December: A month of birth, literally

December 24th, 2011

Please do excuse me, loyal followers, for not posting on my blog in over a month. My baby turned one, my husband turned (ahem…42…sorry honey!) and my other daughter turned 8, all within a week of the wackiest month of the year–December! Not to mention the little thing called Christmas on the heels of all of the family birthdays. It’s Merry Birthmas! Or Happy Christday! I can’t keep track. Children out of school, writing and sending Christmas cards, last minute shopping, turning the $#%@*& window candles and tree lights on and off…I am not feeling festive right now. I am feeling achy and cranky and Scroogy and I just want the whole month over with already. Mrs. Claus is whipped!

Ah, December…I used to love you, oh fair month of holly and mistletoe and Santa and egg nog. You were so lovely to me, so generous and kind-spirited. Plump and jolly and easy–a break from the rigors of life, a light in the darkness. No month has ever been more wonderful to me, and I remember you fondly. But what happened to us, what broke us so far apart? It wasn’t you…it was me. I didn’t plan my family properly, it seems. I never did understand the timing of the sperm and egg and all that fallopian tube mumbo-jumbo. And look what happened because of my ignorance…two children in December! I should have paid more attention in the early spring, when it seems my body is the most ready to make another human being. I cherish my children, of course. But I’d be perfectly happy to swap them out for children born in, say, May…May is lovely. And far enough away from December that I would have gotten my sanity back. And my hangover would have subsided.

But my trusty brain has kept working, even though I haven’t done much writing on the sequel this month. My mind actually percolates best when I’m not actively writing, I’ve found, like a coffee pot in the mysterious dark of an early morning (nice one, right?) . The trick is to relax about the not writing, to just accept that sanity will be had the first of January, that writing will flow once more and please don’t panic, Diann. When I walk (my daily exercise is walking at a good clip  40 minutes through my neighborhood pushing the baby in the jogger stroller while leading the dog on a leash), writing ideas pop into my mind  unbidden, little Christmas presents from my brain. Listening to music, reading fiction, driving, playing with my hyped-up children–these activities also give me ideas when I least expect them. And that is a joyful feeling, to realize that my brain continues to go on with the hard work of writing ficiton. I may not be actually writing, but I’m doing somthing much more important–dreaming, perservering, hoping, even though life is a hazy blur of red and green and tinsel.

Which brings to mind that December is a month of birth, of miracles, of quiet joy…Merry Christmas (or Happy Christday!) to my friends, followers and family. May the month and the new year bring you an unanticipated birth of something you will cherish for a long time to come!


Happy Thanksgiving: An Ode to my Brain

November 23rd, 2011

Lately, I’ve begun to question my very own brain. It’s always been a mystery, all body-guarded up in skull and fluids and pulsing with its own dark, Frankensteinian life. I don’t usually give my brain too much thought (ba-dum-dum)…but lately it seems that my brain is using its hidden, protected qualities to its advantage, misbehaving and causing conflicts, knowing that there is no one around to tell it what to do. I deal with this kind of boundary-testing behavior all the time with my children, but with my brain?? Come on.

My son told me that his science teacher has a term that he applies to the student behavior of talking too much during class: “diarrhea of the mouth.” This is a common enough term, but I kind of questioned it being used so flippantly in school, and by a teacher no less. Diarrhea is an ugly word, no doubt about it.

But it got me to thinking: I believe I  have “diarrhea of the brain.” (Bear with me here.)  Picture my brain, randomly crapping bits of information here, other bits there, with no regard for symmetry and solidity of thought. It’s noisy and smelly and turns even my husband off. But I can’t help it. I’m afflicted, and the only known cure is at a yoga/mediatation retreat in the mountains, all by myself, preferably on a lake or a river.

As a writer and wife and daughter and sister and friend and border collie-owner and mother of three (ranging in age from 11 to 1), I constantly feel like I’m firing (or rather misfiring) off thoughts, all disconnected and random. I feel like the hub in the center of a bouncing and crashing mountain bike tire, the spokes my many duties and obligations, barely holding onto the dirty tire of my life.

My chaotic mode of thinking intensifies around the holidays, I’ve found. In addition to the normal day-to-day thinking I have to do, I also have to think about special food preparation, gift-buying, decorating, wrapping.  And not to mention the fact that my immediate family has THREE birthdays in the month of December. No wonder my brain can’t keep up. It’s insanity, but I call it reality. Brains really do have a lot to do. So I started feeling sorry for my brain a little, with all of the demands I put on it. It’s trying its best, and these are hard times after all.

My father suffers from a Parkinson’s-like affliction called Lewy Body Dementia. Symptoms are similar to Parkinson’s, but are heavier on the dementia. He can’t speak coherently, and he has gotten to the point that he doesn’t recognize me or my sister any more, a very painful conclusion to a long, drawn-out loss of memory and body function. I try to visit him once a week, but it’s difficult for  me and hard on my children and husband. His brain was once firing on all cylinders–he owned a company, raised a family with my mother, worked in the yard and on the house all the time. He was part of the “greatest generation.” He has lived a successful life. But his brain failed him in the end, greatness be damned. 

Brains are actually fragile, I’ve come to see. They are our own biological computers, and we all know how much we love and adore our computers! We must be thankful for our brains, for all that they do. I mean, just a few primitive invertebrates don’t have them– sponges, jellyfish, and starfish are cool, but pathetically brainless. This Thanksgiving, I plan to appreciate my brain by writing something that’s never been written before, by taking mental pictures of all of my loved ones and storing them in my mind for future use, by telling my loved ones how much I love them and appreciate them for all that they bring to my life.

Happy Thanksgiving, brain! I’d kiss you, if you weren’t so hard to get to.

Reading about writing, writing about reading

November 20th, 2011

I subscribe to two writers’ magazines. This may seem like one too many writers’ magazines, but I can’t bring myself to ditch one or the other of them (Writer’s Digest and The Writer). Even in my busy life, I try to read both of them cover to cover, just because I love to learn about writing. But I especially love to hear how other authors approach their craft–it’s kind of like reality t.v. for writers, a bit of literary voyeurism–peeking in the window or hovering over a shoulder to see how a writer writes. In the most recent Writer’s Digest magazine (January 2012), there is an interview with one of my favorite authors, Diana Gabaldon (she is also on the cover.) She is the author of the genre-defying Outlander series-I am currently reading the fifth installment, and I’ve got to say that after all this time (her books are long and I read other, smaller books in between them), the characters seem like friends of mine, their lives seem familiar and real to me. I always wonder how Gabaldon–a writer with no special creative writing training–works her magic.

Now that I’m a writer, I can’t read a book without sort of analyzing the author’s process as I go along. It’s a bit distracting, unfortunately, and I’ve had a harder time losing myself in fiction the last few years. But when the story is really good, I don’t stop to analyze anything until it’s all over, and then sometimes I’ll go back and delve into the story in more writerly detail. But Gabaldon’s books are so complex, I can’t divine how she put the whole thing together without losing her mind. It was fascinating to read the interview that explained her process, which is not chronological. According to the article, she writes sections based around concrete images and dialogue, but doesn’t know quite where they will go in her story at first. I, on the other hand, feel that I must write chronologically, for the most part, so that I can better keep track of my characters’ mind sets and plot development. My life is so chaotic, I don’t want my writing to reflect it!

But Gabaldon, like me, has three children,and already had multiple careers by the time she turned her hand to ficiton. I truly suspect she’s a genius, and therefore all of her advice wouldn’t apply to me! But I really enjoy hearing about other mom writers and how they managed to get anything written when their children were  young. In the article, she says, “You know, everybody wants a piece of you if you’re Mommy. And they want it all the time–everybody wants all of you all the time. And therefore to see you doing something like [writing], I can say they feel threatened–they don’t like it, and they will let you know in no uncertain terms. And so you are constantly having not only to fight off your family, but also your own feelings and guilt.” She was also asked how she achieves balance nowadays, and she responded, “My kids grew up.” Amen to that, sister! Us writer mommies are all in the same boat, squeezing writing into the little time that we have, because we can’t not write. 

I write when my baby naps (less and less these days) because it’s the only time I can focus. And I feel like I’m getting absolutely nothing done! Even as I write this post, I have been interrupted twice by my oldest child–looking for paper, then showing me a word search that he made. Could that not have waited until I was done??

But Gabaldon thinks that being super busy with multiple writing projects helps her to get more done–apply butt to chair and all that–the more you do, the more you get done. But it’s hard for my butt to stay in the chair when my baby is crawling and exploring, when food needs to get shopped for and cooked, when kids need to get picked up and driven about. And I am nobody’s genius. But I do try to find time in the day to either read about writing, or write about reading, or just plain write. When I first started out, a writer friend Dean King told me to strive for an hour a day. And I thought, of course I can do that! That is how The Outer Banks House got written, I swear, with maybe a few longer stints on the weekends, when  my husband took the kids out. And that is how the sequel will get written as well, bit by bit by bit, the way that children grow when you aren’t looking.

Outer Banks in winter

November 13th, 2011

I can’t seem to get the Outer Banks–the present version–out of my mind. My friend and I went down there last weekend for girls’ weekend (check out my post entitled “Wacky Weather Inspires the Writer”) and our experience is still kind of haunting me. As you can probably deduce from the title of my last post, the weather was cold and windy and generally unpleasant, although the ocean was terribly gorgeous in a Medusa-like, fatal-if-you-stare-too-long-at-it sort of way. And I love it when the beach is vacant, with just a few dog-walkers to distract you from nature’s awesome bounty.

But from the moment we got down there, everything seemed a little off. First of all, I forgot the good bottles of wine and my Kashi cereal and boxes of yummy crackers at home. Crackers and cereal, I could understand forgetting, but the wine?? Even though we had to pee (for the second time in a three-hour car ride), we were obliged to stop at the local Outer Banks wine store for more red. Then Eliza realized she’d forgotten the Stilton cheese we’d been salivating over during the car ride down! The way we were talking, Stilton cheese could cure all of the world’s ills. Penn State scandal, Hermain Cain allegations–just throw some Stilton at them and it all goes away. But after carefully unpacking her cooler and going over and over the items, we sadly realized the Stilton’s absence. What was happening to us?? we wondered. Were we already losing our memories, at the tender age of 40? YES!

Then came another sad realization: I don’t know how to use the gas fireplace in the beach house. I never learned, and never cared to, since I usually come down in the summers anyway. Plus, my parents knew how to light it, and so does my husband and brother-in-law, so I never had to learn myself. (If you want to learn a little something about me, I hate fire, no matter how small its form is. Even though I love candles, I am still a bit wary of matches and lighters, so using one to light a gas flame is particularly scary for me.) And I am sort of spoiled–our gas fireplaces at home are remote-operated. And even then, I get annoyed at the slowness of it sometimes. You can probably see how historical fiction appeals to me! It always amazes me how much work went into just getting a fire going in the morning. It’s amazing that people even got up in the morning.

But lucky for me, my friend Eliza knows how to light a gas fireplace, but she didn’t know how to get our gas turned on. I had to text my brother-in-law (he told us how to do it last time but we’d forgotten!). We hadn’t heard from him for a little while, so we opened a bottle of red and got out some cheese and crackers and plopped down on the sofa. But then it seemed that all we really wanted was a nice cozy fire in the fireplace. A cozy fire would make everything perfect, wouldn’t you agree? We started looking around for the mysterious “valve” on the outside deck, then on the decks outside, using our powerful engineering and physics intuitions to follow the copper gas lines in and out of the house.

As Eliza opened the door to the downstairs deck for further investigation, however, a wild bird flew into the house and flapped crazily around one of the downstairs bedrooms.  In my estimation, this phenonemon might even be scarier than matches and lighters. It puts one in mind of “The Birds,” believing that the evil thing has a hankering for human flesh, overprocessed hair for its nest. All we wanted to do was run upstairs, back to our wine and cheese, and forget that there was a wild bird possibly crapping all over Eliza’s very nice things. But we stood in the hallway, cowering with a broom (what we planned to do with it still remains a mystery!). The bird fortunately had the good sense to see it was outmatched by two manic women with fire on their minds, and flew back out the open door from whence it came. Yikes! We didn’t want to admit it, but that bird seemed a bad omen for our beach weekend. We debated even going out that night.

But we were determined to have a good time, despite the missing Stilton, the wild bird and the stupid gas fireplace! It turns out that the “valve” is in the back of the fireplace itself. Trust me, we will never forget that little bit of trivia again!

Out on the local’s scene that evening (the cab was very late, another bad sign) we tried to relax a little. Things were going alright until the female bartender, engaged in an extended conversation with another bartender) rolled her eyes at me when I signalled for another drink (I waved my arm at her–is this obnoxious? You can tell me, it won’t hurt my feelings more than having a bartender roll her eyes at me). Flash-forward through socializing with bar-goers and a listening to a great band…at the end of the night, I tried to ask who I thought was the hostess if she could call a cab for Eliza and me, but she mocked me, telling me that she didn’t work there and walking off! But she’d been standing at the hostess station, talking on the phone and writing things down. I was very confused. And growing a bit bitter about my locals experience. My husband and I eat at this very same restaurant in the summers and never have anything but great times there. Was I being treated this way because I was with another female, instead of very tall man? Eliza and I pondered this, and thought very well that that might be the case. We nobly quoted our mothers: “Treat others the way you would like to be treated”! Is that asking too much these days?

I love the local’s scene on the OBX. It’s one of the reasons Eliza and I like going down there in the off-season. Great music, good people, total relaxation.  But the experience at the restaurant made me think, as you can tell, about my Outer Banks feelings. See, I have this idea of the Outer Banks in my mind now. It’s based on many collective experiences, both as a child and as an adult, and involves many people, family and Outer Banks residents included.

But it also includes what I know of the history of the Outer Banks. Even in the early 19th century, the fragile barrier islands were a tourist destination. The people on the Banks learned to adapt to outsiders encroaching on their turf–and the Bankers sold the vacationers things they needed during their visits, provided them with hotels and other accomodations, served as guides for their hunting expeditions. And not much has changed. The Outer Banks are still in the tourist-pleasing business, as they always will be. And I can see how it gets old, catering to people and their needs. My characters Eliza and Ben are Bankers, are still assessing their interactions with completely different outsiders. In the sequel, Eliza grows to adjust to it, although she’ll always want her independence from the outsiders. Ben chooses to marry an outsider, but then takes a job that has nothing to do with them, a job that honors the nature of the Outer Banks itself.

I find that enjoy writing about the dynamic between Bankers and vacationers. But I find that I don’t care for it so much when I’m the one involved in the drama! Yet through this lens of history I now have, I can feel something like sympathy for that rude bartender. I imagine that it gets tiring, filling glasses all night and watching folks you don’t know get loopy. And yet, people will always descend on the Banks, they will always have their needs, even in the off-season! I’ll return to that restaurant, hoping for a better experience.

In hindsight, I thought that maybe Eliza and I should have listened to that wild bird’s message and stayed out of places where we didn’t belong. But the thing is, I feel I do belong on the Outer Banks, even if I don’t live there. Even without wine, Stilton and a working fireplace, I will always have it in my heart.

Wacky Weather Inspires the Writer

November 7th, 2011

My friend Eliza and I went down to the Outer Banks this past weekend and stayed in my family beach house in Kill Devil Hills. We do this about twice a year, just to relax and have fun. Our lives are so crazy now that we can’t even catch up properly over a lunch, so it’s nice to spend a good two days with each other, eating more food than we should and drinking more red wine than we should and just catching up on what has been going on in our lives.

But I am having a hard time understanding why we always pick the worst weather weekends to do this. We don’t go down in the summers for whatever reason, so we always choose an October or November weekend to go down. This seems to suit us because those autumn months are so busy, full of children’s activities and school and work–we need a break to rejuvenate and refresh ourselves, perhaps to better face the holiday onslaught. Then we often pick a March weekend after the cold and boring months of January and February, but before the packed months of April and May. But I kid you not, every time we go down, it either snows, storms or is so frigidly cold, we can’t even go for a walk on the beach.

Eliza took the photographs of me for my book jacket, and I will never forget how cold it was that 2008 November day. She took photos of me on a bench outside my beach house, on the beach, on Jockey’s Ridge and then on the beach again. It was like torture, but I just tried to tell myself that that was what the super-models had to do all the time,  and it was a price we had to pay for our work, our art. The photos did turn out beautifully. It was something to do with that ocean breeze and cold sunshine. (You can check out the website for the author photo.)

This weekend brought the Outer Banks something like a nor’easter. It was windy and cloudy and cold the entire weekend. Thankfully, it didn’t rain or snow. But poor, poor Eliza and I, we can’t help but get down about the crappy weather. We can’t seem to catch a break. Is the wish for a little sunshine asking too much of the weather gods? A little sun on our pallid faces, a little warmth on our overworked bodies? Perhaps so. The weather gods have been working overtime up there lately. Maybe the effects of global warming have gone to their heads, making them all hot, crabby and unstable of mood. Is it time for an earthquake or a flood? What about a hurricane or a nor’easter? Or a drought? A tornado? A tsunami or a volcanic eruption? A freaky snow storm at Halloween, right after an Indian summer? Or how about all of the weather phenomena at once? Yeah! That might get their attention! Lately it seems we are just sitting ducks, bobbing about waiting to see what the weather will bring us next. I’m so tired of weather, of hoping for greatness but getting nastiness and even fatal destruction instead.

But weather’s many mood shifts do inspire the muse in me. There is something about a stormy sea that pleases my eye–the endless white caps, the crazy, frothing waves, the fast-moving clouds, the gulls that fly in once place  in the wind. And since I don’t live on the Outer Banks, it helps me to experience such things on my brief visits down. I got an eyeful of the ocean this weekend, when we forced ourselves to go for our walk (more like a tug-of-war with the wind) on the beach. Even for me, a writer, it’s hard to describe the awesome power of a stormy sea. There are no words–a dictionary and a thesaurus are useless, your brain can’t comprehend what it’s seeing. It’s actually scary to watch it, to imagine my helplessness in the face of it. And in the sequel to The Outer Banks House, I must describe such a sea in the first chapters. I must describe how Ben sees such an ocean, knowing that he might have to venture into it in order to save people stranded at sea. I must describe how Abby sees it, knowing she is alone in the house, that she is the one who must help herself for once. I am actually glad that I saw the sea in its ferocious state this past weekend, so that I can better describe what it looks like to my characters.

I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have preferred  blue sky and sunshine and 70-degree temperatures. Eliza and I deserved all of that and more! Girls’ weekends are harder and harder to come by these days. But I’m trying to look on the positive side. Bad weather makes for great writing.

Inspirations behind my characters

October 30th, 2011

So my friend from high school wants to know who the inspirations are behind my characters, after reading my last posting called “Book Club.” I get this question quite often, so I’ll elaborate on my answers here.

 When I first started writing, I didn’t have actual people behind my characters. It was just a love story between a Banker and the daughter of a North Carolina plantation owner. I decided to give Abby red hair, to match the fire inside her (very cliche, I know, but it just seemed right to me. I only had a handful of choices available anyway: black, brown, red, blonde. Give me a break!) and to give Ben blonde hair and of course tan skin, since he’s in the sun all day, every day. As I started to write, their faces began to form in my mind. Abby looked sort of like a girl I knew in high school in Newport News, VA. She had gorgeous strawbery blonde  hair but in my memory she tanned well!?! Unlike me, who burned/burns like drumsticks in oil. She was a beautiful girl. Bear with me, I’m going to try to find her on Facebook right now….please enjoy the easy listening music while you wait…it’s Neil Diamond…now it’s the Bee Gees…Found her! She is still beautiful, and living in Utah! Three children and a cute hubby. BUT her hair isn’t red anymore. It’s light brown. One of her children has the same red hair that she did though! Love genetics. Genes live on! I use genetics in my writing all the time. Abby inherited the red hair and fair skin from her father Nolan, but she inherited her bone structure and intelligence from her mother. And Ben looks just like his father. In my mind, he looked like Ryan Gosling  in the movie “The Notebook.”  Abby inherited another of her mother’s physical conditions as well, something that is hard for a marriage to endure…you’ll have to wait for the sequel to find out more.

Abby took on some of the same character traits as red-headed Kate Winslet’s character in the movie “Titanic.” You know, fighting for her own life/love instead of marrying the a** of a rich man her mother wanted her to marry. Ben took on some of the traits of Leonardo diCaprio in “Titanic.” Heart of gold, despite his hard life. I think both of my characters ended up being their own people though. And how they did that, I can’t really say. They are mostly creations of my own mind. All of the movies and t.v. I’ve seen, all of the books that I’ve read, all of the people I’ve met and known in my life– all of these things come to play when writing my characters.

When writing Nolan, I loved to watch the owner of the Gem Saloon, Al Swearengen, in the HBO series “Deadwood.” This man was a smooth operater: manipulative, amoral, foul-mouthed, at times abusive and murderous. But I couldn’t take my eyes off him, he was so naughty and swaggering. But sometimes, a brief glimpse of Al’s tender side was shown, and it made me care about him, in spite of his evil attributes. Genius! I wanted to try to do the same thing with Abby’s father, Nolan. But he was the hardest character I wrote. I felt like all of the dialogue I wrote for him sounded cliche, and how was I to go about showing both a genial, fatherly side and a murdering, racist side? That is difficult writing, in my opinion, and needs the most attention, because if it’s done right, you have an unforgettable Al Swearengen moment!

Uncle Jack is the character most clearly based on an actual person, that of my brother-in-law. He is such a great uncle to my kids and to this other nieces and nephews. He is able to access the child within, and that makes for very fun play dates and sleepovers and holiday visits. Wii, beach football and paddle ball, body surfing and boogie boarding, backyard croquet, movies, hikes, etc. are much for fun with this uncle. And I think that kind of relationship is so special and long-lasting, for all parties involved. Which is why I wrote Uncle Jack as such an important part of Abby’s childhood. I already knew such a relationship could be special, especially if Abby didn’t have good relations with her own parents.

All of the Sinclairs are tall, and I come by this character trait honestly because my in-laws are all very tall people. My mother-in-law is 6 feet 4 inches, my father-in-law is 6 feet 5 inches, and my husband and brother-in-law (not the Uncle Jack inspiration but equally as cool, and I must say a much better basketball player!) are both 6 feet 8! My sister-in-law is the shrimp, at a lowly 6 feet. I am 5 feet 10 inches tall, and I’ve always been able to hold my own in the height department. My boyfriends have usually been tall (over 6 feet) and I am taller than all of my friends but one, and she was an Olympic-class swimmer!  But when I met my husband, all of that height security went out the window. I now have to crane my neck to kiss my husband! Folks are very funny about tall people: they outwardly point at my poor in-laws when they are out and about, like they are escaped circus freaks or something. People ask them how tall they are EVERY DAY! I have seen this phenomenon too many times to count. The question is usually followed by “Do you play basketball??” It embarrasses me, this  personal questioning, executed by gawking short people with round eyes and open mouths. My mother-in-law sometimes gives the measurement in centimeters, to throw them off. I sometimes want my husband to answer the questions with an innocent “How short are you? Are you a gymnast?” But that would be mean…and too personal, right?! But I must say that with all of that height comes an undeniable respect. People are in awe of them, maybe even a little bit scared of them! And it was this attribute that I wanted to utilize, when writing the Sinclairs.

I’d love to hear which actor or actress you think should play Ben and Abby, Ingrid and Nolan, Eliza and Hector, if a movie were made of The Outer Banks House. Try to branch out from Kate Winslet, Ryan Gosling and Leonardo diCaprio!

Book Club

October 27th, 2011

I was the guest of honor at friend’s book club last night. It was such a lovely, lovely group of women, so intelligent and funny and stylish (a particular orange and white printed coat comes to mind.) In observance of  the ocean theme, the hostess made a delicious pot of shrimp soup (in ignorance of it’s proper name!), served over small French rounds in fish-printed bowls. She also served wine, which I really needed (it was Hump Day yesterday, and the hump felt extra hard to get over for some reason). Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the addictive cheesy stuff (I’m blanking on what she called it) in the middle of the most awesome appetizer dish in the world (it contained chick peas, diced and dressed cucumbers, sliced red peppers and pita chips!).

Food aside, it never fails to amaze me when a book group decides to read my humble tome.  Book clubs are comprised of sophisticated readers, for the most part. They have read a few books in their time, if you know what I mean. They know their way around the book spines, the Kindle scroll bars, even the iphone touch screens. Nothing gets by them, and they have their opinions.

For instance, after my first spoonful of soup, my friend asked how realistic it was to have Abby cross the Roanoke Sound every night to teach classes at the Roanoke Island schoolhouse, then cross the sound again, get back into bed and start the day with her family as if she hadn’t been up to anything. I put my spoon down, took a big gulp of red wine, and started to perspire. I wondered what I had gotten myself into with this group! They appeared so harmless, at first.

But a part of me rejoiced, because it was a perfectly good question, probably one of the most insightful questions I’ve ever gotten and coming from someone that obviously knew the area well. I myself had always wondered on the feasibility of such an undertaking. In fact, it was a major sticking point for me throughout the writing of the novel, for I knew that Abby and Ben had to make it across that sound as quickly as they could, in order for Abby to undergo the character development that she needed to undergo.

From vantage points on both Roanoke Island and Nags Head, the body of water seems easily crossed (to a landlubber like me), and I guesstimated a hour or so, with an experienced fisherman at the helm of a fast-moving skiff. But eyeballing distances across bodies of water are not really my forte (I can hear the laughter of experienced boaters as I write this…I can hear you saying that you didn’t know they had motorboats back then).  I told my friend that I wished I had taken a skiff out and done the trip myself.  I did a quick search on the internet, but couldn’t find an exact distance, but I will keep looking and get back to you. It more than likely took longer than an hour, but I didn’t have any time to spare. And I gambled that most readers wouldn’t notice the difference. In other words, I thought that the plot device was in the long run more important than the feasibility of the trip.

My point here is that as an author, I must always try to write to please the most intelligent of my readers. If I’m writing about sailing or hunting or lifesaving or butchering hogs (all of which I am currently writing about), I know I have to do my research, because all of those things are foreign to me, and experts in such fields will know if I’m, which in turn will pop the happy, fictional bubble of believability that readers like to surround themselves with.

Which reminds me: We talked about the covers of the book in a similar vein. Both covers feature a woman in a dress that isn’t of the Reconstruction era. The dress appears more turn-of-the-century, or even later, to me. And the paperback cover shows this woman stepping over dark green rocks. The beaches of the Outer Banks don’t have rocks. It’s very simple. There are  tree stumps on the shores near Corolla, but there are no rocks. And I pointed out to my editor these discrepancies before I gave the design the okay, and she said that it didn’t really matter, that most readers wouldn’t pick up on that sort of thing. But I am willing to bet that some readers, readers with first-hand knowledge of the Outer Banks, noticed the rocks on the paperback cover! Again, I think we should always strive to please the most insightful readers. Why not strive for complete accuracy?

I really did try to find every little spelling mistake in the book while it was going through the copy editing process. I am one of those readers that immediately picks up on misspellings in books, and it’s always very annoying to me. But I see now how it happens, and I’m ashamed of my self-righteousness. There are so many corrections to be made, transferring from the hard copy to the electronic version, and I have no idea who is actually making the corrections at the publishing house, or if he/she is saving properly. I wish I could have done it myself, for a major misspelling occurred in the final printed book. It’s actually kind of funny, now that I’ve gotten over it. Ready to laugh? “Collard” greens is spelled “collared” greens. Picture a bunch of steaming little green guys with white collars turned down in a business-like way, and you’ll get even more of a messed-up visual. An astute Southern reader picked up on this misspelling and emailed me within the first few weeks after the book was out. I then met her and her husband at one of my book-signings and included the “collared greens” reference in her book inscription. She was very good-natured about the whole thing, but I’m sure the tiny little detail popped her bubble of believability for a bit, and for that, I’m deeply sorry.

But let me assure you, I am striving for complete and utter accuracy in my sequel. There will be no inaccurate distances, no rocks on beaches, no collared greens. Because I know I have book clubs to attend, intelligent readers to please. The stakes are high. After the first doozy of a question, the ladies went on to ask even more insightful questions regarding character (who are the inspirations behind my characters), plot and publishing. I really enjoyed myself, eating great food, meeting cool people and talking about what I love most: reading and writing. Book clubbers, thanks for having me for dinner and for reading my book!  I look forward to picking apart other novels with you in the future!

Background music

October 25th, 2011

I am sensitive to noise. I think the older I get, the more noise bothers me. I can only take so much noise before I start to blow, resulting in more noise. My kids and my  husband would agree. Hubby snores, and I’ve worn ear plugs for years now. I have become a connoisseur of ear plugs. I can tell by touch if it’s going to block noise sufficiently. Too squishy or too hard between my thumb and forefinger and it’s too difficult to shove inside my ear at the precise angle that’s needed for full noise protection. I used to only buy this one brand but lately it’s like the manufacturer poured concrete into the batch of plugs. More often than not, I hear snoring through the darned plugs, and I have to poke my husband in the ribs so that he’ll turn onto his side. Our baby uses a noise machine (I’ve actually considered one for me) because my other kids are loud (like I said earlier) and if I hear the noise machine through the baby monitor while trying to sleep, I have to readjust the ear plugs. I can’t stand that humming noise. So maybe it’s not a good idea for me to get one for the bedroom after all. I’ve always been a little sensitive to noise, I think. Back in the day, my sister used to come into my bedroom when she got scared at night, and the sound of her breathing kept me awake. I eventually protested her nighttime visits, told her she breathed too loudly.  

Some writers like to write with background music. I used to do that too. I wrote The Outer Banks House while listening to the soundtrack to the movie Pride and Prejudice and bluegrass music. But now, I can’t stand to have music playing while I write. I need the silence, and I think it has something to do with my 10-month-old. Her baby noise rakes my nerves, so  when she naps, I finally have silence and time to concentrate. Music just seems one more thing to invade my mind, keep it from functioning properly.  However, I do listen to my ipod when I walk the baby in the jogger stroller. The music and the outdoor exercise seems to help my creativity; I’ve gotten my best ideas during my daily walks.

Steamboats and boatsickness,
flies and neck wounds: Introductions

October 23rd, 2011

I think this will be a perfect post for a cool Sunday morning in October: my favorite sentences/sections from chapter one of the historical fiction novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. The language is soothing, rich with (not too much) description. And the first two sentences are doozies, of course. All writers are encouraged to jazz up their first sentences, as well as their first paragraphs, to grab the interest of readers and hook them into turning the page. A writer must also orient the reader to time, place, and even character in these introductory sentences. A tough job with just a few words! Here are my first sentences from The Outer Banks House:

I was the first passenger off the steamboat. My fellow travelers had insisted, for I had spent the duration of the journey in the throes of boatsickness. Everyone, including mama and daddy, had watched me from afar, afraid to get their Sunday best too close to me.

Hopefully the reader was oriented to time (era of steamboats, language: “boatsickness” instead of the more modern term of seasickness, “Sunday best”) and place (the character just took a journey by water and is now disembarking) and character (likely a person not used to traveling by water–a landlubber. Also a person who doesn’t have a good relationship with his/her parents, people who seemed more concerned with appearances than in assisting an ill child). Would you want to read more, based on the first sentences of my book? I hope so! Here are the first sentences from Cold Mountain:

At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward.

The reader is oriented to place (morning in a hospital) and character (a man named Inman who is suffering from a wound at his neck, he is perhaps familiar with farming due to the reference to roosters).  Neck wounds and flies are intriguing enough to most people to want to keep reading, not to mention the perfectly worded metaphor comparing the flies to a yardful of roosters in their ability to wake someone up.

Here are some more particularly juicy sentences just from the first two pages: The window was as tall as a door, and he imagined many times that it would open onto some other place and let him walk through and be there. During his first weeks in the hospital, he had been hardly able to move his head, and all that kept his mind occupied had been watching out the window and picturing the old green places he recollected from home. Childhood places…The window apparently only wanted to take his thoughts back. Which was fine with him, for he had seen the metal face of the age and had been so stunned by it that when he thought into the future, all he could vision was a world from which everything he counted important had been banished or had willingly fled.

Right away we realize that Inman is away from his home, for he is feeling nostalgic. We could even infer, from his reference to the stunning “metal face of the age,” that he has been fighting in a war and has gotten the neck wound in battle.

I wonder how many times Frazier wrote and rewrote those first few lines. As an author, I know that it was likely a few, for our job is to make it all look easy. Those first lines of The Outer Banks House weren’t even the first lines until I had begun editing it for Crown. Here are the first lines that got the book picked up by my agent and then my editor:

Picture this, if you will: A trigger is squeezed in earnest by a crooked Fed’ral forefinger, and a minie ball tears out the rifle’s slender barrel. It screams through the smoky air and slams into my skull bone like an iron stake pushed through wet, rocky dirt. My head explodes so quick I don’t even feel a thing. I just fall down in the brain-splattered thicket, dead forever.

Only, it didn’t happen that way a-tall. While my unit camped in the slushy Virginia pastures, I acquired a bowel affliction that’s slowly roasting the tender insides on the hot embers of its cookfire.

I’d take a minie ball to the brain over this rusty creak toward death’s depot any day.

Kind of different from the first sentence that ended up getting published, right? It’s even from a different character’s point of view–Abby’s Uncle Jack, a Confederate soldier. In fact, the entire chapter ended up getting cut, a fact that disturbed my agent, who loved that first chapter probably more than the rest of the book’s chapters combined. Am I right, Byrd? My editor wanted me to blend the information that I provived in Uncle Jack’s chapter into the new first chapter, written in Abby’s point of view. I used a letter from Uncle Jack to Abby, written in the hospital while he’s dying, to convey some of the love the two have for one another, the history between them. So Uncle Jack died, in more ways than one. You can still read this lost chapter on my website though!!

I am still working on the first sentences of the sequel, but here is a sneak peek for you lucky blog readers:

Mr. Parrish’s case was so heavy, I had a notion to just let fly with it, watch it thud its way on down the staircase. My right arm burned like I’d dragged it through flames. “Shitfire,” I said, and not under breath neither. What on earth was in the damned case anyway, bricks of gold? Just a glance at Mr. Langston Parrish, and I knew he was the richest man I’d ever laid eyes on. Out here in Whaleshead, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I was hard pressed to find a man that even owned a pair of shoes.

I won’t tell you whose point of view this is…I have to keep some surprises, you know. Maybe you can figure it out! Leave me a comment if you feel like guessing, and if you guess correctly, I’ll let you in on some secrets to the sequel!

Regarding the novel “Cold Mountain”

October 20th, 2011

Remember in 1997 when the historical fiction book Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier was at the top of the bestseller list? Selling over 3 million copies to date, the book  went on to win the National Book Award, and was adapted into a 2003 movie starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. I bought it in hardback sometime after it was published and commenced to reading it, only to find myself falling asleep while reading of Inman, the disillusioned Civil War soldier, and Ada, the similarly disillusioned, recently orphaned minister’s daughter. The tale of Inman’s long journey–on foot, no less–wasn’t what I wanted to plod through at the end of the day, even if Inman was trying to get back to his lover Ada and his beloved home, Cold Mountain. I just wanted him to get there already! The book was praised by critics and readers alike, and I wanted to get it. But I just didn’t. I kept at it, though, just like good old Inman, and (after lots of more fast-paced books in between) eventually finished it right before the movie came out. I went to see the movie with some girlfriends one evening, soon after my second child was born, and I loved it. I think I was still a bit post-partum, but I cried like my newborn at the end of the movie.

Sometime after that, I started to write my first novel, The Outer Banks House. I’d never written fiction before, but I felt compelled to tell a story–a love story, to be exact. You’ll have to read my post entitled “Thank God for deodorant and air conditioning” for details regarding how I settled on Reconstruction-era Nags Head, N.C.,  for the setting. My characters of opposites, Ben and Abby, sprung from the time period and the setting. Then, when I started to write, I alternated between Abby’s and Ben’s point of views (and Winnie’s, but later removed those chapters) to show the development of the love story. The writing at first was difficult for me, for as a reader, I knew what a book should sound like and I kept editing myself. But it was like all of the authors I’d ever admired were whispering  to me, telling me where they thought the story should go, what the characters should say, what they thought my style should be. And I’m starting to have an idea which author whispered the loudest in my mind…

I am now slowly rereading Cold Mountain, and I am struck by the beauty of the sentences, the rightness of the words. I savor the words, the phrases and sentences, like bits of dark chocolate, autumn leaves. Crafted as they are by Frazier, they are things of pure delight. They are never bloated with adjectives and adverbs, or unnessary with details. Each word has its proper place. Each word contains its own truth. Each paragraph contributes to the story, helps define character. And I would never compare such a genius with myself, but I believe  his style influenced mine without my knowing it.

I am also amazed by the pace, which I once believed was slow and tedious, full of flashbacks and transistions and few “cliffhangers.” Inman moved slowly west toward the mountains, and Ada slowly carved out a new way of life on her farm, but they each kept stepping back in their minds to relive past events for the readers. But rereading it, I see how the flashbacks shed light on the characters’ motivations, which in turn moves the story forward. I actually look forward to them now, savoring the slow pace and enjoying the journey they both take.  Maybe it’s because I’m older now, and not in such a hurry. Maybe as a writer, I tend to dissect others’ writing now, without even really wanting to. But I think it’s because the book had such a profound, previously unrealized effect on me–and like uncovering a forgotten childhood memory, I can now see and appreciate its influence. So let me say “Thank you” to Charles Frazier here, and bestow on him the “Diann Ducharme Major Influence Award.” Someday soon I’ll read Thirteen Moons and Nightmoons!

Coming tomorrow: my favorite sentences from Cold Mountain