Broken Traditions

Monday, November 13, 2017


This year brought two broken Christmas traditions. The first we can resume next year, but the other is literally broken.

When it snowed Friday morning, I blamed Roland. I joked that it was his fault for breaking the first tradition, which is to put up the tree the day after Thanksgiving. I’m not sure when we started doing it on that specific day, although it probably began when the children were young. Roland had the day off and my company let us out early, so it seemed like a good time to do it. Before that, we probably bought the tree sometime in December. We have NEVER put it up before Thanksgiving.

Until this year. Roland bought a new tree, and it arrived on Thursday. So rather than taking it to the storage locker for two weeks, he put it up. Actually, we broke tradition in 2011 when we purchased our first artificial one. The house was on the market and had to be kept pristine for showings, and we weren’t sure how well a real tree would work in the condo we wanted to (and did) buy. Since we were empty nesters by that time, I allowed Roland to persuade me to get one that was more practical. I do like the convenience, but I miss the sentiment. Oh well.

Since we already had the tree up, there was no sense leaving it bare. So Roland retrieved the decorations from the storage locker and I began sorting through the ornaments to see which ones I wanted to put on our new—and narrower—tree. A few are not optional—they simply must get hung. One of the required ornaments is the little plastic mouse that I bought in Chicago in 1972 from a bin at Woolworths. I had just graduated from college, it was my first year on my own, and the mouse was my first ornament. He has been on my tree ever since, and the children love him. In fact, I think Caroline expects to inherit him eventually.

But here’s where, or how, the second tradition got broken. When I opened the box of ornaments, the mouse was missing his legs. I didn’t even know he was fragile, but I suppose anything can happen after 45 years. I can’t put him back together, but I can, and did, hang him on my tree in his broken state. If you don’t know what he looked like before and don’t look at him from underneath to see the ragged edges, you wouldn’t know he is damaged. But I was heartsick and still am.

The mouse ornament reminds me that memories are fragile, too. They can be lost if they aren’t written down. Once I’m gone, will my children remember that I bought my first Christmas ornament from Woolworths, which is also gone now? Or will they even know that in those days of living in Chicago I used to buy a real, full-sized tree from a nearby lot and drag it along the sidewalk and up the stairs to my apartment? My roommates helped, but none of us had a car.

Traditions are nice, but broken ones can’t ruin Christmas. The only way to ruin Christmas is to celebrate it without Christ.

Even so, traditions bring us closer, and I like having them.

So I’ve salvaged as much of the mouse as I can.

Falling Off the Mountain

Monday, November 6, 2017


When I was a child, we used to play a game called “King of the Mountain,” where somebody stood on top of a mound or other raised area and the other children tried, one at a time, to shove the King (or Queen) off. Actually, I probably watched more than I played since I would have had no chance at winning. I don’t know if children still play it, but adults do. And one of the places they play is on a TV game show called “Divided.”

“Divided” used to be shown on the Game Show Network during prime time, but GSN recently moved it to midnight Eastern time, which is 11:00 p.m. Central Time. I don’t know why they made the change, although presumably the show received lower ratings than the “Family Feud” episodes that replaced it. My biggest problem with the change is that eleven is my bedtime—except, now, for those nights when new episodes of “Divided” air.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, four strangers work as a team to earn money but, as the host explains, in the end they are playing for themselves. They increase their bank when they answer questions correctly and lose it when they get the answer wrong. They must agree on the answer before they can lock it in, and time and money wind dwindle until they do. Or, if they have either of their two takeovers left, one person can lock his or her answer in for everyone before the others agree. The contestants vote one person off in the middle of the show, but the biggest drama comes at the end. The final winnings are divided into three amounts—60% (A), 40% (B), and 10% (C), and the players must agree to each take a different amount. As with the answers to the questions, time and money disappear while the contestants are debating who gets what share of the pot.

I enjoy guessing the answers to the questions. But as a former psychology major, I’m most interested in the group dynamics, especially at the end.

Sometimes the final three contestants work well together and walk away with significant amounts of money. At other times their teamwork is shaky but they still leave with something, often because a person who deserves more agrees to take the least. Then there are the few times when the contestants let the clock wind down to zero and walk away with nothing. This is where the King of the Mountain analogy comes in.

The most common scenario for a zero recovery is where two players hold out for the highest amount and neither will budge. Usually, they both claim to have earned it. In one episode, however, a man admitted that he didn’t deserve the most but was determined to leave with 60% or nothing. When the clock stopped on nothing, the other two contestants blamed him and called him a jerk. In fact, in most situations where the contestants end up with nothing, at least one of the two deadlocked players blames the other. That’s when I want to yell at the TV and tell them that it takes two to make a stalemate. If you want money, you can’t let your ego stand in the way. If you were part of the stalemate and end up with nothing, blame yourself.

That’s how the normal scenario goes when the contestants end up with nothing. But Thursday night/Friday morning (depending on the time zone) it played out differently. The two women (and I) agreed that the man deserved the most, but they both thought they deserved the middle amount. As the money ticked down, the male contestant changed his vote to take the lowest amount so that they would all walk away with something. Then the two women both changed their votes to take the highest and the money disappeared anyway.

I don’t feel sorry for the women. They were two cats who were so intent on scratching each other’s eyes out that they both ended up blind. Or maybe they started blind, because surely they didn’t want the viewing audience to see them as fools. But that’s what happened.

But I don’t feel sorry for the man, either. Yes, it would have been nice if he had gotten some money, especially since he wanted to use it to buy an engagement ring. But he was still a winner. He showed the viewing audience that he was a classy guy whose self-worth didn’t depend on being at the top of the heap.

And that’s how to be the real King of the Mountain.

__________

I took the picture along the Shenandoah stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2012.

Reformation Poem

Monday, October 30, 2017


Five hundred years ago tomorrow, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, shown in the picture. I wrote a modest poem to celebrate this momentous event. There are a few inaccuracies (yes, I know that the catechism and the 95 theses are not the same) and some near rhymes, but that’s the beauty of poetic license. If you call me a heretic, I’m in good company. Isn’t that so, Martin?

In fifteen thousand and seventeen,
Luther crossed the village green.
He had no thought of vandalism
As he nailed up his catechism.


The 95 theses attached to a door
Were statements the Pope was bound to abhor.
Who was this upstart who fought with tradition
Using the Word as his only weapon?


As Luther preached salvation by grace,
He was put on trial to plead his case.
But though he sought to reform with reason,
The Pope and the Emperor both cried “Treason.”


Martin Luther’s plight looked grim
When the Pope excommunicated him.
And to Luther’s firm words, “Here I stand,”
The Emperor responded, “Banned!”


Five hundred years have come and gone
And Luther’s writings still live on.
So as we celebrate Reformation
Remember his message of salvation.


Saved by grace.
__________

The poem is © 2017 by Kathryn Page Camp, and the photo is © 2016 by Kathryn Page Camp.

Viewing the World from a Child's Perspective

Monday, October 23, 2017

On Saturday I attended a writers’ conference sponsored by the Indiana Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The conference was held at an elementary school, and most of the chairs were too small for the adult writers who participated. Yes, we sat in them, but we also complained about how uncomfortable they were and how hard it would be for us to get out of a seat that was so low to the ground. And I was as guilty as everyone else.

After I returned home and got a good night’s rest, I realized I was looking at the situation from the wrong perspective.

Children see the world differently than adults do. Of course we know that, but we don’t always remember it. When sitting in a lower chair, I had to physically look up farther to see the presenter’s face. And for children, that physical difference is also a difference in authority. As a three-year-old peeking out from behind my grandfather Page’s chair, I knew very little of the world, while my grandparents had the wisdom of experience. Children’s writers, like parents, need to remember and understand that earlier innocence when conveying our adult wisdom. If we don’t, children won’t learn from the story.

Most of us have heard the old Native American adage that you shouldn’t judge people until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. We can’t understand someone’s actions and reactions if we haven’t gone through the same things. That applies to writing for children, too, although in a slightly different way. We’ve all been children, so we have all walked in childhood’s shoes. But how well do we remember the experience? Sitting in a child-sized chair can help.

But not entirely. When I sat in a child’s chair, I was uncomfortable because it was too small for me. Children have a different reaction. For them, it’s a perfect fit. So we can’t bring our current perspective into our stories. We must reach back to the feelings we experienced in the past.

Author Ursula K. LeGuin once said, “Sure, it’s simple writing for kids . . . Just as simple as bringing them up.”

Writing for children is simple. Just as simple as viewing the world from a child’s perspective.

And just as hard.

Creating Sympathy for Characters with Unsympathetic Belifs

Monday, October 16, 2017


Our Mississippi River cruise spent a day at Vicksburg, Mississippi, where I visited two museums with steamboat displays as part of the research for my current work-in-progress. But the stop also had a second, unintended, result. During the 1863 siege of Vicksburg, the residents dug and lived in caves that served as bomb shelters. I had heard of the Vicksburg caves before, but the visit ignited my interest in writing a story about living in one. So that will probably be my next book.

Unfortunately, there were few, if any, abolitionists in Vicksburg at the time. I came up with several ideas of how I might make my character and her family secret abolitionists, but Roland wasn’t sure that even closet abolitionists existed in the deep South then. I’ll research it further, but if they didn’t, how do I make a character sympathetic when she condones slavery?

This isn’t an unusual situation for a writer to be in. Many stories start out with an unsympathetic protagonist, whose change in character or beliefs or even in situation is at the crux of the story. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, who starts out as a people-hating miser and ends up as an open-hearted and generous person. Or Jay Gatsby, who appears in the beginning of the story as a rich, flamboyant socialite; turns out to have obtained his riches illegally; and ends up getting blamed—and shot dead—for something he didn’t do. Then there is Heathcliff, anti-social and cruel throughout the entire story.

But readers don’t usually identify with unsympathetic characters, and they don’t like to read about people they don’t identify with. We must catch their interest at the beginning of the book, or they won’t read on. That means that one of our tasks as writers is to generate sympathy for unsympathetic characters or for otherwise likeable characters with unsympathetic beliefs.

Charles Dickens did it with humor; F. Scott Fitzgerald diverted our attention to the people around Gatsby; and Charlotte Bronte generated sympathy through backstory. Although, to be honest, I never did like Wuthering Heights.

Generating sympathy for a main character with unsympathetic beliefs is just part of the job.

So I’ll figure it out.

__________

The drawing at the head of this post comes from Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History (vol. 10), John Lossing Benson, ed. (New York, NY, Harper and Brothers, 1912). It is in the public domain because of its age.

Cruising the Mississippi

Monday, October 9, 2017



I just returned from a research trip aboard the American Queen, a Mississippi steamboat designed to imitate the ones that plied the river in the middle of the 18th Century. Obviously, there are many modern amenities these days, but I looked for—and hopefully found—the boat and the cruise that provided the most authentic experience.

My current work-in-progress is a middle-grade historical novel that involves a steamboat explosion, which was a common occurrence in the 18th Century. My main character, Lizzie, and her family sail downriver from Iowa to Louisiana in the autumn and back upriver in the spring, which is when the tragedy occurs. I didn’t want to experience a boiler explosion, of course, but I was hoping to get a general feel for what the trip might have been like.

I wasn’t just looking for the experience, however. During the trip I visited three museums that had ties to steamboat history. And Lizzie and her family spend the winter on a bayou in Louisiana, so Roland and I took a bayou tour at one of our stops. Still, it was the time spent cruising the river that was the most helpful.

It isn’t just steamboats that have changed in the last century and a half. The Mississippi River itself is different. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain notes that it can change in days, let alone years. Still, I got a general idea of what the banks south of Memphis might have been like when Lizzie would have traveled the river. For example, Mark Twain talks about trees hanging over the river with roots exposed by the action of the Mississippi wearing away the banks, and I am using that in my story. I can picture those banks when I imagine how the landscape in the second photo would have looked without the manmade barrier to prevent erosion.


It’s impossible to get the full historical experience on a present-day research trip.

But every little bit helps.

Flavor-Added Telling

Monday, October 2, 2017


I recently discovered a new author or, more accurately, an old author who is new to me. Her name is Elizabeth Cadell, and the first book I read was The Fledgling.

In some ways, I’m surprised that I liked the book. It begins with an omniscient narrator and long passages of “telling” rather than showing. Omniscient narrators have gone out of style because it is hard to do them correctly, and most sound like failed efforts at third-person point-of-view. Fortunately, Cadell gets it right.

She also manages to succeed with her “telling.” The longest passages come at the beginning of The Fledgling and soon give way to mostly showing. But the telling in the early passages did not bother me, probably for the same reason that I don’t mind the telling that often begins books by classic authors such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens. It’s what I call flavor-added telling because it is seasoned with salt and pepper and other spices.

The Fledgling is the story of a ten-year-old girl who was living in Portugal and is now being sent to school in England. Illness keeps her original travelling companions at home, so an acquaintance of Tory’s father is substituted at the last minute. Here are some examples of the flavor-added telling that Cadell uses to introduce her protagonist.

Tory, sent down before dinner to be presented to [Mr. Darlan], disliked him on sight, and resented being spoken to as though she was six instead of ten. But she had long ago perfected the art of concealing her feelings, and reminded herself that if he had not offered to travel with her, she might have been sent by air in the care of a TAP hostess, thus missing the novel experience of two nights on a train. After the exchange of a few polite sentences, she was permitted to retire, and Mr. Darlan, having no powers of divination, filed her as a mousey, well-mannered little thing, not pretty and certainly no conversationalist; one of those tongue-tied children out of whom monosyllables had to be dragged.

* * *

Young as [Tory] was, every servant in the house knew her discretion to be absolute; their secrets were as safe with her as hers were locked within herself.

* * *

[Tory] sat motionless but relaxed, her expression serious and attentive, her mind elsewhere, lending as always a dutiful eye and a deaf ear. She never fidgeted, never interrupted; she had never been heard to contradict. She agreed with everything that was planned for her, and made her own arrangements later, for she had discovered that the easiest way through life was to set out obediently upon the appointed path and then slip away down a side turning.

Cadell could have said, “Tory was a quiet child who kept her thoughts to herself.” That is pure telling, and it’s boring. Or the author could have shown Tory acting compliant in public but doing something contrary in private, but that would have taken more time. So she uses flavor-added telling to draw the reader in. Cadell announces Tory’s personality, as in pure telling, but also gives us examples that help us see her as a person rather than a description. And this element of “sight” nudges the passage closer to the showing line.

I believe in showing rather than telling most of the time.

But flavor-added telling has its own charm.

Agatha Christie's Writing Process

Monday, September 25, 2017


Several months ago, Roland gave me a copy of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran. The “secret” notebooks of the title are the ones she used for plotting her mysteries, and they contain many insights into her writing process. Although I enjoyed Curran’s book, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t a big Christie fan. The notebooks are way too numerous to print in their entirety, and much of the material is apparently of little interest. So Curran selects passages and adds his own comments and analysis. Still, much of the information in the book is in Christie’s own words.

Some of those words are placed in the mouth of Christie’s alter ego, a mystery writer named Mrs. Ariadne Oliver. Mrs. Oliver is a recurring character, and when she talks about her writing process, we can be confident that she is speaking from Agatha Christie’s own experience.

Getting Ideas and Following Through

In Dead Man’s Folly, Mrs. Oliver voices my own problem, both with getting initial plot ideas and with dealing with the ones that pop up within the story.

“It’s never difficult to think of things,” said Mrs. Oliver. “The trouble is that you think of too many, and then it all becomes too complicated, so you have to relinquish some of them and that is rather agony.” (Chapter 2)

Later in the same book, Mrs. Oliver talks about how she deals with the ideas she keeps.

“I mean, what can you say about how you write your books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and then when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all.” (Chapter 17)

Plotting

Christie used a basic outline. It wasn’t a chronological outline or one that followed the action of the story, although she might have used one of those, too. But she started with six questions: Who? Why? When? How? Where? and Which? (See page 93 of Secret Notebooks.)

While the questions were etched in stone, however, the notebooks make clear that the answers were not. Even the identity of the murderer could change as she developed her plot.

But that doesn’t mean she had a new plot every time. As the writer of Ecclesiastes noted, there is nothing new under the sun. All writers reuse plots—both our own and somebody else’s. The trick is dressing them up in different clothing.

Cue Mrs. Oliver again, although this time the quote comes from Chapter 8 of Cards on the Table.

“Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?” asked Battle.

The Lotus Murder,” murmured Poirot. “The Clue of the Candle Wax.”

Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation. “That’s clever of you—that’s really very clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody has seen it. One is stolen papers at an informal week-end party of the Cabinet, and the other’s a murder in Borneo in a rubber planter’s bungalow.”

“But the essential point on which the story turns is the same,” said Poirot. “One of your neatest tricks. The rubber planter arranges his own murder; the cabinet minister arranges the robbery of his own papers. At the last minute the third person steps in and turns deception into reality.”

Research

If we were to continue the above passage, you might think that Christie doesn’t care about accuracy. Here are the next three paragraphs.

“I enjoyed your last, Mrs. Oliver,” said Superintendent Battle kindly. “The one where all the chief constables were shot simultaneously. You just slipped up once or twice on official details. I know you’re keen on accuracy, so I wondered if—”

Mrs. Oliver interrupted him.

“As a matter of fact, I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favorite Labrador, Bob, good-by, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing I don’t see what it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more.”

So it is probably true that Christie wasn’t upset if she got the minor details wrong. But the notebooks show that she did care about the major ones.

First, as I mentioned in my blog post two weeks ago, Christie used maps and diagrams to keep her facts consistent. In addition to the three I listed in that post, she drew maps showing where the players were during the murder in Five Little Pigs (published in America as Murder in Retrospect) and Towards Zero and a seating diagram for the dinner party in Sparkling Cyanide (published here as Remembered Death). Those are just the ones mentioned in Curran’s book, so there may have been more.

And there are other notes that show her attempts to get the facts right. Many of her murderers used poison, which she knew something about because she worked in a hospital dispensary during World War I. But when she was dealing with a stabbing and struggling with a seeming medical impossibility in Ordeal by Innocence, she checked the facts against cases reported in the British Medical Journal. She checked legal possibilities with lawyers. And when setting a story in ancient Egypt (Death Comes as the End), she got much of her information from a professor of Egyptology.

Agatha Christie wrote popular fiction and, like many prolific writers, some of her books were better than others. But writing was her life.

And we can learn from her.

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.