Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Season In Your Story

The last few days have blessed us with cool, crisp breezes and temperatures reminiscent of October. It's been glorious. It's no secret that I loathe summer. I'm pretty sure I have the opposite of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) as people generally understand it. More sunlight makes me depressed. For the majority of summer, I fight from falling into the black pit of despair. I'm listless, and a gray cloud hangs over me most of the time.

But when autumn comes, oh, I come alive. Pure, unadulterated joy infuses my heart. 

It's funny, then, that my love for autumn is often reflected in my stories. Stories set during the summer are harder for me to write (even if they do line up with the historical events) and my characters often gripe about the heat (what can I say? Every character does embody a few traits of the author!). Likewise, stories set in the autumn are not necessarily easier to write, but my characters enjoy the weather much more. Writing descriptions of autumn feel effortless, and the story itself feels more alive than do those set in different seasons.

But no matter what season it is in your story, for me, it almost becomes a character in itself . My last novel was set in the harsh Nebraska winter and it was a metaphor for what my main character endured. He fought against the prevailing winds of prejudice and bitterness, and it was fun to use the winter season to reflect those same attitudes. 

The novel I'm writing now, however, it set during autumn, and it's actually a lot easier for me to write since the season itself is nearly here and because it's my favorite of all four seasons. It will give me an opportunity to observe the changing weather, the leaves turning glorious shades of red and gold and brown, the scent of earth beginning to prepare
for its long, winter slumber, and use it in my story. It will give it an authenticity that might be lacking.

It's not always possible that your novel will be in the season you're currently experiencing in whatever part of the world you live in. But when those two do mesh, it's an opportunity to slow down and really take in everything that season has to offer to infuse your story with the sights, smells, and sounds occurring around you.

Weather is a big part of our world. It affects so many different things - how we dress, what we eat, our activities, how we feel. So, too, should it affect your character. 

How can you use weather in your current story? Share your ideas in the comments. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Battle Worth Fighting

The mind is a persnickety thing. I wish I understood more how the brain works, but I know that not even neuroscientists can fully understand the intricacies of it.

But sometimes, I really wish I could make my brain just behave already. (If you said that in Austin Powers' voice, you get 10 points!).

The plot for the novel I'm working has given me fits. I've deleted several chapters and started over - twice.

But then the angels sang and suddenly, there it was: the plot I'd been searching for. And as I began to draw up a basic outline, all these terrific scenes kept bombarding me and I got so darned excited about this novel again that I experienced a giddiness that is part and parcel of why I write.

Fast forward to the next day's writing session. I didn't even want to open my laptop. Tonight, I don't want to, either. Fear, or resistance (Steven Pressfield's The War of Art tackles this topic and is a book every writer and artist should read), keeps holding me back.

But why? Why do I have this unease in the pit of my soul when I think about actually writing that lovely plot I came up with? It's utterly bizarre to me. And I can only think that it boils down to one thing: that what I write will not be as good as what is in my head.

That's a pretty common fear for every artist. I have struggled with this in the past and I know I will continue to struggle with it in the future. What we create is usually not going to be as good as how we envision it in our heads. I'm sure it has something to do with those neurons and synapses and all the rest of that complicated yet perfect creation called our brain. What we envision in the mind that creates such vivid, incredible dreams somehow doesn't quite translate perfectly to the physical world of reality.

Every time this happens to me, I have to fight it. I have to give myself permission to create anyway. Let's face it: perfection doesn't exist. We can always change a word, delete a sentence, and tinker endlessly with a manuscript even after we've been through it sixty times or more. Giving ourselves permission not to be perfect is the key.

It's hard, which is why it is a continual battle.

But it is a battle worth fighting.

It's okay to whine and moan for a bit and say, "Why can't it be easy?" Relieve some of the pressure and let the air out of the balloon, so to speak. But then, you must get to work. Start writing, ignore that voice in your head that says you're doing it wrong, and immerse yourself in the world of your story.

Remember that perfection doesn't exist, but neither will your story if you don't write it.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Dreaming of a Life Not Yet Lived

I admit it. When I see people living abroad and embarking on an adventure, I'm slightly envious.

As a kid and a teenager, and heck, even into my early 20s, I always wanted to live abroad and experience new cultures. I even applied to go to graduate school at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Unfortunately, I didn't make it, but that didn't stop me from dreaming about it.

Life has a way of taking our plans and turning them completely around, and I think that can sometimes be a good thing. Shortly after I found out I wasn't accepted to Trinity, I met the love of my life, got married, and had a baby 9 months later. That baby, my daughter, is now 15 and I absolutely could not imagine life without her.

I also went to graduate school two years after she was born and earned my master's degree in history. My thesis led to me getting a contract for my book, Nebraska POW Camps, and has led to numerous speaking engagements and lots of other opportunities. In fact, I'm pretty happy with where I am in life. I've published lots of nonfiction, have an agent who is shopping around my historical novel, have a wonderful marriage (though it's not perfect - it's really HARD sometimes, but that's what marriage is!), a gorgeous daughter, a good job that has given me insight into the state where I grew up that I didn't have before, as well as teaching me about academic publishing, and the ability to be able to afford a few trips overseas here and there. My last trip to England was in in 2008 and I'm taking my daughter with me this time when we go to England in October.

Despite all of this, there's still that thirst for adventure. And if my health would cooperate more (if you're a new reader, I have rheumatoid arthritis) I tend to wonder what leaps of faith I could take here and now.

Picture I took of the Chesterfield Church. Derbyshire, England, 2008
Part of the problem, of course, is that my husband has already had those adventures. He lived in Germany for 8 years, and he's pretty content to stay right here in Nebraska. But me? Heck, I'd love to be able to live in the UK for a few years, travel all across Europe, visit my family in Italy, and see and experience new cultures. Whether my health would allow that is another question. But still...I'd really like to try!

Living the routine, dare I say "safe" life is ok most of the time. I've lived in the same state my entire life and it hasn't been bad. I go to the same job every day, live in a modest house, have great friends and family, and am quite content with how my writing career has progressed.

But that siren's call to adventure catches me every once in awhile and I wonder, "What if I just took a leap of faith? What if I decided to move overseas for a year, experience it, the good and the bad?"

My daughter is convinced she will live in London once she graduates from high school. And to tell you the truth, I wouldn't mind at all! Now if we can just convince hubby to join us...

Monday, August 03, 2015

What Are You Reading? August Edition

During these long, hot summer days, losing myself in a good book is a must. And now that Poldark is over (the season finale was last night and it was SO GOOD), I really need books to tide me over! Fortunately, there is a plethora of terrific historical fiction coming out soon (thanks for the heads up, Goodreads!) and I am hopeful that someday soon, my novel will be one of those available! 

I usually have more than one book going at a time, so here's what I'm reading now:

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton. I love Morton's writing - it's so lush and lyrical. She pulls you into the story and creates an incredible world.

A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous. This is the second time I've read this book, but it's for research. It's about a woman who was in Berlin during the last days of the Third Reich, and what she saw and endured when the Russians came. 

With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge. This is the definitive memoir of the Pacific War as told by Sledge. It's brutal and gripping. The HBO miniseries, The Pacific, took a lot of its content from this book. Again, this is for research, but it's a book that every World War 2 historian should read.

What are you reading?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

On Adversity

What's on my mind this Sunday evening?  A lot.

My little family has suffered quite a few setbacks this year. It hasn't been easy to weather these times, but one thing I do know: it has brought us closer and made us stronger. I take comfort in this Bible verse:

"We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed."--2 Corinthians 4:8-9

"Hard-pressed" to me means that I am being molded and shaped and compressed - in other words, I am being strengthened. And there is joy in that.

When I look back on my life at all the struggles I've been through, I can see how they have made me stronger, more resilient. They haven't made me harder; instead, they've made me more compassionate. And doesn't this world need more compassion?

Adversity is not a curse - it is a blessing. Without it, we would not be able to connect with those who are suffering and offer them hope and understanding. Without it, we would be weak and easily broken.

Our culture likes to think that we should be happy all the time. I reject this. Sometimes, the things that make us happy can actually destroy us. "Being happy" doesn't necessarily equal "good for us." We've lost that in the cultural narrative, I think, and it's dangerous. I may want to eat a slice of pie and a cookie and two pieces of cake every single day because it makes me happy - but I won't be happy when my health deteriorates because of it. That's a small example, of course, but useful nonetheless.

Instead, we should be open to experiencing all that the human condition has to offer, even if it means we go through rough times. How else can we relate to others? How else can we truly live? How else can we learn?

Embrace life, even the bad times, because yes, it does build character, and it does make you stronger and it does make you more resilient. And even better? You can help others. People who see you going through adversity, enduring it, not buckling under, can find inspiration from you. And yes, you are definitely allowed to "lose it" sometimes - I've had several times in my life when I've cried and wailed and wondered, why me, God? But the point is, you keep moving forward. Always forward.

One day at a time. One hour, one minute, one second.

Remember this:

Monday, July 20, 2015

Writing: Setting the Mood

I'm a person who loves to be cozy. During the autumn and winter months, I thrive on snuggling under blankets and wearing long sweaters. I love sipping hot cocoa and making thick, hearty soups.

I need to feel cozy when I write, too. It sets the mood, makes me feel comfortable, puts me in a safe, warm place where I can put my thoughts on the page without fear of reprisal. That's why I usually can't write in busy cafes or parks. Being around too many people makes my introvert nature scream.

On summer evenings, being cozy can be a bit tricky. Using a blanket is likely to give one a heatstroke (especially in the middle of July) and sipping cups of warm cocoa just makes me hotter than I am already (thanks, menopause!).

So what do I do? I light candles. I turn on my lamps (no harsh overhead lights for me!). I turn on my classical radio station. I don't need to worry about shutting off the television because in this room (my living room), there IS no t.v. - and that's on purpose. I wanted a room I could retreat to without the lure of the blaring box. And of course, my cats always join me. (I'm beginning to think cats are integral to the writing process! Or maybe that's just me).

Lulu and Slick - being cozy!
One feature of summer that I thoroughly enjoy is listening to the cicadas singing outside. They're singing right now as I type this, and it's soothing and calming, reminding me of those long summer days when I was a kid and had nothing better to do than read all day and enjoy the freedom from adult responsibility. Oh, if only to go back and have a summer like that again!

Combined, all of these these things help put me in the mood to write. And for a few hours or so, I can forget the outside world and immerse myself in my fictional world.

How do you set the mood for your writing time?

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Do you ever feel restless? I don't mean sitting around the house, bored, and wanting to do something but not knowing what. No, I mean restless with life. As in, let's change it up. Let's do something totally life-altering.

Move to a different town, a different state, a different country. Meet new people and experience new places. Do a job you've always wanted to do. Toss a ton of the stuff you've been carting around with you for years. Explore. Go out on a limb. Start over at the age of 40.

I'm feeling that way right now.

Except it's not that easy to just pick up and move to a new place and find a new job and all of the rest. There's responsibilities and family and reality to consider, not to mention the financial side of it all.

That's why I'm glad I'm headed to England in the fall. That will be my chance to get away for awhile, to experience and explore a country I love, and to assuage the restlessness in my soul.

Sometimes I wonder...if I won the lottery tomorrow, would I stay in the same town? Would I up and move to a foreign country or a different state, somewhere I always wanted to go? Or would I play it safe, stay here in Nebraska, where it's familiar?

I'd like to think I'd do something adventurous.

But the chances of me winning the lottery are virtually nonexistent (and I guess you actually have to buy a ticket to win, right?). And up and moving to a new state and getting a new job and all of the rest of it probably won't happen because my health stinks and I need good medical care, and my husband is quite content to stay put, and my daughter needs to finish school.

Which is why I write and why I read and why I watch miniseries like Poldark and Downton Abbey and Foyle's War.

Then again, we tend to think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. I remember the last time I went to England (in 2008). I was seriously considering moving there. At the time, my husband and I were separated (we since worked things out) and I thought it would be a fresh start for me. But once I got to England and traveled around, I realized how much I love living in America. My daughter is convinced she's going to live in the UK when she grows up, and honestly, I'd be fine with that - gives me an excuse to visit England as much as I want!

This house was near Chatsworth in Derbyshire. I love the blue door. 
But I'm happy with my life here. The restlessness gets to me once in awhile, and I must scratch the itch.

If I'm honest, though, I'd really liked to try living in another part of America. I've lived in Nebraska my entire life. So has all of my immediate family. What would it be like to live somewhere completely different? I think it would be an adventure. So I'm leaving that option open, though whether hubby will agree with me or not is another matter!

For now, though, I'll write my stories, take vacations when I can,
and count my blessings that I can do both.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Saved By "Poldark"

If you've been reading my blog, you'll know that I hate, loathe, and otherwise detest summer. I don't do well in the heat at. all. To make matters worse, I'm on a few new drugs for my rheumatoid arthritis and they cause sensitivity to the sun which means the sun has really turned into something of an enemy.

That means I'm housebound most of the time which usually doesn't bother me, but this year, it's been particularly irritating. Maybe that's because life has thrown me a whole slew of curveballs lately and I'm reeling from it all. Having these curveballs happen during the Most Awful Time of the Year (a.k.a. Summer) has made it worse.

But there is one thing that I have to look forward to each week that has kept me sane: Poldark.

I'm a sucker for stories set in eighteenth century Britain, and even more so if they include romance, adventure, incredibly good-looking actors, fantastic scenery, and gorgeous costumes.

Poldark has all of that and more.

When I found out about this television series, I was elated. What I didn't know was that it was a remake of a series done in the '70s that appeared on Masterpiece Theater here in the US. I was too young to watch that one, but thank goodness I'm around for this one!

Based on a series of novels by Winston Graham (the first was written in 1945) Poldark is set in 18th century Cornwall and centers on Ross Poldark, a soldier in the British Army who served in the American Revolution and was thought to be dead. When he returns home, his father has died, his home is in ruins, and his love is betrothed to his cousin. Ross struggles to get his mine back into working order, and he also falls in love with his kitchen maid, the high-spirited Demelza, a girl who isn't of the upper classes like Ross is, but is of mining stock herself. Drama! Conflict! Romance! This show has it all.

The first three episodes have aired here in the US and I've savored each and every one of them. Tonight is Episode 4 and I'm already glancing at the clock more than I should be (I'm trying to work on my novel) in eager anticipation of the appointed hour when Ross Poldark gallops onto my television screen.

And with Aidan Turner (he of The Hobbit movies fame) playing the lead role, honestly, why wouldn't you watch?

And I have to ask: why are the British so darned good at making costume dramas? Seriously. We did the Civil War series North and South in the '80s (I loved it, but looking back on it now, it was a bit, erm, over-the-top), but we can't consistently create good television dramas like the Brits can.

But as long as they keep producing shows that are this good, I'm ok with that.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Digging in the Archives

Because my 40th birthday is Monday, I spontaneously decided to make a four-day weekend out of it and took today off. (I'd already decided to take Monday off because if you're turning 40 on a Monday, you definitely should NOT have to work!).

So what did I decide to do today? Hit the state archives, of course! I'm so fortunate that I live in the city where our state historical archives are housed. I also have access to our university's vast collection of resources, too, so it's quite a blessing.

I'm working on research for my next novel. It's set in 1946, and one part of it deals with veterans issues - THE political hot button issue of the time. There was a pivotal election held in 1946, and being a World War II veteran was a definite advantage for candidates. I loved going through all the newspapers and newsletters of the various veterans organizations. It was (and still is today) a huge community with lots of different aspects. There were the Marine Moms, the War Dads, the Auxiliary of the America Legion, and on and on.

Interestingly enough, there was infighting between the vets organizations, as well. Did you know that the American Legion, who spearheaded the fight to get the G.I. Bill passed, had opposition from the V.F.W (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and the D.A.V. (Disabled American Veterans) over the bill? I didn't. Another historical tidbit buried within the past and largely forgotten.

I think one of the most interesting items I turned up today was that General Eisenhower came to the Nebraska State Fair in Lincoln on September 1, 1946. The Nebraska Veterans Group sponsored him. Pretty cool.

My only complaint from today? I wish I had a microfilm machine and I could just take those rolls of microfilm home with me so I could spend hours and hours pouring through everything. :)

Yes, I'm a history geek - and proud of it!

Thursday, June 04, 2015

When the Milk Spills, Pour Another Glass

Can I whine for a minute?

Last month, before the big work events hit, I was feeling great. I walked in the park every night, had energy, and felt pretty good. When I say "pretty good" I don't mean I was free from aches and pains. When you have rheumatoid arthritis, that's never really the case. But "pretty good" for me meant being able to exercise, clean, write, spend time with my family, and not take any sick days from work.

Well, that was last month. The last few weeks haven't been good. The headaches are back, my energy levels are low, and I've been hit with another flare of RA.

I get really, really tired of this cycle. It wears on a person to taste of how it feels to have good health for awhile. And I'll think, "Wow, this is awesome. I can do things! I wake up in the morning and don't feel like I've been hit by a bulldozer! I can exercise and take my daughter shopping and hang out with my husband golly, I feel good!" 

And then comes the bad health and those good days feel like they are a distant memory. Stuck in bed, watching old movies, sleeping, sleeping some more, calculating how much sick time I have left and if I can take the day off, giving friends and families excuses as to why I can't go to something because I feel awful (and feeling awful for not being able to go), and the depression and "why am I not tough enough?" gets to me.

I still haven't figured out how to accept that this is my new "normal." I keep thinking I need to be able to do the things I used to do before I got sick. Heck, I should be able to lose weight and exercise even when I'm in the middle of a flare and I can barely move, right? Ha! (Yes, my thought pattern goes there).

Alright. There is my whine.

Now for some cheese.


Here's what I do know. That I am strong. I am capable of handling this. I can choose to look at this in a different way, even if I have to remind myself every.single.time that this is not my fault, that this is how my life is, that I need to be kind to myself, that I need to stop crying about the spilled milk already and just myself pour another glass.

And no matter how many times the milk spills, I still need to keep pouring that milk, still need to keep going, one day at a time.

What gets me through? My faith. My family. Chocolate. Friends. My writing. My study of WW2 history. Classic movies. My cats. So, so many good, wonderful things in my life.

And I keep learning, keep growing, keep getting stronger through it all. That's the most important part, I think.

So remember: when the milk spills, pour yourself another glass.