Author Archives: Karen Whalen
Spoiler alert…I’m indulging in some writer whining. Again.
Tonight, a remake of a movie that holds a special place in my heart, “Dirty Dancing,” airs on ABC. Among many other negative reviews, TV Guide had this to say: “In an era where actual dirty dancing…has gone so mainstream that Katie Couric knows how to do it, this adaptation does not tango with the present…”
And yet, knowing that it will be a huge disappointment, I will watch it.
I’ve registered for the 2017 New England Crime Bake. Without allowing myself to consider what it would entail, I paid the extra $49 for the Agent and Editor Program, which includes critiques of a pitch and a query as well as the opportunity to pitch to an agent.
Initially I thought that I should pitch my current project, Gabby, at the conference. She’s nowhere near ready but if I focus on her I might be able to whip her into shape by November. What does pitching Gabby do to my plans for a trilogy that takes place in Woodbury, NH?
If I am committed to creating a trilogy, I am pretty certain it doesn’t make sense to pitch the novel that is chronologically the last one (Gabby). I am also pretty certain that it would be incredible if at the Crime Bake I could pitch a cohesive trilogy.
The truth is that in addition to Gabby, my other rough drafts are not ready to be pitched. Anne, Olivia, and Claire. Yes, that is four novels not three but Anne is begging to be joined with her daughter Olivia, and if I acquiesce, I will have a trilogy. But Anne has no murder. Or murderer. My list of characters reveals that I can change a death to a murder and provides a potential murderer. That was easier than I expected. Now for some suspects…
However, that is not the biggest issue with Anne and Olivia. It’s somewhat like Katie Couric and dirty dancing. The premise works for 1993, when it is set, but not so much in 2017. Will it be relevant to readers?
Claire is next. She has some flexibility as to when she takes place but as a senior citizen she is aging the longer she waits. Luckily, she is endowed with a murder, murderer and some suspects. And a man in the attic is timeless.
So now I’ve created a three-headed monster: Anne/Olivia, Claire, Gabby. Do I put Gabby aside and return to Anne/Olivia because she started all of this? Is what I’ve invested hours of time and brain cells into worth resuscitating? Or am I trying to breathe life into a bunch of Word files that I would be better off jettisoning into the Trash folder?
Funny how I can hear a little voice in my head, let’s call him John, giving me some advice—most likely because I have posed this same question to my writing group numerous times. Don’t worry about a trilogy, just focus on getting one novel in good shape so you can pitch it in November. Burn those early writings. They were just practice. And that’s just some of what I assume his advice would be.
But I love my ladies.
My road down the path to becoming a genealogy junkie started innocently enough, as I imagine it does for many addicts. (See my blog post of September 13, 2016, A Pilgrim in the Family.) My husband’s family is my drug of choice.
When my research revealed that Bailey Clough, my husband’s fourth great-grandfather, of Lyman, NH, fathered Helen Luella Clough at the age of sixty-nine, I knew I had some digging to do. I located Historical Sketches of Lyman New Hampshire, written by E. B. Hoskins and published by Charles P. Hibbard in Lisbon, NH, in 1903.
If these sketches are brief and contain little of deep interest, it is because Lyman is a small farming town, and its history has been quiet and peaceful, with no events of a remarkable character.
I smiled when I read this. It is how I envision Woodbury, NH, home to Gabby, Anne, Olivia, Em, Lexi Rae, Claire, Louise. Nothing has happened here of a remarkable nature. Until now.
Finally, on page sixty, I found the Clough family: William Clough served in the French and Indian war three years, was captured by the foe and carried to France, where he was kept a year or more. He entered the Revolution without enlistment, and was at the battle of Bunker Hill. His children were, namely: Zacheus, Enoch, Bailey, Cyrus, Abner, Jeremiah, Elizabeth, and Dorcas.
Turn the page and there’s virile Bailey: Bailey Clough, son of William, married Susannah Smith, sister of Reuben Smith, Nov. 28, 1799. Their children were, namely: James, born in 1801; David, born in 1803; Darius, born in 1809; Benoni, born in 1812; Chester Hutchins, born in 1822; Susan; and Bailey.
Aha. Bailey had a son with the same name. And Helen isn’t listed among the offspring of Bailey Senior. The son must be the father. If the children are listed in order of birth date, which the author generally did, then Bailey would have been born after 1822. As Helen was born in 1838 or 1839 or even 1841 (I think she lied about her age so that she wouldn’t appear to be ten years older than her second husband), it’s hard to believe that her father was the younger Bailey.
I scanned all of the biographies in the history hoping to find something to link Bailey Clough, senior or junior, and the daughter, Helen, and the wife, Lydia. Nothing there, nothing in Ancestry.com, nothing in Find A Grave, nothing in Wikitree. I can’t believe I’ve reached a dead end in the nineteenth century.
I’m mentally exhausted. And ready for a trip to another cemetery!!
PS After writing this post I was itching to resolve the Bailey Senior/Junior mystery. I returned to Ancestry.com and looked at some other family histories (the least reliable source of information) that I had ignored earlier. Some more research and I am closer to saying that Junior was married to Lydia Stevens and was the father of not just Helen Luella but also Martha Ella. (And I get complaints about the names of my characters!) Bailey Junior was born in 1817, making him old enough to be Helen’s father. He died around the time that Martha was born so it is conceivable that Helen went to live with relatives, as the 1850 census shows her living with an eighty-year old Bailey Clough and possibly her aunt and uncle.
Mystery almost solved…now to get to work on my own mystery.
As an early Mother’s Day gift, my daughter, Jennifer, took me to the Sunday matinée of “An American in Paris.” The venue was the Gammage at ASU in Tempe, AZ. The musical, inspired by the Academy Award winning movie from 1951 starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, recently closed at the Palace Theater on Broadway.
Before the curtain went up we didn’t know we were going to see a musical ballet—we thought it was just a musical. We didn’t care–we loved the fact that we were actually at a live Broadway musical set in Paris transported to the desert of Arizona.
The main male characters in the musical are two American ex-GI’s: a composer/rehearsal pianist and a painter, and a French singer, with the latter two competing for the affections of a French ballerina/store clerk, Lise. I was quick to notice that there was nary an author to be seen yet I imagine that Paris had its share of American writers in 1951. Possibly a character with the intelligence of an author wasn’t a good fit for a musical ballet.
The choreography was amazing especially the final ballet sequence (seventeen minutes long in the movie—I didn’t time it in the musical performance but it was long). I kept waiting for someone to speak. Without dialogue, I couldn’t figure out what was happening any more than I can decipher a fantasy novel. Were we just being entertained by an elegant ballet? I suppose this was where my imagination was supposed to kick in….
Afterward, I couldn’t resist reading the reviews by New York theater-goers who saw the musical on Broadway. To my surprise, most of them were either totally or partially negative. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was reading a review of one of my unfinished novels: main male characters were boring, flat, lacking in emotion (but this is a musical ballet—they could sing and they could dance!); not enough character development; confusing, hard to follow, and flat plot; no conflict until two-thirds of the way through; predictable ending.
Thank you, Jennifer and family, for a fantastic Mother’s Day gift!
Leaving Arizona: With our impending return home to New Hampshire, I am starting to feel the same as when the end of August approaches. That’s why I wiled away the afternoon yesterday in the pool instead of checking things off my To Do List. As the thermometer inches closer to one hundred and above, it’s time to face the gray skies and cool temperatures of New Hampshire. And the budding crab apple and lilac trees, the perennials peeking out of the ground, and the acres of green grass awaiting the awakening of the John Deere mower from hibernation.
I read to fall asleep. If you also indulge in that pastime, you may be familiar with the situation when you just can’t put down the book so you read late into the night when you should be sleeping and then when you stop reading you cannot go to sleep. Insomnia is not the outcome I want when I read in bed.
A week ago Friday I started reading The Likeness by Tana French. As with any of her books, right from the first enticing chapter her characters looped their arms through mine and transported me into their world. Realizing I had reached my bedtime reading limit the next night when I almost dropped my iPhone several times after I dozed off, I closed the Kindle app ready for a good sleep. The reading potion had worked it’s intended magic.
Or so I thought. I tossed. Covers off. I turned. Covers back on. The last time I looked at the clock, it was 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning. I blamed my inability to sleep on the nine boys who were having a sleepover at my daughter’s house next door, celebrating my grandson’s thirteenth birthday. There wasn’t much sleeping accomplished that night by anyone in the house as the nine boys roamed outside in the yard and in the park across the street then retired to the room about three feet from our casita. By the sounds of it, a good time was had by all!
Sunday night we were all in bed early. I was close enough to the end of The Likeness that if I could stay awake long enough I’d be able to finish it. My favorite part of reading a mystery is when I hit my “sweet” spot–about 75% of the way through the book-which means all my questions will be answered by the time I fall asleep.
By midnight I had reached the end of the book. Exhausted from Saturday night’s abbreviated sleep, I should have easily snored my way into dreamland at that point.
The last time I looked at the clock was at 2:30 a.m.
I blame it all on Tana French (not on teenage boys or plain old insomnia). Her psychological twists and thriller turns must have made me too worked-up, or anxious, or over-stimulated, to fall asleep. With that in mind, on Monday evening I found an innocuous historical mystery with which to read my way to sleep. Worked like a charm. Guess I don’t need Tylenol PM just yet.
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon
Gabby has me diving into the freezing cold water of the North Atlantic, searching for the seven-eighths of my book that is underwater. Although just a meager portion of the seven-eighths, this is what I’ve uncovered:
- Subplot. I’ve fleshed out a murder subplot that wasn’t in the original NaNoWriMo novel. I wasn’t certain I even could use it when it appeared but I’ve grown to like it. I’ve been massaging it, expanding it, and I can see its potential as both a red herring and a means of inserting more of the backstory of some characters.
- Murderer. I’ve changed the murderer. This is big!! And it’s involved reworking not just the murder itself but also relationships among the characters. This change helped me flesh out the relationship between a mother and daughter, going back eighteen years to the daughter’s conception.
- Conflicts. You can never have too many of those, can you? Possibly in your real life but not in a book. My NaNoWriMo conflicts were superficial but now I’ve created some meaningful ones that will help Gabby develop into a well-rounded, mature woman.
- Family history. I’ve delved further into the history of the paternal side of the protagonist’s family, starting with the life of her great-grandfather. One of the perks of being an author is that you are in control of what happened generations ago that affects your living characters. It’s more fun, and easier, than using Ancestry.com.
- Whodunit? Most recently I have visited with each of my characters in order to discover who he or she thinks is the murderer. Through these conversations, I have learned more about my characters’ flaws, as well as gained some insight into where I need to place clues.
At this point, working with the separate parts of the structure of the novels means that I will have to fit all of this information together to form the novel. It is going to be like taking the pieces from numerous jigsaw puzzles and jamming the pieces together to create one much larger puzzle, all the while looking under the sofa and the coffee table for the missing pieces that make up the dreaded hollow places.
During all of this, I haven’t written one word that increases the word count of the novel. And that’s okay. For now.
In a show of solidarity with women in the United States and around the world who are observing International Women’s Day, I considered a boycott of my blog post for today.
However, as my writing is a hobby and nothing more–I don’t have to do it if I don’t want to– and not wanting to demean this cause, I am proceeding with my post. A radically different post than originally planned. (Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory can wait. Is there anyone who thinks Hemingway should be written about on International Women’s Day?)
Originally, I assumed– a gross mistake on my part–that this is a cause focused in the United States, where “A Day Without A Woman” is the rallying cry, urging women to strike by not working, whether paid or unpaid, or not shopping (except in small businesses or female-owned businesses). If you have to, or want to, work or shop, you can wear red to show your support.
A quick search on my phone left me in shock. And awe. And with the realization of how uninformed I am about women’s issues around the world even though I consider myself a feminist from way back. While we in the United States focus on the enormous contribution of women to the economy, women in other parts of the world are concentrating on more basic concerns.
Today’s “New York Times” mobile article International Women’s Day: Calls to Action, Words of Praise and Rallies describes how Iceland, Russia, Egypt, Georgia, South Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Manila, Kenya, Ireland, Poland, Italy, Hong Kong, Turkey, among other countries, observed the day.
And then there is India. Where a hole in the ground constitutes a family’s toilet. Where three hundred million women defecate in the open. Where these very women are susceptible to sexual assault.
That’s when I started crying.
My economic contribution to this cause will be to donate money to an organization that helps women in India dig toilets for their families.
And my husband and I are wearing red today.
I know I’m taking a chance when I download “bargain” books from BookBub, Choosy Bookworm, and Amazon, or pick up used books at my favorite Arizona bookstore, Changing Hands. I may end up with a book that doesn’t appeal to me, to put it nicely. Looking on the bright side, it can be motivating to realize that if that book can get published, surely I will have no problem getting my novel into print.
That was not the case with the used book on writing I recently bought, “The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing” by David Morrell. I am only 36 pages into the book and I have already gotten my $8.50 worth. (The other used book on writing included in that same purchase, for just $6.50 and to remain unnamed, was barely worth that amount. Even so I read the entire book.)
On page four of “The Successful Novelist,” Morrell states that the correct, and only, answer to his question, “Why do you want to be a writer?” is “Because you need to be.” “Writers write.” A real writer would squeeze writing into any time available, even if it’s just fifteen minutes a day.
The sign of a good book is that it makes you think. (I made that up. I think.) Reflecting back over my younger writing years, this is what I think my writing life should have been. When I was young and energetic, busy with my family, work, and volunteer activities, I should have found a way to say “no” to just one thing. And then locked myself in the closet. (That’s correct. When I wrote in 1987 my very first draft of the book, “Anne,” from which my other books have spawned, I put a desk in my clothes closet. In our open concept house, this was the only place I could escape from the activity and noise. The bathroom was my second choice.) If I’d been smart enough to lock the closet door and write for fifteen minutes each day, by now I actually might have a book completed and, dare I say, published. Thirty years later.
As I ruminated over how quickly those thirty years have passed with so little writing to show for them, the accountant in me picked up my phone, clicked on the calculator app, and started punching in numbers. If I had spent just a half-hour every day writing, 365 days a year, for thirty years, I would have racked up 5,475 hours writing.
I tried to relate that number to something tangible, such as how many books 5,475 hours of writing equates to. Due to the fact that I don’t have any completed, full-length novels to my credit, I can only draw a parallel to my NaNoWriMo experiences. In the month of November I can write 50,000+ words, without writing every day. I estimate that I spend three hours a day on average writing like crazy during the month, which totals ninety hours. For a first draft of 100,000 words, I quadrupled those hours, 360 hours total. In half-hour increments, that equals 720 writing sessions of a half hour each, or pretty darn close to two full years.
Back to the 5,475 hours that I could have spent writing in the past thirty years. If I divide those hours by the 360 hours to produce a rough draft, I could have easily whipped out fifteen rough drafts. Instead of the four unfinished drafts I have, I could have fifteen. Unfinished. Rough. Drafts. Sounds about right.
P.S. Please go back and read Heidi Wilson’s latest blog post. She issued a challenge. Read the comment section for a hilarious response from Judy.
I noticed a couple of links to blog posts on Facebook today. Possibly there were more but it was hard to pick out what was a blog post, what was a news (real or fake) article, and what was a personal post. Any post that wasn’t about Elizabeth Warren, Betsy DeVos, or the New England Patriots didn’t have much of a chance of getting noticed today.
One of the links was to a blog about benches. Yup, those uncomfortable wooden couches you sit on in the park. I read the tantalizing first line of the post and continued scrolling. But it did make me think, always a risky proposition.
When Heidi, Eleanor or I write a new blog post, the link gets posted on our personal Facebook pages so that our friends can get to it with just a click. I’m wondering how many of our friends “Like” our blog posts without reading them then quickly proceed to the more appealing posts of puppies, babies, donkeys, and a moose standing on top of a car.
Hey, I’m OK with that. If you aren’t interested in reading about writers, writing, books, and authors, you shouldn’t waste your time reading our blog. BUT if we were to make our blog more personal, a little sexier, might we make loyal readers out of you? Keep in mind, we are three gray-haired ladies in our sixties so you might want to temper your expectations .
While I wait for the green light from Eleanor and Heidi to spice up our content, I have some updates for you.
“NCIS New Orleans” tonight on the leak of sex tapes: we all have secrets. I believe that is true, whether the secrets are current or just partitioned off in our memories. (Feel free to reveal yours in the comment section.) I’m developing secrets for all the potential suspects in my novel, Gabby. I think you’ll like them–my suspects as well as their secrets.
Speaking of Gabby, I’m making progress but I haven’t added a word to my NaNoWriMo novel. How is that progress, you ask? I’m working on what I call the infrastructure of the novel. I’ve summarized the novel into a fourteen page timeframe, which helped me find errors in the timing of plot events. The timeframe summary is also useful for inserting and moving scenes instead of fumbling with 154 pages. At Eleanor’s suggestion, I set up an Excel spreadsheet with the dates and times of day on the left side and my characters across the top. Each cell contains a summary of where each main character is during that time period and what he or she is doing. It makes babysitting all of my characters easier. Still a long ways to go before I am ready to rewrite my first draft.
Arizona is heating up…slowly. We are looking at two days of eighty-plus degree weather then a cool down and some rain. Looking forward to when the temperature stays above seventy-five. I love walking out the door at night or in the morning and not getting hit with a blast of cold air. And when the sun is shining, which it does a lot more than back in New Hampshire, it always feels warmer than the thermometer says. I’ll admit, the cooler weather has kept me in the casita chained to the bed. Writing.
Eyes focused on a gouge in the old wooden table in our meeting room in the library, I reluctantly shook my head when my writing group asked if I had read Dame Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder on the Orient Express. I was bombarded from all sides with instructions to read the novel. Posthaste. I nodded my head, finally able to make eye contact with the other five members of the group.
In preparation for my snowbird flight to Arizona (total travel time from door to door: twelve hours), I downloaded the novel onto my Kindle app. I travel with at least four new novels on my Kindle because you just never know. What if I don’t like one or two of the books? (That’s not an uncommon occurrence.) What if we are stranded in an airport for an extra day or two? (With the weather we are having this winter, that was a distinct possibility.) What if I read really, really fast and I run out of books? (Combine this with the first two scenarios and I would be faced with a travel disaster, right up there with lost luggage.)
The short flight from Manchester, NH, to Baltimore, MD, leaves just enough time to get settled and drink a cup of coffee yet I pulled out my Kindle from my bag as soon as my seatbelt was buckled. A commitment is a commitment, after all. I had just started to unzip the Kindle carrying case when the woman sitting in the aisle seat forced me into a conversation.
I usually keep my eyes and mouth turned away from my traveling neighbor but for some reason I was driven to mind my manners and responded when spoken to. (Was I avoiding Ms. Christie? Unimaginable.) Turns out we had much in common: parents with dementia, parents in nursing homes, daughters with weddings, Sandbridge, Virginia, and much more. We talked and laughed all the way to Baltimore, where we said farewell.
Once my husband and I disembarked and found our gate, lunch became our number one priority. I walked around the terminal several times then settled down with my phone to see what I had missed while at 35,000 feet. All the while, the novel gnawed away at me. Was I running out of time to finish it before we touched down at Sky Harbor airport?
Confession time: I overestimate how much I can accomplish in the time available. I didn’t want to fall victim to this character flaw one more time.
Luckily, my aisle neighbor for our final leg of the flight was a man. I find that when men sit next to me on an airplane they ignore me, except for the occasional unintentional elbow jab. Once again I brought out my Kindle, fired it up, and started to read. Aside from a short nap (mouth open—I am my mother) and one trip to the bathroom, I spent the flight to Phoenix devouring Murder on the Orient Express.
As I came closer and closer to the resolution of the crime, I thought “this is an enjoyable book but who in the world could have done it?” Once I reached the end of the book, I realized that never in a million years could I have figured out the ending without the assistance of the admirable Hercule Poirot.
There is more good news beyond the fact that I finished the book before the wheels touched down in Phoenix. In November of this year, a new film adaptation of the book will be released. Once again, I anticipate that I will be glad that I read the book first.
December is not my month to write. November-even with Thanksgiving, Black Friday/Small Business Saturday/Cyber Monday, my birthday, and Clam Bake-finds me writing like a whirling dervish dances. (Thank you, NaNoWriMo.)
Though December is a bust creatively, organizationally I need to be on top of my game. (I think this requirement applies to at least 50% of the adult population in the US. You know who you are.) It’s mostly about Christmas, naturally:
- Designing and ordering photo Christmas cards. (No signing as our names are printed on the cards. Nice.) Addressing the card envelopes. (Who did I mail cards to last year? Where is that list?)
- Designing and ordering photo family calendars. (Just a gazillion texts to daughters and searches on my phone and Facebook for the perfect pictures.)
- Shopping for presents. (Pretty much just for my mother. Phew…)
- Writing checks for grandchildren’s Christmas presents. (It’s such a relief to put the burden for buying presents onto my daughters.)
- Shopping for those ingredients-eggs, flour, sugar, nuts-that I don’t normally keep on hand so that I can make cookies with my two local grandchildren.
- Baking cookies without my grandchildren.
- Keeping my husband away from the cookies before I have a chance to hand them out.
- Trekking to the local tree farm to buy the Christmas tree. (My Fitbit appreciates all the extra steps I garner looking for the perfect tree.)
- Perfectly decorating the damn perfect tree.
- Buying gifts for the Yankee swap and making food for the writing group party. (That’s it, one non-family holiday party to attend. No more dashing through the snow to get to those parties crammed into the two weeks right before Christmas.)
- Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Love Actually,” and all the Hallmark Christmas movies (several times).
- Scheduling and planning the family Christmas party.
- Checking the weather forecast two weeks in advance of the party.
- Rescheduling the family Christmas party for a day when we aren’t forecast to get lots of snow followed by freezing rain.
- Enjoying the holidays!
This list is nothing compared to what it was when I was a working mom with three daughters at home. (About the age that they are now.) And that’s something I’m grateful for. As I’ve gotten older, I am less able-and willing, I must confess-to juggle all of the additional demands that a busy holiday season can place on me. And as I look back over those years of hectic Christmas celebrations that seemed to last for the entire month of December, I wonder if a simpler holiday season would have been a better option for my family.
Now, what really complicates my month of December isn’t Christmas. It’s the amount of preparation it takes to spend the next four months in Arizona. That list just might compete with Santa’s “Naughty or Nice” list. Totally worth it.