Wednesday, November 27, 2013

My Thanksgiving Story

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It’s a fairly simple day. Let’s face it. Roasting a turkey is easy and if everyone pitches in, Thanksgiving meals are joyful, relaxing experiences.

But for me, Thanksgiving isn’t about the food. It’s about family. It’s a day of rest.

I come from a long line of farmers. As a child, I lived on a farm. Thanksgiving marked the end of a season. The crops had been harvested. The canning was done. We could gather as a family at my grandparent’s house and find peace.

I have very specific memories of Thanksgiving celebrations during those years. We frequently experienced our first snow around Thanksgiving. It would be light, barely covering the ground. A dusting, really. But with it came a chill in the air and the promise of Christmas.

While the women worked together in the kitchen getting the meal together, the men would go hunting. The men never returned with game. I learned later in life that rabbit hunting is more about being outside together.

Grandma kept a box of toys on the steps leading to the attic. While the men were outside bonding and the women were busy in Grandma’s kitchen, my cousins and I would pull the box of toys out and play.

A metal truck or two were leftovers from when our parents were children. Clothespin dolls Grandma dressed with scraps of material were there as well. We would load a truck with little green “milk cans” which were really empty Doan’s pill containers, and make our dairy runs to the various farms we set up in the family room.

As we got older, we ventured to the basement where we would write, practice, and perform skits and plays, using the big stone hearth as a stage.

Grandma’s dining room table would be set when we arrived. She had a practice of setting the table before she cooked. (“If you have the table set when your husband gets in from work,” she advised me when I married, “he’ll think supper is almost ready.”)

The big table was set for the adults. I sat at the kid’s table. Grandma also had it set, complete with a centerpiece she had made herself. Of course everyone knew the big table was where it was at. Whatever “it” was.

I remember when my cousin, Steve, was promoted to the adult table. He even said the Thanksgiving prayer! The rest of us were in awe. We didn’t whine. We didn’t complain. We knew our time would come. Sadly, I moved away before reaching that particular rite of passage.

Grandma was a great cook in her own right, but so were the others. I’m sure we had turkey and dressing with all the trimmings, but I really only remember two particular food items.

I remember the baked beans. Aunt Maxine always brought baked beans.

And I remember the sweet pickles. The process used to make pickles back then required the slices of cucumbers sit in their sealed jars forever. (Okay, not really forever. It just felt that way.) We started breaking into the pickles and other canned goods around Thanksgiving. What a treat.

My memories of Thanksgiving afternoon are vivid. The women would clear the table and wash the dishes. Chatter and laughter filled the kitchen.

The men turned on the television to watch football. Grandpa would fall asleep in his big velvety soft maroon chair, his feet propped up on the matching ottoman.

But for us, this was the best part of the day. Grandma would pull out the Wish Books: catalogues from major department stores. The rules were simple. Each child could write his or her name on two, and only two, items indicating something they would like for Christmas.

We pored over those books. About the time you thought you had made a decision, a cousin would find something more intriguing. We would eventually sign our names across pictures of dolls or cars, games or books, and call it a day.

We weren’t frivolous. The treasures we chose weren’t as costly as toys are today. We were farm kids and we knew the value of a dollar. We also knew if you asked for something that was overpriced, you had wasted your Thanksgiving afternoon looking at the catalogues in the first place.

But if you were thoughtful, we knew you stood a good chance of having your wishes come true. Especially if the crops were good that year.

I blog about writing. So why this trip down memory lane?
·      I could point out how important it is for writers to write. This could be called a writing exercise.
·      I could mention that we as writers draw from our past experiences. For example, I actually used the advice my grandmother gave me about setting the table first in my debut novel.
·      But here’s the real answer- I think it is important for writers to preserve family stories for their children and grandchildren.

You are a writer. You took the time to read my story. What is yours? What memory might you preserve for future generations. Write.

And my Wish Book wish for you?
And the creation of sweet, new memories.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tension in Writing: Being In-"Tension"-al

Let’s face it. Life isn’t sugar and spice and everything nice. Life is full of tension.  A book needs to be filled with tension as well. That’s why we call the good ones “page turners.” We are spurred on in our reading by mounting tension. We are constantly asking ourselves, “What happened next?”

I am still working on this. As a writer I can see the “big problems” my characters face, but it's the smaller lurking questions and conflicts that keep a story moving. It’s hard for me. I am a Pollyanna. I know it.

So at the risk of causing myself stress and subsequent heart failure, I decided to step away from my Pollyanna self and focus on tensions in my life for a single day. I wanted to collect, if you will, the conflicts and dilemmas I face. These could be possible sources of tension for my characters.


I had to make a difficult phone call. My request was reasonable, but past experience taught me that a) the woman I needed to reach was seldom in her office, b) she rarely returned calls which meant I would have to keep calling, c) she rarely acknowledged emails which meant I had to keep calling, and d) she was not terribly personable and would likely give me a negative response in the end anyway. 

My husband hates making these calls. I am the one who is delegated to sit on “hold,” leave messages, and deal with difficult people. Conflict=Tension.

I had the joy of babysitting two of my granddaughters. The baby didn’t sleep much. Every time I laid her down she would squirm, fidget, and cry out. What was wrong? Was she hungry? Wet? Uncomfortable? Sick?

And did her parents think I was a bad babysitter because she didn’t get her nap. The poor thing looked so tired when her daddy got home from work.  Worry=Tension.

In driving to my daughter’s house to babysit, my fuel light came on. I was on the interstate and didn’t know how far it would be to find a gas station. Would I be stranded? How would I get to her house? Who could I call for help? I made it to the station, but later realized this represented a category of tension. Fear of the unknown. Fear=Tension.

I set goals for the weeks before Thanksgiving. I’m already behind schedule. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do before our family gathers for the holiday.

You see, since our children are all grown and married, we switch holidays with their in-laws. This year is our Thanksgiving and next year we have them for Christmas. Since we won’t celebrate the actual Christmas holiday with them this year, we will open gifts the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Our kids call it “ThanksChristmas.”

I need to finish my Christmas shopping and get ready for Thanksgiving. I am in the middle of major edits on my first novel, Breathing on Her Own, and I accepted a freelance writing job that is due the first week of December.

Over commitment leads to failure. Failure = Tension

One day. In a single day I experienced conflict, worry, fear, and failure.

In thinking about it, it wasn’t a bad day. There are other sources of tension I have faced from time to time. Someone I trusted telling me a lie, a broken relationship, an argument, stepping on the scale in the bathroom, bad weather, no cash in my wallet. Then there is the tension in our house when my husband reads the news on-line or watches a football game. Those times can be frustrating for me. Frustration=Tension.

And I didn’t even mention the headache I’m getting thinking about all of this. What sources of tension are on your list? How do you keep your story moving?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


My youngest daughter was a high school cheerleader. She couldn’t do a handspring or flip—the only one on her squad who wasn’t a gymnast. So how did she make the team? She had the one thing all cheerleaders need. Spirit. She was (and still is) energetic and engaging.

I had lunch with a cheerleader Monday. 
I know one when I see one.

Susan wasn’t dressed in a short skirt and her hair wasn’t in a ponytail. But she is a cheerleader. One of mine. I appreciate those people in my life who encourage me and applaud my efforts as a writer. I need them.

I have my own cheerleading squad. A few who made the team were no-brainers. For example, my mom has been encouraging me in my writing for years. My husband promotes my efforts. He gives me confidence. My children applaud my work.

Others made the squad because they are people who love to read and therefore encourage me to write.

  They strengthen my writing. They ask me questions. They give me ideas.

There are more. I have a publisher who turns cartwheels and an editor who can whip out a triple handspring.

I have a few cheerleaders out there I’ve never met. They are people who repost my blog posts or retweet my tweets. They comment on something I write on Facebook or email me notes of encouragement after reading an article I’ve published.

Cheerleaders come in all shapes and sizes. They come with all sorts of email addresses. I have .com, .org, .edu, and .gov cheerleaders. I love them all.

On Monday, I thanked Susan for all she does to help me.

“I don’t do very much,” she said. She told me she doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter. She has an email account and a smart phone, but is not tech savvy. That’s okay. Not everyone can land a backflip.

She meets me for lunch. 
She reads my stories. 
She shares my joys in writing and prays over my obstacles. 
She has a list of people she tells about my forthcoming book and a list of groups she hopes will engage me as a speaker.

She’s a cheerleader.

Writing can be a lonely job. There’s no meeting at the water cooler to commiserate with friends. There’s no annual evaluation by your boss. Without a cheerleading squad, it would be easy to give up.

So this post is to thank all of you who read, share, post, tweet, retweet, promote, and email. But it is also to thank all of you who pray for me, cry with me, talk with me, and share with me.

And call me for lunch.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Kiddie Lit: A Brave New World

Books are like old friends. I enjoy their company anytime. I can turn to them in the midst of troubling times and find comfort.

I have been thinking about the books that have shaped me into the person and writer I have become. I’m not talking about the Bible or self-help books. To me, the Bible is the ultimate life shaper. But no, I have been thinking about fiction. Books I’ve read throughout my life.

When I carefully consider why I have such fond memories of these books, I realize the joy I found in them went well beyond the story. If you have been following my blog you know I have a goal to work on two books for children this month. One book I first drafted as a teacher. The second I wrote for my grandchildren.

Can I write a book children will enjoy and treasure for a lifetime?

To help me answer that question I decided to look at a few of my all time favorite children’s books. What was it that made me appreciate them? What elements do they have in common? What made me want to read them over and over until the covers were worn and falling apart?

Heidi   Mine was the Golden Book version. I loved the Swiss mountains, Grandfather, the goats. I loved the way Heidi helped Clara walk again. And of course, I loved Peter. Even as a child, I harbored the romantic notion that Peter and Heidi would grow up, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

Nancy Drew    I was a proud member of the Nancy Drew Mystery club. I lived on a farm at the time. Each month a new book would arrive in the mail. What a treat! I would change from my school clothes into my play clothes, grab my book and climb into my favorite tree to read. I never questioned why the books never came in a wrapping of any sort. Years later I learned my mother, who reads everything would retrieve the book from the mailbox and read it before I got home. Nancy Drew solved mysteries. She was a confident teen character. I looked up to her. By the way, I read one those books recently. I learned they were definitely written for a younger age group. That’s okay. I still treasure memories of reading in that tree and trying to figure out the ending.

The Monster at the End of this Book   I didn’t read this book until I had children of my own. I love the illustrations and the story line. Most of all, I loved the surprise ending.

Ramona the Pest    Thank you, Beverly Cleary for Ramona. I read this aloud to first graders at the beginning of each school year. My students could readily identify with five-year-old Ramona as she started kindergarten. I wish it had more diversity, however.

Charlotte’s Web   This is another book I read to my students and enjoyed with my own children. It is a book about friendship and loyalty. But I also used it to teach my students about seasons, farm animals, and spiders. We ended the book in my classroom with a “County Fair.” I like books that launch creativity and teach a little something along the way.

Here is what I know about the children’s books I love:
1.     I like it when good wins out over evil.
2.     I like twists and turns leading to a surprise ending.
3.     I like characters with whom I can identify. Sometimes confident, often not.
4.     I like books that help children learn something without beating them over the head with it.

So can I do it? We shall see. I am working on both books. Then I will need to learn the children’s book publishing world. Any ideas? 

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