Stolen days are best–days snatched from one’s schedule, little spur-of-the-moment trips. Long-range trips often wither under the glare of over-planning and anticipation often exceeds the actual event. I think I’m happiest when I’m someplace no more than two hours from my house. Tucked within that two-hour radius are lots of possibilities.
On Wednesday, I finished my second nonfiction book of the fall and delivered it. I should have started the revisions to Iva Honeysuckle yesterday but I needed a break between projects. I called my sister in Richmond and asked if she’d go junkin’ with me. My sister Patricia is six years older than me–that was tough when I was six and she was twelve, but we have been best friends since we were both teenagers. Even better, she inherited the junkin’ gene from our mother, too. I drove to Richmond and took Pat to a place she’d never been to before.
Through the Garden Gate Antiques is an antique mall. Through the Garden Gate is a separate shop dealing in vintage-y artist creations, vintage stuff, and shabby chic antiques. Through the Garden Gate is pure eye-candy any time of the year but this was my first visit in October. As the pictures show, the shop is a treat in white, cream, and black. That’s my sister above. She doesn’t want her photo on this blog, but I’m putting mine in, too (which I rarely do). She has much better hair than I do and she does it herself (she’s been a hairdresser for over 40 years). Her house has more stuff than mine does, too, but we both always seem to find room for more.
I think the owner of the shop repaints these motel chairs for the season. I seem to remember them being light green and robin’s egg blue last spring. Don’t they look terrific painted black? In the background are metal tractor seats painted a muted glittery orange with wood stakes for stems. Some people are so clever!
This is hard to see but it’s a black-painted vintage birdcage heaped with plastic skeletons with glittered and stamped butterfly wings. At first I thought it was icky but then all those little bones and ribs sticking up every which way kind of grew on me.
I have lusted after an old metal porch glider forever, though our porch is crowded already with a geranium-pink porch swing, chairs, a table, a baker’s rack, forty-eleven rabbits, and plants. Who would think this white porch glider would make such a statement with a simple "BOO" banner swagged across the back?
Pat wound up buying an enormous U.S. Coaster wagon, green with red wheels, in excellent condition. I’ve never seen such a big wagon. It could easily hold four kids. She dithered over it a while but I egged her on, agreeing it would make a great coffee table. She could put pictures and collectibles in the deep bed of the wagon and cover it with glass. Which is what she did, about five minutes after she got home. She even had a piece of beveled glass that fit perfectly! She also bought a vintage child’s booster seat, probably from a restaurant–dark red metal with metal legs. The booster seat is in her kitchen and she’s waiting for it to tell her where it needs to be.
I got off easy but it was close. I told myself (a person I hardly ever listen to) no old lamps or chairs. No old children’s books. Small things only. So what do I fall in love with? This gorgeous inspiration board–the picture doesn’t begin to do it justice. It’s a huge HUGE antique frame covered in linen (I think) and embellished with vintage lace, ribbon, a vintage glove and rhinestone pin. There are a couple of earring-embellished pushpins. I have always wanted an inspiration board to tack up fabic swatches, postcards, notes, photos, bits of vintage jewelry, scraps of paper or sewing trim . . . Oh, I longed for this thing. I came home and did a walk-through. I have no wall space big enough for this board. Not even in my sitting room closet (yes, I hang pictures in closets). It’s so massive and heavy I’d be afraid to hang it just any old place. And so, sigh, I passed it up.
My little trick or treat sack was filled with a vintage watch pendant, a navy wool purse from the 50s (I actually use vintage pocketbooks), a vintage picture frame, one of the German glass-glittered Halloween decorations, a vintage traincase (I can’t pass these up, ever), a pretty vintage hanky (ditto), an old picture frame, and a "Housewife’s Yearbook" from 1937, a pamphlet produced by Kellogg’s All Bran with cooking and beauty tips, all relating to the need for a "regular system." Who knew people worried about fiber and bulk back then?
We wandered this antique mall until our feet hurt, we were dying of thirst and so hungry we bought 2 dozen donuts at Kroeger’s. But it was a good day. And we have photos, souvenirs, and memories to prove it.
Yesterday I drove to Strasburg, Virginia, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. The Valley is gorgeous is all seasons but especially in the fall. I visited my favorite aunt in a nursing home for dementia patients, which might be the topic for another post when I’m able to sort out all I saw and heard and felt. Maybe not.
The drive covered miles of horse farms, stubbled cornfields, apple orchards, pastures, fencerows, and vistas of constantly-changing sky. As my car slipped through Ashby’s Gap to cross the Blue Ridge mountains, I spied rainclouds, puffy clouds, flat clouds, gray clouds, and just plain clouds. Sky-watching reminded me of something I see on blogs a lot: tag clouds. They are topics arranged in a sidebar. The array of words always fascinates me because most don’t seem remotely connected.
To keep myself entertained on the long drive, I concocted a tag cloud for my novel-in-progress. Here it is, so far:
Patsy Cline, pin curls, paleontology, pageant, rhinestone collar, sewer pipe, hand model, box turtles, "Cherries in the Snow," euchre, stealing-the-deal, Madame Queen jewelry, Better-Off-Dead Pest Control and Bridal Consignment, Dot’s Pink Palace Beauty Academy, Tusky, Doublewide, wooly mammoth, Siamese, Miracle Whip, Karo syrup, digital nerves, pitvot turn, acne vulgaris, carbuncle
So . . . what do I do with this mixed-up catalog? Well, I’m nearly finished with the first draft, so the tag cloud could serve as a revision check-list. Have I made more than one reference to that item? Are some items weighted more importantly than others? If so, have I effectively demonstrated their worth to my story? The list also shows me links to my theme or plot I might have missed–I try not to overlook any opportunity to deepen the meaning of my story. And last, the list shows me at a glance specifics that enrich my story and give it authority.
I like this exercise and plan to do it on future books. I also plan to pass the exercise along to my students. It works best when you are well along in your first draft. It differs from brainstorming-clustering-webbing exercises in that the items are already in place in the story. Most brainstorming terms are lost along the path to find a story–the tag catalog keeps track of various elements, bookmarks certain events, and gives the writer a word-picture of their story.
Seasons never arrive when they’re supposed to. They sit like trains in a station until the next train comes along and pushes the old one down the track. Fall was officially September 22, but in Virginia, we were still sweating in front of fans. It seemed summer would never leave. And then one night the temperatures dropped so suddenly we grumbled, "It’s cold! Winter already!" as we dug out jackets and gloves. The old season lingers and overlaps with the next season. I snapped this photo yesterday of our "fire bushes" and Japanese maple in their fall dress while our roses are still blooming nonstop. Summer bookended by autumn. But soon summer will slip out and fall will take its firm and rightful place.
This weekend I learned that Norma Fox Mazer passed away. I was aware she was critically ill but even that news was a shock. Norma Fox Mazer had been in my life in some capacity for more than 25 years. How could she have slipped out? I started reading Norma’s books in the early 1980s, when I was writing Sunfire and Windswept YA romances. Then my editor at Scholastic told me Norma was writing for her. I eagerly read Three Sisters. Norma wrote about girls and family dynamics like nobody else. She had her own mid-grade series: A, My Name is Ami; B, My Name is Bunny; C, My Name is Cal; D, My Name is Danika; and E, My Name is Emily. Then she wrote After the Rain, which became a Newbery Honor and I realized that Norma could break a reader’s heart then gently put it back together again. I wanted to be Norma Fox Mazer.
Feverishly, I studied all her books. In 1985, I ordered the very expensive textbook, Literature for Today’s Young Adults, because there were several references to Norma and her books. (That was how I learned to write in different genres–by studying a particular author’s works and her life.) Two years later, I pounced on the latest in the Twayne Authors Series, Presenting Norma Fox Mazer. I read the print off the pages, but pored over the photographs more. I loved looking at Norma as a child, then a young mother. She was so beautiful.
That fall, Norma was one of the speakers at the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. Book and Author Luncheon. I stood in her long autograph line, wearing a fancy Gunne Sax dress (this was 1987, after all), and had her sign my Presenting book. We met again in New York at a Scholastic party in 1992. Since we shared an editor, we chatted about our projects a bit. I was nervous and overdressed in Laura Ashley; Norma wore corduroy pants and an air of "so it’s New York, so what?"
Years passed. I found myself in a not-very-good place, work-wise, and, with my husband’s prodding, applied and was accepted to the Vermont College MFA program in writing for children. And there was Norma, on the the faculty. Dewy-faced, fine-boned, her hair in apple-core pigtails, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I knew from my Presenting book the year she was born. No, it wasn’t possible this woman with nary a gray hair and the flexibility of a teenager was 71. Good Lord, I thought, I’ll have whatever she’s drinking. But it wasn’t just her youthfulness that enchanted me–like everyone who has met Norma, her smile was captivating–quick and warm. Norma became my advisor that first semester. As I stared at the list posted on the bulletin board, I heard other students murmur, "Norma doesn’t take first-time students." She took me. I was honored and petrified.
I had a specific project to work on: a poem-novel/memoir. Norma wasn’t called the Structure Queen for nothing. She saw right away my book’s structure was on the verge of collapse and had me shore up the beginning and the end. I wrote poem after poem, filling in details, bringing to light the characters’ motivations, and going into the basement of my past. Norma sent me into those dark corners knowing my heart would break, but in the writing of the book, she gently helped me put my shattered feelings together again. I never did sell that book even after revising it several times. Then I rewrote it altogether in the form of a straight YA memoir, which became the thesis of my MA in children’s literature at Hollins University. And then I put it away.
In last fifteen years, or maybe longer, I have decided that YA is not for me. My niche is with younger kids because I understand them better. And I’ve stopped trying to "be" another writer. Every day I work on "being" Candice Ransom, though I’ll admit it’s a challenge because I keep running headlong into my numerous faults and shortcomings.
Today is another summer/fall day: 34 degrees when I got up, but the sky is so blue it hurts to look at and the temps will soar into the 70s. I’ll go out and enjoy these last moments of summer–quick and warm–before it slips away entirely.
I’m embarrassed I don’t have more pictures of this event. This is Ellsworth from my other blog, Ellsworth’s Journal, listening intently to the conference organizer and fellow blogger, Pam Coughlan of MotherReader. But what I heard and saw and talked about is more important than a bunch of not-very-good pictures I would have taken. (Feeble excuse, I know). Pam did a terrific job hosting this conference, no easy job. But all of us who attended are glad she did.
It was wonderful to see Jama Rattigan again. We haven’t seen each other in about 14 years. We always met at the oddest places–at an artist teddy bear shop dinner in Leesburg, at an SCBWI conference . . . so of course it was long past time for us to be at the blogging conference. Jama brought Cornelius, who kept Ellsworth company. (You can see him on my other blog post). I met Tricia from Miss Rumphis, who is as funny and sweet as I’d thought she’d be in real life. I met Pam Coughlan who is younger and way more energetic than I thought she’d be. I talked with Mary Lee Hahn from A Year of Reading who is wise and funny and delightful.
I also met some people I knew from the Children’s Book Guild, an organization in D.C. I belonged to for nearly 20 years. A delightful young woman came up and asked me if I had written some of the Sunfire books (Scholastic). She was a big fan of that series. A couple of other people remembered talks I’d given at various events. The wonderful thing about the field of children’s books is that so many circles overlap. At this one event, I met people from the Kidlitosphere, reconnected with old friends, and was heartened to know that people remembered me from talks given years ago and books written years ago. All these overlapping circles formed a Venn diagram of this particular conference.
When I left yesterday morning, driving up I-95 in the cold, dark, foggy rain, I wasn’t in a very "bloggy place." Since the Time Spies series ended at ten books, I wondered at the validity of keeping on with a blog in the voice of an overweight black cat and a shabby stuffed elephant. As for this blog, I wondered where I was going. Luckily for all of us, Pam gave us an exercise in the first session. She posed questions such as "Why are you blogging?" and "Who am I blogging for?" and "When are you going to revisit your blogging mission?"
I began Ellsworth’s Journal to help promote the Time Spies series, but it quickly became more than that. Once Winchester and Ellsworth were let loose, I couldn’t bring them back. They ran off with the blog–I simply became the typist. I started Under the Honeysuckle Vine after a few failed attempts to begin a LiveJournal blog. It wasn’t until Iva Honeysuckle sold this year to Hyperion that I decided to follow her journey through revisions and the production process in a different blog. But who would want to read endless posts about revising and production? Then I remembered how much I loved writing essays. When I first began writing for publication, I wrote dozens of personal experiences pieces which I sold to small magazines. I loved writing those essays. Once I set up this blog, I realized I had a forum to explore the little moments in life.
So what happened yesterday at the conference? I went in feeling a bit wary, thinking I was going to shut down Ellsworth’s Journal. I wanted to learn how I could make my LiveJournal blog work harder to promote my books. People jumped right in with discussions and panels and most of what they said went–whoosh!–over my head, but it was all very exciting. I took notes about the importance of Facebook and Twitter and Google Reader and Google Alert and how to create a blog community and build "authority" from Technorati and how to pronounce "meme" and what they’re for. I learned about avatars and gravatars and Sunday Salon and SEO (search engine optimization). I felt myself getting wired (this often happens at conferences) and thought about how far behind I am. I learned that people are "leaving" their LiveJournal blogs and going to Facebook. But Facebook isn’t anything like a blog, I argued. Facebook is flashy and addictive . . . and junky.
Then I grew tired of it all. Maybe it was because I had been up since 4 a.m. But I think it was too much for my pea-brain. As I sat there, some people around me multi-tasked on their laptops, PDAs, and iPhones. They watched a PowerPoint presentation by Greg Pincus (he gave us the link) on their laptops and tweeted and I don’t know what-all. Their screens were so cluttered, it gave me a headache just to look at them. It occurred to me that the tweeting, multi-tasking people weren’t really paying attention to the presentation. I was reminded of the State Fair a few weeks ago, when a woman riding the carousel a few horses ahead of me talked on her cellphone. That same day I observed two in-love teenagers at a picnic table, sitting as close as two people could sit and still have a couple of molecules between them, with their phones on the table in front of them, both staring at their phones. Whatever happened to staying in the moment at least a few moments of the day?
Pam’s questions were actually very helpful. I decided to keep Ellsworth’s Journal going. And I decided I would write more about the writing process–which, most days, is not a trip to the beach–and continue to write my little essays. Something from the heart from me to anyone who might be interested in my musings. I also vowed I will not Facebook, Twitter, or do whatever comes along next year and the year after that. I want to write more deeply and truthfully and all those things provide too many distractions. I don’t want to wander away from the circle of the children’s literature community. I will stay connected with words, not "tweets" or superficial Facebook quizzes or "presents." That’s my mission on my blog. And in life.
As one commenter astutely pointed out, I should have stretched out in the hammock at Bell House to renew my creative spirit. Besides making a spectacle of myself getting in the hammock, I suspect I would have fallen asleep. I found other ways to refresh and revive my creative spirit. One was by walking. I walked in the mornings to "shake" that day’s chapter out of my head (generally the first line of the first scene and the rest would follow). I ambled at lunch time to take in the scenery. And I walked briskly at the end of my writing day to get the blood circulating again.
When I am away from home, I am reminded who I am writing for. Yes, it’s for me and for my audience and for my agent and my editor. . . but mostly I write for my husband of more than 30 years. In all the times I’ve been to Bell House, I am greeted by a beautiful bouquet blooming in my room. This is the gorgeous arrangement he sent this time. He knows I like blues and pinks and whites. The vase sat where I could it first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
When I finished my day’s writing, I sat on the sofa in the library across the hall and revised. I also outlined the next day’s chapter. Working at a furious pace is like jumping off a cliff. I grab my characters and we leap into the unknown and hope for a soft landing. I found a book by Sandra Scofield that provided the necessary cushion–The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer. Since I write scene-to-scene (a good way for me to build a plot), this book was perfect. It helped me structure quickly and gave me a checklist that reminded me of crucial scene elements.
But the best part of the week away was seeing new things with new eyes. It’s hard to do this when you are focused on your own daily life in your writing room in your house in your neighborhood in your town. I relished my walks along the beach, eyes trained skyward for the eagles who have just returned (they leave when the ospreys come back from Florida in the spring–ospreys are smaller than eagles but will chase eagles away and even steal fish from them–who knew eagles were such wimps?). I watched a young eagle carry an enormous fish downriver. He didn’t have a good grip and dropped it. He circled back, as if the fish was lying right on top of the water waiting for him, then soared off in disgust. I watched swans in the marina, herons sitting all day on the jetty (I wondered if their backs hurt), comorants that dove into a wave and never resurfaced (if they did, it was miles away!), and mallards that bobbed on the surf like corks.
No matter where I am, I manage to find a place to go junkin’. Gotta recycle! I picked up a few play-pretties for my sitting room, ephemera for my mixed-media collection, and five silverplate spoons commemorating different buildings at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, the "Century of Progress" fair. The spoons are actually a birthday present for someone special who was born in that year and whose birthday is this week.
Even having different food was restorative! Every morning at home I chow down Newman’s Own cereal and skim milk (from that virtuous breakfast you’d think I was silph, but the rest of the day is a slippery slide into chocolate and chips). The innkeeper always discussed the next day’s breakfast with me over wine and cheese on the porch after my writing day–she also regaled me with enough stories for ten books. I’d go to sleep, knowing I’d soon be gobbling pecan pancakes with drawn butter, fresh pineapple, ginger cake, eggs over easy, cranberry juice, and bacon (I told her I don’t eat meat, but bacon is in a food group by itself). Wonderfully prepared food, beautifully served on gold-rimmed china and the family sterling. Now that I’m home, it’s back to Almond Crunch in a Corelle bowl.
A week to remember . . .
Hard to believe I’m home again, this time with 70 brand-new pages of my novel. 70 pages in 6 days! I’m lucky if I write 4 new pages in a normal workday, and I’m in my office most of the day. That’s what lack of distractions can do. At Bell House, all I had to do was roll out of bed, take a walk, eat the fantastic breakfast prepared by me, and go upstairs and work. Eat lunch when and if I wanted. Eat dinner when and if I wanted. I went out a few times, but for the most part I wrote, walked, took notes (and ate).
Since returning from Hollins this summer, where I began the novel, I had floundered on Chapter 6 for weeks. Couldn’t seem to finish it. Too many other things going on. The more time between me and that chapter, the worse it got. I had to research and write a whole book during that time. Finally when I got back to the novel, I felt the voice had grown weak and I’d lost my way. I finally finished Chapter 6 and slammed out Chapter 7. I’d hoped to have Chapter 8 written before I left, but that didn’t happen.
So when I arrived at Bell House and took all my stuff up the 34 stairs to my third-floor tower (I was going to say "eyerie" but I can’t spell it. eierie? eiyrie?), set up my TV table and chair, unpacked my laptop and stuck in the flash drive, I felt wobbly–and not just from making umpteen trips up and down 34 stairs. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I sat there? What if the book had deserted me? What if I couldn’t concentrate here any better than I could at home? What if I’d spent all this money for nothing? My husband had said to rest and not worry about it, but my feeling is I can rest when I’m dead. I wanted to get this book back on track.
I set a daunting goal–10-12 new pages a day, plus outline the next day’s chapter and make changes on the day’s chapter. The book and I stared at each other on Friday morning for a while, sizing each other up. Then slowly my character’s voice came back and the pages began to pile up. I wrote a chapter a day, edited the same chapter that evening and outlined the next day’s chapter. When I arrived I knew the ending of the book but NOTHING about the middle. That’s what I accomplished in 6 days at Bell House. I wrote the entire middle. I’m over the hump and am within 4 chapters of finishing the first draft. It needs a lot of work, but I’m hoping to get the rest of the chapters finished this week before I have to tackle yet another nonfiction book.
On my walks, I took pictures. The photo above represents my new "arty" style. That’s Bell House and no, I don’t have one foot in a hole. The two high-up porches are widow’s walks. That’s where Alexander Graham Bell and his father, Melville, flew tetrahedonal kites. They were working on their man-powered flight theory and were on to something at the same time the Wright Brothers were working on theirs. I sat on those perches and ate my peanut butter sandwiches and read and watched the endless parade of birds on the river. At night, I left my window open so I could hear the Potomac slapping the rocks below. The river in Colonial Beach is quite wide, as it is preparing to dump into the Chesapeake Bay, so it has waves and whitecaps and currents–and jellyfish, still! The sun rises over the river and each morning I watched a band of pink-orange stain the river before the fiery disk emerged.
This is the hammock on the large wrap-around front porch. I didn’t sit in it. I was too busy writing. (Actually, hammocks make me nervous. I have trouble getting in them!)
And this is my supper my first evening there. Fried fish, mashed potatoes, the best applesauce, I’ve eaten and a squishy white dinner roll with margerine. I had homemade chocolate cherry cake for desert. Yum! I avoided the good restaurants and instead frequented a funky local place called Ola’s. I took my book and pretended to read but really I eavesdropped all over the place. Fodder for future books? You bet!
Every year or so, my husband gives me the best gift ever: a week at a bed and breakfast called The Bell House. I’ve probably written about it before. It was owned by Alexander Graham Bell’s father, Melville, at the turn of the century (the last one). The house was their summer home. Alex and Melville flew kites off the widow’s walks as some sort of experiment. When I go, I stay in the Melville Bell room on the top floor. Next door is a library, open to the other guests, but I pretty much commandeer it for myself. The two widow’s walks are accessed from the this floor. I actually crawl outside on the widow’s walk (beneath the "witch’s hat" tower roof) and eat my lunch and read. I feel like a fly stuck to the building. Although the big holly tree hides me somewhat, people driving and strolling by can still see me.
Bell House provides the ultimate peace. I look out my window at the Potomac in all its daily changes–choppy, white-cappy, dinner-plate calm, greenish-blue, deep green, grayish-green. In the morning, the sun rises here first. (One of the rooms is named Potomac Sunrise). Rays shine through a square window, waking me. I get up and walk first thing. Breakfast (the best part of the day) is at eight. After chatting with Anne Bolin, the innkeeper who is like an older sister to me, I go back upstairs to work. I work until noon or so. Eat lunch and walk again. More work. Break for supper. Another walk. More work. To bed. I totally immerse myself in my novel. No household chores. No laundry. No cooking (such as I do). No dishes. No cats. No TV. No radio. No cellphone (I call my husband in the evenings). And–most important–no Internet. This is a good as it gets for concentrating on a single project.
I have set myself an impossible goal of 75 pages. If I reach 50, I’ll be doing good. I haven’t outlined the rest of my current novel, so I’ll be doing that in the evenings. Outline, write, outline, write. Re-read, write. I must avoid the trap of revising each sentence as I go. Otherwise, I’ll never finish. I’ve become a "polisher," even revising a single word a zillion times before moving on.
This photo is from a previous trip. That’s my good buddy Ellsworth (she has her own blog) sliding down the bannister. A glimpse of the very Victorian hall. Did I mention there are two resident ghosts? Melville Bell’s face has reportedly appeared at the back door window. The most active spirit is Bertha, the woman who lived there after the Bells, until her death. She moves her hairpins around and once turned on my cellphone. As on earlier occasions, I will be too busy to fool with ghosts. Bertha, heed my warning.