In exactly two weeks, I have a nonfiction book due and I’m not half-finished . . . with the first draft. My days fall into a black hole and I can’t remember if it’s Sunday or Friday. So here are my Friday Five–a first for me!–with one extra:
1. A 20-year-old student majoring in film at USC wrote asking about the film rights to The Big Green Pocketbook. She said it’s been her favorite book since first grade, when she saw it in her teacher’s class. She brought it home and her mother read it to her that night. From then on, it’s been a tradition for her and her mother to read the book together. They still do it! Now she wants to make a film based on my book, still in print after 17 years. I hope it works out–I’d love to see that story live on in another form.
2. The weather called for snow again last week. We only got a skiff, gone in an hour.
3. A school putting together an auction basket asked to buy some of my books. I sent them 4 of my books, plus other books and fun "filler" items. Still cleaning out my office for the big re-do. At least some things are going to a good cause.
4. I finally got my eager fingers on Red Sings from Treetops by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski. It’s so beautiful, I read it three times in a row. Then I pored over the intricate illustrations, looking for motifs Zagarenski uses: crowns, wheels, whales, windows, birdcages, boats, and teacups. This book makes me want to write spare, pared-down nature poems and brush swaths of aqua and chartreuse on wood.
5. I was invited to speak at the SCBWI Carolinas annual conference this September, in Charlotte. I’m very excited. The Carolinas region puts on a fabulous 3-day conference. I’ll be giving a workshop called, "Chapter Books: Not Just Short Novels."
6. Today is the last day of February. I am so glad to see the back of this month! Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Feb! Buh-bye!
I wasn’t going to go to the Big Flea this past weekend, but I had a raging case of cabin fever. Friday night I packed my special antiquing purse with the essentials: keys, chapstick, credit card, and some cash. On Saturday I arrived at the Expo Center 30 minutes before it opened so I could score an optimum parking spot and also be one of the first inside. That way I could cruise the 300 booths without jostling crowds in the way.
At the first booth, I picked up two compacts and spent half my cash. I took my time wandering around until I found the Booth of My Dreams, all tricked out in red and blue transfer print tablecloths and red handled utinsels and tin lunch boxes. So charming I could have moved in. Best of all, the booth owner was a kindred soul who completely understood my love for all things vintage. I picked up a felt pillow top, souvenir from the "Century of Progress" World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1933. My husband was born that year and I have a few things from the Fair–a set of souvenir spoons, a train brochure.
Then the booth woman showed me her prize–a scrapbook from the Fair, intact. Sad to say, most photograph albums and scrapbooks are pillaged, pictures and cards ripped out and sold piecemeal. I had to have the scrapbook and the pillow top. However, she didn’t take credit cards and I didn’t have enough cash. My checkbook was home, miles away. She said she’d hold the items for me and the show was also open Sunday. I left, thinking I’d go back the next day. But as I pulled out of my primo parking spot, I realized I couldn’t let the scrapbook get away. So I drove all the way back home, grabbed my checkbook and drove back. By now the road was jammed with other cabin-feverish people. I had to park in another zip code and the Expo Center was so crowded I couldn’t find the woman’s booth!
Hot and wild-eyed, I finally located the booth. The woman told me the instant I left, a man came up wanting Century of Progress memorabilia. She kept my bag under her chair. I bought the goodies (plus some others) and went home. After antiquing junkets, I often have to clean things. One of the compacts I bought was filthy inside–grease from the lipstick mingled with the powder and rouge in a thick layer. As I was polishing it, I noticed the mirror opened. Tucked behind was a tiny card: "To Harriett On My Lucky Day, Al."
I was instantly enchanted. Who was Harriett? Who was Al? Was the day he met her his lucky day? All of the objects I have hide stories but this one provided a clue. I could write a story just from that secret message.
That night I leafed through the scrapbook. It’s amazingly detailed. Inside the cover is a typed itinerary. The scrapbook-keeper, a young woman, vacationed with two girlfriends. They took the train from Plymouth, MA, to Albany. Then they booked a steamship to Niagra Falls, up Lake Huron, and down Lake Michigan. They spent some time at the fair, then took the train back home.
The bulk of the scrapbook consists of neatly pasted souvenir photos (about 1 1/2 x 2 inches) and their own photos. At the end is another set of photographs from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. They were travelin’ gal pals!
As I studied the photos, the telegram sent from the Western Union exhibit at the Fair, and souvenir brochures, I felt I was with those young women, wearing a cloche hat, a print dress, silk stockings, and chunky-heeled pumps. If I read between the maps and photographs, I could experience the trip. It would be a story–no, an entire novel. Like the compact, the scrapbook will give up its secrets to me.
Stories are everywhere. Sometimes they drop into your hands. Other times you have to go to a bit of trouble . . .
Back in 2003, I did a little book for Lerner called Big Rigs. It was part of their Mighty Movers series in their Pull Ahead Books line. (I used to call Pull Aheads, Pull-Ups.) I was asked to do this book and it suited me because my brother-in-law drove tractor trailer trucks most of his life. Even so, I found writing the book a challenge to fit its young audience. Like, how to describe a fifth wheel (what the trailer part hooks to on the tractor part–interesting, eh?)
The book is illustrated with photographs and I remember sorting through dozens and dozens of shots. I needed a picture of a truck driver in a truck stop, so the photo team at Lerner (or someone they hired) went out and found a very photogenic bearded trucker who raised his coffee cup in salute to the photographer. One of my favorite pictures.
Anyway, the little book has done pretty well. It’s in paperback and also a Spanish edition. So I was pleasantly surprised when the editor in chief at Lerner emailed me a while back to say that Big Rigs had been chosen to be re-released in their new Lightning Bolts line. I didn’t have to do a thing, she said. I figured they’d take the insides of my book and put a different cover on it with the new Lightning Bolt logo and that would be that.
Yesterday I got my comp copies. You could have heard my jaw hit the floor in four states. First, the original book is about 6 by 7 1/2 inches trim size. The new book is 8 by 10 inches. As you can see it has a bright red cover. Different truck on the cover. I flipped through the pages. The photos bleed from edge to edge–in the old book, there is lots of white space for the text.
The more I looked through the book, the more I realized I didn’t recognize hardly anything! My original text was the same, but graphics had been added to explain terms. Most of the photos had been replaced with new ones. Gone was my sweet bearded trucker hoisting his coffee mug. In its place is a photo of a man reading a book with a shelf of books above his diner booth. I like the idea of truckers exchanging books at truck stops. The "Further Reading" section has been updated with newer titles and websites.
When I look at the new Big Rigs On the Move in the new Vroom-Vroom series, I’m astonished. The way they retooled my book reminds me of yanking a tablecloth and not disturbing the dishes on the table.
Amazing. A new/old book and I didn’t have to lift a finger.
I still miss Coffee Guy’s smile, though.
This time of year–especially this year–I am simply starved for color. I spend our grocery money on pink tulips and golden daffodils. I weigh a head of blue-to-lavender hydrangea against a head of cabbage. Guess which one wins? I warm my hands at the garden magazine section of the bookstore.
Did you know that humans can distinguish one million colors? Some say seven million colors! Who names all these colors? We can! Back in the 1930s the British Colour Council published the Dictionary of Color Standards. The Dictionary listed odd names like Bee Eater Blue (I’m hoping a bee eater is a bird), Kermes (a crimson dye obtained from insects of the order Kermes), and Squirrel. "Squirrel" perfectly describes that dark silvery gray frayed bath mat in an old motel along U.S. Highway 1.
There are entire organizations devoted to color forecast. The Inter-Society of Color Council concentrates on the field of color in the arts, sciences, and industry. And the Color Association is the oldest color forecasting service in the U.S. Wouldn’t you like a job naming colors?
For fun, try the Global Color Survey–a series of prompts that asks you to choose colors from their list, a color chart, or make up your own term. My personal favorite: "cheap-ass 7-Eleven green." When I was writing historical romances (a thousand years ago), I loved using popular colors of the era such as ashes-of-roses (dusty grayish pink), aubergine (eggplant), and eau de nil (light green).
I’ve been thinking more about color since I started a paint-chip artist’s journal. For a few weeks, I ran around like some color-crazed person, swiping handfuls of paint chips from Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Benjamin Moore. I sifted through my collection and pasted color chips with intriguing names ("Secret Passage," "Silver Charm," "Abracadrabra", "June Morn") in a spiral-bound sketchbook. So far I’ve only written one prose poem to go with "Silver Charm," but my fascination with colors has spilled from my journal to my books.
Books have colors. In some stories the colors are obvious, like The Day-Glo Brothers. Think about the colors of Charlotte’s Web. Barn red. Timothy yellow. Manure brown. Earthtones. You can consider the meanings of colors, as well, but look beyond the obvious meanings. Does red always have to mean "stop," "fire," "hot?" Is that particular shade of light blue always "sky?" Consider natural associations (green for grass), but also emotional or cultural associations. If you need inspiration, go to Lowe’s or Home Depot. Besides the paint chips, there are brochures with inspiring quotes and gorgeous photographs (I highly recommend the Audubon Collection by Olympic Paints, found at Lowe’s–the brochures are works of art, the colors so sensual, you want to roll in them).
I haved worked out the colors for the brand-new book I’m working on now. It starts out with grayish-green overtones, then gradually brightens to sea foam, coral, turquoise, and shell pink. Yes, I’m borrowing the technique from the movie "The Wizard of Oz," but the shift from black and white to color in the movie is sudden. In my book it’ll be more subtle, echoing the main character’s slow acceptance of her new situation.
To keep these colors in mind while I’m working, I’m gathering some things that reflect those colors: a McCoy vase, the jacket of an old book, a small conch shell . . . The vase is a happy accident. It’ll be filled with spring flowers until the real thing gets here.
Recently, Laura Salas did a post on Sallie Wolf’s new poetry book. The book is based on Wolf’s sketchbook on birds, the kind of project I’d love to do myself if I kept a sketchbook (which I don’t). Anyway, I checked out Sallie’s website and learned that she met the designer for the book in a Starbucks. I thought, "No wonder I never meet anyone. I don’t drink coffee. And I never go anywhere."
A few days later I stopped in Panera’s to pick up lunch. As always, many tables were occupied by people pecking away on laptops. I wondered how they could concentrate in the rackety restaurant. Lots of writers say they work better with some activity around them, some background noise. I can write standing in line at the post office, but I’m only taking notes or jotting down ideas as they come to me, not deep, serious coming-from-the-gut writing. Still, I felt a little left out.
So I’m creating my own place-away-from-my-office. The Honeysuckle Cafe. It’s less a trendy WiFi bread-bowl-soup-fancy-coffee-drinks place, more of a downhome quirky cafe. The Honeysuckle Cafe is based in part on the Whistle Stop Cafe from Fannie Flagg’s novel (one of my favorites). "For lunch and supper you can have: fried chicken; pork chops and gravy; catfish; chicken and dumplings; or a barbeque plate; and your choice of three vegetables, biscuits or cornbread, and your drink and dessert–for 35 cents (note, the "cents" symbol is no longer on the keyboard–what does that say about the world today?). "The vegetables are: creamed corn; fried green tomatoes; fried okra; collard or turnip greens; black-eyed peas; candied yams; butter beans or lima beans. And pie for dessert."
The Honeysuckle Cafe is decorated in thrift-shop finds, but not the artificially themed artifacts you find on the walls in Applebee’s and Cracker Barrel. My cafe has shelves of old books and old tea cups and saucers. You pick out your own cup and saucer to suit your fancy and read an old book while you’re nibbling on the pie of the day (today it’s butterscotch meringue).
While you’re in my place, you can mull over the place in your current project. I feel "place" is the one of the most important elements in fiction, right up there with character and plot. From an article in the November 2009 The Writer, Linda Lappin says, "In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that every physical place–from an individual room to a continent–had its unique in-dwelling spirit, its spark of sacred, individual identity, called the genius loci . . . The spirit of the place determined the development and vitality of all life forms . . . and influenced the character and destiny of human activities unfolding there."
You can think about all that heavy stuff in the Honeysuckle Cafe. Or you can just doodle in your notebook and sip your tea. If you sit here long enough, the atmosphere of the cafe may wend its way into your project. Not the actual booths and rooster-patterned curtains and scratched formica counter, but the idea that place permeates all aspects of your book, especially your characters.
In the movie version of "Fried Green Tomatoes", narrator Ninny Threadgoode reminisces during the final melancholy scene of dead leaves blowing across the porch of the ghostly Whistle Stop Cafe: "When the train stopped running, the cafe shut down . . . everybody scattered to the winds. It was never more than just a knockabout place but now that I look back on it, the heart of the town stopped beating . . . It’s funny how a little place like this brought so many people together."
The Honeysuckle Cafe will never close because it’s in my mind–and in yours, I hope. Stop by for a cup of Lipton’s tea or plain coffee–in the mismatched cup and saucer of your choice–and the pie of the day. Be sure to make a wish when you eat the pointy end of the pie first. You’ll always find somebody to talk to here. People won’t be isolated in headphones and their own laptop screens. Let the spirit of the place influence the spirit of the place in your book.
Or you can just sit and watch human activities unfolding.
Yesterday I got outside and actually drove my car for the first time in one solid week. I had a zillion errands to run but I’d also decided I was tired of living like a refugee. We needed pink tulips, lots of them, and comfort food, lots of it. I bought the tulips and comfort food at Wegman’s. The errands were completed with me only nearly falling down twice and getting my Honda hung up on a snow boulder once (the parking lots are still awful).
At home I pulled out this gorgeous vintage transfer print tablecloth, a gift from one of my Hollins students, and my Desert Rose dishes, usually reserved for summer. We ate our ready-to-heat dinner as if it was a special occasion. And it was. We celebrated getting through a most trying week and pre-pre-Valentine’s Day, which is also our anniversary.
When we were married 31 years ago, the blizzard of ’79 blanketed the roads in about 3 feet of snow. I wore galoshes and wondered if I would have enough stuff to talk about for a whole marriage. Despite my natural shyness, I’ve managed to hold up my end of the conversation all these years.
Today we went to our favorite tea shop, Pinkadilly. We didn’t know it would be open tomorrow because it usually isn’t on Sunday. But our pre-Valentine’s Day celebration was wonderful. You can see some of the goodies from the photos, but here’s what the Queen Elizabeth tea consists of: quiche of the day (Vidalia onion-Swiss), soup of the day (creamy cheddar potato), pot of tea (Smooth Earl Grey), and a tower with two scones (vanilla cream and cranberry-orange) with Devonshire cream and lemon curd, chicken salad sandwich, bruchetta, cucumber/cream cheese rounds, bacon/onion tart, shot glass packed with chocolate caramel bread pudding, homemade truffles, frosted raspberry cake, and an edible chocolate raspberry mousse cup. We order two of these bad boys.
When we were married, we went to an Italian restaurant where I picked at my food because I was thin and nervous. At Pinkadilly, I ate my everything on my side of the tower plus my husband’s cake and bread pudding. Clearly my German ancestry is showing.
The mails have been backed up or nonexistent for a few days. But this card arrived today. Isn’t it wonderful? My friend Linda Shute, children’s book author/illustrator, painted the "Let Love ‘Rain’" card. Her cats Mollie and Lily are the models. I love the way Mollie (who has the same big-cat bulldog stance as Winchester) looks out at the viewer while Lily is looking at Mollie as if to say, "Uh-huh. Today I’m getting to the food dish first."
My sister sent us a hilarious card of Lucy and Desi. "I Love Lucy" is a totem for me and my sister. Whoever we married was doomed to play Ricky to our Lucy.
When we came home from tea, my husband went out to hack at the ice on our back deck and gutters. I threw a load of laundry in the washer and an allergy pill down Winchester’s throat (much harder than you think). My husband will come in a little while, ready for a cup of coffee. I’ll sit and chit-chat about the weather, the cat’s daily pill struggle, a book I’m reading . . . the daily-ness of our lives that adds up to years, passing more quickly than we think.
We are living in "Groundhog Day," a perpetual winter hell. Every morning the radio wakes us up with predictions of snow, accumulated snow, ice, sleet, and temperatures in the single digits. Schools have been closed so long, the kids will have to relearn their ABCs when they do go back. Next year. To keep from swilling wine vinegar as a numbing agent, I have devised a Survival List:
1. Maintain a Steady Level of Sugar and Carbs:
This is vital to one’s well-being. Yes, your waistline will grow but since you only slop around the house in one pair of sweatpants, who cares? Last night my husband needed lunch meat and I leaped at the chance to go to the grocery store (our neighborhood roads are still a mess). I crashed through the doors like a member of a home invasion crew and made a beeline for Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs, Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch (one pint left, hidden behind Coffee Heath Bar Crunch–why is every good thing in the world eventually ruined with coffee?), Cheetos, Sun Chips (original flavor), Cinnamon Toaster Strudel (for Elevenses), and Edward’s Single-Serve Hershey’s Pie. This will tide me over at least two days.
2. Don’t Look in the Mirror:
This goes along with maintaining a steady level of sugar and carbs. My face is bloated like a Macy’s parade balloon. Worse, my skin is a pale green color, making me resemble a creature found at the bottom of cave pools.
3. Don’t Wear White:
Not unless you want to disappear against the background of snowbanks and gray-white sky.
4. Watch Re-runs of "Designing Women":
And wonder why those gals are wearing coats in nearly every episode when they are supposed to be in Atlanta, one of the hottest cities on earth. Switch to a TV show where everybody sweats a lot, like "Miami Vice."
5. Start a New Book:
If you’re a reader, pick up something new to read. If you’re a writer, get busy on a new project, especially if you’ve just finished a book.
I am finally able to let my previous novel (finished two weeks ago) go play without worrying over it. Now I’m turning my attention to a new project. The idea for this book came about 6 months ago, while I was working on my previous novel. I have learned to handle Sexy Next Books (Heather Sellers‘ term for ideas that try to lure you away from your current project–Sexy Next Book usually arrives when Current Book is circling the drain). Sellers recommends ignoring the siren call but if you must answer, spend no more than a day taking notes. I add notes on Sexy Next Book in the notebook of Current Book as they come to me. A good new book idea will build in your head until you know it’s viable.
Today I’m going to transcribe those scribbled notebook-notes into a computer file. I’ll also begin a typed journal just for this book. Book journals are vital to my process, as important as Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs. In Beyond the Words, Bonni Goldberg talks about distillation, catching the spirit of the project. "The first phase of percolation," she writes, "ruminating internally, is about letting your idea build by containing it."
I use my journal to help contain the ideas of my book. Many writers keep a book-related journal. Goldberg says, "A writer’s journal isn’t the same thing as a traditional journal . . . [it’s] where you distill ideas. You use it to jot down scraps of conversation or a dream . . . jam for a few pages about a topic that sparks your heart and mind."
The journal I kept for Iva Honeysuckle Discovers the World (now slated to come out in summer 2012!) is about 20 single-spaced pages. The journal for the book I just finished is 50 single-spaced pages and is ongoing. I’ll add entries about the book’s progress and revision process. I’m learning to lean more on my book-journal than other tools.
Today I’ll also fine-tune the jacket copy for the new book. That’s right. The book I haven’t written. I attack new projects from all angles, even from the angle of the book being published. I write jacket copy, one page synopsis, and a longer synopsis from the voice of the main character. A lot of these tools get dropped once the book and I have clicked. But I keep the journal.
6. Set Your New Book in the Summer:
The best way to escape winter short of a Disney cruise. It may be dreary as an open grave outside, but inside my office, I’ll be swattin’ gnats and sippin’ sweet tea . . .
Okay, maybe a little. I’ve lost count of the snows here in Virginia (the South!) since December 4–at least 4 major snowfalls including the 18 incher right before Christmas and a few piddly ones between. When I left for Fort Myers, a foot of snow was on its way and when I came home Tuesday evening, it was snowing. And now . . . the Great Grandaddy of All Snows has folks here whipped into a frenzy. There are no eggs in any grocery stores. Ditto bread. No books on the shelves in the library. Ditto DVDs.
I was cruely sent to the grocery store yesterday and today. Yesterday at Wegman’s was like the last helicopter out of Saigon. Today when I went to the Giant to pick up the things I couldn’t find/reach/smack out of someone’s grubby paw in Wegman’s, it was like rats on a sinking ship. Apparently people here think they will be holed up for weeks on end and will have to break up the furniture for firewood and fix casseroles out of candle stubs and cat food. They say bad weather brings out the best in people. Clearly the person who said that was never in the produce section of Wegman’s duking it out for the last banana.
Predictions are running wildly from one foot to five or ten feet, depending on which station you listen to. Me? I’m paying no attention to this horrible weather. The last few weeks I’ve heard the winter birds (the ones who winter here) singing spring songs. They pay no attention to the weather either and use the lengthening days as their calendar. I’ve seen robins since January, though they had slightly panicked looks in their eyes. If they could speak English, I’m sure they’d say, "Whose idea was it to head north early?"
But no, I’m not talking about the snow that’s flying outside my window (I have my back to it). Instead I’ll talk about the few precious days I had in Florida and share some of my lousy photos. I was staying with a good friend, helping her with her novel. Coaching her was the best thing I could have done–I reinforced what I know (and seem to forget with each book). Her husband is an avid photographer. He had a very nice Nikon with a real (detachable) lens. I left my Nikon (with the non-detachable lens) and took my little Sony Cybershot. Her husband told me about a photo editing program he uses that looked much easier than Elements, but I can’t remember the name of it. And so my photos are unedited, as usual, and blurry because I was always either in a moving boat or hanging off the rail of the Corkscrew Audubon Refuge about to drop my camera in the swamp because I was trying to photograph a pair of raccoons or an anhinga diving for a minnow.
I have a red dot that’s a pileated woodpecker. A white dot that’s a white ibis. Another white dot that’s a snowy egret. A brown dot that’s a grumpy red-shouldered hawk. If I knew the name of this photo editing program, I might be able to blow those dots up into recognizable birds. That’s a little blue heron staring into water covered with zillions of teeny little leaves or plants. I added four birds to my Life List–anhinga, little blue heron, white ibis, black-crowned night heron. I began my life bird list when I was nine, scrawling "robin," "crow," "blue jay" in an old advertising address book (like many bird listers, I cheated–I still have that list and know I did not see a Baltimore oriole.)
Still, it was wonderful to walk outside in just a sweater and slip-on tennies. To eat grouper sandwiches outside at the marina. To taste Florida Pink shrimp fresh off the grill with grilled asparagus. To sample my first sea trout with lemon pepper (freshly caught and grilled). I came home with a strong desire to run out and buy a Weber grill and charcoal and drop a chicken neck off a pier to catch crabs for supper. But . . . here comes that darned snow I’m not going to talk about and all thoughts of grilling are fading like the sunset over the Gulf.
If I was a good sport, I’d shift my culinary tastes toward hot chocolate with marshmallows and chicken noodle soup. But I’m not. I’m sick of winter and already sick of the snow I’m not going to talk about.