Or if not fun, at least rich material for writers.
My most recent blog, Embracing Death, touched on this topic tangentially, but really, given all they can do for a story, funerals need their own focus. So, how can writers use funerals?
Burial rituals reflect culture, socio-economic class, and time period—without having to specify such things in the narrative.
Within those broad parameters, many decisions need to be made. What if the relevant relatives disagree on things? Music, prayers, cost of the casket, who speaks at the service, what happens at the graveside. . . What if there is no grave? (The same could apply to memorial services.) Where will the body be buried or the ashes scattered? And so we have the possibilities of coalitions forming. Maybe these reflect already existing ties or loyalties.
What if the deceased person’s wishes to donate organs—or the whole body to a medical school—horrify the survivors? Who will have the final word? Will s/he just announce, or work for cooperation and consensus? And will that succeed?
Often a funeral will bring together people who haven’t seen and/or talked to each other in years. This makes possible happy reunions, but also the resurgence of past rivalries, jealousies, and grievances.
Heirs may start squabbling over their inheritances before the funeral even happens! And it doesn’t have to be millions at stake. In my novel Nettie’s Books (forthcoming), the hostilities erupt over quilts, stoneware pitchers, and a cake plate!
I often find the fun in funerals. My story “The Red Glove” features a drive-through funeral home in Maine. “Wanted” also features a father lying in state at Herschel Southern Drive-Thru Mortuary, resting peacefully behind plate glass.
What about you? If you’re a writer, have you looked on the light side of funerals, or do you write about their inherent tensions?
TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS
As with other aspects of good writing, the stakes need to be high. What’s to be won or lost? And after you write the scene, ramp it up, push it to the extreme.
I can’t imagine a writer without some tools of the trade, even if those are only a good dictionary and a thesaurus, preferably a good manual of style as well.
Most of us have much more than the basics, however. I often set stories in times that are not now. Therefore, in order to get the details needed to enrich the prose and draw the reader into the period, I often rely on bits of dialogue about what something costs, or what’s being eaten or worn.
A few of my favorite references
For the cost of things, I turn first to The Value of a Dollar.
The most recent volume is 1860-2014, and new it costs $155. I first came across this book in the reference section of a library in Clifton Forge, VA, when I was researching my novel Nettie’s Books, which is set 1930-1935. I was delighted to learn that ham was 8¢ a pound back then, and that Sears was selling 25 Hershey’s 5¢ Almond Bars for $1. I wanted that book! The price of a new one was prohibitive, but by dropping back to the previous edition (pictured above), it was very reasonable. Indeed, I just ordered the one that covers 1860-2009 for $7.91 plus shipping.
As you know from other parts of this website, I collect cookbooks. But I also collect food reference books for writing, such as the two pictured here.
Being able to put waffle irons, Kool-Ade, Spam, and Jiffy Biscuit Mix in the right period is highly tempting! Among other things, such references may trigger childhood memories for readers and help draw them in.
In addition, I find it very helpful to have good references for popular culture and slang. In fact, I have several of each. I often write stories set in Appalachia some decades past, when saying an overweight woman wears clothes so tight she looks like ten pounds of potatoes in a five-pound sack can create just the right vivid image of the woman in question as well as giving insight into the speaker. A character saying, “What a hoot!” is clearly older than the one who says, “Whatever.” The two books pictured here are rather specialized ones, but more comprehensive options are readily available both new and used.
I revel in dipping into these and other references even when I’m not researching a particular writing project. Some of my favorites don’t fall into any of the above categories, but they are great stimulants to striving for better, richer language.
I was a reader before I was a writer (weren’t we all?) and for me, these are great reads! Advice to writers: choose research and writing tools you can enjoy.
I just finished drafting a synopsis ofNettie’s Books for circulation to possible agents. Writer’s Relief offers lots of free advice to emerging writers, as well as fee-for-service support. Anyway, they offer the following advice.
1) Formatting: Write your synopsis in the same format as your manuscript. Double-space, use one-inch margins, do not right justify, put a header on every page, use Times New Roman or Arial, not Courier font.
2) Begin by describing your story in 25 words or less that hook the agent’s attention. Be neither cutesy nor boring.
3) Write in present tense, and include a complete summary of your story from beginning to end. Focus on major characters and plot points.
4) Include the setting, main characters, the all-important conflict, and its resolution
5) Do tell the ending of your book.
6) Don’t ask rhetorical questions in your synopsis.
7) Proofread! This includes grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
8) Write your synopsis in third person.
9) Keep your synopsis to 2 or 3 pages, two preferred. There are no hard-and-fast rules, but briefer is better.
My synopsis is twice as long as Writer’s Relief recommends. How can I possibly do all they recommend for a 500 page manuscript in two pages? Back to the drawing board. No wonder writers hate synopses!
Names have long fascinated me. You may recall that I wrote an earlier blog on naming characters. But as a writer, you will be naming much more, for example, towns, streets, roads, rivers, mountains, events, buildings. When I last lived in Ohio, I lived in Portage County. The county was named for the portage between the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas Rivers. Cuyahoga is an English transliteration of its Mohawk name. The Tuscarawas River has had several names—Little Muskingum River, Mashongam River, Tuscarawa River, and Tuskarawas Creek, all derived from Native American terms. Ohio’s Native American roots are clearly visible, reflected in the names of counties (including Ashtabula, Coshocton, Geauga, Hocking, Huron, Logan, Ottawa, Sandusky, Scioto, Seneca, Wyandot) as well as rivers and cities of the same names. The state of Ohio takes its name from the Ohio River—which is from the Iroquois word meaning great river or large creek.
I now live near Three Chopt Road. In colonial times, it was called Three Notch’d Road, a major east-west route across central Virginia. Historical consensus is that it was originally an Indian trail, marked by three notches cut into trees.
The trail extended hundreds of miles, from the fall line of the James River (now Richmond, VA) to the Shenandoah Valley, crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains at Jarmans Gap. Today a large part of U.S.Route 250 in Virginia as well as much of Interstate 64 follow that historic trail. You can look up Jack Jouett’s Ride or the activities of Marquis de Lafayette for the role of Three Notch’d Road in the Revolutionary War.
Perhaps the reason I tend to notice Native American connections is that I have Cherokee blood on my father’s side. But the richness of place can be shaped by any ethnic heritage. Think Amish, Pennsylvania Dutch, African or Chinese American, for example.
Advice for writers
Think of “place” in both the broadest and narrowest terms—as Garrison Keillor does for Lake Woebegon, i.e. whether your place is your character’s apartment or a country, go beyond geographic labels as found on maps to show that you really know the place.
More advice for writers
In your daily to-and-fro, pay attention to places and the elements that make them distinctive from and/or similar to other places. If you are writing about a real place, get into it a bit—the history, feel and tone of it, whatever helps identify it. You should know a lot about your place that never makes it into your work. If you’re making it up, you must know it just as well to make it feel richly real.
Sometimes a detail can tell a lot about your place. When I was writing Nettie’s Books,I collected vivid names for places, roads, and churches. Not all of them ended up in the book, but I still like the flavor of Old Footpath Road, Horsehead Lane, Folly Road, Whispering Forest, Church of God-the Prophecy, Tockwough, Buzzard’s Bottom, Integrity Drive, Broken Bit Lane, Wild Sally Road, Hell Neck Road, Church of the Risen Lord, Walkabout Mountain Lane, Slaughter Pen Hollow, Sunnyside Church of the Brethren, Fresh Fire Church of God, Message of Freedom Church, Turning Point Church, Willing Hill, Puddin Ridge Road, Paradise Found—to give a few examples.
I often walk in Deep Run Park, which was looking pretty good the last time I was there. Lo and behold, trails are still marked on trees and roots, although now with paint rather than notches.
If I ever write a body into Deep Run Park, I’ll have the details to make it real!
Takeaway for writers
Don’t put your poetry or prose on a diet; go for richness in every morsel.
I’ve attended JRW Conferences since the earliest days, back when they were held at the Library of Virginia. I really liked that venue, the ambience, the close, personal feel of it. But the annual meeting outgrew the Library’s space. This year we met at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. It feels much more sterile, but there is plenty of room for meetings, plenary sessions, book signings and sales, plus convenient parking. Plenty of room for growth!
Let me say up front that the absolutely worst thing about JRWC is that I couldn’t attend every session. For example, on Saturday the concurrent sessions offered from 3:30-4:30 were How to Locate, Lure, and Land the Right Agent; To MFA or Not to MFA (virtues and vices of the academic route); Writing Diversity into Your Fiction (representing the larger world in your fiction, how and why); and 50 Shades of Red (on various aspects of writing erotica). What writer wouldn’t want to know all of that? (Well, maybe the kids/YA writers could skip the erotica.)
On the other hand, last week I mentioned that JRW classifies sessions by track. This year’s tracks were Diversity in Writing, Writing for Kids/YA, Poetry, The Pillars of Story, and Writing as Career 2.0. I tended toward The Pillars of Story, but not exclusively. Freedom to jump the tracks is one of the delights of the conference.
Hoping to find an agent for Nettie’s Books soon, I attended the session on getting the right agent (David Henry Sterry, Arielle Eckstut, Heather Flaherty, and Helen Heller, Bill Blume moderating). Although there was a lot of diversity on many things, (e.g., appropriate level of formality/informality) two areas of unanimity stand out: (1) research agents you intend to query; and (2) follow their online submission guidelines to the letter! The diversity of personalities on the panel was evidence that you (the writer) really should try to get a handle on your prospective agent as a person. Places to look are Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and any books the agent might have written. It also helps to hear them speak at a conference such as JRW, or meet them in a one-on-one session.
I’m currently working on a new novel, and the first 30 pages or so are pretty ho-hum. The presentation on conflict and tension was excellent (Raising the Stakes with Leah Ferguson, Valley Haggard, and Amy Sue Nathan, moderated by Jon Sealy). They reminded me of multiple aspects of tension and conflict: stakes can be personal or universal; conflict can be internal or external; a blocked goal = conflict; focus on physical or emotional danger; in every case, imagine the worst possible thing that could realistically happen in this situation and write it—you can always dial it back later for nuance. One thing I found especially helpful was Valley Haggard’s comment that readers connect with shame, pain, vulnerability, failure, and flaws. I wish I had a picture!
A Fine Romance (Leah Ferguson, Mary Chris Escobar, Amy Sue Nathan, moderated by M.M.Finck) brought genre into focus—women’s fiction vs. romance, into particular—and endings (happily ever after, happily for now, together but bittersweet because one or both had to sacrifice for it). Beyond that, what struck me is that their advice for writing a good romance or book of women’s fiction sounded just like the advice for good writing in general! Which reminds me: at the Festival of the Written Word, I’m on a panel with a title something like When Romance Meets Mystery. We shall see. Again, I wish I had a photo, but I was too far back in the hall.
But I did get a picture of the panel for Writing Memorable Characters: Stacy Hawkins Adams, Bruce Holsinger, Amy Sue Nathan, Kristina Wright, moderated by Josh Cane.
The variety of writing represented—inspirational women’s fiction and non-fiction, historical fiction, women’s fiction and romance, erotica—underscored the over-all rule that every type of writing (including memoir) needs memorable characters, and characters the reader cares about. The heroes and heroines need flaws. The bad characters need a good side. And one effective way of establishing both is to give readers the backstory.
The last plenary session was the Pitchapalooza (David Henry Sterry, Arielle Eckstut, and Rebecca Podos) during which the names of volunteers were drawn from a plastic pumpkin and each had 1 minute—precisely one minute!—to pitch his/her book. Great fun, and very informative as the panel commented on the stronger and weaker aspects of each pitch.
The closing was brief, but celebrated the winners of the Best Unpublished Novel Contest, the Emyl Jenkins Award, and Pitchapalooza. Although not a winner, I was recognized as a finalist in the Best Unpublished Novel Contest. Very gratifying. But egocentric being that I am, I wish the awards (except Pitchapalooza, of course) had been announced a the beginning of the conference. Maybe people I didn’t know before would have congratulated me!
Alas, the conference wasn’t all about me. It was mostly about the books—and there were many to be had, and signed. Fountain Bookstore sold the books of all the presenters.
I usually come away from the JRWC feeling that I got more than I paid for. Unfortunately, this year, that included a raging cold, including coughing and congestion, that laid me low as of Monday morning. I assume it was all the back-slapping, handshaking, and hugging.
On the other hand, a nasty cold was a great reason to put my feet up, review my notes, and enjoy the contents of my conference bag. I checked the writing classes offered by VMFA Studio School and the Visual Arts Center; considered invitations to submit to the next Poetry Virginia Annual contest and join the Virginia Writers Club; and I could browse the free issues of Richmond Magazine and Broad Street. Already looking forward to next year! Though I did suggest to Katharine Herndon (JRW Executive Director) that next year they try to get a bright colored conference bag!
I’m delighted to have a guest post on Buried Under Books. Many thanks to Lelia Taylor for welcoming me to her fantastic blog.
The Great Escape
Excerpted from Buried Under Books
When I was a young child, the only books in our house were several Bibles and a two-volume pictorial history of World War II. My father, who had an eighth grade education, subscribed to Field and Stream. My mother (tenth grade education) subscribed to Modern Romance and True Confessions. Besides the Dick-and-Jane readers, the first books I remember clearly are The Littlest Mermaid (not the Disney version) and my fourth grade geography book. The former showed me beauty, magic, and sorrow. The latter showed me wonders of the world beyond my small Ohio town. I can still see the pictures of African tribes—pigmies; women with elongated necks, their heads resting on a column of rings; men with artistic scarring.
Neither my school nor my town was big enough to boast a library. Instead, we had a bookmobile that came every two weeks. I had special dispensation from my teachers to take out more than two books at a time. I walked home with all the books I could carry between my cupped hands and chin. On the shelves of that bookmobile I discovered my first serialized love: the Cherry Ames nurse books, 27 of them written between 1943 and 1968 (by Helen Wells (18) and Julia Campbell Tatham (9)). Every book involved a medical mystery. My second serial love was the Ruth Fielding series, 30 volumes produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, between 1913 and1934. Ruth Fielding volumes and several books of fairy tales filled a small bookshelf at the foot of my Aunt Mary’s bed. Mary was (and is) five years older than I. When I stayed with my grandparents in the summer, I devoured Aunt Mary’s books. Ruth Fielding also solved mysteries. And the fairy tales? Only a step from The Littlest Mermaid.
I don’t enter contests. The Sandra Brown Prize for Short Fiction was awarded for “Good Works” based on manuscripts accepted for publication that year in descant.
But this spring, when the James River Writers Best Unpublished Novel Contest call for submissions came, the timing was right. I was wrapping up a manuscript I started years ago, and the deadlines were exactly what I needed to finish it off.
One year during my Nimrod writing week, I took an afternoon off to go to Clifton Forge. There was a store there (now gone) that claimed to sell antiques, but it was the sort of place where everything was jumbled together and thick with dust. I found 3 diaries written by a middle-aged local woman, which I snapped up immediately for no reason except that I am enamored of diaries.
If you have diaries, journals, or family letters you would be willing to part with, let me know! I have a file cabinet labeled “Other People’s Lives” for just such treasures.
I hesitated before deciding to buy the scrapbook because of its size—15.5 in. x 11 in.—and poor condition, but looking at the sorts of clippings it contained, I couldn’t resist.
My first thought was to write a short story in which the same woman who wrote a diary about the weather, the garden, cooking, and playing bingo also kept a scrapbook about news of the weird and death. The fact that the earliest diary was 1965-1969 and the clippings were decades older was no impediment.
And then the story grew. The result is Nettie’s Books, set in Bath and Alleghany Counties, 1930-1935. The book begins when Nettie is thirty years old. My next goal is to get it published. I’m hopeful that winning this prize will help with that!
This picture from my morning walk is just a reminder that Nimrod is very rural. One sees old cisterns, cow pastures, horses grazing… In years past I’ve seen deer, close enough to photograph, but the rabbits are usually too fast and always too small.
The wonder of the morning, however, was absolutely stationary: one of the most notable trees of Virginia. Here I am, standing inside the biggest sycamore I’ve ever seen.
Indeed, here are all of the Week 2 writers with this tree.
I will not tell you where it is, for the property owner treasures his privacy. But when last officially measured, it was 33′ in circumference and 105′ tall. This tree is incredible.
Here it is from the other side. I can imagine children sheltering from the rain, or defending the castle. Or maybe the attackers were pirates, for the tree overlooks water, as sycamores do.
Returning to reality–if writing fiction can be labeled reality–I started restructuring my novel. News flash: deciding to do it is a whole lot easier than doing it!
Because we are such an intimate group this week, only one writer was “on” today, Jane Shepherd. Jane writes memoir and fiction.
We were together when I found the diary and scrapbook that launched me into my historical novel. AND she is the one who brought the wedding cake seen here and in earlier posts.
At Nimrod there is a sameness, but always a new adventure. I love it.
One of my favorite walks up Nimrod Lane passes this tiny graveyard. Three members of the Smith family are buried here–gone and forgotten?–and several mornings each summer, I pay my respects.
I’ve always loved graveyards and cemeteries. I have a favorite tree in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA. In fact the main picture on my website was taken there, in the first garden cemetery in the US. And as some of you may know, my story in Virginia Is For Mysteries is “Death Comes To Hollywood Cemetery”— which is in Richmond, VA, and is the third oldest garden cemetery in the US.
But enough, before I get carried away sending pictures of my skull jewelry. BTW, skulls are also a symbol of transformation.
My work today had nothing to do with death or cemeteries, though my new novel will have much to do with transformation. I spent the morning trying to apply the structure used for “Brokeback Mountain” (by Annie Proulx, in Close Range: Wyoming Stories) to my novel. In that story, only 30 pp, I saw how a story spanning decades can be compelling while (by?) leaving out a lot.
The two writers “on” today were widely divergent and wonderful.
Foust is a writer, cartoonist, and print maker who lives in Richmond, VA. She is seen here on the Square House side porch with her two new books. Six Of One, Half-Dozen Of The Other is a book of cartoons. Sins of Omission is a collection of stories. Foust specializes in short-shorts, so many of these are only a couple of pages with enormous punch.
Amelia L. Williams is a prize-winning poet from Afton, VA. Her language is both lyrical and gripping. She has done–and is continuing to develop–an amazing installation of in situ art with integrated poems.
This picture of Amelia was taken shortly before her workshop and reading. Obviously, Nimrod writer weeks are pressure cooker sorts of events.
En route from Hot Springs to Nimrod, I paused at Warm Springs. What were once known as the Warm Springs Baths are now called the Jefferson Pools because Thomas Jefferson so often took the waters here. This is the men’s bathing house, built in 1761.
In 1836, a separate Ladies Pool House was opened, fed by a separate spring. The roof of the octagonal Ladies Pool House is open to the sky. The water is always 98 degrees. Bathing suits are optional. I love it! BothNETTIE’S BOOKS and “War and Murder at Nimrod Hall” have scenes set at the Jefferson Pools.
I was back at Nimrod before the Week 2 writers arrived.
I reset my workspace and polished my memoir a bit. But I also had time for the sort of nature Nimrod is known for.
Week 2 is a more intimate group, 7 total. I had the foresight to ask permission to talk about them on-line, and so will be introducing you to individuals this week.
This week, everyone knows each other to some degree, so we skipped introductions and went directly to “brag time” talk about the year’s accomplishments. Since last Nimrod, I’ve had 5 short stories published, plus the DIFFERENT DRUMMER collection–very gratifying!
We talked about goals for the week. Cathy Hankla (this week’s writer-in-residence) read from her forthcoming book. Charlotte Morgan (who administers the writing workshops ms is writer-in-residence for Week 3) read from the novel she is writing. More about both of them later, but you might want to check them out online.
Returning to Square House under the Nimrod moon, I smiled. The words “incest” and “orgasm” have already been uttered. The topics of “gender-fluid” identity and hashtags have been broached, along with art in place and environmental conservation. It’s going to be that kind of week! 😊