Friday, November 28, 2008

Reading to Kids

Over on the Pink Heart Society blog this weekend I wrote about the joy of reading to children. It's one of my favorite things to do -- and I miss having children around to read with on a regular basis.

I'm thinking, though, that with Skype becoming a regular part of my life these days, that the day isn't far off when I might get to read distant grandchildren a bedtime story via computer.

What will I read them? Several of our family favorites are over on the Pink Heart blog. But there really wasn't room there for everything. And there won't be here, either. But I promised to list a few more just in case anyone wants a good shopping list for kids' books this holiday season.

I'm leaving out the stuff on best seller lists now. You can all find those front and center at every bookstore you go into. The ones I'm talking about here might have been best sellers in their day -- or maybe there were just really good books to read and share. We loved them, anyway. I hope you do, too.

Frog and Toad were big hits at our house. All the books about Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel went through several paperback incarnations here because they got worn out from so many readings. Finally I went to hear Mr Lobel speak at a children's literature seminar and bought autographed copies of F&T -- one apiece for two of my children. He drew them each a Frog or a Toad inside with his inscription. What a Christmas treat that was.

I mentioned several Russell Hoban books on the Pink Heart. But I didn't mention How TOM Beat Captain NAJORK and his Hired Sportsmen. If you haven't read it, do. Tom is a terrific hero. Utterly competent in a completely do-it-my-own-way fashion. No wonder I love him -- he's the quintessential McAllister hero!

Hoban's The Little Brute Family and The Stone Doll of Sister Brute are fun reads, too.

We've worn out copies of Clyde and Wendy Watson's wonderful Father Fox's Pennyrhymes and John Burningham's Mr Gumpy's Outing. Both of them are a delight to read aloud, as is Wanda Gag's Millions of Cats which is older than I am, and the fabulous, rollicking A Roundabout Turn by Robert H Charles (the L Leslie Brooke illustrations are fantastic, too) which is older than my mother.

People who live where we live thoroughly enjoy curling up on cold winter nights and reading Virginia Burton's Katy and the Big Snow and Ezra Jack Keat's The Snowy Day. I suppose kids in warmer climes would like it for the novelty. We like it because we're warm when we read it and we know what it's like outside!

When we traveled we brought home kids' books from where we went. The favorite by far were the Ivor the Engine books that came home from Wales. We all become great fans of Ivor and his engine driver, Jones the Steam.

For older kids, you might track down the wonderful Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively, any of the many books of K M Peyton (I defy you to read Pennington's Last Term -- in UK, Pennington's Seventeenth Summer without cracking a smile). And if you have a horse-mad child on your list, Peyton can help there, too. Or you can go for the Black Stallion books or Misty of Chincoteague.

Want a little US history? Start them young with Jean Fritz's books. She's written quite a lot since we read And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? Now you can cover a lot more ground with Shh! We're Writing the Constitution and Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? and others besides.

Move on to Newberry winner, Johnny Tremaine, and later classic My Brother Sam Is Dead. Or try to find books by Patricia Beatty (libraries may still have them -- and they definitely should) like How Many Miles to Sundown? and Who Comes to King's Mountain?

Want a little mystery, a little satire, a little sly humor? Try Buffalo Arthur or any of the other Arthur books by Alan Coren or try Sid Fleishman's McBroom stories.

Read Mark Twain's "The Literary Offenses of James Fennimore Cooper." To kids? Yes, to kids. My sixth grade teacher read it to our class and we were laughing so loud that the teacher next door had to come in and tell us to be quiet.

Want serious stuff? Read Katharine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time, Gary Paulsen's Hachet. Immerse yourself and your listeners in Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series, the Narnia books of C S Lewis, or Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden.

I could go on. And on. And on. I won't because the revisions still need to be finished.

But tell me some of your favorite books from your childhood. As I said on the Pink Heart, Gunnar is teaching Micah and Mitch how to pick winners (not always successfully as a lot of treats -- and a lot of slips of paper are getting eaten in the process), and they will be picking a winner on Monday from the commenters here and on the Pink Heart to get a copy of my new book, Antonides' Forbidden Wife. Be the first in your neighborhood . . .

Mitch and Micah, I fear, take bribes. So I'm not letting them read the comments.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Out of the Hammock

No sooner did I mention the word hammock, than my editor pricked up her ears and went, "Ah ha! She's loafing. Must do something about that."

And she did. She sent me revisions and took herself off to Cornwall so I could get on with them.

That's called adding insult to injury as far as I'm concerned. But they are sensible sane sorts of revisions that I could see will make the book better. So I'm thinking about how to accomplish them this week -- and hopefully doing just that.

While I'm gone with my nose in the computer again, I thought I would share with you some of the pix I took in Cannes. I promised Donna Alward, on the Pink Heart blog comments today, that I would put up some photos so she could travel vicariously a bit (since I know exactly how tied down she's feeling. Been there, done that.). I'll save some of Cornwall and elsewhere

So, enjoy. Think of me slaving away. And if I don't get back by Thanksgiving, have a blessed holiday with family and friends. And if you can't be with them, carry them in your heart. That
works, too.

Early Morning along La Croisette

The beach, before the people

Just to remind you of the film festival in Cannes

Restaurants are everywhere

The front garden of one of the small hotels where we had breakfast

Where Presents heroes hang out, of course

View toward La Croisette from the Festival Hall

Inside the Festival Hall -- lots of red carpet

The Palme d'Or, symbol of the Cannes Film Festival

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hammock Time

I know I'm supposed to be feeling the pressure of the upcoming Christmas season. I will. I promise.

But right now I'm in that soft, swaying place where the book is gone and the new book is barely forming in my mind, and I can see at least a part of the carpet in my office (it's blue. I'd almost forgotten) and after a week of dealing with a very sick dog, he seems to be currently improving (so I'm crossing my fingers and hoping for a miracle as he is 12 and that's 80-something in dog years), I don't want to do anything except lie here and drift.

Which is one reason you've had a dearth of blog entries this week. What could I say? Nothing was happening. I wasn't even reading. I was just . . . drifting.

It felt great to drift. Everyone should get to now and then.

But I have a feeling the drift is about to come to an end. I bought the Thanksgiving turkey today. Which means I had to clean out the refrigerator to find a place for it, which means I did less drifting than I had been.

And the characters are beginning to nag again. It's Demetrios this time.

He was the actor brother of Tallie and Theo Savas. Now's he's an independent film producer/director. He's in Cannes, and he's not exactly patient. He wants me to get on with his story. Across a crowded room he's just spotted a woman he never thought he'd see again.

And he's annoyed that I won't get out of my hammock and get to work.

I need to think about this some more, though. At least that's what I'm telling him. In the meantime I think I can get at least a few days more of relaxation.

After Thanksgiving? Yeah, I think that's about right. Maybe Christo's book will be back for revisions then and I can put Demetrios off a while longer.

Maybe I'll start looking for collage pictures. I think I know what he looks like. But I need to get a better idea about his heroine, Anny. At least I have lots of pictures of Cannes.

Anny is blonde, by the way. Wholesome. Girl next door-ish. Which, when he finds out who she really is, turns his world upside down. She's also capable of absolutely stunning elegance when required. Think Cinderella at the ball, minus the mice and the fairy godmother.

You guys helped me find the perfect Natalie. That's her to the left. Want to take a shot at Anny?

Post links or tell me names and I'll check them out.

I can do that while I'm still lying in the hammock.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

They're Gone!

Christo and Natalie have left the building. They got finished last night and hopped across the pond shortly after midnight. They aren't even due until tomorrow. Does this make them premature?

No matter.

It makes them DONE. And that's what's important.

I'm off to watch Casino Royale so my mind will be refreshed and I will understand the back story for Quantum of Solace this week. And to read my Daniel Craig GQ.

Never let it be said that I don't take preparation seriously.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tools of the Trade

As I have become a peripatetic writer of late, I have learned the particular value of certain of my tools.

While I do love my nice big desk top computer with its screen that I can actually see and its keyboard the fits my fingers, I have learned to love more portable devices as well.

The last few times I've traveled abroad I haven't taken my laptop. It weighs, conservatively, 7.5 lbs dripping wet and by the time I add its adapter and power cord, it's closer to 9 lbs. It also rarely cooperates when I want to get on the internet. So mostly I use it to write on at home because, as it won't get online, it's a perfect refuge from the temptation to read email or surf the net.

Enter the mini-notebook -- in my case the wonderful Asus eee pc, otherwise known as "eepie."

There are quite a few sub-notebooks on the market and I'm sure many of them are fine. But I've had my eepie for over 6 months now and I love it. It's been a lot of places, though not clear around the world like Anne Gracie's has been, and it hasn't let me down yet. It starts up in less than a minute. It stores as much as I need. And it weighs just over 2 lbs.

With the eepie I can work on my book wherever I am. I can carry it to record offices or libraries and not feel burdened. And I can get online almost anywhere. Generally speaking I don't leave home without it these days.

I love my flash drives, too. My current best friend is called Big Red because, well, he is. And he carries 8GB of my stuff around on his back and never complains. In fact he loads so quickly I don't even keep my book on my hard drive now. I just leave it on Big Red and move him from the eepie to the laptop to the desktop as the occasion arises.

Digital cameras have made a huge impact on my researching. I can take photos not just of scenery and places and people, but pages in books, newspapers and original documents of all sorts. Mine takes video, too, as most seem to these days. I find that while stills are great for certain details, the ambience is often better captured in a video. You get not only sights but sounds -- and if I'm feeling articulate I can add a voice over as well. And as it's no bigger than the palm of my hand, I can tuck it in my bag and barely know it's there.

Right before I left for England I bought a tiny Flip camcorder that takes an hour's worth of video. Yes, I know I said my digital camera does the same -- possibly even better because it's more sophisticated. But as I used up an SD card in Ireland taking too much video and then was stuck without space when I needed it, I decided a palm-sized camcorder was worth it. I used it extensively in Cannes -- capturing a lot of footage on a history tour of the city (complete with commentary). It gives me a feel of being "in" the setting. I wouldn't be without it.

Lest you think I've sold my soul to technology, let me assure you that I take along a full complement of pens (right now I'm partial to Staedtler triplus fineliners that I bought at a stationer's on the King's Road in Chelsea) because there are twenty different colors which means I have a pen for every mood (and the variety has proved enchanting to 8-year-olds with mono).

And I have lots of small (say 5" x 8") lined-paper notebooks. I use one as a sort of journal 'day book' to jot memos and references and ideas for the book that will flee if I give them half a chance. This is a catchall, but I wouldn't be without it.

I use another to keep my family history references that I intend to look up and record what I find. And I use a third for the current book. These don't spend the day in my bag, but I add to them as I discover I need to. And they preserve a sort of traveling record of what I've wanted to do and what I've actually done.

There are other things I find useful -- like my cell phone (and I'm thinking a world phone would be a better idea as mine was useless across the pond), and my wallet-sized tube map of London, and my tiny Time Out guide to Cannes and Nice and the French Riviera, which I read ahead of time and left home.

I needed to. I pack too heavy. Just ask Sophie Weston.

I need lessons from Sophie who took a tiny tote along to France and still had room to stuff 2 one-liter bottles of water into it when required to do so.

But I think it will be the clothes I cut down on, not any of the above.

Besides, however lightly I pack, it's impossible not to bring home books and magazines, even if they do weigh a ton. When you go into a bookstore and there are three magazines with cover stories on Hugh Jackman and two with Daniel Craig, I defy you to pack light!

What do you consider essential when you travel? Which would you leave out?

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

No Place Like Home

I have barely seen "home" in 6 weeks. It looks pretty much the way I remember it. The dogs were glad to see me. So was The Prof.

So were the complement of grandsons (three of the four in existence, the eldest being elsewhere) who were in the front yard when I got home from the airport. So was the new puppy who was following after the twins. I harbor a deep wish that said puppy will find a different home as the boys already have a dog (father of puppy), and this puppy looked like twins would be too much for him. Just my humble opinion.

It is rare however to feel that kids will be too much for a dog, so trust me on this.

Anyway, I am home. And I wrote 35,000 words in 3 weeks (amazing even myself, not to mention the 8 year old granddaughter), and I have one and a half scenes to go to finish Christo's book. Correction: to finish a draft of Christo's book.

It should be done in the morning. Then I can go back to the beginning and line up all the frogs (remember, we're in the year of the frog in McAllisterland; the ducks are taking the year off).

With luck Christo and Natalie can go winging off to the editor on Wednesday or Thursday. Early for once. Imagine that.

I'm also way behind on updating my website. Poor PJ, aka Antonides' Forbidden Wife, is halfway through his month on the shelves in UK and Ireland and I haven't even posted him on the sidebar.

I will stick him here, though so you know to look out for him if you are a UK/Ireland person in need of a good book.

I might even let PJ or Ally come and blog. What do you think? Should we invite them?

I'm going to bed with Christo now -- and finish his scene. Get your minds out of the gutter.

See you tomorrow (I hope).

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Stranger than Fiction

When I knew I was not going to be home in time to vote, I did my civic duty and requested an absentee ballot.

This entailed faxing a request to my elections office to have one sent to me where I am currently staying, and then following it up with a real signed letter (in case I had faked the fax, I guess).

So I did.

And a week should have been sufficient because this is, after all, less than a thousand miles away and in the same country. Presumably, too, absentee ballots are sent first class mail because, well, you have to send them back that way, don't you?

I wouldn't know, of course, because I'm still waiting for mine to arrive.

When it didn't arrive yesterday -- the last possible day that it could have arrived so that I could have voted and had it postmarked (though the mail here arrives about 4 pm so it would have been cutting things close), I rang the elections office and asked about it.

"We sent it," the lady said. And she read me off the address they'd sent it to in "Templeton, Texas."

And I said, "No, it's Temple, Texas."

And she said, "Yes, Templeton, Texas."

And I said, "No, Temple."

She said, "That's what I said, Templeton."

And I said, "No. Temple. T.E.M.P.L.E."

And she said, "Yes, T.E.M.P.L.E.T.O.N."

Groundhog Day is alive and well and living in, er, some place in Texas.

So we tried again. "Temple. Two syllables, " I said. "No 'ton.'"

"Templeton?" she said with the barest hint of doubt this time.

"Temple," I said. "Tem-ple."

Silence. "Temple, Texas?" she said.

"Yes," I sighed.

Shuffle of paper. "But wehave the paper you sent. it says right here . . . 'Temple . . . Texas. Oh."


"Well, we've got the zip code right, haven't we?"

Beats me. I haven't seen it yet. Still didn't arrive this afternoon. Not that it would have mattered if it had.

So, whoever wins, it's not my fault.

For the first time in my life, I didn't do it.


Sunday, November 02, 2008

Role Models

Way back when I was a fledgling writer, I used to look at other writers' careers and think about whose I would like mine to emulate.

Hands down, it was always Tony Hillerman.

The talented, hard-working, steady, insightful gentleman who was, in my estimation, not only a wonderful, memorable novelist and essayist, but even more a genuinely fine human being, died a week ago at the age of 83.

His mysteries featuring Lt Joe Leaphorn and Sgt Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police brought the reservation and its people to the attention of readers the world over.

His evocation of the American southwest -- its stark landscape, its disparate cultures and peoples, its religions and superstitions, its beauty and its violence -- has been celebrated for over a quarter of a century.

I read all his books as soon as they came out. They brought back childhood memories of frequent treks across the Navajo reservation en route from California to Colorado. They humanized the landscape for me. They peopled it with men and women who might have grown up in a different culture from mine, but who in very fundamental ways weren't alien at all.

That was one of the talents of Tony Hillerman. Through his work, he brought people together. He created characters you came to love as you came to know them. And I will always be glad that he gave Jim Chee a woman to love him and a potential happy ending in his last book.

If he had done no more than write wonderful books that stayed on the shelves year after year after year (something all writers aspire to), his would have been an admirable career.

But he did far more than just write. He was a generous man -- with his time and with his knowledge. He worked tirelessly for his fellow mystery writers, and even those of us in completely different genres were the beneficiaries of his wisdom and concern.

Twenty years ago I wrote a book called Gifts of the Spirit. The hero, who had been in several earlier books, was a half-Navajo, half-Anglo journalist called Chase Whitelaw. The story I wanted to tell about Chase and his family was going to take him to the reservation as an adult, to discover a part of his heritage he'd never really known.

I know about mixed blood heritage. I didn't know very much about Navajo culture. I needed a resource, a person who understood what a writer needed, and who understood the Navajo culture.

I needed Tony.

I didn't know him personally. But I contacted him, asked if he'd be willing to talk to me. Next thing I knew we were discussing my book at length on the phone. He listened to my story, made suggestions about what Chase's family would think, pointed me in the direction of the most useful books he thought I'd need.

We talked an hour. Maybe more.

When we hung up, he said, "Call me whenever you have more questions."

I said I didn't want to bother him. He said, "No bother. Writers help other writers."

They do. He did. We talked again later in the book.

And right before I sent Chase off to the publisher, I called Tony one last time and thanked him. He was glad to know it had worked out, happy that his books and suggestions had helped.

They had. It would not have been as good a book without his help. I would not be the writer I am without his guidance -- and his example.

I doubt very much that I'll have the writing career Tony Hillerman had. But if I can be half the human being he was, I'll be very well pleased.

Thank you, Tony, for wonderful books, for your wisdom and your time and your generosity. God speed.

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