Friday, July 30, 2010

Anti-Invisibility Wear

Harry Potter can keep his Invisibility Cloak. I’d rather be seen – and not stepped on.

I’m only 5 feet 2 inches tall, and I don’t make out well in crowds. I can’t see, and people tend to push me around. With my family leaving on Saturday for a vacation at Disney and Universal Studios, I am starting to plan my packing – and I well remember the lesson I learned on our last visit.

We visited Disney in 2005, and I recall that the first couple days of the trip were a misery to me. I was stepped on, pushed aside, elbowed out of the way – and mostly by men. Yes, men. It didn’t matter that I was obviously a mom with 2 small children in tow, and my husband’s presence didn’t help, either. It didn’t matter whether the man looked like a CEO on vacation with his own family or a Hell’s Angel who wandered into Disney by mistake – I was invisible.

I did try to make myself known. I squealed when they stepped on my feet. I protested when somebody pushed past me. “Excuse me!” or “Hey! Watch it!” At best, I would get a look of contempt: You are an obstacle in my way.

By the morning of the third day, as I tallied my bruises, I wondered: Is chivalry dead? Or only for the nondescript? I decided to try a little social experiment.

This is what I wore on the first day:

This is what I wore starting on Day Three:

Do you see the difference? Yeah, I bet you can. For the rest of the trip, men held doors open for me. They waved me ahead of them in line. They smiled at me. My husband, observing from a distance, laughed and laughed. He didn’t think it would make a difference (‘cause he likes me no matter what I’m wearing), but it did.

It’s a SAD, SAD testimony to life in America, folks. But I learned my lesson. In packing to face Disney this year, I am going to remember the Three C’s of Crowd Wear: Comfortable, Cool, and Cleavage.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Being Mean

William Faulkner said, “Kill your darlings.”

It is usually assumed that Faulkner was talking about killing off favorite characters or even just making their lives miserable. In fact, he was also referring to the necessity of cutting scenes/dialogues/characters that the author loves – but which do not necessarily add to the work.

Which one is harder for you?

I find it easier to cut my own words – to give up scenes or bits of dialogue I love – than to do mean things to my characters. Hey, I can always write another clever scene. But writing scenes that cause real pain to my characters? That’s hard.

(Yes, I know my characters are not real. I discussed that last week. But they hurt all the same, and I know this because I have to write their hurt.)

Some great characters in We Hear the Dead die, and I hated it – but I was writing a true story, and what happened had already happened a long time ago. In works where I have greater authority over the fate of my characters, I find it a lot harder to bring down the axe. I don’t like to make them miserable even when I know it’s going to work out for them in the end. One time, after I poisoned my favorite character, I stayed up all night writing the subsequent chapter, unable to sleep until I’d made certain he was going to survive the ordeal.

I bring this up because – as I contemplate the upcoming events in my WIP – I think I’m going to have to hurt some people. In fact, I think I’m going to have to break somebody’s heart -- and I'm going to have to shoot someone. And I’m not going to like it one bit.

For the other writers out there – which would you rather do: Cut your favorite scene? Or hurt your favorite character?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Everybody Hates Leah?

I’ve written about Maggie Fox on this blog, and I’ve written about Kate. But I haven’t said much about the third Fox sister – the one variously described by reviewers as controlling, domineering, mercenary, manipulative, and overbearing: Leah Fox Fish Brown Underhill.

Leah was the oldest of the Fox siblings. She grew up in poverty, and her father was absent through most of her childhood. She married Bowman Fish at the age of fourteen, had one daughter (Lizzie), and was subsequently abandoned by her husband. She married Calvin Brown under tearful circumstances, although it didn’t turn out the way you might think. Her third husband, Daniel Underhill, was a wealthy man who gave Leah the life of comfort she’d always dreamed of.

Leah was the mastermind behind the rise of spiritualism. She managed her sisters’ careers and their money. In Maggie Fox’s own words (from her 1888 confession): Katie and I were led around like lambs. Mrs. Underhill gave exhibitions. We had crowds coming to see us and she made as much as a hundred to a hundred and fifty dollars a night. She pocketed this. Of course, by the time Maggie made this statement, she’d had a falling out with Leah and was taking her revenge.

On the surface, history paints Leah as all of those adjectives I listed above, and yet common sense suggests that she would not have been very successful at promoting her sisters, her cause, and herself if she was not also personable. People liked Leah and trusted her, and no matter how bitterly Maggie complained about her later, it cannot be denied that Maggie depended on her sister’s guidance for many years. It was Maggie’s romance with Elisha Kane that originally drove a wedge between them. Leah did not believe that Kane’s family would ever accept Maggie – and Leah had a realistic and almost prophetic grasp of the matter.

In We Hear the Dead, I tried to portray Leah as more than a greedy manipulator, and it seems as if some readers did see the good in her. A recent review commented that, as eldest sibling, Leah employed a tough love philosophy while trying to take care of everyone in her family. I also received the following comment about Leah in an email from a reader: I admired her for her strength, ability to persevere in all situations, ability to care for her family as a woman of that time, and the way she was a mother figure where her mother was lacking.

Fellow writers may understand when I say that, while I was writing about Leah, I sometimes could hear her voice in the back of my head – explaining her behavior, defending actions that looked, on the surface, to be harsh. History has not necessarily remembered her kindly, but I think that the real Leah was probably doing the best she could … for herself, yes, but also for her sisters.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Random Animal Nonsense

This was a week absolutely filled with animal nonsense. Allow me to elaborate.

1. Our dog Sorcia met her “cousin” Pumpkin when my sister’s family came for a visit from Kansas. Our dog was a little over-excited – like a giant, 80 pound toddler who gets really wound up and then crashes later. We got both dogs to sit for a photo, but the glowing eye thing is a bit creepy. Pumpkin spent the visit swimming in our pool every possible moment (Golden Retriever mode), while Sorcia worriedly watched everybody from the side of the pool, whining and crying, as though they were too stupid to take care of themselves (German Shepherd mode).

2. We also discovered a Mouse in the house. I was talking to my sister, Laurie, late on Sunday evening when I noticed her eyes kept sliding past me in a very distracted way. I figured I knew what she was looking at and I said, without bothering to turn around, “Which of the children is up?” She shook her head. “I don’t know if you want to know this, but you have a mouse.” Apparently, the little fellow had just climbed the stairs from the finished basement/guest room (“Where I have to sleep!” my sister pointed out), sauntered across the kitchen, and took refuge in the front room. We turned to stare accusingly at the two dogs, who were both passed out asleep in the family room, completely oblivious and useless. Nothing like this used to happen when we had our cat Maui (R.I.P.), killer of all things furry and small. We didn’t call him The Black Death for nothing! Oh, how we miss poor Maui!

3. Among the various dogs, cats, raccoons, possums, groundhogs, and deer we have loose in our neighborhood, we can now add a billy goat. (complete with cowbell) This handsome fellow has been spotted traipsing through the neighborhood and was photographed (much like Big Foot) by my neighbor, Kathy. “Trip, trap, trip trap,” pattered the Little Billy Goat Gruff. “Tis only I, come to assess the length of grass in the Surrey Hills neighborhood and determine a good asking price for my services!” And, frankly, we are very happy to have him, because the lawn service employed by half the neighborhood has been AWOL these past 2 weeks due to 102 degree temperatures interspersed with random driving rain.

4. Finally, I was happily drafting my WIP when, in the middle of an “unplugged” Practice Room session, I realized that one of my characters had just harvested honey in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania in February, 1852. I don’t think so!! I had failed to adequately calculate how the sequence of events of this historical mystery would line up. Drat. No bees in February of any year in PA! I now have to re-adjust the events of the story. That’s what first drafts are for, I guess.

Any animals bugging you this week?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Crack for Authors

I was pretty excited when We Hear the Dead received favorable reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal. Those are some really powerful names to have backing my work, and I love every one of them.

But today I read a review posted on The Snappy Dragon that is like Crack for Authors -- a lengthy analysis of the themes, characters, and historical background of my novel. This is a reader who saw, in Maggie Fox's life, the same poignant elements that captured my attention in the first place and drove me to write this novel. She even noticed the good in Leah Fish, which I tried really hard to convey (and a topic I was actually planning to blog about next week).

Needless to say, Sri is an astute reader and a brilliant review writer! You really should rush over and add her to your blog roll before you do anything else today!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Miss Prudence Pettigrew is Tied to the Railroad Tracks! Doesn’t Anyone Care?

How many writers out there can relate to the following scenario:

You’re sitting at a family barbecue, and everybody is chatting companionably. People ask you how old your children are and how they are doing in school. You ask questions about Uncle Henry, and they ask about your in-laws. Throughout the entire conversation, in the back of your mind, you wonder why they haven’t asked about the latest troubles of your main character – and then you have to remind yourself, once again, that your main character is NOT a real person.

Anybody else out there have to chant that mantra in your head? “They’re not real; they’re not real; stop talking about them; they’re not real …”

I went to a bridal shower this spring, and I had to get up and leave a short story manuscript in the middle of the climactic scene. Poor Simone was face down in the water, struggling against a creature much stronger than she was … and then I had to walk away to attend a luncheon where I would sip iced tea and play Bridal Gift Bingo. Don’t get me wrong – I was happy to go – thrilled for the cousin who was getting married – and I enjoyed talking to relatives and friends. But in the back of my mind, while the bride-to-be was opening boxes of sheets and towels, I kept looking around the room and wondering why nobody else seemed worried about Simone. And the entire time I was there … I was composing her escape in my head.

I am lucky to have a husband, a sister, and a mother who will patiently talk with me about my characters – thank heavens for all three of them! Dread Daughter #1 will also talk with me about my characters, but since she’s 13 years old, conversations are monosyllabic and not very satisfying. The dog listens with adoring eyes, but doesn’t say a lot. (Much like the daughter – except for the adoring eyes part.)

Do any other writers out there find that they have to force themselves to socialize with real, living people when their characters are clamoring for attention?

Monday, July 19, 2010

PAYA: Bringing More YA to PA

Just a short blog post today, folks! My sister and her family are visiting from Kansas, and we are having a blast! So far we’ve hot-tubbed and visited a winery and then hot-tubbed some more. The kids played in the pool, which, at 91, is only ten degrees off from the hot tub. I made my famous sausage risotto, and my daughters are introducing their cousins to the raptures of ZELDA.

But looking ahead towards August … PAYA!! (No, not papaya. Stop looking at that fruit! PAYA -- YA in PA!)

If you live anywhere in the greater Philadelphia area and have an interest in reading or writing YA, mark your calendars for Saturday, August 21 and the First Annual PAYA Festival, taking place in West Chester, Pennsylvania at the Center for Performing and Fine Arts.

From the PAYA website:

PAYA is a coalition of Pennsylvania’s young adult authors, bloggers, librarians, readers, and other book-lovers. Our mission is two-fold:

1. To share the love we have for young adult literature with others in our state
2. To raise money to support Pennsylvania’s libraries, with a focus on helping build Young Adult library collections and Young Adult services.

At least 15 authors will be present signing books, including Josh Berk, Shannon Delany, Amy Brecount White, Jennifer Hubbard, and, uh, me. (Awesome company to hang with, huh?)

There will also be two writing workshops! One is for teen writers aged 13-18 and will be led by teen authors Chelsea Swiggett and Kieryn Nicolas. The workshop will run from 1-2pm and costs $10.

The other is a listen and critique workshop, in which YA authors will meet in small groups with attendees, who should bring three pages of a WIP to share. This workshop will run from 10am-noon and costs $40.

Find out more at the PAYA website, where you will soon be able to register for the workshops.

I can’t wait! Dread Daughter #1 already has her eye on that Teen Writer workshop, and I’m hoping to get some signed books from awesome authors to offer up at my 100 Follower Celebration – whenever that happens. (Not quite there, yet …)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Contest Frenzy

The blogosphere is a busy place this summer, full of giveaways and contests. If you don’t win a book this summer, then honestly, you must not be trying!

Some of the contests are rather serious in nature, such as the one taking place over at Candyland. In her usual generous and big-hearted way, Candyland is sponsoring a contest to benefit Joy 2 the World, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in Ghana, West Africa, as well as providing micro-credit loans to women in that country. Donations all go to a worthy cause, and the prizes are phenomenal – phone calls with agents and manuscript line editing, just to name a couple! Please check it out.

Of course, once you’ve done your part to help the world, you can score yourself a book by participating in Teen Fire’s Help Us Choose a Cover contest. Apparently, the design team at Sourcebooks Fire has been having a small, internal debate over the cover of the upcoming dystopian novel Water Wars (ie: Arm wrestling, throwing shoes, and spitballs have apparently not been able to settle it). Post a comment to help select a cover – or write a short story based on one of the covers in order to win an advance copy. Learn more about Water Wars by checking out my interview with Cameron Stracher.

Who here has read Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon? Maybe better to ask who hasn’t? You may not know that Zafon started out as a YA author and that his newest book (actually the first one he ever wrote) is a haunting YA mystery set in the 1940’s which involves a mysterious house, a shipwreck, and a sinister statue. Wisteria over at The Bookworm’s Dinner has 4 copies of The Prince of Mist to give away. In logic that only makes sense in the blogosphere, I get more chances at winning by telling you about the contest – thereby ensuring that some of you will enter and reduce my chances of winning. Does that make sense? Probably not, but I’ll play along!

Finally, as my blog membership slowly creeps toward 100, I realize I need to plan some kind of celebration here at In High Spirits. What to do, what to do?? Bring me a few more followers, and I’ll come up with something!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Meet the Relatives

Last week, I received an unexpected message on Facebook from a descendant of the Fox sisters! This lady, who lives in a neighboring county of PA (and whom I hope to meet up with this summer) is a great-great-(great?)-grandniece of Maggie and Kate Fox.

This is really exciting – and also kind of nerve-wracking. Since my characters are real, historical people, I knew (theoretically) that there might be real, living descendants who could encounter my book.

And read it.

One of the first things I did when I exchanged messages with this very nice lady was apologize, because her direct ancestor, Elizabeth Fox doesn’t appear in the book at all. Maggie and Kate had four older siblings, but since two of them had no direct role in the spiritualism business, I ended up cutting all mention of them in order to streamline the story and reduce the word count. In We Hear the Dead, there are only 4 Fox children: Maggie, Kate, David, and Leah. The other sisters, Elizabeth and Maria, were left out altogether.

We Hear the Dead is fictional, after all. I collapsed the timeline of events and sometimes changed their order. I took the bare facts of these people’s lives and created full-blown fictional characters out of them. A biographer can simply state what happens to their subject. A novelist must provide personality and motivation. That’s all fine and dandy until I remember I’m writing about somebody’s great-great-grandmother.

There are descendants of the Kane family living too, and I wonder what will happen when/if they stumble on my book. Maggie did NOT have a good relationship with Elisha Kane’s family. His brother Robert plays an important and unpleasant role in We Hear the Dead, putting obstacles in the path of their relationship. Maggie calls Robert “detestable” and “vile.” When she hears he has fathered a child, her reaction is: Robert Kane had produced offspring? What a repugnant idea!

Yeah, wait until somebody emails me and says, “Excuse me, but that was my great-great-granddaddy.” Gulp!

I guess that’s all part of being a historical novelist.

And yet, it feels strange. Writers feel possessive toward their characters. It’s a little unnerving to realize that “my characters” actually belong in someone else’s family tree.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Now that I’m off for the summer, I find that having too much time is a detriment to my writing.

I don’t have limits to sharpen my focus.

During the school year, teaching eats up my day. I can’t write, but I do find that chapters are taking shape in the back of my mind. People who catch me muttering to myself are probably getting a glimpse of some upcoming dialogue. When I get home from work, there are other obstacles: doctor’s appointments, chauffeuring the kids, cooking dinner. And all the while, scenes are knitting themselves together in my brain.

When I finally sit down with a limited time to write, it comes out in a torrent.

This summer, with oodles of time, there are lots of things that distract me from writing OR subconsciously planning what happens next – including stuff that I am blocked from doing when I’m at work: reading and responding to blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc. I’m like a kid in a candy shop!

Luckily, I’ve discovered resources for providing focus. One is #1k1hr on Twitter – and thank you to Tawna Fenske for introducing me to it. Simply put, you commit yourself to writing at least 1,000 words and writing continuously for at least 1 hour. If you reach the word goal before the hour is up, you keep writing. If the hour ends and you haven’t reached 1,000 words, you keep writing. The object is to meet both goals.

A similar, but more flexible resource is The Practice Room – and thank you to Heather Kelly for inviting me. In the Practice Room, you meet with other writers to set goals, unplug for an hour (unplug email, FB, Twitter) and write, then meet back in The Practice Room to discuss.

What #1k1hr and The Practice Room do is promote fluency. It’s kind of a slap-your-head thing for me, because as a teacher, I know the value of promoting fluency in reading and writing with my students. I just never tried it on myself.

Fluency = getting it down, even if you know it’s going to need smoothing over later. There’s no stopping to find that perfect word or phrase – write something down and fix it later. There’s no diverting into 45 minutes of research to find the correct name of a specific 19th Century railroad – make something up and do the research later.

It’s pretty strange that limiting my time has actually proved more useful than sitting for hours in front of a computer screen. Apparently, I need the distraction of other activities to complete my sub-conscious planning. And I need the pressure of having just a brief time to write in order to improve my fluency.

What works for you?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Winners and Losers

First of all – a winner! In a randomly selected drawing, Jen at Unedited wins the signed copy of The Second Date by Mary Simonsen. Salute, Jen! Best to read it with a little Prosecco, I think!

Next – Eclipse. I went to see it with my 13 year old daughter yesterday, safe in the advance knowledge given to me by Helen Ellis that – although it was steamy – "nobody scores." There was still some embarrassed wriggling and coughing and giggling in the seat next to mine during the bedroom scene. Meanwhile, all I could think about while Bella was trying to undress Edward was: He must be so cold. His chest must be cold. His lips must be cold. Good heavens, EVERYTHING must be cold. Needless to say, it spoiled the mood for me.

And speaking of SPOILERS – (Stop here if you don't already know): When it comes to Bella’s heart, Edward wins and Jacob loses. Sorry, Team Jacob. But I couldn’t warm to that character, either. Yes, he has a ripped body and all that, but there is something pathetic about a guy who keeps trying to steal somebody else’s girlfriend. And thanks to Breaking Dawn, we all know that what Jacob *really* wants is Bella’s daughter anyway.

But in the end, everybody ends up with somebody. Which brings me to speculation about another little love triangle that is still unresolved: Peeta vs. Gale. Many of us are anxiously awaiting the conclusion of the Hunger Games trilogy and dividing up into teams. Here is my take on the situation: If Katniss ends up with Peeta, Gale will find somebody else. (Hopefully not Katniss’s daughter, though.) However, if Katniss ends up with Gale at the end of the trilogy, then Peeta must be dead – probably in some heroic, self-sacrificing way. Because Peeta will never love anyone else, and I can’t see Suzanne Collins leaving him jilted by the side of the road.

That’s my prediction folks. Peeta will be the winner – or else he will die. In which case, he still wins, because people always remember the martyr. Everybody remembers Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities (“It’s a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done …”), but does anyone remember the name of the guy he saved? Anybody?

I had to look it up.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

On the Ground @Ft. Myers ... Dying

Yes, that’s the Google IM I received from my husband after his flight on Tuesday.

on the ground @ft myers … dying

At first this conjured images of plane wreckage and other horrible scenarios, but I quickly realized that if my husband were really dying, he wouldn’t have wasted precious moments of life typing the ellipses. I thought maybe he’d accidentally hit send before the end of the sentence, and I would discover he was merely “dying for a soda” or “dying from the heat” – but nevertheless “dying” only in a hyperbolic sense.

In fact, the next line he typed was STUPID AUTO CORRECT.

Turns out, he was trying to type fyi and the Droid “corrected” it for him.

I have noticed for some time that our machines are starting to think for themselves, and what’s more worrying, they think they’re smarter than we are. I admit, it’s handy to have my computer save me some time by auto-filling in my addresses – until it sends some crucial email to the wrong person. And yes, I love that I can program my DVR to catch any new episode of The Office or House – and if they ever make a new episode of 10 Items or Less and air it, my DVR will be smart enough to record it. But in a way, it’s kind of scary that the DVR will do stuff without checking with me first.

The copier at work already thinks it’s smarter than I am.

Dianne: (Tries to make 8x11 copy of one small section of a larger poster.)
Copier: INSERT 12X18 PAPER
Dianne: I don’t want 12x18 paper. (Stabs some buttons.)
Dianne: I don’t want #%*# 12x18 paper. (Stabs some buttons.)
Copier: #^%# YOU AND THE HORSE YOU RODE IN ON (Jams up the paper.)

Remember all those B-grade sci-fi movies about robots taking over the world? Remember HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey? We haven’t quite reached that point yet, but it’s coming. Sooner or later, we're going to find ourselves on the wrong side of the airlock door "for our own good."

Already, the thermostat in my house overrides me. The car *tells on me* during its annual check-up if I don’t screw the gas cap on tight enough. And the Droid phone insists my dog Sorcia’s name is spelled Special and my husband is dying at Ft. Myers.

How has YOUR technology corrected you lately?

By the way -- the winner of the signed copy of The Second Date will be announced on Thursday!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Stupid Pet Tricks

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! I hope everyone had a fantastic day yesterday and that you still have off from work today.

I've got nothing particularly earth-shattering or thought-provoking to share with you this morning. In fact, I thought I'd show you how I waste my time, while I should be writing, reading, taking care of my home, or parenting my children.

I've taught Hoover, my great big greedy koi, to stick his head out of the water and take treats from my hand. Give me a few more months, and I expect I'll have him slithering out onto the rocks!

How do you waste your time?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Gina's Review: Eagle Quest

My little itinerant blogger is back today with a review of her most recent read: Eagle Quest by Marva Dasef.

Gina's Review:

Eagle Quest is a great book by Marva Dasef. Before I start the review I’d like to say I noticed that with her two books that I read there are always two boys in the start and one girl and they are all best friends. Until later a new kid comes and they all go on an adventure together.

Eagle Quest is an awesome book about a girl named Fiona and her friends Hap, Billy, and Mitch. Mitch was adopted and his real parents were Indians but he doesn’t know what tribe. He wanted to do an Indian Quest called the Vision Quest to add to his medicine bag an eagle feather. It’s not really a medicine bag but it holds things that are important, the book explains more about that. The four of them all have to sneak away because their parents wouldn’t let them. The kids run into trouble first when they find a cabin that they think is ancient. So the three of them go inside but then someone yells at them to come out with their hands up. Once they sort out what they were doing, they run into Eagle poachers. Fiona almost gets kidnapped and so does Billy when he tries to save her. Then the four friends manage to get away. Meanwhile most of their parents were worried to death and called the police. When they all finally get home they are all grounded. Then the book shows possible outcomes of what could have happened to all of them.

My favorite part of the book was when the eagle poachers came and all the kids fought them. You should also look at Marva Dasef’s other book Quest for the Simurgh

Thank you, Gina!
(Disclosure: Gina received this book for review and has given her honest opinion. I think that makes Gina a Real Blog Reviewer now!)

Visit author Marva Dasef in the blogosphere here.

And there's still a few days left to win a signed copy of Mary Simonsen's book, The Second Date: Love Italian-American Style. See post for details.