Naughty or Nice?

Monday, December 29, 2014

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading comics and listening to songs that imply we have to be nice if we want Santa to bring us gifts. If we’re naughty, we’ll get that lump of coal instead.
Some children may believe that, but parents know better. How many of us have actually withheld Christmas gifts just because our son or daughter was a terror all year?
The picture at the head of this post shows the Christmas I got my dollhouse. It was metal with a front door that opened, a doorbell that actually rang, and a stairway cut out at the top so that the dolls who lived there could move from one floor to the other without having to go through the open back. I also had plastic furniture sized just right. For my parents, it was an extravagance, as was the barn set given to one of my brothers. And we were not perfect children, so I’m sure we didn’t earn them.
That’s the point. The gifts we get from “Santa” are just that—gifts, not wages. Parents give their children gifts because they love them, not because the children earned them.
Our Father’s gift to us works the same way. We can’t earn our way into heaven. Salvation is a gift, given through the birth and death of God’s own Son.
That doesn’t mean the intended recipient always appreciates the gift. You may refuse those pink bunny pajamas from Aunt Clara even though they were given with love.* God allows us to reject His gift, too.
Don’t get me wrong. Just because there are no strings attached to a gift doesn’t mean it’s okay to be naughty. Children who know they are loved try to please their parents. Being children, they fail sometimes. Christians respond to God’s love by trying to serve him. Being sinners, we fail sometimes. But the act of trying is how we respond to the gift, not how we “earn” it.
This Christmas season, I pray that you will open the greatest gift of all.  

* This is a reference from A Christmas Story. The analogy isn’t perfect since Ralphie’s parents made him accept the gift, but you get the point.

A Lasting Impression

Monday, December 22, 2014

As a writer, I want to make a lasting impression. I’m not in it for the fame (although I wouldn’t object to it), but I do want people to remember my stories fifty years after they first read them.
I want to be Raymond MacDonald Alden.
That name probably doesn’t mean anything to you. I had forgotten the author’s name, but I’ll never forget the book he wrote.
The writing style and long paragraphs are not popular today, but the story is timeless. I’m reprinting it as my Christmas present to you.
Why the Chimes Rang
by Raymond MacDonald Alden
            There was once, in a faraway country where few people have ever traveled, a wonderful church. It stood on a high hill in the midst of a great city; and every Sunday, as well as sacred days like Christmas, thousands of people climbed the hill to its great archways, looking like lines of ants all moving in the same direction.
            When you came to the building itself, you found stone columns and dark passages, and a grand entrance leading to the main room of the church. This room was so long that one standing in the doorway could scarecly see the other end, where the choir stood by the marble altar. In the farthest corner was the organ; and this organ was so loud, that sometimes when it played, the people for miles around closed their shutters and prepared for a great thunderstorm. Altogether, no such chuch as this was ever seen before, especially when it was lighted up for some festival, and crowded with people, young and old. But the strangest thing about the whole building was the wonderful chime of bells.
            At one corner of the church was a great gray tower, with ivy growing over it as far as one could see. I say as far as one could see, because the tower was quite great enough to fit the great church, and it rose so far into the sky that it was only in very fair weather that any one claimed to be able to see the top. Even then one could not be certain that it was in sight. Up, and up, and up climbed the ivy; and, as the men who built the church had been dead for hundreds of years, every one had forgotten how high the tower was supposed to be.
            Now all the people knew that at the top of the tower was a chime of Christmas bells. They had hung there ever since the church had been built, and were the most beautiful bells in the world. Some thought it was because a great musician had cast them in their place; others said it was because of the great height, which reached up where the air was clearest and purest: however that might be, no one who had ever heard the chimes denied that they were the sweetest in the world. Some described them as sounding like angels far up in the sky; others, as sounding like strange winds singing through the trees.
            But the fact was that no one had heard them for years and years. There was an old man living not far from the church, who said that his mother had spoken of hearing them when she was a little girl, and he was the only one who was sure of as much as that. They were Christmas chimes, you see, and were not meant to be played by men or on common days. It was the custom on Christmas Eve for all the people to bring to the church their offerings to the Christ-child; and when the greatest and best offering was laid on the altar, there used to come sounding through the music of the choir the Christmas chimes far up in the tower. Some said that the wind rang them, and others that they were so high that the angels could set them swinging. But for many long years they had never been heard. It was said that people had been growing less careful of their gifts for the Christ-child, and that no offering was brought, great enough to deserve the music of the chimes.
            Every Christmas Eve the rich people still crowded to the altar, each one trying to bring some better gift than any other, without giving anything that he wanted for himself, and the church was crowded with those who thought that perhaps the wonderful bells might be heard again. But although the service was splendid, and the offerings plenty, only the roar of the wind could be heard, far up in the stone tower.
            Now, a number of miles from the city, in a little country village, where nothing could be seen of the great church but glimpses of the tower when the weather was fine, lived a boy named Pedro, and his little brother. They knew very little about the Christmas chimes, but they had heard of the service in the church on Christmas Eve, and had a secret plan, which they had often talked over when by themselves, to go see the beautiful celebration.
            “Nobody can guess, Little Brother,” Pedro would say, “all the fine things there are to see and hear; and I have even heard it said that the Christ-child sometimes comes down to bless the service. What if we could see Him?”
            The day before Christmas was bitterly cold, with a few lonely snowflakes flying in the air, and a hard white crust on the ground. Sure enough, Pedro and Little Brother were able to slip quietly away early in the afternoon; and although the walking was hard in the frosty air, before nightfall they had trudged so far, hand in hand, that they saw the lights of the big city just ahead of them. Indeed, they were about to enter one of the great gates in the wall that surrounded it, when they saw something dark on the snow near their path, and stepped aside to look at it.
            It was a poor woman, who had fallen just outside the city, too sick and tired to get in where she might have found shelter. The soft snow made of a drift a sort of a pillow for her, and she would soon be so sound asleep, in the wintry air, that no one could ever waken her again. All this Pedro saw in a moment, and he knelt down beside her and tried to rouse her, even tugging at her arm a little, as though he would have tried to carry her away. He turned her face toward him, so he could rub some of the snow on it, and when he had looked at her silently for a moment he stood up again, and said:
            “It’s no use, Little Brother. You will have to go on alone.”
            “Alone?” cried little Brother. “And you not see the festival?”
            “No,” said Pedro, and he could not keep back a bit of a choking sound in his throat. “See this poor woman? Her face looks like the Madonna in the chapel window, and she will freeze to death if nobody cares for her. Every one has gone to the church now, but when you come back you can bring some one to help her. I will rub her to keep her from freezing, and perhaps get her to eat the bun that is left in my pocket.”
            “But I can not bear to leave you, and go on alone,” said Little Brother.
            “Both of us need not miss the service,” said Pedro, “and it had better be I than you. You can easily find your way to the church; and you must see and hear everything twice, Little Brother—once for you and once for me. I am sure the Christ-child must know how I should love to come with you and worship Him; and oh! if you get a chance, Little Brother, to slip up to the altar without getting in any one’s way, take this little piece of silver of mine, and lay it down for my offering, when no one is looking. Do not forget where you have left me, and forgive me for not going with you.”
            In this way he hurried Little Brother off to the city, and winked hard to keep back the tears, as he heard the crunching footsteps sounding farther and farther away in the twilight. It was pretty hard to lose the music and splendor of the Christmas celebration that he had been planning for so long, and spend the time instead in that lonely place in the snow.
            The great church was a wonderful place that night. Every one said that it had never looked so bright and beautiful before. When the organ played and the thousands of people sang, the walls shook with the sound, and little Pedro, away outside the city wall, felt the earth tremble around him.
            At the close of the service came the procession with the offerings to be laid on the altar. Rich men and great men marched proudly up to lay down their gifts to the Christ-child. Some brought wonderful jewels, some baskets of gold so heavy they could scarcely carry them down the aisle. A great writer laid down a book that he had been making for years and years. And last of all walked the king of the country, hoping with all the rest to win for himself the chime of the Christmas bells. There went a great murmur through the church, as the people saw the king take from his head the royal crown, all set with precious stones and lay it gleaming on the altar, as his offering to the holy Child. “Surely,” everyone said, “we shall hear the bells now, for nothing like this has ever happened before.”
            But still only the cold old wind was heard in the tower, and the people shook their heads; and some of them said, as they had before, that they never really believed the story of the chimes, and doubted if they ever rang at all.
            The procession was over, and the choir began the closing hymn. Suddenly the organist stopped playing as though he had been shot, and every one looked at the old minister, who was standing by the altar, holding up his hand for silence. Not a sound could be heard from any one in the church, but as all the people strained their ears to listen, there came distinctly, swinging through the air, the sound of the chimes in the tower. So far away, and yet so clear the music seemed—so much sweeter were the notes than anything that had ever been heard before, rising and falling away up there in the sky, that the people in the church sat there for a moment as still as though something held each of them by the shoulders. Then they all stood up together and stared at the altar, to see what great gift had awakened the long-silent bells.
            But all that the nearest of them saw was the childish figure of Little Brother, who had crept softly down the aisle when no one was looking, and had laid Pedro’s little piece of silver on the altar.

Why the Chimes Rang was first published in 1909, and the picture at the top of this post is one of the original illustrations by Mayo Bunker. Both the story and the illustration are in the public domain because of their age.

Too Many Ideas

Monday, December 15, 2014

Writers can be classified in a number of ways. One is to separate those with not enough ideas from those with too many. I fall in the later camp, and it isn’t always a good thing.

Now that my current work is in the final stages, I’m looking for my next book. I have six ideas for novels: three for contemporary women’s fiction and three for middle grade historicals. I’ve also got other ideas percolating farther back in the cue. So how do I choose?
First, there is the genre: should I go for contemporary women’s fiction or a middle grade historical novel? Writing for the middle grades is harder than writing for adults, but I also enjoy it more. So that’s the way I’m leaning right now.
But selecting the genre is only the beginning. As I said, I have three ideas for middle grade historicals, and they are represented in the pictures above. The top picture shows the students at Carlisle Indian Industrial School around 1990. Although I probably would set the book at a fictitious boarding school, it would tell the story of the Native American students who were taken from their homes to be “Americanized,” or, as Captain Richard Henry Pratt put it, to “kill the Indian and save the man.”
The picture at the bottom left shows the first class dining saloon aboard the RMS Lusitania before the ship was sunk by the Germans in World War I. The story would be about a girl on a sinking ocean liner. It might be the Lusitania, or it might be the Andrea Doria. Not the Titanic, though. That’s been done more than enough times.
The final picture shows the corner of Dearborn and Monroe streets after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The story would show the protagonist’s life before, during, and after the fire, with the bulk of it centering on her escape from the flames.
All three of these historical events have potential because there is sufficient information on them to create a realistic story. And that’s important to me. Research is my middle name and accuracy is my claim to fame.
Too many ideas can cause complications. But I’d rather have that problem than the opposite one.

The pictures at the head of this post are in the public domain because of their age.

Writing is Hard Work

Monday, December 8, 2014

Good writing is hard work. Sometimes the words flow easily, and sometimes they don’t. But even when they do, they usually require a lot of editing. Here are a few quotes from established writers.
“Writing is the hardest work in the world. I have been a bricklayer and a truck driver, and I tell you – as if you haven’t been told a million times already – that writing is harder. Lonelier. And nobler and more enriching.” Harlan Ellison 

“I would never encourage anyone to be a writer. It’s too hard.” Eudora Welty 

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades, 1947 

My church holds a women’s Advent Tea every two years, and each table has a hostess who decorates it and provides the dishes. One of the fun things about the event is the table viewing before lunch is served. Some of the tables are elegant and others are whimsical, but all have either an Advent, a Christmas, or a winter theme.
The first time I acted as a hostess, I used children’s books about Christmas for my theme. Last time I used lighthouses, inspired by a poem I had already written. The tie-in there was easy, because Jesus is the light who came at Christmas.
I’m a serious amateur photographer, and I looked through my pictures to see what I could use this year. Although I have photos of Christmas displays and family dinners, none of them struck a chord. I’m not sure why, but it was my seasonal photography that caught my attention. So I decided to use the four seasons as my theme.

But how could I tie that to Advent? I knew how it fit, but would the people viewing the table figure it out? I wasn’t sure, so I decided to spell it out in a poem.

That’s where the hard work began.

At first it flowed well enough. And after I got a couple of verses to a point where I was happy with them, I realized that each one had a 5-7-4 pattern: five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and four in the third.*

But then I started writing the verse about winter, and nothing seemed to work. Either the wording was clunky or dull or the syllable count was off. After a lot of reflection, thesaurus work, and wording changes, I finally came up with a winter stanza that I thought I could live with. It went like this:

He comes in winter
Among barren gray branches
Appearing dead.

Then I sent the poem off to my online critique partner. She though that stanza was too negative to fit the general tone of the poem. She made a similar comment about one of the words in the autumn verse, but the reference to blood was intended to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice, so I left it.

I had never been happy with my winter verse, however, so I went back to work trying to come up with something better.

Here is the finished poem. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it served its purpose. You can decide for yourself whether my hard work paid off.

He Comes 

He comes in summer
In thunderstorms and showers
Cleansing the earth. 

He comes in autumn
When trees proclaim his glory
With blood-red leaves. 

He comes in winter
As white blankets cover seeds
Soon to awake. 

He comes in spring
When a tiny robin’s egg
Brings forth new life. 

Jesus comes all year
Into the hearts of Christians
Saved by His grace. 


* There is one exception to the 5-7-4 pattern. Each stanza starts with “Jesus comes in [season].” Since “spring” has only one syllable, that line has four instead of five. I chose to sacrifice the syllable count to retain the wording repetition.

A Writer to Emulate

Monday, December 1, 2014

I usually avoid the quizzes that appear on my Facebook feed, but once in a while I give in. On Wednesday, I took a quiz to determine which classic literary character I resembled most. The answer? Jo March.
Jo March was Louisa May Alcott’s depiction of herself in Little Women. Both the character and her model were independent women who loved to write. They could also be outspoken at times. Those characteristics apply to me, too. So yes, I’m honored to be identified with Jo March.

But you don’t have to be independent or outspoken to emulate Louisa May Alcott. You don’t even have to be a woman. Louisa is a model for all writers.
The main thing I want to emulate is Louisa’s ability to teach without preaching. I hate it when a novelist lectures me. Sometimes I finish the book and sometimes I don’t, but even if I read it through to the end, I’m less likely to pick up something else by that author.

Louisa took a different approach. She taught, but she wrapped the lesson inside the story. Her approach was analogous to hiding healthy vegetables in children’s food.
Yes, Louisa did sometimes use narrative to summarize her teachings. That was the style of the day, and most writers can’t get away with it now. But Little Women and other books by Louisa May Alcott are still popular in spite of those narrative summaries. Why? I think it is because the narrative flows with the story, much like a leaf attached to a branch floating down a river. If the story hadn’t attracted and retained the reader’s attention, the lesson would have gone unnoticed as well.

Louisa described this phenomenon in one of her narrative summaries. In this passage from An Old-Fashioned Girl, Polly doesn’t like the way her friend Tom treats his sisters. So Polly invites Tom to her house, where he sees how Polly’s brother treats her.
[E]veryone knows that persuasive influences are better than any amount of moralizing. Neither Polly nor Will tried to do anything of the sort, and that was the charm of it. Nobody likes to be talked to, but nobody can resist the eloquence of unconscious preaching. With all his thoughtlessness, Tom was quick to see and feel these things, and was not spoilt enough yet to laugh at them. The sight of Will and Polly’s simple affection for one another reminded him of a neglected duty so pleasantly that he could not forget it. [Emphasis in original.]

So learn your own lesson from Louisa May Alcott. Don’t preach a sermon.
Tell a story instead.


The picture at the head of this post shows Jo March busy writing. It was drawn by Frank T. Merrill and was included in the original edition of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. First published in 1868, the illustration is in the public domain because of its age. 

Nice but Not Gentle

Monday, November 24, 2014

There were several new people at my critique group last week. We also had one person who had attended before but was reading for the first time. He asked us to be gentle in critiquing his work, and I replied, “That isn’t how this group works. We’re nice but not gentle.”
Nice people want to help others, and sometimes that’s inconsistent with being gentle. If you saw someone choking and you knew how to use the Heimlich maneuver, wouldn’t you choose effective over gentle? Those abdominal thrusts may not be comfortable for the person who is choking, but they can save that person’s life.

Gentle doesn’t work for a critique group, either. At least not for one that wants to develop its members as writers. I attend the Highland Writers’ Group because I’m looking to improve my craft. If I just wanted to read my work or interact with other writers, I’d find a different forum.

That doesn’t mean we tear each other’s work apart. As my statement said, we do try to be nice. If we can’t give criticism constructively, we don’t give it at all. And we do ease people into the group. The feedback we give a new writer may be quite different from what we say to an established one. But if we can’t give constructive criticism, it isn’t a critique group.

I’m going to repeat a couple of points that I made in a March 4, 2013 post. Those of you who have heard this before will have to bear with me.

Experience has taught me two things about responding to writing critiques. First, if I want to improve my craft, I can't be sensitive. Second, if I want to improve my craft, I must be sensitive. The definition to avoid is "quick to take offense; touchy." The one to embrace is "responsive to external conditions or stimulation." (These two definitions of "sensitive" come from the fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.)

Several years ago, I was writing an overtly Christian novel and sharing it with the Highland Writers' Group for critique. I found myself constantly irritated by the criticism from one member. He appeared to be antagonistic to Christianity, and most of his comments showed that he misunderstood what I was trying to say in this sentence or that paragraph. My immediate reaction was, "You aren't my audience. Christians will know what I mean."

Then I went home and thought about it. Yes, he wasn't my intended audience, and maybe a Christian audience would understand what I wrote. But maybe it wouldn't. Equally important, what if a non-Christian picked up the book and read it? Better to reword a few paragraphs than to risk being misunderstood.

This has been a theme in the critique experiences I have found most helpful. If I quickly take offense and discount the criticisms, I don't learn anything. But if I think about what was said and respond offensively rather than defensively, my writing is the better for it. Yes, I still reject some of the suggestions I receive, but not until I have considered them carefully.

Nobody seemed to take offense at any of the critiques given on Saturday, and that’s good. But if they had, I wouldn’t count it as a failure.
Because sometimes we have to be nice but not gentle.

Photos are Creative Works

Monday, November 17, 2014

This isn’t the blog post I intended to write this week. I had a totally different topic in mind. So why am I postponing it for a week or two or possibly three? I found the perfect picture to use with it, but the photo is copyrighted by someone other than me. So Friday I sent a request for permission to use the photograph, and I’m deferring the post in the meantime.
But that makes this a good time to remind my readers—especially those with their own blogs—that the copyright laws apply to photos, too. And just because you can find it on the Internet doesn’t mean you have permission to use it.

The following post originally appeared on the Hoosier Ink website on October 25, 2012. I have made a few very minor edits.

Photos Are Creative Works

As with anything else, photographs must have some minimum creativity to enjoy copyright protection. But almost every photograph qualifies.*

Consider the above picture of Autumn colors, which I took in October 2012 at Crapo Park in Burlington, Iowa. I didn’t create the subject, nor did I stage the picture. But I did choose the camera settings and select the scene that filled the frame. I even get credit for being in the right place at the right time.

Then there’s the second picture, which I used in my September 27, 2012  Hoosier Ink post on art versus science. The posed subject may not look very creative, but the copyright laws say it is. The first holder has a candlestick in it to demonstrate its function, and the second is empty so the viewer can get a better idea of its design. All purposefully done to make a point.

Because both photos meet the standards for creativity, you can’t use either without my permission.

There is a distinction between natural subjects and posed pictures, however. I can stop you from using my photo of the leaves in Crapo Park, but I can’t prevent you from going there at the same time next year and taking your own photograph. With a posed picture, I can keep you from copying the pose as well as the actual photograph. That’s because the subject is also a result of my creativity.

As with my photographs, yours are also copyrighted. That’s a good thing.

Because it isn’t just our writing that is creative.


*For an in-depth discussion of the elements that make a photograph creative, see Mannion v. Coors Brewing Co., 377 F.Supp.2d 244 (S.D.N.Y. 2005).

Chasing Details

Monday, November 10, 2014

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am working on a middle grade historical novel about the Japanese American incarceration during World War II. My research included numerous memoirs and other non-fiction accounts. While they agree on the broad picture, they do not always agree on the details. So what’s a writer to do?   

Here’s one example.

My protagonist lives in Berkeley, California when the war breaks out, and she and her mother are sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California. The sources agree that the Japanese Americans at Tanforan ate all their meals at a mess hall. But they don’t agree about who provided the dishes.

A minor point, you say? Yes, and the story certainly doesn’t hinge on its accuracy. Still, I’d like to get it right if I can. When I read a story and notice an inaccuracy, it makes me less likely to read anything else by that author. An error in my story will bother me, but it may also shrink the audience for my next book.

I purchased and read three memoirs and one near-memoir from people who were incarcerated at Tanforan. All of them mention their first meal there. In Citizen 13660, Miné Okubo says she picked up a plate, knife, and fork at the dishware counter in the mess hall and wiped her plate clean with her handkerchief. Toyo Suyemoto agrees and notes that she had to wipe off the particles of food clinging to the dishes (I Call to Remembrance: Toyo Suyemoto’s Years of Internment).

But Yoshiko Uchida and Haruko Obata both remember bringing plates and utensils to the mess hall. The Uchida family’s dishes were in their as yet undelivered luggage, so the three women took their place in line each “clutching a plate and silverware borrowed from friends who had already received their baggage” (Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family). Obata remembers, “At the dining room we had to bring our own plate, knife, fork, and spoon” (Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata’s Art of the Internment). [Emphasis added.]

I could leave those details out, but they provide atmosphere and show the conditions the residents lived in. Either they brought (and washed) their own dishes, or they ate from ones that had food remnants clinging to them. One way or the other, adding the details shows that the Japanese Americans weren’t living a life of luxury at a vacation spa. (Believe it or not, that’s what some Caucasians claimed.)

So what do I do? The best I can, which in this case means to evaluate the sources and make an educated guess.

The accounts from people who were there are evenly split. But since memories fade over time, the account closest to the events is often the most accurate. Okubo’s book was published in 1946—four years after the events—while Uchida’s wasn’t published until 1982, and the other two were published even later. On the other hand, Uchida kept diaries most of her life and, although I don’t know whether she kept one at this time, she may have pulled her description from a contemporaneous account. So it is still a stalemate.

Fortunately, there is other evidence. Two photographs taken by Dorothea Lange on June 16, 1942 show people waiting in line to enter the mess hall. Lange’s own caption for the photo at the top of this post reads, in part:

Supper time! Meal times are the big events within an assembly center. This is a line-up of evacuees waiting for the B shift at 5:45 P.M. They carry with them their own dishes and cutlery in bags to protect them from the dust.

If you look closely, you will see some of the white cloth bags she refers to.

Another piece of evidence is the official “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry.” These instructions told the Japanese Americans what to pack, and the list included “sufficient knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, and cups for each member of the family.”

Looking at the evidence as a whole, my best guess is that Uchida and Obata were correct and the Japanese Americans arriving at Tanforan had to use their own dishes.

Am I sure that I have it right? No. And there are other arguments for and against that I don’t have space to go into here. But my job is to do the best I can.

Because even little details can be important at times, and sloppy research is as bad as none at all.


The photograph at the head of this post shows a mess line at Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California. It was taken by Dorothea Lange on June 16, 1942 as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

Pronunciation Dilemma

Monday, November 3, 2014

I have a dilemma.

My current work-in-progress is a middle grade (4th-6th) historical novel that tells the story of a half-Japanese girl living in California during World War II. I need to use Japanese names and a few Japanese words to make it authentic. When I read, I pronounce words in my head, and I assume many other readers do, too. I’ve always been lousy at foreign languages, but I am doing my best to learn basic Japanese pronunciation using Internet and print/CD resources.

But my middle-grade readers aren’t going to do that, so I am trying to make it as easy as possible for them to hear the words correctly in their heads. It won’t happen with every word, and even when I can get close, I’m not looking for exact pronunciation. Some of the tongue and mouth actions that form the sounds are unfamiliar to Americans, and even the various sources I’ve listened to pronounce the same word differently, much like in the U.S. (Do you say tomayto or tomahto?) Still, I’d like to get as close as I can.

I have the biggest difficulty when two vowels are next to each other. Unlike English, in Japanese you get only one vowel to a syllable. That means contiguous vowels are in different syllables and are pronounced separately. At least that’s the theory. Americans have a tendency to run syllables together, and many of the Japanese pronunciations I’ve heard do the same thing. (The speakers don’t identify their nationality, however, so they may be American speakers.) It’s even more complicated when the vowels aren’t pronounced as an American reader expects. My natural inclination is to pronounce the name “Keiko” as Kee-koh, when it is really more like Keh-ee-koh.

I’ve gone out of my way to choose names without two adjacent vowels, but I can’t avoid all potential mispronunciation or I’d run out of names before characters.

Avoidance is also not a solution for double-voweled words like “Issei” and “Nisei,” which run rampant throughout my manuscript. They were common terms among the Japanese Americans and highlighted a distinction that was extremely important at the time. “Issei” were the first generation in America, and U.S. law denied these immigrants the right to become citizens. “Nisei” were the second generation, and they were citizens by virtue of being born here. I have to use those words.

I think I’ve done a good job incorporating the meanings of Japanese words into the flow of the story, but I’m also planning on putting a glossary at the end of the book. And that’s where the dilemma comes in. If I add pronunciation to the glossary, do I use the technical Japanese phonics, the formal American pronunciation key, or an informal one close to the actual sound?

Take “Nisei.” From what I’ve been reading, the formal Japanese pronunciation should be broken down to something like nee-seh-ee for the three syllables ni-se-i. The online dictionaries all use nē’sā (the formal American pronunciation key indicating that it is pronounced as two syllables with a long e and a long a) or the less formal nee-sey. When I hear it, I hear nee-say. So what do I do?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


The Japanese characters at the top of this post spell “Nisei” according to Wikipedia.

Drinking Starbucks' Coffee

Monday, October 27, 2014

When I go to writers’ conferences and identify myself as a lawyer, I often get asked if it is okay to use brand names in a novel. My answer? As long as it isn’t defamatory, it is usually fine. Here is the rest of my answer, which is reprinted from the April 22, 2010 post I wrote for the Hoosier Ink blog.*

Drinking Starbucks’ Coffee

I drink a lot of coffee, although not usually from Starbucks. But my characters go there. That’s because it is a nationally-recognized name, and I like to use some recognizable brands to give my stories a sense of authenticity.

But I know writers who are scared of using brand names. They think it will violate copyright or trademark laws, or they don’t want to use the ® symbol because it can interrupt the flow of the story.

I don’t worry about any of that.

You can’t copyright names, so copyright law doesn’t apply. You can trademark names, and Starbucks is a registered trademark. However, trademarks have a specific, limited purpose, so the protection the owner gets is much narrower than with copyrights.

Trademarks protect against consumer confusion over the source of a product or service. Consumers use recognizable names and symbols to tell them that they are getting a certain quality or a product with particular characteristics. When you see the Nike swoosh on a pair of shoes, you expect them to last for a while. When a counterfeiter prints the swoosh on shoddy-quality shoes, people are mislead. That harms both the consumer (who is not getting what he or she expected) and Nike (who could lose sales to the counterfeiter and suffer harm to its reputation when the shoes fall apart).

Your characters can drink 7-Up without worrying about trademark infringement. No one is going to go out and buy counterfeit 7-Up based on your novel, nor will readers assume that the makers of 7-Up are connected with your book. You don’t have to call it lemon-lime soda.

A brand name can lose its trademark protection if consumers use it generically for any brand of the same type of product. After people started referring to all tissues as kleenex and to photocopies made on any brand photocopier as xeroxes, the owners of those trademarks spent a lot of money educating consumers on the proper use of the terms. That’s why brand owners would like you to use the ® symbol. But you aren’t required to. If you want to help trademark owners protect their property and you think “the real thing” will add authenticity, just capitalize Coke. 

So let your characters drink Starbucks’ coffee if they want to. Or 7-Up. Or Coke. (There seems to be a lot of drinking in this post. Maybe I should send my characters to the bathroom more often.)

Conferenced Out

Monday, October 20, 2014

I make it a practice to attend two or more writers’ conferences a year, with at least one of them lasting several days. This year I attended one multi-day conference, two single-day conferences, and a workshop. The workshop was held during the summer, but the conferences came on three successive weekends. They started with the multi-day conference on September 25-28, followed by Saturday conferences on October 4 and 11. So is it any surprise that I titled this post, “Conferenced Out”?
Not that I’m complaining. I get several benefits from attending writers’ conferences. My main reason for going is an educational one—to learn how to improve my writing. But achieving this goal can be tricky at times, especially when you’ve attended as many conferences as I have. After all, how many times can I hear the same material on dialogue without getting bored? The second and even the third time may reinforce what I heard—and possibly forgot—the first time, but there is a limit.

At least that’s what I’ve grown to expect. There are exceptions, however. As I looked at the offerings for the first breakout session at the Indiana Writers’ Consortium Creative Writing Conference, only one appeared to be relevant to my own writing, and it was on dialogue. I attended reluctantly—and enjoyed myself immensely. None of the principles were new to me, but Kate Collins, who writes the Flower Shop Mysteries series, knows how to keep her audience interested. And for writers who are less familiar with the principles of writing dialogue, it was educational as well as entertaining.
The second breakout session created a different dilemma, presenting me with two choices that interested me. I had to choose, and the one I chose was good. But I still wonder what I missed from the other class.
That’s a problem with any conference that offers separate breakout sessions, and I’m glad the Indiana SCBWI “Go North for Nonfiction” conference wasn’t set up that way. As I looked through the presentations, I realized that there was only one I was willing to miss. Fortunately, there was only one choice at a time, and I didn’t have to miss anything.
The second reason I attend writers’ conferences is to network. Meeting new people is always a good use of my time.
Finally, I go to sell my books. “Sell my books” has two meanings here. Some conferences, including the multi-day ACFW Conference, give attendees a chance to meet with editors and agents and pitch a current manuscript. But all conferences give me the opportunity to sell copies of my published books to readers. Sometimes this is a direct benefit, such as having copies in the conference bookstore or having my own book sales table, and sometimes it is simply a marketing opportunity to talk the books up and pass out postcards or bookmarks advertising them.
So yes, I’m ready for a rest before I attend another writers’ conference. But when the next one comes around, I’ll be crouched at the starting line, ready for the flag to fall.

Work for Hire: When the Writer Isn't the Author

Monday, October 13, 2014

As I promised last week, I am reprinting a post that I wrote for the “Hoosier Ink” blog on November 25, 2010.* The post, titled “When the Writer Isn’t the Author,” discusses when something is a work for hire and what the legal implications are.
One additional note. A freelancer can assign/sell/give the copyright to the person who commissioned the work even if it doesn’t qualify as a work for hire. For practical purposes, the results may be the same, but the labels are still different.
When the Writer Isn’t the Author
“I wrote it, so I get the copyright. Don’t I?”
Usually, but not always.
The author receives the copyright, but the author and the writer aren’t always the same person.
I see that puzzled look on your face, so let me explain.
Federal law gives the copyright to the author. In most cases, the person who wrote the manuscript is the author. But the definition changes if the material is what copyright law calls a “work made for hire.”**
So what is a work for hire? The law creates two categories. The first is simply “a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment.” If you are a staff journalist writing articles for the newspaper that employs you, those articles are works-for-hire. You may be the writer, but your employer is the author for copyright purposes.
How you label your relationship doesn’t matter. If you are billed as a “freelance correspondent” or an “independent contractor” but are required to work a certain number of hours every week and are paid for vacations and sick days, you are probably an employee rather than an independent contractor. It isn’t always easy to draw the line, but the more you look like a traditional employee, the more likely it is that the writing you do as part of the relationship is work for hire.
You don’t have to be an employee to create a work for hire, however. That’s because there is a second category for certain commissioned works.
To determine if a work fits into this second category, ask yourself the following three questions. If you answer “yes” to all of them, it is a work for hire and the person who commissioned it is the author. If even one answer is “no,” as the writer you are also the author.
1.  Was the work specially ordered or commissioned? In other words, did someone ask you to write it? If you did the work on assignment, it may be a work for hire. If you wrote it on your own initiative and followed a normal submission process, it is not.
2.  Was it created “for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas”? Magazines and newspapers are collective works. A novel is not a collective work, but a single book containing four novellas is.
3.  Have the parties signed a written agreement saying it is a work for hire?
If the material is a work for hire (either because you are an employee or because you answered all three questions in the affirmative), does that mean you can’t use it? The answer depends on your agreement with the legal author. Your employer may let you republish the material for certain purposes or under certain conditions, but ALWAYS get it in writing. The same is true for a commissioned work. See what you can negotiate, and put it in writing.
So should you enter into a work for hire arrangement? Weigh what you get out of it against what you give up and make your own call.
But don’t assume that you own it just because you wrote it.
** See 17 U.S.C. 101 and 17 U.S.C. 201(b).
The photograph shows the Office of War Information News Bureau in November 1942. Because these individuals were employees, the news articles they produced were works for hire. The photographer, Roger Smith, was also an employee, so the photograph belongs to the United States government. Because there is no copyright in U.S. government works, the photograph is in the public domain.

Freelance or Work for Hire?

Monday, October 6, 2014

I recently attended a conference where one of the speakers repeatedly used the terms “freelance” and “work for hire” as if they meant the same thing. I kept my mouth shut then, but I stewed about it all the way home. So in order to make me feel better, I’m going to tell you the difference.

Freelance means that you are free to work for anyone on your own time and your own terms. For legal purposes, you are your own employer, and nobody can tell you what to do until you sign a contract. It also means that you own the copyright in your creative product unless you agree to sell it—but that is your choice.

An employee is not a freelancer when doing the job for which he or she is employed. These are not mutually exclusive, however. A journalist may be an employee when writing articles for a newspaper but a freelancer when writing a novel after work. (Some journalists are freelancers even when writing for newspapers and magazines, but these individuals shop their work around rather than earning a salary from one publication.)

Anything created for an employer as part of your employment is a work for hire. When that happens, “freelance” and “work for hire” are incompatible labels. There are some limited situations, however, when an individual does not have to be an employee to create a work for hire. In those situations, the assignment does carry both labels. Next week I will reprint a blog post I did several years ago that discusses work for hire in more detail. But the main point here is that while freelance and work for hire may sometimes overlap, as in the diagram at the top of this post, they are not the same.

Bad Beginnings

Monday, September 29, 2014

As I prepared to pitch a novel at a conference last week, I thought about how many ways I had started it before finding one that works. And the biggest lesson I learned? Genre matters.
In order to get the most from this post, you need a framework. Mirage is contemporary women’s fiction written for a Christian audience. It tells the story of an ambitious young lawyer who idolizes her father. When he is arrested for running a Ponzi scheme, she is initially convinced of his innocence. But as evidence of his guilt mounts and her own career is threatened, she struggles with God’s command to forgive. Will she lose everything, or will she discover God’s true plan for her life?
My first attempt at an opening chapter was filled with heart-wrenching sequences. It started with a television news report about a silver Jaguar involved in a fatal accident. (I know that isn’t a Jaguar in the picture, but it was the only thing I could find to go with this blog post.) Although the victim is unidentified, Sarah is terrified that it was her father, and every mile is filled with anguished memories as she rushes to her parents’ home.
I thought it was a great opening. After all, it was a dramatic scene to grab readers’ attention. Then my writers’ critique group told me they didn’t know enough about Sarah yet to care.
We don’t know anything about Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, either, and it works anyway. So why was mine different? Maybe if I had added more heart-stopping situations it would have been okay as the opening for a thriller or an action adventure. Those genres attract readers who wait for the next heart attack. But readers of women’s fiction are looking for human emotions, not heart-stopping scenes.
My second attempt took a metaphorical approach. Sarah admired the façade of her parents’ home without realizing that façades are sometimes deceptive. But that one just fell flat. Maybe I could have made it work for literary fiction, but that’s not what I was writing.
On to number three. I lopped off the first couple of chapters and started with a favorite one where Sarah goes sailing with her new boyfriend. Then I submitted it for a critique at a writers’ conference I attended last year. The comments were very helpful—for a romance. Shame on me for misleading the reader as to the genre.
My fourth attempt was another try for a drama. Sarah was tutoring a first grader, and the chapter opened with Sarah learning that the girl’s brother had just died. The problem? It lead my critique partner to expect the girl to have a greater role in the story than is the case.
I stuck with my fifth attempt. It doesn’t start with a bang, but all it has to do is grab the reader’s attention. The opening chapter now begins this way:
            “When was the last time you visited someone in prison?”
            Sarah Bartholomew never had. She didn’t even know any criminals. But she leaned forward in her pew as the sermon continued.
            “Our church sends volunteers into the jail once a week to tutor inmates who dropped out of high school. Prisoners who earn their diplomas are less likely to return to a life of crime when they get out.”
            That sounded interesting, but the firm would never let her do it. The partners already begrudged the time she spent tutoring at the Boys & Girls Club.
            The minister pointed toward the congregation. “The hours are seven to nine in the evening one day a week. Anyone here can surely give that much.”
            Not if they worked for Mason, Adams, and Marshall. Still, the long nights and short weekends she put in would be worth it when she made partner.
            Besides, there was a reason she hadn’t gone into criminal law. Defending the innocent would be too stressful. What if she failed to get them off?
            And she had no sympathy for the guilty.
In the rest of the chapter, Sarah drives to her parents’ house for their regular Sunday afternoon dinner, and they talk about the time they spend volunteering.
I think this new opening chapter foreshadows the main plot in the book, in which Sarah discovers that her father has been running a Ponzi scheme; introduces the three main characters (Sarah and her parents); and makes Sarah a sympathetic figure because of the time she spends volunteering.
In any event, it works better for women’s fiction than the earlier attempts did.
By the way, just because a chapter doesn’t work as an opening doesn’t mean it won’t work elsewhere. I salvaged all of the attempts except the second and used them elsewhere in the manuscript.
What are your thoughts?

Getting a Sense of Place

Monday, September 22, 2014

Earlier this month I took a research trip for my middle-grade historical novel. The story takes place during World War II, and my protagonist lives in Berkeley, California when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. She has a Japanese father and a Caucasian mother, but even 1/16th Japanese blood would have been enough to send her to Tanforan Assembly Center (a converted racetrack) and Topaz War Relocation Center. 

I wanted to do on-site visits, but I had a significant problem. Tanforan is now a two-level shopping mall, and Topaz is open desert. That means I had to (and did) get most of my knowledge about both from reading memoirs. Even so, visiting added a sense of place that I couldn’t get from books. 

The books told me that Topaz was isolated and desolate. Being there made it real. It took hours of driving through mountains and deserts to get to Delta, Utah, which was the closest town, and then it took another half hour from there. The isolation suffocated me. The residents of Topaz spent two nights and a day on a train to reach it, with each mile taking them farther away from their beloved San Francisco. After transferring to a bus at Delta, they finally arrived at their destination to find nothing but rows and rows of tar-papered barracks in the middle of nowhere. Think how the isolation must have affected people who were born and raised in a major metropolitan area.  

Then there was the size. I already knew that the residential area was a mile square, but that was just a number until I walked and drove it. Now I can’t imagine how they managed to cram 8,000 people, two elementary schools, a high school, a hospital, and a number of offices in such a small space. More suffocation. 

Topaz was disassembled after the war, and there is very little left at the site. However, part of the original barbed-wire fence still stands, and it confirmed the impression I got from my reading. As you can see from the picture, there was plenty of space to crawl through, and the residents often did. Not to escape, though. The War Relocation Authority used the surrounding land to grow crops and raise animals to feed the people in the camp, and many of the residents worked outside the fence in the agricultural areas. Although the administration discouraged it and the Topaz Times contained frequent pleas not to climb through the fence, many residents used that route as a shortcut to their jobs. (And no, the fence was not electrified.) 

Dust storms were a frequent experience for the Japanese Americans who lived in Topaz and other desert camps. Crazy as it may seem, I wanted to experience one while I was there. Unfortunately, it had rained the night before so the dust stayed put. Driving through Utah and Nevada the next day, however, we did see a number of dust clouds in the distance. 

At Tanforan, the inhabitants would have felt a different kind of isolation. They were in the middle of a bustling metropolitan area that was closed to them. Still, during the five months they lived there in horse stalls or barracks with gaping holes in the walls, at least they were still in their home state of California. And they were close enough that their Caucasian friends could visit them occasionally. 

The building in the middle of this picture is the current BART station. Imagine that it is the grandstand roof and you are sitting there 72 years ago, as many of the residents did. They could see civilization all around them. 

From our hotel near Berkeley, it took a hotel shuttle, a bus, and the BART (with one transfer) to get to San Pedro, where Tanforan is. It also took about 2 ½ hours. On the way back, every connection came right away, and even the hotel shuttle came just as we were getting ready to call for it, so the return trip took only 1½ hours. The Japanese Americans made the trip by bus and with no stops or connections, but they also had to contend with traffic. So I’m assuming that it took them at least two hours, and probably much longer. Hours filled with apprehension and uncertainty.
We did the trip backwards for practical reasons, but at least we did it.
Writers can’t always visit their locales, but they should if they can.
I’m glad I did.

Copyright Bullies

Monday, September 15, 2014

I just returned from a research trip and haven’t had time to write a new blog post, so I am reprinting one I wrote for the Indiana Writers’ Consortium blog on April 24, 1913.* I made a couple of minor edits to reflect the current status of my book, but otherwise the post is unchanged.

Copyright Bullies

These days we hear a lot about children and teens who bully their classmates. We also hear about the copyright police—the ones who remind bloggers and middle school music pirates to honor copyrights. But we rarely hear about the copyright bullies.

Copyright bullies are those publishers who try to scare us out of using their materials for any purpose whatsoever (with the sometimes exception of book reviews). The law reserves certain rights to the public, but these copyright bullies and their lawyers don’t want us to know that. 

Many books have this warning in the front: “No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, except for brief quotations in printed reviews, without permission in writing from the publisher.” 

Wrong. There are a number of what the law calls “fair uses,” and brief quotations in printed reviews is only one of them. To make a general and far too simplistic statement, a fair use is one that takes a short excerpt and uses it in a way that transforms or complements the copyrighted material rather than replacing it. You can find a detailed discussion of fair use in my book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), which is available from Amazon and other retailers. 

Then there are those works that have been around so long that copyright laws no longer protect them. This is called being in the public domain. People can use public domain materials any way they want, although they should attribute the source. 

I found the most flagrant attempt at copyright bullying in a book that compiles several of Lewis Carroll’s works—all of which entered the public domain decades ago. In that book the warning states: “No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or stored in an information retrieval system of any kind, without the prior permission in writing from [Publisher], except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.” 

Huh? All the material is in the public domain, which is where the publisher got it from in the first place. The reader is free to copy at will without worrying about copyright infringement. 

We should all be careful not to violate copyrights, and some warning is necessary.  

But don’t be intimidated by copyright bullies.