Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Walk The Line

I finally got to watch Walk The Line this past weekend. I had had ambivalent feelings about watching it because I have so many memories, growing up, of Johnny Cash.

When I was a kid in California it wasn't the cutting edge place it seems to have since become. It was, even where I lived in Manhattan Beach, a pretty sleepy place. And almost everyone we knew was from somewhere else (well, that hasn't changed), mostly from the south or the dust bowl. Many of them were dirt poor. A lot of them had picked all the cotton they ever wanted to (my dad among them). They came to California usually before WWII and afterwards they stuck around.

So I grew up on country western music. When we watched tv when I was a kid we watched country music shows like Cliffie Stone and Spade Cooley and, above all, Town Hall Party. I used to go to my grandparents' house every other weekend and spend Saturday nights there (to give my parents a break, I suppose -- or to give me a break, which is the way I saw it) and every time I was there, we watched Town Hall Party.

If you never got to see it, you missed out on watching a whole generation of country music and early 'rock and roll' stars grow up: Marty Robbins, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline. And Johnny Cash was right there among them.

Some of the shows, in grainy black-and-white made from a film of a television showing the live broadcast, are now available on DVD. I have three of them. And I get goose bumps when I watch them because I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember the 'real' Johnny Cash before he became an icon. And I wasn't sure I wanted to see anyone try to portray that man and those years.

But this past weekend I did -- and I was blown away. I couldn't believe how authentic it felt. Couldn't believe that Joaquin Phoenix could hit those low notes. Couldn't imagine he could walk the walk and get the body language so right at times that I had to blink to be sure I was watching a movie instead of seeing the man as I remembered him.

The film did such a good job of recalling those days and those people that I came away with this huge grin on my face. And the next night I watched the commentary. It was wonderful, too. Obviously Walk The Line was a labor of love for director James Mangold. It showed.

As a writer I appreciated a lot of the balance he put in -- the echoes that appeared later which recalled early dialogue and early scenes. I appreciated what he (and his actors) could do with a glance, with a reaction, with an aversion of their eyes.

I am sure Philip Seymour Hoffman did a brilliant job in Capote, but I can't believe Joaquin Phoenix didn't win the Oscar for his portrayal of Johnny Cash. He had to cover such a range of emotions -- such highs and such lows, such angst and such promise, such joy and such bewilderment. Maybe Hoffman did, too. I didn't see the film. But he didn't have to sing.

For that alone Joaquin Phoenix should have got the award.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Painted Into The Corner Approach to Deconstruction

This is not a great deal different than the Dead End Approach.

Basically, it assumes you've painted yourself into a corner with a window in it. If you didn't, you have some serious hacking to do, and the wrecking ball might be easier. But if you have a window, you're in luck.

While you're waiting for the paint to dry, hop through the window and do some research.

Very often when one of my books stalls, it's because I have nowhere to go (hence, the painted into the corner feeling). What I need is more information, more ideas (as in, where do you get your . . .?), more nitty-gritty first hand stuff.

When I was writing The Eight Second Wedding, I needed to know a lot about the rodeo circuit and the life of the professional rodeo cowboy, in this case a bull rider. While I grew up watching rodeos, and I had an uncle who competed in a few, I didn't know much about the whole lifestyle. And reading books and articles helped, but it didn't give me the detail that I wanted. Not the real life sort of stuff that would get me out of the corner and make the characters come alive.

So . . . I jumped out the window and found myself a bull rider who was willing to talk. Actually he was retired, but he taught bull-riding at that point, so he was a great resource. We talked. And then he had to go to the doctor -- an occupational hazard -- and I was supposed to call him back the next day.

Only the next day he was in Texas and I talked to his wife. And the week after that he was in Arizona and I talked to his father. And a week or so after that I talked to his mother, and to his wife again, and finally, as the deadline grew closer and I was still hemmed in that corner, I called back one last time and he was in Washington, I think.

So I asked the nice young man who had answered the phone that time, "Do you ride bulls?" and he said, "Yes, ma'am." And I said, "Will you talk to me?" And he said, "Yes, ma'am."

And he did.

And he was wonderful. A spectacular resource. So good, in fact, that he not only gave me lots of information about bull riding and the rodeo circuit, he went through the calendar and mapped me out a schedule of exactly which rodeos Chan would compete at during the Memorial Day to end of July time frame I had for that part of the book. He even called me once at 1 in the morning when he was fogged in at LAX so we could go over some details.

When the phone rang -- and we woke up from a sound sleep -- The Prof rolled over and said, "Huh?" and then lay there, basically lifeless, while I got up and went to listen to the answering machine to make sure one of the kids had killed, bloodied or maimed themselves.

When I heard the voice, I smiled and went back to bed. "Whozat?" The Prof mumbled. "My rodeo cowboy," I said. The Prof sighed. "Right." And went back to sleep.

Suffice to say, "my" rodeo cowboy was a great help. And when we finished talking the several times we talked, he invited me to bull-riding school the next time he taught near me. How could I pass that up? I went and got a whole new book out of it. That book, The Cowboy and the Kid, was a great example of a book with LOTS of detail and, because of the detail I had command of, there were no painted-into-the-corner feelings at all.

Just lately I've been thinking Spence is a painted-into-the-corner sort of book. While I got him from Montana to New York all right, and got Sadie there after him, it's the next bit I'm a little fuzzy on. What I know about private islands in the South Pacific is a whole heck of a lot less than I knew about bull riders.

But recently I hopped out the window and -- bless the internet -- I'm learning. The paint is almost dry now. We're ready to go back to work. I think Spence and Sadie -- and I -- are going to enjoy that island.

If not, I remembered to pack the wrecking ball.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Map Cabinet Revisited

The map cabinet has moved.

It took over the living room to such an extent that we decided it would be better off elsewhere (or we would be). So it replaced a desk in the dining room. The desk, of course, is now busy over-powering the living room, but I have promised to refinish it for one of our sons who, bless him, agreed to give it a home.

Anyway, The Map Cabinet At Home ( I feel like it should get visitors who leave calling cards) . . .

At Kate Walker's request I have provided a subject for size comparison. This is Gunnar, a 70 lb flatcoat retriever (and possibly something else). If you've never met a flatcoat, he's sort of a finer-boned golden retriever in size. NOT, I hasten to add, in personality. Or, of course, in color. Enough said.

Gunnar is there to make the map cabinet look handsome. And, of course, to look handsome himself. (Disregard the food bowl, which Micah, one of the goldens, moves around the house as the mood hits him, and the crumpled rug in the bottom right corner -- ditto)

The Dead End Approach to Deconstruction and Rewriting

You thought I was kidding, didn't you?

You didn't really imagine we were going to discuss all the ways to screw up a book and eventually get on the right track again.

Well, like Harry Hyena in the immortal Richard Scarry books, "You were wrong." We read a lot of Richard Scarry books when my kids were little and Harry Hyena was a favorite character -- mostly because he so often was wrong.

But I digress . . .

There is another way to go wrong -- the dead end. You can take the wrecking ball to whatever 'road construction' you've got up to that point. And, as I pointed out when writing about Charlie's book, sometimes it's justified. But it's not the option of first resort.

The 'dead end' approach is to back up slowly. This is also known in our house as "the Cornish road" approach to book writing. Anyone who has driven on Cornish roads will not need an explanation for that. They know the "I'm a pinball" feeling you get when going blindly down an extremely narrow -- and narrowing further, not to mention switching back and going uphill and down and whoops, there's a bridge -- lane with hedges higher than your head on either side. The fact that a large part of the hedge seems to be native granite doesn't encourage forays across country, either. And here comes a truck -- er, sorry, lorry -- heading your way. Or sheep. Sometimes it's sheep. Sometimes it's a lorry full of sheep or the book equivalent thereof.

So you back up. Carefully. Studying, as you go, all the possible outlets in the hedgerows, looking for glimmers of light that might lead you into a road thus far unexplored and certainly more likely to lead you into the light than the one you're on.

Sometimes you have to get out and move a few rocks. Sometimes you have to widen things a bit, put up a signpost or two, do a little paving. But very often what you need to get to the end is already in there -- the tiniest gap between two boulders. Something you didn't see earlier when you were hurtling along unawares.

That's why it's not a good idea to go directly to the wrecking ball. It's always there if you need it. But sometimes it's better to go back, painstaking and annoying though it is, to see what you might have passed up that you can use to get to The End. What little hints and directions and useful people or places or sheep or pubs along the way can you make use of in ways you might never have imagined.

It's sort of an exercise in mining your own subconscious. You write along, blithely putting stuff in because it seems to work, and then, when you have to stop because you're lost or stuck or staring into the headlights of a lorry filled with sheep, you have to back up and look for alternatives. And most of the alternatives you will end up using are already there. The subconscious part of your writing mind (which is to say, 95% of it in the case of my own) already knows you're going to be coming back and has helpfully provided pubs, dogs, cranky old ladies, boys playing catch and in my current ms -- a Brazilian property developer on the telephone saying, "Psssst. Follow me." -- to give me an out.

Who knew? Not me. But I can see potential in him.

I can see a way to get Sadie out of this scene. Even better, I can see a plot complication that Mr Brazilian could offer quite a ways down the road. This is the best part of the backing up from the dead end. It's the fork in the road I didn't see the first time through. The road not taken.

Until now.

Somebody should write a poem about that.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Wrecking Ball Theory of Deconstruction

Jakob Nielsen says that the headline is the most important bit of blog writing, that it grabs readers -- or not. So, I have put considerable thought into what to call this.

I had thought a more 'blanket' title -- Theories of Deconstruction -- would be the best because that is, after all, what I intended to talk about. But then I recognized that if someone suggested that I read something called Theories of Deconstruction, I'd run in the other direction. But definitely something about deconstruction, because apparently (from the comments I got the other day) there are a lot of people interested in ripping their books apart.

So in the interests of thoroughness, if nothing else, I thought we'd take them one at a time. So, today, class, we are discussing the advantages of committing wholesale havoc.

On every book I do that here and there. Like taking out a room or a fireplace or something, I knock out a chapter or a scene. Whap, it's gone. Because, like as not, I gave it plenty of opportunity to prove itself worthy of inclusion, and it just swanned around being pretty in its own right, but not contributing anything to the book -- NO MATTER HOW MANY CHANCES I GAVE IT.

I can't tell you the number of scenes that has happened to. But I can tell you that every book but, I think, The Marriage Trap, had at least one. It may have, but the rest of the book just basically wrote itself, so I have such fond memories of that book that I never consider it an angst-producer.

And at the other end of the spectrum, there was A Cowboy's Promise. Every time I began to write that book, for which I had already written a synopsis of the story and which I knew -- and had known -- for over ten years because Charlie had been something of a teenage troublemaker in an earlier book, I stopped dead on page 31. Sometimes I stopped dead on page 29, but then, if I struggled, I could make it to 31. But I never got any further.

I wrote that damn first 31 pages for something like three months, looking for the key to get out of the Dew Drop Inn where Charlie was playing pool with a couple of locals, and into the rest of the story. And while I loved the scene with Charlie playing pool in the Dew Drop, I knew the whole book wasn't going to take place there. But I gave the book every chance. I gave the story every chance. Heck, I gave the heroine every chance. But she didn't do what she was supposed to do -- like show up. And Charlie couldn't play pool forever while we waited for her to get her act together.

So . . . eventually I went to the wrecking ball. One morning when I couldn't stand it anymore -- and the deadline was approaching and my editor was turning grey and my friends were totally tired of hearing me say, "Let me just run this past you one more time" -- I sat down at the computer, opened the file, highlighted all of chapter two that I had (because that's where it stopped) and hit delete. Then I took a deep breath, opened chapter one, and did the same thing.

Bye-bye book.

Hello, freedom.

It was drastic, yes, but it had to be. If I hadn't done it, the temptation to keep trying to fix it would have continued. It had to be totally gone. There could be no going back. And once I got rid of it and had the clean slate, I found a new story that was apparently the one Charlie and Cait were really waiting for me to discover and that one went very nicely. There were no glitches. There were the usual stumbling blocks and stutters, but no dead ends. No complete blank-outs. Nothing insurmountable.

I fear that if I hadn't done it, I'd be still here, six years later, writing Charlie in the Dew Drop for the 11 millionth time (and Cait would still be wherever she was, refusing to take part).

It was a little scary, yes. But it seemed like the best thing to do at the time. And in fact, now I wonder why I waited so long.

Spence is not a candidate for the wrecking ball. Yet. But I do not like the funny little echo I hear in the back of my brain which seems to be saying, "Give him time."

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Map Cabinet Takes Over


This might be too much of a good thing.

The map cabinet has arrived and, as I said to Kate Hardy in one of my comments on yesterday's post, we might have to build it a room of its own. My lord, that thing is HUGE. If it stays in the living room, where it is now, it will be the conversation piece for years to come. And somehow I don't think I want it being the never-ending focus of our lives. So on the weekend it's moving to the dining room where it can hang out in the corner and work at being inconspicuous (not). At least it can try to blend in.

I do like it though. So does The Prof. Of course he sees it as "no longer paying rent on the locker" and therefore he doesn't care if it sits in the middle of the blinkin' kitchen and has to be skirted every time we go near the sink or stove. I think he pats its handsome oaken head every time he walks past.

At least nothing will be falling out of it and bopping him on the head now. When we get it situated, I'll dare to take its photo and stick it up here (probably before we put the tv on top of it and thereby ruin its feng shui or whatever it is that makes it -- or us -- feel at home.

Can't worry about it today. I'm taking my mother to visit her 98 year old cousin who lives about 100 miles from here. We're going out to lunch for cousin's birthday. It's always such a treat to visit with her. If I get to be 98, I want to have the same enthusiastic outlook on life. She still drives and still shovels snow in the winter and will doubtless haul us all over the county telling us the history of everyone who has lived there since her grandparents settled there in 1855. I love that sort of thing. Except I keep thinking I'm not doing a good enough job of recording what she knows. The county is going to lose an incredible font of information when she goes. Thank God I don't think she's going anytime soon!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

What's a little rewriting . . . or . . . construction metaphors

I noticed the other day that Anna Lucia said she was going to update her word count meter, and then discovered that she'd thrown out so much that all the new stuff she'd written had only managed to get her back to where she'd started.

Ah, yes.

I don't know if it's really called "rewriting" when you totally throw it out and write something else. I don't know if there's a good word for it at all. But sometimes it has to be done. It's what I'm doing right now, because I can't go forward until I go back.

Sometimes writing is like building a house. And you get up a ways and you discover that the foundation you thought was good and solid, isn't so solid at all. It needs work. And so you sort of have to set aside the main floor until you go back and shore up the foundation -- or completely tear it out and put something else in its place.

I'm in the shoring up phase at the moment. It has to do with the backstory. I need some of it, but I don't need too much of it (eventually I will, but just not all at once). And deciding how much needs to go in RIGHT NOW is tricky. Sometimes it's trickier than others. Apparently, because Spence and Sadie have known each other for most of their lives, this is going to be one of those tricky books.

But I'm working on it -- and I'm reminded of the time when I was working on Gifts of the Spirit and I was describing to my editor how many times I'd redone the first chapter which was, at that point, about nine times. She looked horrified and said, "Nine times? You rewrite things nine times?" And I shook my head and said, "Not if I get it right the first time. I rewrite it as many times as I need to until I get it right."

I'm pretty sure she thought there couldn't possibly be eight wrong ways to say something that simple. She'd be surprised.

So . . . back to basement work. Maybe we'll get back on the main floor if things go right today. I hope so.

In the meantime, the map cabinet arrives this evening. I can hardly wait!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Intuition and Skills Mentoring

Yesterday I wrote about the course I had just finished, Analysis and Skills Mentoring, Part 2 from the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. And it was, believe me, a useful course in a painstaking, nitpicking sort of way. As my way is generally not to nitpick, but rather to see the big picture and glance at the details, it was an excellent corrective. In its way, it sharpened my eye (and my saw, genealogist Ken Aitken would say) and gave me a better set of tools to do genealogical research (and also to reflect on my writing).

But I would be remiss if I treated it as "the only way." There is something to be said for intuition, for being able to postulate links on the flimisiest of pretexts, of thinking not only "outside the box" but outside the whole blinkin' warehouse. Sometimes those thoughts don't pan out.

I remember once spending ages looking for a guy called Martin Ralph in mid-19th century Crowan, Cornwall in a particular parish and not finding him. I postulated that if the whole family went missing (which it had), there was a good chance he emigrated. I spent quite a lot of hours looking in Wisconsin where a lot of Crowan families ended up. I never did find Martin there because he happened to be living a mile away in a different parish in Cornwall. But the intuition wasn't totally off -- I found two other families I hadn't been expecting to find, one of which added significant evidence that allowed me to decide -- for the moment at least -- which of two men of the same name had also moved to Wisconsin.

And it works in books, too. It worked in Body and Soul when Miles went next door to see Susan and she shut the door in his face. Neither Miles nor Susan -- nor I -- knew when that scene started that she would manage to break his foot while doing so. It just seemed to work. And it opened the door to further development in the book. The same sort of thing happened when I was working on The Antonides Marriage Deal. I was stuck in the book and sitting in the dentist's office (which is always a good place to think about something else) and Tallie muttered in my mind, "He wishes I'd get hit by a truck." Elias, she meant. And while he might not have wanted anything quite so drastic to happen to her, he did want her out of his office and out of his life. And intuition said, "Work with it." So Tallie got hit by a truck.

Lest you think that intuition only works on disasters (which it does), it works on other stuff, too. It is a little like orienteering without a compass, though. You tend to do it by having a vague sort of map in your head and your eye on the horizon. Sometimes you fall into bogs or stumble over rocks, but there are definite adventures and interesting things to see along the way.

I like analysis and I like having sharp tools -- and I like courses that make me sharpen them. But I also like just ambling out into the countryside with my characters, seeing where we need to go and letting them suggest the ways. Keeping my intuition open for possibilities is just as important as paying attention to all the details. In fact, when they work together it makes for a really interesting trip.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Looking until you see . . .

I have -- just today -- finished the second in a series of courses from the National Institute for Genealogical Studies affiliated with the University of Toronto. It is called Analysis and Skills Mentoring, Part 2, and it's designed to make students stop and think, take things -- like deeds and wills -- apart, examine them, analyze every detail, see if the parts can hint at more than the whole, and then extrapolate what steps ought to be taken from there.

Sometimes when I began an assignment I felt almost at sea without a compass or sextant. But eventually I found small things, details really -- an additional fifty acres, a witness at a wedding, the death record of a child -- that gave me a bearing. And in the end I felt I had learned things I wanted to learn. I learned how to look. And then I learned how to see.

Once when we were in New Orleans, I took two of my boys on a swamp boat morning. We looked, but we didn't see until the man who was taking us pointed out the alligator blending in with the fallen tree, the nutria swimming nearby, the meaning of the wind blowing a certain direction at a certain time of day. Those are things that come when you spend time with deeds and indentures, swamps and bayous, herds of cattle, musty church registers -- all the things that it takes expertise and familiarity to read.

That same sort of attention to detail and nuance is what ultimately makes a book. I admire a writer who can sit down and work their way in synopsis form from start to finish, who knows they are learning about the characters in that context so they don't have to watch and learn about them in the messiest bits of a book.

But that writer is not me. I need to spend time with my characters. I need to watch them interact with each other, with their past, with their friends and enemies. Only in that contest can I discover what makes them tick, pick out the details that hold the key to their character, be true, in my writing, to who they are.

That's why it takes a long time for me to really get into a book. It's a getting to know you sort of process. It's like looking at documents I've never seen before and trying to learn all I can about them, like looking at a swamp and only gradually seeing what is actually there.

You remember that "hidden pictures" game that was in lots of kids' magazines? Maybe still is. Where you see a picture, and there are, within it, hidden objects. Genealogy is like that. So is bayou fishing. And being a cowboy. And writing books.

Spence and Sadie are getting clearer. I see new details. They're beginning to make sense. Whew.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Chapter One . . .

Or why starting a story is like sowing a minefield.

There's backstory, for example. You need it in there. Some. A little. Enough to set the scene. But not too much. I'm back in chapter one because I decided I needed to start the book a day before I had started it -- and in the heroine's point of view, not the hero's. So it's her backstory -- and her minefield -- I am worrying about right now.

I can't have a ton of backstory or it begins to sound like 'info-dump.' But I need to set the scene, tell what's normal about her day -- and then explode the mine in the middle of it. The mine that will change the status quo, that will rattle her world. And I need enough hints of mines before and after that when they explode, too, it will seem inevitable to the reader. To Sadie it should feel like all the dumb stuff she ever did is coming back to haunt her. Or to save her.

But the picking and choosing of mines is a chore. Interesting, but painstaking. It seems to take hours to find just the right words.

In the meantime I'm burning dinner, so I guess I should go rescue it. And then get back to the minefield. Wish me luck!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A day in the life . . .

Sometimes I wonder why whole days go by and I never seem to be a writer. I start out the day with the best of intentions -- and go to bed with the same intentions for tomorrow (and with the same words unwritten).

What goes on during those days?

Well, there are writing-related chores. There's a piece of software I'm evaluating for the National Genealogical Society's NewsMagazine. It's called Clooz and it's billed as an 'electronic filing cabinet,' and God knows, I need all the help with filing, electronic and otherwise, that I can get.

So I have been immersed in Clooz. There is a fairly steep learning curve with this program. At least steep for me. So I've been spending quite a bit of time figuring it out -- and figuring out how to write about it, what makes it tick and what makes it useful to other researchers. I'm making vast amounts of notes. It takes time. And that's all before I ever sit down to write the article.

And there is the article I am helping edit for The Prof's cousin who is delivering it to a learned group of historians in New York sometime next month. No one wants to sound as if they haven't got all their ducks in a row when they are reading their paper to a bunch of experts -- so I have been doing my best to help with that.

And then there is my mother. She is in some ways a low-key, low maintenance mother. But not because she doesn't try. And even when she is being low-key and low maintenance, she is alone -- and that is, let's face it, lonely.

And there is the house -- and the dogs -- and the rearranging of maps and paintings and oriental rugs. There are friends and kids and grandkids and a husband -- all of whom need periodic attention -- and who make my life far more pleasurable and interesting than it would be if they weren't a part of it. Can't neglect any of them. Don't want to.

But I do want to work on Spence. I want to immerse myself in the book and feel the energy that comes from spending days with the characters, getting involved in their story, knowing instinctively what they would do.

Two articles (mine and the cousin's) and Theo's galleys -- and I will be back, Spence. I promise. And then we will have some quality time. I promise.

Monday, May 15, 2006


One thing, as we know, leads to another -- at least in life. As a writer with a character who has been sitting on a park bench for three weeks, I'm not too sure. But I dare hope.

In life, however, it really does. The map cabinet, for example, has already started a chain of events that would snowball if I were inclined to mix metaphors. As it is, it has encouraged us to get busy and reorganize and sort and toss and toss and toss. Or perhaps develop a second career selling stuff on Ebay. That seems like a reasonable option.

The Prof went to the locker today. He came home with an itemized list of all the things that we can move back and store which I have guaranteed will not leap out at him or bop him on the head. I hope. I'd forgotten the oriental rug. Not that I expect it to leap or bop. But I can't store it in the map cabinet either.

I am thinking maybe the floor of our bedroom would be a good place. The carpet in it now was laid when our oldest son graduated from high school, went off to college and we took over his bedroom. His oldest son is a teenager now. Ye gods. Yes, I think a new old carpet in the bedroom might be a splendid idea. New wallpaper while we're at it. Maybe some paint.

And the dresser in the guest room -- the dresser that belonged to the youngest son, and before that to the middle son, and before that to the middle son's best friend in elementary school -- that's going to get moved, too, so the lowboy that has been in the family since sometime in the 17th century (and no, I'm not kidding) can leave its rarified locker habitat and come home to stay.

I know, I know. What are we thinking keeping an ancient and venerable lowboy of deep family significance in a locker, for heaven's sake? Consider the alternative. What sane person would keep a slightly rickety somewhat brittle 17th century lowboy in a house with a multitude of boys and dogs?

But the boys are grown and gone now -- and the dogs are, well, no longer puppies. At least that's what we tell them. And in the guest bedroom the lowboy will not be subject to much duress -- as long as the grandsons who stay in that room don't decide to play hockey in it (and as it's barely 9 feet square, hockey is seldom an option).

So, that's the paintings and the oriental rug and the lowboy dealt with. None of which I had any intention of tackling until the map cabinet reared its handsome head. And none of them have much of anything to do with the map cabinet at all, except that it inspired the clearing of the locker and, thus, everything else.

Consequently (I did mention consequences, didn't I?) I have my work cut out for me for the summer. That map cabinet has a lot to answer for.

Maybe Spence should buy a map cabinet. You think?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Flirting with map cabinets . . . storage space aka impossible dreams

One of the joys of writing is the stash of books and maps and odd sized bits of research material that are endlessly fascinating . . . and equally endlessly impossible to store.

Well, the books aren't so hard to store -- there are just so many of them. We have more sets of bookshelves than dogs and kids (now and forever) combined. And there are still homeless books wandering around this house.

But more than books, there are homeless maps. There are deed indentures. There are charts. There are newspapers. There is an ungodly assortment of oddly sized, mostly flat, bits of flotsam and jetsam that have meaning and need to be kept. They also seem to breed when we're not looking, but that's another story.

For more years than I can count, I've been looking for a map cabinet. I see them occasionally -- in libraries more than a hundred years old, in mansions I tour when on trips where walking off with the furniture is strongly discouraged, in the homes of acquaintances (one or two) who also might have noticed and disapproved if I'd departed with a 3'x4'x4' piece of oak furniture stashed in my tote bag. Not, of course, that I am given to stealing things -- just to coveting my neighbor's map cabinet.

And yesterday I found one. An eligible one.

I had taken a good friend to a town about 30 miles away so we could look at some thrift and antique shops during her weekend visit (we'd done the thrift and we were working on the antique bit) and she liked to look at the little stuff because occasionally she could find something she was looking for that was affordable. And I said, okay, but I'd prefer to look at furniture because it was big and untransportable and not affordable and thus perfect for what I had in mind, which was not buying anything and going home empty-handed but solvent.

But it's always nice, when the store people say, "Can I help you find something?" if you have something to reply other than "No, thank you."

So we went in the shop and I said, "Do you have any map cabinets?" which generally gets a universal, "No, sorry," if it doesn't get a bewildered look and a, "What? Never heard of 'em."

But yesterday a nice young man behind the counter said, "Yes." And another one took me back to see the most gorgeous map cabinet it has ever been my pleasure to meet. Oh dear.

I do sort of believe in love at first sight -- of the hormonal variety anyway -- and I fell for the map cabinet with almost as much enthusiasm as I fell for my husband the first time I saw him (helping some other girl move into her apartment at university). The map cabinet was less fickle. We flirted a bit.

It was, of course, too expensive. We negotiated. I talked to The Prof (which is apparently why God made cell phones), fully expecting a truckload of negatives from him. Astonishingly -- and primarily because old houses like ours have NO CLOSET OR CUPBOARD SPACE -- he was interested, too.

He was especially interested when I explained it could be used to store all those things he's forever sighing about when they fall off shelves and bop him on the head or get tucked into the corners of rooms and leap out when he passes by. He was particularly enthralled when I said we could stop renting the small locker we've had to rent to store paintings which could be stored where the odd-shaped objects are now being stored, and which wouldn't be as likely to bop him on the head or leap out of heavy oak drawers at him. (It wasn't the lack of bopping and leaping that appealed as much as the not paying rent.)

The handsome map cabinet almost began to seem like a bargain. Well, not quite, but worth the cost. And it isn't going to depreciate either.

We ruminated. We discussed. We went on at length with each other. And we agreed. Then I went back and bargained a bit more (badly) with the shop guy. I should have walked out and let him run after me. Next time (what next time?) I will.

Anyway, I now own a map cabinet to die for. It's coming home next week. I can hardly wait. I'm lining up maps and odd-shaped objects (the fairly flat ones and the ones in tubes) and briefing them on their new home. It will be great. I expect the map cabinet and I will have a lifelong relationship. In fact, I'm counting on it.

I just hope I get a royalty check with a comma.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Saint Ralph

I got my new lens today, which has made looking at everything a treat. Up close or far away, the world is in focus and amazingly beautiful. Even though it's raining like crazy right now -- and the wind is howling and my mother has rung to report (horror of horrors) S.N.O.W. in Madison, Wisconsin, which isn't where she lives so why it would be cause for horror is worthy of debate. But I am not bothered because I spent the evening watching a wonderful film.

Saint Ralph made me laugh, made me cry, made me hope. And in fact made me start it all over again as soon as it ended the first time. I've just sat through it a second time, this time with my husband who generally averts his eyes in movies because (I think) he's embarrassed for the actors to have to be in what he considers drivel. But he watched every bit of Saint Ralph. No drivel here.

Ralph, for those who haven't seen the film, is a 14 year old boy who needs a miracle and, taking 9th grade religion class pretty literally, he decides how he's going to go about achieving one. It's impossible, everyone tells him -- particularly the priest who is the headmaster of his school. It would be a miracle if he did it (not to mention blasphemy, according to the headmaster). But Ralph is not to be deterred. And anyone who thinks that miracles don't come with hard work attached has got another think coming.

Great film. I'm still smiling. I will be watching it again tomorrow, I guarantee you, and watching the director's commentary as well. If you haven't seen it, give it a try. And if you went to Catholic school, don't miss it.

Tomorrow, company for the weekend. And a few moments with Spence!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Comfort Zones

I think my glasses are a comfort zone. Not that I can't see better with them (at least in reading the fine print) and not that being without them when I'm trying to work doesn't distract me because I spend my time thinking, "Gosh, why is the screen so, um, weird?" when I could be thinking, "what's Spence going to do next?"

But really, I think they are what I expect. They are part of my extended sense of self, the me I am comfortable with. I think this must extend to other people, too, because my mother even seems to think I look weird without my glasses. But maybe it's best we don't go there.

Suffice to say, tomorrow or the next day, I get an 'interim' lens and I will, I hope, be able to get back on Spence without thinking how weird the screen looks and how naked my eyes feel, and that will be a good thing.

I am aware of other comfort zones, too. Walking dogs is in my comfort zone. Just walking without a dog is not. It used to be -- pre-dogs -- but not anymore. I watched Alias tonight and Michael Vartan was back and I felt like the world (Alias's world anyway) had righted itself at last. The other shoe seemed at last to have dropped. It is still weird and half the time doesn't seem to make much sense (why, for example, did that stupid girl Peyton tell Sloan that the Sydney lookalike was really Anna Espinosa? Why not let him think Sydney had gone over to the dark side? It only makes sense. But apparently making sense is not a big issue here). But at least Michael Vartan was back and I, for one, breathed a sigh of relief.

I have a uncomfortable zone in genealogy right now that I've been skirting around far too long because I don't know quite how to approach it. Probate records, pre-1858, in England are not as easy to track down as they are after that date. They could have been proved in this court or that, be filed in this place or that. And while I'm planning on getting them all through the Family History Center near where I live -- on microfilm -- I still have to figure out which microfilms. And this is making my head swim. I've done it once -- successfully -- and you would think I'd know how to do it now. But I can't remember how I did it. And I've even taken a course in probate records. So . . . as soon as I get my glasses and have one comfort zone re-established, I'll be tackling this.

Come to think of it, that's probably why I can't write. Exploring new territory with Spence and Sadie is like exploring the unknown. Doing it without glasses is doubly stressful. Like being in the jungle, beset by alligators, and not quite able to see them until they leap up and go "chomp!"

Well, maybe not quite.

But that's what it feels like right now.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Seeing is Writing . . . apparently

I don't really consider myself superstitious. I don't have favorite shirts or socks or methods that get me into the writing day. I have a routine, of sorts, which sometimes works better than others. But it's just that -- a routine. Nothing more.

But there are, it turns out, certain things I need in order to write. Like a keyboard or a pencil.

And glasses.

I can see. Don't get me wrong. In fact my eyes have never been better. I'm typing this right now without my glasses. I have been wandering around all day without my glasses. I went grocery shopping and ran errands and managed to find everything on the list I took along (and could read) without my glasses.

But I can't seem to write without them. I need to stare at the screen through them in order for the creative juices to flow. Otherwise my fingers become paralyzed. My brain dries up. The words clog somewhere on the way to my fingertips. I can't write. Because the screen doesn't look the same.

Or maybe I just don't think it does. And I can't get used to it. It wasn't like this with the first eye op. But then that eye didn't have much astigmatism in it. It wasn't like looking at the world through a fun-house mirror (albeit a crisply clear one). This eye is.

Words do odd things. They disappear for one thing. One minute they're there -- and the next they're not. They have fallen into the black hole of astigmatism (at least I hope to God that's what it is) and then, whoops, they reappear on the other side. Very odd.

I am looking forward to going to see the doc on Wednesday to tell him my sad tale. How I can see incredibly well (except for the occasional word or ocean liner disappearing into a minute black hole of crystal clear waviness) and I can't write. I'm hoping he'll say that the eye has stabilized enough to give me a new prescription for this eye. I really hoping A LOT.

Because Spence has ideas. He has plans. But somehow I can't get them to come out my fingertips at the moment. So . . . Wednesday.

Spence and I can hardly wait.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Sports Night

No, I'm not playing . . . I'm watching.

Back in the late 90s the best thing on television was Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin's version of what a fictional ESPN could be like. The banter was quick and witty, the acting was wonderful, and the stories leapt from laugh-out-loud funny to heart-wrenching in the space of a moment. They were microcosms of life in all its joy and pathos and silliness and angst. They were thought-provoking at the same time they were cause for smiling for the rest of the night.

Thanks to DVDs, they still are.

I bought a set of the DVDs of Sports Night when it first appeared -- and I watched all the first season, then got distracted by life. But a friend had never seen it at all, and so I offered to watch with her (big-hearted of me, I know) and so we have now seen all but the last seven episodes. They wear well. And even if the sight of the World Trade Center which occurs at least once per episode recalls to mind an innocence I no longer possess, I watch them with joy because I love the people.

I was really sad when Sports Night got axed. I thought it deserved a few more seasons. I wanted to know what happened to Dan and Casey and Dana and Natalie and Jeremy and Isaac. In fact, I still do. I think it would be really neat to have a Sports Night reunion. Of course all those actors have gone on to do other wonderful things. I watched Felicity Huffman at the Oscars and thought, I knew her when...

Of course, I didn't. But I knew Dana -- and she was brilliant as Dana, just as Josh Charles was a great Dan Rydell and Peter Krause was terrific as Casey McCall. Robert Guillaume was absolutely memorable as Isaac Jaffe. And I will never forget Joshua Malina and Sabrina Lloyd as Jeremy and Natalie.

So, how about it, guys? How about it, Aaron Sorkin? You've had six or seven years away from Sports Night on CSC. How about catching us up on what everyone's been doing and where they've been?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Birthdays and such

May 7th was obviously a good day to be born. Probably still is, but in particular it was twice -- the year Kate Walker appeared on one side of the pond, and the year my daughter-in-law (one of them) appeared on the other. Not the same year. But clearly two very good ones.

So I want to wish both of them -- and all the others who celebrate May 7th birthdays -- a very happy day. The Prof and the dogs and I will be drifting over to Kate's to wish her a happy day. I'm sure several felines who live in Kate's house will be doing so as well. Kate herself promised me earlier today that while she was in York today she would wave a Fat Rascal in my direction. No, not Sid.

Have a great day!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Methodology . . . or I love it when a plan comes together

Every discipline, it seems, has its own jargon. Writers talk about plot and characterization and plot points and turning points and scenes and structure and black moment and denouement
(however you spell it) and a whole bunch of other stuff that allows them to 'shorthand' when talking to each other.

Genealogy has its own language, too. There are, of course, pedigree charts and family group sheets and primary and secondary sources and original and derivative information and direct and indirect evidence. There was once "preponderance of evidence" and now there is "the genealogical proof standard" which splits hairs semantically so as not to make things too easy for anyone trying to prove who their great-great-great-grandpa is. The "preponderance of evidence" got left by the wayside a few years back because that only required a balance of the evidence to point to one guy, not ALL the evidence you can find (and you're really supposed to look, and look hard, and look at everything possible). The genealogical proof standard requires that, plus it expects you to explain why some idiot vicar wrote down Simon's mother's name as Catherine when she's Sally on every other document you can find that identifies his parents.

It's a good exercise. It's demanding and when you get done doing it, you feel reasonably confident that you've covered the bases.

Which brings me to methodology. That's a term that genealogists use when they talk to each other -- and especially when they try to teach those of us who are learning the ropes. It is a multi-syllabic word for "having a plan" and "figuring out what to do and then doing it." It's a great word.

I've learned a lot about genealogical methodology in the past few years -- especially in the last two because I've been taking some courses through the National Institute for Genealogical Studies affiliated with the University of Toronto as well as working on my own.

The methodology notion is one I've taken back to writing with me. It works in tandem with the gut instinct stuff that I ordinarily do. That was, for a long time, the way I did genealogy, too. Now I'm more systematic in my research, and while I'm not more systematic in my writing (see Spence and the park bench) I do have tools at my disposal for looking at the gut instinct stuff I come up with. I like the way they work together.

I feel like an old dog with a very useful new trick.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Half a book

The thing about Spence is -- I have half a book. In my head. On paper I have about, oh, maybe a fifth of a book or less. I actually thought I had more than half a book in my head. And it turns out I'm wrong.

This is disconcerting. But it is actually better to have discovered it now than when I am on page 100 and realize that I haven't got a clue where things are going and I'm just going to be paddling my canoe around in circles until I figure it out.

I think that's what Spence and I and the park bench and the scotch bottle were doing -- coming to terms with the fact that, beyond the scotch bottle and the palm trees (no, not in New York, we're moving on from New York) there was . . . nothing. Presumably, yes, there was an ending, but there was this great gaping chasm between the palm trees and the ending.

And now I have to figure out what goes into the chasm.

Backhoes, anyone? No, really. It's time to start thinking what Sadie will be wanting from the rest of her life. Because Sadie is the one who's making the moves now. Maybe if I changed my word counter to "rough Sadie" from "rough Spence" she would feel motivated and take off. I can feel her stirring, looking forward, making plans. Getting a life.

I'm getting excited about the possibilities. She's not. Not yet. She's apprehensive. I don't blame her. But I think it's time she acted like a heroine. No more sitting on the sidelines. Spence is a force to be reckoned with -- and I think she's going to have to show him she is a bit of a force (or maybe more than a bit) herself.

On a completely different topic, Anne Frasier is taking a vote on whether to have a root canal or get a tooth extracted. If you have an opinion (this is dentistry by consensus apparently) drop over to her site and share it. I'm sure she'll be glad to add your vote to the tally. You may have to scroll down a bit as she's added a topic or two or three in the meantime, but I'm sure you can find it.

Dazzling . . . how wonderful to see!

Well, it's a little blurry still admittedly. But the colors are fantastic as I knew they would be from the earlier operation. Everything is so, um, vivid. Words fail.

I knew what to expect from this second cataract operation. It seemed to go faster than the first one. Maybe because I was the first person of the session so I didn't have to wait for anyone else's to finish. All I know is, I went in at 11:30 a.m. and I was home by 2:00 p.m. Pretty fast, I think.

I took a nap and my friend Nancy brought over turkey tacos for dinner because she is wonderful and she even tossed in little pieces of key lime pie (my favorite!) so I was well nourished as well as able to (sort of) see.

Then we watched Alias, which was less than dazzling. The previews indicate that Michael Vartan will be back -- at last -- next week. All I have to say is, "What took them so long?" The one last night was bordering on pathetic. They lost me a long time ago, and they aren't getting me back apparently. They at least better pull out all the stops with Vaughn's return.

And I had better stop quibbling about them and pull out all the stops on Spence as soon as I can see the keyboard longer than five minutes at a stretch!

Anyway, off to get the doc to check his handiwork. Then --- to Spence. I hope.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Off to the Op

Today I get my second cataract operation. This will be, if it works out as well as the last one, a milestone in my life. I will no longer be seeing the world through amber colored glasses.

Before I had the first op, I had no idea I was seeing things with an amber film over them. But the minute I could open my eye (and keep it open for more than a split second) after the first surgery I was amazed at the change in the colors of my world. Blues were really really blue. Not sort of shabby greenish tinted almost grey. And greys were grey. Whites were really white, not yellow. Of course I could close the "new" eye and see things the way they used to be through the old one. And what a different world it was.

Which is why I am opting to do the other eye today. I want the full spectrum. I don't want half my world to be fuzzy and dull unless it has to be. And I'm hoping it doesn't have to be.

Before I go, I want to wish terrific friend and wonderful author Michelle Reid a very happy birthday. The Prof and I and Kate Walker and her husband spent a wonderful couple of days with Michelle and her husband last summer. What fun we had. I looked them up on Google Earth last night -- and smiled just remembering.

And then I remembered Kate's husband driving us through amazing windy little roads to get to Millom (saint that he is) so I could visit the home of my ancestors after they left Cornwall. And what a day we had there, too, with the wonderful Anna Lucia taking time out of her busy life to show us all around. Wish I'd seen the full-color spectrum of Millom (grey, you say?) when I was there. But maybe someday I'll get back.

Jane's book arrived yesterday, the postman apparently finally having finished it and given it his imprimatur. I'm looking at it longingly, but I know if I start I won't want to stop -- and I need to get this cataract off. So, soon, Jane! Soon!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Goody Boxes

Those of you who have stopped to visit and are readers of romance fiction, if you didn't get here through my website, you might want to drop in and sign up for the contest which will be ending on Mother's Day.

I put together a "goody box" several times a year and offer it to the grand prize winner of my contest. It usually has some good books, some edibles, and some seasonal items or themed items. My last winner got a "Spring Has Sprung" box with some gardening items in it as well as some books to lie in the hammock and read (and a watering can to make sure the plants don't die while she's reading).

This time I'm aiming at a little "R&R for Moms" -- but since I don't know if you are a mom or not in most cases, I'm not going to make that a criteria for signing up. Presumably once you had a mom, and maybe you still do. So if you win, maybe you can share it with her.

Three 'great prize winners' will get a copy of one of my backlist titles. If you win and you have a preference, I'll see if I can find it in the attic (no guarantees). If not, I'll send along one of the ones I can find. My husband (aka The Prof) thinks I should have LOTS of contests so we can clean out the attic. I'm doing the best I can.

Spence, I'm happy to report, is moving again. He's got rid of the scotch bottle and is out of the park. Just in time for me to go have a cataract removed. So if you don't see me here for a few days, it's because I can't see a blinkin' thing. But if it's anywhere near as good as the last op, it will be fantastic.

Linking to Jane . . . Or Life's Little Disasters

One of the books I really enjoyed in the past year was Jane Porter's The Frog Prince. Used, as I was, to Jane's incredibly intense Harlequin Presents novels, I was taken by surprise by this very different voice.

Jane? I thought. Is this you?

Well, of course, it was her heroine. But it was Jane, too. And it was delightful.

I read it the night before I was going to Indianapolis last June to take care of my granddaughter while my daughter, The Athletic Trainer, hobnobbed with 10,000 other athletic trainers and got CEUs for it. And I was almost late getting there because I stayed awake until all hours finishing TFP, and then had to drag myself out of bed and drive for hours to get to Indy. All Jane's fault.

Then I was telling my daughter about it, about how much fun it was and how I'd enjoyed it, and naturally I'd forgotten to bring the book. I'm lucky I remembered to bring my head and my suitcase, I left in such a hurry. And there is nothing The Athletic Trainer likes more than a good book. So naturally we had to go find her one of her own. Which we did. Fortunately there was a Borders within spitting distance of the hotel.

She loved The Frog Prince, too. (I know this because we were sharing one little hotel room and she was laughing out loud at 2 a.m. while the granddaughter and I were trying to sleep).

So when Jane kindly offered me an ARC of her new book, Flirting With Forty, I leapt at the chance to read it. Now I have been watching the mailbox for a week. The postman isn't here yet today and it's already after 4 p.m. -- which makes me think he's staying at home reading it before he deigns to bring it, drat him.

In the meantime, when I'm not working with Spence, I've been doing my best to link to Jane's Blog, called the Janeblog, which has a very nice piece on Peeps today. And I can get the blog linked to, but I can't get any of the pictures. And since Jane does lots of great pictures on her blog, if you go there from my page, it's like getting a comic book without the illustrations. If you go there directly you still don't get any Peeps -- which Jane apparently isn't sharing even any pictures of! -- but you will get lots of great people.

So . . . if anyone feels like telling me HOW to get Jane's blog so it comes up complete with pictures, I'd be delighted to learn. In the meantime, you can go there from my links, but be aware that, for the moment at least, you apparently get the 'text only' version.

And Spence? He's fine, thanks. And he's working at last. Working so hard I left him in the other room to get on with it while I came in here to try to link up with Jane.

Now Jane is linked. Sort of. And the dogs are barking, which might mean the postman has arrived at last. If so, and if he has delivered Flirting With Forty, I have the feeling Spence will be on his own a few hours longer.