Photo Challenge: Close Up

I’ve been playing with macro lately, so this was a good challenge for me. It’s been fun to get up close to things and find out the hidden beauty – the details no one else sees or thinks about.

Take this flower, for example. We have these everywhere in Kansas in the spring – they’re the first sign, in fact. I never knew until I got up close and personal with them, though, how beautiful they really are:

purple flower vg

Then there’s the mimosa blooms – I love mimosa trees, can’t imagine what it would be like not to have one of these in my backyard. The delicate blooms only last for about a day.

mimosa 3 vg

But macros depend a little on how big an object is to begin with. I love this close-up of the top of the window of an abandoned church – the graceful arches, the Virginia creeper trailing down. I can’t go on the property, so I have to set up my monopod on the road, a good 200′ away, and shoot from there.

window 12 vg

“You Are Here!” – The Importance of Creating Historical Settings

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about pop culture references in your work, and how they can be taboo to some, and ‘setting’ to others (

When you’re writing a novel set in present times, it’s a bit of a two-edged sword. For example:  the movie Clueless turns 20 (I KNOW, right? 20? How did THAT happen?!) this summer. If you grew up watching it (I was in my teens when it was released), then the cultural references are something you totally get. When Cher says “I think they’ve seen that Tina and Ike movie way too many times” (and I think I just got that quote wrong!), you know exactly who she means and why she’s saying it. It’s context. And let’s face it:  who hasn’t said “That was way harsh” in the last twenty years? 🙂 The designers (“This is an Alaia!” “An A-what-a?” “It’s like a totally important designer!”), the cell phones, the gay best friend – they all date this movie to one very specific time period.

The same is true of your novel. You have to remember that even if you’re writing a contemporary novel, some day it will be a historical. There, did that blow your mind? But it’s true. Think about it. Think about the books you had to read in high school:  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice . . . written by people who were writing about their own era, and yet today they are historical. Some day, the same will be true of Gone Girl.

But if you’re writing a historical novel, getting the details right is key, because you’re not throwing around pop culture references:  you’re creating setting.

Currently, I’m reading City of Women by David R. Gillham. Set in 1943 Berlin, it’s a fantastic glimpse inside that city and the lives of the people just trying to survive the war. Gillham hasn’t just plunked down a few facts here and there to add flavor; he’s immersed the story in the setting. I adore it. I feel like I’m there. This novel could not have occurred at any other time, in any other place.

Had this novel been written in the 1950s or 1960s, the references to the movies they watch, the war rations, the patriotic songs, might be considered trite and unnecessary. But seventy years removed, all these things let the reader see precisely what Gillham wants us to see:  Berlin, 1943. Harsh, cold, barely functioning, Gestapo everywhere. A place where one’s identity card must be at the ready at all times, and speaking out against the Reich is death.

The book is so well written, in fact, that I had trouble choosing a passage to demonstrate what I mean. But here’s one:

Another blast shakes the cellar, and the lamps blink frantically. But by this time the rest of the shelter’s inhabitants must welcome a bomb blast or two, if only to silence Frau Remki’s suicidal indictment (*of Hitler; she’s just called Hitler the devil, which is Not Good in 1943 Berlin, to put it mildly). And indeed when the light sputters back to a low-wattage glow, the woman has sunk back down to her place like a pile of rags. The thudding explosions grow more distant, but the cellar remains a densely silent place . . . One long, aching howl, signaling that the RAF has crossed over the line into Hannover-Brunswick airspace, and that Berlin, that vast, rambling city, is all-clear.

Gillham has it all:  the street names; the exact trains; the brand of the really good, black-market cigarettes; the German terms, unobtrusively explained either by context or within the next line.  Even the furtive, illegal act of listening to the BBC with your ear pressed to the speaker, the sickening realization that what Berlin is being told about the Eastern Front is a complete propaganda lie . . . You are there. You’d really rather not be. But you can’t escape.

Getting these details right is at the heart of any good historical novel. But as I learned at the Oklahoma Writer’s Conference this spring, you’ve got to have an agent who ‘gets’ that time period. There was a ‘first page workshop,’ where some people got to submit their first pages for critique by the agent (and the audience). We read a relatively good page, set in the early 1930s, in which the character looks at the thermometer (as I recall, it actually said that the thermometer was hanging outside the window) and notices it’s very hot, very early in the morning.

“See,” the agent said, pointing out the word thermometer, “this has to change. This should be thermostat. This is sloppy writing. This is what I meant when I said you need to proofread.”

Before I could say a word, the older lady next to me jumped to her feet. “Uh, no,” she said, “the word should be thermometer! This is one of those big Dr. Pepper thermometers that used to hang outside of buildings! I know exactly what they’re talking about!”

So writers, take note:  your readers will know, and your agent may not. Get it right anyway, and be ready to defend your word choice if necessary! But that’s precisely the kind of thing I mean. Look at maps – but look at photographs, too. Describe the buildings you’re writing about. Describe the clothes, the cars. Don’t say He was wearing a hat; be specific to your time period. Is it a slouch hat? Gray fedora? Stetson? Tweed driving cap? Is the building granite or limestone? It’s not just about the details, it’s about the right, exact, and accurate details.

Create the setting for your novel. Create the setting that your characters can live and breathe in, that contributes to the plot. Create the setting that captures readers and holds them hostage, where they breathe the foul fog off the Thames, or hear the jingle and creak of harness, or break a wrist cranking over a Model T engine. Create the historical setting that becomes a character itself.

Even if you’re writing a contemporary novel. 🙂

Photo Challenge: Half and Half

flowers and fogIt was hard for me to find a “half and half” shot for this challenge – the “rule of thirds” has been driven so deeply into my brain, it may never come out! But this was one of my favorites from last year – a pair of yellow flowers, colors muted by the cool, foggy morning.

An Open Letter to Estate Sales

I’m sorry, but I have to take a slight detour this week, away from writing and editing, and into my other passion – vintage items. Specifically, estate sales and rummage sales and what not to freaking do to your vintage items!!!! So this is an open letter to anyone who organizes and runs estate sales especially.

Estate Sales:

I’m at your sale for two reasons:  because I love a good bargain and the thrill of the hunt, and to find items for my personal collections and for my vintage shop.

I don’t care how poorly organized everything is. In fact, the less organized, the more fun it is for me. I love to dig and rummage through boxes of crap to find the one good thing in the bottom. And for once, I’m not being sarcastic.

But poorly organized is one thing:  poorly run is another. If you want me to patronize your sales, please take note:

  • Never, ever put masking tape on velvet or any other fabric. Never, ever put any sort of adhesive on any sort of fabric, ESPECIALLY velvet and silk. In the past three weeks, I’ve purchased five hats that were ruined – RUINED – by morons using masking tape as a price tag. The adhesive DOES NOT COME OFF. If you really want to sell something, stick a sign on the wall saying “Hats, $2 each.” I bought those hats thinking I could salvage them. I can’t. I won’t do that again, no matter how good the hat is otherwise.
  • And on that thought:  never, ever put safety pins through vintage gloves! You may think you’re keeping pairs together and you’re able to stick a price tag with a string on it to the safety pin and aren’t you being clever? NO!!!! You’re not being clever. You’re ruining the value of the gloves. Because now, I have to disclose to MY customers that there’s a pinhole in each wrist. Put them in individual baggies. It’s very easy.
  • Don’t think that because a piece of costume jewelry is signed, it’s automatically expensive. It’s not. If you aren’t going to do the research to find out exactly what this Sarah Coventry brooch is worth, don’t expect your customers to pay exorbitant amounts of money for it. I guarantee you, it’s probably not worth what you think it is. And if it’s signed Christian Dior? Do me a favor and assume it’s fake. 🙂
  • Vintage handkerchiefs are not all the same. The fact that they’re old doesn’t make them rare or valuable. I have literally 175+ handkerchiefs sitting in my room right now that I’ve picked up in just the past six months. As with anything else, stains, holes, loose threads, etc. makes them worth less. Or in some cases, worthless.

I never know what I’m going into your sale to find. That’s what makes it fun for me. I know that what I want is mostly likely going to found in either the bedrooms or the basements. (Or the attic, in some cases.) I may walk out with nothing. That’s not a reflection of you; it simply means that I have to be choosy about what I bring home, and you didn’t have anything that met my criteria – or, let’s be honest, my budget.

Oh, and this habit some of you have of “saving back” items that you can trot out on Day 2 and 3 of a sale? STOP THAT. I may only be able to come for one day. I might make it back for Day 3, when everything is half price, but possibly not. If you have 15 hats, but I only get to see 5 of them on Day 1, and my schedule doesn’t permit me to come back, that’s not fair. And please don’t pull that line about “well, we’re still sorting stuff.” It’s your job to get the stuff sorted BEFORE THE SALE STARTS.

While we’re on that, this whole elitist thing about handing out numbers and only allowing a few people in at a time? It’s just that. Elitist. STOP THAT. Most people who come to estate sales aren’t there to steal items, they’re there to find bargains or pick up the things they collect. Most people who come to estate sales are adults who are certainly able to avoid each other and the merchandise. And I am capable of defending my pile of stuff. 🙂

While we’re on that . . . could you please have a designated “piles of stuff” area for customers, complete with boxes of varying sizes and slips of paper that we can write our names on and put on our box(es)? Right next to the cashier would be fine. Oh, wait, you haven’t got a cashier? Well, you need to fix that, too. I went to an estate sale a few weeks ago where my pile of stuff got raided. Luckily, I caught them in the act and they were apologetic (and as it turned out, I’d unknowingly raided their pile of stuff, too!), but the entire thing could have been avoided by this one simple thing:  Boxes and a designated area. Both of us ended up buying TONS of stuff, more than we could carry through the house and garage. We needed a safe place to put it.

And for the love of God, don’t ask me to tell you what something is worth. If you didn’t research it, don’t expect me to pay you some outlandish price for it. Like many of the people coming through your sale, I own a vintage shop. I take pride in being able to find the best items at the best price, and finding them good homes at good prices. Buying low means I can sell them for slightly below my competition.

I want to buy things at your estate sale. Lots of things. Too many things, probably. 🙂 Help me help you.

Sincerely, One Frustrated Customer

Pop Culture – Yay or Nay? The Shadow Knows!

When I was working on my Associates’ degree, I took a creative writing class in which I wrote a short story that I was quite proud of. (Hey, when you’re 20, everything you write is gold, right?) And I still remember the huge kerfluffle that ensued over my use of one tiny word. Hint:  it’s not what you’re thinking. In a million years, you’ll never guess.


I’m not kidding. That’s the word. Kleenex.

“It took me completely out of the story,” the main griper griped. “I mean, in fifty years, will anyone know what that word is? You need to use tissue. Everyone knows the word tissue.”

Well, I’ve read historical fiction for most of my life. I read Black Beauty when I was eight, for crying out loud. No one has hansom cabs and overchecks anymore, either, but guess what? They’re still part of that novel!

I was thinking about this topic this week as I read yet another New York Times bestseller, The Nanny Diaries. Again, not my usual reading fare. My paperback edition was published in 2003, so yes, it’s a bit old. It’s set in New York City; ‘Nanny,’ the main character, works for the X family, who are, let’s say, very well-to-do. As in, they buy Gucci for their son’s piano teacher for Christmas. This story is nothing but pop culture – references to The Lion King and all manner of Disney movies, every major designer in New York, including Manolo Blahnik, ultra-expensive restaurants, and more.

Question:  does this date the novel?

This is a huge debate among writers, readers, agents, and editors. How much is too much? At what point do you risk ‘dating’ your novel and making it unpalatable for future generations? At what point does it become so bland that it’s unreadable because you’ve left out every pop culture reference you can?

For me, pop culture references don’t date a novel; they create setting for a novel. How different would On the Road be if you couldn’t include all the 1960s references? Or the Sherlock Holmes stories? Dogcarts and skirts trailing in mud? Where would the clues go? 🙂

Maybe it doesn’t bother me so much because I read so much historical fiction. I can say that the only thing that truly bothered me about The Nanny Diaries (aside from wanting to reach through the pages and strangle Mr. and Mrs. X so that Nanny could just take the little boy, Grayer, home with her), is the cell phone. Now, I’ve had a cell phone since 1998. My first plan was 100 minutes/month for $100. I really do remember most people having cell phones in 2003. But here’s the exchange when she first gets hers:

The girl with her own cell phone calls her best friend, Sarah . . .  “Hey, it’s me. At this very moment I am walking down the street and talking to you. Just like I could on a train, a boat, or even from the makeup floor at Barneys, because . . . I got a cell phone. She (Mrs. X) gave me a cell phone! See, that’s not a perk you get as a professor’s assistant. Bye!”

Then I ring Grandma . . . “Hi, Gran, c’est moi. I’m out on the street talking to you on my brand-new cell phone. Now all I need is a Donna Karan bikini and we can hit the Hamptons. Woohoo! Talk to you later! Bye!”

So in two paragraphs, we see several pop culture references AND get the sense that this character has no idea about cell phones (in fact, it takes her other friend to let her know that this could be a pay-as-you-go plan). This took me out of the story more than the pop culture references. But then again, I’m inured to those. I still watch Will & Grace and Sex and the City. 🙂

So as you work on your novel, consider your references carefully. I myself use them – sparingly. In my urban fantasy novels, set in Oxford, I have references to both Top Gear and Doctor Who. Since my books are meant to appeal to readers who like urban fantasy AND England, I’m sure they’re going to be familiar with those references. Read Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – their references to common British pop culture are hilarious (like when the demon, Crowley, takes immense pride in the role he played in creating the Ring Road around London). Now, if you’re familiar with British-isms, this is SO FUNNY. But if this novel were written today, the demon might instead be proud of the congestion charges in The City. 🙂

A friend recently wrote  a manuscript in which the band Green Day features. I’d never heard of Green Day until I read her manuscript . . . so you have to keep that in mind as well. I gather Green Day isn’t that far in the past, but will your readers get the reference?

So this is where beta readers come in handy. Finish your novel first. Don’t worry about the pop culture references. Then hand it out to as many different people as possible. My friend had no idea that there were people in the world who didn’t know about Green Day! And I’m constantly shocked when I find people I know – I KNOW! – who have never seen Top Gear. This is why Easter eggs are so popular – because to those in the know, they’re a lovely, hidden inside joke. Like in the episode of Supernatural where Sam meets up with a woman he should have killed when they were both teens – but he let her go. She tells him her new name is Amy Pond. He grins and says “Great name!” (Given that Mark Sheppard – who plays Crowley on the show – also played a Secret Service agent in a two-episode arc of Doctor Who, this is a GREAT reference, and a fantastic Easter egg.)

You won’t catch everyone. You can’t please everyone. You will find readers who have no idea what you’re talking about. But if the reference is part of the setting – or better yet, part of the plot – use it. Curious readers – good readers – will figure it out.

Photo Challenge: Door

In my photography of historic buildings, I’ve always tended to focus more on windows – but as I went through my collection, I realized I did have some cool ones of doors, too.

This is one of my favorites, from this April:

door handle

This building is condemned, but something about this handle makes me want to push down that hammer lever and go inside.

I also took this one that same day (it was a walkabout in our local town):

decal on doorThe building where this door is located is also empty (though not yet condemned) and built in the 1930s; perhaps this is from World War II? Sometimes, when I see these tiny little historical leftovers, it makes me wonder if I could slip through a wormhole and end up in that time.