Book Boxes and Strange Places January 2017
I miss getting a book box. Every Christmas until I was married my mother wrapped up a package of books to place under the tree. Maybe, initially, it wasn’t the present I was most excited to open, but I wanted it and I expected it. And, probably, every year it was the gift I ended up enjoying the most.
After all the present-opening frenzy, I would take my book box and go somewhere interesting to wallow in my new books. The interesting place made the wallowing wallow-ier. Wherever I went I would take a pillow and one of my mother’s crocheted afghans. I might lie under the branches of the Christmas tree. We always had real trees, and even though, by December 25, the needles were dry and poky, it still smelled heady and delicious. Or maybe I’d sprawl on the hearth by a snapping fire—which we always had on Christmas even though it was Southern California and often too warm for it. Or I could go behind the couch or in a closet with a lamp and an extension cord. There was a loft above our garage I liked. You had to climb on the roof of the car and swing yourself up. Also a high shelf that I would climb up to and which probably should have broken beneath my weight, but thankfully did not.
Then I would open my book box and gloat. Brand, spanking new books…oh! I would read the blurb on the back covers or flyleaf. Such riches. I wanted to read all of them first. I remember receiving L.M. Montgomery’s books and THE LITTLE LAME PRINCE AND HIS TRAVELING CLOAK. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain novels. I never received a book in the book box that I didn’t end up loving—mainly because of my mother’s wonderful taste, which is very similar to my wonderful taste.
My mother didn’t only pick out books to encourage my reading. Even when I was old enough to read them for myself, she would often read aloud to me. “Richer than I you can never be—I had a mother who read to me.” I might have written those lines, instead of Strickland Gillilan. She read me Laddie and The Hobbit. When she wasn’t reading to me, she was reading around me—she always had a book going on. And sometimes all us kids—there were five of us—would sprawl on her bed (if you were lucky enough) or on the floor beside it, in the dark, to listen to our mother tell fairytales she made up as she went along.
Besides my cozy Christmas-book-reading spots, I read (and wrote) in many a strange spot the rest of the year, such as up in a tree or on top of a giant boulder. The odd places lent themselves to my imagination. I could picture the pictures so much better that way.
Outside of the book box, I did sometimes encounter novels I didn’t much like. I was turned loose at the public library. I would wander the shelves, picking out whatever looked intriguing. Before I was a teenager, my reading genres were eclectic. Sometimes I chose stories that were too old for me. That happened with MRS. MINIVER. I read it in sixth grade and hated it. It seemed like a completely different story when I read it as an adult and loved it. I randomly discovered the “Little House” books and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy. Those are good examples of my taste, because gradually my favorite authors were those who wrote historical fiction, such as Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery, or fantasy, such as Lloyd Alexander and J.R.R. Tolkien. By the time I was in the fifth grade, I added Jane Austen’s and Georgette Heyer’s historical romances and Victoria Holt’s gothics to my favorites list. Maybe I was too young for those too, but I didn’t know it. Thank goodness for YA literature nowadays!
I stopped reading kids’ books when I entered high school, but then a children’s literature class in college reminded me that those novels remained some of my favorites. Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote something called “Why I Write for Children,” which nicely sums up my feelings about reading and writing. I will attach it to the end of this post for your reading pleasure.
I’ve added tons more favorites through the years. While I was a children’s librarian I read many books I wouldn’t have opened up if I hadn’t needed to know what to recommend to others, but I still prefer gothics, historical, and fantasy. I adore fairytale retellings, such as Beauty, or The Goose Girl. I adore books with beautiful words, beautiful descriptions, beautiful settings.
I still like to read (and write) in compelling places. There’s a bench by our fish pond that is a favorite, and sitting atop a picnic table on Blue Bluff, which hangs over the Tombigbee River. I like to watch barges. And herons.
Yes, I miss the Christmas book box. Unfortunately it can’t be recreated. Even if my husband were willing to pack me up a book box, I fear that the magic of those early ones cannot be replicated. For one thing, he doesn’t have my mother’s wonderful taste in books (for me, anyway). For another thing, part of the spell was the fact that I was reading everything for the first time. Then too, I’m kind of old now for climbing onto top shelves. Not to mention too heavy.
Isaac Bashevis Singer: “There are five hundred reasons why I began to write for children, but to save time I will mention only ten of them.
Number 1) Children read books, not reviews. They don’t give a hoot about the critics. Number 2) Children don’t read to find their identity.
Number 3) They don’t read to free themselves of guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.
Number 4) They have no use for psychology.
Number 5) They detest sociology.
Number 6) They don’t try to understand Kafka or Finnegans Wake.
Number 7) They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.
Number 8) They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes.
Number 9) When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority.
Number 10) They don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.”
March 31, 2016 Feeling History
When I was in Ireland, I tried to feel it in New Grange—the weight of 5,000 years’ connection with humanity. I couldn’t seem to pick it up, though, any more than I could at Tara or at Mammoth Caves in the US. New Grange was interesting. I was curious about what it was truly used for, since they’re not positive that it was a repository for bones. They believe it has some religious significance, because of the way light rays hit it at the winter solstice. But I simply couldn’t feel the tie with ancient humanity. Perhaps it’s simply too ancient. Perhaps it’s because no one actually lived there, plodding through day after day after day of their life. Perhaps it’s because it’s been so smoothly displayed by modern folks, with neat benches and plastic placards.
I felt the link better at the castles we visited. After all, the stone-seated toilet holes still exist. Even kings and knights had to use those. I would touch the rough, thick 12th century stones and try to feel something deeper, but less transitory than the sun’s warmth on the rock. Hands, long since dust, hewed this, fit it, and carved it. Feet walked these battlements. Through the centuries, did many someones, just as clumsy as I, trip here on this rough bit where I tripped? Eyes looked out at the same swell of hill I was gazing at. It would have been so dark in the rooms. So cold in wintertime. I silently said a prayer in a medieval chapel, wondering at the layers of faith that had to have been exhibited here. Did it soak into the stones?
It was easy to imagine ages of agony in the prison chambers of the Tower of London, in spite of the clear plastic that covered the inscriptions prisoners had scratched into the walls, and in spite of the very modern entrance with its costly public toilet. (50p to enter—outrageous! I’m told that Europeans think Americans are obsessed with restrooms, and I can understand why. When you need to find one, you really need to find one and you will ask a bystander for directions to one, even if you wouldn’t ask the route to your hotel.)
For me, anyway, atmospheres seem to be the most tangible in Victorian era houses. I guess because I can really picture lives lived there. This is why I dearly love the annual “Southern Heritage Pilgrimage” of old houses here in my hometown of Aberdeen, Mississippi. Aberdeen, before the Civil War, was the second largest city in Mississippi. One look at our tiny town today begs the question, “So what happened to it?” That is a story for another time. Anyway, we have lovely old homes that are open for the public to tour every April. I have donned hoopskirts and been a tour guide many a time.
My children have also lent to the atmosphere. My baby Stella, at age five months, wearing a long white antique baby gown, once napped soundly in an ornate, canopied cradle to the delight of tourists. I thought of those long-ago infants who slept in that cradle before her, and I knew that the feeling their mothers felt when they looked down at their baby was the same as I felt looking down at Stella. My sons played marbles in one house, and my daughters played jacks, where Victorian children no doubt played the same, and their voices and expressions were similar. Now, when I go in those same houses, the ghosts of my now-grown children haunt me with memories.
When I am in these old Southern houses, I can look at the floors and imagine the decades of brooms sweeping. I walk down the stairs and tread carefully in my full skirts since I can’t see my feet, and I think of the other ladies who have done this before me. I peer through wavery glass windows and try to tell which sights have changed and which have stayed the same—if that twisted, spreading magnolia was probably there a hundred and fifty years ago, only younger and straighter. It’s easy to conjure up stories about looking into spotted pier glass mirrors and seeing what that mirror would have reflected so long ago.
I could feel nothing story-inspiring in the 19th century hotel where I once stayed in New Orleans, even though supposedly it was haunted. Or on the late night “Ghost Tour of New Orleans.” Mostly that took us past houses where, in the last century, various men murdered their significant others and stuffed the dismembered bodies in trunks. Trunks seem to have been awfully useful accessories for New Orleans murderers.
The most chilling haunting tour I’ve ever experienced was when I took part in a ghost story-telling at our old Aberdeen Odd Fellows Cemetery several years ago. Lanterns lined the clearing and hung in the drooping evergreen under which we sat, so we huddled in a tiny island of light in a big, dark, cloudy night. The old, old graves surrounded us, and a tiny breeze lifted the boughs of the tree and sent strange shadows rippling across the audience. Brrr, it was spooky! And wonderful! Each year during the Pilgrimage, there is a tour of the cemetery, called “Lies and Legends,” where interesting stories are told about those who slumber there.
So, if you’re ever near Aberdeen Mississippi on the first weekend of April, and you want to feel the haunted atmosphere of age, I will be happy to sell you a ticket to the Pilgrimage!
Curiosity doesn’t usually kill the cat.
I am not rebellious by nature. When I was in elementary school, I was terrified of “getting in trouble” or doing anything we weren’t “supposed to.” It probably wasn’t goodness so much as it was cowardice. However, I was kind of weak, and, if it wasn’t too bad, I would give in. Probably cowardice again—I hated to not please my friends. What does that say about my squishy character? “Let’s go back behind the gym at recess,” my friend Michelle would say. “We’re not supposed to. We’ll get in trouble,” I would respond. Then usually I would go along with Michelle, and somehow we almost never got in trouble, because even if a teacher caught us, we were such nice girls that we were immediately forgiven. It really wasn’t right or fair the things we got away with.
As a teenager, I had no desire to be wild. At this age, it wasn’t fear of getting in trouble that kept me on the straight and narrow so much as it was simply the fact that the “bad” stuff was unattractive to me. I hate curse words because they’re ugly and when I hear people pepper their speech with them, in order to have what they think is a striking effect, they simply sound stupid and uncreative to me. And getting drunk or high—once again, intoxicated people sound foolish and if folks can’t have fun without being sloshed, then they must have little imagination. I would go places with my pals and I would be the designated driver, and it didn’t bother me in the least. I saw the mess some of my friends got in when they went in over their head with boys, and I wanted no part of that. I was simply not tempted. Simply not curious about how that sort of thing would feel.
What has always tempted me is forbidden places and information. That is why I related so much to Sophia’s curiosity, in STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD. Locked doors and drawers and cupboards. Sealed envelopes and people acting surreptitious. Whispered secrets and meaningful looks that I’m not a party to. Houses that I’ve never seen inside. Those things are what tempt me. I can’t hardly stand to not know.
A dear friend of mine said, after reading STRANDS, “But why did she go in the places she’d been told not to go into?” And I was amazed that it wasn’t obvious to her because it was so very, very much a part of my nature.
And so my sisters had to hide their diaries well. I knew it was dishonorable to read them, but my curiosity was insatiable. In our neighborhood when I was a kid, there was a skinny, foot-wide space between two fences that went behind people’s backyards. I loved to sneak along that and peer into their yards, sort of like the Phantom of the Opera slipping around behind the scenes of the opera house. How I would have reveled in secret entrances and underground passageways. (In fact, in A PLACE OF STONE AND SHADOW, which should finally make its debut later this year, there is a hidden passage and someone who spies from it.) And nowadays I go for walks at twilight because I want to peek into the windows of houses before they’ve drawn their curtains. Not to spy on people, but rather to see the decoration of the houses. When there are empty houses for sale, I have to look in the windows. I am ashamed to say that I even try the doors, and sometimes I find that they are unlocked, and I tour the houses. I don’t touch a thing. I simply look.
Of course I would be upset with me if I were the owner of the diary I read or the house I toured. But I would understand.
Dec. 12, 2015
One of the nice things about writing is when I can write something that exactly suits my mood. Especially when there’s no one else’s writing that quite captures it at the moment. Every year, in December, I want to read just the right snowy, cozy, sweet-smelling, romantic story to enhance my Christmas-y-ness. Sometimes I can find one that someone else wrote. Sometimes I can’t. When I can’t, I either write an entire Christmas/winter tale, or add some to an on-going story. I have several on-going ones. The one I’ve added to this year is a fantasy that takes place in a snowy, stony mountain keep and includes a romance between a girl and a wandering wizard.
Here’s a few paragraphs:
“She hunched beneath the drooping canopy of the heavy-laden branches of a great pine, closed her eyes, and breathed. Such sharp, pure air. Such beautiful aloneness. Somewhere an eerie, early owl hooted.
She opened her eyes after a bit, and parted the boughs. All the world was black and gray and white and wet brown, with glimpses of dark, snow-shrouded green. A cheeky black squirrel chittered and shook snow down on her. She held up a withered apple she pulled from her pocket, tempting him. At last, warily, he crept down, and snatched it from her. He held it in his mouth as he dashed, round and round, up the tree trunk to a safe branch. She waited, tense, for him to drop the apple, but he kept hold of it, feasting on it in the safety of the high branches. So now a tiny touch of red showed in the otherwise color blind world.
She gazed out through the droopy boughs, and fancied she could see elusive, dancing figures behind the gauzy veils of snow. Then, some pebbles of snow skittered down the mountainside, followed by a darker figure. A tall man, hooded and cloaked, with an oaken walking staff and a pack on his back. He wore snowshoes.
As she watched, his head came up. With the falling whiteness, the vast mountainside was suddenly closed into the dimensions of a small, intimate space. It was as though, for an instant, he had pulled aside the gauzy veil and looked at her. She had an impression of bronze skin, deep-set eyes, and a dark beard. Behind the beard, a faint smile curved his lips. He had known she was there. Not just someone—her.
Then he turned to shadow, like her fanciful dancing figures, and was gone.”
November 18, 2015: BACKYARD
A few days ago I bought a three-foot high squirrel statue. Last summer I bought an equally tall Easter Island-type figure. The moment I saw them, I knew they were mine. Because they were funny. Because they were charming. Because they were unexpected. Because they absolutely belonged at the edge of the jungle behind our house.
Yes. There is a jungle behind our house. Tangled, twisted trees and bushes and vines and brambles half-circle our property even though we’re in the middle of the town. We don’t know where our jungle ends and our hind-neighbor’s jungle begins. Our new (old) house was built in 1902. Was all the property edged and mowed and manicured back then? When did that stop? Did the jungle slowly creep forward as, inch-by-inch they stopped pruning?
There’s every shade of green and every shape of leaf, and it’s never still. Even when
the air around me seems perfectly quiet, Things inside there make it quiver and shiver and shake. Birds dart out of it and fireflies blink in it. The neighbors’ cats slink in and out. Skinny squirrels leap from limb to limb. At dusk I have watched a lean and rangy raccoon trot out of it. (Mammals here seem to be of a different species from the fat, fluffy type that Ontario breeds.)
Our jungle is like a microcosm of Southern flora. Poking out from the mass of under- and
overgrowth, I can identify a sweetgum, some pines, something that looks like a form of mimosa, and a live oak or two. Right at the edge, tiger lilies, goldenrod, and black-eyed susans pop up at the appropriate time of year. In the spring, a dogwood, a redbud, and twisting, interwoven wisteria and glowing yellow Carolina jasmine brighten it up. In midsummer, white-starred Confederate jasmine drapes through like Christmas lights. Right now, in the fall, poison ivy vines and sweetgum (known as “poor man’s maple”) color it red and yellow.
People want us to clear it away. One person said to me, “Ain’t you afraid it’s full of snakes?” It looks like it COULD be full of snakes, but I doubt it. Maybe we should chop away some of the jungle. I’d like to unearth the once-tame crape myrtles that are so strangled they’ve had to
grow forty feet just to shoot out a couple of magenta blossoms at the top. I’d like to free-up the ground
around the live oak ten feet back so we could put a couple of Adirondack chairs under its shade.
But I want to keep the rest. There’s a messiness about the flora and fauna of Mississippi that appeals to me. Other places I’ve been are beautiful and I have adored their natural
scenery in a different way. The green, rolling hills of Ontario are lovely, and so was all of the UK that I saw, but so neat and tidy-looking comparatively. Here, in our woods, it’s easy to imagine Sleeping Beauty’s thorny tower hiding, or witches stirring cauldrons or and secret cults taking cover. I would not be a bit surprised
if there’s a faun (not the deer kind—the mythic, half-man kind) abiding unseen in our jungle. Kind of fun.
Oct. 29, 2015 Decorating Horror
‘Tis the witching time of year. Autumn. (A lady I met on my September trip to Wales, proud of her knowledge of us Americans, said to me, “It’s autumn here. I think you Americans call it ‘The fall.’”) The fall lends itself perfectly to ghoulies and ghosties. I guess it’s the wistful, tinged-with-death note of summer ending and winter coming. Not to mention leaves drifting down, smoldering sunsets, baled cotton, and the sharp little chill in the air when you first go out in the morning so that you say to yourself, “Oh, yeah. I remember this.” The fields lie fallow—such a lovely, lonely phrase. All of this seems kind of haunted.
So, we are smack in the middle of the witchy, haunted time of year. Why, we should have a holiday promoting goblins and spooks. Say, right around October 31.
My third book, A PLACE OF STONE AND SHADOW, is a supernatural/horror/murder mystery/romance. And just enough of each genre—for my taste, anyway. Too much horror makes movies or books icky and unpleasant and leaves awful images in my mind that trickle to the forefront unbidden when I’m alone at night. I want nothing to do with ickiness. I also dislike what I call the “Scooby-doo syndrome”—where the paranormal occurrences turn out to be mortal trickery. For me, ghost stories need a genuine specter and they eventually require an explanation and a resolving and a happy ending. Fictional paranormal stories should have all of these, and PLACE has them. Unfortunately, real-life ghost stories rarely do.
I believe in ghosts. I don’t understand why they’re allowed, but I believe in them because I’ve heard first person accounts from reliable sources. I also believe in them because I had one personal experience with a Real-Life ghost story. It has to do with The Incidence of the Haunted Cabinet.
Who would have guessed that furniture could have a ghost attached to it?
I was eighteen and home for the summer after my freshman year of college, working as a typist at an engineering company. I was supposed to be saving every last penny for my education, but my indulgent parents let me occasionally spend some of my wages on fun stuff.
Being the house-and-decorating-loving girl that I was, I spent my fun-stuff dollars on furniture. The idea was that someday, when I had a home of my own, I would already have a few charming items to go into it. Our family house was your basic 1960’s ranch. My small bedroom had blue-flower-sprigged wallpaper, yellow shag carpeting, and wall-to-wall furniture. I had a rocking chair, a cedar chest, and a grandfather clock stuffed in there along with the bed and dresser.
Down the street from my place of employment was an antique shop. It was run by a skinny, shriveled old lady named Fernie. During my lunch hour, I would wander through the shop, trying to decide what I would buy. There were so many choices, and I hadn’t much money. I did not want to make a mistake.
Finally, toward the end of the summer, I made my choice. It was a secretary—a bookcase-desk combination, painted black, edged with gold, with a fold-out writing surface and pigeon holes in the middle and glass doors above. It cost me $125.
I squished everything in my bedroom tighter together and tucked my new piece into the corner. I had great fun trying out different books inside and deciding what was worthy to have a place in my charming cabinet.
Little did I know that the cabinet was Haunted.
That very first night, I started feeling uncomfortable in my room—as if someone were watching me. The door to the hall was closed. I drew together the window curtains so that not a bit gapped open to the blackness outside. I made good and sure no one was in the closet and that the closet door was shut. I was alone.
But someone was watching me.
I could feel it as I read in bed. I would read for a minute, and then look up over the top of my book to scan the empty room. The air felt unnaturally chilly. I pulled up an extra cover even though it was hot summertime, and left my lamp on when I finally drifted to sleep. I had terrible dreams. I would awake, shaken, but I could not remember what the nightmares consisted of.
The next day, for the first time in my life, it was a relief to leave the house and go to work.
When I came home that evening, I didn’t want to go into my room. I could feel the cabinet there—waiting for me. I stayed up late, delaying going to bed. Finally I could put it off no longer.
That second night, as I said my prayers, kneeling by my bed, a knock sounded. It came from the cabinet and sounded just as if something had struck the wood with their knuckles. A knock. I opened my eyes, and of course nothing was changed. Everything was as it had been. I closed my eyes to continue my prayer, thinking it had to have been wood expanding or contracting or whatever wood does to make strange sounds.
I jumped when another sound came from the cabinet. This time it was a thunk—as loud as if someone had dropped a book on the desk surface.
I placed my Bible on the desk, hoping that somehow this would safeguard me.
Again I left the lamp on as I slept. Soon after midnight, a giant crash sounded. I sat straight up and saw that the shelf had collapsed in the cabinet, and all the books had tumbled down. I had made certain before I put my books on it that it was sturdy and firm, yet it had fallen. Expanding or contracting wood—NOT!
Still, the next morning I would have explained it all away rationally if it hadn’t been for my mother’s nightmare. Looking sheepish, hesitantly, she told me that she had had a troubling dream the night before. Now, keep in my mind that I had told my mother nothing about what had been going on. “I saw black smoke pouring out of your cabinet,” she said. “It filled your room and tendrils of it crept out into the hall and on into the rest of the house. Somehow I knew it was evil.”
That was the only time in my life I have ever actually felt the hair stand up on my neck.
I told her then what I had been experiencing. We clutched each other’s hands and agreed that the cabinet had to go. Immediately
That very day, while I was at work, my mother got rid of the cabinet. I don’t know who took it away. I only know that the minute I walked through the front door that afternoon, I was aware the thing was gone.
I don’t know what was wrong with the cabinet. I never learned anything about it, and I’ve never heard of another haunted piece of furniture. If it were in a story, I would have connected it somehow with a murder—blood splashed upon it and painted over. That sort of thing. But, because it’s a real-life story, I have no answers to its mystery. Yes, I have a good imagination, but I don’t let my imagination spill over into real life. Never before and never after have I had a similar experience.
I wonder where the cabinet is right now?
October 20, 2015
Well, will you looky here! I, Jane Nickerson am once more writing a blog post. It’s been more than a year. What have I done during that time? Well, the picture to the left shows one of my favorite things I did. I am the Grandma who is watching. My four-year-old grandson drew this so I would remember my time at Six Flags over Georgia. I have been doing Life and I have been Busy. There was a wedding and there was a birthing. Houseguests and trips. Work on our old house and gardening in our old garden. There were no deaths of anyone close to me, but there was a touch of tragedy. Nothing great or dramatic, just the sort of thing that, when you wake up in the middle of the night, you think, Oh no! That really happened! There was writing, even though it wasn’t blog-writing. (I am about 60,000 words into a fantasy that I just love, if only I could get the last 30,000-or-so words finished. There were also revisions on A PLACE OF STONE AND SHADOW, which I also just love.) There were family and friendships. It’s been quite a more-than-a-year.
Time and again I have been on the verge of writing a blog post, because I enjoy them, but I have not done it. But now I am back. Why, you may ask? And I will be honest. I am doing it now because my publisher for the aforesaid A PLACE OF STONE AND SHADOW (hereafter referred to as PLACE) told me I had to start blogging before PLACE comes out sometime in early 2016.
I don’t like to believe that I have the attention span of a monkey, but sometimes I have to wonder. I truly am responsible about important things, and I’m not lazy. However, with projects where continuation or completion is optional, I often leave them half-done, going on to the next thing. Because I’m so very interested in that next thing. Like a monkey. I never finish writing stories unless I’m planning on trying to publish them. Even when I’m working on something for publication, I am constantly jotting down ideas for the next tale I’m going to write. The theme goes on through most aspects of my life. While I’m eating something, I’m thinking about what I get to eat next. (Especially if it’s sweet.) How many times have I been taught how to crochet and started blankets or scarfs and ended up stashing them away uncompleted? (I finally give them to someone who really crochets.) On projects in our house, we’ll often leave rooms slightly unfinished—the last bit of molding unattached or the underside of the shelf unpainted. It’s hard for me to sit long through anything, even if it’s something I’m enjoying. (And if I’m not enjoying it, I practically have to hold myself down.) I find myself wondering, When will this movie be over? Even though I’m liking the movie. I adore Christmas and we put up our tree the weekend after Thanksgiving, but the second the last present is opened on Christmas day, I have to hold myself back from immediately taking down the decorations. I start sweeping the floor, get distracted, and suddenly find myself calling my mother, almost without realizing I’m doing it. Always leaping to the next thing. Crazy.
So, maybe I do need a boss to order me around, to tell me what to do next, to force me to continue with things. And the publisher is the boss. And I am glad to be writing these posts again. As I’m typing this, due to my monkey attention span, I have already come up with several subjects I want to blog about. Be watching for them.
May 7, 2014 Some Girls Do
“Some girls don’t like boys like me…but some girls do.” That’s the chorus of a country song by Sawyer Brown. This line is a lesson to everyone about everything in life.
Well, maybe not everything, but an awful lot of things.
Right now I’m thinking about it in relation to my writing and my books. It’s how I am slowly learning to take reviews in stride. I always wondered how people in the public eye handled being raved over by some folks and raked over the coals by others.
When I first started writing children’s stories for magazines, I was scared to send my pieces out because it was like baring my soul to the world, and I’m a private sort of person. I don’t speak up much in crowds—in fact I used to whisper the funny, interesting things I thought to my husband, and then he would say them out loud. I’ve never dared to dress in the height of style. I sit in the back of classrooms. I rarely post anything on Facebook, even though I’m very interested in other people’s posts. I’m the friend who likes to listen to the other friends talk. And I was shy about my writing, not wanting to insinuate that I thought it was anything special. But, underneath, my mind constantly conjures and creates in a flamboyant fashion. I love color and beautiful scenes and opulent words. (Isn’t the word “opulent” scrumptious? For that matter, isn’t “scrumptious” scrumptious?) And some unknown, alien thing inside me eventually drove me to send my work out. Oh, the pain of the first rejections! Oh, the blushing and writhing and wincing! Such humiliation to think that someone had read my writing and considered it so bad.
And then…the joy of my first acceptance, and each subsequent one. The validation.
As time went by, and more and more of my stories were published, even I had to admit to myself that I must be a pretty good writer. Still, I wasn’t sure that I could write the sort of thing that is popular nowadays. I’m an old-fashioned, romantic kind of girl and the world seems to prefer fast-paced, flashy plots, as well as heroines with attitude who often don’t end up with the guy because who-needs-men-thank-you-very-much.
Since STRANDS and MIRK have been published, I know from many reviews, that there are people who really love them. When I read those reviews I’m so happy because they got it. They felt what I felt when I was writing. I feel an overwhelming kinship with the reviewer. I want to get to know them, and I’m certain we’d be great friends. I want to write and write and write.
But…the negative reviews. Some people out and out hate my books. “This utter travesty of a novel”—someone wrote that (and actually, that made me laugh). At first I read them all because I thought it would help my writing. People could be so mean, and I wondered if it occurred to them that there was a person with feelings at the end of the pen (or word processor). I guess reviewers need to be honest, but still…I would get the feeling that it was more fun for them to be snarky and cutting, so that was the main reason for the terrible criticism.
Finally I realized it wasn’t helping me to read the bad stuff, it only hurt. Every single aspect of my books that one person loved, another person would hate. The fact that they didn’t like my writing was because they simply didn’t like that type of book; they wanted more gore or more action or more sex or more snappy comeback dialogue or whatever. Their opinion is legitimate for them. It’s all a matter of taste.
Hence: Some folks don’t like books like mine…but some folks do. And I’m so glad that they do.
April 2, 2014 One Kind of Idyllic Childhood
It’s sweet, blossomy April. Petals shower down on me when breezes rifle the Bradford pear trees lining our street. The jungle behind our house is growing dense, reminding me of the little boys who hollowed out green caves in the undergrowth several months ago. As Seeley knows in THE MIRK AND MIDNIGHT HOUR, playing in odd places is an essential part of childhood.
What sort of childhood did you have? Was it the kind of idyllic American upbringing you see in Norman Rockwell paintings and read about in Beverly Cleary books?
As part of my spring cleaning, I’ve been going through some of my writing files. They were from back in the day when I was penning children’s stories for magazines—literally “penning” since I liked to write out short stories rather than typing them—and I have one file filled with my childhood memories—things that happened to me at home, at school, with friends, the way places and people looked, what I heard, what I thought. I wrote them down, of course, in order to have ideas for stories, but they make me awfully nostalgic as I read them. And they have caused me to come up with some ideas for a perfect childhood:
Disclaimer: some of these elements may be slightly unsafe or unsanitary, which helps to make them even more fun. They may also be politically incorrect.
1. Have family supper at the table with rules like “No singing at the table” and “No reading books at suppertime.”
2. Make mud pies decorated with pebbles and flowers.
3. Go to family reunions and wear matching t-shirts and have a great uncle who always says, “Every time his elbow bends, his mouth opens” whenever he sees a kid munching. There should also be a great aunt who will relate scandalous family stories that kids shouldn’t be allowed to hear.
4. There should be available boards and building materials lying about for the construction of tree houses and forts.
5. You need twilights of mosquitoes and fireflies and neighborhood games like hide-n-seek or “Kick the Can.” I’ve never played the latter, but my mother tells me it’s the most fun in the world. At the end of hide-n-seek, we always said “Olly olly oxen free,” or at least that’s what it sounded like. What does this mean?
6. You should sometimes have Little Debbies, Cracker Jacks, snowcones, Cheetos, popsicles, or watermelon for snacks.
7. You should attend Sunday School and Summer Vacation Bible School.
8. Your mother should be really scared of something like spiders or snakes or worms so you can both tease her and protect her.
9. There should be birthday parties sometimes at fast food restaurants or the roller skating rink, but also occasioanlly at home with silly games.
10.There should be water balloons.
11.There should be grandparents living nearby to attend school programs and baseball games so that somebody besides the parents cares about the outcome. My kids never had this, and it’s a shame.
12.There should be school so you have school stories to tell at the supper table and so you can have the fun of vacations from school sometimes.
13.You need shelves of books and trips to the library and at least one parent who will tell stories while sitting on a porch swing or while you’re in bed.
16.Endearing nicknames from your mama like Mouselet or Sweetpea
17.You must watch Saturday Morning Cartoons, although some of the beauty of this has been robbed because of constantly available children’s programming.
18.You must play Monopoly.
19.There should be bike rides across town.
20.You ought to have Christmases with at least one toy with a wow factor even though your mother knows you won’t play with it a month from now.
21.There should be daily chores to do.
22.There should be either a garden or bush or tree from which you can eat fresh nuts or vegetables, fruit or berries.
23.You need occasional illnesses where you lie on a sheet-covered couch, and your mother reads to you and brings you cold orange juice. Sometimes you must get sunburned or stung by an insect. It’s possible that you should break at least one bone (preferably quick-healing) so you can tell people about it later.
24.Construction paper, scissors, glue, crayons, markers, and water color paints should always be available.
25. No matter where you live, snow should fall at least once a year.
26.There should be family traditions and inside jokes. Some tape should be left permanently stuck to the ceiling, left over from all the crepe paper and balloons the family uses in celebrations.
27.There should be occasional spontaneous trips to swim in the river or picnics armed with Frisbees. Rocks and trees to climb. Frogs to catch.
28.You should have to wear glasses and/or braces for a while so you will go through a gawky period to teach you humility and compassion.
29.Eat popcorn while watching movies.
30.Have plenty of unregimented free time to encourage creativity and occasional mischief.
Several years ago, columnist Marilyn vos Savant published an article with a parents’ guide to what their kids should know by the time they leave home. You might want to look it up.
How about you? I’ve left out so much—what would you add to the recipe of a happy, classic childhood?
Feb. 22, 2014 Be Mine
Years ago, when my good friend Ellen and I were roommates, and very single, we celebrated a made-up holiday the day after Valentine’s Day—St. Emily’s Day. Named after the famous author, Emily Dickenson, who lived odd and alone throughout her creative, quiet life. We decorated with black broken hearts and invented a game where you spun the board with the “spinster.” To this day, even though I am happily married, Ellen and I offer each other condolences on Feb. 15.
In real life I neither get nor give fancy schmancy gifts on Valentine’s day, and that is fine with me. My husband constantly shows that I am loved. He goes to work each day for our family. He builds me things and fixes things. He comes straight home from work and we are always happy to see each other. Even after all these years, each thing we do is nicer when we’re together. He enjoys spending time with me and helps me with all my interests. He is devoted to our family. A hero.
Yet I am a big fan of traditional, titillating romance in literature. To me, no novel is entirely satisfying if there isn’t at least a bit of a romance in it.
Time Magazine’s “Top 10 Romantic Books” are the following:
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Troilus and Criseyde, by Chaucer
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
Brideshead Revisted, by Evelyn Waugh
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje
The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter
I haven’t read numbers 2, 8, 9, or 10. Of the ones I have read, the only one that I can unconditionally agree with, is Pride and Prejudice. I simply don’t like numbers 4 and 5. And Heathcliff, in Wuthering Heights, is so unpleasant. If I don’t like the book or the characters in the book, I can’t like the romance.
It gets me thinking, and wondering what would make up my own list. Of course, I would vote for the romances in STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD and THE MIRK AND MIDNIGHT HOUR. Am I perhaps, prejudiced?
I adore Georgette Heyer’s regency stories, and would certainly choose several of hers. But what others? I might include Jane Eyre, if Mr. Rochester didn’t go blind. In so many of the Gothic novels, you know that you would dislike the love interest in real life, in spite of his good looks, money, and confidence. If it’s too trite, a book simply can’t make my list. Or if the writing in the novel is not really excellent, so that lets out a slew of paperback romances. The couple can’t get together too quickly, or there isn’t the suspense of conflicts and the Will they or won’t they? But if it takes too long it gets annoying. That’s the problem with L.M. Montgomery’s romances. They drag on forever, with Anne and Emily unable to see what’s right beneath their noses.
To make a truly satisfying love story, you have to be able to tell why the characters fall in love, and it has to be more than physical attraction and more than the guy being a prince or a Lord Something-or-other. No insta-love. And you have to fall a tiny bit in love with the guy yourself. That’s why none of the fairy tale romances would last a day outside of books. Or rather, they wouldn’t last several days. The problem with the romance in Twilight is that I couldn’t figure out what Edward actually liked about Bella other than her smell. The romantic bits in Hunger Games are annoying. In Little Women, Mr. Bhaer is simply too old for Jo and I always wanted her to marry Laurie. But I did like Meg and Mr. Brooke’s love affair. (Although it makes me mad that he dies in Little Men. Why, Louisa May???) I liked Almanzo Wilder and Laura Ingalls in These Happy Golden Years, except it bothered me that she seemed a bit too reluctant to fall for him. Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard is a delightful, old-fashioned book of short, romantic stories, so I might put it on my list, although they do have the problem of fairy tale insta-love. Possibly Greenwillow, by B.J. Chute, except...
Almost every romance I can think of has a disclaimer for me. An except…
All in all, I guess I am simply too picky about my romances. But I still read and re-read them even if they’re flawed.
Jan. 11, 2014 SURPRISE, SURPRISE
Surprises are over-rated.
That’s why I read the ends of books first—I need to make sure they end happily and that they don’t use some cheap trick like having my favorite character die or be the bad guy. Then I can refuse to read it if it’s not satisfactory and I can watch for the clues as to the murderer. It’s also why Google needs to get busy and provide a way that I can type in “Things that will happen to the Nickersons in 2014” and our future would pop up (with pictures). Why haven’t they developed something like that yet? I want to know if I lose 30 pounds on my diet, if we tile the backsplash in our kitchen, if The Mirk and Midnight Hour becomes a bestseller, who marries whom, who has a baby, who moves where, and who wins the lottery.
Of course, I don’t want to know who will lose a job, get in a car wreck, or have their heart broken. I suppose that’s why they haven’t marketed their foretelling softwear yet. We should remind them that they could provide us with a filter to block out the bad stuff. But then we’d be wondering what they were blocking out, and probably conjuring up even worse stuff than is really coming.
Patient people amaze me. I can’t imagine being the sort of person who doesn’t want to know what sex of baby they are expecting
I like to be aware that something nice is on its way so I can await it and savor it and plan for it and make lists about it and decide what I will do with it. Not for me the child who claims he’s not going to make it to the family get-together and then Surprise! shows up unannounced. Not for me the friends and family who act as if they’ve forgotten my birthday and then pop out screeching “Surprise!” when I’ve been anticipating putting on my flannel nightgown and watching The Closer before bed. Luckily for me, my friends and family always REALLY forget my birthday.
If I know, I can prepare myself and set my mind in its proper grooves. Maybe I’m in the minority, though, since, as a whole, humanity seems to think that surprises are the way to go.
Dec. 2, 2013 Christmas comes to this old house
Today I dove madly into festooning, arraying, bedecking for the holidays. It’s so fun to adorn an old
house again. There is something particularly charming about hundred-year-old homes at Christmas-time. Christmas-time hides cracks in plaster, crooked lines, and the bullet hole in the study window (I’m so curious how that last happened! A drive-by?). Or maybe it doesn’t hide faults so much as makes them delightfully quaint. It was no accident that the house in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a big Victorian. We have the mantel, we have the wide mouldings, we have the stairway with a picturesque banister. Our former Mississippi house was High Victorian, all elegantly carved and polished, with twelve-foot ceilings and beveled glass around the front door. This place is more country farmhouse, even though it’s in the middle of town, so I’ve added burlap, gingham, and sunflowers to my hall-decking.
I use lots of greenery, partly because I don’t have to store it year round and partly because I love that darkening mystery it adds to a room. Although our backyard is a jungle, sadly it possesses no holly or pine trees. It does have lots of ivy (including poison), a baby magnolia, and a pathetic little nandina bush with a couple clumps of red berries, hiding under another blob-like shrub. I used the greenery I had, but then I drove out to the woods to rob a pine of a few of its boughs. And then, I was driving back through town, and guess what I saw? A holly tree/bush absolutely laden with scarlet berries! It was in a vacant lot, which technically, I suppose, belongs to someone, but I couldn’t believe anyone would be so stingy as to begrudge me a few fronds of holly. I had to jump across a ditch, slosh through puddles and knee-high weeds, and got my soggy jeans and socks studded with nasty little burrs. But I got my holly. And I’ve lined window sills and mantels, I’ve filled vases and jugs, and our house absolutely knows, that after twenty-six dark, empty years, Christmas has come to it once more.
Oct. 31, 2013 Halloween afternoon
It’s a dark and gloomy Halloween afternoon. This morning, the wind tugged at me and the clouds glowered as I cut an armful of
colored leaves, along with bright yellow chrysanthemums and the last roses, before the rain let down. I stuffed them all in an autumnal vase. Isn’t it nice how forgiving bouquets like that are? I am no floral designer, and yes, my display looks like an eight-year-old did the stuffing, but it’s still pleasing to my eye, anyway. Now, outside, crimson-leaved poison ivy is dripping, and the goldfish in our pond are opening up their tiny round mouths to catch raindrops (I guess they think it’s food—silly fish). I hear the plinky-plink of rain spattering on the tin porch roof and the air conditioner cover.
What better time to indulge in ghost stories? I have always loved spooky tales as long as they’re not too awful. A little scare is delicious. As I’ve said before, it’s probably the hot fudge sundae feel—experiencing that chill of fear, while actually warm and safe and cozy.
At slumber parties, when I was a kid, I had a repertoire I liked to tell. I don’t know if they had real titles and came from actual, well-written roots. I knew them as the-maniac-who-licked-the-girl’s-hand-and-she-thought-it-was-her-dog story, the give-me-back-my-golden-arm story, the bride-doll-with-the-butcher-knife story, and the thump-swish story. Our pleasant, girlish stories often involved maniacs and amputees. They rarely involved ghosts. I was familiar enough with my own stories that they didn’t bother me. Other people’s new stories were another matter. I remember lying awake in my sleeping bag at my friends’ houses, too hot to sleep, but too trembly and scared to lie on top of my bag.
My scary story books are old. I haven’t bought any new ones in years because so many of the new ones are too graphic for the likes of me. Some of my favorite horror stories are “Shredni Vashtar,” “Thurnley Abbey,” and “God Grant That She Lye Still” (from More Tales to Tremble By, edited by Stephen P. Sutton; “The Rose Crystal Bell,” “Do You Believe in Ghosts?” and “Footsteps Invisible” (from Ghosts and More Ghosts), “Crespian and Clairan,” by Joan Aiken, and the whole book of stories, Hauntings: Is There Anybody There? By Norah Lofts.
I’m going to curl up and start reading. Of course I may regret it tonight, when my hand is hanging over the side of the bed, and my dog comes to lick it. Or is it the dog?
October 6, 2013 Creating (and recognizing) a Villain
This villainous discussion first appeared at the ReadingTeen blog (http://www.readingteen.net/2013/03/blog-tour-guest-post-strands-of-bronze.html) during the STRANDS blog tour last spring
Most genres of books need an appropriate villain of one type or another for conflict. The study of villains can be valuable—both in writing and in Real Life. Forewarned is forearmed.
The types of scoundrels are many and varied, ranging from Evil personified, such as Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, to the weak, stupid thug who is being used by someone else—like the two silly dognappers in 101 Dalmatians. When conjuring up the bad guy, a writer must choose which type of villain best suits the story.
In writing Strands of Bronze and Gold, I had to decide what sort of man Blue Beard/M. Bernard should be. The fairy tale revealed only that he was rich and had murdered several wives. So…I considered womanizers, abusive husbands, and psychopaths—some of whom I have met, others about whom I have read.
In general, womanizers can either be charming in a smarmy, salesman-type way, or they can just seem like really nice, unthreatening guys who are fun to talk to. Both styles are charismatic, attentive, interesting, witty, and flirtatious.
Abusive men start out attractive, which is how they hook their prey, but they push too far, too fast. They want undivided attention and isolate their victim. They urge the victim to do things that make her uneasy. They must always be in charge and can’t take criticism. They’re jealous and blame others for anything that goes wrong. They tend to have extreme, unpredictable highs and lows, along with a nasty temper.
A psychopath is superficially charming, and has a grandiose idea of himself. He is cunning, easily bored, and has no sense of remorse. He won’t accept responsibility for his actions and he has no empathy for others, using them for his own gain. He often has many short-term marital relationships.
The first quality all three possess is that they can be fascinating when they choose to be. This is what makes them so dangerous. I tried to weave these characteristics into M. Bernard. The fact that he is also powerful, wealthy, and handsome makes him even more perilous to deal with.
I then added one other thing to give M. Bernard depth. I gave him a couple of weaknesses. Chinks in his armor. He likes children and was grief-stricken when his son died in a terrible way. He truly does start out caring for the women, and he truly is hurt when they disappoint him. (Although, being human, they are bound to disappoint in some way eventually, and he really takes it to heart!) Finally, he is sometimes bewildered and confused by the ghastly things he has done in his past.
No wonder Sophie (the heroine of Strands) fell under M. Bernard’s spell at first and that she stayed as long as she did. Combine M. Bernard’s qualities with the fact that Sophie was underage, poor, and a female in 1855, and she really was in a desperate situation.
Therefore, Dear Reader, be warned—if you meet a man with the aforementioned characteristics, recognize him for what he silently tells you he is. Run fast and run far. You can know without a doubt that he is—drumroll—A Villain.
Sept. 9, 2013 I admit it – I love it here in Mississippi
A dear Canadian friend asked me to write a blog about MY Mississippi. She said, “I would love to love your corner of the world and not just have bad ideas about racial intolerance and heat!” My daughter recently sent me a survey of the states wherein Mississippi was voted the “dumbest” state. (Massachusetts was voted “smartest”—where do people get these ideas?) My daughter said, “I would vote Mississippi the most underappreciated.” She’s right. People have so many stereotypical ideas of my home state, and most of them are negative. Mississippi always gets the short end of the stick. Just look at a map of our coastline—how did Louisiana snitch so much of what rightfully should have been ours? Y’all, that just ain’t right.
So, here’s a few reasons why Mississippi is a cool place:
It’s beautiful. Yes, other places are beautiful too—the Ontario area I lived in was truly lovely—but there’s a wildness in the Mississippi countryside, almost a messiness, that’s delightful. Lush and untamed and ragged. Tangled vines and wildflowers, towering pines, gnarled oaks, and spreading magnolias all flourish without sprinklers because so much rain falls here. Which brings me to the—
Amazing rainstorms and easy winters. I’m a fan of turbulent thunder and lightning, crazy wind and pounding rain, and Mississippi gets storms like that in abundance. So fun to sit on the front porch and watch. Yes, we have sweaty, sultry summers—perfect for swimming in the river or eating popsicles. Our cold weather is just the right amount of cold. We get temperatures low enough in the fall to create some nicely changed leaves—especially crimson poison ivy and blazing sweet gum. Our winters are cool enough to have a fire in the fireplace at Christmastime, but they’re relatively short-lasting. My children didn’t own gloves or mittens. When we had a rare snowfall, they all sported socks on their hands to build their tiny, dry-grass-littered snowmen.
It’s a rural state. I remember when I was growing up in Southern California, how we would drive from one city to another without any countryside in between. No cows or fields or snatches of woodland. Mississippi has cities, but no huge ones. It has mainly small towns, each with its own charming town hall (usually with a clock in the tower) and quaint Main Street. I love driving past puffy cotton fields and contented cows munching away and trucks on the side of the road full of green-striped watermelons. I guess that at least some of what I love here is more small town-ness rather than Mississippi-ness. For instance the mailman chasing me down in the Piggly Wiggly grocery store to deliver a package, our kids being in parades every year, and most of the churches in town praying for our family when we were in a terrible car wreck. As for the churches—
Mississippi is religious. There are church buildings on every block and those buildings are full on Sundays. They say prayers before football games. Some people would sneer at this or else worry that some, who don’t belong to the prevalent religion, would be made uncomfortable. Well, my family doesn’t belong to the prevalent religion. People might have looked a tad troubled or surprised when they learned of our religion, but they were always good to us. Each summer, our kids attended several different summer Bible schools—Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Church of Christ. Contrary to the hypocritical, bigoted stereotype put out by much of the media, Christian religious people tend to be kind, generous, and friendly.
We have a healthy respect for history and tradition. Denigrators like to say that holding onto beliefs and values makes us backwards. Instead, we don’t race to adopt every bit of flotsam and jetsam blown in by frenetic winds of change and public opinion. Many other, more stylish and sophisticated locales believe that if it’s new and trendy and currently politically correct, it must be good and wise and right. Instead, we consider and watch and wait. We love our old houses, our antiques, and our traditions. We don our hoopskirts and give people tours of antebellum mansions. We still call the Civil War “The War.” Like every place where people have lived, there’s underlying tragedy and pain here. People may not like our state’s history, but at least it’s not boring.
We are not casual. Not in clothes, manners, or entertaining. All the rest of the world may go to the grocery store in pajama pants and big t-shirts, but we dress up for nearly everything. We say ma’am and sir. We don’t think being “ladylike” is something to be mocked. Tailgate parties in the Ole Miss Grove include tents equipped with chandeliers and chafing dishes. My daughter had wedding receptions in two different states. From the reception out west, she received hand mixers and dish towels (which, of course, were nice and necessary). From the one in Mississippi, she received a damask tablecloth, silver, and crystal (which were cool). A Yankee transplant recently commented that they thought all this was “fake.” No, indeed. It’s just how we are—for real, through and through.
Accents are noteworthy. Whether white or black, cultivated, or red-neck, we are fun to listen to. Southerners use colorful phrases everyone else thinks are archaic. And we like them.
We are over-represented by famous writers and musicians. The blues originated in the Mississippi delta. Something about the heat and our history has made this culture flourish. We also cultivate interesting characters along with our cotton. I’m not going to name any names, but, for a town the size of the one in which I live, we have some fascinating characters.
As for racial problems—we rural Southerners work together, go to school together, shop together, regardless of our skin color, ethnicity, education, or economic status. We learn how to deal with people who are different from us because we live next door to each other. This is vastly unlike the residents of places who talk a good talk, but then only rub shoulders with others who are exactly like themselves.
Awww—I just love Mississippi.
Aug. 15, 2013 “Here lies buried many hopes and dreams.”
I don’t view graveyards as creepy, scary places, but they are certainly full of atmosphere. Their melancholy mood is summed up well in the above epitaph, which is carved on a stone in the old Aberdeen Odd fellows Cemetery. The earth there is drenched with grief and shattered futures.
We visited the graveyard today. Its first plots date from the early 1840’s, and they continued burying people there until the beginning of the 1900’s. It’s far from the oldest cemetery in the USA, much less in the world, but it’s definitely old enough to be permeated with bitter-sweet, wistful ambiance.
The old, old trees are gnarled and twisted, scarred from fallen limbs. No one plants young trees. (I should do it! I’ll have to get somebody-or-other’s permission to plant saplings. But I’d have to be very careful where I dig…) The grass is lumpy from broken stones and bits of brick and graves that are no longer marked. No one leaves flowers. There are marble angels, pillars, and a few family plots, fenced with black wrought iron. The inferior, pitted or crumbling stone on many stones make the beautiful old epitaphs unreadable.
To me, one of the saddest spots is the fenced-in yard holding rows of graves of Confederate soldiers, many of them unknown and unmarked, long forgotten. Aberdeen, Mississippi is just a tiny little Southern town. The nearest big Civil War battle took place at Shiloh Church, which is about three hours away by car. Yet this small cemetery in this small town holds a couple hundred graves of soldiers from Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee…promising young and young-ish men in their prime. They were mourned and missed and loved by somebody somewhere. In the words of the old Civil War song, “Somebody’s darling is slumbering here.” They died far from home, far from their loved ones, fighting for a cause that most people nowadays consider indefensible. I have ancestors on both sides of that war, as well as others who were in Norway, Germany, and France at the time, yet I feel so strongly the poignancy of passionate devotion and great sacrifice for a cause that is wrong. Perhaps the waste and the wrongness make it all the more tragic.
Modern day, well-intentioned Southerners, both black and white, are full of angst when speaking about the War Between the States, due to the long history of racial strife and the troubled past. They hesitate. They worry. White Southernors continually apologize and feel deep shame. The United States as a whole despises the Southern states’ antebellum history. The statue commemorating fallen Civil War soldiers from our town was moved from downtown to the cemetery because of complaints. Roughly, only six percent of Southerners owned slaves. Nowadays no one with any moral sense would defend the evil system of slavery, but why can’t people admire the valor of Confederate troops who gave all they had for their families and homes and country?
One of my kids, who visited the cemetery with me, wrote a poem about it, ending with these verses:
They also died for their cause,
Honor and belief and unjust laws,
And though it all was deeply flawed,
There is something to admire in their fall.
It seems the better side won the fight,
And we are now certain of what was right.
No sympathy for the Southern plight.
Nor sorrow for their tears.
The old cemetery falls to disrepair,
Politically incorrect to find them there.
Teenagers, dead for old men’s sins
Bear the blame because they didn’t win.
Poor, sad graves. Poor dead hopes and dreams.
July 31, 2013 Not a Songbird
What a weird surprise. There was a buzzard lurking on the rail of our deck this morning. Isn’t he nasty-looking? I know he can’t help his looks, but still…And no matter how I tell myself it’s silly, there’s still the skin-crawling feeling that a buzzard in our yard is bad luck. Instead of the Bluebird of Happiness, we get the Buzzard of…what? Despondency? Despair? Desolation? Dismalness? Dreariness? Decay? Depression?
Why do so many unpleasant words start with a d?
Perhaps he’s a very handsome specimen of buzzard to other buzzards. Yes, that’s it. Our buzzard is the best buzzard anywhere. I defy anyone to have a better one on their deck. Our buzzard’s eyes are the beadiest, his head the creepiest, his feathers the most moth-eaten, his beak the best at snatching away ragged scraps of rotten flesh. I’m so proud of our buzzard! What shall we name him?
July 15, 2013 UNWRITING
For the past week, I have been un-writing.
There were numerous comments about the “leisurely pace” and “atmosphere-building” —that was how people who liked it worded it—or the “slow” and “boring” pacing—from those who disliked it—of the first half of STRANDS. Because of this, the powers-that-be (agent and editor) wanted me to shorten and speed up the first several chapters of THE MIRK AND MIDNIGHT HOUR, which is finished now, and A PLACE OF STONE AND SHADOW, which hasn’t been sold yet, so I’m still working on it.
I happen to enjoy a slow build-up and leisurely pace in the books I read. That’s a rather old-fashioned taste, I guess. Nowadays it’s action, action, action from the first sentence. I don’t care for action, action, action from the first sentence. But that’s just me. And two things I have learned: 1. Most of the world is not ME. And 2. Editors are right 99.9% of the time.
It’s hard to un-write. It’s a painful sort of surgery. There was a reason why I put in everything that I put in. It built up the characters or it explained things that needed to be explained or it conjured up atmosphere or it set up the setting. Every word was carefully chosen. But when it’s time to un-write, I must slash and strike and destroy. Severed sentences and mutilated images lie about like cordwood. (And why cordwood lies about, I do not know.)
In EMILY OF NEW MOON, Emily, who is a budding writer, is told by her kind-but-tough teacher to take every sentence in her poetry that she is particularly proud of, and delete it. He thought her writing was too full of itself. At least I generally figure out ways to keep the sentences I’m particularly proud of.
Anyway, I’m about four chapters in to purging PLACE. It’s funny, because when I’m writing I don’t let myself stop writing in a day until I’ve turned out a certain number of words. These days, I don’t let myself stop un-writing until I’ve deleted a certain number of words. When I first sent it in to my agent, Wendy, it had 100,200 words. It now has 98,002. So I’m getting there.
But the only way I can possibly do this is to carefully save the original, so all those precious words aren’t simply gone forever—even if I’m the only one who knows where they are.
July 4, 2013 Fairy Tales
Becky at the wonderful blog site : Stories and Sweeties (http://www.storiesandsweeties.com/) gave me this prompt for a piece on her website during my blog tour:
Top Ten Favorite/Most Influential Fairytale Retellings
(The tour was hosted by the wonderful Gabrielle at the modpodgebookshelf - http://themodpodgebookshelf.blogspot.com/)
These two sites are worth checking out if you are interested in books, stories, or sweeties.
For those of you who missed the tour, here is what I wrote about retellings:
Top Ten Favorite/Most Influential Fairytale Retellings
10. Enchantment—In which Orson Scott Card takes a story (“Sleeping Beauty”) and spins it out in ways I would never have considered myself. It intrigues me when authors do things I don’t think I could do.
9. Briar Rose—In which Jane Yolen takes “Sleeping Beauty” and places it in a whole new, unfairytale-like, horrible setting—the holocaust—to lend it a new meaning. I actually didn’t like this book, but giving a story a new moral is an interesting idea.
8. The Once and Future King—In which T. H. White takes the legend of King Arthur and reinterprets the traditional characters, giving them more complex or even contradictory traits to those in the legend. He also pinpoints moments in real history, tying together fact and fiction. And it’s often very funny—or at least I thought so when I was a kid.
7. Beast—In which Donna Jo Napoli tells the backstory of “Beauty and the Beast” from the eyes of the beast. Set in ancient Persia, this retelling reminds me that by altering the setting and the point of view, a whole new story can be created.
6. Ella Enchanted—In which Gail Carson Levine retells “Cinderella” with a twist (Ella is given the curse of “obedience”), and this makes her even more rebellious and saucy than she would have been anyway. There’ve been so many retellings of this story, but this one adds so many fun new details and Ella is a great character, demonstrating how a change in the protagonist’s personality can often totally change the story.
5. Entwined—In which Heather Dixon takes “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and fleshes out all twelve of their characters—which is a formidable task. Mainly this has always been one of my favorite fairytales and I’m hoping to do a retelling of it myself someday. And I love the cover.
4. Zel—In which Donna Jo Napoli turns the villainous witch of “Rapunzel” into a loving (albeit obsessed) mother. The writing and imagery is beautiful.
3. Goose Girl—In which Shannon Hale takes the less-well-known story of “The Goose Girl” and conjures up a very interesting fantasy world—one which she continues to use for the books that come after, which are not retellings. This reminded me that an author can spin off their retelling into other original stories.
2. The Glass Slipper—In which Eleanor Farjeon retells “Cinderella” in a manner that is magical and humorous. There’s a lot of nostalgia in my love for this book, since it’s the first retelling I ever read, and I enjoyed it as a kid. Eleanor Farjeon is considered old-fashioned nowadays, but I happen to love things old-fashioned, and I consider her writing to be totally charming.
1. Beauty—In which Robin McKinley fleshes out “Beauty and the Beast.” My all-time favorite retelling because the Beast is so very delightful and there’s something incredibly romantic about a girl falling in love with a monster, in spite of his monstrousness. By the way, I didn’t like Rose Daughter nearly so well, in which McKinley rewrites the same story from her older perspective.
Thank you so much, Becky, for including me in your blog!
June 14, 2013 I REALLY SHOULD BE WORKING ON THAT MANUSCRIPT
Copy editors amaze me. I just started on the second round of copy-editor-requested revisions for THE MIRK AND MIDNIGHT HOUR. Copy editors have this uncanny ability to store in their brain how many times I have used the word “peer.” Or “scuttle,” “scurry,” “tremulous,” “wild-eyed,” “huddle,” and “sidle.” How could I possibly have used those words any noticeable number of times? Also, evidently my characters raise their brows too much. Maybe people do raise their brows a lot—it’s such a convenient expression--but it gets annoying if you read about it too much in books.
Also I seem to have zero understanding of the uses of commas. It should be obvious when there’s a pause, but I don’t seem to have a feeling for it. The long-suffering copy editors must constantly place commas I’ve left out and delete commas I put in. Whoever is reading this—do you despise me because of my lousy comma-ing?
And it’s not just commas that I don’t know how to do. It has been two months since I’ve done any writing. First there was the move from Ontario, then there was the move into our new house, then there were a couple of weeks of vacation out to visit family. During that time I evidently forgot how to write.
The revisions came in the mail yesterday—a fat brown envelope with the entire three-hundred-something page MIRK manuscript printed out, liberally scribbled throughout with questions, comments and proofreader’s marks in different shades of pencil. My kind editor sent me my own colored pencil. Green. I looked at everything for a moment and then told myself I would work on it all day tomorrow because I was currently immersed in “Househunters International.”
However, this morning there were pieces of my house that absolutely demanded to be painted and people I absolutely needed to call up and chat with. Then, after I had worked on one chapter I happened to glance out the window. To my dismay, new-sprung weeds were rearing their hopeful green heads in my flowerbed. So I did a little weeding. Take that, weeds. Not among my lovely azaleas and butterfly bushes.
I went over a few more chapters. Suddenly I was hungry. Totally gut-wrenchingly starving. And not just for any old food. No indeed. I desperately needed chocolate chip cookies of my own making. So I made cookies. And as I was wielding the mixer, I noticed that the undersides of my cabinets had never been painted.
You can guess how I spent the next hour.
Another chapter. And I thought about how copy editors amaze me. I do so admire them and their skills. Therefore I wrote this.
May 24, 2013 A Moving Experience
It’s been a while since I’ve written, hasn’t it? In the past six weeks, we got our Ontario house ready to sell, sold our Ontario house, travelled to Aberdeen, Mississippi to buy a house, bought a house, packed up and moved lock, stock, and barrel, lived in a hotel for nearly a month, and finally, on Monday, moved into the Aberdeen house. And yesterday, we were REALLY moved in because I got all our books situated on bookshelves.
To me, that is the sign that you’ve truly settled in. Of course you have to make up beds and you have to hang up clothes and you have to put dishes in cabinets and groceries in the fridge. You have to do those things simply to exist. But getting your books comfy and established, each next to its friend volumes, means you’re ready to live your normal life again. The books we love kind of symbolize our personalities. When they’re displayed on the shelves, they proclaim—“Look! We’re here! Everyone who enters this house can look at us and know some deeply personal things about you. We share your views and are in your heart and in your mind.” They demonstrate that we are here to stay and have moved on psychologically.
It was sad to leave Canada. I loved my friends there and was fascinated by the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Toronto suburbs. My husband and I felt very urban as we cruised about on the subway. And we felt very nature-loving as we cruised the lakes of Algonquin Provincial Park in our canoe. The British spellings and word-pronunciations and Queen Elizabeth’s picture on coins were fun. I loved the sight of snow (maybe not shoveling it or driving in it) and the glorious autumns. I will miss so many things.
It was a freaky experience as my husband and I headed into familiar territory in Mississippi. It had been nearly five years and everything took on a dream-like quality. Memories drifted back slowly, but when I went to lunch with old and dear friends a couple days ago, it all felt perfectly natural—as if I’d never left.
Now that the books are on the shelf, I’m ready to be me again, only in Mississippi. I’m ready to write again.
April 22, 2013 Word Aversion
If “flagella” isn’t a dirty word, it ought to be.
And only pedophiles should utter the word “panties” when referring to underwear.
Word aversion is a strong reaction triggered by the sight, sound, and sometimes even the thought of certain words, according to an article I recently read. Professor Mark Liberman says that the disgust felt toward these words is “Not to the things that they refer to, but to the word itself.” According to him, moist is one of the very most hated words. The only time “moist” doesn’t bother me, is when it’s paired with the word cake. Then it sounds yummy. However, even though a synonym for “moist” is damp, damp cake sounds ghastly. Oh, those connotations!
One of the many reasons I never have, and never will, use curse words is that they’re so dad-gum ugly.
I questioned some of those near and dear to me and discovered that we have similar reactions to particular repulsive words. All of us dislike anything describing bodily functions. Now, possibly some of this is because of the things they refer to, but not all. For instance, there’s something unpleasant about the “p” sound, so that puke, putrid, p-e, p-o, and p—p are simply nasty words. (See, some of them I can’t even write. Were you able to supply the missing letters? Did you hate it?) Is it possible that these words have a touch of onomatopoeia? I had a terrible time coming up with euphemisms when I was toilet-training kids, because, for one thing, I can’t say the word potty. Even though we are shortly to move back to Mississippi, I am going to continue using the Canadian word for restroom—washroom. It simply has a better ring to it. However, the South has an excellent word for buttocks (awful word!)—hiney. Hiney is much nicer than most of the alternatives.
Here are some of the words that creep my kids out: slacks, slug, navel, suckle, bra, whatnot, cusp, thrust, goose pimple, spouse, bosom, globule, globular, pickle, breast, clam, nubile, ointment, and fudge. One son is averse to the word “tender/tenderly” as applied to feelings/actions/intentions. Once he mentioned it, I realized that I hate it too.
My husband winces at words often used incorrectly, such as irregardless and nucular.
My mother can’t stand stock, supposedly-meaningful phrases, like “go the extra mile” and “making a difference.”
I dislike jargon phrases that make me think people believe they’re cool and “in the know” when they use them. Some examples are “I want an open concept floor plan,” “I’m going to use product in your hair,” and “Choose the right pant for you.” Ick. Obviously I watch too much of certain shows on TV.
Then there’s wince-able names. I won’t mention any because someone reading this may have that particular name and we certainly don’t want anyone to know that they are wince-able.
Words have power. Aren’t they fun?
April 1, 2013 Visiting Savannah
We have just returned from Savannah, Georgia. I had never been there before, and I must say, it’s a fascinating place. It couldn’t be a more romantic Southern setting if it had been planned for that purpose, and it was the perfect time of year to experience it. The dogwood trees and azalea bushes were in full, perfect bloom, against a background of palmettos and Spanish moss.
Savannah is an old town (for the United States), so battles for both the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War were fought near there, and it oozes with history. Also, it’s on the coast, so there’s beautiful beaches plus interesting salt marshes and islands. There’s something awfully cool about islands, isn’t there? Some of the ones where people live can only be reached by boat, others by bridges. The downtown is gorgeous, full of beautiful old buildings, gorgeous old graveyards, and charming old churches. Sometimes I forget how many churches there are in the South. I love it! It’s also full of Southern accents and older ladies saying—yes!—“Have a blessed day.”
The old part of town also looks haunted. I think it has a lot to do with the Spanish moss; trailing, misty-gray drapery hanging from every tree cannot help but conjure up phantoms. They have nightly ghost tours, where they drive tourists past buildings (one of them carries people in a hearse) and relate stories of hauntings. Unfortunately, true ghost stories rarely have the fun detail that made-up ones do, but the tours are still chilling. Supposedly there are bodies buried all over the place beneath Savannah. Old burial plots were never moved, simply built-over, and often yellow fever victims were interred in their yards. According to one Savannah cable installer, when they are burrowing sideways beneath buildings in order to lay cable, they are supposed to take note of the sound of the drill moving through bodies. He says that when the drill hits a body, it makes a noise as of a wooden spoon caught in a garbage disposal. According to him, he hears that sound very often.
March 19, 2013 WHO talks funny?
Hey, y’all! (That’s my southern-ness coming out.)
I love accents. Because it’s a suburb of Toronto, and big cities (especially in Canada) always attract immigrants (myself included), the area I live in is full of people who speak English in their own interesting ways. Probably my favorite accent is Scottish. When I hear someone speak with a Scottish brogue I listen as hard as I can.
I don’t think I have much of an accent, especially as far as thick Southern ones go, but I must have some, because people here in Ontario, even if they don’t know anything about me, will ask if I’m from the South. This pleases me, because I love Southern accents. To me they sound soft and light-hearted and interesting. I also loved it when I first moved to Mississippi and heard locals use words and phrases I had only read in books—“fixin’ to,” “yonder,” “kin,” “He like to died,” “fetch it right quick,” “tote it.”
Nowadays I find myself feeling defensive about people’s attitudes toward the South. I was watching a talk show which was being taped in Boston, and someone called in with a strong Southern accent. The audience collectively burst into laughter and their responses to the caller were rude and condescending. To them, if you have a strong Southern accent, you’re either stupid or mean or both.
In STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD, I had to decide how much dialect to have my southern characters use. Too much dialect (such as with the moles in the Redwall series by Brian Jacques or in ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN) makes it difficult to read. But in order to build characters, everyone can’t speak exactly the same, and their way of speaking is part of their personality. The majority of reviews for STRANDS have been positive. However, one of the big name reviews was bad, and the main thing the reviewer objected to was the character Anarchy’s dialect. They said it was straight from “Uncle Remus,” and they mocked the fact that she said “Have a blessed day.” Well, guess what? Anarchy’s conversation, wording, grammar, and cadence actually comes straight from several elderly African Americans I knew well in Mississippi. And I object to the reviewer disparaging the way little old ladies in small town, rural Mississippi speak. To me, they (and Anarchy) sound charming and full of character and old-fashioned, Southern wisdom. Their way of speech is disappearing and, since the young people have their own vernacular, it will be a shame when it’s completely gone.
I can’t be sure if people think such actions are not real, or that maybe they shouldn’t be real. I suppose reviewers who dislike it don’t know anyone who speaks like that. I suppose the people with whom they rub shoulders were all raised in similar neighborhoods to theirs and were educated at the same sort of places. And so, they think the only legitimate way a character should speak is with the King’s Good English. However, a lot of people think differently. The African American young people with whom I’m Facebook friends, love to write in dialect. To them it’s part of their heritage and culture. True, every English speaker does need to know how to use grammar correctly in order to advance themselves in school and at work, but when they’re relaxing around friends, why can’t they use whatever familiar talk they choose?
Just as Stella said in her guest blog, about society implicitly thinking there’s only one legitimate way a woman should be, those who disparage others (even characters in a novel) because of their speech, are refusing to validate a great many people. Anarchy’s type of dialect, besides plainly and simply being realistic, is part of lots of Southerner’s characters. And they are valid people who deserve to be recognized. So—
Have a blessed day!
March 11, 2013 Thanks Gabrielle
Somewhere in the past ten years, since I am a simple country librarian, mother, writer, I missed out on the new, exciting, valuable world of literary bloggers. Luckily for me, Gabrielle Carolina, proprietress of the wonderful Mod Podge Bookshelf, read a galley of STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD, and enjoyed it enough to contact me and offer to host a blog tour. I was delighted, even though I had no idea what a blog tour was. I was a little worried about what my part was supposed to be, and how I would do it, since I’m not the most computer literate and net-connected person around.
Gabrielle made it easy. She coordinated a great group of bloggers, let me know exactly what I needed to do, and rounded it all out with a nice tour graphic and smooth blog tour. She had an innovative idea for my Top Ten post on her site and it was so good to work with her. I am now a staunch fan of YA literary blog
March 3-9 THE STRANDS BLOG TOUR
STRANDS Blog Tour First Stop -- March 3 -- TheModgePodge Bookshelf
STRANDS Blog Tour Stop 2 -- March 4 -- The Midnight Garden
STRANDS Blog Tour Day 3 -- March 5 -- Stories and Sweeties
STRANDS Blog Tour Fourth Stop -- March 6 -- Reading Teen
STRANDS Blog Tour continues -- March 7 -- Kelsey Sutton
STRANDS Blog Tour Day 6 -- March 8 -- Chapter by Chapter
STRANDS Blog Tour Last Stop -- March 9 -- Icey Books
Feb. 26, 2013 People's Houses
I’ve always been a bit obsessed with houses—their decorating, atmosphere, personality, and history. I’m a great fan of HGTV because I’m so very nosy about the rooms people live in. This sounds creepy, but I admit that I love it when I go for walks at twilight, before people draw their drapes, so I can peek in (from the sidewalk, naturally—I’m not that creepy) to lighted rooms. I don’t want to see the people—I just want to see their house. This makes me a stickler for closing my own curtains the moment the light starts to turn dim, because I expect there are other people like me, and it makes me uncomfortable.
Even when I was a little girl, I would draw house plans and cut pictures of rooms from magazines, deciding what I liked or didn’t like, what I appreciated, but wouldn’t want to live with. It’s a good thing it costs nothing to decorate in your head because it seems as if I do that all the time.
I often have detailed dreams where I’m walking through houses I’ve never seen in waking life. Sometimes I’m moving into that house, sometimes I’m cleaning them, sometimes I’m just looking. When I wake up, often I could draw the floorplan of the “dream” home.
They say you can tell what a person is like by their bookshelves, and it should stand to reason that you could tell it even more by their homes. However that often isn’t true. For one thing, even though it’s hard for me to imagine, naturally there are people whose houses really don’t matter to them, as long as they do the job and are reasonably comfortable. Then too, I’ve been in beautifully decorated, very expensive, perfect houses where everything matches exactly, which I truly admired, but which look as if no humans live there. They might as well be a museum or a hotel lobby. That’s one of the problems with pictures in house magazines—so often the home owners are too scared to show their personalities or how they really live. Their houses show more the taste of their decorator than anything about the owners’ lives. And who needs to be creative if money is no object in the decorating? You could just buy and buy and wouldn’t have to make choices. And, just as people with too much money often don’t show their personalities as much, those with too little can’t show it much either.
There are also some folks who seem to be paralyzed by the idea of decorating. Maybe they’re afraid their taste is bad or they’re scared of expressing themselves or leaving themselves open to criticism. Those people will often buy an entire roomful of matching furniture (including pictures, knickknacks and rug) straight from the showroom floor. Or they’ll watch decorating shows on TV and copy them exactly. That way they’ll know they’ll be safe. But where is the fun in that? Besides, styles change from month to month, and you don’t want your decorating to be too dated too fast, since most of us can’t afford to change everything often.
I don’t have particularly good taste, but I know what I like. I like homes with a soul and a story to tell. I like homes best that open their arms wide to welcome strangers with their true selves, where personality glows in every corner. I like houses with squashy, misshapen homemade pillows, school projects spread on the floor, flowers stuffed in jam jars, and bits of left-over celebratory crepe paper still stuck to the ceiling. I like houses with way too many family pictures and books lying about and children’s splashy watercolors framed above the couch. I like houses where some things don’t match exactly, but are loved anyway, probably because pieces of me don’t match exactly either. There’s nothing stingy or mincing or too careful in the houses I like best. Often these houses aren’t the most spotless. I once saw a plaque hanging in a very messy kitchen that read, “My house is clean enough to be healthy, but messy enough to be happy.” (Although I fear that particular house might have erred a bit on the unhealthy side.) Mary Randolph Carter, who is the author of Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life, says, “Clutter is the poetry of our homes. It is the intimate view that is not always perfect—a few dishes in the sink, books piled next to the bed. A lived-in room exudes comfort and warmth.”
I hope that’s the kind of house I have. I hope people feel comfortable and accepted in it. It’s full of knickknacks that are on display simply because, by golly, they make me smile. Someone recently asked, “Is that a fox on your window seat?” And I was so delighted that they noticed that there is a fox statue on my window seat. Because I like it.
Many how-to-decorate articles in magazines or shows on TV wouldn’t agree with me—they would say that rooms that show people’s personalities are too “taste specific”—but I guess that’s my theory of good decorating. My theory is that if you decorate your house the way you really like it and the way that reflects your personality, then the people who like you will also enjoy your home.
Feb 21 LOOK WHAT JUST CAME IN THE MAIL
Feb. 16, 2013 (Untitled)
Even though I have never read an Ernest Hemingway book that I liked, I've got to hand it to him, he can pick a mean title. For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, Hills Like White Elephants, The Snows of Kilimanjaro—all sound so profound and euphonious and interesting. There is a talent to naming books.
The name Strands of Bronze and Gold was simply given to me. I really didn’t even consider anything else. The words were pretty, plus it alluded to colors of hair, so that was nice for a “Bluebeard” retelling.
For the past couple of weeks I have been considering titles for my third book because I have to have some way to refer to it, other than “My Third Book.” For a while there it was going to be called Twisted Trees, but then I made some major changes and that no longer fit. The other titles in the series are Strands of Bronze and Gold, and The Mirk and Midnight Hour, so I wanted some some parallelism with those books, and also, possibly, some alliteration. I seem to go for long titles, even though the current trend in YA literature is one-word names. For the past few years, everything seems to be named Fire, Twisted, Spin, Torn, Deeper, Bent, Bright, etc. One-word titles have a certain punch, but when three-fourths of the books on the shelves have one-word titles, it gets a bit cliché.
Not long ago, I thought of two very nice names for this novel, but sadly, both of them were ripped away from me. First, I chose His Fearful Symmetry because, at one point, I quote William Blake’s poem, “The Tiger,” with the villain being likened to the tiger and with “thy fearful symmetry” being one of the lines. Then, lo and behold, I saw that a popular new book just came out called Her Fearful Symmetry. It’s not exactly the same, but I was afraid I could not let me use that particular fabulous title. So disappointing. I was also considering The Madman’s Ghost. And then I saw that The Madman’s Daughter came out in January. Curses, foiled again.
It’s much harder to come up with book names than to come up with band names. Bands seem to be allowed to name themselves anything they want. Their names don’t have to make sense, they don’t have to reflect their music, they don’t have to have any kind of meaning whatsoever. That’s why you can call your band “Smashing Pumpkins” or “Pink Floyd” and no one bats an eyelash. My son’s friends had a band when they were in junior high called “Twisted Pants.” It was an excellent name. Unfortunately, book titles are not like that—there’s supposed to be some correlation between the title and the content, even if it’s nebulous.
Most of Hemingway’s titles came from quotes, so that is one good way to come up with them. While I’ve been seeking the recent title, my husband Ted looked up quotes for me. He came up with a whole list of them from Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry—A Midnight Dreary, Terrors Never Felt Before, Strange Impending Doom...Awfully good when you consider that he’s never read one of my books and doesn’t know what this current one is about.
All my kids and my husband were making suggestions. Ted does know that this book includes a return of the Bluebeard character from Strands, and so he came up with a fun one—The Bluebeard of Unhappiness. So clever (if you know what it alludes to), but I think not.
At long last, with my family’s help, I’ve finally settled on one (unless my agent or editor don’t like it). It contains some nice parallelism to the other two titles. It is—ta da—
The Place of Stone and Shadow.
Jan. 27, 2013 Native Land
“Breathes there the man with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land!” That’s by Sir Walter Scott, who was Scottish. He loved Scotland.
We just got back from a fleeting trip to Buffalo, NY, which is just across the border from us here in Ontario, Canada. And it’s so funny—I never thought of myself as particularly patriotic—mainly because I took where I lived for granted—but nowadays when I cross the border into the United States, something just feels right about being there.
It’s funny because we love living in Canada, and of course it is so very much like the United States. It’s not like moving to Tasmania. American animals look like Canadian animals. Although, come to think of it, Canadian squirrels do look a little different. Some of them are black, for one thing. Cute. Anyway, it’s not like they have wild giraffes roaming about up here, or anything. But
And here the main additional language is French instead of Spanish. And, of course, they use the metric system. And milk comes in bags. And they spell things the British way—centre, colour, cheque, etc. And salad bars at restaurants are rare. And they call electricity “hydro.” And garbage disposals are rare. And napkins are sometimes called “serviettes.” And Canadian Oreos, Wheat Thins, and chocolate kisses don’t taste right. But other than that…
So much is what you consider your home place. I look at other immigrants here and wonder how they feel and what they miss. I remember Enrico (a guy from Ted’s work), who told us, “I am an Italian; I am not a Canadian,” even though he intended staying in Canada forever. Canada prides itself on being a “mosaic” of cultures rather than the “melting pot,” which is what the United States calls itself. So there are giant neighborhoods of Chinese and Indians and Portuguese and Italians and others, many of whom don’t really consider themselves Canadian. Maybe their children will consider themselves Canadian.
Many Americans like to make jokes about Canada, and there are also plenty of Canadians who scorn the United States. I have heard “I could never live in the States,” from several people. And I will ask why, because I’m curious as to the reason they’re so emphatic, why they act as if to live in the United States would be a fate worse than death. It’s odd when so many people all over the world want so badly to emigrate to the U.S. Somehow, though, a lot of Canadians have got it into their heads that the United States is a country swamped with ghastly politics, rabid racists, terrible healthcare which only the very rich can afford, people litigating, criminals waving handguns, elderly people and tiny children starving on every street corner, swaggering war-mongers, schools where kids are constantly being murdered, and crime so rampant that no one can ever feel safe. Someone even once told me, “Oh, the American taxes. I could never afford to pay the taxes there.” Hah! I could see the skeptical haze in her eyes when we told her that taxes of every kind are FAR higher up here than in the U.S. Because she knew what it’s really like in the U.S., whatever we might claim.
Since I’m concerned about this warped image of our country, and because Canada and the United States share so much history and have always been such good friends, I can’t help trying to set the record straight. I try to explain that politicians are politicians wherever they happen to live, that nearly everything is cheaper when you cross the border into the United States, that you have to compare apples to apples—a crime-ridden neighborhood in downtown Toronto is much like a crime-ridden neighborhood in downtown NYC, that the only starving children are those with whacko, abusive parents, and that by far the vast majority of schools are safe places. And the skeptical haze clouds their eyes…Because they know what it’s really like in the U.S., whatever I might claim. And because they want to believe that Canada is superior. Maybe that’s what we all want to believe about our own and native land. And maybe that’s not so bad.
Canada is a beautiful country full of wonderful people, but so is the United States, and we’re very similar. One thing that I will admit is indeed superior in Canada is the money. Loonies and toonies (one and two-dollar coins) are a very good idea. And in our part of Ontario they have this cool tradition where people are constantly putting stuff they don’t want anymore, on the curb for whoever wants to pick it up and take it home. We got some decent bikes (only needed a little work) that way. So many things get so nicely recycled this way.
Anyway, every once in a while, Ted and I simply must dash over the border to our own, our native land—to eat at an American chain restaurant like P.F. Changs or Olive Garden, and to buy American Oreos, Wheat thins, and chocolate kisses. Because it just feels right over there.
Jan. 17, 2013 STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER
Lately it seems as if every YA book I’ve read has featured a hard-hitting, tough heroine, who always has an obnoxious comeback. I was discussing this with my daughter Stella Day Nickerson, who happens to be a fabulous writer, and she had a great many insights. I asked her to be a guest blogger for me today. She sent me the following:
When I was about nine or ten, I thought that I was sharp and smart, but that I could be mean sometimes. I thought I came up with witty putdowns.
In the next few years I became more self-aware and realized that none of this was true. I never came up with witty putdowns; I just thought of myself as the sort of person who would. I wasn’t even a little bit aggressive, and while I could be thoughtless I was never particularly mean. I was, in fact, a quiet girl who read and daydreamed a lot, and that other personality was just another daydream. But why in the world, you might ask, would a little girl want to be rude and mean when she’s not naturally inclined to it?
Obviously, I wanted to be a Strong Female Character.
You know the Strong Female Character. She’s confident, she’s competent. She’s the best sword fighter or gunslinger or archer or martial artist in the kingdom. She’s terse and tough and speaks her mind. She snaps and snarls and puts people down with her sharp wit. She can be a well-written, interesting character, but when poorly developed she is not only a bit of a jerk, her jerkiness is upheld as a standard to us all and just part of what makes her so wonderful. She was a common heroine in the books I read growing up.
I think I know where the drive for Strong Female Characters comes from—it’s a reaction to another female archetype. C.S. Lewis, discussing how the changing fashion in the most desirable type of woman can drive society in unhealthy ways, describes this sort of woman as “an exaggeratedly feminine type, faint and languishing, so that folly and cowardice, and all the general falseness and littleness of mind which go with them, shall be at a premium…”* She’s the heroine of those old black-and-white melodramas—a female who faints at the drop of a hat and squeaks “oh no” at the villain without actually doing anything to stop him.
Understandably, many modern folks want girls and women to know that they don’t have to be faint and languishing. It is interesting to note, though, that Lewis thought that the ideal of a woman as silly and powerless was passé in 1942. Nowadays the “ideal” heroine is much closer to the Strong Female Character. We praise writers for coming up with Strong Female Characters and call for even more of them, and the implicit message is: “This is the best type of woman to be.” And if that’s true, the best type of woman is one who has all of the most negative characteristics associated with men.
So I’m telling you what I learned soon after I realized I was not and was never going to be a Strong Female Character—to be feminine or ladylike or even girly is not bad. Being interested in relationships is not bad. Being gentle is not bad. In fact, men and women everywhere could use some more gentleness.
To the extent that we’re talking about fictional characters rather than real people, the most interesting characters are active—they do things, which drives the story forward. Besides that, we like our characters to have admirable strengths. In this sense, being clever or diplomatic or kind are strengths just as interesting (and in many cases more interesting) than being good at fighting. We also like characters with weaknesses, and there are all kinds of interesting weaknesses that would keep a fictional woman from being a Strong Female Character.
I suppose what I’m saying, in the end, is that you can have a strong female character who is not a Strong Female Character. A woman or girl doesn’t have to be un-feminine to be admirable. There is more than one acceptable type of woman, and more than one kind of strength.
*This is in The Screwtape Letters. He goes on to say “At present we are on the opposite tack. The age of jazz has succeeded the age of the waltz, and we now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys. Since this is a kind of beauty even more transitory than most, we thus aggravate the female’s chronic horror of growing old…” Unhealthy female body image issues have been around for a while.
Jan. 5, 2013 Life and the audio version of STRANDS
The new year has begun. I have many goals and hopes for 2013, both for myself and for my family. There’s so many things I want for everybody. Something, of course that I’m really looking forward to, is the day (March 12—yay!) when STRANDS first comes out. I have a hard time blowing my own horn; I really get embarrassed. But I do think STRANDS is a very good book. I wish I had never read it, so I could read it for the first time. I’m quite sure I would love it.
The man who directed the audio edition of the book, Tony Hudz, wrote the following about it (I’ve included some of the business stuff as well, just because it’s interesting:
Hi, Jane. By way of introduction, my name is Tony Hudz and I'm going to have the pleasure of directing the audio edition of your book next week. And oh, what a pleasure it is going to be. Jane, I love this book. It is sweet, it is sultry, it is romantic and terrifying – the Bluebeard story is a great tale, and you've done a marvelous job retelling and reframing it. This is gonna be fun!
I always like to check with my authors for any potentially problematic pronunciations – I've encountered very few so far, just those below I want to double-check with you. The challenge here, as so often, is how much to Anglicize the foreign words in the text (note trompe l'oeil in this regard). I think that, given the Mississippi locale, the main characters should speak clear English, at the same time lapsing into clear French as required. I'm not sure that an overall French accent is going to help M. Bernard. Also, as world-weary/jaded/evil as he needs to be, I kindasorta feel his voice should reflect his attempt to assimilate into his society? Or: would you prefer to have him display a subtle French accent (a little goes a long way in this medium)? Please give me your feeling on this. Sophia, I think, is straight ahead. Wing/Duckworth are nicely delineated in the text, so we have clear guidelines for them. It will be of no small advantage that my reader speaks French. She'll be able to give me the texture I want and keep me honest on the pronunciations.
And, when he was finished with the production,Tony sent an email with “Bernard es finis” as the subject line, and the following:
And what a relief. Rotter got what he deserved. We're done, Jane. And I'm so pleased to have been a part of this project. Something I underappreciated in the beginning was just how well you captured the language and phrasing and cadence of the time. It gave my reader fits now and then, but as I'm an old person and have read a lot of period pieces before, I was able to direct her pretty easily as to where the phrasing/timing should go. You did a wonderful job of setting this in the 19th century and keeping it there; no modern phrases or stylings snuck in that I'm aware of. And a little thing, perhaps, but one that contributed so much to the book's veracity – the use of archaic fabrics. Bombazine? Been a long, long time since I heard that word. I hope you find a way/desire to keep these people going. How will they fare in the cataclysm that's about to descend upon them? As she's a Yankee – she's going to be pushed and pulled something fierce between her old familial and new nuptial alliances. If possible, I'd love to be part of the continuing adventure.
Dec. 27, 2012 Two Movies and Perspective on Culture
Last week we went to both “Lincoln” (I hope Daniel Day-Lewis gets an Oscar) and “Les Miserables” (too many too-close-ups of faces, too erratic camera work, and I prefer musicals where every word is not sung because when there’s no normal speaking I can’t ever forget that it’s not real—still worth seeing, though). Of course these are just my ‘umble opinions and both movies got me thinking…So much of what we are, is relative to the culture we live in. Cultures are social constructs made up by people as a basis for how to live. We think we really think our attitudes, opinions, and tastes, but actually our moldable little brains have been influenced by what we’re used to, who we hang around with, who is held up to us as role models, what time period we live in, etc. I’m sure sociologists study this constantly.
People nowadays can’t believe that any decent, intelligent individuals could ever have supported the Evil Institution of slavery, but a great many have, throughout the centuries. And part of the reason that more decent, intelligent individuals were not more horrified by it, was that they were used to extreme class systems, with, supposedly, everyone deposited in their “proper” place--the wretched poor at the bottom and the nobility (or its equivalent) at the top. While the very indigent in 1800’s Europe might not be legally owned, in general they were more likely to starve, be homeless, and clothed in rags than were African American slaves. The good people of the world wouldn’t wield whips or purposely starve or rape others, but still, to them the fact that some people were in a miserable state was simply the accepted order of things. To them, it simply wasn’t true that “all men are created equal.”
So much depends on where you live. When we first moved to Mississippi it was interesting that the locals still spoke of the Civil War as The War—and to the white folks, the Union soldiers were the Bad Guys. Historian Shelby Foote considered President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to be two authentic geniuses of The War. When Foote stated this opinion to one of General Forrest’s granddaughters, she replied, after a pause, “You know, we never thought much of Mr. Lincoln in my family.”
And then, when we moved to Canada, the British were the Good Guys in the American Revolutionary War and the colonists were the Bad Guys. Benedict Arnold, is considered a hero here, and the War of 1812, which, in the USA we barely touch on in history classes, is a really big deal. If I had ever thought about it, I would have realized that these attitudes were natural for their setting, but I’d never thought about it before.
And then there’s taste in decorating and music and clothes and literature. We think our preferences are intrinsic and come from within, but they simply aren’t. I realized this when I first began to strip the hundred-years’-worth of wallpaper at our house in Aberdeen. At first I hated the early-1900’s paint colors that were revealed, but gradually I started to think, That mustard yellow is actually kind of bright and cheery. I ended up liking the colors. And every kid in the world has laughed at the stylish clothes their parents wore as teenagers.
In writing, I try to balance modern beliefs and sensibilities with what would have been common thinking in the time period I’m writing about. Sometimes it’s hard because I want to be true to the times, but I don’t want to offend modern sympathies. A teenage daughter of slave-owners (although the term “teenage” didn’t appear in a written publication until 1921) would have simply considered slavery to be a natural part of her life. However, I believe that any thoughtful, sensitive person back then would have at least questioned it, even if they had squashed their doubts.
It’s something we all need to be mindful of, in two different ways: First, we don’t want to be blown about by every changing wind of opinion. We need anchors of abiding truths and morals. What’s the saying—first we abhor, then tolerate, then embrace? Anyway, we don’t want to do that. Second, we need to weigh all things carefully so we can know that what we really believe is right and wrong actually is right or wrong. That way we can continue to stand up for the right no matter what the rest of the world thinks.
In both “Lincoln,” and “Les Miserables,” as in life, it takes truly enlightened individuals to see through the glass brightly.
At least that’s my opinion.
Dec. 22, 2012 Another Christmas Memory
Another Christmas memory mind photograph (or maybe it’s a home movie):
The family room looks darker and richer and more mysterious because the Christmas tree is in place. It has an old tablecloth for a tree skirt and is draped with silver tinsel icicles which the boys drop on in clumps and which the girls carefully place in single strands, and which always somehow get scattered around the house and tangled in the vacuum cleaner (as Easter grass does at Easter time). Also hanging are our ragtag assortment of ornaments—Paula’s deer ornament, Diane’s green elf (which I accidentally ended up with—Sorry, Diane, if you read this—maybe I’ll give it back someday), my gold elf (which sadly fell in the Christmas tree base water one year and dissolved), and lots of glass balls that were pretty much disposable since we were so bad at putting them away carefully each year and since our cats sometimes climbed the trunk and knocked them off to shatter.
I love that tree and it is my favorite interesting place to play. Sometimes I make a pillow and blanket nest in the corner behind it and lie there to read or write, scrunched beneath the lowest boughs. I can look up into my creepy, big-nosed, distorted reflection in the balls and be surrounded by the piney scent. Sometimes I crush needles between my fingers to breathe it in with extra potency. I also make a doll’s house of the gifts. I don’t set up the presents in squares to make blocky rooms; instead I arrange caves and chambers and staircases out of whatever cubbyholes the packages are already positioned in. I add tiny plastic furniture from my doll’s house and that is where my beloved Liddle Kiddle dolls live during the month of December. Sometimes they bravely climb the great tree and camp out on the branches. My Liddle Kiddles love December.
Dec. 15, 2012 Christmas Memories
When I was little, my dad had a camera but very seldom used it. Therefore, until I had school pictures taken, I don’t really know what I looked like. In fact, when I needed a baby picture of myself for something in school, my mother said, “Take the one of Paula. You looked a lot alike.” And so I took the baby picture of my big sister, even though she had dark curly hair and I was told I was a bald baby. Anyway, because of the dearth of photographs, I don’t believe we have a single image of Christmases before I was a teenager. Which was sad, because we had lovely Christmases. So I have to come up with pictures in my mind.
I am sitting on the counter while Mama mixes together her spicy cookies in the yellow Pyrex bowl. It must be the day we put up the Christmas decorations because that is the day Mama makes these. My favorite part to nibble is before she adds the flour. (I realize now that this mixture is only sugar, eggs and shortening, which is pretty disgusting to eat, but I loved it then.)
She rolls out the dough and I use the tin cookie cutters to create stars, Christmas trees, snowmen, and Santas. The air smells of nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon. When they cool, we ice them yellow and blue and green and pink—no matter how much red food coloring we put in, it refuses to go red. All the shades are pastels, and consequently our Santas seem more Easter-Bunny-esque than Santa-esque. We sprinkle on too many sugary sprinkles and those hard little silver BB thingies that break your teeth. We try to be artistic. All of us fail at that, except for Paula. She is the artistic one.
The cookies sit on a plate while our favorite Christmas record—The Pete King Chorale—plays “Mary’s Little Boy Child” (listen to it here) and “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” We put up the manger scene, the glass angels holding the letters N-O-E-L, the Santa Claus candleholder, and the broken snowman. Paula adds tinsel garlands and a cloud of angel hair to the top of the piano. Paula is the artistic one. (Angel hair is made of spun glass. Consequently, no matter how soft and fluffy it looks, DO NOT put it in your pockets because you think it will be warm and cozy against your hands.
It is so fun to be allowed to grab as many cookies as I want (which is rare) in between the decorating. I grab a lot of them, and no cookies I have eaten since have tasted better.
I still bake those cookies, but only for myself, because I make them with honey and whole wheat flour, sans icing, and no one else seems to want them. I make them in my grandmother’s bowl. I don’t remember her mixing up cookies in it, but I do remember her kneading bread dough in it. It’s bigger than my mother’s bowl so I can make more cookies. And they’re mine, all mine.
The smell of my cookies baking brings it all back to me.
Dec. 8, 2012 Christmas Time
I freely admit it—in fact, I brag about it: during December, I am at my sappiest and most sentimental. And my tacky side rubs shoulders with my tasteful side because of beloved traditions.
This time of year I tune my car radio to the station that plays non-stop Christmas. There’s been some really horrible holiday songs written and sung in the last twenty years, but I keep listening, even though I cringe sometimes. Of course I also feel delicious shivers when listening to The Messiah and “Ave Maria” and carols sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
I take in every made-for-TV holiday movie I can find, and Christmas would not be Christmas if I didn’t watch “The Grinch” (cartoon version) at least once. This dates back to pre-video days, when it was one of the highlights of the season, along with “Rudolph,” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” These aired just once a year. Pure magic, especially when paired with Jiffy-pop.
During December it is The Law that I read only Christmas books. (Except this week when I absolutely have to read and work on revisions to MIRK.) I re-read the Christmas chapters in Little Women, Little Men, and the Little House books (evidently the word “little” in the title is a requirement), even though I practically could recite them by heart. I also have about five books titled something like Favorite Christmas Stories, which I devour cover to cover. I even read paperback Christmas romances, and am currently working on Brides of Christmas. Pretty awful, but as long as I read it in the recliner next to the lit Christmas tree, with my snow-scene/instrumental-carol dvd playing on TV, smelling evergreen needles and wrapped in a fluffy afghan crocheted by my mother, I don’t mind how awful it is. Of course, I have learned to be careful not to check out the too “adult” romances. I was shocked the first time I stumbled on one of those—I hadn’t realized the market for mixed bodice-ripping and Santa Claus. I am far too innocent for such things and had to stop reading it straightway.
Since I was ten years old, I have always written a Christmas story each holiday season. They’re not publishable. They’re for my eyes only. I don’t polish them and usually don’t finish them. But they’re full of beautiful descriptions, snow, cliches and sentimentality.
Banished to a drawer, as it is every year, is the “witch” tree ornament that, one Christmas, my kids decided was evil and had caused the toppling of our tree. (She’s actually a Spanish lady, but she does look witch-like with her black lace dress and mantilla.) The red dinosaur and stuffed shark from my children’s childrenhood still grace our tree, as well as the mummy and zombie ornaments Gabe and Garrett gave me last year. Also the glittery elf which I dug out of the neighbor’s trash can when I was five years old.
Silly ornaments hang beside delicate, iridescent European blown glass balls. Because of course I adore the elegant, tasteful parts of Christmas as well—church services, carol singing, beautifully-wrapped packages, readings from the Book of Luke, anything Victorian, decorations of evergreen and candlelight, twinkling white glimmers and frosted red berries. However, I also relish the crowds at the mall (strange, I know), all the Santa Claus stuff, pictures by Thomas Kinkade, penguins, badly-wrapped packages, construction paper chains with glue drips showing, and colored lights piled haphazardly on bushes beside front doors.
See—tacky rubbing shoulders with tasteful. It’s all part of the season, and I absolutely wallow in it.
Dec. 1, 2012 Let it snow
The woods were “lovely, dark, and deep,” when I went for my walk this morning. We had our first big snowfall a few days ago. I keep waiting to not be excited about the snow, since this is now our fourth winter in Canada, but I still love it. Maybe not so much when I’m shoveling it or driving in it, but nevertheless…I knew that it had snowed the moment I awoke that morning because of the strange, gray-white light in our bedroom. I jumped out of bed and looked out the window, and everything was changed, coated in white, like a miracle. I remember when Gabe, who talked very early, looked out the window on the first snowfall he could remember, and said, “milk.”
The conservation area near our place is wonderful. It has trails wandering everywhere, hills so that there are delightful lookouts, a variety of trees, little streams meandering, and a lake at the bottom. This morning, I put on my coat and hat and Grinch-skin gloves (you can guess their color and texture), and went for my walk. The snow was about four-inches deep, so it was pristine, and not too hard to step through. White clumped on the evergreens and dusted the dark trunks of the deciduous trees. Tiny icicles glittered at the tips of the birches, and they looked like dreams. I thought of how, in the “Twelve Dancing Princesses,” the princesses walk through forests of gold (which would be autumn), silver (which would be winter), and diamond (which would also be winter). Ted’s boss once said, “In winter this is good country for the colorblind.” He meant, of course, that everything seems gray and white and black. Well, something in me likes gray and white and black. At least sometimes.
The tracks in the snow were fun to study, and to guess which animal made them. I have seen squirrels, raccoons, a weasel-like creature, ducks, geese, and herons there. Also many dogs that people insist on taking off their leashes, even though there is a sign saying not to do that. I like dogs, but I don’t like it when they come bounding out of nowhere and jump on me with muddy paws.
I was saying my prayers by a brook, so that I could hear the water gurgle as I did so, when I felt something odd touch my face. I opened my eyes, and big fat feathery flakes were drifting down on me like a blessing. If I listened close I could hear it shoosh as it fell. I stood there and watched and listened until my feet got too cold. I wonder if, for Robert Frost, it wasn’t that he had promises to keep and miles to go that made him leave the woods, so much as it was cold feet.
What is it about snow falling that is so haunting? I guess it’s just that it conjures up those “memories I can’t remember,” as I mentioned in an earlier entry. It also conjures up memories I do remember. There was the time when my family lived in Southern California, and my dad drove us up into the mountains just so I could see real snow. And the time, as a teenager, that I and a group of friends decided to go snowshoeing in the canyon without snowshoes. I believe that was the coldest I have ever been. In Mississippi, our poor, snow-deprived children reveled when an inch or two fell every three or four years. They would make tiny, raggedy snowmen, covered with the dead leaves that the balls picked up as they were rolled. One June, when we went on vacation up to the mountains, there was still snow on the ground. We were totally unprepared, but the kids put on their light jackets, with socks on their hands for mittens. We have a video of Bethany holding up soggy, drooping socks, and saying, “I can’t feel my handth.”
My favorite snowy memory, though, happened when I was in college, and a group of us went up to Sundance Lodge, in Utah. My future husband was in the group, but I hadn’t dated him yet. Anyway, somehow Ted and I went off alone for a walk in the woods. Snow was falling softly in the twilight. All the air was blue, and Ted and I spontaneously held hands. That was when I first thought I might be in love with him.
Nov. 23, 2012 Hey! I Cook, sort of
Is it a neurosis or a phobia when, no matter what occasional apparent success you may have in one area, you still always feel as if you’re a failure, so you’re scared to do it? I’m that way about cooking, and I wonder why.
It’s the day after (American) Thanksgiving. We had two American guests who wouldn’t have had a turkey dinner otherwise. I had fun setting a pretty table with crystal and china and a fall centerpiece. However, for me there’s never joy in preparing the feast. Instead I breathe a sigh of relief and think, Well, no one can say it’s not a Thanksgiving dinner. Except, maybe they can…True, yesterday I cut lots of corners—canned cranberries, frozen rolls and vegetables, instant mashed potatoes, boxed stuffing…Most years I do make rolls and vegetables and potatoes, but this year I’m busy with the MIRK revisions. Besides, even when I make things from scratch, I get the feeling that other people will think I did a bad job.
I’m amazed by people who toss in an extra pinch of this, or experiment with that, when they’re cooking. Or people who will try a brand new recipe when they have company coming for dinner, because they’re certain it will turn out delicious. I admire them; they’re artists, and they can make people so happy with their creations.
Maybe I feel so inadequate because, when my son was about eight years old, he asked his friend’s mother to give me cooking lessons. Or maybe it’s because I heard my mother-in-law shushing her daughter who was saying something about the meal they had just eaten at my house because I had entered the room. And I had no idea why. I tried to figure out what I had done wrong, but couldn’t think what it could be. Another time, a friend, who had just eaten a casual dinner with us (grilled cheese sandwiches, soup, carrot sticks—what’s strange about that?)—laughed and said, “You Nickersons and your food.” I could not imagine what was funny about it. Her husband, by the way, always picked up a hamburger to eat when he was invited to supper—and he would be eating the hamburger in front of us when they walked in the door! I guess He was afraid he would starve at our house.
So probably it’s this vague, unsure feeling that I won’t know if something is bad or good. That everyone else will know and judge, but I won’t.
Cooking should be so simple—you follow the recipe and it should turn out the same every time. I told my husband this, and, being the engineering/scientist-type guy he is, he disagreed. “Is it the exact same temperature? Have you bought the same brand of flour processed on the same day…” etc.
Anyway, one thing I know I make well is my candied pecans. (Actually I first got the recipe from a children’s magazine—simple enough for kids to make, so I can do it too.) Here’s the recipe:
3 ½ cups nuts 1 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon ½ tsp. salt
½ cup water ½ tsp. vanilla
Heat nuts in a 375 degree oven for five minutes, stirring once. Butter the sides of a two-quart pan. Combine sugar, cinnamon, salt, and water. Cook and stir mixture until it boils, then stop stirring. When it reaches softball stage, remove from heat. Beat by hand for one minute or until the mixture gets creamy. Add vanilla and warm nuts. Stir quickly to coat nuts, then turn out on buttered cookie sheet and separate nuts. Cool. Makes one pound.
And now, since Thanksgiving is over, no one can stop me from starting the Christmas season. It’s time to decorate for Christmas, and read Christmas books, and listen to Christmas music, and bake the Christmas treats which—guess what?—I really do believe I make yummily. So, hah!
Nov. 16, 2012 Sights Sounds and Smells
There’s something mesmerizing about flickering candlelight reflected in old silver. It raises memories I can’t remember—long ago lives, long ago times. Other things that awaken those tantalizing, haunting, impossible almost-memories—
Sights: staring into flames (fireplace, candles, campfires), evergreens at Christmastime, lightning flashing, falling snow, autumn foliage, when the world is washed pink with dawn, a radiant, full moon, red-gold sunsets, old graveyards with inscriptions on stones that bring tears, antique book bindings, ancient stone castles and churches, lighthouses on a rocky shore, clouds over the moon
Sounds: beautiful music (especially in a minor key, and particularly violin and cello), the ocean crashing on the shore, burbling, flowing creeks, rain on the roof, wind in the treetops or moaning around the eaves, the crackle and snap of burning logs, deep baritone voices of men (either speaking or singing), church bells, the sound of taps played at a funeral, wolves howling, owls hooting, distant train whistles
Smells: rain mixed with dust, sagebrush in the desert, vanilla, roses, lilacs, honeysuckle, violets, jasmine, mint leaves, whatever that smell is in the deep woods—rotting leaves and wood, I guess, cloves embedded in oranges, baking bread, baking spice cookies, roasting turkey (even though I’m a vegetarian). (I love the smell of chocolate, but it makes me hungry, rather than bringing up the feeling I’m looking for.)
Don’t know what senses these are-- the delicious light, shivery feeling of something mildly spooky, passages of scripture (especially Isaiah), some poetry (“The Listeners,” by Walter de la Mare, for example, or “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manly Hopkins),
Almost a dream, almost a memory.
Nov. 13, 2012 Songs of Children
Not long ago, the kids at church put on a musical program that I wrote and was in charge of. The three-year-olds, one at a time, recited the ten commandments, in their cute, lispy little voices—“Don’t lie,” “Don’t steal,” etc.—and the older kids mostly repeated scriptures. When they said their parts at the microphone, their parents leaned forward and were often mouthing the lines they’d heard so often, eager for their babies to do well.
I sat on my little chair next to the podium, where I could prompt them if they couldn’t remember their parts, and just looked at them and loved them. It all brought a tear to my eye. The kids had been sort of awful during practices, but for the actual performance, they sat on the edge of their seats watching for when they had to stand, all tense with wanting to do their very best for their parents, and when they sang, they indeed did their very best.
I was reminded of the time an African American friend was listening to a children’s music cd I was playing. She said, “Why do white kids sound like that when they sing?” I said, “Sound like what?” And she said, “Like little mice.” I had to admit that when white kids sing, they do usually sound softer and squeakier than when black kids do. My kids claimed that their black friends were born able to sing in harmony. I loved the musical school programs in Aberdeen, Mississippi. In our 95 percent African American schools, those kids REALLY got into the music. They danced and sang with so much gusto that it was catching, and all the audience would move with the beat.
But my darlings at church were amazingly sweet and warbled beautifully, if a tad more mousily. When the kids forgot their parts, I whispered the lines to them from my little chair, and I thought (tongue in cheek, of course), Am I like Satan, whispering into their ears? But I retorted to myself, No, instead I’m like the Holy Spirit. Church people have been accused of “brainwashing” children. The fact is that everything children hear is preaching in one way or another, whether good or bad, as their impressionable brains soak it up. We may not call the World’s agenda “preaching,” but that’s what it is. Every day of kids’ lives they are preached at from TV and at school and with their friends, telling them what they ought to want and do and say and believe. What’s important, what’s cool, what isn’t.
I once apologized and had to turn off the video that a friend had brought for my children to watch because of the profanity it contained. She said, “Jane, your kids hear that all the time at school.” In other words, they were used to it, so why not let them watch the video. “That’s why I don’t want them to hear it at home, presented like This is what’s good,” I told her. Maybe it’s my obsession with words, but bad language absolutely makes me cringe. And a recent BYU study showed that YA novels contain twice as much profanity as video games, and that the popular characters swear more than the unpopular. Again, this is what the World is presenting as what kids should strive for.
Nov. 1, 2012 Nature and Faeries and Castles
What is it that’s so satisfying about treading on fallen leaves and having them crunch in just the right way? Also walking on acorns and squishing them? Or stepping on rocks and having them click together in a perfect, rock-y clink?
Whenever I see acorns or spiky sweetgum balls or magnolia pods, I always want to make things out of them. They look as if they are specifically designed for crafts. Once, though, I made some lovely Christmas ornaments from sweetgum balls, and then all these bugs began crawling out of their holes. That’s how I learned it’s important to first bake natural, holey things in the oven in order to kill insects. So bug corpses fall out instead of living entities. I’ve helped kids create really cute, fuzzy owls from magnolia pods, and spiders from sweetgum balls. Turning acorns into heads with little hats and stick bodies is almost too obvious and cliché, but it’s irresistible. And, of course, the acorn caps also make useful rustic bowls for fairies and dolls. When I was a kid, I baked acorn cakes because I had read about them in a book. I gathered up the acorns, ground them with a rolling pin, washed them to flush out the acid, and then baked them. They weren’t exactly…bad…
Oh! Another wonderful nature craft we did at the Aberdeen library was inspired by the book, Fairie-ality by David Elwond, full of lovely, ethereal fashions formed by nature. (Speaking of “ethereal”--one of the nicest compliments I have ever received was when someone long ago described me that way. “Ethereal,” that is. Of course I was much younger and thinner then. Age and weight makes you earth-bound.) For the craft, I collected feathers, leaves, seeds, seashells, and all that sort of thing and helped the kids hot glue them into fairy fashions. It was unbelievable how well they turned out and how much fun they were. I had oyster (I think) shells from the beach in Alabama, which were the perfect shape for Victorian bonnets and flowing skirts.
I just looked up fairies on Pinterest. Some of it is a bit on the kitschy side, but there are still lots of delightful, tasteful, otherworldly things to look at. It makes me once again believe in the Good Folk.
I remember having no doubt that fairies and elves existed when I was little; it was an amazing, magical thing. Once, I got proof. My older sister Paula gave me letters written on rose petals by the fairy queen herself. They were enclosed in envelopes made of leaves, fastened by thorns. I wonder if she remembers?
Oct. 25, 2012 Halloween for me
Oh, you better be wary of things that are scary! It’s time to carve the pumpkins and decide just how frightening to appear for the few pitiful little groups of trick-or-treaters who ring the doorbell. We live in a neighborhood that should attract hundreds of kids, but last year I think we only got about five or six small groups. And we were Too Scary in our Victorian ghost costumes. I had no idea, but later, when I looked at the pictures we took, I realized how spooooky we were. I washed off my make-up when a little girl ran screaming back to her parents who waited on the sidewalk.
As an adult I understand that Halloween is a holiday with few redeeming features. There’s nothing uplifting about gruesome decorations, ghoulish costumes, and way too much candy. But oh! Halloween was FUN when I was a kid, and I can’t help but feel wistful about the steady demise of real, honest-to-goodness competitive trick-or-treating.
In the good old Halloween days, we would plan our costumes for weeks in advance, and nag our moms till they helped us put them together. Store-bought costumes in those days were not nearly as nice as the ones that can be purchased nowadays, so my mother usually sewed mine. The first costume I remember wearing was when I went as Pebbles Flintstone with a plastic bone in my hair. My older siblings took me around, and at one house a lady brought me inside to show her husband how cute I was. Nobody was worried about me entering a stranger’s house. I liked being shown off and my siblings were proud of me. Everything was cool.
In those days, no one that I knew thought that Halloween was evil. The churches even had spook alleys and Halloween carnivals. My friend’s vampire-clad father lay in a coffin and grabbed people who came too close at their church’s haunted house. We jumped and squealed and were not scarred for life. It was all in good fun, nothing was real, we were happy and safe. It was a delicious brand of scariness—kind of like fairy tales where you know everything ends happily and the bad guys won’t win.
So many churches (at least in Mississippi) now shy away from any mention of Halloween. One first-grader told me that Halloween is the “Devil’s Birthday.” How could anyone even know that? One church did have a “Noah’s Ark Party,” where the kids were supposed to dress up as animals, trying to tame things down. Of course one enterprising church in Columbus, Mississippi had a “Glimpse of Hell” spook alley, in order to “scare you straight” and raise a little money for their youth group on the side. The people who grabbed you were dressed as demons and there were a lot of torture scenes going on. I found the whole concept highly disturbing, I’m afraid.
Back in elementary school they let us wear our costumes to class. There was real competition then. One kid couldn’t decide whether to go as a devil or Superman, so he wore his devil costume under his Superman one. Did this reveal something about his character?
I, meanwhile, no longer wanted to be “cute.” I wanted to be scary. My mother would ask me, “Don’t you want to be a hobo? You could wear your dad’s pants and plaid shirt?” (By the way, I hear now that hobos are no longer politically correct, because they are belittling the plight of the homeless. Back then, such a thing would never have occurred to us—it was simply an easy-to-put-together costume.) I never wanted to be hobo. I wanted to be something elaborate and spooky that would cause my mother as much work as possible. Luckily she was a mother who could sew witch’s gowns and vampire capes. I wore plastic vampire teeth no matter how they cut into my gums or mummy wrappings no matter how they unraveled. But then came my fourth grade Halloween, when Linda M. came to school dressed as a Southern Belle in hoop skirt and ringlets. I looked at myself with my ratted hair, green skin, and fake, warty nose, and wished I was also Southern and belle-like. From then on I went as a fairy or shepherdess or princess.
On the big night in our sprawling neighborhood, we would run from house to house, eager to cover as much territory as possible. There were no cute plastic pumpkins for us to carry; instead we toted big, bulging pillowcases. I remember the excited feeling in my stomach after we’d rung the bell, waiting for the door to open. Who would answer it? Finally we’d actually know who lived in these houses we passed daily. “Trick or treat!” we’d yell. And then there’d be the little old lady who would give us an apple, the stingy person who’d drop in one of those nasty, chewy black- or orange-wrapped candies that you only see in October, or the generous person who showered in a handful of the good stuff. I was proud of always remembering to say, “Thank you.” Once there was the rumor that someone the next street over was giving out full-sized Hershey bars. We searched for that house, but never found it. It was just a beautiful legend.
Some people in our neighborhood went all-out decorating. We would shiver up walkways lined with ghosts and push our way through cobwebs. Sometimes Things would jump out at us from behind bushes. Aaah! Now we knew what caused the screams we’d heard earlier. At Dr. Brown’s house there was a table by the door, and on the table sat a tray of slimy liver and other organs. “He’s a doctor, so it’s probably real person’s insides,” we whispered. Our mothers told us this couldn’t be so, but still…
When our bags were almost too heavy to carry, we headed to one of our houses to sort candy. Sweet Tarts, Dum-Dums, Tootsie Rolls, Sugar Babies, Junior Mints, and Milk Duds each in their respective piles. We counted and traded. My dad always demanded a tax of a couple candy bars. We were greedy little things, and it was so fun that it was allowed one day out of the year.
Sure, the next morning we felt sick. Sure there were broken eggs splattered on the sidewalk and tattered toilet paper hung from the trees. But it was just one day.
Then came the sad days when there began to be Rumors of poisoned candy and razor blades in apples. Why would those little old apple-giving ladies do such a thing? The police even came to our school to warn us to have our parents check our candy at home before eating. The innocence was lost and the fun dimmed.
Nowadays, in many places, Halloween has been watered down into “Harvest Festivals.” But once there was a thrill in those dark streets and shadowy costumed groups, in one night when we could dress up as something different from what we really were, and the stomach- fluttering wait in front of strangers’ doors. I miss it.
Oh well, at least I can still read ghost stories by candlelight on Halloween night.
Oct. 15, 2012 Living in rural Mississippi
I’ve been thinking about the things I miss about Mississippi. Not that I’m not fond of Ontario, Canada. I am. I love the glorious seasons and the fact that we have neighbors who are Irish, French, Italian, and Portuguese. I’ve always been an Anglophile, since so many books I read and many movies I enjoy come from there. Therefore I have fun with all the British spellings —cheque, centre, etc ., Queen Elizabeth’s picture on money, the Scottish, Irish, and British accents, and their ways of doing things.
However, last week I called the Monroe County Courthouse in Aberdeen, Mississippi in order to get them to send us our absentee voting ballots. The sound of the lady’s accent on the phone made me suddenly homesick. Also, I’ve been watching “Hometown Renovation” which is an HGTV show they taped in Aberdeen a couple years ago and which I’ve only now been able to get on Youtube. Anyway, seeing those people and places was jarring; when I go outside right after watching it, I feel as if I should be walking out the door onto good ol’ Matubba street.
Of course my experiences were in small town Mississippi, populated mainly by people whose families had lived there for generations. I’m sure the way of life would have been different in a big city like Atlanta, full of transplants. Also, some of these things are more American small town, rather than Southern per se. Anyway, here are a few of the things I miss:
The accents, both the gentile white accent, the country white accent, and the black accents, some of which sound like a whole different language, if they’re talking fast. Also words they use that I had read in books but never actually heard in real life—kin, yonder, pone.
Hearing children say “Ma’am” and “Sir.” So much more polite and respectful. Also being called “Miss Jane.” It’s more familiar than Ms. Or Mrs., but still more respectful than first names from kids to adults.
Dressing up for everything. It took me a few times when we first moved there, of wearing jeans to baby showers, plays, fashions shows, etc., before I learned that this was not a casual society. The girls wear dresses and high heels to Ole Miss football games. (Not to mention pre-game parties in The Grove at Ole Miss, where awnings are lit with chandeliers and the food is served on silver.) I loved seeing china and crystal at dinners among friends. Life is made more gracious.
Cheese straws and real Southern Red Velvet Cake (neither of which I seem to be able to make myself)
The history. Hearing people say, “We had that before The War,” meaning the Civil War, and it’s just understood that that’s what is meant. The Pilgrimage old home tours where the hostesses wear period clothing. In Aberdeen it always happens in the spring, when the azaleas and dogwood are blooming. The beautiful, grand old houses.
I miss everyone going to church, whichever church they happen to belong to. And all the kids going to each other’s Summer Bible Schools.
I miss everyone turning out for Dixie Youth baseball games on the weekends and high school football games in the fall.
Nicknames like “Budy Rabbit,” “Tater Bug,” “Too’ Pick,” “Lil Man,” “Preacher,” “Possum,” “Peachy,” “Baby Sis.” Given names like St. Elmo, Minnie Bird, and Buna Vista.
Grocery stores called Jitney Jungle and Piggly Wiggly
Christmases—even without snow, nothing was more Christmassy than Aberdeen, Mississippi in December. We had the Christmas lights driving tours where neighborhoods competed for their lights, and Commerce Street was all lined with luminaries.
Town productions put on at the Elkin Theater.
Parades—so fun to watch people you know, the cubscouts, the homecoming royalty riding on the back of a borrowed convertible, the football players and cheerleaders riding on a fire engine
The newspaper—at least once a month someone in our family would be pictured in the Aberdeen Examiner
I miss going into the Jitney Jungle and knowing who everyone is in the whole store. I miss the kids at the library and my friends.
These are just a few of the things—I could keep adding to the list. I think I need a visit down South.
October 9, 2012 A little Autumn vacation
The weather for our trip to Blue Mountain was truly nasty, and, foolishly, we were unprepared for it.We brought only hoodies for outerwear, and we got rained, snowed, and hailed upon. Hail is a very shocking form of precipitation. It was so nice that our hotel room had a fireplace in it. The weather we came in from made the coziness all the more intense.
We are reveling, wallowing in Autumn here in Ontario. I think maybe the fall is my favorite thing about living here. Everything is brilliant orange and yellow and crimson (“crimson” sounds so much more explosive than “red,” doesn’t it?). Even the remaining green has a more translucent look than the deep, rich summer green. As we were walking by a skinny little tree, a sudden breeze sent tiny golden leaves glittering down. A sunbeam came down through the clouds in just the right way to make them literally twinkle. Lovely.
I am such a sucker for a good description, either to read or to write. As I work on the first MIRK revisions, I have to brutally chop them away. The only way I can do it without too much pain is to transfer them to a “left out” file. That way it doesn’t feel as if they’re lost forever.
Sept 8 2012
This is a test of the blogging page. I'm sure there are lots of interesting things Jane would type here if she was actually blogging already. Maybe she would mention the book that she is halfway through or maybe she would write about the book that is already undergoing editing at Knoph Random House.