Category Archives: WIPs

Works-in-progress. All fiction, for now.

NaNoWriMo Day #15: Half-way to the finish line

Reporting my National Novel Writing Month total at the halfway mark of this 30-day exercise of writing abandon: I’m at 37,901 words, ahead of the 25,000 word pace. Knock on wood that the dreaded writer’s block will continue to stay cooped up.

Dixieland could be even longer at this point except for my habit of writing dialogue without attribution, movement or other scene-building verbiage. I make up for that, I believe, with my ALL CAPS THINKING AS I WRITE, I NEED A REFERENCE HERE TO FORESHADOW A CHARACTER’S APPEARANCE IN THE NEXT SCENE.

That’s how I write when I’m on a roll. I know what I want to say, but I don’t want to get hung up on a detail that might derail that roll. I’m not sure how many ALL CAPS BURSTS OF INDECISION I will have come Nov. 30, but those SHOUTS are my cue to reach into my mental queue for something more meaningful.

Meanwhile, I’m offering another conversation between my main male protagonist, Alvie Ferguson, and little 11-year-old racist Ladd Miller. Remember, it’s during World War II, just before Alvie goes off to join a flight crew for bombing runs over Germany. His young bride, Edna Mae — the main character in Dixieland — eventually joins them.

There’s no attribution for some of the dialogue. Alvie speaks first, followed by Ladd …

“You boys savin’ the foil from your gum wrappers?”

“Ain’t got no gum, Mr. Alvie.”

“Well, let’s say you erase ‘ain’t’ from the dictionary in your head and I’ll give you a few sticks.”

“That’d be swell, but I don’t see how sayin’ ‘ain’t’ is so bad. Everybody knows what it means.”

“True. But your talkin’ could mean the difference between working the shipyard or bein’ one of the slick lawyers on Lawyers Row.” REMEMBER: EDNA MAE IS A STENOGRAPHER FOR ONE OF THE SLICK LAWYERS, AND HE’LL LET HER GO WHEN HE DISCOVERS THE FERGUSONS ALLOWED DIXIE AND LEWIS KING TO MOVE IN WITH THEM, AFTER ALVIE GETS HIS ORDERS TO DEPLOY.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, when you go to look for work, they might say, ‘This chap sounds like a shipyard scrub,’ and you’ll get your job there.”

“Well, I kinda like that idea. Them fellers are some tough crackers.”

“Oh, yeah, and nice, nice guys. Not saying anything about their character. But their education has ‘em working in the shipyard today, which is where they’ll be workin’ the day they retire. You wanna work that hard for that long?”

“But I ain’t – well, I don’t gots much up here.” Ladd pointed to his noggin. “I might just be shipyard material.”

“Well, Mr. Crosby says if you don’t work hard in school and get your lessons and graduate, you may grow up to be a mule. Or a pig.”

 Edna Mae spoke as she gently shut the screen door behind her. “Or a fish.”

ANOTHER REFERENCE TO MUSIC OF THE ERA. ‘SWINGIN’ ON A STAR’ WAS A BING CROSBY HIT, AND ITS MESSAGE WAS “STAY IN SCHOOL.” BE SURE TO INCLUDE OCCASIONAL REFERENCES TO THE RADIO SHOWS, MOVIES AND MUSIC, JUST ENOUGH TO KEEP THAT MID-40’S, WW2-ERA AURA.

Alvie gave her a peck on the cheek.

“Eww! Yuck!” the little imp Ladd retorted. Edna Mae ignored the boy’s reaction and swept a lock of her husband’s white hair off his forehead.

“Alvie, I declare you will have your own little army of boys to do all of your bidding. Maybe you should own a shipyard. You’ll have reliable, loyal hands.”

“Reliable?” He pointed toward Ladd.

“Have you conducted all your business with Mr. Ferguson here?” she asked the boy.

Ladd crossed his arms, cocked his head and cleared his throat.

 “My daddy says he heard you got a colored livin’ with you. In the same house.”

 “I am not aware of any reason why my living arrangements are any of your business, young man.”

Ladd looked away and kept his gaze fixed on the horizon.

“Well, if’n that’s true, I just know you got more sense than to let them coloreds use your indoor commode, the same one y’all use.” He shook his head and turned to face the other direction, never making eye contact. “That’s just plain nasty.”

Alvie waved the boy away. “You run along, Ladd. We treat people like people, no matter who they are or where they’re from.”

Ladd Miller walked away. “Everybody’s gots their place is all.”

Alvie wrapped an arm around his bride’s delicate waist and shot back. “And from the sound of it, your place should be in school.”

Let me hear (read) what you think. C’mon, now. Just a brief comment will make my day.

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NaNoWriMo Day #12: Sounds like the Deep South

Word count for work-in-progress, “Dixieland,” en route to 50,000 word goal: 32,327.

My mom never cussed. At least not with curse-words that I knew were curse-words.

You know how we say, “Shoot,” or “Shucks?” (Wasn’t ‘shucks’ frowned upon in The Music Man?)

But I knew that Mom was exasperated, at her wits end or simply befuddled to the point of possibly saying something un-ladylike. Instead, she said, “Fiddlesticks.” Sounds funny to you, perhaps, but that word got my attention. It wasn’t used very often, which in my mind was further proof that it was a substitute for other words that we don’t say very often.

I love remembering that. It makes me smile. (Thanks for the smile, Mom).

Both of my parents were born and raised in southern Mississippi. Dad in Natchez; Mom in Florence, just south of Jackson. I suppose they lost their southern “accents” years ago, and I can’t recall detecting that in their voices very often. But I’m thinking now about my mother, a true southern belle, saying, “Fiddlesticks” in a down-south twang. (I’m smiling again.)

In my NaNoWriMo novel, Dixieland, I’m trying to employ as many southern idioms and other figures of speech that I can think of. I expect you’ll hear my main character, Edna Mae, utter “fiddlesticks” a time or two.

I’m not sure of the origin or frequency of use, but I remember Dad saying, “Well I swannie,” or “I’ll swannie,” used and said in the same manner as “Mercy sakes!” I only heard it as an exclamation; used once in anger and frustration.

My Aunt Sue will say, “Well good night nurse!” as an exclamation, along the line of “You don’t say?” or “Well, I’ll be dog-gone.” At least that’ the way I understand it.

I believe it was Mississippi comedic genius Jerry Clower who used the phrase, “Well switch my backside.” (As in, “Well, I shouldn’t have done/said that,” or “Give me a swift kick in the pants” to get my attention).

One of my all-time favorite expressions, which is the trademark expression of Dixieland’s Owen Nickerson, is “Heavenly days!” Back in my teen years I was occasionally part of a hay-hauling crew for Ernie Robertson and Vic Young. (Help me out here, readers. Was Ernie Vic’s son-in-law or brother-in-law?) Ernie was a wiry fellow but could out-work and out-muscle any of us young bucks, and Vic more than held his own. One time Ernie and Vic unloaded the hay bales from the wagon onto the conveyor that delivered the bales to the barn loft where Eric Palmer and I stacked the bales while we dodged yellow-jacket wasps and 120-degree heat. (If I was exaggerating, I’d say 140 degree heat).

Previously, I’d heard Ernie say, “Heavenly days, it’s hot.” Not exclamation point, because it wasn’t a forceful statement, just matter-of-fact. When we finished the hay-hauling day, we gathered around the Robertson dining room table where heaping piles of mashed potatoes, fried chicken and other mouth-watering delicacies awaited. In that moment, “Heavenly days” was almost a whisper with an exclamation mark – an intense, humble expression of gratitude and awe.

So there’s me and Eric in the stifling hot, alfalfa dust-choked barn loft, grabbing the bales as they came up the conveyor. One bale slipped off the conveyor and at the exact moment Ernie stepped toward the barn to retrieve the errant bale, the twine snapped on the very next bale that I grabbed from the top of the conveyor, sending a shower of fresh alfalfa hay onto Ernie.

Vic kept feeding the conveyor and Ernie brushed himself off. He never looked toward the loft – just looked toward Vic and said, “Well, Heavenly days.” There wasn’t an ounce of anger or frustration. Just “Heavenly days.”

I suppose that’s what everyone’s supposed to say when they get showered with hay on the most blistering hot day of the summer.

SEND ME YOUR Southern vernacular, idioms, figures of speech, etc. I’ll use them in my story.

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NaNoWriMo Day #10: The joy of creating

Word count through the first 10 days of National Novel Writing Month: 26,159. Just over halfway to the “winning” goal of 50,000 words. And it occurs to me — as I’ve suspected all along — that 50,000 words will not tell the entire story of “Dixieland.” At this rate I’m on pace to hit 50K on Nov. 19, two weeks from Monday, and that’s the goal that I have now adopted. I’ll need to do that if I’m going to meet or exceed the 64,000 mark I hit in 2011 with “Chasing The Devil.” (Which, sadly, is still unfinished, yet it’s waiting patiently, like a loyal puppy, for some loving attention. Soon. It will be soon.)

Today I encountered that chaos that typically comes much sooner than this. My chronology has come unraveled, and I’m no longer writing in order in keeping with my chapters and outline. Part B requires me to go back to Part A to plug in some foreshadowing, which creates another layer for a major character, which means making sure Part F connects the dots from A, B, and D, but waiting to connect C and E later.

This is where I discover parts of the story that I didn’t know were there. My main character didn’t just show up in central Kentucky and start working for the Silverdale Sentinel, as my outline notes. (Silly outline. You tease, you). No, my main female protagonist, Edna Mae Ferguson, showed up for her first day of work for Carl Smith Stenographer Contracting Company (yeah, pretty lame, but it works for now), only to find out that he’s got something else in mind. The local newspaper publisher called for a stenographer, so crotchety old Carl Smith, who calls publisher Steven Kennedy a “muckraker,” instead sends Edna Mae, hoping the young, unproven steno might cause the publisher some grief, and hoping to get out of paying Edna Mae a $20 sign-on fee and a booklet of coupons for bologna sandwiches from Ore Run Grocery.

(When you think of crotchety old Carl Smith, think “Ed Asner as Lou Grant.” Hey, it’s okay to embrace a stereotype or two).

Until two hours ago, Carl Smith had never crossed my mind. In fact, there’s an entire staff of stenographers in the office at the poorly named company, and one of them — don’t know who just yet — will reappear later as an advocate. Or, in keeping with the perpetual fiction writing mantra of conflict-rising tension-resolution-more conflict again, this still unnamed, uncreated character could be a mini protagonist of sorts.

I love this!

With that in mind, I’m going to share here a post that I made today on the Columbia NaNoWriMo forum in response to another WriMo who lamented that she was falling behind in her word count. Not suprisingly, she is discouraged. Even if she does not complete the 50,000 words in 30 days, however, she found solace in this: “I am writing again.”

Here was my response, and it’s meant for all my fellow WriMos, whether we are on a crazy, blistering pace to finish ahead of schedule or on a slow, cumbersome trek, still waiting to shift from first to fifth gear.

“I am writing again.”

Those words inspired ME. Thank you. Because I know that feeling.

My wife and I were in Hobby Lobby and Michael’s this evening looking for something unrelated to writing, but when I see all those blank canvasses and all the writing, art, coloring, stenciling, etc. materials I really get pumped, because I imagine the sheer glee that someone experiences when they turn those blank canvasses and sheets into beauty.

That’s what WE do. This computer screen is our blank canvass. And any time you’ve written, you’ve done something with that canvass. Is it a Picasso or a Monet? Of course not. Is it Hemingway, Faulkner, Steven King, Michael Crichton? Nope. But we’ve created, and we do it for ourselves first and foremost, because we must. It’s in our DNA somewhere. And the more we do it, the better we get, and the more we realize that the greatest joy isn’t simply staring at the masterpiece, but the process of creating it.

Carry on, my friend. You are CREATING!

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NaNoWriMo Day #5: Taking in strays …

Here’s another excerpt from “Dixieland,” my National Novel Writing Month project that has reached 14,676 words. Tonight I wrote a scene that is, so far, the most difficult scene I’ve ever written. Unfortunately, that’s both a confession and a tease, because I can’t reveal that scene until the novel is finished.

I followed that challenging effort with something more light-hearted, and I have to admit that I’m having a blast making light of Sondra Ramsey’s pretentiousness. Sondra is Edna Mae Ferguson’s mother, and after Edna Mae’s hubby, Alvie, goes off to war, Edna Mae begins taking in strays. Her mother is present when the menagerie of cats and children begins.

In this excerpt, three of the children living in sharecropper shacks on the Ferguson Homestead have shown up at Edna Mae’s front door with a momma cat and two kittens. I realize I’ve referred to her mother as Sondra Ramsey AND Mrs. Ramsey. These inconsistencies will live at least until Dec. 1. (Inner editor, bound and gagged with duct tape, is going mad). Keep in mind: it’s an unedited work-in-progress. Comments, critiques, questions are not only welcomed but encouraged.

Dixieland, from Chapter 3 …

The raggedy little children kept their heads down but their eyes raised toward Mrs. Ramsey, who had called on her daughter in a in a tightly-wrapped, floor-length white dress. She wore a cream-colored hat – sort of resembled a nurse’s cap – on her head and two-inch high heels on her feet.

“I’m sure you were expecting guests, Edna Mae, because, I declare, it would be positively rude –indeed – to just show up uninvited.” She crossed her arms and looked down at the children. The momma cat was trying to get free. “Positively rude.” Mrs. Ramsey raised her eyebrows with the last “rude.”

Gertie Leeper, the middle child, finally spoke, never taking her eyes off Mrs. Ramsey.

“Miss Ellie, who is this lady?”

Edna Mae grinned to herself.

“I’m going to look at these poor felines,” she injected, completely dismissing her mother’s lesson in Southern etiquette and disarming her unapproving gaze.

“But, dear, you must give a reply to the invitation.” Mrs. Ramsey sidestepped the Leeper children and handed Edna Mae a press-printed, personally signed invitation to the Natchez Garden Club’s spring pilgrimage tour planning social. In addition to the where, when and what time neatly arranged on a pink-tinted card, it also bore the signature: “Dear Edna Mae, please come. Respectfully, Sondra (Mrs. G.E.) Ferguson.”

The momma cat jumped from the oldest child’s arms and dashed up the stairs.

“What impudence, Edna Mae. Really!”

Edna Mae just shook her head. “Really, mother? You couldn’t have just signed it, ‘Mom?’”

“Well it’s quite the social event, and requires …” Mrs. Ramsey sidestepped again to avoid stepping on a kitten. “It requires a formal request and a formal response.”

Edna Mae patted the youngest child’s head and thumbed the invitation. She gently directed the oldest child to go retrieve the momma cat.

“Well, they’ll just meddle in your bedroom, I just know it …” Mrs. Ramsey’s indignation grew. Edna Mae whispered to Gertie, “Go and help your sister find the momma cat,” again dismissing her mother’s haughty words.

“Mother, could you be a dear and help me make some lemonade for these children?” Edna Mae reached down and scooped up one of the scrawny kittens. She held its nose to her nose then handed it to the youngest Leeper lad.

Sondra Ramsey stomped her foot, barely making a “clink” with a high heel on the hardwood floor.

“Do you not detect the slightest bit of boorish, disrespectful incivility?” She stomped the other foot. “All this carrying on.” Edna Mae headed toward the kitchen.

“Come on, mother, let’s squeeze some lemons.”

“Well, I declare!” Mrs. Ramsey was shouting. “I don’t know how to tell your father how you’ve let this get so out of hand. Wild animals in the house – IN the house! – and colored children coming and going …”

In a flash, Edna Mae turned and was nose to nose with her mother.

“They are children, mother. Children.” She wanted so badly to put a finger in her mother’s face, in the same way she’d been raised. Edna Mae stepped back and Sondra Ramsey began to speak.

“Ah!” Edna Mae raised one hand, just above waist-level. “You, mother, are the only one who has crossed a line here today.”

Incidentally, I realize I’ve now made reference to “sidestepping” at least a half-dozen times. I take that as a sign that I’m not subconsciously making sure that my theme of racial tension is included in the fabric of the story. (The white folks in “Dixieland” sure do a lot of sidestepping.)

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NaNoWriMo Day 3: “Dixieland” at 10,048 words

I posted this Saturday (Day 3) on the Columbia NaNoWriMo forum, and also on a new Facebook group for WriMos. (All this lingo is too cool not to use repeatedly, to the point of annoying even myself.) Someone commented that she has such trouble getting started and forging ahead because of the voice that tells her, “This is no good. You’re an awful writer.” Here was my response.

 I feel qualified to give advice for getting started; what I need is advice on finishing. By the way, I had a super productive, 5,000-word Saturday, and “Dixieland” topped 10,000 words just after midnight.

Duct tape.

Put it in your non-dominant hand and place it behind your back. Then, casually walk up to your inner editor, shake hands (with your dominant hand), then at the moment of release, when inner editor thinks he’s/she’s about to go his/her way, you simultaneously take a step to one side as you grasp and pull the hand you were shaking. This will make inner editor lose his/her balance, and now the duct tape hand has reached around (oh, and you already had a couple inches of tape sticking out) and, voila!, you bind and gag inner editor.

You’re supposed to do that at 11:55 p.m. on Oct. 31, but it’s appropriate (and never too late) to bind-and-gag inner editor at any point during NaNoWriMo.

Now … WRITE. It’s your story, your plot, your characters. Your rules. Your rules.

Inner editor will be helpful after Dec. 1. Prior to that, inner editor’s only task is to prevent you from writing anything.

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NaNoWriMo: “Dixieland” Day 1

Putting a wrap on Day 1 of National Novel Writing Month, the daily word-count goal is 1,667, which will produce just over 50,000 words for the 30-day NaNoWriMo. Two years ago I hit 50,014 words — whew! — just enough to be considered a “winner” of the month of literary abandon. Unfortunately, “Gone” remains unfinished, a work-in-progress. (Most novels — the ones that are actually published — are typically between 80,000 and 100,000 words, although I’m told that some Harry Potter books are about a million words. Or something like that). Last year I cranked out 64,000 words on “Chasing The Devil,” which also remains a WIP.

That brings us to “Dixieland” — already at 4,695 words. This story is actually the first in the series with the other two unfinished novels. I’ll share this scene from the opening pages of the story where I’m trying to establish the pervasive, yet mostly unacknowledged tones of racial tension through the words of little boys who have come to tell Billy Blanchard’s Uncle Alvie — a soon-to-be-deployed World War II airman — that his nephew is “fixin’ to get tore up” by the local bully. The dialogue picks up here where Ladd Miller, whose daddy is a school teacher and head of the local KKK, expresses complete disdain for black people.

Unedited, of course. (My inner editor is under a strict gag order, which will lifted on Dec. 1, except for work release for my day job at the Columbia Daily Tribune).

Dixie walked past the little boy on the sidewalk and stepped into the yard to speak to Edna Mae. The little imp snorted loudly, spat a nasty wad of phlegm near Dixie’s feet, and announced, “Daddy says coloreds are s’posed to halt to the white folks.”

Alvie made one long stride, squatted in front of Ladd Miller, and hovered over the boy even in a catcher’s crouch. “Tell you what, buddy, you need to step over there and run your foot through that snot, and apologize to Miss Dixie.” His firm voice was just above a whisper.

Ladd stepped back, shrinking. “And if I don’t?”

“If you don’t mop your foot through the snot, I’ll use your shirt collar to sop it up.”

The little boy tugged at his collar with balled-up fists. “You not gettin’ my shirt off me.”

“I won’t take your shirt off,” Alvie said, leaning toward the cowering boy. “I’ll sop up that snot with you still wearin’ the shirt.”

Ladd’s lips trembled. “I’ll tell my daddy.” He was about to cry.

Alvie leaned closer and his shadow swallowed the boy. “Well, your daddy will already know, ‘cause I’m tellin’ him first.”

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Dixieland: Ready for NaNoWriMo launch

Monday afternoon on my way home from work at the Columbia Daily Tribune I stopped at the nearest grocer to pick up a few items. I hadn’t planned on buying a card. It was one of those “Pages of Time” booklets; the ones that have nostalgic news from the year you were born. In the last few days I’ve poured over reference books at My Favorite Non-Home/Non-Church/Non-Work Place in  Columbia — the Columbia Public Library — and checked out some books and DVDs simply to get “in touch” with daily life in 1944-45 in the U.S.A., and more specifically Natchez, Miss.

But when I stumbled onto the display rack of greeting cards and “Pages of Time” booklets, there it was: “Your Special Year: 1945.”

I think I might have squealed like a little school girl.

Ahem.

When I checked out, the checker scanned the  little booklet and asked — oh, you knew she’d ask, didn’t you? — “Are you getting this for someone special?” Instead of simply saying, “Yes,” and hoping she wouldn’t ask, “Who?,” I answered, “No. It’s for me.”

Awkward silence.

Then I added: “Long story. At least I hope it will be.” She just looked at me and blinked, unaware that the phrase “at least I hope it will be” was a clue — foreshadowing, if you will — of what the purchase would help produce: “Dixieland,” my project for National Novel Writing Month 2012.

Here’s a sampling of some other resource material that I’ve consulted or continue to consult: “Natchez,” by Harnett T. Kane; “Since You Went Away: World War II letters from American women on the home front”; “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” by Anne Moody; “The Girls That Went Away,” by Ann Fessler (you might recall that one of the “Dixieland” characters is named Doris Fessler); and correspondence with an elderly woman who was “incarcerated” — her words — at the King’s Daughters Maternity Home in Natchez, and with someone from the historical society down there in Dixie; and a couple of DVDs on the war that give insight into life on the home front.

And for my listening pleasure, to put me in the moment of the era, I checked out the CD “Your Hit Parade: 1944.” Any of these names ring a bell? Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra. Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest, “It Had To Be You.”

And I’m going to give away a secret that extends from “Dixieland” into “Chasing The  Devil,” the second part of this trilogy that doesn’t occur until 1990. The reason that Edna Mae Ferguson celebrates Christmas in July … well, you’ll have to wait to read “Dixieland.” Her husband, Alvie, is a POW and Edna Mae has fled to Kentucky when Christmas 1944 rolls around. And speaking of Christmas, Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was recorded in 1943; “White Christmas” was recorded in 1942.

Imagine my characters hearing those songs on Dec. 24, 1944 — Alvie in a POW camp, Edna Mae away from home in the hills of central Kentucky. Oh, yes, the theme music for the creation of “Dixieland” is most appropriate.

So here’s a final reminder to myself and all other aspiring WriMos. As we plot, scheme, write and flow from scene to scene, these three things are essential — absolutely vital — to making sure that what we write is something that will connect with readers:

– Conflict. My outline and character sketches have the word CONFLICT somewhat randomly inserted, in ALL CAPS, as a constant reminder that without conflict, rising tension and a story arc that incorporates lots of conflict and tension, I might as well be writing a grocery list.

– Hopes, dreams, wants and fears. What do my characters want? What are their dreams? Ooh: What do they FEAR the most? (Being alone? Not measuring up to a demanding parent/teacher/friend?) What makes them hold out hope for … Racial equality? A lover’s reunion? Forgiveness?

– Breadcrumbs. As a reader, I want to feel like I’m part of a character’s voyage of discovery, and I can follow breadcrumbs that will lead me to AHA!, I saw that coming, and other breadcrumbs that … sort of … trail off — but not to the extent that I feel insulted by the writer, especially when I see the main source of the seemingly irrelevant crumbs in the climactic scene. As the writer, I need to deliberately drop breadcrumbs without making it look deliberate.

Big sigh.

Twenty-four hours from the big start. Thirty-one days from saying, “I did it.”

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NaNoWriMo: A chapter a day for 30 days

Forty-eight hours from now, the 30-day writing madness known as National Novel Writing Month begins. My 2012 project, “Dixieland,” has a rudimentary outline and a character list that rivals anything James Michener ever wrote. (Well, just the list part, not the actual writing of a sweeping saga, a la Centennial, Texas or Alaska).

Monday night I expanded by outline to include a theme and subject for 30 chapters. If I can complete a chapter a day, and follow the outline, then I’ll have a mostly-completed novel at month’s end. However, I fully expect that as the characters take on lives of their own and begin talking among themselves, they’ll quite possibly hijack the project and lead it off down a road or roads that I hadn’t expected.

And you know what? I’m okay with that, because if my plotting follows the plodding that I just went through to list 30 days, then that means I’ve already inflicted on “Dixieland” all the creative energy that the book is going to get.

And that would be a very bad thing.

Even now those characters that I’ve created — some only by name, others with cool back-stories — are convening, scheming and preparing to ambush my plan.

(Don’t tell them I said this, but … I can’t wait!)

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Dixieland: NaNoWriMo cast of characters

Brief background: “Dixieland” takes place during 1944-45 in Natchez, Miss., and the fictional central Kentucky town of Silverdale. Seems odd, I suppose, that a male writer would have a female protagonist, but almost every story/unfinished novel I write has strong female characters: protagonist AND antagonist. With “Dixieland,” it’s World War II, so we know a great many women were the ones keeping the home fires burning, so to speak.

With only four days remaining until National Novel Writing Month – when we embark on a 30-day quest to write 50,000 words – here is the cast of characters for “Dixieland.”  They all live in my head; some will come to life in the story. It’s possible that others are just part of back stories that won’t be told but are integral to me understanding my characters.

  • Edna Mae Ferguson – born in 1918, she’s 25 when the story opens. Townsfolk think that Edna Mae taking in stray cats and unwanted kids is just her way of coping with her husband being a “guest” of Adolf Hitler in Stalag Luft 1.
  •  Alva “Alvie” Ferguson – Edna Mae’s husband, born in 1916, he’s an Air Force waist-gunner on a B-17G. He’s a tall (6-4), strong guy with a heart of gold; high school sports star. One of seven sons of Truman and Pearlie Jean Ferguson. The family was stricken with the Spanish Flu in 1918. (Yeah, it’s an important detail. Foreshadowing …)
  • Dixie King, Edna Mae’s best friend, childhood playmate and almost constant companion. Dixie (the title’s namesake?) is black. Her husband …
  • Louis King is the handiest handyman that ever lived. He’s also an alcoholic.
  • Ray Hester, pastor of Natchez First Baptist Church. He’s a Bible-thumping (King James Version, of course) fire-and-brimstone preacher, concerned with the purity of the saints, meaning absolute prohibition of the mingling of races.
  • George Elliott Ramsey, Edna Mae’s father, an austere Southern gentleman and chairman of the deacons at the Baptist church. Look deeper. Dig into his past.
  • Sandra Ramsey, Edna Mae’s mother. I still haven’t decided whether to hate her or feel sorry for her. You’ll see …
  • Bob Lane. I won’t tell you anything about him yet. Quick story. A few years back a friend confided that when he was in junior high, a kid named Bob Lane bullied and tormented him, starting with the first day my friend had to undress in the school locker room. He was telling me this 34 years after it happened. I vowed to my friend that every single novel I ever write will have a horribly despicable character named Bob Lane, and that sometimes Bob Lane will meet a tragic, even gruesome, end. My friend appreciated that very much.
  • Thomas Miller. He’s a school teacher. And he wears a pointy, white hood over his face at times. I don’t expect you’ll like Mr. Miller.
  • Doris Fessler. She’s a school teacher, a character suggested by Perche Creek Yacht Club Commodore Gene Baumann. (See? I promised that I’ll use any character that someone else suggests. The offer still stands).
  • Michael Dooley, local grocer.
  • Owen Nickerson, unable to go to war (not sure why; any suggestions?) He’s a courier/delivery driver.
  • Henry and Nelda Colter, Doris Fessler’s parents.
  • Steven Kennedy, editor/publisher of the Silverdale Sentinel. His pregnant wife is Maryanne.
  • Katherine, 10-year-old deaf girl crippled by polio. She teaches Edna Mae sign language.
  • Lance Wilson, 14-year-old “retarded” boy. (Note: folks in 1944 Natchez didn’t know the term “autistic.” I cannot avoid using this offensive “R” word; nor can I avoid the reference to “colored” people. But I will not use the “N” word). Lance is both autistic and obsessive compulsive. He’s one of my favorite characters ever.
  • Ramona, the first “unwed” black mother that Edna Mae takes in. Keep in mind that being an unwed mother had much more of a stigma among white families. The reason I’ve had such a difficult time finding historical references to unwed black mothers being sent to “maternity homes” or being abandoned is because black communities typically provided support for them. It was the image-conscious, pretentious white families that sent their daughters away to care for a sick aunt. (Lots of sick aunts back in the day, apparently).
  • Lorenzo Casey, pastor of the “black church.” He’s not seminary-educated – of course — but don’t judge just yet.
  • Gene Swanson, Postmaster in Silverdale and owner of the Silverdale Mercantile, a five-and-dime general store.
  • Alvie’s flight crew: Julian “Jules” Presser; Marty “Smarty” McMann; Charlie “Sweaty” Bond; Andrew “Whitey” Black; and Buddy “Dee Dee” (Daredevil) Eastman.

There you have it as the cast of characters stands so far. It’s not too late to suggest a sheriff of Adams County, a sibling or two for Edna Mae, Alvie’s favorite nephew (give me a name), and so on. Don’t be shy. Comment with the first fictional character that comes to your mind.

Go!

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Filed under "Dixieland", Inspiration, Living Write, National Novel Writing Month 2012, Old Time Religion, WIPs

The Write Life: Nuggets for your noggin

What a great week to follow writers and bloggers who had time to talk about their work.

Romance author Joan Swan provided what I consider the post of the week at Mystery Writing is Murder. Joan offered an incredible exercise in humanizing the antagonist with “Villains.”

“Villains are people too,” she begins. There’s some meaty stuff here.

She reminds us that our villain was an innocent child once. “What changed? Why did it change?” And how did our villain react to that change?

What’s human about your villain – something readers can relate to?

– My memoir-in-progress that appears here every Friday and Monday is an adventure in non-fiction. Over at freelancewriting.com I found challenging advice on the process of writing a true story, namely “divide action into its various stages and arrange them in logical sequence.” The trouble is, I like to jump around, from scene to scene, and not necessarily in chronological order.

But “logical” isn’t the same as “chronological,” right?

Some other jumping in points:

“Why you need to be writing empty-headed dribble” at The Write Practice.

– British author/editor/ghostwriter Roz Morris (Nail Your Novel) makes the case that without drama readers won’t likely care much about our work. Getting someone to read our stuff is one thing; making them care is the real challenge.

Two blogs/sites to follow:

– Tribune photographer/web guy Matt Cavanah has a slick website that shows off his eye-popping work. Matt’s a great guy. Just laughed yesterday when I misspelled his last name “Cavanaugh.”

Really?

Yep, he said, pointing out that we’ve worked together only one year and 10 months, so how could I have caught on so quickly?

– I also recommend both the website and Twitter feed (@Writers4Christ) for Writers4Christ.

Now, go write something that YOU care about. It’s probably best to first convince yourself.

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Filed under Living Write, MIP: Memoir-in-progress, Uncategorized, WIPs