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

 

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My Writer Birthday

 

 

Last Tuesday was my writer birthday. It was the first day of investing in myself in pursuit of a full-time writing life! Mind you, I’m still in the throes of post school year fatigue and would like to do little other than sleep, but my “sea legs” are coming back.  I’m still not fully able to get in the zone and write for hours on end as I once was, but I’m improving.

I worked this past week on my book edits, so I can send the manuscript to the agent who requested it. My goal is to send it by Friday afternoon. I don’t think I’ll ever be truly satisfied with it, (really, is a book EVER done?) but I’m giving myself this deadline and sending it along no matter how I feel. My friends have told me it is finished, but I am having a hard time letting it go into the world. As long as it is finished to the best of my ability to make it what I envision, then it is “done.” I just hope to get some good feedback from this agent.

I’m not only working on this book, however. I’ve been contemplating a number of new ideas, one of which won’t let go of me. Last year when I looked out at my patio I noticed two new birds on the trellis where the honeysuckle grows next to our garden, a pair of American Redstarts. They were only on the trellis for a moment or two, hopping about and flying quickly from one place to another, but they were new in my backyard so I took note. That’s when the idea for another book took shape. A young woman popped into my head, her name, her time period, her home (Here is Wisconsin!), the fact that she stutters but sings and whistles bird songs beautifully.  I have been bird watching again, mostly from my back windows, and noticing colors, songs, even habitat on my walks with Stella. Yesterday I found half a robin’s egg on the ground near our stream, a spot of clear blue on the brown sand. As I notice these things, I wonder what she would notice, how she would interpret them. The fermentation process has begun. Collected impressions of the natural world are percolating to the surface.  Although I haven’t devoted any time as yet to writing this story, I know the well is nearly full, and I can’t wait to begin drafting again! First things first, however.

I have a full list of writing “to dos” for the week. Really,  each week or even each day, I would like to move forward a few steps learning, writing, reading, contacting agents, and then writing again. Sometimes those steps will be concrete and measurable as a word count or pages ticked off in the editing process. Other times I may only come to a new realization or new understanding. Both are valuable. Here is this week’s list:

To Do Week of June 12:

1. By Friday finish editing  first novel for the last time before sending to round one agents.
2. Write several blog posts for editing later.
3. Work on my short story to send to Kristin Oakley for possible publication in The Write City E zine. Kristin is the editor of this publication as well as one of the founders of In Print Professional Writers Organization, and a dear friend of mine! You should check out her wonderful, award-winning novel, Carpe Diem, Illinois,  and her soon-to-be-released God on Mayhem Street.
4. Take notes on the ideas for the other books I have in my head to figure out how to get them out of my head!
5. Daily writing practice: 20 minutes each day.

I only included 5 items on my list because I think that number is doable for me. It isn’t overwhelming and will give me a sense of accomplishment when I complete an item. Since this is the first time I am sharing my goals, I’ll let you know how I do. Publishing them will, I hope, make me accountable not only to myself, but also to you!

How and when do you set goals for the work you do?

A Place of Peace

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Photo courtesy of Caitlin Podemski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Publishing my novels is still my dream, but twice now I’ve submitted my writing to Word of Art, the creative brainchild of In Print Professional Writers Organization, an affiliate of the Chicago Writers Association. Each time I’ve had something chosen for publication. On Friday, September 4, my husband and I drove to Illinois for me to read my very short descriptive essay for the book release reception to a packed room of artists, writers, and their guests.

At last year’s reception, I read a poem about my son leaving home to go to college. I was terribly nervous to read, partly because I had never read anything I had written out loud to my peers before and partly because the poem was so deeply personal. Also I am not a poet, but that was the form that piece wanted. I felt then and still feel at times blindsided by my children growing up and becoming independent adults. Through that poem I relived the emotions of letting go of a child, so I was off-balance and aching. Even now when I read it, I choke up. I managed to finish reading the poem last year after stumbling only once.

This year was different. My essay, “A Place of Peace,” was about a grassy area beside the river behind my house where I can see both the river and the surrounding grassy prairie and marsh, a place I’m lucky enough to visit every day. Though the room was very hot and I was one of the last people to read (third from last),  I didn’t stumble over the words or the title even once. A feeling of quietude came over me before I even began.

Sometimes when we write, a confluence of events come together, serendipitous moments that seem to have been arranged by God. I felt that as I read this year. When I was working on this piece for submission, the snow was on the ground and the bitterly cold winds of winter were blowing outside my window, but I was standing by the river in the heat of summer beneath the shade of the oaks and basswoods. I saw the summer sunset and was surrounded by birdsong and the sound of running water. I was enveloped by the heat of a summer day rather than the heat generated by man. That same feeling of inhabiting two places at once happened again as I read. Seldom am I able to overcome being present in the room by being present in the writing. Often I’m too aware of my own shortcomings to do that, but at Word of Art 2 only the writing and the place it evoked mattered, and I managed to be there in both places at once.

Writing transports me. I experience the place and time of my imagination. At the podium in Illinois on September 4, I relived quiet moments by my river, experienced anew the place and its atmosphere. I didn’t see my audience, only the natural world of my memory and imagination combined. Last year I read a deeply personal poem which carried the emotional weight of a mother’s love for her grown son. This year I read an essay which transported me to a place where a river runs, washes away the weight of the world, and leaves behind the peace of reverie.  Even in a crowd.

Here is the beautiful art that Sarah McCashland created to go with my words:

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Here is the essay, “A Place of Peace.” The book is so popular that there is a second printing of it. You can order a book here.

A Place of Peace
On summer evenings the river gurgles past boulders and trills over stones. On the riverbank, damselflies light on my sandals where I stand amid rushes and purple irises. The breeze slides down the riverbank setting the tall grasses atremble with a sound like rain. Behind me oaks and basswoods climb the rise toward the collapsed line fence that separates the river from the prairie. Bluebirds streak across the dusty grassland, where goldfinches roller-coast toward the river. The last rays of the sun sparkle on the water and gild the treetops.
Then the light grows soft. Mayflies hatch, a sylvan spectacle. Trout feed in arcing, splashing frenzy. Cedar waxwings, like the bandits they resemble, swoop and dart, giving chase to escaping flies. Chick-a-dee-dee-dee echoes in the canopy behind me as twilight arrives.
No longer spangled with sunlight, the river mirrors the shift to early evening, its surface the murky greens and browns of the brook trout beneath it. A tender pink sky glows above me, intensifying summer’s green. By the river I think no frenetic thoughts, worry about no deadlines. Time passes, but the river remains the same, a place of peace, true and beautiful.

Many thanks to Kristin Oakley, my sweet friend, president of In Print, and award-winning author of Carpe Diem, Illinois, who told me about this opportunity, and to Mary Lamphere, super creative and talented writer and artist who designed and took the pictures and everything for the Word of Art books. Check out her very clever blog here.  You ladies rock!

Incidentally, this last photo below is near the spot beside the river I wrote about. It is never as beautiful in my photographs as it is in my imagination.

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Pantster or Plotter? Maybe Both

How I feel when inspiration strikes!

I’ve started a new writing project! It has been a long time since I thought I had a viable idea, but now I think I do. At least I hope so. I’ve spent the morning researching my idea and can’t find anything that remotely addresses my topic!

My trouble is that when I get an idea that I really like, I tend to start writing before I really know where I’m going. That isn’t bad in and of itself, but I could save myself a lot of backtracking and changing if I planned just a bit, which is what I am trying to do this time–at least to begin. 🙂

My Plan:

1. Research my topic (which I’ve started already) and the related titles. This is not something I did before I started writing my first book, The Scent of Jessamine. I would have saved myself some time, but I also would have had a better idea who was writing books similar to mine.

2. Do a preliminary Hero’s Journey to flesh out the idea. Christine DeSmet introduced me to Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey five years ago. Here’s a link for The Writer’s Journey that gives explanations and examples to follow. I used Vogler’s template for my last book (changed my life!) but not until I had written about 60-70 pages. The previous book contains perhaps 100 words from my original pages, but that may be a stretch.

3. Create a character sketch for each of the characters. This is not something I did when I wrote my first book. Since then I realize how important knowing my characters is, their motivations and quirks, what they think is important. The trouble is that bits and pieces come to me. That’s how my muse works. All I know is the name of my main character so far! I am of two minds on character sketches too. I love the act of discovery, of seeing what my characters will do when they are under pressure, but perhaps that happens anyway?

4. Decide where to set the novel. For this book I’m really not sure. Jessamine was so oriented toward setting that all I had to do was inhabit that place in the book. This time I think the setting will be in the South somewhere, but I think the subject matter may determine setting and character to a certain extent. I have learned a lot about setting and how important it is from workshops I’ve attended such as Weekend with Your Novel and Writer’s Institute, both in Madison Wisconsin. So I know I will spend a lot of time on setting and may have to go there to get a good idea what the place feels like as I did with Jessamine. Field trips are a perk I like!

5. Write when inspiration strikes as I proceed. I still plan to do this. I can’t contain myself when inspiration strikes me. I have to to record that initial “lightning strike before it’s gone. It seldom reappears if I let it slip away.

6. Create an outline of scenes. Doing this will be new for me. My writer friend, Geri Gibbons, put together a beautiful outline of a book she is working on. I remember seeing it at a class I took with her and was impressed with how much detail was depicted. I envied her knowing exactly what she would write about. I’m going to try this (she says doubtfully). I’ll see how far I get. I’m notoriously poor at planning.

7. Put my butt in my chair and write! Treat writing like my job, which it is in the summer and, one day, may be year-round!

When I started The Scent of Jessamine, I had no plan to speak of. I knew where I wanted to end up, but no idea how to get there. However, I don’t want to spend another five years on this book, so I am planning before I write. I will not be a complete pantster this time! When I started Jessamine, I had no idea what I was doing! Although I don’t profess to know what I’m doing now, I do have a better idea now, thanks to the tutelage of Christine DeSmet, Kristin Oakley, Laurie Scheer and many others who’ve taught me so much about writing and the business of writing.

I’m not giving up on The Scent of Jessamine. I still believe in Faith and Josiah and their story. I will still try to find a home for them with an agent and a publisher, but I miss the creative process.

Revising is an entirely different beast from writing; a whole other part of the brain is required, and it doesn’t leave me fulfilled afterwards the way that the act of creating does. I need to connect with my creative side, and I’ve missed that lately. I won’t give up my pantster ways entirely, but plotting will make my life easier so I can spend more time writing and less time revising! Is there anything you think I should add to my list? I’m so excited about this new project!