Happy at Hartfield

We almost moved this month. We found a house that is the mirror image of the house we’ve been renting. It was the one. Well, I thought it was the one. Turns out it was overpriced, according to the appraiser. We couldn’t pay more. The seller didn’t want less, so we had to walk away.

“…that so long as her father's happiness…required Hartfield to continue her home, it should be his likewise.”
“…that so long as her father’s happiness…required Hartfield to continue her home, it should be his likewise.”

I had these plans for “my house.” I was there during the inspection, quietly assessing and picturing our things in each room – which is a tad discombobulating when you’re used to the flipped version of a floor plan. I began to be attached. It was going to be our home, after all.

And now it’s not.

Oddly, I’m not disappointed. Like Emma, when she realizes Frank Churchill was only pretending to be interested in her, I feel like I should be upset. But I’m not. I feel relief. I guess the house wasn’t meant for us. We’re happy where we are. Are you happy where you are?

2017 Battle of Catan

Settlers of Catan. Ever heard of it? Realm is always wanting to play Settlers. He wants more board game extensions, but I don’t know why. If he can’t get players for the original game, why would he think more of the same is a good idea?

Last night – being the beginning of a new year and all – the family acknowledged Realm’s delight in collecting wheat, brick, and ore. We all sat down to a rousing game. Some of us were more rousing than others, specifically Magne who decided his resource cards were all made of gold and wouldn’t trade. There was Dawn, who held the monopoly on wood for much of the game. Did I say monopoly? Why yes, I did. At some point mid-Catan-torture, I turned to Realm and said, “This game is Monopoly! It’s just monopoly re-packaged!”

This is a significant discovery because early in our marriage we had to ban Monopoly for a healthy relationship… with each other, with other couples, with our parents and siblings. Realm is terrifically competitive when Atlantic Avenue is on the line. He gets mean and calculating. Generally, we want our friends and family to visit again, but he’s not thinking about that when he’s bankrupting them with a sparkle in his eye. He’s not thinking of the short responses he is going to receive from me while I simmer over his quiet chuckle when finagling me out of my best property.

Yes, I think Catan brings out the worst in us.  Magne goes into power-hungry mode, and Pearl starts trading using her Batman voice. Okay, Pearl uses her Batman voice for everything lately. “Pass me the salt,” comes out much more threatening, and “the peanut butter cookies were delicious” takes on a Beetlejuice quality. Her Batman voice did not intimidate anyone out of their sheep, though. Pearl lost, Dawn won, and Realm began a campaign of assuring me it was a great game that I played well but for the slight infraction of trading in four brick for a wood when I should’ve offered him three for a trade instead.

Well, my good deed of playing Settlers is done for the year.

My Cup of Tea

We’re in that in-between Christmas and the 1st of January time. The year is fading into the past, the past is merging into the present, and the present is quickly dissolving into future. It’s my time to reflect on who I’ve been and consider who I am and who I will be.

My best thinking requires my pen and connecting to happy memories from my past. I choose a cuppa, and the scents and tastes become my guide.

times-of-refreshingThe aromatic spice of Bigelow’s Constant Comment conjures images of my mother, who sits across from me and smiles with that special look that tells me she’s enjoying herself. We’re having one of our gabfests. She lifts the tea bag with the black and bright orange tag from the dark water in the cup. Her fingertips gingerly cinch up the wet string to keep the dripping bag from swinging as she removes it. She brings the lip of the cup to her mouth, all the while her eyes on my face, fully engrossed in what I’m trying to relay. I’m her eldest child, and we’ve become dear friends in the years and experiences we’ve shared together. She knows me, and she likes what she sees. That acceptance resonates with me as I take my first cinnamon-y sip.

The soothing flavor of Celestial Seasoning’s Honey Vanilla Camomile wends me to those nightly escapades when I had three children 5 and under. The house is finally still. The clack of the keyboard is my only noisy companion as the thoughts roll out and line themselves up before me in an order that eludes me during the busy day. The exhaustion seeps away as I enter the world of my crafting. I stop and take up my cup. The warm, clear liquid swims across my tongue while I review my work in satisfaction.

Pouring Orange Pekoe over milk in my teacup transports me to a time of cake and miniature dishes. The girls pick out the plates and the cups for the tea party; they arrange the crackers and cheese. Little heels flop out of my shoes as they clatter to the dining room, dressed in their finest play gowns. Two pairs of bright eyes watch for cues as to who we will be today while I settle into my chair. Are we rich ladies? Are we maids? Are we robots? Are we lost children today? They reach for the sugar cubes, and their little voices chatter over the orchestral music in the living room — because there will be a ball after tea is over. Soon they will ask me to tell them a story, a new story they haven’t heard yet. One about princesses… and maybe horses that fly. Imagination and discovery fill me, along with a bubbly sense of expectation. Where will my story take us today? I swallow the milky black tea with a satisfied gulp, just as eager to be introduced to my character in some gallant adventure.

The last drink of the Twining’s Lady Grey is stronger than the first because I leave the bag in. I like the gathering strength behind the subtle rendition of Earl-Grey-gone-feminine. I remember being mildly surprised I liked it the first time I tried Lady Grey. Now it’s my favorite. I offer it when drinking tea with a good friend. Rarely do they pick the Lady Grey, and those who do don’t often choose it as their favorite. It doesn’t stand out. It isn’t mild, like chamomile; it isn’t a spice tea; it isn’t sweet, like rooibus. It isn’t fruity or a dessert-type tea. It’s rather a quiet, unassuming brew that doesn’t require but a few sips for the drinker to know whether it’s to be approved or set aside. I like that: an independent tea with definite virtues, but not the sort to please everyone. Looking into the empty cup, I notice the dark stain lines along the porcelain rim. Lady Grey has left its mark. And so have I.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Trips to the ‘Fridge

My family has a Christmas tradition of using men’s tube socks as stockings. Realm’s family does not, and he finds it disgusting. I do understand his disinclination to put candy into something that actual men’s gnarled feet can fit into, but I do not understand the virtue of using those awkward, red objects that look like baby elephant booties. I’ve assured him I have no intention of using already-worn socks. I’ve tried to cajole him by pointing out the socks can be washed and worn after the goodies are dumped out (including the apples and oranges, which look so funny in the tube socks). My utilitarian pleas hold no sway. He just can’t handle my tradition.

I, too, have trouble with certain traditions. For example, I cannot physically sit through those Christmas claymation movies. They were even dull when I watched them as a kid! There were no streaming videos then, so I had an excuse. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have to make a movie like that. Or to tell someone, “I spent this many hours moving a ball of clay two hundred centimeters today.” Now that’s a nightmare before Christmas.

The one tradition I hope will continue is the family picture card. I love getting family pictures! I put them on my refrigerator door and look at them all year round. They make me smile. And it doesn’t matter if Gerard has his eyes closed and darling Evangeline is picking her nose. So what if Lilly has her tongue hanging out? It’s natural. It’s real. It’s having loved ones waiting right there at the door when you reach for the milk.

rilla2016

For you, may the season be festive and fun;
And the New Year, may it be a happy one!

5 Books with Family Personality

People have personalities. Families do, too. Being part of a family affects people – what they do, what they say, how they act. During Thanksgiving this year, I listened in on various family conversations and found a prevailing train of thought. It began something like this:

“I’m thinking about going into…”

“I’ve been considering a new…”

“This coming year, I really want to focus on…”

These statements caught my ear because they said something about my family that I’d never noticed before. They are future-thinking, goal-oriented, action-bound statements. You don’t often hear these from a group of people who have shared a long past together. We like to revisit the past at family gatherings. We like to discuss the present, too, catching up on what’s been happening. But families who share their dreams for the future are special. Their talks are woven from threads of hope, trust, and encouragement. They have something to look forward to. They are not weighed down by something to keep hidden. Oh, they have their fights and trigger topics, but they enjoy divulging their plans because past experience has shown them they will be supported and loved regardless.

Sometimes families get in a communication rut. They forget why they are together and how much being together means. Church families can be the same way. Families can be inhibiting or they can wrap you up in the feeling that you are truly interesting, wanted, and needed. It’s amazing how quickly group personalities can change with the addition or subtraction of people. Just one person can stir up a habit or thought that will put the whole group onto another track.

Thinking about family personality had me considering the books I read. Do you know how few books I’ve read lately that even have a central family in the story? Kids books sometimes do, but the middle school and young adult tend toward the dysfunctional family dynamic. The adult books hardly attempt to draw from family unity at all. So, what opportunities do we readers have to see the family in action? I can think of five books that exhibit obvious family personality.

1. Life with Father by Clarence Day

2. Cheaper by the Dozen by Gilbreth and Carey.

3. Another book I would love to get my hands on is My Philadelphia Father by Biddle/Crichton. At least, I think I’d like it.

4. Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series.

5. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Everyone of these are based on real families. I haven’t come up with a fictional family yet. What about you? Can you think of a book that really exudes family personality (fictional or truth-based)?

 

Never Mind John Galt. Who is Beverley?

I’m reading The Warden by Anthony Trollope. As you know from previous hints, I’m very much delighted with 19th century writers’ methods. I crave the extensive introductions that grow the characters’ roots; it helps me understand them and empathize. I tend to linger over the insightful, sometimes humorous, comments from the author scattered throughout the story. Trollope satisfies my need to read about “real” personalities. And he doesn’t condemn his characters. No matter how proud, how cold or calculating, there is always a human element in these depictions of their nature.

He gives Eleanor, the warden’s daughter, a great deal of reflection when she takes up the campaign to save her father’s reputation from being ruined by the man she secretly loves. Trollope avers that hers is a disinterested act, yet he lets me see her through the eyes of one who knows the naivety and passion of youth. I smile at her expectation of gaining nothing, while I’m told she will end up with a pleasing confession from the man who returns her love. It’s gratifying to be told as a reader the writer’s decision not to use uninformed suspense to gain my interest in his tale. He woos by stroking a reader’s intellect and experience, while allowing his audience all the fervor of Eleanor’s determination to give up her most treasured wish for the sake of her father’s honor.

Trollope makes a vague reference while discussing Eleanor’s character. He notes she’s “not at all addicted to the Lydian school of romance: she by no means objected to her lover because he came in at the door under the name of Absolute, instead of pulling her out of a window under the name of Beverley…” Yes, Trollope does a wonderful job clarifying his meaning without explaining the allusion, but I want to know all the same. Who or what is Beverley? Being that my go-to tool for general questions is Google, I arrived at two quick guesses.

ma-74916Guess 1: Beverley is derived from the nun in Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion, Constance de Beverly, who ends up being punished for breaking her vows by being walled up in an abbey.

Contention: ‘Beverly’ is spelled differently in Marmion, but that isn’t such a big deal. Not having access to an online library search engine, writers transposed and omitted letters in names all the time. Yet, the being walled up part is concerning because it presents no window to be pulled out of.

Guess 2: If Absolute is not an actual name, perhaps Beverley isn’t either. Beverley was the Parliament seat Trollope ran for but didn’t win. Could this be a jab at the tactics used in Beverley, noting that things were done in a less-than-straightforward way?

Contention: Trollope’s experience with the Beverley seat happened in 1868. He published The Warden in 1855. No doubt, Trollope had a prescient talent when it came to character sketching, but I don’t think he was psychic.

I’m sure there’s a simple explanation; I just don’t know what it is. ‘Beverley’ could mean anything! (Which means I don’t know Beverley about Beverley.) Is he alluding to a well-known person or place? I’m sure it was well-known for Trollope’s time, but I’m not as certain of its popularity today. Yet, here I am, connecting with the mind of a writer long gone who tosses out allusions to all sorts of things literary, historical, and meaningful to his time. Sometimes I look them up and am rewarded for my labor. Sometimes the detective in me has reached my quota for the day. That mysterious reference will have to remain a mystery.

Do you ever think about 21st century references and how confusing they could be to the 23rd century reader? Meme-making images and viral videos draw attention for a short time, and then we forget about them. What might have taken years to pass into oblivion takes a matter of days now. At least that’s how it seems. What are some references you’ve come across lately? Did you have to look them up, or did you already know what they were talking about?

5 Pacing Problems that Break Your Story’s Stride

Pacing can be my best friend or my nemesis when I’m writing. It depends. Getting from one plot point to the next without losing momentum is always a struggle. I’ve lost my way and left my characters wandering around too many times. That’s because pacing is the last thing on my mind when I’m tapped into my hero’s personality, living through what he is going through. This is the reason I’ve had to cut out chunks of my manuscript to be replaced by a line like, “It took three days for Aaron to cajole his rusty Plymouth into Arizona to find Maurice.” No introspection. No dialogue. No car-broken-down-on-the-side-of-the-road details. I have a story to tell; the extraneous information doesn’t work.

I’m reading two self-published books that have ruined their story’s pace in the first third of the book. Both are sci-fi fantasy with very different tales to tell, yet they make the same mistake. I’d like to say it’s just a fluke – two stories with pacing problems – but it’s not. To those fiction-writers who are flunking the story-pacing test, I, the reader, need you to know five things,

I’m Not Your Therapist.

I like that your character has thoughts I can share. That’s what introspection is for: divulging information that is vital to the storyline or to my connection with your character. That’s it. When you include immaterial monologue, I, the reader, become the unwilling listener. Yet, you are not paying me to trudge through the many branches of your character’s runaway train of thought. I am the one that paid for your book! If I wanted that kind of treatment, I’d have picked up a memoir. Sift through your character’s thoughts and decide whether they help your reader or subject your reader to TMI.

I’m Not Your Man Friday.

When a character is flashing back to the past, then to the present, and back to another time in the past, you have probably mistaken me for a yo-yo. Why am I errand-running through your protagonist’s head? I have my own head to run around in, thanks.

It’s imperative that a character’s experiences move the story forward, which is why every writer should question all flashbacks. “Is this flashback absolutely necessary for the reader to read?” Once you’ve answered that question, go back through the flashback again, asking, “Is there another way to convey the information more concisely?”

I’m Not an Idiot.

If I’m reading about a doctor who’s talking with a patient, do I need a dialogue tag to tell me who says, “Your blood work came back fine”? Please don’t use overuse dialogue tags, (begged Rilla). If you had to read a tag after every sentence, wouldn’t you find that annoying? (asked Rilla). Unless your characters are named “Dick” and “Jane,” and I happen to be at an elementary reading level, your tagging is belittling. Use hints. Often. They are the weapons of mass instruction for a dialogue pro.

I’m Not Your Prisoner.

I’ve mentioned this before, so perhaps I’m being redundant about this redundancy: If your character says it and the description repeats it, it is wasting four seconds of my life. Those are four seconds I could have been checking my email. I could have been deleting another Groupon offer for a spectacular $20 Jujitaekwarate course “Introductory to Principles of Breathing for Martial Arts” (as much as I would like to see who actually shows up for those). If Justin says he’s going for a run, I believe him! I don’t need the narrative to report, “Justin put on his running shoes and stepped out the door for a brisk jog.” Changing the words doesn’t change that I’m chained to Justin’s every move.

Um, I’m Still Here.

Have you ever had a friend tell you an anecdote only for you to remind him/her, “I was there.” It’s pretty funny when that happens, but the friend is usually a little embarrassed because, you know, he/she ought to remember me, right? A character may need to explain something to a new character that I, the reader, already know. Or a character may need to discover what the narrative has already described. Worse than the friend who forgot I was around, a writer who repeats an explanation is showing a lack of consideration for the reader. It doesn’t matter how brief is it. It’s being repeated for the sake of whom? Your imaginary character? I’m real. It is never a bad thing to show your reader you remember he/she is there by skipping the rehash.

 

As a detail-oriented writer, I know what a pain pacing can be when I’m in the throes of a tale, but it’s really worth it. I latch hold of the story’s momentum, as writer or reader, when the pace is kept in check. I don’t have to work at finding the important points because the story doesn’t get sidetracked. The characters will know where they’re going and how to get there, so I know, too. When it comes to introspection, flashbacks, dialogue tags, descriptions, and explanations; be ready to chuck the immaterial, stay in the present, drop the labels, and skip the replays. And don’t forget the magic words: Move On.

There are plenty of pacing tips I’ve not included here. I need help with these, too. Have some helpful advice?