Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why (Certain) Stuff Is Good

Ahh, the life of a historian.

An incredibly small sampling of my stuff.
When I was working on my thesis in graduate school, I visited the Fort Robinson museum to look at the files. The curator had already done an extensive amount of research, and basically, all I had to do was make copies of the documents I needed. I made lots and lots and lots of copies. If I saw something of interest, even if I didn't know if I'd actually use it, I certainly couldn't leave it behind.

As the curator said that day, "Historians like lots and lots of stuff. Whoever has the most stuff, wins."

Or has an office full to exploding with books and papers and file cabinets!

As a historian and writer, I get double the pleasure, double the paperwork. I've got books stacked away in nooks and corners because I just might need it someday. I have information scribbled on little scraps of paper. I gobble up websites and online archives like a starving man on Thanksgiving.

I like to have lots of stuff, I guess. But when you have all that stuff, there comes a time you have to dig through it and find the gold - i.e. the information you'll actually use.

I have a lot of projects going on right now, which makes me happy not only because I'm busy, but because I'm researching and accumulating a bunch of, well, stuff! Books, old magazine articles, newspaper articles, and online archives have been my best friends lately. And thank goodness for interlibrary loan! I'd be lost without it.

As writers, we have to do our research, some of us more than others. But as a historian and a writer of historical fiction, I have to do a lot of research. That's ok. I enjoy it, though sometimes I have to tear myself away from it just to write.

Are you like me? Do you like to get lots of stuff for your writing projects?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

"I remember the young soldier well, he screamed, he was just out of control, and he screamed, and there was another soldier next to him who consoled him, and embraced him. That was a moving moment for me, to see that compassion in combat. And these are the things a person feels when he's in proximity to death-- his buddy, that next human being, that person in the foxhole is the most important person in your life. "
Howard Brodie sketched this picture in the midst of combat during World War II. He was a combat artist, trying to portray war as it really was - not the sanitized version, not the version Hollywood most often wanted you to see. He, and other combat artists, showed war in all its gruesome reality. We need to see the true face of war. It is not glamorous. It is a sacrifice of the body, mind, and soul.

Today, remember those who served and died for their country. Remember those we have lost.

Remember them. Always.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Must Read

Published novelist Barbara O'Neal has an amazing, inspiring, and incredibly thoughtful post over at Writer Unboxed. In it, she discusses what it's really like to be a professional author, bumps and all.

I am finding that the longer I'm in this writing gig, the more realistic I become as to just what this writing life entails. It's not a rosy picture in many ways. There's a lot of hard work involved, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of strength and courage needed to weather it all.

But there is a rosy side to it - we are writing.

And at the end of the day, that is enough.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Something A Little Different

As many of you know, I've struggled with my health for a number of years. I've documented it on this blog and have found some wonderful support from others. That support is one of the many reasons I love blogging!

A few months ago, I was scheduled to undergo surgery again to help with my "female" problems. It wasn't a hysterectomy, but rather a "temporary" fix to my massively messed up cycles. While sitting in the doctor's office and making all the appointments for the surgery, I kept thinking, "This doesn't feel right."

Not only did I not want to go under the knife again like I did a little over a year ago (I had a reaction to the anesthesia and felt like I couldn't breathe when I woke up), but I also didn't like the thought of a temporary fix.

So after praying about it and thinking long and hard, I made a decision to cancel the surgery and try something else.

That something else is acupuncture.

Now I'm a girl that doesn't particularly like needles, but with all my health problems over the years, I've gotten used to the pointy things. In fact, back in 2001, I went and visited an acupuncturist after I wasn't getting any results with traditional medicine. You know what? It worked. Why I haven't gone back since then is a mystery to me.

I've exhausted my medical options - short of surgery - for my health right now, and I'm giving this a fair shot. It worked last time, so I'm feeling positive that it will work this time, too.

I don't pretend to understand it, and I don't believe in the "yin and yang" stuff, but I do know that it has proven results. They even use acupuncture on animals. Whatever it does, it works.

Yesterday I had my first appointment. My doctor is also a medical doctor and an acupuncturist with more than 20 years experience, so I felt like I was in good hands. When he put the needles in, I barely felt it. The needles themselves are not hard like sewing needles or the needles used to draw blood. They're bendy and very light. He put them in my legs, my abdomen, on top of my head, and even on my ears. After 25 minutes of relaxing, they took them out and I went back to work.

They told me I might have a great night's sleep - or I might be restless. Thankfully, it was the first - I slept completely through the night, and I haven't done that in a long time.

I'll be going for treatment once a week for awhile, and I'm anxious to see what happens. I'll keep you updated.

Have you ever had acupuncture? Ever wanted to try it?

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Importance of Place

I attended a free writer's workshop on Saturday as part of the Nebraska Book Festival. Timothy Schaffert, published novelist, native Nebraskan, and creative writing lecturer at UNL, led the workshop. He's also been picked as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers and is a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

I've discovered that place plays quite an important role in my fiction, and I was eager to learn how to further develop its significance. Since all four of Schaffert's novels are set in Nebraska, he is the perfect guy to tell you how to make place matter.

Here are a few key insights from the workshop:

1) Make your place serve the story. You want setting details to help you not only see it, but see it through the eyes of your characters.

2) Your relationship with the reader is affected by how you represent place. Focus on the details the character would notice.

3) Be intensively selective. Eliminate facts that are known about a place and find facts that are useful.

4) It all comes down to character. How does the place shape the character?

And finally, a huge piece of advice that applies to just about everything we write, whether it's fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc.:

Don't take the reader out of the moment.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Embracing Your Inner Black Sheep

I think I can safely say I am a black sheep.

I tend to make my own drum beat, so to speak, and have for as long as I can remember. When other kids in my high school were out drinking and partying, I was at home, writing. When other girls were decorating their rooms with posters of Def Leppard or Johnny Depp, my room was full of romantic Victorian paintings and lacy curtains. I eschewed sports in high school for the spring play. I was the only girl drummer in band (see? I really DID make my own drum beat...).  My parents weren't the enemy, and I actually liked my two brothers. In fact, I loved hanging out with my family, and would even stay weekends at my grandma and grandpa's place just because I wanted to.

Trends? Never cared for 'em. Oh, there was that time I begged my mom for a pair of Pepe jeans (remember those?), but only wore them once or twice. I really didn't care about labels. Appearances didn't (and still don't) matter that much. Don't get me wrong - I take care of myself. But I don't have to wear designer clothes, take two hours to fix my hair and make-up, and freak out if I break a nail. It doesn't bother me a bit to go to work with *gasp* no make-up. There's absolutely nothing wrong with those who do these things. I'm just not one of them.

Being the black sheep, or what I like to call doing your own thing, has always been my modus operandi. Luckily, I found a man who operates the same way I do, and it looks like our daughter is following in our footsteps.

Another non-conformist! (my daughter)
My daughter doesn't watch cable t.v. (we don't even have it). She loves Hogan's Heroes and As Time Goes By (a British comedy starring Judi Dench). She still plays with her toys, reads constantly, draws, plays on her tire swing, and is incredibly witty. She could care less about being "popular", doesn't really know what the latest fad is, and is most comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt. She isn't in sports or any other extracurricular activities (except for her art lessons) outside of school. This is her choice, and I respect it. I've asked her if she wanted to do other activities and she has no desire to. She is just fine socially, has very close friends, and is a happy, healthy child. And to tell you the truth, I am ok with her choosing to spend her time in other ways. We're not running around every other night to some activity or other.

As a family, we spend a lot of time together as much as possible. We take occasional road trips, love to go to the library and the bookstore, ride our bikes together, take walks, or just hang out and watch a movie.

My husband and I are introverts. We are not into crowds and being involved in lots of extracurricular activities. We truly enjoy each other's company. We're not the type to entertain, and we don't have a wide circle of friends. We don't golf, we don't belong to any exclusive clubs, and we really enjoy hanging out at home. We have our small circle of friends and that's ok by us.

I don't think any of us - my daughter, my husband, or I - ever planned to intentionally be this way. I didn't wake up one morning and think, I'm going to be different than everybody else. Being a bit of a non-conformist is just the way I'm wired. Now this is not to say that I don't conform to certain things because I do.

What do I do instead of "following the crowd"?
 
I write. I take long walks. I watch old movies. I read history books. I play Littlest Pet Shop with my daughter. I go to antique stores. I visit the Veterans Memorial Garden here in town and cry. I wear comfy clothes and t-shirts. I put my hair in a ponytail and don't wear make-up all weekend. I listen to Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman and Glen Miller, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. I also listen to Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi (this began in junior high!). I collect vintage magazines. I don't drive a fancy car, nor do I want to. I don't live in a fancy house, just a cute little Cape Cod with plenty of squirrels, rabbits, and birds to keep me company. I like old things, and old people! I'm more comfortable talking to a gal like Mary Lou or my own grandmother, both in their 80s, than I do someone my own age.
 
I like to think that being a black sheep gives me my own unique view of the world, one that I strive to bring to my writing. I don't write blockbuster novels, and I don't ever really care if I end up on the New York Times bestseller list. I write the stories --I-- want to write and --I-- want to read. Otherwise, why spend my time writing at all?
 
In fact, I would say that my characters are usually black sheep, too. They, like me, have their own way of doing things, their own way of looking at the world, and it often gets them into trouble. But also like me, my characters aren't about to give up who they are just for the sake of conformity.
 
Let's face it. If we're the creative type, we all have a little bit of black sheep in us. We're all willing to do something different, something daring or new, something that goes against the grain. And thank goodness. The world would be a dull, empty place if we all thought the same, wrote the same, took the same pictures, painted the same pictures.

Are you embracing your inner black sheep? Are you truly being the person you want to be? Are you letting the true you shine through in your creative work, whether it be painting or photography or writing?
 
If not, it's time to let that black sheep out to play!
 
To thine own self be true. Let this be your modus operandi.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dreaming of Vacation

Winston Churchill's Home
It's been over two years since I last went on a "proper" vacation. I went to England by myself and had a fabulous time (except for that whole food poisoning thing...).

The England trip was the last time I was on a plane, and as summer starts creeping closer, I am getting the itch to travel again.

Only the money just isn't there. Big sigh...

There is a possibility of a trip to New Orleans to visit the National World War II Museum this winter with my two brothers and my dad, but that isn't for awhile, and isn't even confirmed yet.

So I've been daydreaming of where I might like to go. Some of my top picks include:

1) Northern Italy to visit my relatives
2) Germany
3) England (I could go here every year and be happy!)
4) Colonial Williamsburg
5) Washington, D.C.

If you could take a vacation right now, where would you go? And if you already have vacation plans, where are you headed?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Random Thoughts...


1) Writing a novel is hard. If anyone says, "Oh, I think I'll write a novel someday" and they have never written anything before, please flick their ear. Hard.

2) I had to switch the air conditioner off and turn on the heater Friday. Crazy stupid Nebraska weather!

3) Mary Lou is a kick. She called me this weekend and told me she'd had a fire in her kitchen (a malfunctioning stove burner was the culprit). Since she also had to put out a fire her first night in wartime Washington D.C., I said, "Mary Lou, what is it with you and fires?" She laughed. I'm just glad she wasn't hurt. I wish I lived next door to her. I would hang out at her place all the time. Seriously.

4) Living a block from Dairy Queen is not a good idea. Enough said.

5) Vivid, weird, scary dreams left me in a terrible funk yesterday that I had a very hard time shaking. I dislike those types of dreams, and sadly, I have them all too often.

6) Foyle's War is one of the best series ever. It's set in England during WW2 and features a detective who solves crimes in the midst of war. The writing is absolutely brilliant and I want Michael Kitchen, who plays Detective Foyle, to be my next door neighbor, too.

7) My daughter has two weeks of elementary school left - in the fall, it's on to middle school. I am not ready.

8) My husband, the tough, manly Army veteran, went and got himself a kitty. He wanted one that would snuggle on his chest and cuddle. This just goes to show that he is all gooey on the inside. His new pet is an adorable gray fluffball who does, indeed, cuddle with him and lay on his chest. I have gone into several diabetic comas in the last few days after witnessing all this cuteness.

9) During Blogger's meltdown last week, lots of comments on my last post disappeared. This displeases me.

10) My friend asked me if I'd be interested in doing a fitness boot camp with her. I dislike pain, so I am thinking not. But then again, I'd like to be rid of my jelly belly...

11) Is it wrong that I don't care when my cat sleeps on my head?

12) The novel I abandoned prior to working on my current novel is calling my name again. I read through some of it last night and while it needs a huge plot overhaul (which I've already worked out), I can't wait to dive back into it. I'm thinking I may work on it when I'm done with the current WIP.

13) Weekends are too short.

14) Is it really already the middle of May? Honestly. Where has this year gone?

And finally:

15) Chocolate is still the best food on Earth.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Will It Blend?"*

I just finished writing an article on Mary Lou, an 86-year-old woman who worked in Washington D.C. during World War II. It was an incredible challenge since that type of writing is a bit foreign to me. I am much more comfortable with scholarly writing, copywriting (i.e. marketing), and fiction-writing.

For this article, I combined the interview I did with Mary Lou with other sources to create a well-rounded picture of Washington D.C. through her eyes. While there were some rough spots in the beginning, I read through other articles to get a feel for the writing style, especially articles from magazines I'm targeting. Eventually, it all came down to just writing that crappy first draft and then editing from there. Sound familiar?

Editing was where the real work came into play. And I have to say, I enjoyed every minute of it. I usually do. Editing, for me, is better than writing. The words are already down on the page and I at least have something to work with.

Why did I write an article on this gal? One, she's an amazing woman and her story deserves to be told. And two, I have a MA in history that I am not using. What better way to use it then to combine my love of writing with my love of history? Thus, I'm embarking on a new venture - writing articles specifically targeted to history magazines.

I've already created a list of article ideas and just the thought of researching them fills me with a giddiness I can't describe. Sure, there's going to be a lot of hard work involved, rejections from editors, and other pitfalls.

Well, I've already experienced all of that from my fiction writing.

This makes me think I've hit upon the perfect blend:  history writing and fiction writing. Not only will working on both allow me to pursue both my passions, but it will also strengthen my writing muscles. I'll also add elements of fiction-writing to my nonfiction, and vice-versa.

Win-win! (Though not Charlie Sheen's kind of winning...haha).

What elements in your life do you blend?

*Bonus points if you recognize where this marketing slogan comes from...

Monday, May 09, 2011

Stay Alive

I'm reading Dwight Swain's magnificent Techniques of the Selling Writer again. I've thumbed through it a few times and read a few chapters, but never really dug into the meat of it.

In his last chapter, entitled "Preparation, Planning, Production", he offers advice on how to stay productive throughout your writing career. One tip in particular really struck me:

Stay alive.

Swain writes, "Life is a writer's raw material. Successful writers immerse themselves in it. To that end, you read. You travel. You shop. You loaf on street corners. You go to ball games. You visit friends. You attend parties. You work in church or civic club or Boy Scout troop. In other words, you contact people. All kind of people, without regard to age or sex or social stratum; the wider the range, the better. No aspect of your work is more important."

I admit, I am a hermit. There are some weekends when I don't go anywhere and just stay home. I do this because I am gone every day for work, and I love being in my cute little house.

But doing this too often isn't good. There is simply too much life to experience. But I love how Swain defines "staying alive." You don't have to take a trip to Europe or to the East coast to live life. You can sit in the mall and people watch. You can take a walk in part of your neighborhood you've never been before. You can attend a local author's book reading. You can take an afternoon to drive down a country road you've never been on before. You can read a book that isn't in your comfort zone.

This is staying alive. This is absorbing the things that make the world go 'round. This is what we use as fodder for our writing.

While I stayed home for most of this last weekend (except for a quick trip to a local crafts store where I scored a ton of Snoopy stuff!), I still managed to "stay alive." I went for a walk. I took my daughter for an ice cream treat. I had a water fight with my daughter and my hubby. I sat in my backyard and listened to the birds. I read. I did a lot of writing. I peeked into a robin's nest and saw four perfect blue eggs.

All well and good and necessary. But I need to do more outside of my home. Next weekend, I am attending a writing workshop, and I'm looking forward to the conversation and fellowship with other writers. There's a great exhibit at a local museum I plan to attend in June. So I've got a few things lined up.

Again, it's about balance, the one thing we strive so hard to achieve in life. But in this case, this balance will also help me write better. Seeing the world, in all its different facets, even from our own backyard, is imperative to making sure we can connect with our readers. Our writing will be much richer when we actively "stay alive."


Friday, May 06, 2011

Today, I Want to Play Hooky...

Verb1.play hooky - play truant from work or school


Today, with the sun shining and the gorgeous warm temperatures, is a day to play hooky, take my laptop outside at my picnic table, and write.

Instead, I'm stuck inside at my desk at the day job.

Oh well. It's Friday. That is enough.

If you could play hooky today, what would you do?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

How Bugs Bunny Can Make You A Better Writer (Yes, Really)

Those were the days. Instead of sleeping in late on Saturday mornings as a child (that would come later...), I would get up early just to watch cartoons. I loved the Smurfs (though now I don't know why), Garfield and Friends, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and a host of others.

But my favorite had to be the Bugs Bunny & Looney Tunes cartoons.

I loved the banter between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. I loved the ridiculous Yosemite Sam riding on a dragon or a camel and trying to get that "varmint" Bugs Bunny. I loved Sylvester's incessant attempts to capture Tweety Bird, even though Tweety wouldn't be much of a meal. I loved the Tasmanian Devil and his drool problem, Elmer Fudd's constant attempts to hunt down Bugs, Porky Pig's charming stuttering, and Pepe le Pew's desperate quest to romance a very unwilling cat. And I especially loved Wile E. Coyote, "Super Genius", and his quest to finally, finally capture that darn Road Runner. Even more, I loved all his inventions. Nowadays, I ask myself, why didn't he just use all that money he spent on his inventions to buy himself a good meal?

But it wasn't about roasting up the Road Runner and eating him...not really. It was all about the chase.

The last few evenings, my hubby, daughter, and I have been watching the Bugs Bunny cartoons on DVD.  I'm catching things that I never noticed before, and it makes me realize that the masterminds behind these cartoons created them for children and adults alike. Is this why they've stood the test of time and why they continue to be popular for generation after generation?

That's part of it. But I think the biggest appeal is the characters themselves. Each one is unique and has their own distinctive traits. Who doesn't think of Bugs Bunny without hearing his trademark, "What's up, doc?"? What about Tweety Bird's, "I taut I taw a Puddy Tat!", Sylvester's "Sufferin' succotash!", and Foghorn Leghorn's distinct Southern accent?

This, then, is what we must do with our own characters. We must make them distinct, and set apart from the crowd. They don't have to be as crazy as the Looney Tunes characters, but they must have something that makes them unique in their world. By crafting our characters in this way, they will have staying power. Look at the Looney Tunes. They have been part of our collective consciousness for years and years. The first one was in 1930! And with the exception of how they look, those characters haven't changed much (have you ever seen the early versions of Bugs Bunny? He wasn't as handsome as he is today!). Despite the new plots and technological advances in the cartoon-making world, they still maintain their defining characteristics.

In literature, the same holds true. Here are just a few examples: Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler; Sherlock Holmes; David Copperfield; James Bond; Mr. Darcy; and the list goes on and on. Current novels are also cultivating these same types of stand-out characters. I would be willing to bet money that Lisbeth Salander from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series will be a character that will live for generations to come.

You now have an excuse to watch cartoons. It's called research.  

You can thank me later. ;-)

Monday, May 02, 2011

My New Office

Finally, I have a room to myself.

Well, sort of.

Half of the entire upstairs floor of our Cape Cod house is dedicated to my office and the other half is for my daughter and her toys. It's ok. I don't mind sharing. The room is big enough for both of us. She's writing a book right now and since she's using my laptop, we have to share that, too!

Without further ado, here are some pictures of my new office:

I purchased the flag from a World War II veteran. He served on a Navy destroyer in both the European and Pacific theaters.

Lovely, lovely books!

My 1940s Royal typewriter. And yes, it works!
  
My reading corner.
 



I had to add a Hogan's Heroes poster, of course! The map above the desk to the left is a replica of a battle map of Normandy before the D-Day invasion.
To say I love this place is an understatement. It's become my haven. I crank up my Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw and no longer have to worry about neighbors downstairs! If I need a break from writing, I snuggle up on my comfy chair and read for awhile. Since I'm surrounded by World War II posters and pictures, I'm constantly reminded of why it is that I write during this time period.

In short, my office inspires me. Isn't that the way it should be? :-)

New Digs

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