Autumn in the Midwest

Monday, October 15, 2018

I have been busy preparing for a conference at the end of the month, so I am reprinting a blog post from November 4, 2013.
Autumn in the Midwest
Saturday I drove to Indianapolis for a writers’ luncheon. On the way down, the sun was still fighting the darkness and a fine mist veiled the scenery, so I barely noticed the trees. But on the return trip, the sun highlighted the gorgeous fall colors.
That and a few lines in a poem written by a friend inspired me to write this one.
A Feast for the Eyes
Driving along I-65,
The trees are a candy store assortment
Of cinnamon, tangerine drops, and butterscotch.
Walking through a duneland forest,
The path is a farmstand cornucopia
With cranberries, walnuts, and butternut squash.
Living autumn days,
The landscape is a Midwest banquet
That feasts the eyes while feeding the soul.

Rules for Writing Fiction

Monday, October 8, 2018

My online critique partner has been trying to follow all the “rules” for writing fiction but is having trouble when they conflict with each other or don’t further her story. That made me wonder how hard-and-fast they really are. Here is what I came up with.

In my opinion, there are only two inflexible rules for writing fiction to be read by others. (If you are writing merely to please yourself, you can ignore them, too.) These two higher-level rules are:

·       Respect your reader, and

·       Stay true to your story.

Most of the lower-level rules are really guidelines designed to help writers respect their readers. Obviously, not all readers are alike, so how the guidelines are used and the degree to which they apply depends on the intended audience. For example, thriller fans expect you to apply the “show, don’t tell” guideline more rigorously than readers of literary fiction do. Here are a few of the other many guidelines that help you respect your reader.

·       Write clearly. Readers deserve to understand what they are reading. I have started but not finished many books that used confusing sentence structures. Here are some examples:

o   “Tom and David entered the room smoking a pipe.” Since it says “a pipe” (singular), were they sharing it? If only one was smoking, then which one? Or should it say “smoking pipes?”

o   “Betty went camping with her sisters, Debbie and Carol.”  This could mean that there were at least five people on the camping trip: Betty, two or more sisters, Debbie, and Carol. Or it could mean that there were only three: Betty and her two sisters, who are named Debbie and Carol.

I thought about putting clarity among the immutable rules, but even it has exceptions. There are times when a writer is purposefully ambiguous and/or misleading, such as when he or she wants a character’s motive to be unclear until the end. But the lack of clarity should always be intentional.

·       Be consistent with point of view. There can be more than one POV character, but it is inconsiderate to head-hop within a scene. When that happens, the reader is the one who gets the headache. At least I do. It’s also important to understand how the various POVs work and use them properly, but that’s a subject for another day. In fact, it’s a subject for an entire month, and I covered it three years ago. For more detail, read my blog posts for July 6, 2015; July 13, 2015; July 20, 2015; and July 27, 2015

·       Don’t tell readers what they can figure out for themselves and don’t repeat information they already know. That tells me, as a reader, that the writer thinks I’m dense. Of course, sometimes repetition is useful for emphasis or as a rhetorical device. That’s why this is a guideline rather than a fixed rule.

·       Feed information to the reader when and where it is fresh. This includes backstory. “Fresh” doesn’t mean it has to be served right after it is made (i.e., when it occurs), but there is a difference between good cheese and moldy cheese or between crisp vegetables and rotten ones. In other words, don’t use the first chapter—or any other part of the book—to dump information on the reader the way trash is added to a garbage dump. Instead, merge backstory, details, and descriptions in where they fit naturally. If there is no place to merge them in, then they are probably unnecessary.

The other actual rule is to stay true to your story. This doesn’t mean it can’t change or develop in the writing process, but no writer should give up control. I always listen to and consider my critique partners’ suggestions, and they often improve the story. This goes for craft elements as well as plot. But I don’t make changes that don’t feel right. It is my story, and nobody else understands it the way I do.

So if you want to be a good writer, respect your readers and stay true to your story.


The image at the head of this post was drawn by Frank T. Merrill for the original edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. First published in 1868, the illustration is in the public domain because of its age.

Giving Back

Monday, October 1, 2018

Some people think writing is a solitary pursuit, and the actual writing usually is. But writers are also members of a larger community that provides critique groups and conferences, among other activities.

We should also be giving back by encouraging young readers and mentoring other writers.

On Wednesday I spoke to a high school creative writing class. Or rather, I let them interview me. I love writing and want to pass that enthusiasm on, but I also want budding writers to understand that it’s a hard job. Talking to students about my experiences grounds them in the realities of the writing world.

I have also been helping set up the library at a small Lutheran school in the second year of its existence. It’s a time-consuming process with a long ways yet to go, but it’s worth every minute I put in. The photo shows the library at Ascension Lutheran School as it looked when I left on Friday.

What can you do to encourage young readers and writers?

Hurricane Fall-Out

Monday, September 24, 2018

September 14 is a bad date for hurricanes. On September 14, 2018, Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina. Ten years earlier, on September 14, 2008, the remnants of Hurricane Ike caused wide-spread flooding in Northwest Indiana and wrecked havoc on our own house.  

Last week I wrote about Hurricane Florence and how it was affecting my cousins. Since then I’ve learned that the ones in Wilmington are safe and should be close to normal soon. My Topsail Island cousin returned to a home still standing but significantly damaged. It will take her longer to get back to normal.

I know how that feels. Ten years ago, the remnants of Hurricane Ike took less than 24 hours to drop ten inches of rain on Northwest Indiana. The Little Calumet River overflowed its banks a few blocks from our house, and we fled north to stay on our sailboat at the Hammond Marina. It was a week before we could get to the house and two-and-a-half before we could move back home. Even then, we were reduced to living in half the house for several months while reconstructing the rest.

The water came up about five feet on the lower level of our tri-level home, practically destroying the laundry room, the second bathroom, and the family room. Our family room was lined with bookshelves, and Roland likes to joke that he filled a dumpster with the books he had to throw out. A heart-wrenching circumstance for booklovers. The water rose almost a foot in our office, the garage, and the rooms behind them that we had been using for storage. But the living room and kitchen were raised slightly and didn’t have any damage. Neither did the top floor with the bedrooms and the other bathroom. So we returned home as soon as the town cleared the house for habitation.

The first picture shows the rubbish piled along Jackson Avenue as people cleared out their homes. And that’s AFTER the dumpsters had been taken away. The next picture shows the stairs down to the lower level as we gutted the ruined parts of the house with help from church and other friends. I don’t know what we would have done without them.
We were very fortunate to have great friends and good flood insurance.

But I feel for everyone who has suffered from Hurricane Florence.

A Prayer

Monday, September 17, 2018

Less than two months ago I was on Topsail Island in North Carolina for a reunion with my paternal cousins. Roland and I stayed at a hotel, as did another cousin and her husband, but everyone else stayed with my cousin Gail. The photo shows her house as it looked on July 28.

Who knows what it looks like now.

Gail evacuated to her brother’s house in Richmond, Virginia, and officials aren’t letting residents back on the island yet, so we don’t have a damage report. On the positive side, the photos I’ve seen on Gail’s Facebook page seem to indicate that most of the houses on the island came through without major damage.

Then there are my two sets of Wilmington cousins. One couple was out of the country at the time, but the other was at home and didn’t evacuate. The last I heard they were safe but without power and low on cell phone battery.

So my blog post today is a simple prayer for all who have been affected by Hurricane Florence.

Dear Lord, thank you for your protection during Hurricane Florence and for your promise in Isaiah 43:2 to be with your children as we go through disasters of any kind. Comfort those who lost loved ones in the hurricane or its aftermath. Give the residents of the affected areas rest and strength to rebuild, and help us all to help our neighbors. In Jesus name.


High School Memories

Monday, September 10, 2018

Fifty years? Really?

I attended my fifty-year high school reunion at Lake City, Michigan, on Saturday. It isn’t the high school that I would have preferred to graduate from, but I still had some good times there. If you want to know what I looked like then, I’m second from the left on the bottom row in the first photo.

We moved right after my sophomore year, so I didn’t grow up with these classmates. That happened at DeTour Village, Michigan. If I’d had my way, we would have stayed there until I left for college, but it wasn’t my choice. Many of my Lake City classmates did grow up together, and they are sharing those events and photos on the reunion Facebook page. I can’t related to those experiences, but here are some of the more memorable ones I did have in my last two years of high school.

Senior English with Mr. Leemgraven occurred in the same time slot as reruns of the television show “The Fugitive.” Somehow, we convinced him to let us watch the 2-episode finale in class.

I played an old maid in the senior play and enjoyed it immensely. (That’s me on the left in the second photo.) The entire experience was fun, but one particular evening practice—or actually before it—stands out. As a general matter, I either walked the ten blocks to school or drove over early with Mama, who taught in the elementary wing. So my classmates didn’t automatically connect me with our Volkswagen. But Brad Stanton had a similar one, and he drove it all the time. One night I drove ours to an evening practice and spun it around on the ice close to the school. Brad was also in the play, and he took a merciless ribbing. He must have been very confused, and he denied it vehemently. I probably told people the truth when I found out they thought it was Brad, but the memory has stuck with me.

The biggest advantage of Lake City over DeTour was that Lake City offered more extracurricular activities. I was in Senior Chorus my junior year, and it put on an annual operetta. I was just part of the chorus, but that was still fun. I would have loved to have been in it my senior year, too. Unfortunately, it conflicted with physics, and physics won out. I did do debate and forensics that year, however.

Then there was the one and only time I visited the guidance counselor. Mr. Ferguson was new, and he decided to start the school year by asking each of the seniors to come to his office and discuss their plans for after graduation. That was his job and he was trying to be helpful, and even then I knew I wasn’t being singled out, but at the time I was insulted that anybody thought I needed help from a guidance counselor. In what was probably the shortest session he ever had, I informed him that I had everything under control and had already been accepted at the college of my choice. I’m sure my words were respectful, but I don’t remember my tone . . . .

At the reunion, people made two main comments to me. The first was, “I remember your long hair.” The other was, “you and Cassie should have been valedictorian and salutatorian” (without specifying the order). Cassie said the same thing, although she accepted it more calmly than she did at the time. Dave (valedictorian) and Susan (salutatorian) had both been transferred to Lake City High School at the beginning of our senior year after their small country school closed, and their earlier grades transferred with them. That’s what I would have expected, but apparently there was some controversy about it. In any event, I felt at the time, and told people at the reunion, that I thought Dave was qualified to be valedictorian. We were in all the same classes senior year, engaged in friendly competition, and came out neck and neck grade-wise. So I never questioned that choice. I knew less about Susan since she was not on the college-prep track and we shared only one or two classes. But losing out on one of the top two slots didn’t affect either my college chances or my career progress, so it never really bothered me.

The final photo shows what fifty years does. (I’m in the back row in the blue-and-white stripped top.) We had just over sixty people in our graduating class. Although people who left before graduation were also invited and several came, this is still an impressive turnout.

I enjoyed the reunion, and I’m glad I went.

But it can’t have been fifty years.

Out for a Walk

Monday, September 3, 2018

We have several good bike trails around here. I walk them for exercise and listen to an hour’s worth of Great Courses lectures at the same time. That’s been my routine for years, and it still is. But I finally entered the 21st Century.

In the past, I listened to the lectures on an early generation I-Pod. I took identifying information and emergency numbers, but it was too much trouble to carry both the I-Pod and my cell phone, so I couldn’t make emergency calls or take pictures. Every time I came across a good photo opportunity, I regretted that I couldn’t take advantage of it.

For me, photography is a serious hobby. When I’m traveling or on a hike looking for pictures, I take my Canon DSL, which gives me more options and better quality than a cell phone. But the Canon is a little heavy to carry when I’m primarily walking for exercise. So I finally gave in and bought a special case for my cell phone and figured out how to stream the lectures.

But now I have another problem. Walking for exercise works best when I keep a steady pace, and stopping for all those photo ops defeats the purpose.

I have included several photos that I took while walking last week. I recognize the Monarch butterfly, which is common around here at this time of year, but I need help identifying the flower and the other butterfly. Do any of my readers know what they are? (I think I can name the flower, but I’m not positive and I don’t want to influence anybody by telling you my guess.) The dark butterfly is also common around here, but none of my books have been any help with identification. Maybe that’s because the wings appear ragged and torn. It isn’t dead because I saw it flying before it landed on the leaf in the picture. I suppose the butterfly might be close to the end of its life, but I’m not sure about that, either, since it isn’t the first of its type that I have seen in that condition. So I would appreciate your help identifying the subjects of those two photos.

Too bad you can’t also tell me how to walk and take pictures at the same time.

A Tour of My Bulletin Board

Monday, August 27, 2018

I like to be organized, and having a dedicated office makes it easier. I use a bulletin board as one of my organizational tools, and where would I put it if I had to write in a coffee shop or even at my kitchen table? Yes, I also have notes and lists and research materials in binders, but I like having crucial information a glance away.

Maybe a bulletin board would work for you, too. It’s something to think about, anyway. And if you need ideas, here is a tour of mine.

The upper left-hand quadrant lists my monthly writing goals. I have three goals for August: to send my just completed manuscript out for editing, to work on the second draft of my current work-in-progress, and to send an earlier manuscript to the next round of agents. I’m currently right on track, but I might not be without the list in a prominent place to remind me.

The upper right-hand quadrant has two items. The top one is a copy of my Indiana Registered Retail Merchant Certificate, which is a sales tax registration that basically authorizes me to sell my books out of the back of my car. It reminds me that writing is a business as well as something I enjoy doing. The second item is an inspirational quote from Hebrews 12:2.

The bottom left-hand side has the outline for my current work-in-progress. I’m somewhere between a plotter and a pantster, meaning that I work from a skeletal outline and change it when circumstances warrant. My outlines are a one-line summary of each chapter and include the day of the week and the date for each one. If I get lost, I just glance up and find myself again.

The content on the bottom right-hand side changes with the manuscript. My current WIP takes place in the real town of Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1863, and I want to get the location details right. A significant portion of the story occurs in a cave built as a multi-family bomb shelter that also serves as their dwelling. Although the particular cave is fictional, the layout needs to remain the same throughout the book. So this month that lower right-hand quadrant contains a map of Vicksburg as it looked in 1863 and a diagram of the cave. When I was writing about the Great Chicago Fire, that part of the bulletin board was covered with a map of the fire’s spread. For a story that follows the seasons, I post a copy of the calendar for the relevant years. In every case, however, that portion of the bulletin board contains information that I consult frequently while writing.

Every writer has a different routine and a different way of organizing to write, so what works for me might not work for you.

But feel free to use my bulletin board ideas if they help.

The Changing Face of Political Correctness

Monday, August 20, 2018

Recently, a friend was reading Desert Jewels and asked me about the authenticity of a passage explaining that the protagonist’s Japanese American father and Caucasian mother got married in Indiana because it was illegal in Chicago. While the book is fiction, the scene is based on the real life experience of Nakaji and Eleanore Torii, who married in Crown Point, Indiana in 1930.1  To add to that story, apparently the FBI tried to pressure Eleanore to divorce Nakaji in 1943 but she refused because he was a good provider. Although this is pure speculation, I would like to think that the real reason she refused was because she loved her husband. However, saying he was a good provider was an answer more people would likely understand or accept.

In 1930, mixed marriages were not politically correct. And during World War II, it wasn’t even politically correct to have Japanese American friends. Entire families—including many American born children—were incarcerated simply because of their blood line.

Then there are my current works-in-progress, which take place in the South before and during the Civil War. In that time and place, it was politically correct to support slavery and politically incorrect to oppose it.

These days, very few people would argue that mixed marriages are wrong and that the Japanese American incarceration and slavery were right. And it isn’t that the rightness or wrongness changed with the times, although many people who held those now outdated political beliefs did think they were morally right. Political climates and beliefs change, but right and wrong never do.

So don’t expect me to be politically correct if I don’t believe it’s right.


1 Images of America: Japanese Americans in Chicago, by Alice Murata. See pages 9, 15–18. 

The photo at the top of this post was taken by Dorothea Lange in San Francisco, California during April 1942, while she was working for the War Relocation Authority. It is in the public domain because it was taken as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government.

Own Voices v. Other Voices: Why Not Both?

Monday, August 13, 2018

The “Own Voices” movement started as a hashtag created by Corinne Duyvis to encourage authors from diverse/marginalized groups to write about the groups they belong to—whether that be a particular race, disability, or sexual orientation—and to promote those books. That’s an admirable goal, and I’m fully behind it.
In this “politically correct” atmosphere, however, many people go farther and condemn works by voices writing outside their culture. (This is not where Corinne Duyvis takes it, as you can see from the Q&As at The restrictive view of acceptable authorship is short-sighted and, I believe, counterproductive.

First, some background. I’m about as WASP as you can get, but the protagonist of my first middle-grade book, Desert Jewels, is not. Here’s the blurb.

Twelve-year-old Emi Katayama is half Japanese, but she is all American. Then Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, and she suddenly becomes the enemy.

I wrote Desert Jewels because the Japanese-American incarceration is a part of our history that often gets ignored, and I wanted to change that. I could have used a white protagonist who lives outside the camp, as Kirby Larson did very effectively in the Dear America book The Fences Between Us, but I wanted to get closer.

Research is key. Since I didn’t live through the experience, my research relied significantly on the voices of those who had. Memoirs have always been my favorite resources, and the Japanese-American incarceration generated a number of them.

No matter who writes the story, it is important to get the facts right. While the experience is primary, knowledgeable readers may stop reading if the details are wrong. And this is just as important for members of the in-group as it is for writers from outside the group. Unfortunately, I have read several books written by Japanese Americans that have gotten the facts wrong. As an example, many of these books merge the so-called “no no boys” with the draft dissenters and treat them as if they were the same group. The “no no boys” were Japanese men who answered “no” to two questions supposedly designed to test loyalty, while the draft dissenters answered yes to each question. (You can read more about the Heart Mountain dissenters in my June 2, 2014 blog post.)

The biggest problem with the restrictive view, though, is that it limits both the offerings and the audience.

First and most obvious, it limits the offerings by narrowing the number of people who write those books. I understand the very realistic concern about other voices getting it wrong, and this is where publishers can and should be gatekeepers. But some other voices get it right. And if you want people to read own voices, those must be quality works. So while I support publishers prioritizing for well-written own voices, they shouldn’t automatically discard other voices.

Second, restricting stories to own voices also limits the audience. Some people outside of a group feel that people within the group have a bone to pick, and these readers discount own voices books as biased. (It is the perception rather than the accuracy of the claim that is important here.) The best way to reach this audience is through white voices writing outside their culture and getting it as correct as possible.

So yes, publishers should be gatekeepers to ensure that all voices portray people accurately and with sensitivity. Sometimes that means giving priority to well-written and well-researched own voices.

But restricting it to those voices is short-sighted and counterproductive.


Desert Jewels is available in paperback and Kindle versions from and in paperback from Barnes and Noble.

Detecting History

Monday, August 6, 2018

Only detectives should write historical novels. I don’t mean the kind of detective with a magnifying glass or a knowledge of fingerprints. But writing historical novels requires a significant amount of research and deductive reasoning to get the history right.

In June, I dragged Roland along on a research trip. I am writing a book that takes place during the Civil War Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and I wanted to do some research at the library in the Old Court House (pictured above) and visit the battlefield. While there, I gathered information on a real girl named Lucy McRae. She never comes onstage in my book and is only mentioned briefly, but she was trapped in a literal cave-in and I want my protagonist to hear about that incident. Also, Lucy comes from the same income class as my protagonist, so they would probably live in the same part of town and attend the same school. Knowing more about Lucy helps me make my own character more authentic.

My earlier research indicated that Lucy was 10 or 11 years old, but the movie at the battleground said she was 13. When writing for a middle grade audience, that is a big difference, and I needed to determine whether she was younger or older or the same age as my twelve-year-old protagonist. This is where the detective works comes in.

The research library had copies of the 1861 city directory and the 1850 census but none of the 1860 census. The 1861 city directory and the 1850 census showed a William McRae who was a merchant. At the time, he had four sons and no daughters. Was he Lucy’s father? He could be if she was 10 or 11 in 1863 since she would not have been born when the 1850 census was taken. And it was also possible that she could have been 13 if the census was taken early in the year and she was born right afterwards. But the 1850 census listed the youngest boy as less than a year old, making it less likely that Lucy would have been born shortly after.

And was this even the right William McRae? Several sources identified Lucy’s father as the sheriff, and both the city directory and the 1850 census listed this William McRae as a merchant. So did he become the sheriff by 1863?

After returning home, I went online and found a copy of the 1860 census. It showed a William McRae who was listed as sheriff and named the same wife and sons as in the 1850 census. The 1960 census also showed a daughter, Lucy, and gave her age as eight, which is consistent with her being ten or eleven at the time of the siege. Mystery solved.

But it took some detective work.

Don't Donate That Book!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Last week, I mentioned that Roland and I have been volunteering at a summer reading program held at Ascension Lutheran Christian School in Gary, Indiana. When the school put out a call for new and used books, it was flooded with contributions. I was reading one of them during a break and realized that not every book is a good candidate for donation. This isn’t a matter of censorship. I’m a big supporter of the First Amendment and would never advocate banning books. But I do believe in using good judgment.
The problem isn’t what you might think. There is nothing in the book that is insensitive. It doesn’t contain bad language, sex, or violence. It is simply out-of-date.
In the book, the protagonist’s father is a photographer who uses film and develops his own pictures in a darkroom at home. The process spills over into the kitchen, with chemicals and other equipment spread out everywhere. Then there is the typewriter the neighbor buys because everyone else in her class has one and the test the protagonist had trouble reading because the purple ink from the mimeograph is too light.

So why is this an issue? Because donated books often go to children who aren’t good readers or need to be motivated. If they come across outdated technology that they don’t understand, they may become frustrated and give up. (For simplicity, I’ll continue referring to technology although the same applies to outdated customs, modes of dress, and anything that might become a passing fad.)
When I mentioned the book to Roland, he said that children need to learn about how things were in the past. I agree, and if they were reading these books with parents who could explain them, I’d be all for it. But I don’t think that’s the situation for most of the recipients.

In this particular book, the chemicals for developing film are important to the story, but the mimeograph and the typewriter aren’t. The story was appropriate in its time and might still be a good read in the proper circumstances, but it isn’t a good book to donate.
This doesn’t mean that I’m ruling out all books that were written before the current technological age. On the contrary. Many books that were placed in a contemporary setting many years ago are still easy reads. Louisa May Alcott set Little Women in her own time, and E.B. White did the same with Charlotte’s Web. But they avoided getting too specific about the technology of their day. To use the donated book as an example, the mimeographed test would have worked equally well if the text merely mentioned “ink” or “print,” and the story would have had a longer life. 

Historical novels are a better way to help children learn about the past. The well-written ones don’t frustrate the reader because the author places the story at a clear time and uses context to explain the technology, customs, and other now outdated matters. Although many do include references to the pop culture of the time, they make it self-explanatory.
I’m not trying to discourage writers from using I-Phones and Twitter and the fad of the moment in their stories if they don’t care about longevity. But I am saying that these are not good books to donate after the technology becomes outdated. 

Just because something is old doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be donated. But books that assume the reader understands the technology don’t wear well, and volunteers and staff may not have the time to weed them out. That means the person donating the book should be the first reviewer.
So if you want children to catch your love for reading, don’t donate books that will frustrate them instead.

"I Don't Like to Read"

Monday, July 23, 2018

Roland and I have been volunteering at a summer reading program held at Ascension Lutheran Christian School in Gary, Indiana. The first day we were there, I overheard one girl say “I don’t like to read.” My immediate response was, “Oh, but reading books will teach you . . .”

Then I stopped. Children don’t want to be told what they can learn. What I was about to say could actually be a disincentive. So I changed it to, “Books take you to new places and let you meet new people.” And I probably should have added something about going on new adventures.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t convinced.

By the time my children were that age (going into second grade), Caroline loved to read. John didn’t spend as much time at it as she did, but he enjoyed a good story when he read one.

So how do we instill a love for reading in our children?

The best way is to set a good example. This means reading to them and making frequent visits to the library. But it also means letting them see us reading.

Programs like the one at Ascension help, too.  The free program meets twice a week through most of June and July, with volunteers staffing stations for various language arts activities.* 

At the end of the Thursday session, children pick several books from a pile of donations. (See the photo below.) Book ownership will help encourage them to read, especially when they have made their own choices. That’s the idea, anyway.

Most children can’t get to the library or a summer reading program unless a parent or guardian takes them. If you aren’t motivated to read yourself and to take your children or grandchildren or neighbors to age-appropriate reading activities, they aren’t likely to be motivated, either. And before you know it, you’ll hear them say, “I don’t like to read.”

Fortunately, it isn’t an incurable disease. That girl who doesn't like to read has been at Ascension for most sessions, so maybe the program will change her mind.

I hope so.


* Although the billboard mentions scholarships available, that is for the regular school year.                                                    

Rome: Appreciating Art

Monday, July 16, 2018

Like Florence, Rome is a city filled with art. Actually, some of it is in the Vatican, which isn’t technically part of Rome. But in both cases, much of it is Michelangelo’s work.

The first picture is Michelangelo’s “Pietà” located in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a good photo that didn’t include that line. The crowds kept me from finding a better angle, but the biggest problem was that the statue is protected by a glass box. That’s because it was vandalized in 1972, when someone attacked it with a hammer and broke off Mary’s left arm and hand. “Pietà” has since been restored, but it is still a reminder that not everyone values good art. And that’s a shame.

Vatican City also contains some of Michelangelo’s paintings, with the most famous ones being in the Sistine Chapel. I’m not going to talk about the “Creation of Adam” or any of the other frescoes on the ceiling because I think “Last Judgment,” which is on the wall behind the altar, is more interesting.

Photos were not allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Talking wasn’t, either, so the tour guide couldn’t explain anything while we were inside. The Vatican must understand the importance of tour groups, however, because the plaza had a number of identical stations with photos from the Chapel that helped guides explain the art to their groups.

Study the next photo carefully, and look especially at the naked man in the lower right-hand corner with the snake around his body. Then I’ll tell you what our guide told us.

Actually, most of the bodies are naked, and that caused a problem. Michelangelo felt that we should celebrate the bodies God gave us, but not everyone agreed. Biagio da Cesena, who was Pope Paul III’s Papal Master of Ceremonies, made scathing remarks about the painting. Michelangelo got his revenge by painting da Cesena in hell with a snake around his body. When da Cesena saw it, he complained to Pope Paul III, who said that Hell was out of his jurisdiction and the painting would remain as it was.

Michelangelo also sculpted elaborate pieces for grave markers. His “Moses” (shown below) was commissioned by Pope Julius II for his tomb. The tomb was never built, and Moses and some surrounding sculptures (not by Michelangelo) now reside in the San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter-in-Chains) church in Rome proper.

Most Romans couldn’t afford such elaborate art to mark their graves, however. The catacombs, which were Christian underground cemeteries, not hiding places, are filled with grave markers like the one below that used simple religious symbols. But whether elaborate or simple, art should be appreciated, not vandalized.

This is the last post about my trip to Italy. We went many other places and saw many other sites while we were there, but I just can’t cover it all.

Next week I’ll return to a subject more directly related to writing.

Rome: The Value of Preserving History

Monday, July 9, 2018

When the popes got control of Rome, they tried to eliminate all reminders of it’s pagan past. This happened after Constantine, whose arch stands near the crumbling colosseum. (That’s his arch in the photo below.) It was the Roman Catholic Church that encouraged the destruction of pagan sites. 
If you look at the first picture and the one below, you will see that the top and outside walls of the colosseum have crumbled and fallen. According to our local guide, the popes allowed or even encouraged people to recycle the building materials—primarily the marble blocks and the iron rods that held the walls together and strengthened the entire structure. (If you look closely at the photo below, you will notice the many holes in the façade where the iron rods were removed.) Without these supports, the walls couldn’t withstand earthquakes and the many natural eroding effects of time.

The popes eventually realized the value of remembering the past and began protecting and even restoring sites like this. But much of the damage had already been done.

Fortunately, much of the colosseum’s history was preserved by writers for whom it was their present.* And we can do the same for subsequent generations by recording what is happening right now. It’s our turn to preserve history.

I can’t resist leaving you with a photo of Roland and me standing in front of the colosseum. But I’m not leaving Rome yet. I’ll have more about it in next week’s post.


* These writers include Dio Cassius and Tertullian. I haven’t read them, but you can try if you want.

Pompeii: Let It Rain

Monday, July 2, 2018

Let it rain water, that is. Not ash.
We almost didn’t get to see Pompeii because it was raining and the people who administer the site close the ruins when the rain makes walking too treacherous. Fortunately for us, they decided to keep the ancient city open that day. It wasn’t the best weather for exploring the ruins or taking pictures, but we had a good local guide and learned a lot. The rain even created some advantages. The guide told us that the crowds would have been heavy and the lines much longer if the weather had been good.

The first photo shows the Greek amphitheater. You can tell it is Greek rather than Roman because it is open on the stage side. The next photo shows how the original residents handled the wet streets. Actually, it wasn’t the rain they worried about. The streets were washed daily by sending a stream of water down them, and anyone who was out at that time used the stepping stones to keep their feet dry. (I stepped on them once for the experience but walked in the street.)

The final photo serves as a reminder of how Pompeii came to its end. Most residents escaped when Mount Vesuvius erupted, but some ignored the warnings and died from suffocation as they were buried by the ash from the volcano. Over time, the bodies rotted away and left cavities in the soft rock. Archeologists poured plaster into the holes and then chipped the soil away, preserving the form of the bodies that had been there.

As I said, Pompeii wasn’t at its best when we saw it, but it was still impressive. And because the rain kept many of the tourists away, we got a better view of it than we would have otherwise.

So of course I thought of a writing analogy. Sometimes we experience serious personal crises that require us to take time away from writing, just as the people who administer Pompeii need to close it when the weather gets too bad. We get sick, or a loved one dies, or something else demands our time, and we need to take a break from writing to handle the situation. But in many cases the rain is an excuse rather than a necessity. That’s when it’s important to write through the rain.

And who knows. It may also be when we achieve our most impressive results.

Assisi: Home of St. Francis

Monday, June 25, 2018

Assisi is perched on the side of a mountain and is a quaint and charming town. It is worth a visit for that alone. However, it is best known as the home of St. Francis of Assisi. Born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in 1181 or 1182, he became a humanitarian, writer, and the founder of the Franciscan Order. You may know him best for this prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

The town was settled before the Romans arrived, but they are the ones who built the first walls to surround it. That’s the Old Gate in the next picture. It is called that because the town kept growing, and there were eventually three sets of walls and gates.

We saw many interesting sites in Assisi, but the Basilica (Church) of St. Francis was the best of all. That’s the next photo.

The upper level of the Basilica is covered with approximately two dozen frescos showing scenes from St. Francis’s life. The frescos are attributed to Giotto di Bondone and his assistants and were done in the late 1290s. Photos weren’t allowed inside, so I got this one from the Internet.* It shows St. Francis preaching to the birds.

It’s easy to get inspired by other writers when you visit their birthplaces. Especially when those places are as charming as Assisi.


*  The frescos are in the public domain because of their age.


Monday, June 18, 2018

Our next major stop was in Florence, where we spent three nights at the Hotel California. Don’t stay there. (The hotel, that is. Florence is a must see.)

Florence is the birthplace of two famous writers. The first is Carlo Lorenzini (pen name Carlo Collodi), who wrote The Adventures of Pinocchio in the early 1880s. Pinnochio dolls and puppets and souveniers are everywhere throughout the city. I didn’t take any pictures of them, and I regret that now. The drawing at the top of this page came from the Internet and is by Carlo Chiostri, who illustrated the 1901 edition.*

Centuries earlier another famous writer was born in Florence. Dante Alighieri (author of The Divine Comedy) was born sometime around 1265, although his exact birthdate is unknown. He had a very checkered history in his home town and was eventually exiled for alleged corruption. That’s his birthplace in the second picture.

In those days, only the privileged few could read. This was still the case when the Renaissance began. Most people learned history and Bible stories through oral tradition or art, such as the Bible stories cast in metal on the door to the Florence Baptistry (the building where people were baptized). The picture shows only the top half, and even it is a reproduction of the original, which is in safekeeping in the Duomo (cathedral) museum.

Then there is Michelangelo, born in Florence in 1475. His famous statue of David used to stand at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio but was replaced by a copy to protect it from vandals. We saw the copy, but we also saw the original in its current home at the Galleria dell ’Accademia. That’s the original in the photo.

For us, Florence was mostly a place to view art. We spent our free day in the Accademia and the larger Uffizi Gallery. At the Uffizi we saw many paintings by Botticelli as well as a few works by Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Then we went out for a nice dinner.

It was a great way to spend our 39th wedding anniversary.


* Chiostri’s drawings are in the public domain because of their age.