Sometimes, There’s This Book

Sometimes, there’s this Book. You know the one – it’s a book that you remember reading all your life. The one that you finish in record time, reading in great gulps, and then exclaim over, and pass along to someone else – all the while madly scrambling to see if the author has written anything else.

I was in high school, and I was on a Gothic-reading binge. Gothics had mystery, romance and a touch of suspense to them, all of which appealed to me. More importantly, they were readily available on the spinners and magazine racks in the stores of my hometown. And better yet, my mother would read them too, which meant that I could usually count on her to fund some of my reading habit.

One day, I found a book called Ammie, Come Home, by Barbara Michaels. It looked interesting, so I picked it up.

It was one of those Books.

In addition to the mystery and romance – which I had expected – Michaels had woven a deep stream of the paranormal into the book – which I had not expected. I loved it. In those days when urban fantasy did not exist as an official genre, Michaels was writing it.

Witch was the next of her books that I found. It confirmed that Michaels was an author I wanted more of, and more and more.

And the hunt was on. A book here, a book there – I found just enough to keep me tantalized and searching for still more.

It wasn’t until I got to college, with many bookstores available and larger libraries, that I found most of the rest of her books. I finally ran into that wall of having read everything I could find by a particular author, and was stuck waiting for each year’s new offering. A year is a long time to wait when you want that next book.

And then a librarian asked me if I knew that Barbara Michaels also wrote as Elizabeth Peters.

An orgy of reading followed.

Her Elizabeth Peters books had more archaeology and less of the supernatural, but they still sucked me right in and told a story that kept me there until I had consumed the entire book. Then they spit me out with a dreadful book hangover (that mix of rapturous oh-I-loved-it and miserable I-can’t-believe-it’s-done).

At least this time, when I hit the read-it-all wall, I could look forward to two new books a year.

Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Mertz (her real name) died this past week, at the age of 85. There will be no more new books to wait for.

I will miss opening up the new adventures of an old friend from past pages. I will miss meeting a new character ready to dazzle with me with humor, intelligence and just enough quirks to make them seem like a real person I would like to know better. I will miss the plot twists Michaels/Peters tossed at her readers, and the romance – not heavy-handed sex or erotica but simple, sweet romance – that was in many of her books. Her regular use of older heroines appealed to me, particularly as I reached maturity myself. It was nice to see that you didn’t have to be twenty-something to have adventures!

Michaels’/Peters’ strong female characters – who could rescue themselves, thankyouverymuch – and her touch of the Unknown  – these things drew me in from the first book, kept me coming back for more for four decades, and have strongly influenced my own writing.

I could go on and on about my favorite Michaels/Peters characters and books, but if I got started, it would be hard to stop. Suffice it to say that she created many, many favorites of mine over the years.

So here is a huge thank you to author who not only entertained me for many years, but helped shape the path of the writer I have become.

Rest in peace, Barbara. You were a wonderful story teller – the highest accolade I can give an author – and an incredible influence on me.

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It’s NaNoWriMo Time!

NaNoWriMo participant badgeIt’s that time of year again. No, I don’t mean autumn, although it certainly is (and occasionally winter, here at 7200 feet). And I don’t mean almost Thanksgiving, although that is true, too.

Nope – it’s November, and that means NaNoWriMo.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. A misnomer, that – it’s really international. People from more than just the United States participate. That aside, it means that for the month of November, people sign up –  for free, mind you – and they write. And write. And write. The expected word production for participants is between 1600 and 1700 words per day.

The goal is to end up with a 50,000 word novel by the end of the month. Is it possible? Definitely. 50,000 words is actually on the small end for novels – about 150 pages. And some folks end up with a published work, after a bit of revising.

It’s not necessarily about a publishable novel. It’s about the writing and the challenge to oneself to finish something big. It’s proving to yourself that you can stick to a project, work though problems and blocks and come out the other side with a (slightly punchy) smile on your face. It’s realizing that you can work regularly on your writing, and finding the reward in finishing something.

For me, it’s also a way to grease the gears. When I am writing regularly, I write more on everything. I won’t just end up writing on my NaNo piece, I’ll end up writing on lots of things. Productivity leads to more productivity. And that feels good.

I have done NaNoWriMo before. Several years ago, I finished. And the book I wrote – well, let’s just say that I had too many characters for the size of the book. But I got my words done, and I had a plot and everything. That one still exists – it just needs a complete overhaul. But for my first longer effort (short stories being my usual genre), it worked. I realized that I could work out a plot in a longer format, and found that I enjoyed the more leisurely character development.

I began NaNoWriMo last year, but did not finish for various reasons. (And all of them were, in retrospect, pathetic excuses – the sort of excuses that if anyone else had uttered them at me, I would have given them that raised-eyebrow mom-look that always causes a hasty and embarrassed retraction of whatever has been said. Ahem.) But the ideas and the work done still exist, so only harm done was to my pride.

Tonight at midnight, east coast time, people will start to write. They will have tossed around dozens of ideas, or hoarded one idea greedily in anticipation of November. They will have thought about characters and plots and complications. They will have sharpened pencils and charged computers.  Finally, the clock will tick over to November 1, and they will be able to sit down and write.

Over the month, they may closet themselves in a quiet place, hiding from friends and family, snarling at interruptions, or they may meet in coffee shops and write in groups. They might take a pad and pen outside in the fresh air. But no matter where they choose to work, they will write. They will groan when they can’t think of what to do next, but they will still write. They won’t revise, they won’t rewrite – that is for next month. They will just forge on through and get it done.

And at the end of the month, they will have a shiny new novel and a sense of a job completed.

I intend to be one of those finishers this year. It’s fun, it’s productive, and it’s just something that I like to do.

Want to join in the fun? You may have to play catch-up with the word count, but hey, what’re a few more words, right? Come on over to NaNoWriMo and be a part of a very big, very cool thing. And then write.

Of Heroes and the Batman – A No-Spoiler Review of The Dark Knight Rises

We went to see The Dark Knight Rises this week, my comic-book-geek husband and I.

I had anticipated enjoying it, and I really did. It was a very-well-done conclusion to the Dark Knight trilogy. While you can certainly see The Dark Knight Rises as a stand-alone movie, it makes much more sense if you see the other two first, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

was interested in this incarnation of Batman to begin with. Having been married to a DC Comics fan for 33 years, I am familiar with variations on the Batman theme, and the Dark Knight has always been, well, the darkest of these.  

That’s not to say he isn’t still the Batman and a compelling figure, because he is. I think this particular version, which Christian Bale has played so well, is the most human interpretation of Batman. You don’t just thrill to see him coming to the rescue, you hurt with him and sometimes you want to shake him and tell him to stop being so much like the rest of humanity and be the hero you want him to be. 

There’s plenty of action in the movie, of course, to make those of us who love action flicks interested. It has nail-biting tension and fantastic technology. But the heroes of the film are shown as human beings, with their feet of clay exposed for all the world to see. They have made and do make mistakes and poor choices, just like the rest of us. They do things they regret doing. And yet, they rise above that. They do what they can to make things right again. 

None of the main characters, either good and bad, are simply  comic-book, one-dimensional characters, despite their comic-book origins. They all have depth of character, and we get a glimpse into their motivations. We see how hardship can mold either heroes or villains, depending on how the individual involved chooses to react to those hardships. In many ways, the movie is about choices made, and the results of those choices. 

I came away from the movie with one line in particular echoing in my thoughts, one that I hope will be remembered by everyone who sees the movie. It reminds us that not only are the huge, highly visible heroic acts important, the small everyday kindnesses are, too. Batman, the doer of the huge heroic deeds, states, “A hero can be anyone, even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know the world hasn’t ended.” Something we all do well to remember.

Why?

I have been thinking about mass murder in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater on July 20th, and our (society’s) reactions to it.

I know it bothered my husband and me – it ate at me much of the day. It bothered our (adult) children, too. Our oldest son lives a time zone away, and because of a very busy schedule, didn’t hear about it until evening. But he called to talk about it when he heard. It bothered him quite a bit – more than he expected.

I was thinking about why we were bothered by it, and I think it disturbs us on many levels.

The first is obvious – we feel horror that lives were wantonly taken, and sadness for those who lost loved ones or were injured.

And then there is the nagging feeling at the bottom of it all. The “why?” feeling, and the feeling of fear we get when things are not in our control. We always want to know why something – especially something terrible – happens. What happens to cause someone to do something so heinous? We think that if we can figure out why, maybe we can keep something like this from happening again.

But often the reasons that someone resorts to mass murder are incomprehensible for the rest of us. Did something that any other person may have shrugged off, set them off? Or have they lost all empathy and compassion for others? Whatever the reason is, it is something that most of us will never, ever understand.

So we sit here, viewing the results with horror, never knowing why it all happened and feel completely helpless to prevent it from happening again. And that, I think, is the part that will continue to bother us, long after the media coverage is over: The helplessness to understand why, and thus to prevent, the horror from happening again.

How Not to Teach Writing to Enthusiastic Young Writers

There has been some discussion in my household about my lack of updates here on my blog. I am going to rectify that, starting with this post.  I always wonder what I should write about. Should I write a short-short story? A “between the stories” sort of story? An editorial? Some memories? Decisions….argh! I end up frozen with indecision. Well, today I’m biting the bullet, and it’s going to be what it ends up being.

I’m going to call this, “How Not to Teach Writing to Enthusiastic Young Writers.”

When I was in high school, my school required that we take two English classes each semester. One was strictly for literature, and the other was something we called GVC – grammar, vocabulary, and composition.  We had different teachers for different portions of the GVC course, and a teacher I had had several times before drew the composition course this particular year. She wasn’t a bad teacher, but she was stuck teaching composition to group of adolescents whether they wanted to learn it or not. As far as I know, the teacher was not a writer herself, and she taught writing the way the book said to teach it, according to the general wisdom of high school writing instruction.

I had enjoyed writing fanciful little stories off and on, most of which had been well-received by family and teachers, and I was looking forward to a class on writing.

One day we were in class, and she was expounding on writing topics. “Write what you know!” she said, “Always write what you know!

Now, for a class of adolescents with little-to-no life experience, this is incredibly limiting. What do you write about? Teen-age angst? A part-time job? Hanging out with friends? Even a young person with significant life experiences may not recognize these experiences as something to write about, or if they do, the experiences may not be something they really want to re-live and share with the world.

I knew that this was a problem for me, personally. My mind raced, trying to think of what I could write about. I was the only child of older parents, lived in a small Southern town, went to a small school, and most of the semi-interesting stuff in my life was pretty much the same stuff that my peers had experienced, or things that I wasn’t interested in dealing with in writing. In short – boring and very, very limited.

But I was never without my imagination. I had recently read about a street scene from the early 1900’s, full of street vendors and activity. This had completely captured my imagination. So I raised my hand and asked, “But what if we want to write about a street full of street vendors?”

The teacher laughed.

Then she replied, still laughing, “What would YOU know about street vendors?”

The class laughed with her. One boy, who was a particular thorn in my side throughout middle school and high school, turned around and smirked at me. “Yeah, Jane, what would YOU know about that?”

Face burning, I had no answer. I did NOT say what was in my mind, “But I’ve read lots of books where the author couldn’t have actually experienced what they wrote about.” Instead, I sat there while they laughed, afraid to say anything else.

And I let that dictate my writing for next 30 years. I wrote very little over that time.

As an adult, I can see beyond the apparent limits of this phrase, and can agree with it, if you expand on the meaning of the word “know.” At that time, I could not see how this could be expanded – and apparently, neither could my teacher.

Here is what I think:  “Writing what you know” isn’t meant to limit a writer to their own personal life experiences.

You can know something by researching it thoroughly – thus is born historical fiction.

You can know something by interviewing someone who has experienced it; this is another form of research.

You can know something by creating the entire world for yourself – and this can apply to all genres of fiction. If you mix that with research, you have endless possibilities, including streets full of street vendors. Speculative fiction, both science fiction and fantasy, relies heavily on this last method. Tolkien created huge amounts of back story, including an entire language, for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He knew his world thoroughly.

Maybe it should be “know what you write” rather than “write what you know.”

So what could my teacher have said all those years ago that wouldn’t have left me afraid to try my literary wings? She might have said, “Can you research that and come up with something?” Or she might have said, “Give it a try,” and let me see what I could do with the idea without research, and then steered me in the direction of the library to fill the gaps.

Either way, I would have expanded my world and improved my writing abilities, and so would my classmates. How many writers could she have inspired that day, had she looked beyond the apparent limits of popular pedagogy?