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Ride a Horse to Imbue Your Writing with Truth

If you write historical fiction that’s based in a time-frame prior to the invention of the car (and most is), here’s a tip: learn to ride a horse. It was virtually the only mode of transportation for most of our characters and the experience of riding long distances and/or the relationship that one had with a horse can add to your historical fiction. The good news is that I’ve found a place where one can learn from a woman who loves historical fiction almost as much as she loves her horses. It’s called Wind In Your Hair Stables in Wanship UT and it’s a joy.

Wanship is just 20 minutes from Park City UT and 45 minutes from Salt Lake City, an easy drive through lovely hilly country. The stables and grounds are artfully rustic and pristine, built with rough-hewn wood. The owner, Sueanne, has a marvelous,  Read More 

The Little Ice Age as Setting for A Slender Tether

Few people are aware that Europe suffered through a Little Ice Age during the Middle Ages, a time of unprecedented cold which I was drawn to include in my new book, A Slender Tether, because of its current relevance: the inexplicable weather, severe storms, and global warming that are in the news on a weekly basis these days. It’s my suggestion that these had a profound effect not just on the lifestyles of Europeans, but also their sense of consistency and predictability.

“Speak the words “ice age,” and the mind turns to Cro-Magnon mammoth hunters on windswept European plains devoid of trees,” suggests Brian Fagan, author of The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850, on which much of my research is based. “But the Little Ice Age was far from a deep freeze. Think instead of  Read More 

Chatting with Friends in #MyWritingProcess Blog Hop

I love a good conversation among friends and that’s how #MyWritingProcess blog tour is shaping up. Many thanks to Nathan ‘Burgoine for his candid and insightful entry, for tagging me, and for being a kind, gracious, witty and talented friend. Did I mention talented? Very talented!

What am I working on?
After immersing myself in the Middle Ages in both The Mandrake Broom and A Slender Tether, I’ve most recently come back to the present (as much as any of us writers are ever actually in the physical moment – and when is that? At work?) And I’ve been trying to come up with another word for ‘work’ when it applies to writing so I don’t feel as if I’m constantly at work. Playing? Sounds silly. Crafting? Sounds like Play-do. You see my quandry…and how easily I’m distracted which is a difficult trait for a writer who has 100,000 words to stick into some semblance of order. Alright, back to the question. My new piece is a series of stories set over 40 years around a small lake in Northern Michigan, an eerie collection, I think. Love, detrayal, an explosion, family dynamics, a soldier gone mad, the exquisite (to me) landscape of pines and loons. At this point it’s called The Disappearing Andersons of Loon Lake, though my editors/publishers are mostly (and thankfully) responsible for the titles of my books. I’ve given each of the stories a different date in time because I realized that because of the profound impact of the cell phone, some of the plot lines couldn’t be modern. And though I’m told that story collections don’t sell (to which I point out that the Nobel Prize just went to a short story writer) I persevere.

And then, of course, as I shipped the collection out to my private editor, the Muse delivered  Read More 

“A Most Expensive Book” in the Library Battle

The news behind the upcoming auctioning of one of the first public library books printed in the US isn’t the price it’s going to fetch. The important issue, to me, is the shrinking public access to libraries and resources. Privatization is a genuine threat to the public access that is at the heart of our definition of the ‘written record.’ Deep in this story is the report that libraries are selling off volumes which leaves great work out of the public record and thereby lost to time. And shrinking budgets which sounds to me as if there’s less money for acquisition as well. The written record of human existence cannot be left into the hands of people with money, or companies who could easily profit from currently non-profit ventures such as Google’s current endeavor. Like the roads and the military, the written record of global life must be available to all.

The American Library Association itself has issued a task force report (alas, no link is provided in the NYTimes article) called “Keep Public Libraries Public.” I’d love to see their plan of action.
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A Feral Parents Blog: “Empty Nest Blues”

The woman wept into her cell phone as she pushed her shopping cart recently in a big-box discount store. “It’s like a death,” she wailed. “I’m glad for them that they’re in college but it’s grief like they died.” I wanted to wend through the aisles of the store in pursuit and tell her “Yes!! It feels terrible, and then a little better.” Living in the Empty Nest brings a sharp and surprising pain. Every mother I know who is currently saying goodbye to an 18 year is stunned with how intense – and unexpected – the pain is. We were not prepared for this, not warned (as almost all else in parenting, I suppose). I wanted to tell the weeping woman in the store:

It’s a Death: The Empty Nest does bring up feelings of death. It’s the end of an era and there are a million reminders that it’s over: the refrigerator that is now nearly barren, the car stays clean, the DVR contains only  Read More 

The Art of Being Still as a Writer

The Art of Being Still, by Silas House

"We writers must learn how to become still in our heads, to achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened. The wonderful nonfiction writer Joyce Dyer refers to this as seeing like an animal… We writers must become multitaskers who can be still in our heads while also driving safely to work, while waiting to be called “next” at the D.M.V., while riding the subway or doing the grocery shopping or walking the dogs or cooking supper or mowing our lawns.
We are a people who are forever moving, who  Read More 

Lessons from AWP 2014

The first day of #AWP2014 ended brilliantly with Annie Proulx’s keynote, a witty, acerbic and delightful look at the history of publishing since the 1940s, the advances and retreats, the blindness of many to the changes until they were ‘cattle in the feedlot.’ With her hair sticking out in odd directions, a woman far older than I expected who rarely looked up from her script to make eye contact, she charmed the audience utterly and completely, nonetheless.

The panel discussions on craft were standing room only, all the aisles packed with people sitting on the floor, as opposed to the sessions on marketing or publishing. As this is my first AWP, I would say this is predominantly a writer’s conference, or maybe that they’ve underestimated how many writers vs. professors/publishers there are in attendance.

Interesting panel on “How Many Readers is Enough” with outstanding insights by Read More 

Writing on Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators by Christopher de Hamel

I’m always researching new scenes and stories from the Middle Ages. I’m particularly keen on characters who are tradespeople, so I’m looking into information on the length of time it takes to do things in the Middle Ages (re-calibrating your plot is key here.) Today’s investigation is from:

Writing on Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators by Christopher de Hamel.
(italics in the following are mine)
“There is evidence of monastic manuscript-making projects extending over years, and doubtless it was often very much a part-time occupation. An eleventh-century (1000AD) monastic scribe, in no great haste, might achieve three or four moderate-sized books a year. A professional scribe, however, working for a commercial bookshop in the fifteenth century (1400s), was paid by the job and not by the hour. There are manuscripts in which the scribe announces at the end that the work was started and finished
in a matter of days. The Renaissance scribe Giovanni Marco Cinico, who mostly worked in Naples 1458-98, boasted that he wrote full-length manuscripts in fifty-two or fifty-three hours, and he was nicknamed Velox, speedy. Perhaps a Book of Hours might usually be written out within a week, and the miniatures might well be executed at the rate of two or three a day. A professional artisan who knows his job and repeats it throughout a lifetime can often work extremely fast.” (pg. 7)

Here’s a great scene:

“The parchmenter is scraping last week’s skins while this week’s supply is soaking in vats in the shed. Fresh quills are drying out while the scribe is writing with earlier stock. The illuminator during a lunch break checks on the infusions of next week’s pigments in the pantry. Certain devices for speeding the process further were evolved during the centuries, culminating at last in the invention of printing around 1450.” Pg. 7

Another great scene/vivid detail:

“Sometimes too one can see tree-like vein marks on parchment, the result of blood in the skin when the animal died (this ought to be more common in pelts from hunted animals, like deer, than from those killed and bled in a butcher’s shop, but it is difficult to know how to set about proving it.) If the flaws were too rough and pronounced and yet the scribe decided to use the sheet nonetheless, a ring may have been drawn around the blemish and the scribe’s subsequent writing parts like the Red Sea to flow around it. On big pages one can sometimes detect denser ridges where the backbone transected the skin and perhaps on one edge one may observe (aided perhaps by imagination) the scalloped curve which was the neck of the animal.” (pg. 15)

“Until the twelfth century, most manuscripts were ruled in drypoint, that is, with blind lines scored with a stylus or back of the knife…Oblong pieces of lead have been excavated scribed with names like ROGERII and KAROLI SCRIPTORIS in the 13th or 14th century capitals, and are probably plummet markers for just such purposes as ruling manuscripts.” Pg. 23

“No facsimile can ever give the tactile experience of handling and running one’s fingers across soft leaves of medieval parchment. Even the smell is quite different from that of paper, and in fact varies enormously with manuscripts from one country to another. Within moderation, a bit of handling is said to be good for manuscripts because parchment, like leather, responds well to movement and can lose suppleness if untouched for centuries.” Pg. 13 (Love that one could tell where a book came from by its smell!)
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Hard-Wired to Crave Variety

(first posted 12/11/12)
Love it when science (especially when delivered by the New York Times) delivers a reason behind a craving, in this case my empty-nester’s new craving to pick up my purse and keys, throw on a black coat, and get out into the San Francisco night, to see young people out on dates, to go where the crowd is, to wander Valencia St. with no destination, out for the thrill of the dark…

“It’s cruel but true: We’re inclined – psychologically and physiologically – to take positive experiences for granted. ..Because…we are biologically hard-wired to crave variety. Variety and novelty affect the brain in much the same way that drugs do – that is, they trigger activity that involves the neurotransmitter dopamine, as do pharmacological highs…Surprise is a potent force. When something novel occurs, we tend to pay attention, to appreciate the experience or circumstance, and to remember it. We are less likely to take our marriage for granted when it continues to deliver strong emotional reactions in us…Surprise is apparently more satisfying than stability.”
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Ambition as a Theme in A Slender Tether

Fiction is a great form, but so is the essay, and I find I want to explain the theme of ambition and its reversal -- disillusionment -- which underlies my story of Christine de Pizan, “The Raptor Among Blue-Birds” in my new book, A Slender Tether.

We owe our pioneers a great debt, and Christine de Pizan is one of our earliest and most eloquent pioneers. Genuine people, however, are multi-dimensional and the faceted sides of the human psyche give us an opportunity to examine the truth behind each side of the story, in this case the addictive and conflicted nature of ambition.

For example, all pioneers waffle between the inculcated lessons of the status quo (giving rise to self-loathing) and their determined, brilliant will to move forward. Pioneers know their position as an out-cast, as Christine does when she acknowledges that she is a raptor (ferocious and potentially deadly) amid a court of decorative and powerless blue-bird women. She sometimes feels reptilian in her alienation.

Her mother had her own form of ambition. It’s historical fact that  Read More 
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