Marnie’s Necklace

August 17th, 2016

Marnie's Necklace fixed

My cousin Marnie and I weren’t particularly close growing up. This was a function of age and geography—I was the oldest of the grandchildren and Marnie was somewhere in the middle, running with the gaggle of the few girls in our boy-heavy clan. Early on, my father had moved his young family to Boston from his hometown of Binghamton, the furthest away from his brothers and sister, and so our paths didn’t cross as often as the other cousins’. When they did our four-year age difference often found me playing fierce games of Euchre with the aunts and uncles, while Marnie was trading secrets with the younger girls.

But as we grew older, got married, had kids, the years that had separated us evaporated in the sunlight of our common experiences. We saw each other every year or so at weddings and family reunions, commenting happily about the growth of each other’s children, trading stories from the trenches of motherhood. I suppose we might have continued to glide along separately in the river of our numerous relatives, but Marnie makes that extra effort to connect, folding you into her friendship and spitfire humor as if you’d been there all along.

I saw her most recently at a baby shower for her youngest sister, Katie. The place was packed with Katie’s friends whom I didn’t know, so I stuck with Marnie, certain that she would make it fun and have some interesting stories to tell.

The necklace she wore that day was unusual, a purple stone decorated with a silver Celtic knot. It’s just the kind of thing I like—purple, my favorite color, the silver knot simple but meaningful to our Irish heritage. It was twisted, and I leaned over to untangle it for her.

“This is so pretty,” I said.

She took it off and handed it to me.

“No!” I said, caught off guard. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I want you to have it.”

“Marnie, I can’t take your necklace. It’s too nice.”

“It’s good karma,” she insisted.

Well, who could argue with that? I thanked her profusely, a little embarrassed that I wasn’t wearing a necklace I could give in return. A few days later, I picked out a necklace of mine that I thought she’d like, a swirling black and red pendant that would go well with her dark hair, and included a note: “As a wise woman once said, ‘It’s good karma.’” It had never occurred to me to hand off my jewelry to someone just because they liked it, and it felt good to follow her lead.

I smiled as I put the necklace in the mail and assumed the story was over.

A few days later, an unfamiliar number popped up on my caller ID and I let it go to voicemail. The message was brief and cryptic. “It’s Marnie. You’re never going to believe this. Just call me.”

I called immediately and learned that a week or so before, she’d taken a walk with two of her kids, teenagers Maggie and Jake. They’d spied some jewelry in the brush by the side of the road—a bracelet and a necklace. Jake, an enterprising young man, suggested they hock the items.

“No way,” Marnie told them. “It’s the karma from the necklace I gave my cousin.” She then used the teachable moment to expound on the importance of generosity, of being a giving person in this world, and how what goes around comes around—though usually not quite so quickly.

When they got home from the walk, the package with my necklace had just arrived in the mail.

“That’s your karma,” said Jake. “Now can we hock the other stuff?”

Marnie had a different idea, though. She brought the jewelry to the police station. It was a long shot, of course. Who could say where the items had come from, and if the rightful owner could ever be found?

Marnie forgot about it until the day she called me. “A woman just came to my door with a bouquet of flowers and a gift certificate to go out for dinner!” she told me.

Apparently the woman’s house had been robbed, and all her jewelry stolen. The bracelet had nine stones on it, one for each of her children. But the necklace was even more meaningful.

It had been given to her by a daughter who’d since died.

“If I never got anything else back,” the woman explained, teary with emotion, “the one thing I wanted was that necklace.”

Usually the police don’t give out the name and address of someone who drops off a lost item, but because Marnie’s husband is on a nearby police force, the local police know him. They were willing to bend the rules so that the woman could deliver her thanks, otherwise Marnie would never have learned the rest of the story. It makes you wonder how often a little gesture or effort we make ripples into something far more meaningful, without our ever knowing.

When the woman left, Maggie, Marnie’s youngest, naturally took the opportunity to call out her older brother. “See, Mom was right! You should listen to her more often!”

Marnie and I shared a laugh over that one. We both know how rare it is to do anything “right” in the eyes of your teenagers.

“I love my necklace by the way,” she told me. “I get so many compliments on it.”

“I love mine, too,” I said. “I wear it all the time.”

And I think of her every time I do. I think about her warmth and generosity, and her willingness to make the extra effort to reunite a stranger with her belongings, never knowing if any good would come of it. And it reminds me to notice those often small, easy-to-miss opportunities to cause a ripple that somewhere down the line, whether we ever learn of it or not, might turn out to be an ocean of good.

[Originally published on www.readitforward.com

Great-grandpa Fred’s Big Break

June 5th, 2016

Fred Delorme 1912

My great-grandfather, Fred Delorme (right), circa 1912.

(Originally published in the San Diego Book Review.)

My father came over for lunch one day. “How’s the writing going?”

Not well. In fact, not at all. For months I’d been casting about for an idea for my next novel and coming up dry.

Dad thought he could solve this problem—and he did, but not the way he expected.

His first suggestion was a book about President Lincoln, an aspect of his life that no biographer had quite captured to my father’s satisfaction. I love Lincoln—who doesn’t? But I didn’t want to write a book about him, not to mention that the comparables would be untouchable. Team of Rivals, anyone?

“Thanks, Dad, but I don’t really think that’s the topic for me.”

His enthusiasm never dimmed as he next suggested Oliver Cromwell’s violent domination of Ireland, which was even further from my wheelhouse.

As Dad talked about how his own family had come over from Ireland to escape the famine and English repression and settled in Binghamton, New York, I was suddenly reminded of an email he’d forwarded months before from one of his cousins. Jim Stein was the family historian, and he’d sent along scans of old newspaper clippings and pictures of my Great-grandfather, Fred Delorme, in his heyday as a vaudeville song and dance man.

Vaudeville was the country’s main form of entertainment from about the 1880s to the 1920s. It consisted of seven to fifteen separate acts, everything from acrobats to animal tricks, comedians to contortionists. There were vaudeville theatres all over the country, even in small towns, until radio broadcasts and movies with sound took over the American imagination.

Vaudeville. It was perfect. And through Great-grandpa Fred, it was personal.

I began to read everything I could get my hands on—biographies, histories, thick tomes on the cutthroat business practices of the circuit owners, picture books full of performers doing all manner of entertaining and/or bizarre things. I watched movies and documentaries, and scratchy footage of acts that had ceased to exist a hundred years ago.

With help from Cousin Jim, I also researched my own vaudeville ancestry. From newspaper clippings, we know that Great-grandpa Fred appeared in numerous local shows around the area of Binghamton, New York where he lived. Over the course of thirty years, from 1904 when he was 17 to 1934 when he was almost 50, he sang, danced and acted in small time shows, all while working at the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Factory by day.

A Binghamton Press article dated July 3, 1912 says:

“As an added feature to an excellent bill which Manager Gillen has booked at the Stone Opera House, Earl Vosberg and Fred Delorme present a dancing act which they call The Scarecrow Dance. Manager Gillen is trying out the act here at the request of the United Booking Office. If it is well received, Messrs. Vosberg and Delorme will be booked for appearances in larger cities next season.”

This caught my eye right away. The United Booking Office was part of Keith-Albee, the biggest and most successful vaudeville circuit in the world, operating the most opulent theatres in every city east of the Mississippi River. This was Fred’s big break!

However, the local papers are silent for several years after that, and I’ve never been able to locate any mention of him in other news outlets. Did they flop? Or did they quit? Fred was 25 years old at this point, married with three children—maybe he didn’t want to leave them for a life on the road.

On a visit with Fred’s last living child, Great-aunt Anne Delorme Castelli, I asked her about it. She had no memory of her father’s big break. My own father says, “If Grandpa had made it to the big time, we certainly would’ve heard about it.”

In later years, he gave dance lessons, and often included his daughter, Margaret, (my grandmother) in the productions he choreographed. She, in turn, taught my father and his eight siblings the Jitterbug, Turkey Trot, and all the old standards. At 78, my father claims he’s still “got it.”

With Great-grandpa Fred’s inspiration, I wrote The Tumbling Turner Sisters, about a poverty-stricken family of four girls who go on the road as a vaudeville acrobatic act in 1919. I even used his name for one of the secondary characters.

As it awaited publication, my father and I traveled to Binghamton for Great-aunt Anne’s funeral. I took him to the ruins of the Stone Opera House, where Fred had had his big break. Its beautiful façade is still there on Chenango Street, the roof and back walls crumbling. My father grew up in Binghamton, but until then he’d never known that the Stone had been the pinnacle of his grandfather’s stage career.

Stone Old and New

There’s a photo-postcard of my great-grandfather with his dance partner, a promotional piece he’d have sent around to vaudeville theatres to drum up work. He appears quite young, so it must have been taken around the time he’d had his tryout at the Stone Opera House. The picture captures him grinning slyly from under his top hat.

I often think about Great-grandpa Fred’s big break. With everything I now know about vaudeville, I’m certain he would have been out of his mind with excitement at the chance to be booked on a big-time tour. And he was just as certainly devastated that, for reasons now lost to history, it didn’t work out.

What would he think about having his name and some of his experiences borrowed by a great-grand-daughter he never met, for a novel a hundred years after his heyday? We’ll never know, of course, but I like to think it would appeal to his love of entertaining, and maybe even elicit that sly grin from the photo once again.

Grammar Crimes and Misdemeanors

January 25th, 2016

The_Partridge_Family_David_Cassidy_1970-255x300

“VERBS OF UTTERANCE ARE FASCINATING. I THINK I LOVE YOU!”

When my first novel was being copy edited, I wasn’t terribly concerned. I’m a good speller, and spell-check finds any little typos, right? I also felt I had a pretty strong grasp on grammatical conventions. Piece of cake, I was thinking.

Oh, how I hung my head in shame when the edits came back.

As it turns out I am a, shall we say, creative hyphenator; I can’t seem to get the difference between homophones like brake and break; and I blithely flout the “verbs of utterance” law.

Come on, admit it. You’ve never even heard of verbs of utterance. Lord knows I hadn’t, and I was kicking their little typeset butts all over town. (More on that later.)

I was embarrassed, and wondered what my editor must have thought when she saw all those errors. Consciously or subconsciously, people make judgments. The way we communicate gives off signals—sometimes inaccurate ones—about how smart, professional, conscientious, etc we are.

Besides, we’ve all seen typos in books, and it’s distracting. It takes you out of that sweet reverie of this is real, and reminds you that someone who spends way too much time alone and indoors cooked it up. Might a potential agent or editor enjoy a manuscript less—and even reject it!—if she keeps getting distracted by errors? I have to believe the answer is yes.

Since then, I’ve tried hard to master the grammar and spelling I seemed to have missed in fifth grade when I was too busy thinking about that cute boy with the David Cassidy haircut two rows up.

I recently asked some author friends about their editing-related Achilles heels.

Catherine McKenzie: I like to use that saying “a little” too many times. I do word searches at the end of manuscripts to remove them. Scary results.

Allie Larkin: I overuse “just.” And peek/peak is one of my problems. On the other side, I always have to correct copy editors on German Shepherd. They tend toward lowercase S, like it’s a shepherd that happens to be German, when it’s a shortened version of the official breed title: German Shepherd Dog (all starting with caps).

Ann Mah: Toothsome. Not only have I overused it, apparently it doesn’t mean what I thought it did. Yikes. Forever banned from my vocabulary.

Randy Susan Meyers: I seem to slip in and out of the Oxford comma, which I am certain drives my copy-editor bonkers.

Judy Merrill Larsen: I am completely incapable of using lie/lay correctly, so I try to avoid it at all costs.

Katherine Howe makes no grammatical errors. In fact, in the course of the above conversation, she explained both the Oxford comma (also known as the Harvard comma) and the lie/lay conundrum, for which we were all quite grateful.

For your self-editing pleasure, here are a few rules which writers often unwittingly break (or was that brake?)

Verbs of Utterance (You were waiting so patiently for this.) Some verbs can be used in place of “say” and some can’t. To my mind, the list is fairly arbitrary, but still, there is a list (somewhere, I’ve never been able to find an official one), and you should generally know what’s on it. For instance, you can chortle a sentence but you cannot chuckle it. I’m not kidding. You can cry a sentence but you cannot sob it. Another big no-no is “sigh.” No one can convince me you can’t sigh words like “Oh, dear,” but nevertheless, it’s not legal.

Hyphens There are a lot of types, a lot of rules, and a lot of exceptions. But here’s one guideline that really helped me. In a phrase like “blood-red moon” generally there is a hyphen if the first descriptor modifies the second. Blood describes the kind of red, not the moon. However, if the noun comes first, you don’t use a hyphen. “The moon was blood red.” Red is the only thing left for blood to describe so the hyphen is unnecessary. In a phrase like “skinny, old nag” both skinny and old describe the nag, so you use a comma, not a hyphen.

Ellipses are used for a pause in speech, for instance when the speaker is hesitant to say something. “I loved him … but I didn’t always like him.” Insert a space after the first phrase, then three dots, then another space, then the second phrase. They can also be used to convey that there is more that isn’t being said at all. “Her alibi seemed highly unlikely ….” Notice how I used four dots because it’s the end of a full sentence.

Oxford/Harvard Comma When making a list, Oxford/Harvard says you put a comma before the and. “I bought toothe paste, grapes, and a hunting knife.” Or your can do it without: “He eats nothing but candy, cumquats and caviar.” What you shouldn’t do is switch it up over the course of your manuscript. Pick your comma convention and stick to it.

Lay/Lie It’s all about who or what is descending. You lie down. You lay other stuff down. Think of “lay an egg.” The past tense of lay is laid. So the hen lays an egg today and laid one yesterday. Pretty straight forward. What makes everyone nuts is that the past tense of lie is lay! So, you lie down now, but you lay down yesterday. Come on, who’s responsible for this stuff!

It would be nice to think a potential agent or editor would simply look past bad grammar and misspellings to the fabulous prose you’ve sent them. But if they’re on the fence and your work looks sloppy and unprofessional, it could be the thing that makes them say, “Nah,” and pick up the next person’s manuscript. It’s worth it to tidy up those messes and give yourself the best possible chance.

What are your favorite grammar crimes?

(Photo credit: Wikipedia. Publicity photo of American actor and musician, David Cassidy promoting the September 25, 1970 premiere of the ABC comedy series The Partridge Family.)

The Only Perfect Novel There Is

March 10th, 2015

Beachmere-Flag-400x225-300x168I just finished my latest novel, and it’s perfect.

Not perfect perfect, of course. It’s honeymoon perfect. It’s sunny, flag-fluttering, best-wave day at the beach perfect. Which is to say, it can’t last.

I finished the first draft early last month, and then spent a couple of weeks cleaning it up, fixing problems, making it do pushups and sprints, getting it in tip-top shape to send off to my early readers. These women are wise and kind and so darned good looking (and are hopefully taking a few minutes off from inking up my “perfect” manuscript to see these compliments to their wisdom and beauty).

I sent it to them on a Sunday night, and since then I’ve been as giddy as a 4-year-old in red-sparkle shoes. It’s not that I don’t love writing. I do. And I wasn’t getting sick of my characters, as sometimes will happen, or anxious that the whole thing wasn’t working. It seemed to be doing just fine. To me, anyway.

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie Good Willing Hunting. Will (Matt Damon) is explaining to his therapist Sean (Robin Williams) that he isn’t calling a girl he really likes because right now, in his mind she’s perfect. If he gets to know her a little better, he’ll start to see her flaws which will ruin it. Sean replies, “Maybe you’re perfect right now. Maybe you don’t want to ruin that.”

Nope, I definitely do not want to ruin that. However …

Yesterday, a friend told me that she’d started reading one of my previous novels. “I loved that Deirdre acted out the whole Harry Potter series for Kevin,” she said. “She wasn’t good at the normal caretaker stuff, but there were little ways that she really connected with him.” Kevin is her nephew, but his parents are gone, and she and her elderly aunt are his guardians.

There had been no acting out of Harry Potter or any other kindly auntie behavior before my early readers got to Deirdre. “She’s too harsh,” they told me. “She almost completely ignores him.” They wanted some softer edges, some unexpected bright spots.

As her creator, I’d thought Deirdre was pretty spot on as she was—cold, angry and determined to have things finally go her way. “She has every reason to ignore him,” I tried to explain. “She’s desperate to get on with her life, and no one was there for her when she was a kid.”

My fairy god-readers weren’t having it, and they were fairly unanimous in their appraisal. That’s when you really have to buy your return ticket from fantasy-land and start accepting your story’s imperfection—when everyone agrees there’s a problem.

So I added touches of color and warmth—not many, mind you. Deirdre was practically raised by wolves, and that still shows. But what she got, thanks to my wise, kind and highly attractive early readers, was dimension, and it’s a huge improvement.

As much as I’m enjoying this temporary delusion of perfection, I am deeply grateful that anyone—much less the amazingly insightful group I have—wants to read a hundred thousand of my words, and then spend time gently explaining to me what isn’t cutting the mustard. Every story requires that kind of careful outside scrutiny, and yet not every story gets it. Even in the publishing process, editors now spend much more of their time shepherding books through the labyrinth of packaging, marketing and sales than marking up drafts during the work day. An editor at a major publishing house recently told me that actual editing happens in her off hours, nights and weekends. She doesn’t get paid for the time she spends doing the thing that her title ostensibly means.

This of course makes those early readers even more important. As we now hear all the time, every story has to be at fighting weight to have a chance. No more showing up at your editor’s door bloated with extra verbiage or slowed by confusing plot threads.

Even after your pals have read the early drafts, and your editor has gone through it to the best that her time allows, and it’s sitting on a bookshelf somewhere, there are always those little nagging things that crop up. My first novel came out over 5 years ago, and I still occasionally think of something I wished I’d done a little differently.

There really is no such thing as a perfect novel … except perhaps now. It’s the best that I alone can make it, and in my mind it’s just right. For these last few weeks, I’ve been in a blissful solitary state with my creation. But soon I will have company, and thankfully they will have their say.

Teaching Young Writers: Are We Winning the Battle but Losing the War?

January 29th, 2015

girl-writing-in-grass-300x200I think we can all agree on this: the ability to express oneself effectively in the written word is a good thing. I would even go so far as to say that for a wide range of professions, it’s one of the most useful skills you can have. It comes in mighty handy in personal matters, as well.

So it makes sense that schools spend an awful lot of time trying to get kids to be better writers. I’m all for that. Go writing!

What I’m not always so sure of is how we go about it.

Now before I say another word, please know that I am a huge fan of English teachers and the magic that they work with kids every day. It’s a tough job, with extra hours of grading countless papers, and not nearly as many thank-yous as are richly deserved. (The next time you meet an English teacher, say thank you. I’m serious.)

However the pressures and constrictions they face on what they teach and how they teach it are legion. Here in Massachusetts, (practically the Holy Land of standards-based testing) the Boston Globe recently ran an article titled Mass. wonders whether students being overtested.

“Teachers statewide complain that … preparation for the dizzying array of standardized tests can easily consume about a month of schooling and leave little time for creative projects.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that one of the goals of teaching kids to write should be that they continue to want to do it when all the teachers and tests and classrooms are behind them. Further, that making it engaging and creative will inspire the ongoing practice that all writers require to improve.

And I’m going to go out on no limb at all and say that the 5-paragraph essay and the three-page paper on the book they didn’t really want to read in the first place—while they may be necessary to some degree—are not actually the best vehicles for making writing engaging, creative and fun. This in turn is not ideal for to getting young writers to practice, and probably horribly ineffective at inspiring them do it when they leave school and finally have the freedom to do any darn thing they please.

Learning to be a good writer is fundamentally about learning to be a good convincer.

When we write fiction, we’re trying to convince the reader that somewhere, somehow this story is real, and s/he should engage with it as if it is really happening. Fiction only works if the reader, on some level, believes. There is no higher compliment than when a reader says, “This feels authentic.”

When we write non-fiction—such as memoir, a book review, an email to our boss, a love letter, or this essay—we’re trying to convince the reader that what we’re saying is actually true, and that our thoughts have value to him/her.

Good news: There are lots of ways to teach kids how to be convincing in the medium of the written word—and not all of them are as painful as writing a paper on the symbolism in Boring Book #52!

Memoir. Tweens and teens, bless their hearts, tend to be a self-absorbed bunch. This perfectly normal developmental stage can be used in the service of writing by having them talk about themselves. But just because it’s about them and reflects real events (at least marginally) doesn’t mean it can be unconvincing or of little value to the reader. This, in fact, is a real challenge: how can I tell a personal story in a way that others will find worthwhile?

Journalism. News writing is generally about current events (as opposed to 1873) which tends to feel more relevant and engaging. It can involve interviews and attending unusual events (as opposed to sitting home and playing Halo). Its purpose is to provide information to peers and community members (as opposed to just their long-suffering English teachers). And it involves a very clear, concise, facts-based style.

Screenplays. Writing good dialogue is a tremendous challenge for the new writer. It requires close attention to how people express themselves, what they say and don’t say, how information, ideas, and emotions are conveyed verbally. Translating the spoken word into the written word is a fantastic exercise in the art of convincing.

These are just a few examples of different forms of writing that can inspire the young writer to want to learn and practice a skill that we all agree is so critical. Based on my experience of parenting four kids through an excellent public school system … I’m still not convinced that we’re doing enough to make writing engaging and creative—to make it feel good enough for them to do it once letter grades aren’t dangling over their heads anymore. I worry that while we may be winning the standardized-testing battle, we’re losing the love-of-writing war.

I think we can do better. What do you think?

(This piece was originally published by Beyond the Margins on Nov 10, 2014)

Deep Appreciation and a Little Advice for Young Writers

July 9th, 2014

pngI recently had the immense pleasure to be the keynote speaker at a writing conference for middle and high school students, who were more serious about their work than many adults! Their questions were wonderful and numerous, and I left feeling so inspired. The following is an abridged version of the speech I gave.

It’s truly a thrill to be here with you all, in part because it’s always a treat to be with other writers. But there’s something especially great about being with young writers.

You read a lot these days about how technology and social media are giving everyone a 3.5-second attention span, killing our desire for stories and news that takes any longer to read than it takes to apply mascara or lace up a pair of high tops. Of course you read about this on social media, so it’s a little like the fox handing down decrees for the chicken coop. If you believe all this, the world, and all us chickens who live in it, are circling the evolutionary drain.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the world is not, in fact, going to hell in a smartphone. Writers are people who take the time to put words together in a way that captivates the human story-loving brain. You are sitting here today because you choose to spend a precious Saturday learning how to do this even better than you already do it. That takes time, it takes attention, and it takes passion. You have it, and God knows the world needs it, because the world has always needed it.

So, high school and middle school. A lot of drama, right? Here’s a little secret: the drama doesn’t really go away. Life is jam packed with it, no matter how old you are. For us writers, that has its upside, though, doesn’t it?

I would say that the single most reliable thing that got me through high school was writing. If nothing else—though it was much more—if nothing else, it was a really good coping strategy. Much better than a few others I had. Probably better than a few others you have, too.

For instance, if you’re coping with your life by spending every free moment playing candy crush, or bidding on undocumented sports memorabilia on eBay, or by hiding just one boot of your currently-least-favorite sibling’s most favorite pair … I can say with the authority of hindsight that writing is a better way to go. Except every once in a while, you have to play some candy crush, or make an unwise purchase, or hide a boot. I’m just saying don’t limit it to that.

When I was twelve I began scribbling in a journal, and that was the start of my career in fiction-writing. I soon learned that the best thing about telling the stories of your own life to yourself, and only to yourself, was that you could lie. I could take something that had happened and make it bigger, or funnier, or more heart-wrenching, or focus on this part but not that part. I could make myself the hero, and sometimes it was even fun to make myself the villain. There is so much power in that.

There is enormous power and benefit in writing only for yourself. Please remember this, if and when you ever try to get published. You are the first person you should please with your writing. If you want to get published, you certainly won’t be the only person you’ll need to please, but you should, in the quiet of your own writer-ness, always be the first.

Scribbling away in that little spiral bound notebook, I learned to hear the way I could talk about life that was authentic to me. In the writing world, we talk a lot about voice, and it’s important. But the most important voice you need to find is your own. It makes it so much easier to take on other voices too, if you know what your own voice sounds like first, without anyone else weighing in. Without any comments in the margins about how the setting is underdeveloped or the dialogue seems forced. Without any grades.

The other voices will come and the really authentic ones—the characters you create where readers say, I feel like I know her!—will come from one source: empathy.

People ask writers all the time: “How can you create a character that feels so real, but is so different from you?” It’s because we imagine what it’s like to be other people; we put ourselves in their shoes, or bear pelt boots, or little green two-toed feet. We try to feel what they feel, even if they’re evil, bloodthirsty, kitten-killing aliens. Because we need to know why they’re doing all that thirsting for blood—which, let’s face it, is not particularly tasty or hydrating—and killing of kittens. Are the kittens mutant droids with the power to turn the universe into a planetary junkyard? Or were these villains once attacked by a nunchuck-wielding kitten gang? Otherwise they’re just generic bad guys, and there are a million of those.

Not everyone gets the empathy lesson, unfortunately. Otherwise we’d have a lot less hair pulling and bomb detonating in this world. But you know who apparently has that empathy thing down better than a lot of people? Readers of fiction.

The following is from an article in the New York Times called Your Brain on Fiction:

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that ‘runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.’ … in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.”

Brain science is beginning to show what we story-lovers have intuited all along. That reading makes us better people—more knowledgeable, more understanding—because it gives us invaluable practice for real life situations. Maybe actually writing those stories gives us even better practice than reading them. And then it naturally follows that this makes us even better people, right? So we can all feel good about that.

When we write, we talk about what it is to be a person. It may be a person in a tenement in London in 1910, or with a disability that no one understands, or in the form of a very hungry caterpillar. We talk about how being a person is to be different on the outside from what’s happening on the inside. Because we are all different on the outside from who we really are on the inside. Who understands that better than teenagers?

So we have empathy, and we’re fine tuning that empathic thinking with every new character we write. The next thing we need is a sense of anticipation. A description of personhood, while it may be fascinating, beautiful, grotesque, depressing or inspiring, is not a story. Anticipation of what will or will not happen to this person is what makes the story. What is the critical problem that needs to be solved? Will that hungry caterpillar ever get enough food? And what will happen if it doesn’t? And what surprising things might happen along the way?

Anticipation is the Gotta Know. When you gotta know what’s going to happen next to this authentic person, that’s the story. And if you don’t have a gotta know—or better yet, several—it doesn’t matter how fascinating and authentic your person is, because the reader will stop turning the pages and wander off to play candy crush, or bid on stuff he can’t afford on eBay, or hide a boot.

The last thing I want to mention is theme. Not because it’s last, sometimes it comes first, but it’s a little less tangible and obvious than having authentic persons or gotta-knows. Theme helps us think through bigger issues like: What the heck are we talking about here? What is the question this story is trying to answer? What do we want the reader to think about after the story is over?

In The Hunger Games, some themes might be “How far would you go to feed your family?” or “What is the responsibility of those who have resources or skills to share them with others who don’t?” In Romeo and Juliet, themes include “How much should family loyalty take precedence over individual desires?”

Weirdly enough, themes sometimes pop out while you’re in the middle of writing. You thought you were telling a story about a kid with Tourettes Syndrome in 1930, and you realize the overarching theme has something to do with forgiveness. It can be really helpful to try and nail down your theme in a sentence or two. Then it becomes a sort of compass. Am I still talking about “The power of forgiveness over ignorance,” or did I wander a little too far away? A good theme keeps you on track, and keeps the reader thinking about your story long after they’ve put down the pages or e-reader.

In conclusion, I just want to thank you. I thank you for being here in this room talking about words and stories, instead of any of the zillions of other things you could have chosen to do today. I thank you for being empathic, and for using writing to hone that empathy, a critical skill that the world always needs more of. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to be in the company of other serious writers, which is always fun, and further, it gives me something to impress my kids with instead of just embarrassing them (which is also fun, but not for them).

Keep writing. It’s good for all of us.

Researching Fact for Fiction: Seriously Helpful Hints

June 23rd, 2014

books.becky_-300x225Last month I had the pleasure of serving on a panel at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace Conference. My “Researching Fact for Fiction” co-panelists were Lisa Genova (Still Alice, Left Neglected and Love Anthony), Maryanne O’Hara (Cascade) and B.A. Shapiro (The Art Forger). Those are some serious researchers! We were tasked with producing a handout for participants, and I personally found some of the helpful hints so, well,helpful, I decided to share them.

Interviews

  • Don’t be afraid to ask. You’re thinking, “I’d really like to ask that super famous leader on linguistics some questions.” Then you talk yourself out of it. Give the possibility a chance. Most people say YES.
  • Do your homework before you interview other people, especially professionals or experts. Only ask the questions you can’t get answers to online or in text books.
  • Create an interview guide. Begin your interview with a planned set of well-conceived questions, then let the answers lead you to new questions. Always end the interview with: Is there anything I haven’t thought of to ask that’s important for me to know?
  • Do interviews in person whenever possible. If you are interviewing a physician, go to his or her office. You’ll pick up details you can’t get over the phone — what’s on the walls, on the desk, how he/she is dressed, body language, the feel of the room.

Settings

  • If you can visit a location that you want to use in your novel, visit. Call ahead to see if there is someone who’d be willing to talk to you. Locals often have information you can’t find in books or online.
  • If you can’t visit, Streetview in Google Maps can show you amazing details. For historical locations,Cardcow.com has innumerable postcards of buildings and settings so you can see how they looked at a particular point in time.
  • You can also interview a person who has been there and ask about sights, smells, sounds and quirks.
  • Laura Hillenbrand, the acclaimed author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken suffers from severe, debilitating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and depends completely on being able to do research from her home.

Historical Facts

  • If possible, read books published during your chosen period, to get a flavor for speech and the details of living. For more recent history, watch old newsreels, and movies that were contemporary in their day. Make sure you’ve got the class and education levels right.
  • In terms of accents or the way people spoke in different time periods, a little flavor goes a long way. For instance, you can’t have all your dialogue in actual Middle English unless you only want Middle English speakers (i.e. about 5 people on the planet) to buy your book.
  • The best historical writing is immediate and timeless. Focus on your story, first. It’s very easy to get bogged down in research. Many advocate writing a first draft with as little research as possible.
  • Try to discern between what is right and what feels right. Even if a fact is “true,” if it seems like something a reader will question, you might want to cut it.
  • It’s okay to surmise what a historical figure might have said or thought based on good research. We can never know for certain the thoughts or private conversations of others, but if you’ve done your homework, it’s reasonable to make your best guess.
  • etymonline.com is a great source for figuring out language trends.

General

  • Ebay is full of strange things – trinkets, maps, clothing items, catalogs, etc. – that can be useful for your work. It’s great to have these “primary sources” at your fingertips, and it can be very inspiring to have an actual item that one of your characters might have owned.
  • Libraries are great sources for research, for free use of materials, and staff who are willing to help.www.publiclibraries.com and www.loc.gov (Library of Congress) are good places to start.
  • Be prepared for those who will want to correct you. We’ve each been contacted by people who thought they knew better than we did, and enjoyed correcting us. Don’t take it personally – it’s just part of the job of being a writer. Try to have respectful answers.
  • Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story, but stick to facts as much as you can.
  • Include an “Author’s Note” at the end of your book outlining exactly where you bent the truth. You can also thank your sources in the acknowledgments, which lets people know you did your homework.
  • Resist any urge you have to show off how much you know. Only use what’s relevant to STORY and in such a way that makes sense given the story’s voice and point of view. Trust that nothing is wasted, and that readers will feel the depth without being hammered over the head with TMI.
  • Research is not your new career. You can dig forever on any subject. But the point is to know enough to write your story. Some research will be ongoing, but it’s a supporting role now, never the star.
  • Don’t let your research keep you from writing. It’s a dangerous procrastination.

A recent piece in The Guardian discusses the research debate: How true should historical fiction be? 

The Boy Scouts and the Secret Policy of Inclusion

January 1st, 2014

boy scout stampJanuary 1 hails not only a new year, but also a new era for the 104-year-old Boy Scouts of America (BSA). It’s the day a new policy allowing openly gay boys to join took effect. While gay adults are still prohibited from troop leadership, this historic first step toward inclusion serves as an invitation to all boys to join in the fun, friendship, and challenge of scouting.

Six years ago, my husband and I had no intention of letting our boys join the Boy Scouts. We have gay friends and family members, and we didn’t want to be part of an organization that was prejudiced against people we love.

Then when our oldest son was in sixth grade, he was invited to go to a Boy Scout meeting by a friend. The boy’s mom raved about all the wonderful activities and non-electronic fun the kids were having, the chance to experience the out of doors, learn leadership skills and a plethora of other good things.

Hesitantly, we let him go to the meeting, thinking that since he was more of a sports kid, he probably wouldn’t like it anyway. We couldn’t have been more wrong. He loved it.

And the more we learned about scouting, so did we. While many kids spend weekends in front of video games or on Facebook, scouting is about real experiences—camaraderie, resourcefulness, volunteerism, citizenship and leadership—crucial life skills that a boy can rely on for the rest of his life.

Still, I was concerned about the bigotry against gay boys who didn’t have the option to find out if they might like it too, and against gay fathers or mothers who might want to help out. I asked the troop leaders about that. I was told, “We don’t discriminate against anyone for any reason, and never have. We just can’t advertise it, or we’d be in jeopardy of losing our National BSA membership.”

With the BSA’s recent decision to allow gay boys to become scouts, other troops are admitting that they, too, have had secret inclusion policies—a stance more in line with the Scout Oath to keep “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” In the minds of many scouters, discrimination is the antithesis of “moral straightness.”

When it became clear that our son was in Scouts to stay, I joined the troop’s leadership committee so I could learn more about it, and was later asked to join the troop’s charter organization.

And yet there was always a part of me that struggled with the moral inconsistency. My husband and I were clear with our kids that we were against that policy, and any rule that unfairly discriminates. In the end we felt that the good in scouting—the focus on helping others, community involvement and leadership—outweighed this one misguided aspect. If we had felt for one moment that our troop reflected any of National BSA’s homophobia, we would have pulled our son out.

It’s been six years now, and I have yet to meet anyone in scouting who voiced anything but opposition to the anti-gay policy. And it was not swept under the rug—it was discussed. When the National BSA temporarily re-affirmed its homophobic stance in 2012, our troop leadership was unanimously opposed. Our district council asked for statements that it could present to National on the matter. We immediately submitted one, happy to learn that council was just as concerned as we were.

Our oldest son is now an Eagle Scout. We joke that if there is some sort of natural disaster, ours will be the safest house in town, thanks to his extensive training in emergency preparedness, first aid, fire safety, survival and a host of other skills.  In addition he’s had to study topics like personal finance, civics, communication, environmental science and (ironically) family life.

With four kids, our family has probably experienced most of the sports, instruments, art, drama, music, dance, science and technology programs known to humanity. We can say without a moment’s hesitation that scouting is the best program any of our kids has been involved in.

And now every boy will know he is warmly invited to participate, with hope that someday soon, national policy will also welcome gay leaders as well. Our troop’s policy of inclusion—along with so many other troops’—is no longer secret.

We can “come out” now.

The My-Bad Beep and the Thank-You Flash

December 13th, 2013

thank you car cropA couple of months ago I was driving my 13-year-old son to baseball practice, and I inadvertently got in the wrong lane at a stop light. I had to cut into the right lane, and the guy behind me beeped in annoyance.

“I know,” I muttered. “Sorry.”

“Think he heard you?” my son teased.

We talked about how useful it would be to have a way to communicate something other than anger or danger with your horn, and he came up with the “My-Bad Beep.” It would make a different sound, and the other driver would know you were apologizing and taking responsibility for being in the wrong.

Several weeks later, we devised the “Thank-You Flash.” When you want to thank another driver for giving you the quick high beams and letting you make that tricky left turn against oncoming traffic, you would flash your lights back, but they would be a different color.

“A grateful color,” I said. “Pink?”

“No,” he said. “Blue.”

Now every car will come pre-installed with the My-Bad Beep and the Thank-You Flash! And the world will be a better place in which to drive—a courteous, well-mannered, responsibility-accepting place … even in our hometown of Boston! Now that’s one heck of a fantasy.

As long as we’re fantasizing, how about if each person came pre-installed with a My-Bad and Thank-You button of some kind, making it dramatically easier to apologize and express appreciation. These are critical interpersonal skills.  Let’s make them simple!

(Okay, back to earth now, Sandra Bullock.)

Remorse and Gratitude. Two primal human emotions, yet for very different reasons they can be so difficult to express. No one wants to be in a position of regret—we all hope we’ll do the right thing all the time, but we won’t, will we? We’ll screw up. That’s us, we’re human. And once we screw up, we hope that we’ll be adult enough to admit it, but we won’t always, because it’s hard. Sometimes accepting responsibility and delivering a sincere apology is absolutely excruciating.

Gratitude can be easy to express, and we hope that we’ll always remember to thank every single person who does something nice for us, but we won’t because we’re in a hurry or we’re distracted or we think we’re owed something. We’re human, we can be flakey, and occasionally we’re entitled jerks.

It can also be hard to express gratitude in a way that satisfies the degree of thanks we want to communicate. “I can’t thank you enough.” There simply aren’t the right words or gestures to do justice to how grateful we feel. And so, we say “Thank you!” and it feels like we just gave this wonderful, generous person a big old plastic bag full of nothing.

As a fiction writer, remorse and gratitude are top shelf liquors on the bar of storytelling.  A story in which the characters never do anything they regret, and fully appreciate everything they have when they have it? Come on, that’s no story at all. (Unless the characters aren’t actually human, but still, I don’t think it would hold my interest.)

So, in a seeming non-sequitor, just in case you are living in a cave on a deserted island on Pluto and missed the incessant playing of  “Santa, Baby” in all the stores, I’ll remind you that we are now in the season of gift-giving. We may not have the My-Bad Beep and Thank-You Flash installed in our cars—or in our hearts. But we know how to say I’m sorry, and we know how to say Thank you.

And just maybe those are the best gifts of all.

Turning the Tables on a Bad Writing Day

October 11th, 2013

BoardwalkYou can tell when it’s stacking up to be a bad writing day.

You look at the list of non-writing stuff that needs to get done, throw up your hands and think, No possible way.

Or the thought of whatever project you’re working on ignites that gnawing insecure feeling that hisses, YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. TURN BACK NOW.

Or you’re in a foul mood, perhaps after a miserable morning with kids who do not feel like going to school, or making their lunches or picking up the wet bathing suit they left in the hallway last night. Parent-child skirmishes ensue: “That’s not my bathing suit – Yes, it is, it’s your favorite – I’ll get it later – Please get it now before it goes brown with mildew and stinks up the place – Don’t freak out! – I’m not freaking out! – Yes, you are! You always freak out about little stuff! – Well, now I’m freaking out about how disrespectful you’re being!”

(Please tell me I’m not the only one who has these brain-singeing early morning conversations with offspring.)

On the days when, for whatever reason, you’ve determined that All is for Naught, here are some suggestions that are guaranteed to get you back on track.

Open the file. The babiest of baby steps, true. But just do it. Then walk away if you need to, but if it sits there waiting for you like a sad puppy with a leash in its mouth, silently begging for you to take it out for a puppy tinkle, you’ll feel that much more inclined to wander back to it.

Lay off the Joe, Joe.  Yes, okay, coffee is “writer’s little helper,” and it’s tempting to think another cup or six will sling you by your jangled nerves toward productive land. A little extra can be good, but too much and you may find your characters are suddenly threatening one another in all-caps.

Get out. Are you sick of hearing exercise is the solution to everything? Yeah, me too. However, even a quick spin around the block can get the blood oxygenated and the synapses firing and other science-y stuff like that. (Damn it, Jim, I’m a writer not a doctor!) Here’s the twist: go alone and go gadget-less. Let your thoughts flow unimpeded by any input other than the sight of falling leaves and your neighbors’ garbage cans.

Write somewhere strange. And I don’t mean Starbucks. The end of a dock, the lobby of a museum, a friend’s kitchen table (ask first, though, because being there when they wake up in the morning is intrusive and weird). Change of venue can spark new and unusual ideas.

Be the ball, Danny. Get in your character’s head. If your protag likes to cook, pick a recipe he would like and make it for dinner. Ruminate on what he’s thinking as he prepares it. If you’ve got a character who clog dances or paints on velvet, do those things as him or her. For bonus points, do it in costume.

Set a timer—egg, hourglass, mental or otherwise. Start with 20 minutes, park yourself in front of that file you opened (see above), and write just one really crappy paragraph. Giving yourself a time limit and permission to be mediocre can stifle the internal critic and get the gears whirring. At a minimum, you’ve got one more paragraph than you had before. Yeah, it’s crappy but you can fix it later.

Reward/Punish Yourself “If I write X number of words, I get to fly to Luxembourg for dinner. If not, I have to clean the bathroom in my senior prom dress, film it and send the video to my high school boyfriend under the caption I Really Miss You.” You get the idea. Be creative.

Self Shaming. Okay so this suggestion is probably not endorsed by the American Psychological Association, but let’s get serious here. You say you can’t write because you have so much to do or your insecurities are getting the best of you—or because (melodramatic sigh) you’re not in the mood? Well, boo freakin’ hoo. Not all obstacles are minor, but here in the First World, many of them are. So get your whiny hiney in that chair and produce some verbiage, you big baby.

What are your favorite ways to turn a bad writing day around?