Morning Coffee: Strong Women

fallEven when I’m totally engrossed in a book I’m still analyzing its structure. What did the author do to make it work…or, in some cases, not work? I’ve spent the last week reading books in my search for titles that are similar to my novel, “Mary Bishop”. If you read last week’s post, you know I needed to include a list with my agent queries. While reading, I was reminded over and over again how women gain strength through their friendships with other women.

Women’s friendships are emotional, supportive. Women want someone who will listen, maybe a hug. Women want someone who understands. Women are there for each other when they give birth, when they are ill, when there is a death. At a time when men had access to anything they wanted by right of birth, it was women who gave each other worth. While the laws on women’s rights have changed, the dynamics of women’s friendships have not.

In my novel, Mary Bishop is a strong woman. She finds her strength deep within herself when her husband, Earl, is unable. But when he dies and she is at her lowest, it is her friends Sarah and Frances who come to her rescue, lifting her back out of the darkness. Only they truly understand what Mary’s feeling, and only they can tell her when she’s being foolish by letting someone else undermine the truth Mary knows in her heart.

The books I chose to include with my submission were “True Sisters” by Sandra Dallas, “Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller, and “At the Water’s Edge” by Sara Gruen. I highly recommend all three.

In “True Sisters”, a group of Mormon converts emigrate from England to America, a decision made by their men. It’s a long trip by boat across the Atlantic, then train to Iowa City, and from there they walked, pushing handcarts loaded with their barest worldly possessions, to Salt Lake City. Many died along the way. The men summed up each loss as the will of God. It was the friendship of other women that kept the women strong each time they buried a loved one. It was other women who recognized the pain each went through when another purge of their belongings meant another treasured possession left behind. It was women who attended births, illness, and injury along the way. The handcart parties were real and this book is a fictionalized version of the final party to make it across the mountains to Salt Lake City.

“Caroline” will be recognized by anyone who read “Little House on the Prairie”, except that this time the story is told from Ma’s point of view, rather than Laura’s, and is less romanticized. Caroline is pregnant with Carrie, Mary is five, and Laura is three, when Charles announces that he has sold their house in the Big Woods and they are going to Indian Territory in Kansas. While Caroline outwardly supports her husband’s decision, she knows what dangers lay ahead on such a trip, especially in late winter: the rivers they will have to cross, the wild animals, the Indians. She agonizes over the loss of her female support system with another baby on the way. She wonders who will attend her birth. How will she manage without her sisters? She knows she may never see them again. It isn’t until she meets Mrs. Scott from a neighboring claim that she regains that support. It’s Mrs. Scott who attends her birth. It’s Mrs. Scott who shows up at their door and stays as long as necessary when all but the baby fall deathly ill. Those familiar with the Ingalls’ story know there will be many uprootings in her lifetime as her husband searches for his dream, and each one will be a test of Caroline’s strength; as it was for so many women during the westward expansion.

“At the Water’s Edge” takes place at the tail end of WWII. A young socialite from Philadelphia who lives a frivolous, indulgent, and often reckless lifestyle finds herself on a freighter to Scotland with her arrogant unloving husband and his friend as the two men go on their obsessive hunt for the Loch Ness monster. Practically abandoned at a small inn, Maddie is suddenly immersed penniless in the unknown world of rations, blackouts, and air raids. Over time she befriends the two women who work at the inn and through them comes to realize she is strong enough to find her own way and leave her abusive husband.

“Mary Bishop” is historical women’s fiction and historically women have always found strength in friendship with each other. Mary’s strength grows with the support of her friends, as did the handcart women’s, Caroline Ingalls’, and Maddie Hyde’s.

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Morning Coffee: Selling Myself

halloweenSome people believe all writers do is write. After we’re done with one book we launch right into another. I wish!! There was a time when a writer could count on their publisher doing all the PR work. Publishing houses had whole departments for promoting their lists. They scheduled book tours/signings, placed your books in all the right stores, and ran ads in the papers and magazines with the highest reader numbers in your market. Not anymore.

Yes, the big houses still have advertising departments. Unfortunately, unless you’re one of the top-of-the-list big-buck-earning authors on their list, they expect you to do not all, but much of the work yourself. Beginning with my initial query/submission, I have to prove that I am both willing and able to promote myself before they’ll even consider signing me. I blame the internet.

The internet has supplied us with all the resources we need to do our own PR. I have a Facebook author page, I tweet, and, of course, I blog. All means for getting my name out there and building a fan base even before I’m ready to submit my first novel. I will also be expected, after publication, to buy tables at festivals and craft shows so I can sell copies of my book. I will need to schedule book readings/signings at local libraries and bookstores.

There are also the business cards and bookmarks I already carry everywhere to hand out to anyone interested. Anything that will help people remember my name, anything to prove to a publisher that I can do my part.

Agents want to receive, along with a query letter, synopsis, and sample chapters, my market and a list of already published books that are similar to mine. They want me to convince them my book is worth the time and effort they would need to negotiate a publishing contract. Naming my market is easy, women over thirty. Determining which similar books will best sell mine is a little tougher. I would like to include three. I’ve currently put together a list and am reading them so I can have a list ready for submission next week. So far, one is a definite inclusion.

With all this put out there to sell myself, I will then, and only then, be able to go back to work on my next book while waiting to hear the verdict on my first.

Morning Coffee: “Mary Bishop” Update

halloweenBack in May, I had the opportunity to pitch my novel, “Mary Bishop”, to two agents at WisRWA’s annual conference in Green Bay. One requested the first five chapters and a short synopsis, but suggested the manuscript be about 10,000 words longer. The second requested the first three chapters and a short synopsis. She also told me something I’d already figured out for myself. The reason I hadn’t sold it yet, despite all the positive comments from editors, was I had been submitting to the wrong market. It’s not historical romance; it’s historical women’s fiction with romantic elements. Yes, there’s a difference. The characters and plot lines are more complicated and need a longer format.

I prefer to do my revisions with red pen on paper; so, that’s how I spent my free time this summer. (What’s free time?) I rewrote dry scenes that merely “told” what was happening, replacing them with scenes that “showed” the story. I expanded some and filled in historical details. I addressed questions raised by one of my beta readers. (Thanks, Mo!) Then I rounded it out by writing an epilogue to tie-up a story line that was once very minor but had grown much more prominent.

In September, I started the long process of typing and polishing those revisions and this week I completed them for an additional 9,200 words, a total of 90,700. These were not the first revisions, and I totally believe they won’t be the last. I have no doubt any agent or publisher who wants to pick it up will request additional changes. If there’s one thing this process has taught me, my words are not all gold and sometimes the ones you like the most are the first ones that need to go.

For example, my opening paragraph was my favorite from day one. It was word for word what my heroine, Mary Bishop, kept saying to me until I wrote it down and launched into telling her story. As far as I was concerned, it was sacrosanct. I had enough trouble changing it from first person to third. A couple weeks ago I attended the first page workshop at the Wisconsin Writers Association annual conference in Neenah and one gentleman suggested I move it to the bottom of the first page. He pointed out the real strength of my opening came from all the paragraphs that followed on page one. He didn’t want me to delete it, just move it. My first reaction, which I kept hidden behind a ‘thank you I’ll think about that’ smile, was the thought that he didn’t know what he was talking about. That was the paragraph that would pull my reader into the story and never let them go. But guess what happened when I started thinking about it. He was right. My opening is much stronger, and nothing had to be deleted in this case.

Now all I have to do is write a two-page synopsis and a cover letter and I’m ready to send the agents their requested chapters. After that, who knows what will happen. Hopefully at least one of them will want to read the full manuscript, will want to sign me, and then will sell my book to a big New York publisher convinced he or she has found the next best selling Great American Novel.

I’ll keep you informed.

Morning Coffee: Friday the 13th

halloweenToday is Friday the 13th, and it’s October, which makes it all the spookier for those who believe in omens, superstition, and such things. Halloween winds down the month of October. We spend weeks watching horror movie marathons, visiting corn mazes and haunted houses while picking apples and pumpkins. Then we end the month by dressing our children in costumes and binging on an orgy of chocolate left over after all the little ghouls and goblins have gone home.

Two years ago, when this blog was new, I wrote about the history behind Halloween, but what’s the deal with Friday the 13th? There’s no clear information regarding when Friday the 13th became a tradition for bad luck; but negativity has surrounded the number 13 for centuries.

While the number 12 has historically been associated with completeness (12 Days of Christmas, 12 months and Zodiac signs, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 tribes of Israel), the number 13 has been linked to the negative for almost as long.

The Last Supper is credited for the belief that 13 dinner guests at the table is a bad omen, that it tempts death. Consider it; there were 13 men seated at the Last Supper: the 12 apostles plus Jesus makes 13. Judas was one of the 13 and the next day, Good Friday, was the day Jesus was crucified. Could this also be what links the number 13 with Friday? Possibly.

Have you ever noticed the lack of a 13th floor in many buildings? Next time you’re in an elevator check to see if you can get off at the 13th floor. Technically there is a 13th floor because there certainly isn’t empty air between 12 and14, but people are reluctant to rent office space or a hotel room on the 13th floor so building owners often pretend it doesn’t exist for the sake of their bottom line.

New Yorker Captain William Fowler (1827-1897) founded the Thirteen Club to try and dispel the superstition behind the number 13, particularly having 13 dinner guests at a table. On the 13th of each month, 13 men would meet for dinner in room 13 of the Knickerbocker Cottage, a popular restaurant owned by Fowler from 1863-1883. Before sitting down to dinner, each guest had to walk beneath a ladder and sign that read Morituri te Salutamus, Latin for “Those of us who are about to die.” Most notable members, at different times, were four US presidents: Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Numerous books and movies, most notably the Friday the 13th franchise starring hockey mask-wearing Jason, have spawned from the superstition. For some, they feed the fear. For others, they’re just a bit of fun.

Yes, throughout history there have been bad things that happened on Friday the 13th; but unless the world is going to stand still for those 24 hours it’s inevitable that something bad is going to happen somewhere. Any other month of the year a Friday the 13th can pass with me hardly noticing. But, when it happens in October, well that’s just the icing on the cake.

Scary-pumpkins

Morning Coffee: What I DON’T Love About Fall

fallI’ve written before about how I love everything fall, but that’s not entirely true. I love the colors, the scents, the flavors of fall. I love the cooler temperatures, fuzzy sweaters, and hot chocolate mixed with a little peppermint schnapps. And maybe most of all, I love just about anything pumpkin spice or cranberry. We’re only a month away from lefse-making day with my sister-in-law. Playing golf in the fall is special, too, when it’s not so hot and the leaves are all changing. We have a beautiful golf course here in St Croix Falls.

miceBut there is one thing I do not love about fall. Mice.

The filthy little creatures have already begun to seek refuge in our basement. At least, so far they’ve kept to the basement, but I’d prefer they kept to the outside of the house. Since the beginning of September I’ve trapped five, the most recent just last night. Before you try and tell me mice are cute, none of these were wearing little shorts or a polka dot dress and matching bow! These are not the cute variety of mouse, the kind that sing and dance and entertain children of all ages. These are the kind that chew through my belongings, invade my pantry, leave caches of seeds in my boots and nasty little black poops that let me know they’ve been there recently and leave me wondering where they are right then.

miceDid you know that mice have soft bones and can easily squeeze through a hole the size of a dime? As soon as my husband finds one hole and blocks it, they find another…or create another. As I said, they like to chew on things.

I’ve written a number of poems expressing my dislike of, my frustration with, them. This poem originally appeared in Creative Wisconsin, Winter 2013-2014, under the title “In The Quiet Hours”.

miceIn The Night Time Hours
By Jane Yunker

We stalk the night time hours
Bony feet scuffling
Scratching
Sniffing with hungry noses
Searching
For crumbs left behind
By those who live upstairs
Hiding
When the sun rises
And they wake
Checking
Traps left to stop us
In the night time hours

 

 

Morning Coffee: The Star Spangled Banner

fallI’ve been thinking long and hard about this week’s blog. Morning Coffee is not a political blog. It never has been and it never will be. My beliefs are mine, yours are yours, and that’s the way it should be. That’s the beauty of living in this country. But I feel compelled, with all that’s been done and reported over the last year, and most particularly as of late, to remind everyone of the history behind the Star Spangled Banner. Most of you will remember at least part of this from grade school.

In September of 1814, Francis Scott Key, a 35 year old lawyer, witnessed from a distance the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry. Only weeks before the British had marched on Washington and burned the Capital, the Treasury, and the White House. They were now waging a sea battle against American soldiers on shore. For 25 hours Key watched from an American warship as British ships bombarded Fort McHenry with shells and rockets. From a distance of eight miles away, he was certain our men were outnumbered, outgunned, and would surely lose. But when the sun rose that final morning of September 15th he could see our flag still flying high over the fort and it so moved him that he penned the words we still sing today, putting them to the tune of a popular English song of the time.

The flag, which became known as the Star Spangled Banner, was 30×42 feet and had fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. It was sewn by Mary Young Pickersgill, a 29 year old widow and professional flag maker, along with her daughter, three nieces, a 13 year old indentured servant, and possibly Mary’s mother. It took 300 yards of English wool bunting and each cotton star measured two feet in diameter. She was paid $405.90. She was paid an additional $168.54 to make a smaller identical “storm” flag of 17×25 feet which hung over the fort during the battle. Over the years, pieces of the original flag were clipped and awarded to various individuals. What remains of the flag is on display in the National Museum of American History in Washington DC.

While the song was used by the Navy in 1889 and President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, it did not become our official national anthem until March 3, 1931, under President Herbert Hoover.

But when did we begin regularly singing it before sporting events? That would be WWI and game one of the 1918 World Series. The two teams playing for the pennant that year were the Boston Red Sox (including Babe Ruth) and the Chicago Cubs, with game one hosted by Chicago on September 5th. Both teams had won six of the last fifteen championship titles. Despite this the mood was somber and attendance was lower than usual. In the year and half since the US had entered the Great War more than 100,000 soldiers had been lost, a bomb had exploded in Chicago the day before killing four people and injuring dozens more, and the Spanish Flu epidemic was beginning to sweep the nation.

But when the US Navy band struck up the Star Spangled Banner during the seventh inning something in the atmosphere changed. Red Sox infielder Fred Thomas, a Navy man granted furlough in order to play in the series, immediately turned to face the flag and give it a military salute. Other players turned with hands over their hearts as the already standing crowd began to sing. When the song ended, the previously quiet crowd broke into thunderous applause and the game continued. The song would be played at every Series game after. The Red Sox gave out free tickets to wounded veterans and honored them during the playing of the song at the sixth and final game. (The Red Sox won that year, four games to two.)

Red Sox owner Harry Frazee made it a regular part of all Boston home games. Other baseball parks began playing the anthem on holidays and at special events. By the end of WWII, NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden ordered it played at all football games and it soon spread to other sports, made easier and grander by the use of large sound systems and post-war patriotism.

Controversy over the practice is nothing new. In 1954, Baltimore Orioles general manager Arthur Ehlers briefly stopped playing the anthem altogether, complaining that too many fans were disrespecting the anthem by talking and laughing while it was played. He quickly gave in under pressure, though, and reinstated it a short month later.

While there will always be those protesting on either side of the issue, no matter what side with which you align yourself, never forget that it’s because we live in such a great country that we are even allowed to have contradicting views, and allowed to voice them, without fear. For that right we must always remember and honor those who fought, especially those who died, that we might have this freedom.

Morning Coffee: Lesson Learned

fallI was told to always carry my business cards with me because you just never know. Last December I switched purses to go to a Christmas party. The new bag was much smaller and as I held the card case in my hand I thought to myself, “No one’s going to ask for a card at a Christmas party. It’s not that kind of party.” So I left it in my every day purse and, wouldn’t you know it, someone asked for my card. She chastised me, and rightly so, for not having some cards with me.

Flash forward to two weeks ago. I was packing for our vacation out on the coast and, again, when I changed purses I stood looking at that card case in my hand and debated whether or not to bring them. Remembering that embarrassing moment at the Christmas party I not only put the card case in the new purse, but I also added some of my bookmarks. Our plane was not long in the air when I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation from the row behind me. (Let’s face it; I was practically sitting in their laps. It’s not like I had to listen very hard.) A gentleman was asking the woman sitting next to him what she did for a living. Her answer, “I’m a publisher!” He was, of course, a writer on the side (isn’t everyone?) so I was able to spend the rest of our 3 hour flight listening to her views on the publishing industry today, what writers need to do to get noticed, and what she is personally looking for. Needless to say, by the time we landed I had one of my cards in my hand and introduced myself while we waited to deplane. She’s interested in reading a partial manuscript once my revisions are complete. A week later, while visiting with friends of my sister, he asked for a card and she happily accepted a bookmark. She’s now an official follower of this blog. (Welcome, Leslie!)

If I hadn’t been reminded of my Christmas party error in judgment, and if I hadn’t learned from it, I would have missed out on two more opportunities to get my name out there. Sometimes we think we know everything and get irritated when someone else tries to tell us how to handle our business. As I’ve said before, you don’t have to accept every piece of advice offered, but it is wise to always listen. You never know what you might learn that will come in handy one day.