Will Volunteer for Food

Sunday, I had the pleasure of working the Nebraska Writers Guild booth at the state fair in Grand Island. I freely admit that my volunteerism was influenced by a desire to eat corn dogs as well as ice cream from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Dairy Store in the FFA/4H building. The prospect of air conditioning, a roof and walls encouraged me as well.

Although NWG authors are allowed to bring their books and sell them, mostly I just wanted to meet people. And I did! I worked with fellow writers Charlene Neely (poetry), Jerri Hauser (inspirational), Dr. Jean Lukesh (Nebraska history) and Mary Maas (Nebraska and local history). I had a blast talking up the guild with these women. The Guild is a statewide organization that includes journalists, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, poets, and family historians. In the next 12 months, the guild plans to hold a Young Writers Conference in Lincoln, NE.

Charlene Neely, Jean Lukesh and Jerri Hauser

A lot of people stopped because  they love to write and didn’t know the NWG existed. A lot of others stopped because they love to read and are excited at the idea of finding Nebraska writers, particularly on subjects of state or local interest, kids’ books and fiction set in the state. I even met a young woman who specialized in historical textiles and design in college. Hello, resource!

The location provided a great view of the 4-H pet presentation, and we chatted to passers-by to the background of kids describing the history, care and quirks of various gerbils, guinea pigs, cats and one ferret. We joined the applause as the judge awarded ribbons and grand prizes. I am pleased to say that all participants earned either blue or purple ribbons for their animals’ health and well-being.

My personal favorite was Princess the Cat, whose owner has a great narrative style and should look into creative writing.

Although I did sell copies of Her Scottish Groom and To be Seduced, I spent most of my time handing out bookmarks and booklets, aka ‘free samples’. My romances were upstaged by a 4th grade history book! Jean Lukesh, a former teacher, wrote what may be the most popular textbook in the state. Used by 85% of our school districts, it drew kids like a magnet. The ‘double-take, ‘hey-I-used-that-book’ ‘ response happened over and over. A lot of the kids asked for her autograph, and at least one wanted a picture with her.

Jean and Fans

To say that Jean is a talented local historian is like saying Einstein was kind of a smart guy. Her current project is a series for kids on Noteworthy Americans. The first in the series, Lucky Ears: The True Story of Ben Kuroki, World War II Hero recently won a Bronze Medal for Multicultural Nonfiction for Children/Teens/Young Adults in the Independent Publishers’ 2011 Book Awards. And she is hilarious and outgoing in person.

Before I forget: the UNL Dairy Store ice cream is so OMG FABULOUS that I passed on the corn dog in favor of their chicken bacon ranch wrap in a tomato basil tortilla. Yum. Next year, I may have to come back an extra day to get that corn dog in.

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The Gentlewoman’s Guide to Coach Travel

Cambridge stage-coach (Howden, Boys' Book of L...
Image via Wikipedia

Let me preface my remarks by observing that the most preferable mode of travel is always the latest model of Private Carriage, pulled by a team of prime horseflesh. Nothing matches the comfort, privacy and convenience of one’s own well-sprung vehicle! Or one’s father’s. Or one’s husband (even a husband acquired for the purpose of placating one’s father). Even the personal conveyances of handsome, if overbearing, strangers met on the road often prove superior to stagecoaches, provided one demonstrates suitable breeding and does not engage in any Improper Activities suggested by said handsome stranger. At least not right away.

However, let us proceed on the assumption that no personal carriage is available for one’s journey. In that case, a Lady must decide between Speed and Comfort. If her destination involves a Sickbed, Preventing an Execution, or Escaping an Unwanted Marriage, one can only choose the Royal Mail. The whirlwind speeds attained by these maroon wonders whisk the intrepid traveler from London to York — a distance of two hundred miles — in a mere eighteen hours!! Truly astounding compared to the days it normally takes to travel this distance!

The cautious gentlewoman should be warned that a seat on the Mail requires a certain amount of Fortitude. For one thing, Mail coaches often travel at night, when there is less traffic. And as instruments of His or Her Majesty’s government, these vehicles make only a few stops, of most Unchivalrous Brevity. A lone female in a passenger load of four to six (often ill-bred) persons, with even more on the roof, is advised to arm herself with a Winsome Manner so as to encourage the others to allow her the first chance at the hasty meals provided by inns and posting houses along the route. Sadly, even the most charming airs fail to impress the drivers themselves, so a Large Purse is useful in convincing these hard-hearted individuals to allow one sufficient time to eat and use Certain Necessary Facilities. (The writer dares not go into more detail here, other than to bitterly note that ladies are at a Severe Disadvantage in this area due to the encumbrances of fashionable dress.)

If Illness, Death or Immediate Disaster does not figure into one’s reasons for taking to the road, or Limited Funds do, the stage coach is a reasonable alternative to the Mail. Indeed, this choice offers many advantages over the Mail. For one thing, stages nearly all run during daylight hours. And besides the decreased cost, stage coaches stop more frequently, and for longer periods of time. True, the passengers are at the mercy of each hostelry in the manner and quality of food and beds (for overnight stops), but many inns take pride in offering tasty meals and comfortable lodging.

A lady with any kind of breeding guards her behavior when visiting even the most respectable establishment, even if forced by circumstance to travel without a chaperone. She will not visit the taproom unless carried into one in a dead faint, preferably by a strapping male from a Good Family. It is to be hoped that in such a case, the inn’s host will offer the use of either a private parlour or at the very least a bedchamber for one’s recovery. Although the male in question cannot, with propriety, enter either of these rooms with her, it might be acceptable, if he speaks like a gentleman and is quite good-looking, for her to join him for dinner. Particularly if it seems likely that he owns a carriage and horses of his own.

Make Something of Yourself

Razvan Ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

People often ask, “Where do you come up with your ideas?” and “How do you make time to write?” before telling me, “I could never be that creative.” The answers to #1 and #2 are blog posts of their own, but I always feel terrible when I hear the last comment.

I am convinced that all of us were put on this earth to make something of ourselves. Not in the usual meaning of the phrase, which means a person establishes her- or himself in a prestigious job, or becomes a celebrity or earns a big income. Say ‘make something of yourself’ aloud, but emphasize the last word.

‘To make something of yourself‘ implies that you put your heart and soul into creating something you love. For me, it’s making up stories. If I weren’t published, you know what? I’d still think of characters and plots. My stories happen to take the form of books. Other people make stories in the form of movies via screenplays, or acting. Some people love to tell stories to their grandchildren.

My mom always says she’s not creative. This from the woman who took a shoebox of broken rhinestone jewelry, cleaned it up, and glued the pieces onto colored felt in the shape of marvelous, sparkly Christmas trees to give to her friends as gifts one year. I would never have thought of finding such a cool use for junk jewelry! And she does stuff like this all the time.

As in the worldly meaning of the phrase, it’s not easy to make something of yourself. Society approves of some goals more than others. For example, Warren Buffett is usually admired for doing what he loves, namely making sound investments. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. If you like making up characters and stories about them, people say you’re a daydreamer. If you like to paint, people tell you to stop fooling around with watercolors and get a job. Even if you already have one.

To make something of yourself, here are some things you’ll need:

1.  Something you love to do or have always wanted to try.

2. Teachers or mentors: Instinct only goes so far. You’re not going to know how to compose a picture, dry flowers or develop a character right off the bat. If you can’t find someone in person, look online for help, or in the library. Julia Child still inspires budding chefs thanks to her cookbooks, for example.

3. Time alone to explore what you love: This one is a bear, especially if you’ve always tried to be there for others. That makes you a wonderful person, and means you’re entitled to schedule a bit of time once a week or so for *you*. Schedule your time, and fight for it. You’re allowed to be less wonderful for that hour or two.

5. Permission to Fail: We all suck the first time we try something. This is normal. If you’re feeling terribly ashamed of how much you suck at whatever it is you tried (which you shouldn’t because you’re still a wonderful person, right?), you don’t have to show it to anyone. It was just an idea that didn’t work. You will get better next time.

6. Permission to Succeed: Use part of your creative time to think about your definition of success. Work backwards from there to where you are now. This way, you’ll know what you need to do next. Then, when a painting is accepted for the show, or a manuscript is requested, you’ll know what you want to happen, where you are on your road to *your* success. Other people will have a hard time talking you into what they think you should want. Don’t forget to give yourself credit for every stepping stone you land on, even if others say, “Are you sure you should waste time doing this?” If it’s still fun and you can put your heart into it, the answer is ‘yes’.

For more photos from Razvan Ionut at FreeDigitalPhotos.net, click here.

Everybody’s a Critic!

My mother, bless her heart, is under the impression that writers just scribble or type out the words and poof! — we’re all done.  I wish!  I’ve never, ever heard of a book being accepted as is by a reputable publisher, and that is a very good thing.  As a writer, I am too close to the work to judge it objectively, never mind the spelling and grammar errors that come out when you’re focused on just getting the story written down.  One of the best pieces of advice I can give to new writers is to seek out supportive, respectful criticism from other writers.

The key words there are supportive and respectful. I have heard a number of horror stories about critique groups.  My own weekly group is a huge blessing.  It includes writers at all levels of experience and in a range of genres from romance to science fiction to thrillers to horror.  Some of us write books, some write poetry and some write plays or screenplays.  The main thing is that we all demand well-written stories with vivid characters that draw us in and keep us begging for more.  Without this group’s encouragement, I would never have had the nerve to enter the contest that led to my first sale.

Equally important are rules of conduct that limit criticism to the writing.  Our primary goal as a group is to help each other become better writers.  If you join a critique group that praises or dismisses anyone’s writing based on how well or poorly they conform to a set of religious or political views, move on!  The same goes if they treat you differently based on your genre.  Or if they think there is something wrong with you because you want to write a book that people can buy in grocery stores.  (This is one of my goals as a writer, so I will admit to some bias here.)

I’ve also heard stories where new writers are condescended to by those who have been in a group longer.  This is not okay.  Most published authors I have been in contact with, either personally or through correspondence, have answered questions and provided advice when I asked, and even when I didn’t.  Those who were unable to help still took the time out of their schedules to offer encouragement and good wishes.  If these women (and men) can treat strangers nicely, so can Madame Poobah of the Local Community Writers Circle.

Of course, supportive and respectful apply to the ‘critique-ee’ as well.  If you are submitting your work to other people so they can exclaim that it is the most innovative piece of fiction since Western Civilization crawled out of the Dark Ages, probably you’re not going to have a positive experience.  (Yeah, we have folks show up with that attitude from time to time.  They don’t last long.)  ‘Critique’ and ‘criticize’ are related.  You’re asking people to tell you where the weak spots are in your WIP.  Don’t be surprised or offended when they actually do that.  If you get comments from five different people complaining about the same paragraph, that’s a pretty good indication that you should reconsider it, but it’s unlikely that they’re conspiring to drive you away.

Be patient if someone suggests you take your story in a direction that you don’t want to go.  There is no law that says you have to follow every piece of criticism you get.  Ultimately, you are responsible for what you write.  Smile, say thank you and move on.

And yes, you should thank someone who has taken time to listen to or read your work and given you their advice.  Even if you don’t agree with them.  Even if someone has given all negative comments, or you think they’re being nit-picky over teeny tiny details.  I’ve slept on criticism I’ve disagreed with and found it valid the next day.  When something isn’t working my weekly group lets me know.  They’re not brutal, but once you’ve been there long enough for your skin to thicken, they’re blunt.  And I love it when people nit-pick — it means there are no major problems that week!

As long as I’m discussing critiques, what are some of the best or worst scenes you’ve read in a book?  Or what kind of scenes do you love or loathe?  As writers have any of you ever found some embarrassing mistakes in your manuscript — or worse, in your book?  (Like the two paragraphs where I use the word ‘wrist’ four or five times.  Or one of my first readings where everything was ‘scandalous’.  Luckily for all of you, I abandoned that story!)

Lunch and a Ghost Story

Last week, my husband and I drove with our youngest daughter to Louisiana for a college visit.  It meant a lot of driving, but after years of taking our older daughter to out-of-state skating competitions, road trips are nothing new to us. While it’s nice to leave our daily routines behind and see new parts of the country (or revisit fun destinations), there are downsides to car travel. One of which is road food.

I love burgers and fries more than is good for me, but eating in fast food joints, or even nice chain restaurants, palls after the first few days away from home. After a frustrating morning that included two wrong exits and a stretch of road without even a burger place, we decided to stop at Isabella, in Port Gibson, Mississippi. Located in a house dating from 1880, the bed and breakfast also serves lunches at its Porch Restaurant. Lucky us!

Owners Bobbye and Phil Pinnix are only the third family to own the historic house, and their renovations include Victorian furnishings in the parlors and bedrooms.  Even our lunch was served on a collection of vintage glassware and red toile plates.  My husband enjoyed a huge roast beef sandwich with fresh fruit, while my daughter tucked into sliders and I tried a burger with a side of Bobbye’s potato salad. Yum! Did I mention they grow their own tomatoes?

Fortunately for us, we arrived at the tail end of lunch, so we were able to chat with the Pinnixes. Bobbye told me that while she is not fanciful, she is convinced that the house is haunted by some of the former owners.  She and Phil, along with some of their guests, have heard the sounds of glass shattering in the butler’s pantry and  furniture dragged over the wooden floors.  The ghostly activity seems to be limited to making noise, as there is never any broken glass or rearranged furniture to be found.  Bobbye even told of receiving a comforting squeeze on the shoulder while she was completely alone in the kitchen area. According to her, spirits in the house don’t mean any harm.  “After all, it was their house before it was ours,” she said.

I am skeptical of most reports of paranormal activity myself, because I think much can be explained by scientific fact. However, I would love to risk a haunting if it means I can return to Isabella!

Isabella Bed & Breakfast

1009 Church Street

Port Gibson, MS 39150

601-437-5097 or pinnixdesignsinc@gmail.com