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I'm most recently a writer.  In the six plus decades of my life, I've been a wife, mother, grandmother, Jill of all trades though mistress of but a few, and most of the time pretty content with my lot.  As a much younger person, I believed I was called to write, but life and living distracted me for most of those decades.  An unwilling transplant from the South,  twenty years ago I unintentionally landed in the geographical center of the US.  Writing came about in part due to the unwillingness, I expect.  When caring for family, gardening, and renovating a century-old house failed to provide sufficient creative outlets, I turned to the one thing I always intended to do.  Eight titles later, I'm grateful I found myself while Lost in the Plains!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lost in the Plains: Rainy days, Mondays and George

Lost in the Plains: Rainy days, Mondays and George: Recently I heard a piece on NPR about Karen Carpenter, and what struck me was not the sad story of her all too brief life, but the impact o...

Lost in the Plains: Are You Out There?

Lost in the Plains: Are You Out There?: I've spent enough time on stage to fully appreciate the absolute necessity of a responsive audience.  I'm just learning that for a w...

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Are You Out There?

I've spent enough time on stage to fully appreciate the absolute necessity of a responsive audience.  I'm just learning that for a writer, the same is true.

Beginning in grade school (that's what we called it back then, sorry) and on through high school, I admit I grabbed every opportunity to put myself in that spine-tingling, stomach-twisting position of performing before a live audience.  I loved the preparation, learning lines, developing the nuances of a character, becoming someone other than myself.  I became addicted to the adrenaline rush of curtain time, the nobility of abandoning my fears for the sake of art, and most of all, listening for the audience's reaction. 

In the case of drama, the response is more of a spiritual thing, a spell which, with any luck, falls over both performers and audience with the same degree of intensity.  It's the stunning silence, the breathless, riveted focus and finally, it's that moment of absorption preceding the thunderous and respectful applause.  I haven't done much drama, but I recall the few instances I felt that communal gasp at the end, and my own gasp of relief that the audience was indeed still there.

Now comedy, with which I'm most familiar, is a different bird entirely.  The comedic actor feeds off his audience, lives and breathes for those laughs or even the occasional derisive snort.  Whether they are laughing at you or with you makes little difference.  Any sound at all means they're still hanging in there, willing to give you a chance to do your thing.  As an actor I counted on the audience to fuel my performance, to enable my abandonment of any sense of dignity and give it my all.  Without them, I wasn't funny.  With them, I was.  Simple as that.

I recall a particular matinee at the end of a very satisfying run of one of Neil Simon's comedies.  For three nights, my co-star and I had enjoyed the lively response of our audiences, been pushed to new bounds by their unrestrained laughter and obvious appreciation of our modest efforts.  Sunday afternoon crowds are by nature less boisterous.  A matinee often follows morning worship and a visit to the local brunch buffet.  The crowd frequently includes ladies of a certain age who attend in groups, still dressed in their Sunday best.  They are more likely to smile when amused, and applaud politely.  They are frankly more likely to nod off during long passages of dialogue, as well.  Halfway through this performance, I recall feeling completely alone, save for my on-stage companion.  If the audience was even still in the house, they were at best chuckling softly or at worst staring with glazed expressions or disapproving boredom.  Either way, I threw more into that performance than into any of the others, on the off chance that someone out there was still awake and had a sense of humor.  Why not?  I had nothing to lose now.  I'd already lost my audience.

Surprisingly, the applause at the end was much more than just polite and we were greeted with numerous warm compliments after the curtain dropped.  But it wasn't the same, was it?  What we needed to make the show memorable for us was their instantaneous reaction, their participation in the magic of live theater.  It's lovely to have someone thank you for your work, but it's better by far to know they're nudging the person in the seat next to them as they share a laugh.

So, back to my original point.  You write a book, or books, you put them where they'll be seen and hopefully read.  You know people are buying them, you even know people who've bought them, and it's safe to presume a certain number are actually reading them.  Then you hear from someone, a nice email or message on Facebook, even the occasional surprising letter or phone call, and the response is overwhelmingly positive.  Like that first laugh from the audience, you begin to relax, to feel you've found your stride.  It's all downhill from here. 

And then silence.  The reviews, which may be positive, even glowing, are a slow trickle.  Sales are sporadic.  Have you lost them?  Was that first wave just a fluke and now the reality of mediocrity is settling in?  If I were on stage in front of my potential readership, I could broaden my gestures, extend my double-takes, maybe even try a pratfall.  Anything to shake you from this unbearable quiet!  As a writer, the deed is done, the books are written.  I can only wait, hoping one happy reader will nudge the person next to them and pass the word.  I have no choice but to spam my Facebook friends, hand out my business cards, and wait.  It's torture, frankly, relieved only by those miraculous moments when a reader throws me a lifeline in the form of a "Thanks for the wonderful books," or better yet, "I'm recommending this to all my friends." 

I know you're out there, silent as you may seem at times.  I guess the old actor in me still craves the beautiful noise only an enthralled audience can make.  I love to hear from you, whatever you have to say, just to let me know you haven't nodded off!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Rainy days, Mondays and George

Recently I heard a piece on NPR about Karen Carpenter, and what struck me was not the sad story of her all too brief life, but the impact of her rich, warm-as-cocoa-on-a-cold-night voice, singing to me out of the past.  There are blessed moments like that, transporting us to an instant in time when our hearts were forever touched by something as simple as a song on the radio or an image on a television screen. 

I'm old enough now to appreciate the value of those moments.  Any flashback of another time and place likely includes those who shared it with me, or the comforting solitude of a familiar place I will likely never be again.  Oddly, the sweetness of these memories far outweighs any sadness.  Oh, I may tear up for a moment or two, but the tears are welcome evidence of just how much I treasure the reminder.

Today is not only a rainy Monday, but it is George Harrison's birthday.  Now, without going into too
much sappy detail, let it suffice to say that more years ago than I care to count, I fell in love for the first time with the dark eyes and crooked smile of a young man from a world away, and frankly, I never fell out of love.  Something (not meaning to quote the song) in what I saw on a black and white television screen stirred more than just idol worship, but a deep, abiding bond I'm not ashamed to admit exists to this day. 

I won't attempt to explain it.  I'm certain I'm not the only one to have experienced this kind of thing.  While I never got closer to him in reality than one memorable concert in 1974, I've had a rich relationship with George all through the years.  I recall with painful clarity the day I saw the announcement of his first marriage in the newspaper.  I even remember my mother's sympathetic support of my devastation at the news. I also recall too vividly the morning my radio came on to wake me with the news of his death.  In between, I seemed destined to come upon him at odd moments, to find his voice in my ears when I needed a friendly presence.  Whether in the car, on an elevator, or walking through a mall, it often felt as though he appeared at just the time I most needed him.  Silly?  Maybe, but I can testify to how each isolated incident warmed my heart and soothed my soul.  That's just what George did for me.

Today, George Harrison would be celebrating seventy years of life well-lived.  One night last week, a Facebook friend shared the link to a U-tube video of the Traveling Wilburys performing "End of the Line."  As I commented to her, it gave me a "moment" in an otherwise momentless night.  More than just the pleasure of seeing his famous smile and hearing his voice, I was struck anew by the message in those lyrics.  Everything about that song pays tribute to the philosophy George held dear, the gentle, do no harm but remain true to yourself kind of life he's been repeatedly memorialized for.  For a few minutes, on a cold, quiet night in Kansas of all places, George walked in with his slow-rocking anthem to once again warm and soothe.

Thanks, George, and happy birthday!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Remembering Truthfully

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!" -- Sir Walter Scott

I've always vowed to be honest with the oncoming generations. Not that I feel compelled to volunteer my backstory, but if asked, I would answer honestly.  I learned first hand what a shock it can be to discover that the final drafts of the lives of my elders had been revised for my benefit, and I suspect for theirs, too.  Whatever I've done, it was with the knowledge that I would be foolish to believe simply not telling my children would prevent them from eventual discovery. The truth has a mystical gift for wending its way to daylight.  Now I find with the next generation, my grandchildren, I'm wishing I could amend that vow.

Yesterday I spent some time locked in the inescapable intimacy of a car with my twelve-going-on-twenty-five year-old granddaughter.  Let me just say that hers, through no fault of anyone other than fate,  has not been the idyllic childhood we all wish for our grandchildren.  She has grown up with a great deal of unavoidable responsibility, thus her post-mature attitudes and interests. I've said many times that she will either grow up to be a very strong woman, or spend years in therapy.  No matter which, she is already someone I have great admiration and respect for.  I could never lie to her, never look into her wise brown eyes and attempt to deceive her, any more than I could have with my own mother, who never failed to extract the truth from me, shameful or not.

This is not the first time my granddaughter has grilled me about my history.  With each such inquisition, I'm only too aware that she brings more of her own knowledge and understanding of such matters to the table.  I remember myself at her age, in the relative innocence of the early 1960's, and am suspicious of how much more a child of her generation must have seen and heard.  When she pins me with that penetrating gaze and begins her questioning, I'm leery of the judgement she may already have made about my answers.

But I will not lie to place myself in a purer light.  It wouldn't do any good.  Her mother knows the story, the characters and the confusing plot twists.  She may choose to color them a little differently to suit her own sensibilities, but she would not expect me to do the same.  She knows me too well. 

Now don't get the idea that I've left a wake of death and destruction, or done hard time for my crimes.  My life, frankly, is much like so many of my generation, more than one marriage, more than one divorce, step-children nurtured and then lost along with homes and communities when it came time to rebuild.  It never fails to amaze and to some degree comfort me to find these things parallelled in so many of the women I meet, women I admire for their resilience and optimism as we approach old age still shaking the dust of past lives from our shoes.

So when my granddaughter asks, I answer, with as little editorializing as possible.  I do not cast anyone as the villain, and certainly not myself as the victim.  If there was sadness or regret, I let her know that, but I resist dramatizing the events that prompted our actions.  If there was tragedy, I try to point out that we were not the only ones touched by such events, and make sure she knows it is better not to hide them behind veiled language or embarrassed whispers.  When the discussion runs its natural course, I know that one day in the near future, there will be more she wants to know.  This is simply enough for now.

I pray that she will never be forced to make these kinds of choices, or have them made for her, but I also pray that should that happen, she will be a little wiser for knowing someone who succeeded in moving on while still remembering truthfully.  Maybe a small part of me wishes I hadn't exposed so much of myself, that I could have trimmed a few details to better fit the image I have of my one near-perfect grandmother.  But what if in the end she learned the truth and confronted me with her disappointed accusations, as I've longed to do with my other, not nearly so perfect grandmother?  Better to be gently honest now, than bitterly truthful then.

Whatever prompts her curiosity, I like to think she's satisfied with my answers.  Maybe, I also like to think, she will learn from what I tell her that a life is what it is, and its real worth is in what we make of it.  By remembering it truthfully, we honor our lives, and those who've moved in and out of it, for what they could teach us and what we chose to learn from them.  If that's the lesson I can pass on to her, I'm willing to be the not-so-perfect grandmother, the one with the potentially tangled backstory.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Here's to Birthdays--Like 'em or Not

I'll start right off by telling you that today is my sixty-first birthday.  That sounds pretty intimidating, even to me.  Last year, on my milestone sixtieth, I declared it was only a number, after all.  This year it seems more like an age.  The next milestone involves Social Security and Medicare, after all.  Ugh!

That out of the way, I'd like to revisit last year's birthday.  It lasted a full two weeks and was by far the best celebration I've ever had of that kind.  Months in advance, I started to plan what we decided would be my Sixtieth Birthday Road Trip, two weeks of going places and doing things I had wanted to do but hadn't gotten around to.  Not a "bucket list" really, but a list of wishes which seemed to be  pushed further and further out of reach by the business of life.

We set off on my actual birthday, first taking the route to Florida which after thirteen years here in the Plains has become familiar.  Two days through Arkansas and Alabama, and finally into North Florida, where the celebration really began with lunch at Sonny's Barbeque in Marianna, FL.  When you see the signs for Sonny's you know you're close to home.  Home in this case being Tallahassee, where I know without a doubt I lived my best life. 

Three days there to visit family and friends and worship in the church where we were married, we headed for the coast on a rainy Sunday evening.  Now the trip had really begun for me, the part where I would touch my roots, revisit my past and see faces I hadn't seen in years, for possibly the last time.  Our first destination was Bodie Island Lighthouse, a place I'd never been, but which loomed large in my family's legend.  This small light, just north of the much better known Cape Hatteras, was the stuff of my paternal grandfather's history.  As a small boy, for a time he had lived on Bodie Island, where his father served as assistant light keeper.  He had told wonderful tales of his life there, stories which appealed to the romantic in me even as a small child.  I'd been given photographs by other family members who'd visited, but I wanted to see for myself the tiny duplex cottage, and feel the ocean breeze on my face once more. 

It as a perfect day, clear sky, brilliant sunlight, warm for late February.  We paid our visit to the museum which today occupies the keepers' quarters, and then I trekked across the dunes to get a good, long look at the Atlantic.  Funny to think how I had taken that endless body of gray green water for granted all my young life.  A child of the Piedmont, trips to the coast were frequent.  I had family in Newport News and Portsmouth.  Fishing off the pier at Buckrow or visits to swim in the surf were nothing out of the ordinary.  I spent several summer weeks at 4-H camp at Virginia Beach making the kind of memories only an adolescent girl can make.  But I'd never taken time to appreciate that ocean as it should be.  Now, at Bodie, I took a moment to pay homage to my ancestors who'd sailed from England and Ireland to these very beaches, to recognize the enormity and gravity of their undertaking and give thanks for whatever motivated their daring venture to a new world.

By that evening, we were on our way to Virginia.  In Farmville, where I graduated high school and spent my brief college career at Longwood, we visited my uncle and aunt, now both near ninety.  It was the best visit possible, filled with reminiscences and gentle laughter.  I treasure it because both of them were still well enough to enjoy their life of sixty-some years together, despite the limitations imposed by age and failing health.  I want to remember them as they were during those hours, in case that was the last such visit we ever share.  They played a huge part in my upbringing, helping my young widowed mother rebuild her life, and they modeled for me the best kind of marriage, one based on not only love, but mutual respect and unconditional support.

The day would get even better, as it turned out.  Several years earlier, I had been called out of the blue by a friend from childhood I hadn't seen since I was ten-years-old.  (See Those Who Weave for more about this.)  Ronnie had insisted that if I ever got back to the area, we must get together to talk over "old times."  Now I wasn't sure I remembered the "old times" as he did, but this was another of those opportunities that might never come again. 

We arranged to meet Ronnie and his brother Mike, who is my age and was the best companion a little girl could have at five or six, at the cemetery of Jetersville Christian Church where much of my mother's family is buried.  Ronnie knew I would go there, if nowhere else. You see, our family settled around what would become the tiny village of Jetersville in the 1720's on a six hundred acre land grant from the British crown. They remained through four wars and any number of generations, and when I lived there as a child, we were related by whatever distance to almost every other family  in the village.  That's the place, no matter where I roam, I must always consider home. 

I had no idea what to expect.  I hadn't seen these now old men in nearly fifty years.  We had been childhood playmates, but they knew little of my adult life and I knew less of theirs.  So how is it that at first sight, on looking into the eyes of my childhood pal, I recognized him instantly as the friend he had been all those lifetimes ago?  We cried, of course, and we hugged and laughed, both a little relieved, I expect.  The subsequent visit, at a little diner which had been a frequent haunt during the final years of my life in Jetersville as a teenager and young wife and mother, lasted three hours and touched off memories I hadn't known I'd stored.  It was the highest of the high points of my trip.  I realized that while I can never go home again, home lives on in those of us who remember those days for the gifts they were, a time when no matter what adult realities burdened our innocence, we were free to play for mindless hours, to sit under ancient oak trees and dream of futures we might never have, to mold golden memories which would reinforce our faith in our world and ourselves, even when the soon-to-be present threatened to tarnish them.

There were other good times on the rest of the trip, but that's another post.  Touching the ground walked by my parents and grandparents, and by my own young self, looking into faces from the past and being recognized only as one can be by someone who "knew you when," was my birthday gift to myself.  It made turning that corner past sixty a joy I can treasure for the rest of my life, made getting older seem much more like an adventure worth pursuing, if there's more of that kind of thing to come.  As I've said before, I have come late to realizing a lot of my dreams, but then again maybe I'm not late.  Maybe this is just meant to be my time.

Monday, February 18, 2013

On Death, Downton and Dangling Plot Lines

There's plenty of animated conversation around last night's US airing of Downton Abbey.  Frankly, when I turned off my TV last night, I was leaning toward writing it out of my limited viewing schedule next season.  The death of Matthew Crawley eliminates the series' most relatable character and tips the balance back in favor of diehard aristocrats and their equally socio-economically shackled servants struggling against a post-WWI world in which we all know they are destined to become extinct.  That said, this morning, I saw things from a different perspective, that of writer Julian Fellowes, whose razor sharp pen gives Downton its stunning brilliance.

Presumably, Fellowes knew well in advance that Matthew would have to go. However, there are always last minute reprieves in cases of actors and their contractual decisions, so just in case, we never actually see Matthew hauled away to the cemetery.  The most remote of possibilities exists that, as in previous notable instances, what seemed a fatal accident was not and Matthew might yet rise to reclaim his role as Downton's all-round knight-in-shining-armor.  That is probably wishful thinking.  Barring that miracle (and bear in mind, Matthew already recovered from one tragic injury to marry the love of his life and father a child, so miracles do happen, even at Downton) Matthew is survived by a handful of dangling plot lines in which his memory will no doubt be honored.  Will Lady Mary and Branson unite across the social barricade to carry on the modernization of the estate? (Hard to imagine the Ice Princess thawing enough to succumb to the hunky Irishman's charms, but if anyone could make that plausible, it would be Fellowes.)  Will Edith and her editor move forward with their illicit romance, undetected by the Family?  Matthew was after all the only one who knew of the secret and insane wife standing in the way of their happiness.  Will Matthew's mother, Isobel, make a U-turn in her grief and fall into the arms of the sincere and needy Dr. Clarkson?  With Matthew's death, many have lost their champion. Surely there are other heroes waiting in the wings to pick up his fallen standard, perhaps even more charming and boyishly noble than he?

I suppose, after all, I will tune in next year, if only to see what sort of magic Fellowes works with the surviving cast.  If nothing else, there's the joy of watching Maggie Smith do what only she can do, slash to the jugular with the arch of an eyebrow, or heart-breakingly portray the grief of a grandmother with one faltering step across the marble foyer. 

As a writer (and don't for one moment think I place myself in the company of one such as Julian Fellowes!), plot lines can be unruly creatures.  If I'm trying to write about characters whose lives have some relevance to the readers' own experience, as opposed to super-heroes, vampires, aliens, zombies or nymphomaniacs, I feel it necessary to pace their lives accordingly.  We've all lived through periods of change, upheaval and grief, blessedly spaced with times of relative stability, peace and happiness. The mundane must march with the memorable.  I've seen no reason yet to radically alter the progression of their lives by killing off one of my characters, or irreparably ending a relationship, for that matter, in order to tie up a dangling plot line.  Even as I completed this latest addition to my series, which at times I admit I thought might be the last, I found it implausible to bring every couple to a happy-ever-after, or resolve all outstanding issues, whether past, present or future.  Life isn't like that.  We've all read in books, or witnessed on screens large and small, the phenomenon of everyone and everything rushing together in the last few pages or minutes to leave the audience with a sigh of exhausted relief and the cryptic sense that nothing ever happens quite that way. 

Perhaps it's better to leave some things unfinished, a few threads dangling to entice the imagination.   Downton Abbey sits majestically awaiting its future, my little series leaves open the possibility there will be "more in the life of" additions.  Each of our lives moves ahead in anticipation of what might happen tomorrow. We all need something to look forward to next season.

Tune in next time!

Friday, February 15, 2013

What, No Dog?

It's been a doggy sort of week.  First the Westminster Dog Show, which always has the power to make me smile and feel fortunate to live in a society which treasures its canine companions to such an enormous degree.  I look at these obviously outstanding animals and marvel at their patience, willingness, and down-right joy at being groomed to the nines, intimately examined by a total stranger in front of the entire world, and strutted around a ring under the scrutiny of a pack of equally spectacular wannabes.  At the end of the day, they put out the ultimate in showmanship for the sake of a "Good dog!" and a treat.

As we speak, I'm grand-dog sitting for Sweet Pea the Llasa and Gigi the Schnauzer, my daughter's pampered and exuberant darlings.  When I went to check on them this morning, they overwhelmed me with just over twenty pounds of combined adorableness.  They have this knack of making me feel they've missed me desperately and just the sight of me has made their day.  They're con artists, no doubt, but I'm more than willing to be conned by that kind of unconditional affection.

My own dog, a Cocker named Raleigh, is much the same.  But like every spaniel, his ultimate goal must be to systematically search out every corner, every trash can and beneath every piece of furniture for whatever his uber-keen nose suggests is, was or ever has been hidden there.  He loves me, but he is constantly distracted by scents no human nose could ever detect.  Much like the dog in the wonderful film "Up," every other minute his focus is drawn from expressing his untiring devotion to rummaging for granola bar wrappers.  When he finally exhausts the search, he collapses into a curly black heap on the most convenient piece of furniture, sleeping so soundly I have to check for signs of life.  Raleigh can be classified, with no disrespect intended, as a thoroughly goofy kind of dog, nothing resembling those noble examples of his breed at Westminster.  But he's my dog and I love him.

When I first shared my writing with my husband John (see yesterday's post for details), one of his persistent suggestions was the addition of a dog.  "But Emily lives on a farm.  There has to be dog!"
"No dogs!  People have to stay home to have a dog, and none of these characters stays in one place long enough to be a good dog owner," was my unflagging stand on the issue.  A touring concert violinist would not have time for a dog.  A nursing student, then special duty nurse, would not leave her noble companion at the mercy of neighbors on a remote farm for weeks on end while she was off at school or work.  Besides, a dog is a device I felt no need for.  There were already enough supporting characters popping up in the plot, without the addition of animals.  Eventually I did give in and add a couple of cats and a mule who were actually central to the progression of the story.  But no dogs!  I'd feel guilty about relegating them to secondary roles and have to make of point of seeing they were properly appreciated by their humans.  Too much trouble for my characters and for me.

That said, while watching all the wonderful Highland breeds parading their noble selves in the ring at Madison Square Garden the other night, I did see several potential candidates for future editions in the series.  There are, after all, children entering the fictional world at Valley Rise Farm. All children need dogs in their lives, need to experience the devotion and protection of a special furry friend and learn to be responsible for seeing that their parents care for the pet properly.  I haven't committed to the idea completely, and I certainly haven't told John yet.  That would only open the ongoing discussion of what kind of dog, who its master or mistress will be, and what kind of adventures it will play a role in.  Not a conversation I'm ready to have just yet.  Besides, I want to make the choice myself.  Big dog or small, male or female, purebred or mutt?  Maybe he or she will be a hero, like Lassie, or then again a rogue or a comedian.  Once this dog becomes clearer in my vision, then maybe I'll break the news to John that we're getting a dog after all.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Okay, About These Books. . .

Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above.--Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee

I really don't intend to make this a blog about my books.  Then again, if it weren't for these books, I doubt I'd ever have thought to write a blog.  It's one of the things every writer is apparently supposed to do before they publish, but as with many things in my life, I'm coming to it a little late. 

I'll take this opportunity, on the day of hearts and love, to tell you some things about the books and how they came to be.  Then I can get back to just blogging about random thoughts (until something else comes up about the books that I really want you to know.) 

I started writing two years ago this past October.  I spilled words on paper at an astonishing rate for a woman whose typing skills had long since rusted to a crawl.  I started out in longhand actually, but my handwriting is so bad, even I couldn't stand to read it.  I had an aging desktop computer with nothing more advanced than Notepad, but I had to start somewhere.  Thank heaven my wonderfully supportive cousin put me on to Open Office.  I mastered that, which felt much like a climber must feel at the top of Everest.  Meanwhile, the words were flowing like the Ganges at flood stage.  You see, there was no reason to stem the tide because I was writing only for myself. There was never any danger that anyone would read this ever-growing pile of pages.

That said, I really wanted someone to read my story.  I had fallen in love with my characters and wanted someone else to meet them.  I twisted my husband's arm until he gave in and took pencil in hand, which is the only way he can read anything after 25 years as a proofreader.  To say I was terrified of his reaction would be the understatement of the century.  I sat tense as a cat while he turned pages and made his little marks(I'm severely comma-challenged) without saying a word.  And then the miracle moment came.  John cried.  Now you have to understand, my husband is a musician, and he gets weepy at pretty much everything from Mahler to Man of La Mancha.  But here he was, sniffing back tears at something I had written.  Talk about joy in the morning!  I could have died a happy woman right then.

We went on like that for several months, me writing as fast as I could and John reading.  We started to discuss the characters and their stories as though they were members of our family.  John began to cast the movie version, while I was riding a wave of creative euphoria.  We share almost everything in life, but this was a new high, even for us.

There came a day when he said we'd lost any hope of objectivity, that I had to let someone else read what I'd written.  He suggested I had two friends I could rely on for an honest opinion and hounded me until I called them to ask reluctantly if they would consider reading the first two chapters, basically so I could get him to give up the ridiculous notion that I'd written anything worthy of publication.

The rest, as they say, is history.  The response, from those first two honest and generous friends to the readers who email and message me today, has been astonishing.  I wrote the book I wanted to read and apparently there are actually others who wanted it too.  All those words became four books.  They chronicle the love story of two people, their friends, and the twists and turns of their lives.  It's a simple tale, really, about love in all its incarnations, not only romantic love, but the love of parents and children, the love of neighbor for neighbor.  It is, overall, the story of the transforming power of love in the context of a relationship between God and man.  The title Hearts Unfold sums it up pretty well.  In this very character-driven story, that is precisely what happens.

If you look to the right of this post, you'll see the page "Where to Buy the Books."  Click the link to any of the titles and thanks to the wonder of technology, you'll instantly arrive at the Amazon.com site.  Click the cover for a "Look Inside" and you can read a nice chunk of the book without risking a dime. Simple.  I'm thrilled you took the time to take a look!

Happy Valentines Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Career Option{al}

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might;  Ecclesiastes 9:10a

Let me just say how much I admire (and even envy) women my age who have maintained a career while doing everything else women my age have done.  To have set out on a path which led them through a fulfilling work life to a pension deserves congratulations.  To have risen through the ranks in what I understand is still a male-dominated world despite all our aspirations to the contrary must bring enormous satisfaction at the end of the day. 

I'll never know.  That road was never really open to me, and if it had been, I would most likely not have chosen it.  And I'm quite content with that.

I have worked at so many jobs that my resume, the last time I put one together, seemed to be a patchwork of several women's lives.  I've worked in retail, in medical offices, in a nursing home (top of the list of all time most rewarding), sold custom decorating for a large department store (bottom of the list), more retail, had my own business as a bridal alterationist (second to the top), managed a flower shop(doesn't every woman  at some time in her life say she wants to work in a flower shop?) and now I'm a desk clerk in a small, very nice hotel (right up there at the top, come to think of it.)  In between I've worked in a day care center, a Jewish Community Center Preschool, a church nursery and sold Avon, Mary Kay and Shaklee. 

Don't start to think I'm unstable.  I've never been fired and I left most of these jobs because of factors which had little to do with the work itself.  Changing domestic situations, relocations, health issues and better offers kept me moving.  It was pretty obvious early on that I was never going to land in one of those jobs that would some day provide security in my old age, so why not follow where life sent me? 

Looking back, I believe that was the plan for me from the beginning.  I was destined to take Frost's road less traveled and stray down every appealing byway because there I would encounter people and places, experience vast variety, and acquire an education custom-crafted for me. I give thanks for the souls who shared portions of their journeys with me, treasure the neighborhoods, churches and workplaces which allowed me to share and expand my talents, and most of all I celebrate my uncalculated arrival at each point in my life. Finding yourself faced with new opportunities and challenges, offered options you never considered for yourself, and picking up the thread of life in a new and sometimes uninviting place is a gift of untold worth.

I've worked hard, learned a lot (sometimes the hard way, I admit) and I have no regrets. That security would be nice, but I would never choose it over the wealth accumulated on my winding career path.  This new phase, finally doing the thing I thought I was meant to do before my journey even began, is yet another now filling with people and experiences I never expected to encounter.  Maybe I've come full circle, or maybe this is another of those byways.  Either way, I'll put everything I have into it and welcome whatever the outcome.  I've made a career of  that kind of thing, after all.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My Best Friend

I want to tell you about my best friend.  Now is a good time, since she's always on my mind around Valentines Day.  Not that Nancy was a big fan of frivolous, romantic holidays.  Far from it.  I don't think we ever discussed it, but knowing Nancy, nothing remotely frivolous got much respect, and I feel sure she preferred  the music of the Romantic era, Beethoven or Brahms, over a sappy love song.

Nancy and I met because she was my children's teacher.  We were about as different at first glance as two women could be.  That never got in our way.  You know those rare and wondrous times when you meet a person and feel an instant recognition, as if you've known one another in some other life?  That must have been the case with Nancy and me, because regardless of the obvious differences, we were best friends in the finest sense of that overused label from the get-go.

We did the usual things, lunch and shopping.  We spent one very memorable evening in her swimming pool with a bottle of wine (after almost injuring ourselves attempting to uncork the thing in a scene worthy of Lucy and Ethel) discussing everything from childhood angst to motherhood to men.  That out of the way, we settled down to saving each other's lives.

Nancy was responsible for my first meeting with the man who turned out to be the love of my life.  She didn't set us up, but she was right there cheering us on once the flicker turned to flame.  I insisted she stand up with me at our wedding, ignoring her strident protests about the indignity of being a 55 year-old bridesmaid.  I'm pretty sure she secretly loved the role; she pulled it off with her usual panache, leaving me feeling like a pale understudy to the star, as usual.

Did I mention that Nancy was an actress?  One of the best I ever had the honor to dress in my career as a community theater costume designer.  I can sum up her talents by telling you that when she starred in our production of "Mame,"  everyone came to the realization that Nancy, in truth, was Mame.  She was larger than life, bursting with energy and invariably in character, in life as well as on the stage.

The last months I spent with Nancy were the best of our friendship.  Diagnosed with cancer and told there were no treatment options, Nancy took the bull by the horns, the very thing I would have expected her to do.  She traveled to Mexico for alternative treatments, threw herself into living and cried a lot.  One day on the phone, during one of our mutual crying spells, I asked the question, "What can I do?" and Nancy told me.  "Get your calm little self out here and help me."

That was the most generous thing she could have done for me.  At the time, I thought she needed me, and for some practical things like hemming drapes and minding her dogs, she did.  But as time has passed, I know she did it because I needed to be with her, to accept what was happening and prepare for life without her.  It was the ultimate act of friendship and one I will forever treasure.

I don't need to tell you about the hours we shared, the things we talked about or the tears I cried on every drive to and from her home during those weeks.  Suffice it to say we had never been closer, more on each other's side and we both had good memories to savor in the end.  The last day we spent together, she asked me to read to her.  I was desperately trying to keep up with the reading for my Bible study class, and I read the entire Gospel of Mark aloud that rainy afternoon.  Each time I thought Nancy might have drifted off she'd make a face, or a little prompting noise, to let me know I should keep going.  I believe she heard every verse, and it was a comfort to think she would take the sound of my voice reading those words with her on the next leg of her journey.  I'm pretty sure that's the way she intended it to be, for both of us.

Two days later, on Valentines Day, my husband took me to a lovely lunch at our favorite French restaurant and that night we saw a wonderful production of "Company" featuring a cast full of our theater friends.  When we got home, word was waiting. Nancy was gone.  It seemed fitting, really, that we had been sharing the joy Nancy had wanted for us, enjoying the pastime we had all loved, while Nancy, surrounded by her family, had gracefully exited the stage. 

Do I still miss her?  Every day.  Do I still talk to her?  More often than I'd admit.  When I started writing in earnest, I could feel her right there looking over my shoulder, encouraging and offering the occasional English teacher's critique.  A friend like Nancy comes along once in a lifetime.  There's no real term-limit on a friendship like that.  No matter what, we'll always be best friends.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Those Who Weave

I had an email this morning informing me of the death of someone I've known since childhood.  The email was from a friend from that same bygone time, from a place that lives on in our shared memories, but no longer really exists.  It set me thinking of the magical way our lives weave a pattern of surprising beauty and strength, even though many of us have gone our very separate ways.

The friend who sent the email is a perfect example of that magic. Ron and I shared only a few years of our young lives in the village where I grew up, before his family moved away in what I saw as one of the great tragedies of my life.  He is the middle of three brothers, the youngest of which is my age, so it surprised me to no end when several years ago, his telephone call reconnected our lives.  He's made a mission of staying in touch with the people he describes as having made the greatest impact on him as a boy, the population of less than 100 inhabitants of that little village.  He goes to church homecomings and funerals, and is invited to class reunions, although he didn't actually graduate from the county high school.  He tracked me down through a mutual acquaintance, an antique dealer I'd sold some of my mother's treasures to when I closed up her house several years earlier.  Thanks to the Internet, he found my number and called to say, "I don't know if you remember me, but. . ."

We kept in touch, and last year on my 60th Birthday Road Trip, the highlight was sitting in a little diner for three hours with Ron and Mike, the brother I was closest to, and catching up on a past I left behind almost forty years ago.  Names, places and events sprang to life as one after the other "Do you remember?" brought back memories I didn't know I still had.  It was a true homecoming for this child who was raised by that village, but for many reasons felt the need to move on.  People like Ron are a gift to those of us who can't go home again because home is no longer there.

Another recent email from Ron informed me of a possible reunion of what they are calling the "Jetersville Gang."  We're all over 60 now.  I'm actually one of the youngest of the gaggle of children who played from yard to yard, climbed trees, sledded down "the hill" and chased lightning bugs.  I can only imagine the stories we've lived, if we all sat down to tell them.  I for one wouldn't know where to begin.  Marriages, births, divorces, deaths ,and all the things that fit between those milestones, have passed through our lives by now.  Most likely, such a reunion will provide the occasion for many more of those magical "Do you remember. . ." journeys.

I don't know that I'll be able to attend.  What I know is that just the idea makes me happy. The pattern will be woven with yet another stripe, the bond will be strengthened, and the home we can't go back to will be honored in the memories of those who, however briefly, shared its security.

Thanks Ron.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Reviews--What I've learned so far

Quite frankly, reviews scare me to death.  The moment you put your work out there for anyone and everyone to read(hopefully), there's the possibility they'll tell you just what they think.  In much the same way you know your children's faults, you may know the flaws in your writing, but you don't necessarily need to hear about them from anyone else.

Now I've been very fortunate.  I haven't gotten many reviews, and all of them have been kind.  So far.  I'm sure the day will come when someone feels the need to slam my books, if only because they don't like clean, inspirational romance and there are no walking dead in my stories.  Seriously, there are those who will read a book they know they won't enjoy, and then post a 1-star review, maybe just because they've had a really bad week and they can't take it out on anyone else.  That's what scares me.  There's nothing more fragile than the feelings of a sixty-something-year-old woman who's dared to self-publish her first completed work.  That review will really hurt!

There's another side to reviews that has cost me some sleep, the in-person review, or more precisely, the lack thereof.  Someone will tell me they've started reading one of my books.  They love it!  So far.  I wait, I wonder, I anticipate.  I never hear another word from them.  At least not about my book.  Do you know how awkward it is to run into that person in Walmart and want so much to ask "Did you hate it?" and instead just smile and make some comment about the weather?  I'm learning to let go of the anticipation, finally.  It's a phenomenon I can't explain, but I have to accept that it will happen, time and time again, apparently. 

There's also the issue of asking for reviews.  It's uncomfortable, like solicitation of any kind.  I'm not good at asking for things.  I'd like to think people would want to let the world know their opinion.  That certainly seems to be the case everywhere you turn.  Readers, people I don't know and won't run into in Walmart, email and comment on FB with lovely things to say about my books.  A few have actually posted reviews, but only a very few.  Now I love hearing those things, but I'd also love for someone else, say the potential readers browsing on Amazon, to hear them.  Unfortunately, I can't copy and paste them there.  I subtly(for the most part)suggest that a review would be appreciated.  Once in a while, it works.

I don't really mind not having a couple dozen reviews on each of my books at this point.  At least I've been spared the less than appreciative ones.  However, there's another side to accumulating reviews.  If I want to promote on any of the sites like Kindleboards and others which inform readers of what's out there, I must have at least 5 to 10 reviews adding up to at least a 4-star rating.  Those are the rules, and so far, only Hearts Unfold has achieved that.  Also, reviews lead browsers to books.  They can choose to view only x#-star rated books, and if there are no reviews, the book won't even come up for consideration.  A necessary evil, I suppose. 

Why am I telling you this?  Maybe it sounds like fishing for praise, or even whining?  That's not my motivation.  When I look at a book, mine or anyone else's, and see that it has 0 reviews after x-number of months on the market, I can't help but wonder "what's wrong with it?"  If it hasn't inspired anyone to even declare it "a waste of time" or "a noble effort", if it hasn't prompted anyone to take the time to post so much as a brief opinion, then it must not be much of a book. Books are after all meant to touch something in the reader, be it good or bad.  If that reader, at the end of the book, feels something, anything, the book has done its job.  If ambivalence is all the reader feels, that's kind of sad.

I'll continue to hope for more reviews, brace for the negative and get all teary-eyed at the positive.  And the sight of a new review on any of my books will always prompt an initial gasp of anxiety.  That said, in the end, no matter what they have to say, I'll be pleased that someone out there took the time not only to read my work, but to tell the world of readers about it.  That let's me know my little book has done its job.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Who's cool?

You'd think with by now, after doing this self-publishing thing for over a year, I'd have gotten over the thrill/terror of the process.  Think again, my friends!
Last night, I uploaded the fourth title in my series, a book I hope will live up to the expectations of kind readers who've let me know they were looking forward to its release.  For the first time, I admit to feeling a little pressure.  I've never had a readership before, and the last thing I'd ever want to do is disappoint any one of them.  I think this is a book I can be proud of.  I poured a great deal of myself into it.  So finally getting it to this point qualifies as a big moment in my admittedly brief publishing career.
When I went to bed at midnight, the book was not yet "live" on Kindle, but when I got up at around 2am, there it was!  I think the cover looks beautiful in thumbnail form, everything on the product page seems in order.  Now all I need to do is let my friends know it's there and pray that others will somehow find their way to it as well. So I'm on Facebook and emailing for a good thirty minutes.  Then back to bed.
At 4am, I'm back at the computer just to check on things.  No one's seen my posts.  (Did I really think anyone else was up at that hour?  There's always a chance some other insomniac is surfing, as I so often am.)  I spam a little more, check in here at the blog, look at the obits in some of my old stomping grounds, and try going back to bed.
By six, I'm at it again.  This time, a couple of my FB readers have "liked" my posts.  At least the thing is working!  One even lets me know she's downloaded her copy.  My first sale!  Who can sleep after a thing like that?
But I can only check reports so many times before my hand does start to go to sleep.  It took an hour and a half for that first sale to report, during which time I contemplated the pointless possibility of emailing KDP and whining that my sales weren't reporting. (This is a chronic complaint among Indies, shared at great length on the aforementioned forums.)
Now there are two sales showing, my Christmas novella is # 90 on the Free Contemporary Fiction Best Seller list, and I'm going back to bed.  Will I sleep?  Probably not for long.  The lure of that third sale and beyond will no doubt have me back at the computer in an hour or so. 
I suppose cool is a thing I'll never be when it comes to my books.  Much like sending my children off for their first day of kindergarten.  I experienced the same anxiety at the beginning of every one of their years in school, when they started their first part-time jobs and every job since, and at every other milestone in their lives.  Now it's Stani and Emily I stand at the door and wave farewell to.  I want them to succeed, to bring something to the lives of those they meet, and represent themselves well in the world.  Maybe the writer in me is really just the mother in me with a new brood to nurture.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

To Free or Not to Free

There's a lot of rather heated and at times arrogant debate among Indy authors regarding the benefits of giving away books.  I publish through Kindle Direct  and I've taken advantage of their free promotion at every opportunity, which means five days out of every three months I can offer my ebook titles for free.  I've given away as many as 2500 copies of Hearts Unfold and as few as 250 of other titles in a given period.  The way I see this, it's a little like giving away samples at the grocery store. A few customers will actually buy a box of the snack crackers they gobbled down in the aisles. Only a percentage, probably 10 to 15 percent, of those books will ever be read. ( Have you ever looked at the shelves of readers on Goodreads--who can read 60000 books in a lifetime?)
But back to the debate, which by the way, I've only observed in the author forums on KDP. No one's ever actually assaulted his fellow writer, but the language, as you might expect from wordsmiths, gets pretty rich.  Some authors will declare they worked too hard writing their books to devalue them by giving them away.  Others will tell you they've had great success with sales following the promotions.  Still others will say once upon a time in the early days of indy publishing that might have worked, but not any more.  There are posts demanding that all authors boycott the whole program, while just below that you'll see an author announcing that their book is FREE THIS WEEKEND!  For people who specialize in communication, this is definitely one area where the practice breaks down.

I can see both sides of the issue.  I too have worked to make the best product I can.  That said, my book is only as good as the reader's experience, should they be brave enough to download and read the work of a complete unknown.  At this point in time, while I love selling books, I love even more the idea that somewhere out there, someone is enjoying the story I've tried to tell.  When I hear from a reader that they tried a book for free and subsequently bought others, I'm content that we both got a great deal.

Right now my little Christmas novella is on free promotion. I decided to use the full five days at once this time.  Realistically, who wants a Christmas book in February?  Today, the first free day, I've already given away 100 books in the US and fifteen overseas. And it's only 4:30 on the west coast! 

If I wanted to wade into the debate, which I do not, I'd have to point out that anyone who reads these books has learned my name, the name of my series and seen the blurb for each of the other titles. If I did my job well, they enjoyed the book.  If they didn't, they haven't lost anything but a little time, and I haven't lost anything either, because of course, I only want readers who enjoy my books.  A bit of a risk, perhaps, but that ebook didn't really cost anyone anything.  And the value of a happy reader is, as we say about far too many things, priceless!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Here we go again?

If there were ever a time I questioned how I got to this point and what comes next, I suppose now is as good a time as any.  You see, I've just ended something I never expected to start.  A bit like boarding a bus to ask directions and finding yourself far from home without the fare to go back.

Two years ago, October of 2010, I was in a really low place.  Not sure why, other than maybe I was looking hard at 60 and couldn't quite sum up how my life's work would be measured if I didn't make it to 70.  Oh, I've worked, and I've done lots of things I enjoyed.  They just had very little connection to what I thought I was going to do when I blew off college, certain it couldn't teach me to be a writer.

As always when I reach a place like that one, I had a long talk with God.  Or maybe it was just a short one that went something like "How did I get here and where do I go next?"  (Obviously a question I ask frequently.) He always answers, not necessarily with the directions I was expecting.  This time, he seemed to be giving me permission to take one more run at that old dream of writing.  We didn't see eye to eye at first about which one of the little mental file of stories I was going to pull out this time.  I had one thing in mind and when it refused to go past a few pages, he pushed me toward another one.  Frankly, I had never been able to see much potential in it past the short story I'd tried back in the day, but I started off anyway, in longhand, in a spiral notebook my daughter had abandoned when she left high school ten years earlier. 

Five novels later, I fully acknowledge he was right.  Of course, he's never wrong.  The story that grew from that forty-year-old idea and the characters who walked into the room and told me who they were and how they would live their lives have changed my life and touched the lives of others. 

At the end of this book, I'm not certain what comes next.  There are plenty of possibilities, dangling plot lines and characters I've gotten really attached to.  There are also those other stories in that mental file that still have some appeal to me.  I've been asked more than once what I'm going to do next, and the answer is pretty simple.  I'm going to clean my house, finish the half-dozen or so projects that are screaming my name, and wait.  I know how I got here now, and I know the answer to where do I go next will come.  All I have to do is be still and listen.