Morning Coffee: The Power of a Good Book II

feetLast week I wrote about the power a good book has to transport you to another time, another place. The author has to find just the right words to pull you into their world, make you care so deeply for the characters that it is near impossible to put the book down. That’s my goal.

In my novel, “Mary Bishop”, Earl and Mary move north from Virginia after the Civil War hoping to replace all their pain and loss with a new life in Wisconsin. Instead, when the people of Deer Creek learn the Bishop’s son died fighting for the Confederacy a campaign of harassment begins that leads to Earl’s suicide, leaving Mary alone to fight the on-going hatred while learning to open her heart to the possibility of a new love.

The book opens with Earl’s funeral:

If anyone in town looked up from their business that November morning they would have seen the distant black silhouette of a wagon moving slowly along the hill’s crest. They would have shaken their heads and said, with a slight smile, there goes Mary Bishop, off to bury her husband. Then they would have turned back to their day without a second thought. This I, Mary Bishop, know.

The undertaker drives the team while Reverend Elias Clark sits quietly next to him. I sit straight-backed on a bench next to Earl’s casket, my hands folded over the Bible on my lap. An icy wind cuts across the hilltops and through the pines standing dark against the sky, releasing the last of the leaves to fall and crunch beneath our wheels. It bites at my cheeks, makes my eyes water, loosens the hair I pinned so carefully beneath my hat.

I do not look away. I do not try to shelter myself from the coming storm. Instead, I welcome the numbness that spreads slowly but steadily to my core, as I imagine it must have spread through Earl as he swung limp from that rope he’d thrown over the barn rafter.

Leaving me alone to cut him down. Leaving me alone to drag his lifeless body into the house. Leaving me alone to wash and dress him for burial. Leaving me alone to ride into town and inform the Reverend of his sin. Leaving me alone.

In the second chapter I take the reader back to when Mary first meets Earl. She’s a young girl of twelve and he’s the new boy in town, just fourteen:

I stretched out as still as a stick in the tall grass, flat on my stomach, and pressed my chin as close to the ground as I could. My cap slipped off my head to hang from one braid but I didn’t mind. I wanted to see the world from the viewpoint of the ants, the spiders, the beetles. I watched as they scaled clumps of dirt barely big enough for me to feel beneath my bare feet as if those clumps were great mountains. I held my breath when a bumble bee flew past my head, lightly brushing my ear, stopping to inspect one clover flower after another in search of something sweet….

Footsteps approached, legs swishing through the grass. It was probably one of my brothers, either Harlan or George, sent to find me and I wasn’t ready to go home yet. He stopped in front of me. All I could see were bare feet and legs wet and muddy half way up the calf to the cuff of his rolled up trousers. I smelled fish.

 “What do we have here?” he asked. “Some kind of snake or over-sized beetle bug?”

It wasn’t George or Harlan. It was someone I’d never seen before. From where I lay the sun formed a halo around his unruly curls, the color of roasted chestnuts at Christmas. A string of dripping wet fish hung from one hand; the other held his pole balanced over his shoulder. I had to squint to make out his face through the glare, but he was undoubtedly the cutest boy I’d ever seen.

“Better close your mouth if you don’t want bugs to crawl in.” He plopped down beside me, laying his catch and pole on the ground next to him.

It’s up to you, Reader, to decide if I’ve succeeded.

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Morning Coffee: The Power of a Good Book

feetThere’s power in a good book, a story that pulls you in so deep you feel like you’re there. You can smell, feel, even taste the rain on your face. You can see the rocky cliffs rising behind you and the racing white river in front of you. You feel his arms reach around as he pulls you beneath the protection of overhanging trees, the kiss on your neck, and you’re both happy for and jealous of the heroine. I’m currently totally immersed in the Outlander series–up to book 3.

One of my favorites, though, is “Giants In The Earth” by O.E. Rölvaag. It’s a story of Norwegian pioneers in South Dakota in the 1870s. Rölvaag published his story in two volumes, 1924 and 1925, in Norway and then assisted in its translation for American publication in 1927. A fisherman in the Lofoten Islands, Rölvaag came to America and tried his hand at farming in South Dakota in 1896. Finding himself better suited to academics, he attended St Olaf College in Minnesota, and then continued his studies at the University of Oslo. He later returned to St Olaf College where he eventually became a professor of Norwegian literature.

Rölvaag’s writing is simple but powerful. Consider the first two paragraphs of the novel:

“Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon…. Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.

… And sun! And still more sun! It set the heavens afire every morning; it grew with the day to quivering golden light—then softened into all the shades of red and purple as evening fell…. Pure color everywhere. A gust of wind, sweeping across the plain, threw into life waves of yellow and blue and green. Now and then a dead black wave would race over the scene…a cloud’s sliding shadow…now and then…”

You’re there, the great flat plains spread out as far as the eye can see, the horizon melting into the sky. He continues:

“It was late afternoon. A small caravan was pushing its way through the tall grass. The track that it left behind was like the wake of a boat—except that instead of widening out astern it closed in again.”

You can feel the hope and promise of a better tomorrow in the sun, and the forewarning of hardship and tragedy in the “dead black wave” that would occasionally “race over the scene”. This is the kind of writing, the kind of bare emotion all writers strive for in their work. It’s the kind of writing that stands the passing of time. It’s been almost 100 years since Rölvaag first published these words and still they move people.

Morning Coffee: Beauty

feetIt is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What’s beautiful to you? Is it flowers blooming in spring? Perhaps an overflowing vegetable garden ready for harvest? A baby’s first smile, full belly laugh, or “mama”?

I love beautiful things. This is obvious if you were to look at my bucket list. Before I die I want to learn how to play the guitar, to draw and paint, and obviously to publish poetry and stories/novels that move people and outlive me. I like to embroider, make jewelry, and put together jigsaw puzzles…the more colorful the better. I like to sing along to the radio; although it may not always be considered a beautiful thing to listen to it makes me happy. I also like to dance, but mostly when no one is looking. I’d love to learn to salsa. I got a taste of that when a friend married a Cuban man and his family took to the reception dance floor. So much joy, you couldn’t help but move your feet. Even my husband, who doesn’t like to dance, joined in.

But most of all I find beauty in a well-turned phrase, the perfect word. It’s why I read so much. And it’s why I write. According to the Global Language Monitor, there is estimated to be 1,035,877.3 words in the English language as of January 1, 2016. A new word is created every 98 minutes, or about 14.7 a day. Amazing!

You can see it in the many ways there are to express love. My Roget’s Thesaurus has twenty-three subheadings under love (noun): affection, self-love, Cupid or Amor (God of Love), courtship, beloved, love affair, ladylove, flirt, love potion, love (verb), cherish, make love, flirt, enamor, in love, loving, lovesick, affectionate, endearing, loved, lovable, amatorial, and flirtatious. And there are numerous suggestions under each subheading. In the Emotion Thesaurus there are pages dedicated to ways to describe love, the way we act when we are in love. It’s the same when you look up any emotion, be it sadness, anger, loneliness, or happiness.

So why is it we rely so heavily on the same vulgar four-letter words when expressing a strong emotion? I know I’m as guilty as anyone else. I’ve been working hard at removing a certain expletive from my golf game but so far with limited success. Perhaps I should use one of my thesauruses to find alternatives and start throwing them into the mix. Even if all it gets me is giggles from my fellow golfers it’s better than the shocked stares I sometimes get now.

The English language is so vast, so varied, that there’s really no excuse not to be exact in our meaning. A good novel should read like poetry; it should transport us to that very place where we can see, hear, smell, feel, even taste what we’re reading. That’s my goal, to create scenes that grab my reader, makes him or her go back and read it again, maybe have to stop and absorb the words before reading further.

Tell me, what do you find beautiful?

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Morning Coffee: What’s In Your Heart?

SummerYears ago my mother gave me a blank book entitled “Some Incredibly Important Trivia”. I use it to record sayings that move me, whether funny or thought provoking, it doesn’t matter. My most recent entry is by Eleanor Roosevelt:

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.”

I’m often asked if what I’m writing is true. Did that happen to me? To someone I know? You can see the sparkle in their eyes as they anticipate some juicy gossip, or the fear that I might be writing about them. Yes, I’m inspired by life around me, maybe something I overheard or saw in passing made me think beyond the actual event and off into the land of what ifs, but I’m not writing anything specific. My life is not that exciting and I’m not so callous as to out a friend in such a public manner. I’ll leave that kind of reporting to The National Enquirer. So relax and set aside that race to judgment.

I can’t be concerned with what others might be thinking about my writing. I can’t question whether or not they will approve of how I choose to tell my story. If I were to put that kind of scrutiny on myself I’d never get anything written.

Nor can I be concerned about what people might be thinking about me based on my characters, or the genre I choose to write. There are people who actually think romance novels are trashy, a waste of time and money. I’ve been told I should write something literary, something great, something that will last for the ages. . .not something that “smacks of money”. That’s right, someone actually accused me once of writing for money, said by doing so I was selling out! (This was in reference to my poetry.) My obvious reply to this person was yes, I write for money. Of course I hope it will be great and stand the test of time; but yes, I also write with the goal of getting paid.

If your writing is a means to a higher purpose and getting paid holds no importance to you, then that’s what you should do. I can only do what feels right to me, be true to my own heart. It’s why I was disappointed when my first submission of “Mary Bishop” was quickly rejected as not suited to their current needs. It’s also why I turned around and sent it right back out to someone else. I will do this over and over until I find that perfect fit, that publisher who is as excited about my book as I am. As for those who choose to criticize me, I choose to ignore them.