Book Cover Fail

Monday, September 18, 2017


I hate it when book covers misrepresent the contents.

My first middle-grade historical, Desert Jewels, is about the Japanese-American incarceration during World War II. So of course I wanted the cover to be historically accurate. And since the book is about an ethnic group I don’t belong to, I also wanted to make sure that I didn’t promote any stereotypes or do anything else that the Japanese-American community might find offensive.

I failed. I haven’t heard any complaints from the Japanese-American community yet, but I’ve been told that the girl on the cover is Chinese, not Japanese. When a Caucasian woman said that about a week ago, I puckered my brow and said, “but she looks a lot like some of the girls and women in Dorothea Lange’s pictures from that time.” (See the two photos below for a sample, and imagine them both in profile.)


Since the comment came from another Caucasian, I was inclined to brush it off as mistaken. But then I remembered an earlier response from a Chinese-American friend.

Several weeks before the book came out, I showed a proof copy to my writers’ group. Helena said, “Oh, I see you have an Oriental girl on the cover.” She suggested a change to the back-cover copy but didn’t tell me that the girl was Chinese, so I didn’t think anything about it. Or not much, anyway. I did have an uneasy feeling that the way she said “Oriental girl” meant something, but I didn’t ask about it at the time.

But I saw Helena on Saturday, so this time I asked. Helena said yes, the girl was Chinese, but many people confused Japanese and Chinese and Koreans. I asked if the cover was a problem, and she said no. But although Helena thinks it’s no big deal, it is a big deal to me. And I still don’t know how the Japanese-American community will react.

Knowing my shortcomings as an observer, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at my error when viewing this design. Despite being Caucasian, I can’t tell someone of Italian descent from someone of English descent. And I expect a lot of variety within any ethnic group. After all, my mother had 100% German ancestry but her brown hair and eyes didn’t fit Hitler’s ideal of a blond-haired blue-eyed Aryan race. (Thankfully her beliefs didn’t, either.)

There is one thing I did right. My book cover designer gave me one alternative that included a drawn or computer-generated image highlighting all the stereotypical features, and I rejected it immediately for that reason. But I didn’t realize that the option I did choose got the ethnicity wrong.

At this point, I can’t afford to change the cover, so I’ll have to live with it.

But I wish I’d gotten it right.

__________

Dorothea Lange took both pictures in 1942 as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because they are government documents, the photos are in the public domain.

The Original GPS

Monday, September 11, 2017


I love GPS, but sometimes it takes me way out of my way or even leads me to the wrong place. Those are the times I prefer a good old-fashioned map, and that’s why I carry several in my car.

The book I’m working on right now has several settings, but a significant part of the action takes place along a Louisiana bayou. I bought a state atlas to help orient me, but it didn’t provide enough detail. So after the atlas helped pinpoint the area I wanted, I purchased a larger-scale map used by fishermen. It isn’t the perfect resource, because my story occurs in the mid-1800s, and the bayous have surely changed their courses and depths and many other characteristics since then. But it gets me close enough (I hope) to make my setting authentic.

When I was writing the just-published Desert Jewels, I studied diagrams and aerial photographs of Tanforan Assembly Center and the Topaz War Relocation Center and read memoirs that described those locations. In my recently completed book about the Great Chicago Fire, I studied maps showing the spread of the fire and highlighting the burnt-out areas. Desert Jewels and Inferno are both fictionalized accounts of events occurring at real places, and it is important to get the details right.

Maps even help when the setting is made up. J.K. Rowling drew a map of Hogwarts to make sure that she didn’t make any continuity errors. Someone might notice if Harry and his friends exited the castle on the way to play Quidditch and turned right, but the next day they turned left on their way to the same place.  Of course, Hogwarts is magic, and it could have had a floating Quidditch pitch, but that wasn’t Rowling’s plan. So she drew a map to keep everything consistent. I did the same with the campus layout for the fictional Dewmist Indian Boarding School in Creating Esther.

Agatha Christie also drew maps. In Evil Under the Sun, for example, Christie created an island and set the murder in a cove away from public view. She drew a map to help her work out the details, or perhaps to make sure the details she had already envisioned worked. Either way, the map helped make sure the plot functioned the way it was supposed to.

And it isn’t just maps. When working on Death in the Air, Christie created a seating chart showing where each person sat on the airplane. For A Caribbean Mystery, she drew out the components of what at first glance appeared to be a red herring but was actually a vital clue. [The word “glance” is itself a clue, but I won’t say anything more in case somebody plans to read the book.] For myself, I have often drawn out floor plans to ensure that the rooms in a house remain in the same place.

GPS tells me to go right or left or to stop here, but it doesn’t give me the same bird’s- eye view that a map does. And it can’t help me when I’m sitting at my desk at home. I hope today’s generation learns to read maps and diagrams and understands their importance.

Because they are valuable resources for keeping our stories authentic.

Comparing Stories to Plants

Monday, September 4, 2017


Stories are like plants. Give them a little care, and they grow, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Each summer, Roland and I buy two or three pots of flowers for our balcony. This year we were on vacation during late May and early June, so we decided to wait until we returned. But when I went to the nursery, the best ones had been picked over.

The best flowers, that is. I saw two pots of mostly foliage plants that I liked, so I got those. Both are nice, but we especially like the one pictured above. It was already on the large side when I got it, but since I brought it home it has taken over its corner of the balcony.

Usually plants have little plastic tags sticking into the soil to identify them and describe the care they require. This one didn’t, so I asked the clerk if it would work in partial shade. (Unfortunately, I forgot to ask her what it was, and I still don’t know.) The clerk said the plant should be all right if I gave it plenty of water, and she was correct. If I let it go more than a day in the hot weather, it begins to wilt. But if I take care of it, it grows faster and stronger and beyond what I expected.

That brings me to my writing point, although I should start with a caveat. Every writer is different, and what works for one may not work for another. But I start with a short outline, and the basic idea behind the story never changes. As I water my story by sitting down and writing, however, it grows faster and stronger and beyond what I expected. Actually, it has occurred enough by now that I would be surprised if it didn’t happen, but I am still surprised at the actual direction the story takes.

I just finished the first draft of a middle-grade historical novel that takes place in 1850 and 1851. The main storyline deals with a riverboat disaster on the Mississippi. That is how I conceived it, and that is still the main plot. As I wrote, however, a minor character turned into a significant one (although he appears only in the middle of the novel), and slavery introduced itself as a dominant subplot.

The story will change even more as I write the second and third drafts, and I’m excited to see where it takes me.

Because a story, like a plant, only needs a little care to grow in unexpected ways.

P.G. Wodehouse: World War II Broadcasts

Monday, August 28, 2017


A small error in judgment can haunt someone for the rest of their lives. Is it fair? No. But it happened to P.G. Wodehouse.

When World War II started, Wodehouse was living in Le Touquet, France, among a number of other British expats. He was almost 58 years old and as naïve as a schoolboy. His first mistake was his conviction that there would be no war. Then, as war raged nearby, he waited too long to leave France.

When the Germans occupied the area, they rounded up all of the British male expats under sixty, and the 58-year-old Wodehouse spent the next eleven months as a civilian prisoner. Conditions were bad, but Wodehouse’s sense of humor got him through.

Internees were rountinely released when they turned sixty, so Wodehouse wasn’t particularly surprised when they let him out three months before his birthday. He didn’t know that the Germans had a plan and that he was a pawn in it.

In the beginning, the plan may have been fairly benign. America was still neutral, and Wodehouse’s American fans were clamboring for new of him. So the German Foreign Office though that it could gain favor with America—and convince it to remain neutral—by having Wodehouse record a series of radio spots broadcast by German radio for an American audience. As part of the plan, they released him early and planted the idea in his mind to use the radio to reassure his American fans.

Wodehouse recorded five innocuous broadcasts about his incarceration, all told with his usual humor. The transcripts certainly don’t portray him as a German sympathiser. In fact, he took some mild shots at the Germans. So if it had ended, as originally planned, with the broadcasts to America, Wodehouse might have been able to return to his normal life after the war.

But it didn’t end there. The German Propaganda Ministry had its own plan, and it broadcast the spots in Britain about a month later. Since they were recorded rather than live, Wodehouse couldn’t stop it. And in the general hysteria surrounding the war, British journalists branded Wodehouse as a traitor.

Those broadcasts haunted Wodehouse for the rest of his life. He was afraid to return to England, where his grandchildren lived, for fear that he would be arrested and tried for treason. And although he was able to see the humor in every other episode in his life, including his time as a civilian prisoner, he never could find anything except sorrow in the events surrounding the broadcasts. He admitted that he had made a mistake broadcasting for German radio, but he died believing that the broadcasts were his idea and that his early release was unrelated to anything except his approaching birthday.

You can read the transcripts for yourself at this link: http://www.pgwodehousesociety.org.uk/wartime.html.

__________

The photo of Wodehouse was taken around 1904, long before his German radio broadcasts. However, photos from those years are not yet in the public domain.

P.G. Wodehouse: Lyricist

Monday, August 21, 2017


Whenever I hear the name P.G. Wodehouse (pronounced Woodhouse), I think of Bertie Wooster and his butler Jeeves, the protagonists of many Wodehouse novels. Or I think of his other equally humorous books. But I never thought of him as a Broadway lyricist.

Then I started reading P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe, and I learned several things that surprised me. One is that Wodehouse wrote book and lyrics for numerous Broadway shows. His most successful musicals were collaborations with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton during the late 19-teens and the early 1920s and include Miss Springtime; Leave It to Jane; O, Boy; and Oh, Lady! Lady! Although his association with Jerome Kern ended in the 1920s, his working relationship with Guy Bolton lasted into the 1950s and their friendship lasted until Wodehouse’s death in 1974.

Wodehouse also worked with the Gershwin brothers (and Guy Bolton) on the successful musical, Rosalie, which was first produced in 1928.

During his Broadway days, Wodehouse continued writing short stories and humorous novels and often had three or four projects going at once. And yet he also found time to exercise daily, to socialize with friends, and to write letter after letter after letter. That’s my kind of work ethic.

Most of the shows Wodehouse worked on are little-known today, and his lyrics have followed them into near-obscurity. His best-known is the song “Bill,” which he wrote for Oh, Lady! Lady! but was cut before the show opened. As was often the case in those days, a song that was cut from one musical might later show up in another, and “Bill” ended up in Show Boat. Oscar Hammerstein II revised the lyrics somewhat, but Hammerstein made sure Wodehouse received credit during the 1946 revival, which occurred while many considered him a traitor.

That’s the subject of next week’s post.

Conventionality or Creativity?

Monday, August 14, 2017


This year I moved up to the advanced photography category at the Lake County Fair and faced much tougher competition than in the past. So I wouldn’t have been surprised to walk away without any ribbons and was gratified to win second place in the Domestic Animals Color class.  But I was surprised at which photo won. That’s because it was my most conventional, and therefore least favorite, entry.

I take photos because I enjoy it, not to win competitions or even for the sake of art. But I do think that creativity should play a role in photography competitions. My biggest disappointment with the judging at the Lake County Fair was that—with some exceptions such as the insect category—the judging seemed to emphasize conventionality over creativity.

The floral category is a good example. The winners were all beautiful pictures, but they were also similar—conventional rather than creative. I don’t have any of those photos, but this one I took years ago is typical of the conventional style.

My entries were more unusual. I’m not saying they should have won. There were other equally distinct entries that were probably worthier of a ribbon than mine. Still, it would have been nice to see creativity win out over conventionality. And just so you can see what I mean by creativity, I have included my entries (color and black & white) below.


Art is in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t really fault the judges.

But I wish they had given more weight to creativity.

Art is in the Eye of the Artist

Monday, August 7, 2017


We’ve all heart the saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That’s also true of art. But I also believe that beauty and art are in the eye of the artist. I look at an alligator and think it’s ugly, but its Creator sees something beautiful.

Not everyone has the same taste, and that’s okay. If you are writing or taking photographs for public consumption, then you should keep your specific audience in mind and try to please it. But the person you have to please the most is yourself.

For the last three years, I’ve entered photographs at the Lake County Fair. The first two years I competed in the beginners’ section. In 2015 I entered four photos, and “Water Under the Bridge” (the photo above), won second place for Scenic Nature B&W. In 2016 I entered seven photos and won third place in the Architecture B&W category for “Boarding School Escape” (the photo below).

This year I entered twelve photos in the advanced section. More about that next week.

As I wander around and look at the other entries, I often wonder, “Why did that one win when I like that one better?” But that’s the wrong question. Part of it is the science—there are breakable “rules” designed to add interest to photographs and draw your eyes to the main focal point. But most of it should be the art, and art—like beauty—is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s interesting that my 2015 and 2016 winners were both black and white, but maybe it’s just that there were fewer entries in those categories. Still, it does take some skill (or art) to know what looks good in black and white and what doesn’t.

Maybe the more important point is that I consider myself best at landscape and architectural photography, and those are the categories for my winning entries from the past two years.

But as long as I’m happy with my art, winning or losing is secondary.

The Bonnie Prince and Flora MacDonald

Monday, July 31, 2017


We ended the sightseeing portion of our vacation at the Culloden Battlefield near Inverness. That’s where Bonnie Prince Charlie suffered his final defeat. Unfortunately, it was raining, so we spent most of our time inside at the exhibit. I stepped through the door long enough to take pictures of the battlefield but did not walk around and read the markers.

Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited Inverness twenty-seven years after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat. The two men took in Inverness on their way to the islands, but they didn’t say anything about visiting the battlefield, so they probably didn’t. However, they met the heroine of the piece when they reached Skye. By then, Flora MacDonald was married, but her last name was still MacDonald. (It was a common name on Skye.) They found her to be a woman of middle stature, gentle manners, and much courage.


Flora MacDonald helped smuggle the fugitive Prince Charlie out of Scotland by dressing him as her maid and taking him “over the sea to Skye.” He remained hidden—although not in women’s clothing—until he caught a French boat and returned to exile in France. These events have been imortalized in “The Skye Boat Song,” written by Sir Harold Boulton in the late 19th century. It goes like this:

[Chorus:] Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air;
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,
Follow they will not dare.

[Chorus]

Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean's a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.

[Chorus]

Many's the lad fought on that day,
Well the claymore could wield,
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.

[Chorus]

Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.

Charlie never did come again as far as we know, at least not to lead another rebellion. There were rumors that he secretly visited London years later, but nothing came of his return if it did happen.

As far as I’m concerned, our Scotland trip was a success.

And I even found some literary connections.

Hospitality on Skye

Monday, July 24, 2017


As noted in the last two blog posts, Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell often found poor food and accommodations on their travels around the Inner Hebrides. But they were pleased with their reception at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. The present castle, seen in the photo above, has surely been enlarged since then, but it still must have been impressive. More importantly for Dr. Johnson, it was a comfortable and elegant place to stay while waiting for the weather to become more favorable.

At Dunvegan, Johnson and Boswell were wined and dined and entertained. The host engaged them in intelligent discussion, the hostess was extremely gracious, and Dr. Johnson was reminded of the refinement he felt he had mostly left behind in London. As he put it:

At Dunvegan I had tasted lotus, and was in danger of forgetting that I was ever to depart, till Mr. Boswell sagely reproached me with my sluggishness and softness. I had no very forcible defence to make; and we agreed to pursue our journey.

Roland, Donald, and I also felt the hospitality on Skye. We had been received with equal hospitality on Mull, but it is always pleasant to be treated as an honored guest.

Fernlea Bed and Breakfast is on the main road, not too far from the Skye Bridge. It was a convenient base from which to explore the rest of the island. After our white-knuckle drive from the ferry, we tried to find a tourist information center and were unsuccessful. So even though it was way too early to check in, we headed to Fernlea to see if they would have any suggestions for spending the day.

At first Iris seemed a little flustered to have us arrive early, but she soon got into her helpful mode and made some suggestions. By the time we returned from Armadale Castle, the rooms were ready and we moved right in. Iris and John were always eager to give us information and advice and to make reservations at nearby restaurants. And the breakfasts were excellent. That’s Fernlea in the second photo.


But one of the most interesting things about Skye is the (true) legend of Flora MacDonald. Tune in next week to learn about her.

Over the Sea to Skye

Monday, July 17, 2017

 
Donald, Roland, and I shared another experience with Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell when we spent the night at Glenelg on the way to the Isle of Skye.

Glenelg is just down the road from the closest point between the mainland and Skye. That’s probably why Johnson and Boswell close it. I chose it because it because I wanted to take the historic turn-table ferry that crossed there.

The eighteenth-century scholars had a dangerous trip to Glenelg. According to Dr. Johnson:

We left Auknasheals and the Macreas in the afternoon, and in the evening came to Ratiken, a high hill on which a road is cut, but so steep and narrow, that it is very difficult. There is now a design of making another way round the bottom. Upon one of the precipices, my horse, weary with the sharpness of the rise, staggered a little, and I called in haste to the highlander to hold him. This was the only moment of my journey, in which I thought myself endangered.

I can’t remember whether we went “another way round the bottom,” but it wasn’t this part of the journey that concerned us most. I’ll get to the part that did in a minute.

Unfortunately, Glenelg is small, and there is only one inn. When Johnson and Boswell arrived, they found that the inn served whiskey but no food, and the beds were occupied. Eventually they found some hay and settled down for the night, but they were not happy.

There is still only one inn, although it is a more modern one. The Glenelg Inn served food, but I found it bland and wasn’t happy with either dinner or breakfast. The TV didn’t work, people gathered and talked on the patio outside our room after we wanted to go to bed, and there was no good place to set up my laptop. But our room did have a nice sitting area where Roland enjoyed reading.


My disappointment with the inn was a minor problem compared with what was to come. Getting from the inn to the ferry was bad enough, but after we left the ferry we had about five miles of the most harrowing mountainous driving you can imagine. Like Dr. Johnson, we felt ourselves endangered. I’m not sure if the photo at the head of this post is the landing we left from or the one we arrived at, but you can see what the terrain was like.

Still, we made it safely through. And we, like Johnson and Boswell, found hospitality on Skye. That’s the subject of the next post.


Dr. Samuel Johnson's Tour of the Hebrides

Monday, July 10, 2017


In 1773 Dr. Samuel Johnson decided to take a research tour of the Highlands and the Inner Hebrides. He was accompanied by James Boswell, and they both wrote journals. Although separated by many years, our paths crossed theirs at several points during our Scotland trip. We did not visit places in the same order, so these next few posts will follow our itinerary rather than theirs.

Those early travelers crossed the Isle of Mull on their way from the Isle of Coll to the Isle of Iona. We did not visit Coll (although the ferry stopped there on our way to and from Tiree), but we did spend four nights on Mull and took a day trip to Iona while we were there.

Johnson and Boswell landed at Tobermory. We landed at Craignure and drove to Tobermory, which you can see in the photo. I’m sure it was not as colorful in 1773, although Dr. Johnson described it as having a very commercial appearance because of all the boats in the harbor.

Travelling around Mull in the 1770s was hard going. As Dr. Johnson described the trip across Mull on their way to Iona:

Having not any experience of a journey in Mull, we had no doubt of reaching the sea by day-light, and therefore had not left Dr. Maclean’s very early. We travelled diligently enough, but found the country, for road there was none, very difficult to pass. We were always struggling with some obstruction or other, and our vexation was not balanced by any gratification of the eye or mind. We were now long enough acquainted with hills and heath to have lost the emotion that they once raised, whether pleasing or painful, and had our mind employed only on our own fatigue.

It’s still hard going. There are roads now, but they are mostly single tracks winding through the mountains, with passing places for oncoming vehicles. My brother Gordon was leaving a day earlier than the rest of us and wanted a cheaper room, so he booked a hotel in Tobermory. I booked rooms at a “nearby” castle for Donald, Roland, and me. It was only four miles from Tobermory, but the first time we drove it in the fog, and it took us 40 minutes. We got that below 30 minutes by the time we left.

Traversing the best roads on Mull (a combination of dual lane and single track), it took us about two hours to make the 58 miles from Tobermory to the Iona ferry.

Iona is known as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. Johnson and Boswell were disappointed with the state of the ruins at the site. By the time we got there, the nunnery was still in ruins but restoration work had been done on the abbey. Here is a picture as the abbey looked to us.


As mentioned above, Gordon left us after three nights on Mull. Donald travelled on with Roland and me, staying one more night on Mull before heading to Glenelg and from there to Skye.

I’ll pick up the saga next week as I talk about the experiences we shared with the two scholars at Glenelg on our way to Skye.


Sir Walter Scott: Friend or Foe?

Monday, July 3, 2017


The lighthouse museum at Hynish includes a short biography of Sir Walter Scott. As a Commissioner of Northern Lights, Scott had visited the site of the future Skerryvore Lighthouse many years before it was built. Here is how he described it in his diary.

Having crept upon deck about four in the morning, I find we are beating to windward off the Isle of Tyree, with the determination, on the part of Mr. Stevenson, that his constituents should visit a reef of rocks called Skerry Vhor, where he thought it would be essential to have a Lighthouse. Loud remonstrances on the part of the Commissioners, who, one and all, declare they will subscribe to his opinion, whatever it may be, rather than continue the infernal buffeting. Quiet perseverance on the part of Mr. S., and great kicking, bouncing, and squabbling upon that of the yacht, who seems to like the idea of Skerry Vhor as little as the Commissioners. At length by dint of exertion, come in sight of this long ridge of rocks (chiefly under water) on which the tide breaks in a most tremendous style.*

My brother Gordon and I were standing on the pier at Hynish (shown in the photo) when Gordon told me more about Sir Walter Scott’s history. I had to laugh because it sounded just like Mark Twain’s history. And that’s funny because Twain was Scott’s nemesis. The two men would not have known each other (Scott died three years before Twain was born), but Twain hated Scott with a passion. In Chapter 46 of Life on the Mississippi, Twain blames Scott for giving people romantic notions that kept them living in the past.

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinessses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual who ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South, they flourish pretty forcefully still.

And yet, the two men seemed to have the same faults and the same moral code. Both were easy prey for swindlers, or at least for people promoting bad business deals; each ended up bankrupt because of it; and each vowed to pay every last one of his debts—and did.

So maybe Twain should have respected Scott rather than despising him.

__________

*  Quoted from Chapter 3 of Outer Isles by A. Goodrich-Freer (1902), as reprinted at http://www.electricscotland.com/history/outer/chapter03.htm.

Robert Lewis Stevenson: Breaking with Tradition

Monday, June 26, 2017


The photo shows the signal tower at Hynish on the Isle of Tiree. In the 1800s, it was the only way to communicate with the keepers at the offshore Skerryvore lighthouse. But these blog posts are supposed to be about literary connections, and where is the literary connection here?

The lighthouse was designed and built by Alan Stevenson, who was the uncle of Robert Lewis Stevenson. Robert Lewis Stevenson’s father and grandfather were also lighthouse engineers, and he originally planned to follow them into the business. But he wanted to write for a living, and the law was an easier fallback if he couldn’t make it as an author. So he qualified in law rather than in engineering.

Stevenson was always proud of his heritage, however. This quote is printed in the exhibit at Hynish:

Whenever I smell salt water, I know I am not far from the works of my ancestors. The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather, the Skerry Vhor for my Uncle Alan and when the lights come on at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.

He also paid special tribute to Skerryvore (or Skerry Vhor), calling it “the noblest of all extant deep-sea lights.”

When Robert Lewis Stevenson changed course and broke with tradition, he may have deprived the world of another great lighthouse engineer. We’ll never know. Still, the world is happy with his choice.

Sometimes writers have to break with tradition.

Reading Fuels Imagination

Monday, June 19, 2017


Roland and I just returned from a literary vacation to Scotland. Well, it wasn’t really a literary vacation, but it did have some literary connections, and I’m going to share them with you over the next few weeks.

The main motive behind the trip was to meet up with my brothers on the Isle of Tiree and have a sort of family reunion there. When I was ten years old, Daddy took a sabbatical, packed up the family, and moved to Edinburgh for the school year. Over the Christmas holidays, he took an assignment preaching at the Church of Scotland parish churches on the Isle of Tiree. We have all visited Edinburgh since then, but none of us had been back to Tiree.

Tiree is one of the more remote islands in the Inner Hebrides. It took a four-hour ferry ride to get there, all the roads are one-track with passing places, and we saw more sheep than people. Still, my brothers and I had a good time reviving old memories.

The cottage where we stayed before had been torn down and replaced with a more modern residence, but we booked the cottage across the street to the west.

Balephetrish Bay was across the street to the north, and I spent many hours there fifty plus years ago. I must have recently read Little Women, because back then the bay was a department store where Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy Marsh did their Christmas shopping. The photo above was taken when the tide was coming in, so it is harder to see how easily I could go from one stand of rock to another while “shopping.” But with the tide out, my imagination had free rein.

The other book I associate with Tiree is Princess Prunella by Katharine L. Oldmeadow. Miss Johnson, who was Deaconess for the Tiree parish, gave it to me for Christmas, and I still have the now well-read copy. Unfortunately, it and the rest of Katherine Oldmeadow’s books are out of print. I have managed to find and read a couple of her others and they aren’t as good as Princess Prunella. Even so, it’s too bad that they aren’t readily available.

That December on Tiree I had no TV and few playmates, but I kept myself entertained. Whether it’s a hard copy or an electronic version, there is nothing like a good book to spark a child’s imagination.

Next week I’ll tell you about Tiree’s connection with Robert Lewis Stevenson.

First Lines: Telling the Whole Story

Monday, June 12, 2017


It’s time to give the plot away. Well, not completely. But some effective first lines do summarize the story.

Here is the opening paragraph from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

And what is the story about? Convincing rich single men that they want wives.

Or consider this paragraph that opens the story proper in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.*

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Can you guess what this story is about? A girl runs away and hides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Telling the whole story can work for nonfiction as well. Here is the first paragraph of The Glass Castle, which is a memoir written by Jeannette Walls.

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.

Here, you need only the first sentence to get the heart of the story. Jeannette grew up rooting through Dumpsters for her meals. She rose above that lifestyle, but her parents still embraced it.

So why do these openings work? They give the essence of the story without revealing the details. We know that Claudia is going to run away from home and hide at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but we don’t know how long she can stay hidden or why she is running away in the first place. We read on because we want to know exactly what happened.

As with other types of openings, however, this one also has its pitfalls. You may even recognize them since they are similar to the ones for foreshadowing. The opening may give away too much, or it may make promises that it doesn’t keep. I think it is also the hardest type of opening to write.

There are other types of opening lines besides the ones discussed in this series, but these are the five that, as a reader, I have found to be the most effective. Now it’s your turn to find the one that works best for your story.

­­­__________

*    Technically, this isn’t the beginning of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The book starts with a cover letter from Mrs. Frankweiler to her lawyer. However, the quote begins the actual story.

First Lines: Raising Questions

Monday, June 5, 2017


Pick up ten of your favorite books and read their opening paragraphs. What do they use to capture your attention? I’m guessing that most of them ask questions that interest you enough to keep reading. Sometimes this approach stands alone, and at other times it is combined with one of the other types of opening. When we were talking about introducing intriguing characters, I used this first line from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Part of the reason Eustace is an intriguing character is because of the question this sentence causes us to ask—what kind of boy almost deserves to be called Eustace Clarence Scrubb?

So what are some other examples? My May 8, 2017 blog post quoted the opening paragraphs from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and noted that they raised a simple question: why is it so important that Marley was dead?

Then there is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which begins with this concise, one-sentence paragraph:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

What family or families is he talking about, and how is its or their unhappiness unique? Those questions are the hook that keeps you reading.

Or here’s a third example, taken from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

This opening raises two questions:

1.     What is a hobbit?

2.     How can a hole in the ground be comfortable?

Our interest is peaked, and we read on to find the answers.

Maybe the question-raising opening is the most common because it is the easiest to write. Or is it? It takes effort to avoid the natural pitfalls.

In my experience as a reader, openings that raise questions often ramble. That works if the tangents are both interesting and purposeful, as in A Christmas Carol. But many rambling openings are simply tedious and the questions get lost in the verbiage. I put those books down.

Openings that raise questions can also be vague. Most good openings identify characters and settings within the first page or two. When they don’t, readers may be discouraged from reading on.

Finally, some writers are so intent on raising questions that they set a tone that doesn’t match the rest of the novel. This is deceptive and unfair to the reader.

I’ll conclude this series next week by looking at the last type of opening line: telling the whole story.

First Lines: Foreshadowing

Monday, May 29, 2017


To foreshadow is to hint at what is to come. The hint can be either weak or strong, indirect or direct, veiled or obvious.

Consider these openings:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez)

What does the first paragraph of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone tell the reader? That something strange and mysterious is about to happen. It doesn’t tell us what, though, so we keep reading to find out. This is a mild hint, but it is enough to intrigue us.

The first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the reader exactly what is going to happen. No subtlety here. Unfortunately, the rest of the very long paragraph, while interesting, weakens the impact of the first sentence. But the opening is still strong enough to keep readers reading to discover what led to the firing squad.

Foreshadowing sounds easy, so why doesn’t everybody use it? It’s because of the pitfalls.

First, foreshadowing may give away too much. Take the classic puzzle mystery. In the spirit of fair play, the author gives the reader all the information he or she needs to figure out who did it. But the author also tries to outsmart the reader—often by hiding the clues in plain sight. Nobody wants it to be too easy, and the reader often prefers the surprise and pleasure of being outsmarted. So this is a bad first paragraph: “Karen smiled as she threw the gun into the pond. She had gotten away with it.” If you have a different kind of mystery and the question is why she did it, that opening may work fine. But for a puzzle mystery, it gives away too much.

The second pitfall is the danger of promising more than you deliver. The opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone works because the book is filled with strange and mysterious happenings. And the protagonist in One Hundred Years of Solitude does face a firing squad, or so I’m told. (I haven’t read the book.) But if you can’t deliver, try a different approach.

Next week we’ll talk about what I believe is the most common type of opening—the one that raises questions in the reader’s mind.

First Lines: Introducing an Intriguing Character

Monday, May 22, 2017


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m not captured by the first sentence in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but the following sentences succeed where the first fails. Here is the entire beginning paragraph:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

I can’t help wondering what a highly educated and apparently intelligent man is doing as an ordinary seaman. I’m intrigued, so I keep reading. That’s why this type of opening works.

Then there is Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The first paragraph is too long to quote in full, so here are the first two sentences.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.

Clearly, Holden has an “attitude,” and that attitude intrigues some readers. I’m not one of them, but that goes to a point in a previous post: no first line (or first paragraph) will appeal to everyone. In fact, no story will appeal to everyone. I can tell from the first paragraph that the book is filled with profanity, so I’ll pass. But for some readers, the opening has the opposite effect. And even though I choose not to read The Catcher in the Rye, maybe that’s also a function of a successful first line—to weed out the readers who won’t appreciate the book.

Like Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye, C.S. Lewis begins The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with the description of an intriguing youth and his parents.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none. He didn’t call his Father and Mother “Father” and “Mother,” but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on the beds and the windows were always open.

What kind of boy almost deserves to be called Eustace Clarence Scrubb? Not a very likeable one, but intriguing none-the-less. And I have read and enjoyed this book. I originally bought it because I like the author, but I also appreciate the writing style.

As with any other opening, however, there are pitfalls to beginning a book by introducing an intriguing character. The first is self-evident: not making the character sufficiently intriguing to capture the reader’s attention. Just because I love my character doesn’t mean my readers will have the same feeling at the beginning of the book. By the time I finalize those opening paragraphs, I have been living with my protagonist for months and know both her quirks and her deepest secrets. When a new reader looks at the first pages to make a purchasing decision, he or she doesn’t know that character yet. The trick is to make the reader feel the same interest the author does but do it while the character is still a stranger to the reader. And that isn’t easy.

The other pitfall is maintaining the momentum. The character must fulfill the promise of the opening lines and remain intriguing throughout the story. If you empty your gun at the beginning and never reload, readers will cheer for you (as author) to die in the dust. And they won’t return for the next gunfight.

So if you want to begin with an intriguing character, make sure he or she fulfills that promise.

Next week we will move on to openings that foreshadow the story.

First Lines: Starting with a Bang

Monday, May 15, 2017


I stared at the gun in my hand before transferring my gaze to the dead author on the floor. She deserved to die. It was the only way to stop her from beginning her next romance with yet another car chase.

One approach to first lines is to begin with a bang—a startling event that captures a reader’s or viewer’s attention—such as an abduction or a car chase. Or it can be the literal bang of a gunshot. This type of opening is often used with action adventures, but it isn’t limited to that genre.

For an example from literary fiction, consider the opening paragraph from The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (as translated by David Wyllie).

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.

If waking up to discover you’ve been changed into a giant insect isn’t a startling event, then nothing is. The bang in The Metamorphosis is both unexpected and gigantic.

But the bang doesn’t have to be big to work. Here is the beginning of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring—I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it.

In these two examples, the first line is the one that creates the bang. And fortunately for the reader, the rest of the paragraph keeps the interest going.

So why doesn’t every story start with a bang? Because it doesn’t always work. Like every other type of opening, this approach has its pitfalls.

First, it’s too easy to start with an event that has nothing to do with the story. I’ve read many manuscripts and even some published books that fall into this trap. Somebody told the writer to start with a thrilling adventure, so the writer forces a car chase or a murder into the opening of a gentle romance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit.

But, you may ask, what about Raiders of the Lost Ark? Doesn’t that start with an unrelated adventure? Yes and no. The action sequence that begins the movie is not part of the actual story line, but it is related. First, it tells us something about Indiana Jones’ character. Second, it is consistent with and sets the mood for what follows. For these reasons and possibly others, it works. The car chase or murder that begins the gentle romance can’t claim those connections.

The second pitfall of opening with a bang is the temptation to begin the story in the wrong place. I was writing a women’s fiction novel about a woman who idolized her father until she discovered that he was a swindler. She doesn’t forgive him until she thinks he was killed in a car crash. The accident was the most dramatic event in the story, so I tried to start there. Unfortunately, I would have had to tell most of the story as a flashback. A few writers can pull it off, but I’m not one of them.

If your story allows you to start with a bang naturally, then do it. But if not, there are plenty of other choices.

Next week we’ll talk about using the first lines to introduce an intriguing character.