Everything Changes

I live on a dirt road in the middlImagee of south-central Kansas. There are dozens of old houses sitting around, falling to pieces. Beautiful in their sad, somewhat ephemeral way. Most are made of local limestone, excavated in huge blocks that make up these fantastic, thick walls with deep-set window wells, walls that glow gold in the sunset, or darken in the rain, or become green with moss and lichen. Walls that could tell so many stories, if anyone cared to listen.

I photograph them as much as I can. I love stepping inside these buildings, wondering if I will be welcomed or considered hostile. You can tell, you know. Whether a house really wants you there or not. So far, most of them do want me there. I wish I had the knack for telling their stories, but the best I can do is document them before they’re gone.

But it never struck home before just how ephemeral these houses really are, until this past week.

This photo was taken almost a year ago. Late spring, with a fog still to lift off the ground and the trees finally accepting that winter was gone and letting their leaves come out. The building in the photo is an odd duck; barely eight feet by eight feet, it had two high, barred windows and a wooden door at one time (gone now, as you can tell). I’ve long tried to figure out just what it was. It’s too far from the nearest towns to be a jail. It actually features as the still room in my YA novel.

This photo captures that one moment in time. A moment that will never be captured again.

The trees are gone. The buildings, soon will be. 

I am heartbroken. I feel that there is a point at which you own a building – and a threshold at which you are no longer its owner, but its caretaker. A threshold at which you have taken the responsibility for passing it on to the next generation. It doesn’t belong to you, just because  you own the land it happens to be on. It has transcended that. Survived too much. Deserves more. Image

I wish I could save them all. There is a house on the same road that I am keeping a close eye on. I have a feeling its days, too, are numbered. It is one I have seen disintegrate throughout my life. I remember being young and driving past it with my mom, and see the gabled wooden roof still there, the bay window overlooking the stone veranda. Gradually, over the years, the roof caved in. The walls began to disappear. At this time, there is one wall and the veranda left — bits of the other walls remain, but not much — and in its way, it is so beautiful. Jonquils, planted long ago, still bloom every year, and trumpet vines have taken over. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that at one time, it was one of the nicest homes in the area. Who owned it? Why was it left to crumble? I wish I knew.

So I guess the moral for the week is going to sound trite, but here goes:  never miss the moment. You never know if it will be the last time you will see that exact sunrise, that fog over those trees, those trees through that doorway.

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Crossing the Bridge (no, not THAT bridge)

I am fifteen days away from imminent knee breakage, and I am getting a bit worried. The book is at the 60,000 word mark, and I am working on it as time permits (and yes, I know, if you’re a professional writer reading this you’re thinking “WHAT? When time permits! What the fruitbat does that mean??” What it means is I have another job, thank you, and writing is a hobby Imagefor me.).

Plus, spring is slowly beginning to arrive in Kansas. Very, very slowly. And on nice days when I’m not working, I’m out taking photographs. Like this one.

I know this is going to be a reach, but I think this photograph, of the old iron bridge in Blackwell, Oklahoma, really symbolizes what this latest writing venture has been like for me. The bridge has been closed for ages and is blocked with big orange roadblocks and piles of gravel. Driving across it is impossible; walking is probably okay, but who knows?

That’s what this novel has been like for me.

Sure I could crawl across the gravel, duck under the barriers, and walk this bridge. See where it gets me. I’m sure my weight wouldn’t be enough to send it all crashing to the river below. But it sure would be nerve-wracking. It seems like a very long walk, though.

When I decided to break my novel into two, I knew it would mean creating an entirely new storyline for Book 1. Book 2 would remain largely the same, though there would be holes and it would require a new beginning and some more rising action in the middle. But Book 1 would be the new introduction to my characters. They would need to get to know each other in new and different ways. New interactions would have to be created. I knew they were on board with this — heck, they’re the ones who kept telling some Something Was Wrong — but it was so daunting! Exciting, but I was full of anxiety. Exactly like this bridge. I can see the other side. It’s getting there that’s the problem.

But I’m working on it. It’s slowly coming together, as characters are stepping up to the plate and taking on roles I never expected they would, suggesting things I hadn’t dreamed would happen. I am still concerned about the interactions between my main characters — they know each other so well by now, it’s hard for all of us to think about “okay, but what about those first few weeks when Erin moved into your house and she didn’t want you there, Kai, and you didn’t want her there? What happened then?” For them, too, their relationship is a lot like walking across this bridge. Dangerous. Shaky. It could collapse under them. Or it might not. And when they get to the other side . . . what then?

That’s sort of my question, too, about this entire novel. How many rewrites? How much editing? Will I have to cross this bridge again and again — and if so, how many chances do I get?

But, I’ve got 15 days.

Down the Rabbit Hole

I love researching my books, especially my historical works. You never know what you’re going to find.

Take, for example, this gem from the Kansas City Journal, August 17, 1898:  “A broad smile spread itself over Concordia the other day when a bridal couple came down the courthouse steps and proceeded up the main street hand in hand. The bride was dressed in blue and wore white kid slippers tied with red bows. The groom also wore white kid slippers tied with red bows, and it was the footgear of the couple that attracted so much amused attention.”

Or the murder suspects who were finally apprehended a year later – and one of them was named John F. Kennedy. Not a name I was expecting to see!

I’m actually researching a disappearance. The poor guy was gone for fifteen days before anyone was called in to investigate. I have my own theories why. But the research is so much fun, because there are all these little rabbit holes I want to go down. The tidbit I just quoted, for example:  who were they? What made them decide to get matching kid slippers? What kind of man did she marry who would agree to that degree of whimsy? And why did they marry in a courthouse?

You do have to be careful – these literally can be rabbit holes without end. You can chase down story after story, and never get back to the original research. And that’s not the point. The point of noticing the extras, the “tidbits,” is to give your work a little something extra. My historical YA has a few of these, things I’ve read in the paper and put in the story for no other reason than to ground it in 1924, to give it some veracity and flavor. I have a scene which incorporates actual dialogue from a KKK speech given in my hometown, and reported on by the paper (my MC is dangling from the balcony listening to it under the assumption of keep your friends close and your enemies closer). But it has to do with the plotline, and therefore, in it went.

There’s no end to the story ideas you can glean from old newspapers. Like I said, I’m researching a disappearance, and I’m keeping an eye out for something, anything, that might tie into that – reports of gangs, other murders, etc. I’m shocked by the number of gruesome murders that took place in 1898! But there are other stories, like that one, that make you laugh out loud in the middle of the library and get funny looks. That’s okay. I’ll have fun remembering those white kid slippers. J Will they make it into this book? No. But they might make it into another one . . .

Characters, Deadlines, and Nerf bats

I need to find a Nerf bat soon. I may be in danger. Or rather, my legs may be in danger. I may also need to find a cat burglar to steal a baseball bat from someone’s house.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my struggles with a novel and how I’ve decided it needs to be broken into two separate books. So a couple of weeks ago, I told my writing friends/beta readers about this plan. The reaction was mixed, but I stood firm.

“Well,” one of them said, “then you are pitching the first one at the Oklahoma Writers Federation Conference in May.”

I was not sure this could be done; at the time, I had a vague idea of what needed to happen and how it might end, and in the two weeks or so since then, the motivations of the “villain” had changed quite a bit to fit with the rest of the planned series.

“You’ll do it, or I’ll break your legs,” my highly-motivational friend said.

“Um. I’ll bring the Nerf bat,” I said.

“I have a real baseball bat.”

Did I mention she’s allowed to be around college students all day? So somehow, we set a due date of April 1, and I’ve been working on that ever since.

Because here’s the thing:  I thrive under due dates. I’m not a person who can exist without structure and deadlines. I think it has something to do with being in school for ten years and always having something due. I write research papers under duress. Apparently, I write fiction the same way. Some of my best work has been a direct result of facing down a deadline. And I can’t manufacture a deadline for myself; I can always negotiate a push-back. Therefore, I need my writing group to keep me on the straight and narrow. Hence the April 1 deadline.

The first step was to pull apart the novel and separate the scenes and threads into two different files. That was easy enough.

The second step was to look at what I had left and how much would need to be filled in. In the beginning, I thought that I would have more material to work with for Book 1. As it turned out, though, I changed my mind about a few things, namely the ending. That meant I had to delete things and rearrange things. I’m still at that stage now. I just took out 7,000 words worth of scenes last night that needs to go in Book 2. I still have about 59,000 words, but a lot of that is stage direction and notes — so-and-so needs to do this here, we could put that there, don’t forget so-and-so needs to research x, y, and z . . . you get the drift.

The good news? I have 7 chapters that make sense. In the beginning. It’s a good bedrock. I have some strong key scenes that can be strategically placed within the new plotline. And I have amazing characters who are happy to be freed from the restraints I’d placed them in and eager to get on with the job at hand.

My main character, Erin, has been especially vocal and I’ve been writing quite a bit from the first person POV in her voice. These books are written in the third person, but I do a lot of character sketches, and those are almost always in first person. It’s amazing how much the characters quickly develop their own voices and come out of the shadows . . . once I give them that invitation.

So while I’m sitting here now with a concept, 59,000 words that need to be put together into something coherent,  and a deadline, I’m not terribly worried. I work best under deadlines. I think my characters do, too. 🙂 I have faith that they’ll get me through this, and that deadline? Pfft. My betas better be ready to read.

But just in case, has anyone got a Nerf bat?

JK Rowling Should Stop Writing?

I’m not sure I can make any comments that the astute readers and commenters have made to this post from Huffington Post blogger Lynn Shepherd. But in case you missed it, here’s the link:  http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/lynn-shepherd/jk-rowling-should-stop-writing_b_4829648.html

But I do want to comment on these few lines here:

I’ve never read a word (or seen a minute) so I can’t comment on whether the books were good, bad or indifferent. I did think it a shame that adults were reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there’s so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds.

What the fruitbat?! You’ve never read the Harry Potter books, yet you feel entitled to boldly claim that they are not stimulating enough for grown-up minds? I don’t like Twilight, but I’ve read them. All four. And I’ll admit, the first time through, I did like them. The second time? No. They didn’t hold up. But when I diss them, I can at least say, with all honesty, that I read them.

I read the Harry Potter books when I was in my 20s. I still have them all, the last four as first edition hardbacks (mainly because I didn’t start reading them until Book 3). I love them. I’ve read them countless times. Are they War and Peace or Pride and Prejudice? No. Because they’re not meant to be. They’re a gateway to another world — the world of Hogwarts and magic, yes, but also a gateway to a greater world:  the world of books.

A shame that adults are reading them. Really. For adults who didn’t grow up reading, those books were no less a gateway to reading. The only shame there is that the library tends to look at you a bit funny if you walk in and ask for a YA novel. But they will get it for you. The real shame would be if that gateway had never existed at all. If JK Rowling had given up, abandoned Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and gotten a job in a shop instead.

At 38, “literary” novels leave me cold. The language, the characters, the plots (or lack thereof) . . . I don’t care for most of them. Real life? I live real life. I don’t want to come home and read about real life! I want to read about other things entirely. Magic. Grim reapers in love with the son of Satan. Time travel. For many adults, Harry Potter and other YA novels (Hunger Games, Divergent, Mortal Instruments, etc.) are an escape from reality.

Here’s another thought for you (because this isn’t long enough, right?):  adults who read Harry Potter went out in droves to buy Rowling’s adult novels, which is basically what Ms. Shepherd is griping about in her post. They were buying the author, not the genre. But what if they discovered in the process that they liked these new genres? And they bought other books? Began to expand their reading preferences? Ventured into new areas of the bookstore or the library. Brought those books home. Shared them with their friends and family and children and students. What’s bad about that? In a time when we’re all worried about the publishing industry and the fate of brick-and-mortar bookstores, how is any of that bad?

So, Ms. Shepherd, I think you should be thanking JK Rowling for expanding her horizons into adult fiction. For breaking into new genres. For inviting her readers to go along with her. For encouraging them, silently, to buy those books, support their bookstores and libraries, to read something they might not have picked up otherwise. As an aspiring writer who still hopes to get published soon, I would never in a million years dare tell anyone — let alone someone like JK Rowling — to stop writing.