Phosphate Mining at River Oaks

This is the first Wednesday’s Words post I’ve written in a long time. I’ve been busy revising my first novel called FAITH CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS and drafting my second.

Most people who’ve read my pages aren’t familiar with Charleston, South Carolina’s phosphate mining past. During the late 1800s after the Civil War, rich deposits of phosphate rock provided those who owned land on the area’s rivers with much needed money after the Civil War beginning in about 1867-1868. The rocks were mined and processed into a relatively cheap fertilizer. In my book, the main character is convinced mining will save her home from bankruptcy,but it comes with a cost to the land.

This brief excerpt comes from chapter 6. The image is from Robert Boessenecker’s blog The Coastal Paleontologist, Atlantic Edition

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“Mining was backbreaking, dirty work, but already one section of the pit was fairly deep and wide. The men had exposed a variety of sizes of tan phosphate stones along with coarse grained sand and the rounded bones and teeth of strange animals from some long ago age.”

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A Red Hot Sin

It’s early in the morning, and Faith is leaving for Charleston to meet with Josiah Hamilton about mining phosphate rock at River Oaks. She feels guilty about having written a letter  pretending to be her father, but not guilty enough not to go through with her plan. #WIP #1linewed #amwriting #amediting

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“The sound of trickling water from the spring house rose from the floorboards, the smell of the mossy darkness below permeating the air. Faith’s spirits lifted as she knelt before the cross. She loved the liquid quiet of this place, the peace it offered. The letter to Josiah Hamilton tucked into her skirt pocket felt as conspicuous as a glowing ember, a red-hot sin barely hidden.”

Wednesday’s Words from Faith Can Move Mountains

In this excerpt Faith is waiting for the sun to rise before she goes to Charleston to see Josiah Hamilton about mining phosphate at River Oaks.

“The sky and the river shone quicksilver in the twilight, the clouds pink and lavender above their gunmetal undersides. The weak light washed the sky and burnished the spartina grass of the marsh.”

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Real life vs. Social Media

For awhile now, I’ve been contemplating giving up Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, or at least curtailing the time I spend on it. I started participating in these platforms because I wanted to stay in touch with friends, and I’ve done that. I’ve reconnected with childhood friends, my friends from college and my time as a military wife. I’ve also remained connected to others I’ve met more recently, especially my writer friends. I’ve joined quite a few online groups to connect with other writers through Facebook and on Twitter, too. Writing is such a solitary occupation (especially when you practice it in a rural setting) that connecting through the internet is invaluable and validating. There really are others out in the world who write!

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A secondary reason I became involved in social media was to build an audience for my book(s) when I am published one day. I don’t really know if I’ve managed to build an audience, (perhaps a small one) and my books aren’t on the market yet. Though I still like being on social media, I spend far too much time following my interests down the rabbit home of information and curiosity. I will intend to spend only a moment checking updates but find that an hour and a half has passed before I realize it. I no  longer have much time to do other things!

Also, I’ve noticed something about myself and the time I spend on social media. I feel scattered. I struggle to concentrate. I am disconnected from life rather than connected to it. I don’t engage with my writing as readily as I once did.  I have trouble concentrating on long passages of reading or writing for extended periods of time; whereas, I used to read and write for hours. I also used to draw, sew, garden, watch birds and myriad other pursuits. Ironically, my world and my interests have narrowed even as the internet has brought the world to my fingertips.

Once I wrote from a place of deep introspection. When I sat down to write, the words bubbled up from deep within. Not at first, but it didn’t take long to enter the mindset necessary for the magic to happen. Sometimes hours would pass, but it only felt like minutes. Characters appeared seemingly from the ether. Experiences, voices, descriptions, scenes, dialogue, all these passed through me. I was the conduit for the story. I didn’t think it up. I simply waited for it to come to me, and I wrote it down. It was glorious, like a runner’s high, endorphins exploding inside me and filling me with deep satisfaction. When I found that I could disappear into the words and rhythms of the story I was writing, I knew I had found my release, my meditation, my art. I want that back.

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Now I struggle to write because I inhabit a place of frenetic activity, sound bites, and frequent interruptions. I think my characters into being rather than being open to the muse and letting the action and the characters appear as they once did.

If the creative act of writing is a meditative, relaxed, art-minded state of being, taking part in social media is the farthest thing from it. When I have written, I usually discover something about myself or gain some insight into the writing process or human nature. But on social media those moments of insight are rare. When I hop on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, I tell myself I will only scroll down my feed (disgusting term, that) for a few minutes, but I so easily succumb to the seduction of reading articles, looking at pictures of cute puppies, watching videos–you name it–that I often spend far too long there and come away feeling less happy, less settled, less satisfied with life than when I began. I should have more will power, but I know that social media sites do a lot of research to keep me clicking.

I have decided to conduct an experiment. Starting today, I am going to limit my time on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Oh, and definitely Pinterest, that black hole of a time suck where I tend to dawdle! From now until further notice–at least a month or longer–I plan to be on social media only AFTER I have worked, written, read, cooked, gardened, walked Stella, visited with friends, and generally enjoyed my life.

I am going to live my life, rather than share an edited-for-media version of it. I want face-to-face conversations with my friends at dinner parties over good food and wine. I want to float down the river with my husband and walk with him in the forest to pick berries or see the leaves change. I want to visit with my children and really hear what is going on in their lives. I want live music, art, and travel. No more distractions, no more staring at a phone or a computer screen.

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I’m making a change today to save my brain from the constant barrage of ads and negativity I find on social media. I will continue to write this blog, and I hope you’ll follow me here, but I am limiting myself to an hour each day of activity on all media. I know it will take a lot of willpower to make this happen. All habits are hard to break, but I hope to be a happier, more productive person, a better writer, a more attentive wife, and a more loving mother, sister, daughter, and friend. I’ll check in and let you know how it’s going. You’ll still find me on my social media platforms, but not as often as before. If you feel compelled join me in sharply curtailing your involvement in social media or have done so already, leave me a note and tell me how your life was changed (or not). I’d love to hear your story!

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#1LineWednesday #FaithCanMoveMountains

Marshall Lindsay is the antagonist in my novel, Faith Can Move Mountains. He enters the book on the first page, in the first line. He disrupts Faith’s world and resurfaces as an unwelcome and dangerous presence in Faith’s and Josiah’s lives. Here’s a taste of Marshall.

“Mr. Lindsay set his coffee on her father’s desk, upsetting the delicate cup on the open ledger where the dregs stained the paper.”

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Trouble’s Coming

#1LineWednesday #FaithCanMoveMountains

February 1869, River Oaks Plantation

One cold February morning, Marshall Lindsay has come to gloat that Thomas must pay his mortgage, or he will take the property from the Gentry family. When Marshall leaves River Oaks, Belinda knows he’s trouble, just as he was when Faith’s mother was alive.

“He up to no good.” Belinda eyed Marshall’s retreating form.  “Again.”

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The Pitch

Last year I took some time off writing this blog to concentrate on finishing my novel. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re-written the first few chapters, but I know I’ve done at least five revisions of the entire book. I’m preparing for what I hope will be the last. Do authors ever finish revision?

If I ever get this book published, I’m sure I’ll find places where I would change words or phrases even when it’s in print. Maybe that’s the nature of writing or any other art form. But at some point you have to let it go. That’s what I’m preparing to do with my book baby.

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Most of my writing life is spent in solitude, sitting at my desk surrounded by the world and people of my imagination. Although it seems real to me, I often think the fact that I’m a writer doesn’t seem real to other people because I don’t have a tangible product–a painting or a sculpture or a photograph–to share with them, showing what I do. I hope that’s about to change.

Last week my writing life was exciting. I took part (virtually) in a pitch event with the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, a fantastic group of writers who support me and my writing on a daily basis. If you write women’s fiction, you should join right now. As soon as you finish reading this post! Joining this group is the best thing I’ve done for my writing since I took a class to write my first novel at UW Madison Continuing Studies with Christine DeSmet, novelist and writing teacher extraordinaire. At last year’s WFWA pitch event, I found my  critique partner Natalia. She and the other two women in our group have helped me shape my book into something I can be very proud of. I hope I’ve given them half as good advise as they’ve given me.

Crit Group

During this year’s pitch event, which took place last week, I wrote a new 50 word pitch for my book. Eighty other writers and I posted our pitches along with the first 250 words of our manuscripts for agents to read. Then, wonder of wonders, an agent who likes Civil War era stories requested to see more of my story! I sent it out two days later aftergoing through the pages one more time using Natural Reader to check for errors and rhythm. My writer friend Kristin Oakley gave me that tip!

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I’ve learned so much in the course of writing this book, mostly about writing, but also about myself.  About seven years ago, I started writing  Faith Can Move Mountains without a clue how to write fiction. I muddled through and took classes to learn the craft. In the process I discovered that few things are as satisfying as when the writing comes, when the muse visits and gifts me with words I don’t recognize as mine when I reread. I’ve found what I love to do.

My novel is a work of historical women’s fiction  called Faith Can Move Mountains and is complete at 104,000 words. It represents seven years of work, mostly summers and weekends, while I was teaching and one one year when I was out of work and finished the first draft.

Here’s the pitch:  In 1869 Charleston South Carolina, unkempt, free-spirited Faith Gentry reluctantly marries former Confederate soldier Josiah Hamilton to save her beloved plantation from a vindictive banker with ties to her past. Her decision triggers events which uncover secrets that threaten her identity, her marriage, and those she loves.

What do you think of my pitch and my title. Would you read my book?

 

Tall Ships and Research

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Recently I was revising and editing a portion of my book. When I read the section where one of my characters ends up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina by way of a ship wreck, I realized the details were thin. I don’t know much about the Outer Banks, but I know someone who does.
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One of my college friends grew up sailing the Outer Banks near Manteo and Nags Head, North Carolina. I sent him a Facebook message to ask for his help for more information about that part of the country and to ask him some sailing questions. We ended up talking on the phone for awhile instead, which was so much fun, since I had not talked to him since college! He talked about sailing the inlets around the Outer Banks, how treacherous they are, and how they close periodically because of storms and tides. He told me an interesting story about residents in that part of the Outer Banks “pirating” goods from shipwrecks. I was fascinated, so I delved a bit more into that history and found some interesting information to include in my book.

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Because I was also trying to rework this section, I also spoke with my good friend and author, Kristin Oakley, about the problems in my manuscript. She helped me brainstorm some solutions and make the decision to include some interesting history of the Nag’s Head area. The idea I decided to include came from my talk with John and also from my research. When I researched the Outer Banks, specifically Nags Head, I found that the reason it bears that name is that during storms the people along the beach would tie a lantern to the neck of one of the coastal ponies. They would lead the pony along the dunes while the lantern bobbed, mimicking the motion of a boat safely anchored. Ships at sea would see the light and steer toward it believing there to be safe harbor, but, of course, they crashed into the shoals  and foundered. Subsequently, the Nag’s Head locals salvaged what they could from the ships! John told me of someone he knows who has a sterling punch bowl and cups from just such a salvaging trip as this. If you are a big fan of Poldark, as I am, you’ll recognize some similarity to what happened on Cornwall’s beaches. Perhaps this is only legend, but I did hear it from a Manteo local. I was intrigued, and so was Kristin.

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After these conversations I moved the timeline of my story to earlier in the year of 1869 so that a big storm could be expected to cause sailors trouble along that stretch of ocean, and also I decided for continuity and plausibility the story needed a scene on board the ship that Josiah, one of my main characters, is on to communicate that trouble. I want that scene to include the light bobbing on the beach that the inexperienced sailor follows rather than waking the captain of the schooner, which results in the wreck of the schooner Josiah is on.

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Since I know nothing of sailing and my knowledge of the ocean is limited to walking the beach to look for shells and sand dollars or swimming and body-surfing in water only up to my neck, I wondered how to make that scene realistic. Enter The Tall Ships Festival in Green Bay. I love how serendipitous this festival was for my research. My husband and I went to the festival on Sunday and climbed aboard several ships, two schooners and a clipper. We took lots of pictures and stayed on board as long as we could. I really would have liked a complete tour, fore and aft and below decks, but I’m not comfortable with throwing around “I’m writing a book” to get special privileges. I just hope being on the ship, walking the length of it, seeing the height of the masts and feeling the wooden decks and rope rigging were enough to lend authenticity to my scenes.

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Although my research only required going on the schooners and clippers, the stars of the festival were not the ships I boarded. The stars were the Spanish galleon El Galeon and the Viking ship, Draken Harald Harfagre . We tried to wait for the Viking ship and the Spanish galleon, but the lines were long, it was hot in the sun and very dusty, and the best brewpub in America, Titletown Brewing Company, was right behind us. Plus, and most importantly, there were only porta potties. So we packed it in early and had a delicious IPA in The Tap Room before heading home. If we could have had a beer on board one of the ships with the crew and asked questions that way, maybe that would make me rethink tossing around the “I’m writing a book” idea. No such luck this time.20160807_134018

I thought when I was in the last stages of editing for my manuscript that I was finished with research, but I’ve realized that revision brings up a host of issues that I thought I had put to rest. I actually like this part of the writing process, not as much as writing the first draft, but giving characters more depth and improving the setting and logic of the action is well worth the time I’m spending on a little more research. 20160807_130248

 

Running and The Writing Life

Each summer I run. I run to lose the winter pounds, to deal with my migraine headaches, to still my mind when life becomes hectic, but most of all I run to take care of Stella, my silver Labrador. You see, she has a problem. She’s an adrenaline junkie. She must run until she’s exhausted or she has not had a good day. The above picture is what she looks like when she wants something. Each day I see “the look” from her until I put on my hat and sunscreen and tell her it’s time. If I don’t consent, she gives me no peace.

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Thanks for the run, Mom! Love, Stella

When I write, Stella knows my routine. She knows once I settle into my loft, I write for several hours at a time. If I haven’t exercised her, she pesters me until I do something with her, ANYTHING! Normally we run or run and walk (depending on how hot it is) about five and a half miles. When she and I were both a few years younger, we each had loads of energy. Now, however, Stella who will be seven in December, needs more time to recover. So do I. Growing older together is not a bad thing.

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Peaceful Stella after our morning run.

Lately when we’ve been out, we’ve run across three Sandhill Cranes, two of them are in the picture below. They are beautiful birds that normally keep away from us, but the couple who live here have a baby crane in tow, which is still huge. I’ve run into them in our neighbors’ yard, along the highway, in our backyard, and along our street. They eye me suspiciously as I pass. These birds stand an impressive four feet tall, so they are pretty intimidating when they posture and look me dead in the eye as they have done lately. I think the only reason they don’t come after me is that Stella is with me. She regularly chases them from our yard. The same pair of cranes attacked my youngest son’s car last year when he was on his way out of our neighborhood. I don’t think those birds are terribly bright, or maybe they are just incredibly territorial.

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Cranes aren’t the only creatures we see. When we are out on our normal route, we run across deer, blue herons, Canada geese, snapping turtles occasionally, and sometimes a fox.

Another reason I run is it tends to jog (sorry, couldn’t resist!) something loose in my brain. If I’m stuck on a problem in my manuscript, I usually can work out what is wrong when I run. Occasionally, I forget the solution I came up with–still trying to figure out a good way to take a pad or paper and pen with me–but usually I come back and remember the fix to the problem once I am at my desk. Today wasn’t one of those days, but my morning went well in other ways. I had only planned to walk with Stella, but the morning was cool, and I felt rested and strong, so we covered about three miles running and about two and half walking. Stella also swam three times, at each river crossing.

With both of us physically content, I sit at my desk to begin the last section of this pass on my manuscript. My head is clear, my brain is medicated with endorphins, and my body is relaxing with a cup of Lady Grey. I am optimistic about life, about writing, about everything. Stella and I are content to spend the next few hours right here in my writing space. She’s doing her job of keeping me company, while I’m doing mine, writing the best story I can.

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Nature Feeds the Muse

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Water Lilies and Cattails in the Pond

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There

My life this week has been a reawakening, a slow revelation of moments of natural beauty I have missed buried in student papers and teacher preparation as I was for so long. With my hubby’s help my neglected gardens are coming to life once more, each day showing more of “the pretty” Leopold talks about. False indigo flowering, Onondoga Viburnam and pagoda dogwood flowers, potentilla, dianthus, and roses unfolding.

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Pagoda Dogwood Blossom

This past weekend thunderstorms rolled into my area of Wisconsin and reminded me what true power looks and feels like. Raccoons, chipmunks, deer, hawks, snakes, mice, butterflies, and songbirds too varied to mention are making my backyard home. The river is full and fast, and the deer flies and horseflies are plentiful. These days I smell like a piquant combination of Coppertone Sport sunscreen and Deep Woods Off just to keep my skin from burning and the bugs from biting. Stella and I are fixtures on the roads in the morning  where we routinely walk 5 miles, and I’m sure the bugs expect a free meal.

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After the storm sunset in Wisconsin

For the first time since I left school, I finally don’t feel like I have papers to grade or the coming week to prepare for. I have had time this week to see, to notice, to experience my corner of the world without preoccupation. I have paid attention both to my surroundings but also to my writing, my art. One feeds the other. I feel inspired to write when I’m running or gardening, and those moments of introspection feed my writing. I can think when I’m engaged in a repetitive activity or one that only requires  the body to be engaged and leaves the mind to wander and romp. Through gardening I create gorgeous natural scenes, flowers and trees, frequented by birds and butterflies, hummingbirds and deer. Nature feeds the muse.

What at first drew me to writing was, in fact, the same thing that drew me to gardening, “the pretty” that Leopold talks about.  I tried to understand how to craft a beautiful turn of phrase. When I was in college, I majored in English. I read A LOT: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thomas Hardy, Alice Walker, Faulkner, Shakespeare. These authors expanded my mind and allowed me a glimpse of what was possible with the written word.

But the book that spoke to me was Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s writing blew me away, so much so that I committed passages of it to memory, particularly this one: “His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

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Onondaga Viburnum Flowers

“The pretty” of Fitzgerald’s words and Shakespeare’s and Thomas Hardy’s and countless others initially pulled me into the world of words and communicating ideas through writing, but something happened to me when I began to appreciate what authors did. I found myself wanting to become one. Over and over I would read and try to figure out what authors I admire did to involve me in the stories they wove. Reading became a study in technique, but often I became so immersed in the stories  I lost myself there. I ended books without a clear idea of how the author crafted scenes, characters, or dialogue. Now I work to remain aloof from the story to understand before I become emotionally involved. Sometimes it is harder than others to do so. That is when I know I’m reading a masterful writer.

I don’t know if writers, the really good ones, understand what they are doing when they write. I’m still finding that out about myself and my writing.  When I feel the muse take hold. I itch to get some niggling thought out of my brain and express it. Where I believe the muse and craft of writing come into play is in the transcribing of whatever the idea is into eloquence. How do you take a raw idea, even if it is just a whiff of an idea and translate its essence into words?  That is the task, one which is utterly difficult and ultimately fulfilling.

Here is how  Wisconsin author, David Rhodes, describes the feeling of a writer–this time a songwriter–trying to express an original idea in his book Driftless (one of my favorites).  “The feeling inside her had never been expressed before, yet it longed for expression and had chosen Gail to accomplish the deed. It was jiggling out of the primal psychic strands of whatever memories and passions made her. She had been chosen, and though she couldn’t quite hear it yet, she felt the inspiration trying to make a sound through her. It wished to be born.” He pretty much captures it.

Grappling with ideas that have chosen me is what I’ve chosen to commit my life to. I will still try to express “the pretty,” (that’s the seductive, fun part) but even the ugliness of life will find expression in my prose. I want to be a faithful steward of words, to capture the ineffable yearnings of the human spirit to make them accessible to all, to transcribe the smells, sights, feelings, tastes, and sounds of my corner of the world so that through my words others can find their way into the beauty of art but also through  their own poignant struggles, recognizing those “values as yet uncaptured by language.”

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False Indigo