Description

Recco, Giuseppe - Still-life with the Five Sen...
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I love descriptive scenes.  They set time and place, character appearance, their favorite kind of clothes, their homes and their other possessions.  Believe me, this stuff is important. I’ve read books light on description, and it’s like groping my way through fog to get an idea where the scenes take place, and when.

Description is anything that tells the reader what characters experience through the five physical senses. When it’s necessary to give the reader some mental breathing space, say after an intense action scene, describing the aftermath or what surrounds the characters in a lull is like providing oxygen before the readers submerge themselves in the next fast-moving sequence. Still, even I will admit that too much description becomes downright annoying.

When a writer stops and provides every detail (as I tend to do in my first drafts), they sloooooow their pace to a crawl.  The mind lingers over descriptive passages in order to process what the characters see, hear and feel.  When a reader wants to move on to the next action sequence, they often (consciously or not) skip over long descriptive passages to get to the exciting bits.  Description is like the chocolate swirls in fudge ripple ice cream: ideally it should appear evenly throughout a book, but not in big gooey globs.

Good description layers all five senses throughout the book, without sounding like “Miss Girlygirl eyed the petit four, admiring its pick icing.  She picked it up, inhaling chocolate and fondant icing.  When she bit into it, hearing the delicate crunch of its layers, the coffee flavoring coursed over her taste buds.”  That chunk was heavy-handed and awkward.  Description is the art of adding details to a scene without overpowering it.

What about you? Do you read every word of a description or do you tend to skip over them?

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My Not-So-Secret Habit

Original B.B. crayon boxes from the collection...
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Sometimes when I am alone, I indulge in an old habit from my younger days. I feel somewhat silly revealing this, but hopefully you will understand that I need to come out of the closet about this activity.  It’s not really harmful to anyone, but it’s not that productive either.

Anyway, here’s the big secret. Drumroll, please.

I like to color.  With crayons in coloring books, or with colored pencils on smooth paper.  And it is coloring, not drawing, because I can’t draw worth a darn.  Even my stick people look peculiar.

In my defense, my mother made me do it.  Well, not exactly made me do it, but she used to color a lot too, so you might say she set a bad example.  I knew we had a genetic predisposition to coloring when out of the blue, my oldest started bringing coloring books and crayons to her skating competitions.  At the age of 16 on. I fear she may have corrupted several of her competitors.

I had been clean for several years when I happened to be wandering down the aisles of my local craft store.  I only went in for embroidery floss, I swear!  And I needed a few pens & things, so I took a quick detour into school supplies.  I walked past the classic 64 crayon box the first time, but I kept glancing back at it.  Remembering how all the coolest kids in grade school had *that* box, not the sad little 16 or 48 count boxes unless the teachers specified them.  (They had the 96 crayon box when I was a kid, too, but that bringing that to school was just pretentious. And they never fit in your desks.)

I know, I should never have stopped to pick it up, much less opened it to gaze at the untouched crayons, uniform in shape, but promising a bounty of colors.  Pine Green, Sky Blue, Sea Green…I didn’t need to pull them out to recognize them.  And of course the magically shiny Copper, Silver, and Gold. I stood there, undecided, for a few moments, mentally reorganizing them the way I preferred.  (I always color coded mine by labels…browns, oranges, yellow, reds, greens & blues together.)  I inhaled.  That’s what did me in.  The waxy, cool scent of fresh crayon.

Next thing I knew I was smiling sheepishly at the cashier as I handed over the box, a Barbie coloring book, my floss and a token package of pens.  “I have a niece visiting,” I explained.  Both of my nieces live in the same city I do, and one was 18 at the time.  Curse that slippery slope anyway.

At the moment, I’m crayon-less but I’ve been playing with colored pencils, printing out sayings that inspire me and coloring them in, all on the sly. In my defense, it does make me feel a lot better.

What do you do when you need an activity to soothe yourself with that isn’t reading? Colors? Needlework of some kind? Journaling?

My Thorn Among the Lilies

“I’d rather be the thorn. They’re sharp and pointy.” — my youngest

The first time I stepped out of the car wearing the Darth Vader-esque boot that has made up half my footwear for the last month, my youngest daughter took one look at it and deadpanned, “You’re never going to be able to accessorize that.”

That is only one of many reasons I love the kid.  While both of my children are phenomenal young women and I’m thankful to be their mother, I have a soft spot for my wise-cracking, moody, impatient youngest.  This summer especially, she has demonstrated remarkable fortitude in the face of disappointments.

Originally, my mother-in-law planned to take her to France for three weeks. However, my MIL’s doctor found a malignant skin tumor shortly after our daughter’s passport arrived. Thankfully, the doctor appears to have removed the entire tumor and my MIL is sailing through chemotherapy. While my daughter is as relieved as the rest of us that her granny is doing so well, it’s only human to feel disappointment at the change in plans. Who could blame her?

Then I injured my leg severely enough to warrant a cast and crutches. So instead of visiting Paris and the Ardennes, my youngest spent three weeks serving as my hands and feet. My oldest helped where she could, but she had a lousy summer last year when her college closed.  To make up for credits lost when she transferred into the state university system, she’s been taking day classes, night classes and summer school for nearly 12 months.

My younger daughter managed housework, cooking, grocery shopping and driving me to and/or from work. Granted, she already knew what she was doing for all those things, but she was spending a lot more of her time doing them. And according to my family I am not a very good patient.  (I have no idea why they’d say that.) Yes, there was a certain amount of muttering, but I can’t complain. There were also a lot of times when she’d poke her head in the door and ask I wanted a drink or something brought to me.

Not only that, she had to say good-bye to her best friend Sarah because Sarah’s dad accepted a job on the East Coast. Sarah is everything my daughter is not: perky, optimistic, mild-mannered and soft-spoken. She and my moody, outspoken, assertive offspring have been inseparable since seventh grade. My daughter would use her sharp tongue to scare off people like the obnoxious boy in math class that creeped Sarah out, in return getting a daily dose of cheer. My daughter has other friends she loves dearly (she may be moody but she’s no loner!), and they all form a Lack of Sarah Support Group for each other. But the day Sarah moved away required Mom hugs and medicinal Ben & Jerry’s.

Our tastes aren’t the same, but she’s got a sound critical eye, particularly for film, and she’s smart enough to be able to back up her opinions with good arguments. We’ve had some great conversations about dance, books, and movies.

As a late bloomer myself (really really really late), I watch this daughter make her plans for college and beyond, knowing that like most of us, she may very well change directions mid-course. I’m thrilled that she’s looking at the future with as much optimism as a moody sarcastic person can. Changes and obstacles are the nature of life. But even if her plans fail, she won’t.

Philadelphia Memories

Yesterday, America celebrated the 235th anniversary of our formal declaration of independent status from Great Britain. Independence Day is one of my favorite holidays. Usually we spend it with family and friends, enjoying favorite foods and lighting off fireworks. In between the burgers, Chinese coleslaw, watermelon and fireworks, though, I try to take a moment and remember the reason for the day.

Despite the imperfections of the U.S. government, the members of the Continental Congress risked disgrace, imprisonment, financial ruin and a traitor’s death as soon as they signed the Declaration of Independence. The likelihood of defeating Great Britain, then the most powerful nation in Europe, seemed a distant dream. So did the hope of establishing a united government among 13 colonies who each guarded her privileges jealously against the others. (The U.S. Constitution came about after the Revolutionary War, by representatives empowered only to improve the Articles of Confederation.)

Despite the odds against them, the delegates took a breath and a leap of faith, and signed.

My family had a chance to visit Philadelphia a couple of years ago, and we took great pleasure in spending the day at Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell museum and historic center of the city. The exterior of Independence Hall and the room where the Continental Congresses met are familiar images, but our tour included the other rooms and floors as well.

Besides serving as a civic meeting place, the colonial public court met across from the Assembly Room. This picture shows part of the elevated bench where the justices sat, and the stand where witnesses were interviewed by counsel. The clerk sat at the small table to the right of the witness and immediately front of the judges so that he could hear and transcribe the proceedings.  Still, the high point for us was to see the room where founding principles of our country were debated and voted on.

On the next floor, the Long Gallery is set up for a banquet, with the tables set up along one side.  The rest of the floor would be cleared for mingling or possibly dancing to music provided by a harpsichord at one end. John Adams once confided to his beloved wife Abigail his hope that future generations would mark Independence Day with “pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” I’d like to think that some of those celebrations were held at Independence Hall, the building where America was truly born.