Sunday, November 8, 2015

#NANOWRIMO - Consider your setting

By now, if you are a writer going through November, you are well into the midst of it -- writing that new novel, or rewriting that old one, or writing out gobs of nonsense in-between the bursts of word-smithing genius. It is, after all, National Novel Writing Month. NANOWRIMO

In order to get to this point that you are at, it's quite probable that you put a bit of time into getting your writing environment ready. Perhaps you cleared the clutter from your desk, sharpened the pencils, adjusted the lighting, or burned some incense.... All to prepare yourself for the process of sitting down to spend the next 30 days with a set of characters that will take life on the page. Characters with wants and needs. Characters with thoughts and challenges. Characters whose decisions help shape the plot driving through the heart of your novel.

However, there is one other character that may be standing on the sidelines, waving its figurative arms as you blaze through the literary forest, all the while slamming the text madly across the page. This is a character that can add depth and persona to the story you are wanting to tell. This is a character that can definitively engage your readers and lead them to turn the pages on a deeper, more intimate level. This character happens to be your setting. And as clearly as your main character asks for chai latte to go with that buttered ham-and-cheese croissant en route to meeting whatever imminent fate awaits around the next corner, your setting has a voice that ought to be heard. Perhaps not as equally as your main character who tosses that cardboard cup, still half-full, into the trash can on her way out the door, but definitely as noticeable as the damp chill that lashes at her face as she steps on to the sidewalk, causing her to pull her jacket more tightly closed before looking left, then right, then left again.

California coast
Masterful writers engage the setting as a powerful character, whose role in the novel can add substance through subtle warnings, hints, reprimands, or rewards.

In Kim Fay's novel, The Map of Lost Memories, the setting seems like a character of its own, both mingling with and driving the emotions of the main characters.

----The night seemed to shift, as if Shanghai were settling down into its foundation. A fitful cool struggled to press in from the distant East China Sea. Irene heard propellers thrashing against the black Whangpoo River. And she wondered what in hell had just happened, while below in the dark a melon had been split, its sweetness clinging to the humid air.

Matthew Kirby introduces the strong hold of the setting that the characters must deal with in the opening lines of Icefall.

---- The fjord is freezing over. I watch it from the edge of the cliff near our hall, and each day the ice claims more of the narrow winding ocean. It squeezes out the waves and the blue-black water, while it squeezes us in. Just as Father intended it to Winter is here to wall us up, to bury us in snow, and keep us safe.

And lastly, the characters in The Underneath by Kathi Appelt are deeply connected to and affected by their environment. This connection occurs, quite literally, from in the opening lines of the story.

--- There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a little while, and then abandoned on the side of the road. A small calico cat. Her family, the one she had lived with, has left her in this old and forgotten forest, this forest where the rain is soaking into her soft fur. 
--- How long has she been walking? Hours? Days? She wasn't even sure how she got here, so far from the town where she grew up. Something about a car, something about a long drive. And now here she is. Here in this old forest where the rain slipped between the branches and settled into her fur. 

It's effective, this use of setting by a writer. It helps the story make sense. It offers a sense of perspective. It also can help establish familiarity, even in places that are new to your reader. Thus, during the quieter moments of November, take the opportunity to consider your setting. How is it faring? Are you treating it with some attention? Does it need you to look toward it with patient eyes?  Perhaps doing so will help put your novel on course for a deeper dimension.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Earth Day and Stewardship, a challenge for writers

Earth Day came and went, and I wrote this post, but forgot I hadn't finished it. So, here we go.

It seems like as time goes on, Earth Day is no longer just a day that garners a bit of attention from a minority of the population once a year in April. Instead, the idea of Earth Stewardship has slowly taken hold of the public at large, as well as religious institutions and world leaders, presumably due to the problems that loom around every natural resource on our planet and which can no longer be so easily ignored. As such, this year marks numerous upcoming conferences and media events that spotlight the ramifications of adverse ecological change on the health and sustainability of the human population.  Of course, humans aren't the only living beings that will be affected, but it is with us and our fate that many can most easily relate, and so that is where the attention will predominately lie.

Keeping that in mind, I've decided to turn my attention to one of my own communities -- that of writers, and issue a challenge. Writers have a way of starting things. Garnering attention. Getting people to notice something and get excited about it. Things like, A to Z mystery series, cooking series, mysteries that involve cooking, furry creatures that evoke kindness, angels that inspire good deeds, ideas of life after death, and even ideas of cheating death.  Thus, I would like to challenge all writers to take notice of the way that all people depend on a healthy planet. And with those thoughts in mind, I would like to challenge writers to start invoking another idea, one that can go along with so many others that have taken hold -- the idea that tending to a healthy Earth is a good thing to do, an appealing thing to do, a smart thing to do, and maybe even sexy thing to do. Whatever slant works for you, my challenge is to have you see if you can work that perception into your stories. Not to teach -- that's the last thing we want to showcase in our stories -- but just to have the idea be an integral, inherent fiber of the overall fabric of whatever world it is that you strive to create in your storytelling.

I don't watch a lot of television, but I did catch that the series "New Girl," starring Zooey Deschanel as Jessica Day, has the idea of stewardship written into the story line of at least one episode with the fact that she apparently prefers environmentally-friendly products, for example. Thus, this challenge is doable, and I suspect it is already being done in many areas. But that doesn't mean that there isn't room for more growth in this area. Many more writers can inspire readers to take notice of what it means to live a sustainable life and how it can be done. Many more writers can write in a way that gets their readers to reflect on stewardship, and then perhaps some will be inspired or see how they can make changes toward achieving their own healthy, sustainable living.

We've got plenty of documentaries that show us the problems our world is facing, from slaughtered and diminishing dolphin populations, to dwindling giraffe populations, to deteriorating oceans that are drowning in plastics, to dwindling forests of all kinds, to melting glaciers and dying polar bears, to disappearing wetlands, to decreasing song birds and raptors, to unsustainable water practices, to toxic spills from industrial and agricultural wastes, and the list goes on and on. Yet, the source of the problem is the same. Us. And the problems continue. Not only with us, but most certainly with every other living creature on the planet, and also with the nonliving natural resources on which everything depends (i.e., water, air, soil, land).

But we as writers can be a part of the solution in showing how sustainable and Earth-friendly actions can be effortlessly done by simply infusing these behaviors into our stories, our characters, our decisions. And we as readers, perhaps can learn from them in a way that doesn't detract from the entertainment that we sought in the first place.

As a writer, I'm challenging myself. I'm challenging you. And I hope that in some way that will translate into challenging readers, who in turn can share and challenge each other..

Happy Earth Day. Happy Earth Year. Happy Earth Living. Happy Stewardship.   

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Got Eggs? The egg shortage of 2015

I recently read about the millions of chicken deaths in the Midwestern chicken farms due to some sort of bird flu, which has resulted in a shortage of eggs in the US and sky-rocketing egg prices. So, today I thought I'd share a recipe for an egg-free Black Forest Cake that I used to rely on many years ago when I was suffering from numerous food allergies that had descended upon me all at once after getting a weird immunization booster for being out of the country within the 10 years prior.  (I became allergic to all the foods in my system: milk, wheat, chicken, coffee, bananas, etc. But that's another story.)

Believe it or not, this cake was often requested at many social gatherings I went to, not only for the health-aspects of it (lower calorie), but for its great taste.  Perhaps the ingredient list will nudge you toward being creative with modifications to your own favorite recipes, if the need arises.

Black Forest Cake (from the Food Allergy News Cookbook)

2 cups sugar
3/4 cup milk-free, soy-free margarine (I use regular margarine now. And sometimes I substitute 1/4 margarine for 1/4 cup applesauce.)
1 1/2 cups boiling water
2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa
2 tsp. baking soda
2 Tablespoons oil, 3 Tablespoons water, 2 tsp baking powder, beaten together
1 1/8 tsp vanilla extract

canned cherries (I skipped this part, and just frosted the cake up with vanilla frosting)

I also need to add another optional ingredient, which helps offset the absence of eggs:  a small pinch of xanthan gum. This helps the cake to rise and stay risen after baking. Don't use too much or your cake will be stiff.  A tiny bit does go a long way. However, xanthan gum is expensive. Yet, it will last forever, and you can find that you can use it in many different recipes that need help in maintenance of consistency, like custards, or cheesecake, or whatever. That is an upside to the cost, provided you do a lot of cooking and dare to be adventurous in the kitchen. Xanthan gum also helps if you are gluten/wheat intolerant and need to bake with alternative flours, such as rice or tapioca or others. I found it especially helpful in those types of recipes I when had to develop them, because I couldn't eat anything else.

Back to the directions: 
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 2 round cake pans (I used a 13x9, instead). Cream together the sugar and margarine. Add the water and beat together. Sift dry ingredients together and add to the mixture. Add oil, water, and baking powder mixture. Add vanilla and beat well. Pour the batter into pans. Bake 30 minutes.

When cooled, spread canned cherries on top of one layer, put the other layer on top and frost with chocolate frosting.

Again, I used a 13 x 9 pan to make a single layer chocolate cake that I topped with vanilla frosting. Explore and enjoy your own!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

World Read Aloud Day, March 4, 2015

March 4 is World Read Aloud Day, sponsored by a group called WorldLit, whose mission is to "empower young people to author lives of independence, hope, and joy."

I love this mission statement, because I believe that one of the first steps toward living a life filled with independence, hope, and joy, is through learning to read and learning to read well.

However, a life of independence does not imply a life that is removed from others. Rather, a life of independence, spawned through developing a love of literature and development of one's own voice, actually becomes a life lived in connection with others. I believe these connections occur because reading nurtures a sense of empathy, which gives us the capability of linking ourselves to others in understanding and action.

Some of my very best memories from childhood are of those where I was sitting in my mother's arms, with my brother at my side, reading from storybooks aloud. Both my brother and I relished those moments with her, and bedtime often involved negotiations for "one more story," or at least one more page from the large bound book we frequently read from.

Indeed, I don't think the power of sharing favorite passages or even whole books aloud diminishes with age. Haven't you often shared a favorite or thought-provoking section of anything you've read--part of a magazine or newspaper or book--by reading it aloud to whomever you're with?

At some point or another, as adults, we've all read something aloud, or listened to writing being shared in some way. Today, more than ever, in a world being gobbled up by tech games and video, I encourage us all to consider fostering this cherished art -- reading aloud.

Since March 4 is World Read Aloud Day, how will you celebrate? What will you share with another person in your life?

Happy reading aloud day!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Weber State University Story-Telling Festival!

Treat yourself, Treat your family! 
Clearfield City Storytelling Festival
Event:  19th Weber State University Storytelling Festival
Dates/Times:  Monday-Wednesday, February 23-25, 2015, 9:30am to Noon each day with afternoon campus workshops and evening concerts
Out-of-State Featured Tellers:  Syd Lieberman, Lyn Ford, Kim & Reggie Harris, Pippa White
Treasured Tellers:  Virginia Rasmussen, Phyllis J. Savage
Utah Tellers:  Laurie Allen, Cathy Barker, Karl Behling, Daniel Bishop, Elaine Brewster, David Bullock, Kristen Clay, Cherie Davis, Kim Davis, Suzanne Decaria, Joan Effiong, Ann Ellis, Ted Erekson, Carol Esterreicher, Stephen Gashler, Mark Gollaher, Alan Griffin, Richard Hatch, Rachel Hedman, Suzanne Hudson, Billie Jones, Kathleen Lund, George McEwan, Jean Andra Miller, Janine Nishiguchi, Ginger Parkinson, Sam Payne, Aleksa Poulter, Tamra Pratt, Holly Robison, Sharon Rogers, David & Carol Sharp, Rene' Sheets, Jan C. Smith, Nannette Watts, Lynn Wing, Kate Young
Cost:  Free, open to all (only cost for those who wish to attend the Storytelling Festival Dinner at 6:30pm on Tuesday, Feb. 24th)
Monday-Tuesday--Eccles Conference Center (Peery's Egyptian Theatre), 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden
Wednesday--Davis Conference Center, 1651 N. 700 W., Layton 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Books for middle grade and YA readers

Every once in a while, Amazon will send me book recommendations that are tuned into my past reading preferences. Sometimes those recommendations focus on women's fiction. Sometimes they focus on children's picture books. And sometimes they are tied to books for younger readers, which is no surprise since I still shop for this age-group for my nieces.  Last week I was tickled at what they sent me. The list was a fantastic assortment from fantastic writers, and as it went, my book was nestled right alongside them.

I've known for some time that my book is comparable in style to others written by Wendy Mass, Helene Boudreau, and Lauren Myracle. As writers, we are expected to be able to name other books that our own compare to in order to provide a point of reference to inquiring editors, publishers, agents, and fellow readers. But it is nice to see that mathematical statistics and processing software at Amazon back up that kind of "soft" appraisal.

Thus, if you're wondering what kind of book you might get next for your middle-grade reader, perhaps you might find a treasure or two below. Does she identify with tween angst? Tween friendship dilemmas? Perhaps a bit of magic? Or, a tidbit of budding romance? All with some humor thrown in? Well, then this list is for you, courtesy of screen captures from my phone.

Happy shopping!
And Happy Valentine's Day, too.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Monday meme

One of my writers groups took the challenge to create memes. I'm not even sure what a meme is, but I thought I'd go with a pic I was playing with, even though it did not turn out the way that I'd imagined. This photo was taken a couple weeks ago on one of the few remaining carriage roads in New Hampshire. I used to walk and ride horseback on this road a lot while growing up as a kid. Those old New England rock walls run along the side of it, but they are hard to see in this photo, and have trees growing up from within them, anyway. Nevertheless, it is fun to wonder whose hands moved all those rocks into place 400 or so years ago. I see them everywhere when I go back home, although most are gone and are not as grand as they were with those rocks being moved into other uses.

The roads I walk today are a lot different from those of my youth, but some of the dreams I had when I was younger, still remain the same.