Tag Archives: fiction writing

“Shackles: The Playlist” Send me your ideas

Shackles / Historical fiction / 82,487 words

A Roman family man, cheated by a lifelong enemy, descends into darkness and despair. A transformed persecutor of Christians avoids a vicious stoning and multiple murder plots. “Shackles” tells the story of two men, separated by hundreds of miles, destined for an earth-shaking encounter.

One verse in the Books of Acts gave birth to “Shackles” several years ago, although I didn’t realize it until 13 months ago.
“Around midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening.” (Acts 16:25)
Music brought “Shackles” to life, so it’s only fitting that music has played a key role in the writing process. The music that has accompanied this journey is rather eclectic, but also traditional. My tastes range from classic rock and Southern gospel to Indian flutes and contemporary Christian. As “Shackles” enters the test-reading and proofreading stage – with revising and editing to follow – let’s put our musical minds together for the “Shackles” soundtrack. Please send me your suggestions.
I’m getting “Shackles: The Playlist” started with a song – and music video – that tells the story of Acts 16:25. Ray Boltz’s “I Will Praise The Lord.”

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Filed under Inspiration, Living Write, National Novel Writing Month, Old Time Religion, Shackles

Juicy juxtaposition: A Communist Tea Party

With almost seven weeks before moving day — assuming the house inspection and other details go as smoothly as the other aspects of our successful house-shopping — I’ve got a little time to pack my books in an orderly fashion. As I separated fiction, non-fiction, humorous, reference, collector, writer’s library and other categories, I’m arranging each group alphabetically by author.

My non-fiction arranging put “Palin, Sarah” (America By Heart) right next to “Marx, Karl” (The Communist Manifesto). Perhaps Mr. Marx belongs in my reference section; certainly there are many who would suggest the Mrs. Palin belongs in my fiction section. I think it simply proves literary diversity and breadth of thought. (Yeah, I’m being a little sarcastic there).

karl sarah

A couple of days ago Kelly and I caught an episode of “Hoarders” where a book-collecting couple had an estimated 45 tons of books in their house. Kelly pointed out what I knew she was thinking: that might have been me if not for marrying her. I don’t know that I would have amassed several tons of books if not kept in check by my patient, tolerant, grace-filled spouse, but I have trimmed the collection considerably over the years. The fact that she bought me a few books for Christmas seems proof that my collection is now manageable.

I’ve got a lot of reference books and quite an assortment of humorous reference: Why Does Popcorn Pop?, Do Fish Drink Water?, etc. I’ve also got some collectible, historical reference, including a two-volume student’s cyclopedia from 1897. I’m fascinated with seeing what we used to think we knew before we found out that we knew everything. I’m talking about pre-Internet times, of course, and pre-World War era America, when our country tried to live as a country unto itself.

My two favorite collectibles are “Qheen of the Home” and “Practical Housekeeping,” copyright 1901 and 1885, respectively. “Queen of the Home” is “a careful compilation of tried and approved recipes by the Ladies of the Christian Church of Carterville, Mo.” (Southwest Missouri, near Joplin).

From the “Miscellaneous” section of “home remedies,” I give you this:

“Mutton Tea – Mutton tea may be prepared in the same manner as beef tea. It makes an agreeable change when the patient has become tired of beef tea.”

I’ll just let those words linger on the screen as you provide your own commentary. Three entries later, there’s “Raw Beef For Children.” Treatment for dysentery.

Again, I’ll let those words linger there on the screen, time enough for you to shake your head as you ponder why dysentery might have been a problem in the first place.

“Practical Housekeeping” is nearly 700 pages. Castor oil was the remedy for just about everything, including scarlet fever. “Keep the bowels open with castor oil, grease the throat, breast, and back with pig’s-feet oil, goose grease, lard, or smoked ham rinds, or the fryings of salt pork or bacon. Greasy very thoroughly.”

Smothered with bacon! Now that’s a home remedy I’m willing to try next time I’m ailing.

Finally, admonitions for children playing out-of-doors: children less than 4 ought not to play out-of-doors when the thermometer is lower than 25 degrees,” and when the young-uns are playing outside they must play on the sunny side of the yard or street. Failure to keep feet warm or ears and neck protected from the chill can lead to “catching” a cold. When they come back indoors, they’ll need a bath, of course, so there’s also ample bathing instructions, summed up thusly: “Children should never be washed in a careless, slipshod manner.”

Hmmm. Somehow I started out talking about Marx and Palin, then got sidetracked with 138-year-old instructions on how to stay healthy, clean and practical. (Castor oil).

I suppose I simply find many, many things far more interesting than a Communist Tea Party.

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Real character or mannequin?

What’s the secret?

You know what I mean. Not the secret to your success (although I am interested to hear that, too) or the secret to your grilling technique (again … I am interested). I’m asking, “What’s your secret?”

Answering that is one of the beauties of writing fiction. You need to create a character, name the character, maybe even toss in a clever nickname. You’ve got hair color, hair length, hair type (wavy, straight, maybe no hair), height, body type, blah blah blah. Sure, that’s all important, but I’ve just described a mannequin, an empty form with a name. Add a favorite color. A quirk that you wouldn’t expect. (I sometimes symmetrically arrange the food on my plate; don’t even notice most of the time). Tell me your character’s best time of day: night owl, early bird, mid-day masher? Give me some background: middle child, only child, lost a finger in shop class, maybe a sixth toe? (Super cool!) Adopted? (Adoption and foster kids are a common link in most of what I write).

Now give your character a secret. Something she’s done that no one else (or only your wife/BFF) knows about. Give every character a secret, and suddenly you’ve got depth. Not that you’ll tell-all in your story or novel, but that character will be more real to YOU. And until that happens, the character is nothing but a mannequin on paper.
And who wants to read about a mannequin?

Not every secret needs to be dark or terrible, but there can be plenty of those, too. I once worked with a woman who told me that when she was a kid, she’d climb over the neighbor’s fence and pick an apple or two. The neighbor finally told her parents and she was punished.

So she burned the neighbor’s house down.

Crazy? Made up? There’s never been a moment that I doubted it. Her demeanor, body language, almost nonchalant recounting of the event all testified of a cold heart that probably suffered a great wound as a child – but a cold, dark heart that had no hint of remorse in telling the story the same way someone might say, “I got in trouble because the neighbor told my parents, so I snuck over to his house one night and stomped his marigolds.” Seriously. I remember it like this: “So I burned the SOB’s house down. Are you going out for lunch or eating in the office?”

The story came alive as a defining moment in the childhood of Hannah Abigail Lincoln, the main protagonist in my unfinished work, “Chasing the Devil.”

HERE’S THE EXCERPT

The moment the neighbors drive away, Hannah hopped the fence, emptied a can of lighter fluid on the refinished chest and wardrobe on the patio, and struck a match. The flash caught one of her sleeves on fire. She quickly dropped the can and plunged her arm into a nearby birdbath.

Hannah raced to her bedroom, changed her shirt and soothed the burn with aloe salve, something she knew to do to treat burns. She had experience.

The sirens were faint at first and then louder.

“Hannah, we need to talk,” her mother shouted as she came upstairs. Elizabeth Lincoln stepped into her daughter’s room. Hannah dropped the burned shirt.

“Um, sweety? Did you know the Bentley’s house is on fire?”

Hannah had no response.

“I saw you climbing over that fence.” Her mother paused. “Hannah, did you pick another apple?”

The little girl heard her mother’s admonitions echoing in her mind: Bravery, Hannah. Courage, Hannah. Don’t slouch like a whore, Hannah. Hannah clenched her teeth and stepped toward her mother.

“The Bentleys are just weak,” Hannah said. “Rednecks.”

Elizabeth Lincoln reached out and drew her daughter close.

“Yes, baby doll,” her mother said, giving her a firm hug. “I love you.”

(Ed. note: It’s the only memory Hannah has of her mother’s hug).

PRAYING FOR THE PLANE TO CRASH

Maybe the secret is less sinister. A stand-up sort of guy who, for some reason, once stole his neighbor’s mail. (I’m brainstorming here). A school teacher who, despite cheating in college to earn her bachelor’s degree, has turned out to be quite a teacher and is about to be promoted to principal – or superintendent. A hilarious secret? A shy man eats an entire pie that is about to be presented to the retiring superintendent – or the Queen of England. (“Who ate Her Majesty’s custard pie?”) Maybe not something all that BAD or illegal, but not something you’d want to admit. No matter how many years go by, YOU still remember.

When I was a kid, I had an uncle who flew radio-control, model airplanes. Cool, huh? Not really. I resented that we drove 700 miles to visit my grandparents only to see the neighboring cousins called right away to join us, where they continued to be the center of attention. I visited maybe once a year; they lived right … over … there. (Extend your arm, point your finger … yeah, right over there). Once we were whisked across the pasture to the cousin’s house – a huge home with a lake – where we had a cook-out and obligatory viewing of my uncle flying his radio-control airplane. I actually bowed my head and prayed that the plane would crash.

And it did.

Whew. I feel better. Up to now, only four or five people have heard this confession. Now, if I count Twitter, Facebook, email subscribers and anyone else who stumbles across Jackson’s Journal, that’s another 1,100 people.

Maybe you don’t want to share YOUR secret. But give me some ideas for future and existing characters. C’mon …

What’s the secret?

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

Diving into words: reading and writing list for 2013

Writers are insufferable creatures of melancholy and regret. We love to write, yet we’re sure we don’t do it often enough (we’re probably right about that), and even when we do, we generally regard our prose creations with disdain.

What? I wrote THAT?!

My novel-writing train is again chugging out of the station as of 1/1/13. In addition to finishing two of my Unfinished Epics in 2013 (see, that capitalization got MY attention), I also resolve to write one short story per month. (Defined by anything under 3,500 words).

My writing charge is firm and clear.

Even more than writing, though, we’re the world’s worst when it comes to reading, or thinking we should be reading, or berating ourselves because we think we’re not reading enough. (Let’s admit we can be a fairly miserable lot).

I’m certain that my life is littered with more unfinished reading lists than unfinished novels, so I’m not planning some grand announcement that THIS is the year I read a dozen classics and become enraptured by a dozen new authors. Maybe will, maybe won’t.

JUMPING OFF THE SHELF

But my writer’s library grew by two books on Christmas, thanks to my most supportive reader — the woman who has been listening to and reading my most imaginative embellishments for 30-plus years. My wife. She asked for a Christmas gift list and I produced a detailed accounting of my literary desires. She must have given Santa a good report, because I now possess Novelist’s Boot Camp (penned by former West Point assistant professor Todd A. Stone) and The Writer’s Workout (from veteran writing coach Christina Katz).

I’ve needed the drill-sergeant approach advocated by Stone. If I can develop the discipline that he says writing demands, then I’ll be published by year’s end. Most of us have a writer’s how-to book that tells us, “These are the rules, but rules are made to be broken,” and I love hearing that, because then I don’t feel constricted by those stifling rules of writing. But Stone takes a much different approach, and I appreciate his honesty:

“Are you a best-selling or acclaimed author? No. You don’t even have a book yet. After you’ve written and published your third, fifth or tenth book, you can break all the rules you want. Until then, to get your idea on paper, to produce a complete book-length work of fiction, just to get the darn thing written and get it done and done well, do as you’re told.”

Yes, sir! The book has 101 drills, so reading two or three a week can’t hurt. (However, Stone does occasionally write, “Drop and give me 20 push-ups,” so, yes, I suppose it could hurt).

Whereas Boot Camp is broken into manageable, writer-friendly sections, The Writer’s Workout has 366 one-page “chapters” offering tips, tasks and techniques. It’s also arranged in four sections that match the seasons of nature or the seasons of life.

This is from Day 1: “Write until writing becomes as natural as breathing. Write until not writing makes you anxious.” Make it a habit and a natural function, in other words — not a duty or responsibility. (Tough to follow in some respects when it comes to my day job as a newspaper journalist, where on 1/1/13 I covered the county government swearing-in ceremony of new elected officials AND the customary “first baby of the year” story, which did lend itself to a more creative approach.)

ALSO ON THE SHELF

Those are the newest additions to my writer’s library. I pulled a few others off the shelf, but offer only brief, Twitter-like reviews.

Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer, James V. Smith Jr., is the single book that gets me unstuck and unblocked. Smith’s riddle to “Begin at the End” is the best single piece of noveling advice I’ve ever read.

The Glamour of Grammar, Roy Peter Clark, includes these chapter header gems: Consult a thesaurus to remind yourself of words you already know; Master the elliptical art of leaving things out; and, Play with sounds, natural and literary. (It’s a fun book that I happened to win on a fun Twitter contest a couple of years ago).

The Power of Point of View, Alicia Rasley. She presents the hard-fast rules about not ever changing POV in a scene, then promptly suggests that writers not always follow that rule. I’m guessing Todd Stone would make her run laps for writing that.

YOUR TURN

What are some of your go-to writer’s how-to books? What’s your reading plan for 2013? Bonus question: In the event that someone might want to discover a new author or two in 2013, what are your suggestions — and why?

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Filed under Living Write, MIP: Memoir-in-progress, National Novel Writing Month 2012, WIPs

A lifetime of New Year’s Eve deja vu

Half-way through December, when it came time for me to resume my NaNoWriMo novel, to catch up on roughly 873 unread emails and blogs that I follow, and to breathe new, consistent life into Jackson’s Journal, I had a high-level meeting with myself and decided to extend my “down” time another 16 days.

Enough. I’m breaking the huddle, getting back in the game, shaking the dust off any other cliches that refer to getting the rust out of my routine. I’m pumped. In fact, I’m going to blog every single day of 2013. Or not.

First, I’m taking stock of the greatest blessing of my life. My bride (Kelly) and I did some calculating tonight and determined that since 1974, we’ve been together every single New Year’s Eve except one. Folks, that’s 38 NY Eves.

kelly-jodie

I love the story of Dec. 31, 1974. Kelly and her family and 36 other people — 41 in all — were at the green duplex in Belle, Mo., at Eighth and Shockley, a place that I prefer to remember as “Little Fenway,” on account of the house was the left field fence for the greatest Wiffle ball field ever known.

But it wasn’t wintertime Wiffle ball that drew a crowd.

It was a fish fry.

Dad was the pastor of the fledgling Faith Baptist Church, and as best I can remember, the evening started with a fine Southern Baptist tradition, the New Year’s Eve Watch-Night Service. Or maybe the evening didn’t start at the church, which was located in the former but brown recluse spider-infested Dahms Hardware Store in Main Street/Alvarado Avenue/Highway 28 in downtown Belle.

My Little Black Book of Great Adventures — aka, my childhood diary — recounts the important details, including the reference to brown recluse spider-infestation, but also the party in the house at Little Fenway. At one point earlier in the evening, someone — either my dad, Robert Thompson or Clifford McDaniel — had a wild-hair idea about having a fish fry. Robert had a freezer full of gigged Gasconade River fish and Clifford possessed the world’s all-time greatest hush puppy recipe. (It might have been the other way around; the Little Black Book of Great Adventures doesn’t provide clarification).

Someone brought a massive iron kettle and a grand fire was sparked on the bare spot normally reserved for second base. There was fish, hush puppies, drinks (absolutely non-intoxicating beverages, of course), pie, slaw, and, for the younger set, an unofficial yet also traditional activity of Southern Baptist teens and pre-teens: spin-the-bottle. (Not sure if it was this event or a future gathering where the spin-the-bottle experience came to an abrupt end when the bottle pointed to me and my sister, Kathy).

At the height of the NY Eve Fish Fry of ’74, we had 55 people in our house. At one point I retreated to my room — a chemistry lab and railroad-killed mammal dissection facility — to jot down my thoughts. I refer now to the Little Black Book of Great Adventures:

“It is 10:40 PM, Dec. 31, 1974. New Year’s Eve. It was a good year to me and I especially wan to thank God for leading me to a good year in science. He led me to all my specimens and stuff.” (Ed. note: living less than 100 feet from the Rock Island rail line also provided me an ample supply of biological diversity).

More about the year, recapping my thanks to my parents for letting me collect so much “stuff” and thanking my friends for helping me collec the “stuff.” (Ed. note: we had most of an entire but unassembled adult deer skeleton hauled into my room/lab before my mom drew a line on the amount of “stuff” I could have in my room/lab).

Finally, this:

“I joined a taxidermy school and I have come to a greater scientific knowledge. I am going out now to join the rest of the party. There are still 41 people hear at our house.” (Ed. note: Correctly spelled “knowledge,” but misspelled “hear.”)

Now let me fast-forward three years to New Year’s Eve 1977, back in the green duplex at Eighth and Shockley after moving back from Jefferson City, where I spent THE loneliest, saddest year of my life the previous year. My year-end recap included, “In mid-October, my parents got a divorce” and my sister, Sharon, visiting from Japan where she and bro-in-law Navy man Michael were stationed, had lost her babies (twin boys). And then this: “I am very much in love with Kelly Drewel, who I’ve been going with for 13 months.”

Finally, follow me back to (or is it “forward to?”) NY Eve 2012, where I’m making the resolution to finish the novels “Dixieland” and “Chasing the Devil” in 2013, with at least one of them published by year’s end.

And then I laugh as I glance again at the Little Black Book of Great Adventures and find this:

“Lately, I’ve been writing quite a bit. In the past I’ve started a few books that I never have finished, and I’ve got several ideas for books, stories and songs. I have written about 25 stories, 15 songs and started about 5 books. It takes time to write, so I think I’ll put aside more time to write.”

And then I listed some belated resolutions for getting that done: limit television; get my homework done at school; stick with something.

The date: Feb. 8, 1978.

The more things change …

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Filed under Family, Inspiration, Kelly, MIP: Memoir-in-progress, National Novel Writing Month 2012, Nature & Animals, Old Time Religion, WIPs

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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Filed under "Dixieland", Inspiration, National Novel Writing Month 2012, WIPs