.
Churn, butter, churn.
Johnny stands at the gate
Waiting for a butter cake.
Churn, butter, churn.

 

According to my Aunt Mary, my father’s younger sister, the VA Hospital sent Grandpa Parker home in early 1933 to die because they couldn’t cure his illness. (I assume this was a lung problem. He was a coal miner in his earlier years, before being gassed in WWI). He didn’t die, but while he recovered, Granny and the children struggled to get by. Mary and my dad set traps for fur-bearing animals as a way to make money in the late 30s and early 40s. They also raised, dried, shelled, and shipped popcorn to try to make a few dollars, as well as picked blackberries for five cents a gallon. They shelled corn for a neighbor to take to the gristmill. They saved the inner husks from dried corn to use for filling like feathers for a feather bed.
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Granny had a hard life—perhaps not by Appalachian standards of the time, but certainly by my standards. All of her children were born at home, sitting on Grandpa’s lap, his knees spread to make a birthing chair. Her widowed mother, Granny Butcher, spent nearly all of her last seventeen years living with Grandpa and Granny. I’m told Granny Butcher was a kind, gentle woman, but by the time I knew her, she was old and nearly blind.

 

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Still, she did what she could to help—snapping beans, shelling peas, churning, and the like. Granny Parker nursed her through her last decline, and did the same for Grandpa.

 

What I most remember about Granny Parker—besides her never-ending work—was her laugh. She loved a good joke or humorous stories. I don’t ever remember Granny complaining. She read the Bible every day and Reader’s Digest as often as it came. She encouraged me to do all I could, as well as I could. I grew up wanting to be like her: strong, capable, self-sufficient.

 

Granny always made quilts. I have several of her quilts, and have passed some along to my children.
As a widow, she continued to make and sell quilts. I thought that her life was pretty much as it always had been until she sent me this newspaper clipping.
By then Granny had a phone and I called her. “Do you mean you never had a high school diploma? Didn’t you teach school before you got married?”

 

She said, “No, I never had a diploma. Don’t you remember me telling you that I was licensed to teach by examination? I was in the first group that had to go to Frankfort to be tested.”

 

And the next thing I knew, she had enrolled in college! Granny never learned to drive, so she had to plan her classes around the bus schedule and when she could get a ride.

 

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I saw Granny shortly before she died at age 83. I asked her whether, if she had it to do over again, she would change anything about her life. I expected her to say something about how her life might have been made easier. What she did say was, “The only thing I regret is that I’m a junior and won’t live long enough to get my college diploma.”

 

Recently I’ve been revisiting the Foxfire Books. They reflect much of my Appalachian childhood. Right now I’m reading Aunt Arie: A Foxfire Portrait. She reminds me of Granny Parker.
aunt arie
During this Women’s History Month, do consider the important women in your history. And let me know about them!