Friday, August 21, 2009

Passing friends

When I checked the mail, there was a letter from an old friend, Louise Lowry, or so I thought. The letter was from Elizabeth, Louise's daughter, to tell me that Louise recently died. She sent me a copy of the death notice. It still hurts.

Ten years ago, I spent a week with Varan and Louise, having met Louise on the Prodigy forums on UFOs and history. We became friends and I wrote several articles for her website, World of the Strange, articles that were syndicated worldwide after being translated into several different languages.

It was during that visit ten years ago that I conceived and wrote the first draft of Past Imperfect after Louise challenged me. The deal was that I would write my novel and when I finished she would write her book on UFOs and unexplained phenomena. I finished the novel at the end of October, just one month after I visited Louise and sent it to her. She never wrote her book and I didn't know because we were in and out of touch.

Much of my novel was inspired by that visit to Louise and Varan. The research that I did on creating a new life was done at the public library a few blocks from Louise's house. The restaurant where Adrian proposes to Diana is the restaurant where Louise and Varan took me for dinner one night. The hotel where Adrian and Logan meet for the first time is near Louise's house. I went from Louise and Varan's up to the university where the local girl I found in the newspaper archives died on the winding, tree-lined road that parallels the Pennsylvania section of the Erie Canal. I stood at the spot where the girl died. I talked to the teachers and principle at the schools the girl attended and she became the new incarnation of Lynn Sanderson who became Diana Palmer.

Louise is an integral part of Past Imperfect and I owe her a debt for her generosity and for challenging me to write the story. Louise was an amazing woman and I will miss her. When you read Past Imperfect, you will find glimpses of Louise and her kindness and generosity and my memories of that visit ten years ago in between the lines and on many of the pages.

It is through the lens of friendship and experience that writers find inspiration. Louise was my inspiration on this novel and a simple acknowledgment is not enough to thank her for all she has done and for all she was.

Louise Lowry, rest in peace. I will always remember you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tarot: Beggar's victory

When I pulled the cards a few days ago, I didn't see their meaning right away. They didn't seem to have any connection, but everything is connected in one way or another and the connections aren't always easy to discern.

A storm blows up in the Arctic and snow swirls along deadly, cutting winds, scouring the surface of the tundra until all is laid bare and clean. It's a local occurrence that doesn't reach the nearest Alaskan town or freeze the icy waters. It roars its wintry defiance and dies down, leaving a pristine wilderness of frozen waves and sculpted in the snowy plain.

Meanwhile, in continental America, the summer sun blisters freshly laid tar and macadam bubbles lightly in the streets and on parking lots, burning anyone who braves the scorched surface barefoot. The dog days are here. The relentless sun beams down from a brazen sky and clouds drifting over the mountain's edge grow wispy and disappear.

A faint breeze ruffles sweat-soaked curls lying heavy on bronzed and reddened shoulders alike, and every face turns to the breeze, breathing in the promise of cool fall days to come before it is gone like the clouds. Another breeze tinged with Arctic breath blusters and the timid clouds mass as the Arctic storm, now long quiet, makes its furious onslaught felt, pushing its frozen presence felt. The temperature drops and the darkening clouds rumble and spark, loosing a torrent of rain and hail that batter the bubbling macadam and cooling the fresh tar into a sea of shining black now pock-marked by hail. Sweat cools and chills. Bronzed and reddened shoulders hunch. Everyone dreams of smoky, spicy fall and golden aspens where the autumn winds whistle in harmony with crackling fires and hot chocolate.


The first card is the Ace of Wands, a fiery brand upheld in human hands. Every Ace is a gift from the universe, but the molding of this gift is in human hands. The spark of creativity is given to mankind to temper and shape. This Ace is the kindest and most generous gift of all. It is the beginning of life, inspiration and passion. This gift requires an exercise of will and to achieve the goal and courage to see it through. It is an opportunity, but, like all opportunities, it means nothing without active pursuit. Don't wait. take action. Use the fire of inspiration to see the potential of pure, raw, unbridled creation and unleash what lies inside with confidence, being grateful for what is offered.

Ace of Wands

Crippling poverty and fear are obvious in the Five of Pentacles as the ragged woman clutches her tired and hungry child to her breast, her other hand outstretched in supplication. She needs help but is ashamed to ask. She feels guilty for getting squandering what she has and does not realize that she is making her problem seem bigger than it is. Her outstretched hand is tentative as though she isn't sure she should ask and doesn't really know what to ask.

Standing in front of the glorious stained glass window, she is unaware of the help that is available, has always been available, if she'd only look up, open her eyes and see what is right in front of her. Help has always been just within reach, but she is too sunk in despair and misery, afraid that if she looks up all she will find is an empty purse and a closed door. The door is always open. Someone is inside or the window would be shadowed and not so bright.

In earlier decks, the Five of Pentacles was the card of the mendicants, missionaries who chose a hard road without seeking or accepting the help that was always ready for them. Their fear was palpable and bowed their heads so low they couldn't see what was right beside them, an open door where warmth, sustenance and help were theirs for the asking.

5 of Pentacles

It was a day for fives when I pulled these cards, but the Five of Swords seems much different from the Five of Pentacles. A man stands with upraised sword victorious on the field of battle. The enemy lies dead or dying around him and he holds the booty of war in his arms. This is a Pyrrhic victory, a victory won at heavy cost. There are no comrades celebrating this victory, only the defeated. What is victory worth when all is lost? Was it worth the effort?

Wars and battles are not always way to resolve conflict, not when they come at a high price. There is no profit in humiliating the enemy because they will come back even stronger with revenge and destruction in their hearts. In an intellectual conflict or verbal argument, sometimes it's better to take a step back and look at things from a different perspective instead of battering an opponent until there is nothing left. To assert superiority in such a way is not only poor sportsmanship, it is also unnecessary and the victory is short-lived. There is more to be learned and to be gained by leaving a little room for the opponent to maneuver. It's never a good idea to push the enemy into what Sun Tzu called "death country" from which there is no retreat and safety. The enemy has nothing to lose and will fight even harder and more wildly and the cost to defeat them may be the decimation of the army.

The fives in the tarot deck always spell trouble or a crisis that needs resolution. It's up to you to turn the tables and make the best of a bad situation before it is too late. The Five of Swords shows victory, but it could just as well point to dishonor, malice or slander and, in such cases, no one wins even when they're proven right.

It's like picking up a frozen snake near death and warming it near your breast. When it wakes, it will repay your kindness and generosity with death. That is its nature. If you must pick up the snake, take it to a fire or somewhere warm, but don't linger. It's safer that way.

5 of Swords


There cannot be a connection in these cards, or can there? The fire of inspiration, a gift of possibility and opportunity that must be acted upon cannot have anything to do with beggars down on their luck and unwilling to see that help is within reach, and it certainly cannot have anything to do with a costly victory. Can it?

A woman digs in her garden and finds a rag wrapped bundle. It smells foul and crumbles to bits in her hands. She tosses it onto the heap of branches and cuttings that will go into the trash. The bundle breaks open and out spills a wealth of jewelry: diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls of all colors, sapphires. A king's ransom in stones and silver and gold. Thinking it must be stolen, she gathers it all up in a trash bag and hides it beneath a loose board in the floor of her closet, placing her shoes and suitcases over the spot to hide it from prying eyes.

The woman is of middle years and has worked hard for what little she has, spending her life's savings on the little cottage with its rose and herb gardens. She continues to work, but the cost of upkeep is almost more than she can afford. She's not ready to give up and is used to getting by on short rations. The wealth hidden in the floor of her closet would be enough to fix the place up and set her up for life. She would never want for anything. She could sell the jewels one at a time to different places so no one would make the connection, but it might cost more than the jewels would bring that way. She could call the authorities or check old newspapers to see if something like that was stolen just to be sure she was safe. If she did that, someone might say she had no right to it and take it all away from her, or she could return it for a reward. That might be enough to see her comfortable.

What should she do? I'll leave the end of this story up to you.

Until next week, may all your stories be full of life.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Religious calling

One of the biggest mistakes I made as a beginning writer was taking on too much, especially in fiction. I'd have too much for a short story and not enough for a novel, and I couldn't tell which was which.

I began a novel about an Air Force pilot, a woman, who was allowed to teach other combat pilots, but not fly combat. This was about thirty years ago when things were different. Women fly combat all the time now. I had a romance brewing and the characters were talking to me. The male romantic lead kept waking me up to tell me he knew the heroine before they met in the book, and it was the first time a character bothered me in my sleep and hounded me day and night. I thought I had something.

I plotted. I made outlines of the action. I knew where I was starting and where I would end, but had not clue about the middle. I thought it would come as I wrote. It didn't.

I had great scenes. There was laughter. There were tears, brilliant dialogue, rapid-fire exchanges and heat, lots of heat. I had everything to make a great book, or so I thought. I got to the middle of the book and hit a brick wall. It felt much harder than brick when I banged my head against it, writing this way and that to get out of the rapidly closing cul-de-sac from hell. I was stalled. Nothing came. I couldn't get past it to the end of the story.

Thinking I had everything covered, I had no idea the mid book slump could happen to me. I was fearless. I had prepared carefully. I was lost. The remains of the book are still on a 5.25" floppy and is probably no longer readable. The hard copy is still in a folder in a locked cabinet that is probably food for mice by now.

There are times when a book just won't jell no matter what you do. Even with the best outline and covering all the points of plot, characterization, dialogue and time lines, a book can, and often does stall. There are many reasons for this stall that turns into a horrible crash-and-burn. What it amounts to is running out of gas -- enthusiasm. There are ways to write past that point and find energy by working on the last part of the book, hoping that something will come out of the blue and save the story, and sometimes it means a whole rewrite. Such is the case with Whitechapel Hearts.

When I began writing the book, I tried it in several different points of view and styles, from confessionals to dairy entries, and nothing came. I couldn't figure out how to get from point A to point D and was having a difficult time bypassing B and C, which was a new experience for me. I usually bypass them without any difficulty, but I found I couldn't bypass them in a novel. I gave up, printed out the hard copy of everything I did and stuck it in the locked cabinet in a file next to the combat pilot romance, moving on to other projects that didn't tax my abilities quite so much. During a conversation with a friend about Victorian pornography and morality, I had a flash of insight. I knew what was wrong with Whitechapel Hearts and I knew just how to fix it. Mind you, this is a few years after I originally began.

Everything started coming out as though I was typing from a finished book until I hit the brick wall in the middle again. It wasn't a lack of story or not knowing what came next; I simply ran out of gas. After several tries at writing around the wall and tackling it from different angles, I decided to put it away and work on something else. That was several years ago.

I have since worked past the wall and finished the book. I have rewritten sections and added layers I never knew were possible before. As I learned, the book became better and better. I refused to give up and now it's a done deal. No doubt my editor will put me through the paces once again and she will help me see textures I didn't know were there.

There are some books that should remained in a folder in a locked file cabinet and some that won't let you go. I've been lucky enough to have more of the latter than the former. There are stories and books bouncing around in my head jostling for pole position, and they will eventually get their turn . . . when they have simmered long enough. I'll have to face the wall again in other books and sometimes it will be closer to the beginning or right before the end, but I know how to get past it now -- brick by brick.

I have lots of books in me, yet I am reminded of another author who wrote a best selling novel that is still a best selling novel decades after its first publication -- Harper Lee who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. When asked why she never wrote a second book, Harper replied, "I never needed to." It was not the whole truth and it wasn't completely a lie. She wrote another book, but it was declared so awful that she stuck it in a folder and hid it in a locked file cabinet never to see the light of day, and has lived very well since then on the proceeds of Mockingbird. I think she might have given up too quickly, should have tried another publisher or written another book, but we are not the same people. Some writers only have one book in them. And some writers never know when to quit.

Writing is as much a vocation as it is a calling, and writing is in some ways a religion. You either believe or you don't. Some writers lose their religion and some backslide from time to time, doubting their calling and their faith. In the end, the only things that matter are the words and how the come together.

For some writers, they will come together effortlessly without the sweat and blood it costs other writers every time they put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. For the rest, it will look effortless from the outside and like anyone can do it, but that's because those writers have sweated blood, cried, pleaded and battered the words until they were pounded smooth as silk and come out looking like child's play.

Only another writer can understand the hard work that goes into the magic that happens when the story becomes a tangible reality between the covers of a book. And that makes it worth all the trouble, anguish and hard work. Ask any writer who has held their first check for a story or received their copies of a novel that was years -- or weeks -- in the making. You won't have to ask, just look into their eyes and see the shining light of the faith and religion that is writing.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A painter's tale

Carolyn called me last night in tears. She is upset over her sister-in-law again.

Carolyn's SIL, Adele, is a woman who has it all -- great house, money in the bank (loads of money in the bank), a job she loves and is really good at, a husband, five well adjusted and happy children, a loving family and a lot of good friends who adore her -- but she is bored. Carolyn is a widow and has one daughter who has had to struggle a bit and is finally making a success of her life. Carolyn has had one dream her whole life, to have a show of her paintings at a gallery. She finally got her dream a few months ago and her show sold out.

Carolyn has been painting her whole life, but never thought she could be an "artist," yet she kept at it, giving up clothes, vacations and even little luxuries to buy canvas, brushes and paint. She leads a small life, but it's a valuable life and she has struggled for so many years to get where she is today. She deserves the success she has finally achieved.

Life has come very easily to Adele. She has had the support and backing of her very wealthy family her whole life. She has had everything she has ever wanted and really doesn't know how to struggle, but she's bored with it all. She has been heard to say that she could paint better than Carolyn, but she can't. She doesn't have the gift. She just wants what Carolyn has because Carolyn has finally become a success.

Adele is dissatisfied with her life, but Adele's biggest problem is jealousy. She has always seen Carolyn as beneath her. Carolyn isn't as smart and beautiful and socially acceptable as she and Adele has let her know in no uncertain terms. She considers her husband, Carolyn's brother, as the only worthwhile member of a degenerate family, and has watched Carolyn struggle for years, refusing to lend a hand or allow her husband to help financially, even though he has been very successful and has his own money. Adele cannot stand to see Carolyn succeed and she wants to put Carolyn in her place.

What is it with people who have so much that they cannot stand to see someone else get a taste of success, especially when they've given up everything to make it happen? Don't they already have enough? Why do they feel the need to ruin it for everyone else?


Carolyn and I have been friends for thirty years and we have been through some very difficult times together. She has been married a few times and finally found a man who loved and respected her. They had a happy life for just two years before he was killed in a convenience store robbery when he went in for coffee one morning. Carolyn was devastated and I didn't think she was going to be able to handle his death, but she did, and she did more than survive, she lived.

She encouraged me when I had almost given up the idea of having my books published, and she refused to let me give her a copy of my novel. She wanted to buy a copy. That was a very easy dedication to write. She didn't even chide me when she saw I had acknowledged Louise and not her because she said she didn't really do anything except listen. When I dedicated my book to everyone who has ever wanted to rewrite the past, I had Carolyn in mind, and so many others, and she understood. So, how could I not be there for her now?

I didn't have any magical solution to her dilemma, but I did have a smidgen of advice. Even though Adele has used her influence to get the same gallery to show her paintings, and no doubt her loyal friends will buy a few, she cannot take away what Carolyn has achieved. No one can. Adele would be dissatisfied no matter what she does because there is always someone else's thunder to steal to make sure she always stands in the spotlight center stage. All Carolyn can do is keep painting from her heart and forget anything but enjoying her own life. To worry about what Adele will try to co-opt next would only make Carolyn miserable; she'd always be looking over her shoulder instead of ahead. Her first show was a sell-out and the critics raved about her paintings. No one can take that away from her, not even Adele.

The reason Adele is so unhappy and jealous is because she's never really worked for what she has. She doesn't know what it means to sacrifice everything to achieve success. It has all been handed to her on a platinum tray. She wouldn't be so bored if she actually had to suffer or to struggle for something, and she wouldn't like it either. She wasn't made to suffer. Beautiful, privileged people seldom are.

I told Carolyn to think of it this way, if she wasn't such an amazing and talented person, Adele wouldn't deign to notice her. It's a mixed blessing, but Adele, for all her beauty, wealth and advantages, will never have the sense of peace that Carolyn knows. That only comes with achieving something after working hard. It's called sweat. Adele doesn't sweat. Too bad, a little sweat can be sweet.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Beyond drama in the zone

There are times when writing is effortless and other times when it's hard work. Even when I've finished a book or a story, ideas will nibble at the edges of my mind and slip themselves seamlessly into a story I thought was finished. Good thing when it happened this time, I wasn't in final editing. I still have time to change a few things, and my publisher is generous about changes -- at least until we're actually in the editing phase.

There are so many themes and layers to a novel length work, and I've discovered a new theme in the one that has been invading my dreams and interrupting my work day, but it's adding a lot to the story and making it much more richly textured. I love when that happens. I get into the zone with little preparation and no effort. It's like a heaven sent gift and I never refuse or return those.

It has been a while since I've been in the zone and I've missed it. I've allowed trivialities and drama (other people's not my own) to invade my space and take me away where even Calgon cannot reach. I didn't know how much I have needed this literary vacation until I looked up and four hours had passed in the most pleasant and untroubled way. My character feels the tick-tick-tick of time like an eternity of seconds with no end in sight, but time has flown for me.

That's the funny thing about time, it stretches endlessly into a boring and monumental weight or speeds by like a shooting star, a glimpse of argent fire that suddenly winks out as if it never existed, the after image lingering long after the event.

Time has been an imponderable weight of late, but not today. That's what it's like in the zone, and I am reluctant to leave it even to go to the bathroom, but chores and duty call me away. At least I'm at a good stopping point that will quickly and easily admit me back to the zone when I'm finished with the more mundane details of life. Today is a good day, and a productive one, I cannot wait to repeat. I know where I'll be spending the next few days -- in the zone in another time and another world where hidden textures and depths wait to be discovered and unearthed.