Saturday, April 30, 2005

Judging Fiction

I volunteered to judge an RWA-sponsored contest again this year. I enjoy doing it, even though it is time-consuming. But I love to be able to help new authors hone their skills. The best part is being able to offer encouragement for them to continue writing. Writing is such a personal thing that you can easily dash someone's dreams with a cruel word.

There are two benefits to judging contests. 1) I get to encourage writers to keep at it. 2) I can analyze the craft of writing - plot, characterization, POV, GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) and this is a MAJOR help with my own writing. It is oftentimes easier for us to critique other people's manuscripts than our own. Actually, it's MUCH easier to look at someone else's and find the holes than it is when I stare at my own WIP for days on end.

My husband gave me a few hours of peace and quiet today on this chilly Saturday to sit and read through a couple of the contest entries. I found it fascinating to see how some people write and equally fascinating that my creativity kicked in to offer suggestions to enhance characters or plots. It makes me eager to get back to my own work. I can feel myself start to get a bit grumpy and crabby when I stray too far from my fiction writing. That only tells me that I need to write. Much like exercise, I feel better after I've put in my 30 minutes (or more).

Friday, April 29, 2005

Passions

I veer between my two passions - fiction writing and history. Ideally, a compromise can be made in writing historical fiction, correct? But it doesn't quite satisfy the cravings I have towards the history profession.

For example, I would love to live and work at Colonial Williamsburg. Or some Revolutionary War or Civil War battlefield. But then I wonder...when would I have time for my fiction writing? Will I be able to do both passions, just not at the same time?

I can get very excited when I research. But I do not specialize in one certain field because I love so many! I can really get into Colonial America, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Regency England, the French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, and then zip all the way up to the twentieth century with my fascination of World War II and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I sometimes feel as though I have "too many" research interests and I skitter around to each one without putting in a solid amount of time on one in particular. I don't know what the cure for this problem is, other than to write a book in every single time period that I'm interested in...and if I think about it...well, I pretty much have already (although they're not finished).

Right now, the inspirational romance that takes place in World War II is one at the top of my list. This is helped out by the fact that I'm also writing a non-fiction book on the German POW camp at Fort Robinson. So I can merge the two.

But then I start to long for Regency England and an age where no telephones and radio existed. Which is why I'm working on Robert's story.

But then there's the lure of the American Revolution...it fascinates me. When I took a course on this in graduate school, I was lucky enough to read a lot of primary texts. And the story ideas I came up with were seemingly endless!

So you can see my problem. Lots of time periods, not enough time to explore them all.

For now, I think I'll focus on two time periods - WWII and Regency England. The next project might be my Northern Ireland romance, one I started just out of undergraduate school, and one which I shelved after nearly completing it because I didn't feel I could emotionally write any more of it. But that time may be approaching soon.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Kindergarten Blues

My co-worker has a song called "Kindergarten Blues" that he co-wrote with his brother. I'm thinking about it today since I have to take my daughter for her pre-screening for kindergarten. But I think the one having the blues is me. :-)

I pulled out her baby book last night to get her birth certificate and found her first birthday photos. Since her birthday is in May, I'm having to contend with the fact that my baby is going to be five years old. I started crying and my husband looked at me in concern and then smiled. He understands. He has two boys from a previous marriage and has already been through the kindergarten route with them. But I have a feeling it will be much harder with my daughter.

When I walk into her daycare to pick her up after work, I am just amazed at how big she's grown. There is a little boy she plays with - probably a year younger - and they always give each other a hug when she leaves. She is already a nurturing little girl and has aspirations to be a teacher someday.

But it is what she says that blow me away sometimes. The other day, we were driving home and she looked up at the cloudy skies.

"Mom," she said, "the sky is cloudy. The sun can't breathe!"

How precious is that? :-)

She's come up with some great stuff and I always make sure I write it down. I hope she'll enjoy reading about her childhood when she's a teenager or a new mother.

I tried to enjoy her babyhood and toddler hood as much as I could because I knew the saying - "Enjoy it while you can because they grow up fast." It is so true. I remember holding her in my arms and singing silly songs as we rocked, her big baby blue eyes watching me in rapture. I am so fortunate that I was able to stay home with her up until this year. With the exception of while I was in class for graduate school, she hasn't been in daycare until now. I'm so thankful for the bond we created during those years and I will forever remember how wonderful it was to watch her crawl, talk, and walk.

The steps she takes now will be just as precious to me. Her first report card in school, her first slumber party, her first talking on the phone all night with her friends...I'm looking forward to it all.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

For the Love of History

I managed to finish my work early today and took the afternoon off. One of my articles is going to be published in (hopefully) the summer edition of Nebraska History Magazine. I really wish I could work at the archives, but there is simply no extra money for the job that I had as a work-study. After talking to my former boss today (the editor of the magazine), I learned that the position of someone who just retired would not be filled. There goes one more historian's job.

That really upset me. I mulled it over on the way home, wondering how to get more funding for state historical societies. But short of winning the lottery, I really don't have any answers. Since their budget is tied into the state budget, it's not a very good situation since the state budget is pretty darn bad. Our university had to cut jobs and programs (the Museum Studies program was one of them) and it has been absolutely awful to witness.

It bothers me that history is so often relegated to the trash bin when it comes to financing. There is always something more important to fund or invest in. Yet why should it be so? Isn't our history worth investing in? Historians are probably some of the most underpaid people in America, although don't quote me on that. I'm pretty sure that historians do not retire millionaires, though. What a shame. One of my favorite quotes is this (somewhat paraphrased): Those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it.

Let's face it. We make history every day. Yeseterday's headlines are now part of the past. In a single day, history is made. A single moment, a single hour, something significant can and does happen. Then why do we ignore the absolute necessity of the historian to preserve this history? Well, it's not ignored, but many of us certainly do not put much importance in it. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of the latter people are the ones who hold the power.

I can't begin to tell you how many people have told me how boring their high school history classes were. "Too many dates," they say. "The textbooks were dry and boring." Invariably, people might have a love for history but the dryness of the teaching methods or the textbook completely turned them off. I would love to change that. I doubt if I could teach at the high school level because I simply don't have the patience, but I would love to be able to write a textbook that did not put someone to sleep in the classroom.

I suppose I'm not expressing myself very well on this particular issue, largely because I feel drained and exhausted, ready to climb into bed even though it's only 6:30 p.m. But I feel so passionate about this subject that it's imperative I put down some of my thoughts now. I hope to return to them at a different time, one where I'm a bit more clear-headed.

My visit to the state archives this afternoon was a joy, as always. I can't tell you what it's like to be able to thumb through old photos, letters, newspapers, and personal affects. One of the most moving moments I have experienced in my historical research was when I held a Soldbuch (a bit like a passport for all German soldiers with their personal info and army info) in my hand from a German POW here in America. The infamous swastika was stamped in black on the cover. My mind flashed back to the past, and I realized that at many points, the book I was holding had been held by numerous German soldiers, Nazi and otherwise. How can you describe such an awe-inspiring moment, to literally hold a piece of history in your hands?

Yet the budget cuts invariably hit historical societies first. I wonder why people do not deem history "important" enough to save? I once talked to an archives employee about her job and she said if you're in it for the money, forget it. But you know, that's okay. If you're in it because you love history and you're passionate about preserving it, then money doesn't matter a whole lot. Unfortunately, all those expenses in life DO matter and a decent paycheck certainly doesn't hurt.

I guess I'm rambling.

Maybe I'll turn all these rambling thoughts into some kind of editorial in the future. Any little thing I can do to help save our history is worth a bit of my time.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Subconscious Success

Apparently the subconscious is feeling very creative lately. I came up with a great plot idea for Robert, and with Rene's help( http://alittlecheesewiththatwhine.blogspot.com )I think it's going to be terrific. She is so good at brainstorming.

But I find that this is where my left brain tries to take control of my right. I have a very hard time "letting go" of the historical element and trying to come up with something fresh and original (yes, there it is again! What editors want! And please, where are those editors who are willing to try something new? Stand up and be counted! And give me your email address!).

Now I'm researching the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, something I became introduced to after reading Patricia Veryan's "Golden Chronicles" series. She is an absolute master of intrigue, action, characterization, and suspsense. It doesn't matter that there are no steamy sex scenes in her novel - the romance is still there and I, for one, have cried after reading some of them.

I'm excited about the direction my novel is taking and if I could just quit yawning for five minutes, I might be able to get a bit of writing done.

I'm planning on heading to a writer's conference in Iowa in June. Very excited about it simply because I need a VACATION. And since my 30th birthday is in June, what better way to celebrate?

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Plotting

My subconscious mind must really be hard at work. As I tried to fall asleep last night, I kept thinking of Robert's story. And I couldn't stop. When I woke up this morning, bam - right back at it.

I consider this a good thing. The creative well finally seems to have refilled and the story ideas coursing through my brain are exciting and fresh - exactly what editors want, no? LOL

Went to see "Sahara" last night. Good flick. Of course, it doesn't help that Matthew McConaughey is truly divine both in the role of Dirk Pitt (very hard shoes to fill) and in physical form. Clive Cussler was understandably nervous (so I've heard) of wanting Hollywood to try and film another one of his novels. The last, "Raise the Titanic" was a dismal failure. But this one is quite good. Hubby was pleased. He is quite the Clive Cussler fan and was very interested to see who would be playing the characters in the book. I think he thought it was well done, overall.

I'm going to dig through all my thesis materials today in preparation for my forthcoming project - writing a book on the POW camp at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. I'm also going to look for some photos for my upcoming published thesis. Exciting stuff. I do want to also spend some time researching a few things of the Napoleonic Wars. I've got an idea muddling through my brain and I want to check some stuff out. I'm very lucky in that I have quite a nice collection of research books in lots of different time periods. Makes it nice when you can just go browse your own library instead of heading downtown to the city library (although I do love to browse the shelves at the local library).

And yes! Organization! Perhaps I can get that done today. I cleaned the house and did laundry (even dusted!) yesterday in preparation for the babysitter last night and because, well, it just needed to be done. But housework does tend to cut into one's writing time. I'll admit, I'll never have a spotless house - at least not while the kids are at home. Maybe when they're off to college. To my mind, it's much better to let them have their fun and not constantly worry about toys out in the living room or stepping on stuffed animals. There will be a time when they're grown up and in college where I will miss those days.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Words Behind the Motivation

Last night I attended a lecture at my university. My advisor kindly had emailed me a notice of the lecture a few weeks ago, and I was very glad I was able to attend (thank you to my husband for watching the kids!). Prof. Hayes from Northwestern University spoke on German big business and their role in the Holocaust. Wow. What an eye-opener.

For my MA thesis in History, I wrote about the German POW Camp at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, during World War II. Lots of people still do not know that America housed tens of thousands of German and Italian POWs during the War. Even less well known is the denazification program the American government implemented to try and erase Nazism from the German soldiers' minds.

I stumbled into this particular field. I had hoped to focus on the eighteenth century for my graduate work, but it turns out that the particular field I was interested in wasn't represented by anyone in my department. After taking a class from one of my professors on Nazi Germany, I became absolutely enthralled. I had been interested in it before, but I think the fact that my great-uncles were involved in World War II and my father and two brothers were also WWII history buffs just jump-started my interest even more.

Combing through primary documents for my thesis was wonderful. I even had the chance to read a diary from a German officer - thankfully translated into English - that offered so much insight into life at the POW camp that I wanted to use everything. Of course, one cannot do that.

At any rate, I'm now excited to return to the world of the POW and I hope to record this tiny slice of history for future generations. It's an overlooked subject for many people and I hope to change that.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Organizing Again

In the past eight months, I've gone through so many different transitions that my writing has suffered from a lack of organization. The only way to understand it is to take you through it. Ready?

All righty.

October, 2004.

Deep in thesis hell. No job. Trying to research, write, and take care of the kids at the same time.

November, 2004

Preliminary copy of thesis finished. Take oral exams. Nerves shot. Pass oral exams. Prepare final copy of thesis and run all over campus delivering paperwork to proper people.

December, 2004

Graduate with MA in History a week before Christmas. Have big family celebration. Hurray!

January, 2005

Look for job. REALLY look for a job. Everywhere. Anywhere. Starting to suffocate in house. Realize student loan payments will be due soon. Blow-up with local writing chapter. Suddenly propelled into vice-president/director of membership/publicity coordinator position. Still no job. Growing frustrated!

February, 2005

Hired! Full-time job. Full-time WRITING job. Adult conversation!
Agent requests full manuscript of historical novel, POSSESSION. Panic. Need to make editing changes.

March, 2005

Finish edits, send off manuscript. Work on articles for World War II encylopedia. Finish by deadline, despite computer glitch.

April, 2005
And here we are!

It's now time to organize. How I will do this remains to be seen. But I've got to have a plan in order to get good, quality writing time in each and every day - or very close to.

Off I go.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Pain in All the Wrong Places

I'm not exactly sure what I did, but my tailbone hurts something awful. Not exactly something you want to talk about! I guess sitting in a chair and writing all day isn't that good for you. Yes, it's my full-time job and I earn a paycheck from it, but it's not very easy on the body. I hope someday to make my fiction writing a full-time job, but that's sometime in the future.

I'm judging a writing contest and it's a great exercise in the writing craft. It's much easier to critique someone else's work rather than your own. As authors, it is terribly difficult to let someone else take a look at our work, even after we've become seasoned veterans. Since I work at a publishing company, I can tell that some of our authors are very leery of others criticizing their work, even if it is to improve the grammar. But writing is often a gut-wrenching ordeal.

I also worked on Robert's plot more last evening. Oh, Robert. Isn't it strange how a character can be so strong that he stays with you throughout the years? Robert has been with me through the numerous changes of my life - college, jobs, dating, marriage, children...he obviously has a very good story to tell. I hope to tell it just right.

I worry about how I will feel when I wake up tomorrow morning. Sore muscles only grow worse when they do not move for hours on end. I did exercise last night, but tonight I had no desire to do anything more than lounge on the couch after work. But sometimes, that is exactly what is needed.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Meet Mr. Pidela

Let me introduce you to Robert Michael Pidela. He's 32, dark brown hair, bright, laughing eyes, and a smile to knock you for a loop. I've known him since I was in the seventh grade and he hasn't aged a single day in that time. He's fought pirates and traitors, chased women, drank enough alcohol to be considered an alcoholic, and has shown fierce loyalty towards his best friends.

Robert is an old and dear friend. And he exists entirely in my imagination.

But not for long.

Robert came to me out of the depths of my imagination in the seventh grade. We had been given an assignment to write a short story. I was appalled - a short story? Impossible. I had far greater talent than that. So I launched into a high seas romance complete with pirates (one was aptly named Gold Tooth), crashing waves, tumultuous passion, and of course, a happy ending. My teacher was quite impressed with my efforts. (I still have the note she wrote to me about that manuscript.) Jeremy Pidela and Jussie Lesueur found true love in the midst of treachery. But the story didn't end there. As soon as they reached dry land (and as soon as I could get back to my computer after school let out at the end of the day), Jeremy and Jussie worked their way up the English coast dodging murderers and cutthroats. And Robert was born.

The younger brother of Jeremy, Robert was a rascal in every sense of the word. He loved to gamble, drink, ride fast horses, flirt with women, brawl...anything and everything a young Regency buck was supposed to do. And Robert did it well. So well, in fact, that he has remained with me throughout the years. For over fifteen years, Robert has patiently awaited the day for me to tell his story. I came close with the last novel. He is the hero's best friend. I learned more about Robert in writing that story (which is now sitting on an agent's desk) and I finally decided it was time that Robert have his own story.

Robert has his problems. He is an alcoholic, but likes to bury his misery in the bottle and in humor. Those who know him well worry for his sanity and his health, but none can persuade him to give up his reckless lifestyle. Since Robert has always been like this, from the moment he jumped onto the page of my Dad's old MS-DOS computer, I had to find out why.

We all have skeletons in our past, secrets that haunt us for years, clawing and tearing at our insides. Some of us eventually give up the fight and confront them head on. Some of us bury them in gallons of cheap whiskey. And some choose to allow no one but themselves to suffer the burden of the past.

Such is Robert's fate.

People talk about the "book of your heart." Robert is the character of my heart and I can't wait to tell his story. I think he will find it has been well worth the fifteen year wait.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Monday Blues

I'm not a Monday person. I never have been. I like them better now that I have started working full-time, but today, my daughter is sick and so I had to stay home and work. I feel so helpless when she is sick and I would much rather it was me than her. I'm very thankful that I have a job that allows me to work at home when I need to.

I wrote on my inspirational novel Saturday and it felt great. I have determined to forge ahead! My husband stands behind my decision and encourages me to go with it. It's great to have that kind of support. I'm going to really need it when (notice I said when, not if!) I sell and start becoming a full-time novelist. Ideally, I'd love to have a nice, big office overlooking a lake full of swans. Right now, my office is buried downstairs in the freezer room. I really shouldn't complain because it's nice and cool in the summer. I've got all my books around me (and the water heater, as well!) and it's my own, personal space. Still, I fantasize about my dream office. Someday...

The rain in Nebraska is different than other places. We just had a downpour that lasted not more than a minute. After the torrent, it sprinkled for a bit, and then quit. It's just bizarre. The famous saying for Nebraska is if you don't like the weather, wait ten minutes and it will change. On some days, that is the complete truth.

I finished planting my flower garden. I dug up most of the rocks and the perennials, but I know there will still be some I missed. That's okay - at least the front yard looks nice now. We're about finished with our fence in the back. I can't wait and neither can the dogs.

I also worked on character interviews Saturday. The main character of my next historical novel has been with me since the 7th grade. It's taken this long for me to write his story, but I think it needed to take this long. He's got a lot of issues I need to deal with and I'm looking forward to giving him his well-deserved happy ending.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

A Truth Universally Acknowledged...

It is a truth universally acknowledged in the world of writing that if you have a good idea for a story, chances are, someone else has the same one.

I discovered that another author has beaten me to the punch in one of my manuscripts - an inspirational romance set in the last days of World War II at a German POW camp in Nebraska. I had wanted to write a romance set here because I wrote on this POW camp for my MA thesis. I figured that after doing all that research and knowing the camp so well, it would be the perfect setting for a story. One of my writing buddies (Rene!) gave me the grain of an idea for the story and I ran with it. I still remember sitting at the computer and typing and typing...the ideas just continued to flow until pretty soon, I had written the entire plot. It was truly amazing and I believe God was working through me. That's why I'm determined, even though someone else already has a book set in this particular place, that I'm going to still write my own version. I think there's room enough in this world for two.

I will admit that I came home from work rather depressed yesterday after finding all of this out. My husband was wonderfully supportive and told me that he didn't see it as a problem, but rather as a challenge - the challenge to write MY unique story.

It's the weekend and I'm looking to work on the plot of my historical some more and I think I shall also continue working on the inspirational manuscript. I'm already four chapters into it. My critique partners encourage me to keep working on it because they really love the story. And isn't that the whole goal? To have our stories touch other people's lives? No matter how small our impact, it is still felt.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Inspiration

I wonder at how my brain works sometimes. Just before bed last night, inspiration hit me for my current plot problem. Of course, the pen that I grabbed ran out of ink and I was frantically trying to find another one before the thought escaped me completely. Hubby thought he needed to know what was going on, so as I'm scribbling, he's jabbering. The writer in me wanted to scream for him to be quiet. The wife in me just smiled and nodded because I know he understands my weird writing moments. He better since I promised to buy him a Harley once I sell my first manuscript. Here's hoping I get a good deal! LOL

My dog ran off again last night. You can see him on my webpage here (he's the black dog): http://mypeoplepc.com/members/literaryace/reflectionsofromance/id8.html
I think God has a special place in his heart for my Charlie Brown because he's run off before. It's not that I intend for it to happen. Instead, one of the kids will let him out and not tell me and then promptly forget he's outside. He heads off to visit someone - I'm thinking it's a little old lady who he goes and checks on. I have suspicions that it is such a scenario because one time during a particularly freezing winter night, I let him out to go to the bathroom and within a minute, he'd taken off. I was frantic with worry for two hours when he came traipsing back home and he wasn't cold at all. Another time he came home with a large loaf of French bread. I like to think he takes time out of his schedule to go make someone smile. My husband found him sitting on the front porch this morning and he immediately came into the house and laid on the floor by my bed (tail between his legs, of course. He knows when he's in trouble!). I'm just thankful he was okay. But I think it would make a great short story some day.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Digging Up Perennials

I made the rather interesting decision to take out the perennials in my front flower bed. I have never seen a root system like these plants. To me, it looks like an alien life-form complete with six-inch tentacles and bulbous eyes. At any rate, with all the rain we received in the last few days, I was able to dig them up rather easily last night. Of course, my daughter constantly asked me if I'd found any worms yet. I did manage to find a rather large nightcrawler and she was thrilled.

On the writing front, I'm still working on my plot. In fact, while getting my hands quite muddy, I tried to think of new and fresh things to do with my latest historical. That's what agents/editors/publishers are looking for these days, or at least that's what they're telling us. There are no new plots - only fresh ways to tell them. So off I go to the drawing board. Oddly, this has a strange way of freezing my creative process. I'm confident I'll figure out a way to work through it.

I'm thinking this blog might be the answer. After all, for those curious to see exactly how a writer works, this would be the perfect venue.

My inspirational novel is still in the works, but I haven't looked at it in a few days. It's rather hard to shift from the home front of World War II to 1811 Regency England. But it also allows me to explore my different "voices." I have a great writing friend who says she has to "translate" her voice when she writes historicals. I find that very interesting and very true. It is a bit easier to write the more contemporary stories for me because the voice isn't all that different from everyday speech. When working on historicals, however, that is part of the appeal - to dive into a completely different time. I thoroughly enjoy it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A Foggy Day in London Town

I don't live in London, but I might as well be with the weather. We've had four straight days of rain, clouds, and fog. Great writing time if I didn't have to work. I've always been rather fond of cloudy, rainy days, even growing up on the farm. There was something about looking out over a field of rain-drenched crops and sinking your feet into the moist dirt. I always loved looking at the horizon, something I miss living in the city. Peace is often harder to find in the midst of concrete and cars, loud music and louder people.

While I was in England nearly ten years ago (which reminds me: need to start saving for a plane ticket again), I felt at home. Rainy days, cool breezes, lush, green fields dotted with sheep - all cliches, perhaps, but all images of comfort for me. Peaceful bliss. I most often set my stories in England and when I watch the BBCAmerica comedies on my local PBS station, I experience a fierce longing to return. If I believe in past lives, I might wonder if I wasn't born in England, the lady of some vast estate. Of course, after watching Regency House on PBS, I'm quite sure I would miss the modern amenities we all enjoy - especially the bathroom and shower.

Still, I wouldn't mind pretending for a while.

New Digs

I've got a new home on the web - stop by if you get a chance! www.melissamarsh.net