Thursday, December 31, 2009

Meet Leah Bright Maxwell

Leah is the nearly thirteen-year-old protagonist of my second middle-grade novel, The Second Cellar. She's precocious, theatrical, and angry at her father for abandoning her for the summer to the care of an aunt whom she doesn't even know. Just when she resigns herself to three months of pure boredom--with nothing better to do than to poke around in the attic and cellar of her aunt's antebellum Federal-style house, she discovers a hidden room, a second cellar that conceals many secrets. She also learns that her aunt has some secrets of her own.

The Second Cellar is a work in progress. I am resolved to have the rough draft finished by my birthday in June, as a little gift to myself. If I can push through and complete it before that, all the better.

Part of my prewriting work is to search for images that convey my characters to my satisfaction, and this girl does that. I had another picture selected until I saw this redhead. I've always known that Leah Bright had auburn hair. The hard part was finding the perfect face to go with the hair, a face that showed Leah's spunk, intelligence, and courage. Today that search ended.

Monday, December 28, 2009

I Struck Gold!

If I include a site on my list of favorite blogs, I have visited it fairly regularly and found it to be helpful, inspiring, informative, or just plain fun.

Today I discovered a gold mine of a site, thanks to Chuck Sambuchino's interview on "Guide to Literary Agents" with Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Kole, who is fairly new to the agency, maintains KIDLIT.COM. She has gone to the trouble of learning the business from three sides: writer, agent, and publisher. Reading her articles, I feel as though I'm back in college. Better yet, it's as if I'm earning my MFA.

All right. Her focus is kid's lit. But good writing spans the generations, and what Kole has to say applies to (dare I say it?) ALL fiction genres. Check it out for yourself, my fellow writers.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Remember the BRAT

My little granddaughter (who certainly is NOT a brat, BTW) has joined the ranks of the puny in our family, suffering from the digestive virus that continues to plague the region area. In case you are among the afflicted, remember the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. Include plenty of water, 7-up or real ginger ale, and Gatorade, or other drink with electrolytes. Get well soon!

Writing Reflections

I love being a member of Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Southern Indiana Writers' Salon, and American Christian Fiction Writers. Writing is a solitary enterprise, for the most part, so belonging to such groups is essential. We need the objective feedback of others.

As part of ACFW's large general loop and a small critique group, I've learned much about my craft. The loop boasts membership that includes editors, agents, reviewers, professors who teach writing, and writers at all stages in their careers, from the rank beginner to the oft-pubbed author. Thanks to a critiquer who was part of my first small group (and remains a friend and critique partner), my writing is tighter, more precise. I still can be wordy, but I'm improving.

However, if writers were to try to conform to all of the tidbits of advice given--through a loop or any other source--we would all sound alike.  Consider the great writers of American literature for a moment. One can read the short, crisp sentences of Hemingway and recognize his style immediately. He wrote simply and directly. What he lacked in syntax and diction, according to critic Harry Levin, he made up for in action. Faulkner, on the other hand, wrote in a very different style, constructing long, convoluted sentences that painted vivid pictures in the imagination of the reader. Yet, Hemingway and Faulkner were contemporaries. Like them, each writer should have his or her own voice and style.

Good writing applies common sense and survives the trends of the day, giving it a long shelf life. "Lose the tags," we're told. "Introduce lines of dialog with action beats." That's reasonable advice, though it's not really new. The terminology may have changed, but the idea stays the same. If two people are talking back and forth, the writer can omit most of the he said/she saids. Action beats (what actors might call "business") help to eliminate "talking heads" and serve to develop characters and scenes.

These days, we also hear a lot about deep point of view or penetration point of view--same thing. This form of third-person writing sees and understands the scene through the character's eyes, giving the motivation behind the action. It falls just shy of being first-person, showing the attitude at the moment, not in memory or flashback. As with any strategy, it has its faults. It is no more reliable than first-person because of its subjectivity. The character may misunderstand or misinterpret events (which can be exactly what the writer intends). Because it can be very intense, it has the potential to wear on the reader, if carried on too long, so the writer should be discriminating in its usage.

"Show. Don't tell." How many time have we heard that? It is good advice to new writers, who tend to want to tell or describe everything in long, boring paragraphs. But there are times when the narrator needs to tell, to describe, times when some details need to be conveyed to the reader efficiently. Careful revision can eliminate many so-called narrator intrusions, but not all should be cut or changed.

I recently joined a new small critique group through ACFW, and I am so excited. We are beginning a new adventure together on the brink of a new year. I want them to be tough on me. They can rest assured that I will be on them. In the months since I joined ACFW, I have developed a tough skin. I can take it. I will consider each suggestion, though I may disagree, and I may not make all the revisions each one suggests. I'm the writer of my work, so that call is mine to make.

As I pray before each writing session, I also want to remember to pray before I begin reading their critiques, that God will keep me teachable, helping me to discern what needs to be changed and what can stay as it is. I pray that we become a cohesive team while maintaining our individuality--we four and the Lord.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

May you have a blessed Christ-centered Christmas that is full of joy, peace, love, family, faith, laughter, wisdom and warmth.

Christmas Reflections: The Christ of Christmas

The Christ of Christmas
The house is quiet in this predawn hour. Soon my grandsons will come bounding down the stairs and into my room. "It's Christmas, Gran'ma! Merry Christmas," they'll shout. The day will get busier from that moment, so I am snatching this brief time to write the final entry in the "Christmas Reflections" series.

This posting should have been finished by now, but I couldn't find direction. As a writer and storyteller, I had no trouble putting myself in Mary's place. I could imagine her, propped up against the rough boards of a stall, still perspiring from the labor of giving birth, cradling her newborn son in her arms while she examined every wrinkle and pore of His face--the face of God. I could see her bending to drink in His sweet scent and kiss the hollow at the bridge of His nose. I envisioned her slipping aside her robe just enough to put Him to her breast, giving sustenance to the One Who had created her. No doubt she pondered the words of the angel Gabriel, who told her, "He shall be great."

But this was no ordinary baby. With the conception of Jesus, Almighty God condescended from His position to take on human flesh and enter the world of man. The details of His coming were foretold by God Himself, as He escorted Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and through His prophets throughout the Old Testament. I love Luke 4:16-22, which says:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. and as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
The Christ did not come to be a cute, giggling, wriggling baby for everyone to coo over. The manger stood in the shadow of the cross. The captives? The blind? The oppressed? That's mankind. Me. You. We are held captive by sin. We are willfully blind to His truth. We are oppressed by our own wickedness. Jesus was born to die on the cross to take away the sin of all who repent and believe in Him. He then conquered Death and Hell by resurrecting from the tomb.

Two millennia ago, a baby was born under humble circumstances to a peasant girl, a virgin until after His birth. That baby is the King of kings, and his prophesied return is imminent. Indeed, the King is coming!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Reflections: Ten

The Tastes of Christmas

These are a few of my favorite Christmas recipes.

Martha Washington Creams

2 lbs. sifted confectioners' sugar
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 cups flaked coconut
1 stick butter (not margarine)
3 cups chopped pecans
1 jar drained maraschino cherries (pat dry with paper towel), snipped or chopped finely
Dipping chocolate

Mix all ingredients together; shape into balls; chill until hard. Dip chilled balls in dipping chocolate and let cool. Store in airtight container in refrigerator.


1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup chunky natural peanut butter
2 cups chow mein noodles
Microwave the chocolate chips and peanut butter just until melted. Stir together. Add chow mein noodles and toss to coat. Drop by spoonfuls onto waxed paper or parchment. Chill in refrigerator. Story in airtight container.

Black Walnut Cream Cheese Fudge

1 six-ounce package semi-sweet chocolate chips
6 ounces original cream cheese (not low-fat) at room temperature
2 tablespoons milk or cream
4 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1/2 teaspoon black walnut extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup coarsely chopped black walnuts (can substitute walnuts or pecans)

Butter a 9 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan well; set aside. Melt chocolate chips in double boiler over hot, not boiling, water. Cream the cream cheese and milk together. Gradually add powdered sugar. Blend in melted chocolate chips, vanilla, and salt. Stir in black walnuts. Press mixture into pan. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill overnight or until firm. Cut into squares.

Dale's Date Delight

1 cup chopped pecans
2 cups sugar
2 cup dates, snipped
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
2 teaspoons baking powder
6 eggs, separated
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Beat egg yolks until light and lemon colored. Slowly beat sugar into the yolks. In medium bowl, mix other dry ingredients (pecans, dates, and graham cracker crumbs). Stir dry ingredients slowly into egg yolk mixture. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Add baking powder to the beaten whites. Fold gently into yolk mixture. Pour into an ungreased baking dish. Bake 30--45 minutes, depending on the size of the baking dish. Serve with whipped cream or hard sauce.
Special Note: Dale's Date Delight rises quite a bit, so use a baking dish or casserole that allows head room.

Hard sauce: In a medium-size bowl, using mixer set at medium high speed, beat one stick of unsalted butter (softened), with 1 cup confectioners' sugar until light and fluffy. Add 3 tablespoons dark rum. Serve on Dale's Date Delight or your favorite bread pudding recipe.

Bleu Cheese Ball
1 eight-ounce pkg. regular cream cheese (not low fat)
1 eight-ounce pkg. "1/3 less fat" cream cheese
1 four-ounce pkg. bleu cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup finely chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
Bring cheeses to room temperature. Cream together in a medium mixing bowl. Form into a ball. Refrigerate until firm. Roll in nuts until well-covered. Gently press nuts into cheese ball. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve with assorted crackers. I prefer plain ol' whole-grain saltines, myself.

Note: Check back. I may add some more recipes before Christmas.

Christmas Reflections: Nine

Christmas Center Stage

I love the pageantry of Christmas. Cantatas, children's plays and musicals, young adults' dramas, "specials," live nativities, and caroling. I think much should be made of the coming of Incarnate God into the flesh of humanity. The birth of the King of kings is monumental, after all. It changed all of history. The entire Bible--Old and New Testaments--points to the 33 years on Earth of the Christ, the eternal Son of God: His birth, life, death, triumphant resurrection, and imminent return.

At church whole families are involved from September until show time in preparations. The walls of the church building resound with music proclaiming the birth of the Newborn King for three months. It is a busy, cheerful time as choirs rehearse, actors learn lines and blocking, children repeat their parts until they say them in their sleep, fathers build simple sets, and mothers sew or alter costumes.

Hearts pound, tummies quiver, and knees knock as presentation time closes in. The scent of candle wax and fresh evergreens waft on the air. Grandparents arrive early to vie for choice seats, the ones providing the best camera shots. Pews fill to capacity, and ushers scurry around setting up folding chairs.

The sanctuary lights dim. The music begins. The chattering audience, filled with electric expectancy, falls silent as the program participants march in.

Then it's over. All that's left to do is to dismantle the sets, fold away the costumes, file the music, store the ornaments, and vacuum the carpet. But for three glorious months the lives of the church family revolved around that monumental moment 2,000 years ago when God became man in the form of a wee babe, born in a borrowed stable to a peasant virgin and laid in a common manger. Therein lies the true pageantry of Christmas.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Reflections: Eight

A Recycled Christmas

Southern Indiana Writers' Salon met and celebrated the birth of our Savior yesterday. While we munched on delectables and sipped steaming coffee or hot cocoa, we talked about the personal significance of Christmas.

One member whose family has grown quite large through the years--what with children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews--said that her family decided not to buy new gifts this year, but rather to give recycled presents.

"Before you picture us going through dumpsters for just the right gift," she said with a chuckle, "let me tell you what we're doing. Any form of recycling is allowed. It just cannot be a new purchase." She explained that her family had visited Goodwill stores, thrift shops, yard sales, and flea markets; rummaged through their own storage rooms, basements, attics, and closets, repurposed items, and hand-crafted creations in order to come up with gifts for family members. Much love and consideration went into the selection of each present.

One day, her daughter was especially excited about a treasure she had found at a garage sale. "It's a little radio that works like new," the daughter said. "It's in great condition. And I paid two dollars for it!" She checked off one name on her list.

The writer added that, since she sews, many of her gifts will be items that she has altered, embellished, or salvaged from other pieces. Homemade gifts provide tremendous satisfaction to both the giver and the recipient, for whom they may become cherished heirlooms.

A recycled Christmas has so many advantages. For one thing, the little plastic cards that get so many people in trouble can stay tucked away in wallets. Those who give such presents don't have to tremble in fear when they see the mail carrier approaching their mailboxes in January. Further, the gifts are true treasures, selected or created just for the individual.

Remember that the Only Begotten Son of God, Himself Eternal God, was born in a borrowed stable. The shepherds knelt before a borrowed manger that had been repurposed as a cradle.

Have yourself a very merry recyled Christmas!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas Reflections: Seven

A Birth Most Imminent

Just hear those sleigh bells jinglin', a ring-ting-tinglin', too. Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.

It was a cherished ritual with us--myself and my two daughters. At least once a Christmas season, we would bundle up against the cold, get in the car, and take a grand light tour, stopping off first at a gas station for tall, steaming cups of some specialty holiday coffee or cappuccino. Then, with music of the season playing in the background and us joining in, we'd head for the most spectacular displays we could find, the ones where folks stopped their cars, dimmed their lights, and sat for awhile to take it all in.

You know the spot. You have one in your town, most likely. Perhaps it is a neighborhood where on a special night the streets and walkways are lined with luminarios. Or maybe it's the home of a retired man whose hobby is converting his garage into Santa's workshop and his lawn into a quiet Bethlehem scene once a year.

Giddy-yap, giddy-yap, giddy-yap! Let's go! Let's look at the show. We're ridin' in a wonderland of snow.

We usually visited the flashiest displays first, before wandering onto quiet streets. One night, colored lights shone through a fresh layer of snow, turning neighborhoods into a surrealistic winter wonderland. We rolled the car windows down, willing to endure the cold in order to hear the sound of our tires crunching snow. The icy glow of a nearly-full moon added to the mystery of the scene. We were in an upscale suburb, and most of the properties were decorated to some degree. Brightly-lit Christmas trees stood where they could be seen from the street, electric candles glowed in each window, and wreaths of fresh evergreenery hung on heavy doors of wood and brass.

Let's take the road before us and sing a chorus or two. Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.

One house stood out for its lack of adornment.

"Stop," I said to my older daughter who was driving. "Let's go back to that house."

Both daughters asked why. "I can't explain it, but I just think that we should carol the people who live there."

My younger daughter who was sitting in back leaned forward. "Do you know them?"

"No. That doesn't matter."

We went back, parked the car, and walked up to the door. I knocked firmly, and, without waiting for an answer, we began to sing in three-part harmony, as we often did at church.

Silent night. Holy night.

The door opened, and there stood a young man and his wife. He had his arm around her to warm her.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed. The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.

The young woman looked up at her husband and smiled.

We wish you a merry Christmas! We wish you a merry Christmas! We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!

"Thank you. Thank you so very much," said the woman. "I'm in labor. We're on our way to the hospital. And I was not looking forward to the ordeal ahead of me. But I know I can make it, now. I really needed to hear your lovely caroling."

"Yes," the man said. "Thank you. And merry Christmas to you, also."

On our way out of that neighborhood, God gave us another blessing. A family of deer numbering seven or eight wandered onto a broad, snow-covered lawn just as we were about to pass. Again we stopped the car and dimmed the lights. The deer lingered, watching us watching them. For several minutes we sat there, sipping the last of our drinks, cold by now, before heading for home.

There's a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray. It will be the perfect ending of a perfect day.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas Reflections: Six

"I Am Abraham"

Today God gave me an early Christmas gift.

I went to the hospital to get a routine blood draw to check the level of a particular medication. The technician introduced himself to me as I followed him back to the lab.

"I am Abraham," he said with a thick accent. He was very tall and thin, with skin like ebony satin.

"May I ask what country you are from?" I instinctively knew his answer.

"Do you know Africa? I am from Sudan."

"South Sudan?"

"Yes. I am in this country by the grace of God. I had to escape from my country."

As a former newspaper journalist, I longed to sit and talk with him at great length, learning his story, getting to know him. But of course I couldn't. I knew that he was on a tight schedule, and I certainly didn't want to cause him any problems.

"I have prayed for you for years," I said as he filled the vial, "without knowing you."

"Thank you."

"It is an honor to meet you," I gathered up my coat and handbag. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas to you, also."

We met. We talked. We parted. All in a span of about five minutes. But I will never forget meeting Abraham of Sudan, one of the lost boys.

If you don't know who the lost boys (and girls) of Sudan are and what they have endured, their stories are easily available on the Internet. Many, if not most, suffer persecution because of their Christian faith.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Blogger Is Being Contrary

Blogger will not let me put paragraph breaks in the "Christmas Reflections: Five." I apologize for their tech malfunction.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Christmas Reflections: Five

One Raggedy Christmas

The tree, bedecked with cherished ornaments, garlands, and twinkling lights, stood in front of the living room window. We had carefully placed the creche on a white sheet beneath it.

While we kept our gift-giving to a minimum so that it didn't usurp the true meaning of the day, that year circumstances curtailed spending all together. The country was in a recession, and my husband was out of work. So I decided to sew. I warmed up the Singer and began working on huge Raggedy Ann dolls for our two little girls. Keeping it a secret from them while having to work in front of them was the challenge. I could do the machine sewing after they had gone to bed. Constructing the body and the clothes was the easy part.

Embroidering the face, the heart, and the "I love you" took many long hours. As Christmas drew nearer, I found myself working much of the day and into the night on the hand sewing. My daughters watched me rooting every strand of red yarn for the hair.

"What are you doing, Mama?" they asked.

I wouldn't lie to them. "I'm making Raggedy Ann dolls. Do you like them?"

Their faces lit up. "Yes! Who are they for?" I knew they wanted me to say that they were for them, but a mama has to have some secrets, especially at this time of year.

"They're for two children who won't have many presents on Christmas morning. I want them to have these dolls. Do you think they'll like them?"

"Yes," each said. They accepted my explanation. I was glad they didn't ask more questions.

Christmas Eve came, and our tree was still bare of presents. On Christmas morning, however, two rather large gifts appeared behind the creche. After we read Luke 2, it was time for them to open their gifts. When they realized that each had one of the Raggedy Ann dolls, they began dancing around.

"But, Mama, you said these were for two other children," one said.

"Yeah!" the other chimed in. They thought they had caught their mother in a lie.

"I never said that." I remembered, because I had been very deliberate in my wording. "I said that they were for two children who wouldn't have many presents on Christmas morning."

That Christmas, they actually received three gifts: a mama-made doll, a lesson in critical listening, and a story to tell to friends through the years. They still have those dolls. In fact, my grandchildren now enjoy them.

Merry Christmas, Dana, Dawna, and precious grandbabes.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Christmas Reflections: Four

Nylons for Lunch

I always knew that Santa Claus was a wonderful fantasy. Mama never took me to sit on his lap, at least not that I can recall. Perhaps she wanted to protect me from the disappointment of a nearly giftless Christmas morning. I say "nearly giftless," because I usually got something practical--a new pair of oxfords from Schiff's Shoes , a cozy flannel nightgown from Grant's, or a blouse from Kresge's dimestore. It was never anything frivolous such as a transistor radio from Sears'.

My gifts to Mama were handmade in the early years. After all, one would have to collect a ton of empty bottles to get anything really nice. I was in junior high when I decided that she deserved something better than a potholder woven on a borrowed toy loom or a boot-scraper crafted from pop bottle lids nailed to a small square of plywood. (After all, we lived in the heart of downtown New Castle, Indiana, so we seldom had mud on our shoes, and any snow that might be on them would melt away long before we had trudged up the three flights of stairs to our apartment.) But what could I get her, and how could I pay for it?

I began to walk the aisles of the stores looking for just the right present. One day I decided to go into Mary Woodbury's, the finest ladies' apparel shop in town. How brazen of me to even walk through the heavy brass and plate-glass door! The floor was carpeted in some plush stuff. My oxfords sank in up to the laces. Soft music played in the background. An intoxicating fragrance filled the air. I inhaled deeply, trying my best to be quiet about it. It would never do to sniff loudly in Mary Woodbury's.

I couldn't stand there and take root in the rug, so I forced myself forward to the perfume counter. Mama liked perfume, though I'd never known her to wear anything but Coty's L'Oreal, which was sold at the corner drugstore.

"May I help you?"

I turned to see a well-dressed sales clerk with meticulously coiffed hair. At least, I assumed she was a sales clerk. Could it be Mary Woodbury herself? Suddenly I felt like a ragamuffin who had wandered in off the street . . .which was exactly what I was.

"I . . .uhm . . ." Quickly, I picked up one of the perfume bottles. "Can you please tell me how much this is?"

"Yes, miss. That would be eight dollars." I gulped and hoped she hadn't heard. "Shall I wrap it for you?"

"Uh . . .no, thank you. I think I'll keep looking."

Next to the perfume was the hosiery counter. I walked over to take a look. The clerk stayed right with me. She showed me a pair of Van Raalte nylons that came in a box with tissue paper. How elegant! How perfect for Mama! And they were . . .possible . . .if I really saved. A mere two dollars and ninety-nine cents.

The junior high had no cafeteria, so Mama gave me a quarter everyday for lunch at one of the numerous hamburger joints within walking distance of the school. Doug's, with it's killer hamburgers and steaming chili, was my favorite. Both the burgers and the chili were fifteen cents apiece. During this parsimonious time, I got one or the other and drank water. Thus I was able to stash a dime per day for the Van Raaltes. As Christmas drew closer, I skipped lunch all together. The thought of Mama's getting all dressed up to go somewhere, slipping on those luxurious stockings, and asking me to fasten the clasp of her double-strand graduated pearls (a remnant of more prosperous years) helped me forget my growling stomach.

Two days before Christmas, I walked into Mary Woodbury's and up to the hosiery counter with cash in hand. The same clerk came up to me.

"I would like one pair of the Van Raalte hose, size 9, in taupe, please."

I could have sworn the clerk was pinching back a smile, but she may have just stifled a burp. "Would you like that gift-wrapped, miss?"

I stood on tiptoe and leaned over the counter so that only she could hear me. "Is that extra?"

"No, miss."

"Then, yes, please."

On Christmas morning, Mama ever so delicately loosened the tape of the silver-wrapped Van Raalte box, pausing only to notice the embossed Mary Woodbury's sticker near the bow. Memories of those afternoon hunger pangs vanished in the light of her smile. It was absolutely delicious.

Merry Christmas, Mama. I love you.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Coming December 6, "Nylons for Lunch"
Check back for this, the fourth entry of "Christmas Reflections."

Christmas Reflections: Three

The Candy Counter

Candy came in seasonal waves. Some stayed around all year: assorted gum-drops, orange slices, peppermint and wintergreen lozenges, coconut bon-bons and haystacks, Boston baked beans, and redhots, for example. Those were fairly stable, not melting when the weather got hot. (Most of the five-and-tens were not air-conditioned. That luxury was reserved for a few restaurants and drugstores in the 1950s.) Though some chocolate candy hung around all summer, very little was sold.

Who wanted chocolate in the summer? It would melt before you could eat it. And then there were the worms. Sometimes I'd defy the odds and buy a Hershey's bar in July because I was craving chocolate (yes, the addiction started early). After all, it was well-wrapped in that silver foil. Surely it was okay. But it wasn't okay. It was discolored, and there were tiny worms wriggling and gnawing their way through the bar. Mama said that the worm eggs were always in the chocolate, that they waited for hot weather to hatch.

Come October, all of that changed. The clerks knew the little girl who lived up over McShurley's Shoe Store and the Coffee Shop, and they knew why I kept an eye on the candy counter.

"Sharon Kay, chocolate candy came in today."

"Really? Did you get the maple nut clusters?" Those were Mama's favorites. We didn't buy them often, because they were sixty-nine cents a pound, more than twice as much as a pound of orange slices, but when they showed up in the sparkling glass bin, I would go searching for empty soda pop bottles. If I could find eighteen, I would get thirty-six cents when I redeemed them at the A & P. That was enough for half a pound of maple nut clusters.

Then came Christmas. Forget chocolate! The French creams had arrived. They were so fresh that the sugar shells on the outside had hardly hardened. The inside would eventually stiffen to stone, but right now it was soft. Some were fruit-flavored, while others tasted almost floral, like an elegant, edible perfume.

Along with the French creams came the Christmas hard candies. My favorites were the filled ones: black-walnut pillows, candy raspberries, and chocolate-filled straws. While I always loved the colors and intricacies of of the ribbon candy, I never bought it, deciding that it would be too much of a challenge to eat.

Most of the time, I feasted on the sweets only with my eyes, but occasionally Mama would give me a dime or I'd skimp on lunch to have a nickel for a bit of candy. It helped us to make it through our temporary poverty.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The miracle tree

Christmas Reflections: Two

The Miracle Tree
Money was scarce when I was growing up, at least for us. Like the Marches in Little Women, a "temporary poverty" had settled over our household, or rather our apartment-hold, one that lasted throughout my growing-up years. I'm not complaining, mind you, for I learned many valuable lessons from those times that have served me well. Over and over again, the Lord taught me about His providence and His great love for me.

Take, for example, the year I especially yearned for a Christmas tree. It didn't have to fat or tall or even freshly cut. I just wanted something other that the tiny potted pines they sold in the produce section of the A & P or the ones I crafted out of green construction paper. But, alas, there was no money for presents, let alone something so frivolous as a Christmas tree.

I could wait for the one in our classroom. On the last day of school before Christmas vacation, the teacher would remove the ornaments we had so carefully made in art class and give them back to us. Then she would say, "Who would like to have the tree?" I could envision myself lugging that tree through the snow and up Broad Street hill, leaving a trail of dry needles in its wake. Then I would have to haul it up three flights of stairs and down an interminably long hallway to Apartment 8. Had that been the only way to have a tree that year, I would have done it. But God had another plan.

Mama and I had a routine on school mornings. She would stand in the door of our apartment and wave to me as I walked backwards down the hall, past the trash chute, past the elevator, waving at her until I turned the corner of another hallway.

One morning in early December, I stopped short beside the trash chute. My mouth fell open at what I saw. Standing just around the corner was a gloriously beautiful pastel pink Christmas tree. It looked brand new. None of the artificial needles were crushed from bearing ornaments or being packed away to tightly. Through some miracle of grace, God had given me my Christmas tree. And a pink one, at that. I had never even seen a pink tree before. Then a second miracle happened: Mama let me keep it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Christmas Reflections: One

The Dark Streets Shineth

When I was a child, the streets of New Castle, Indiana--my home town--became magic at Christmas time. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" blared from bell-shaped speakers mounted atop some of the buildings. Shop windows sparkled with colored lights and tempting displays. Wide-eyed children pressed their noses against the window glass to get a closer view of the Terri Lee dolls, Lionel train sets, and mechanized elves. Other tots stood with their parents in the long queue to get inside the cramped little Santa Claus house on the courthouse lawn.

The stores extended their hours from Thanksgiving to Christmas, so the town streets bustled with shoppers in the evening, laughing and greeting friends. Uniformed Salvation Army workers, backs turned to the wind and collars flipped up, rang their silver bells at every intersection.

Since we lived in the Jennings Building, up over McShurley's Shoe Store and The Coffee Shop, I spent a lot of time wandering the stores and the downtown streets, drinking in the sights and sounds of the season like a mug of hot cocoa. Sometimes Mama would give me a quarter and a nickel so I could visit the candy counter at Murphy's dimestore. I would get a quarter's worth of French creme candy, available only at Christmas time, and five-cents' worth of warm Spanish peanuts, my favorite. With those two bags in my hand, I felt like a big spender.

I loved it. The busyness. The music, tinny though it was. The laughter. The candy. The lights. They all contributed to the magic.

But snow lent the real magic. As the air began to fill with large, cold, wet feathery flakes, I would turn down a side street, walk a block or so, and stand under one of the antiquated street lamps. Looking up into its aura, I watched the snow dance in the light. Softly, so that none could hear me save the lamp and the descending snow, I sang along with music from the speakers: "O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." Amen.

Dear reader, would you be so kind as to leave one of your own Christmas reflections as a comment? I'd love to hear it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Bringing the Dead to Life

Pictured above: The working images I've chosen for Trevor, Johannah, and Leah.
Fellow writer and good friend Ramona K. Cecil suggests that fiction writers "interview" their protagonists and principal characters before beginning a new manuscript. I wish that I had done that with Camie in Up the Rutted Road, but instead I got to know her the hard way: word by page by chapter by triumph by danger.

The Second Cellar will be different. Though I've written 104 pages, I've learned so much during the revision of Rutted Road that I know I must begin again. But first, I'm taking Ramona's advice; I've interviewing Leah, my protagonist, as well as Trevor (Leah's neighbor for the summer) and Johannah (Leah's nineteenth-century friend). I may also interview Leah's father, Byron, the English professor.

It's amazing what a writer can learn from character interviews. All right. I can hear you asking, "Since you invented the characters, don't you already know them?" No. There is much to be discovered in an interview. For example, I had no idea that Leah's middle name was Bright. Nor did I know that she went for two weeks after birth without a middle name. Until Trevor's interview, I didn't know that he and his mother lived with his paternal grandmother, Fern. Further, his father died a hero while serving in Iraq; he threw himself on a grenade to save his buddies. Who knew?

I join Ramona in advising writers to talk to your characters. Get to really know them before you write their stories. Know their back-stories, as well. Don't be shy about prying into private matters. If they blush, let them blush. If they fidget, make note of that. Once you know them, you can write about them authentically.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Scroll Down for Key Review

Be sure to scroll down this page to the July entries, where I review Eileen Key's cozy mystery Dog Gone. I read and enjoyed the book last summer.

Monday, November 16, 2009

First Manscript Finished!

How long can it take to write a first novel? Is 15 years too long? I think not, considering that the writer has to allow time spent honing her craft.

I've written most of my life. In fifth grade, I rewrote Longfellow's epic poem "Song of Hiawatha" into a play that my class presented on the radio. That was fun, and it got me out of math. Throughout my school career, I entered about every writing contest that came along and usually did fairly well. Then, after a nine-year stint as a newspaper journalist (winning a couple of awards there, too), college (English major), and ten years as a classroom teacher, I returned to my first love: writing fiction.

Originally, Up the Rutted Road was to be a picture book, but when an editor with Farrar, Straus & Giroux asked me to expand it into a middle-grade novel, I agreed. Now, I cannot imagine it as a picture book. FS&G didn't take the manuscript, but good rejection letters can be an education in themselves. I began to seriously study my craft to discover what URR needed. I also joined an excellent critique group through ACFW and continued to grow my writing. I interviewed people from the area of my setting (southeastern Kentucky), attended a major writers' conference and several smaller workshops, read books, studied on-line sources, and sought the wisdom of published writers.

Today I embark on another journey: a quest to find a publisher and/or an agent that would be a good fit. For some time now, I've been scoping out "possibles," noticing especially those who consider middle-grade novels, but now I'm looking for more.

Meanwhile, I'm also putting together a proposal. The chapter synopses are done. Now for the dreaded query letter. Fortunately, I have some excellent blog and website links right here to the left and down. Several of them address query and cover letters.

I am praying that God will lead me to the right agent and/or publisher early in my quest, since I have another manuscript waiting not so patiently in the wings.

What if I don't find either an agent or a publisher? Of course, that's a possibility. At least I have completed the manuscript and learned a lot along the way--about patience, about persistence, about writing fiction, and about how God works in our writing.

Oh, and by the way, in case you are a novice writer, Gentle Reader, please know from the beginning that the process of becoming does not end. A writer never fully arrives as long as she draws breath. We continue to read, to learn, to hone this precious gift that our Creator entrusted to us.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Awaiting Walden

Above: Walden Pond in Autumn

It was the kind of deal any writer in need of a little seclusion would jump at. The owners of the lake cabin didn't want it to sit empty through the winter, so they opened it to those in need of a get-away, a place to retreat from the daily. They sweetened the deal by not charging rent (though they would accept "sweat equity" or donations for upkeep). Since I am in the throes of a revision, I fired off an email. After a few mail volleys, I chose a five-day block from the available dates. It was a good thing I didn't immediately pack my laptop, because in one last message, Mrs. Cabinowner wrote that Mr. Cabinowner had advertised for someone to rent the cabin for six months.

Cliches become cliches because they often prove true. Such is the case with "If it sounds too good to be true, it is." At my age, one would think that I could have tempered my initial excitement, but no. I allowed myself to envision walking beside the lake, pen and Moleskine notebook in hand, furtively jotting down ideas that tumbled like dry leaves caught in a November wind. I imagined lounging beside the fireplace while my fingers flew over the keyboard of my laptop or sitting at the dining room table sipping Earl Grey, munching a bagel spread with cream cheese, and contemplating a difficult scene while watching the morning mist rise from the lakes mirror surface.

Can a person grieve the loss of something she never had? Perhaps the focus of my grief is not so much the loss of five days in a secluded lake cabin, but rather the disspation of the idea.

Dreams are, after all, ephemeral. Thank the Lord, they also proliferate quickly. While I wait for God's perfect timing, I'll crack open Walden and enjoy Thoreau's retreat vicariously.

NOTE TO MY FELLOW WRITERS: I invite you to comment about your favorite writing places.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

And the Winner Is...

Thank you, writers who submitted ideas for the "Writers' Silly Contest. We're a creative bunch, indeed, and I received some very imaginative suggestions, including the following:

  • A slush of writers; Natalie Bray
  • Wordies; Christina Berry, who says, "Similarly to how people who help rockstars on the road are roadies, I believe we should be called wordies." (
  • A ream of writers; Andee Davis.
  • An imagination of writers; Kathi Linz.
  • A fantasy of writers; Kathi Linz.
  • A brainstorm of writers; Grace Bridges.
  • A block of writers; Grace Bridges.
  • A warp core of sci-fi writers; Grace Bridges.
  • A scriptorium of writers; Grace Bridges.
And the winner is.................................................................................

[drum roll, please]


The winner was drawn by Eli, age 4, who cannot read yet.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Book Review: ISLAND OF SAINTS by Andy Andrews

Island of Saints
A Story of the One Principle That Frees the Human Spirit
by Andy Andrews

Published by: Nelson Books, a division of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee, 2005.

239 pages

"You must read this book."

I took the book from my friend's hand. "Is it fiction or non-fiction?"

He smiled. "Read it and decide."

This is one of the most unusual books I have ever read--and one of the best. Andrews breaks many of the rules that contemporary writers are warned against. Perhaps his most serious infraction is that he head hops; that is, he shifts point of view among the paragraphs within a scene. Such a technique keeps the reader on her toes and occasionally causes her to pause. A writer would have to be very skilled to do this well, and Andrews is quite proficient at his craft. He knows the rules, and he knows how to break them skillfully, intelligently.

It is early summer as I sit at my desk and finally begin the process of sorting what I know to be true from what I merely suspect.

Thus begins the book. The first person narrator is Andrews himself. Does that indicate that the book is non-fiction? It would seem so. But wouldn't it be an interesting twist for the writer to use himself as narrator in a work of fiction? The hook is a good one. My mind began to fill with the questions Andrews intended, questions that would propel me into the meat of the story.

While World War II figures prominently in the story, it is not the central focus. The people are. Each one has his or her own set of challenges.

Helen Mason is emotionally crippled by the untimely death of her husband and her hatred toward Germany. Josef Landermann, a U-Boat sailor, washes up onto the beach and into Helen's life, bringing with him his own set of hatreds and losses. When Helen discovers him bleeding badly from two gunshot wounds and wearing a waterlogged German sailor's uniform, she is torn between walking away, leaving him to die, and helping him to her cabin, which is nearly a mile away. Ruefully, she chooses the latter. At first, she refuses even to dress his infected wounds. But neither does she turn him over to the authorities.

Eventually wounds heal, both physical and emotional. Billy and Margaret Gilbert, proprietors of The Hungry Mullet Cafe where Helen works, know a great truth about life and how it should be lived, a truth that they share with Helen. By Christmas, Helen and Josef are considering marriage. Their lives have settled into a comfortable routine.

One day, as the two leave a store after doing some gift shopping, Josef bumps into Ernst Schneider, the Nazi spy who had tried to murder Josef. He and Helen make it to her truck and out of town, but now Schneider knows that the bullets he fired into Josef's shoulder and leg had not killed him, nor had he drowned when he fell into the Gulf of Mexico from the U-Boat. Schneider determines to finish the job, killing Helen and anyone else who dares to get in his way.

Back to the original question: is it fiction or non-fiction? Read it and decide. Andrews is a master storyteller, indeed.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Book Review: DOG GONE by Eileen Key

Dog Gone
A Feather Duster Mystery
by Eileen Key

Published by: Heartsong Presents (2008), an imprint of Barbour Publishing, Inc.

252 pages

Dog Gone is a fun read on several levels. First, it is not about a 20-something svelte blond. Belle Blevins is a 50-something cleaning lady with a penchant for snooping. When her friend Ginnie's business, Pampered Pooch doggie hotel and spa, is in jeopardy because of a missing dog, Belle gets on the case. Her investigation leads her from the elite world of registered dog shows into the nefarious underworld of dognappers.

This cozy mystery is made all the more cozy when Belle's nephew introduces her to Franklin Jeffries, who, as a member of a kennel club, knows something about expensive show dogs. It doesn't hurt that he is tall, tan, handsome, courteous, single, and about Belle's age.

Getting personal:
Key did a great job of keeping me guessing right up to the reveal. I hated to see the book come to an end because I like Belle. In fact, I'd love to sit down with both Key and Belle over a cup of coffee and chat. Franklin Jeffries, on the other hand, is a wee bit too perfect. I think he might intimidate me a little, at least at first.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Silly Writers' Contest . . .er . . .uh . . .Make That "Writers' Silly Contest"

A group of apes is a shrewdness.
A group of barracudas is a battery.
A group of kittens is a kindle. (Be careful what you ask for this Christmas; you just might get it. Meow!)
A group of owls is a parliament.

Got the idea?

What might one call a group of writers? Please think beyond the obvious. Venture into the ridiculous.

By submitting ideas, you grant me permission to include said ideas in an entry for this blog. Names of contributors will go into the nifty little straw hat that I wear in my profile picture, and one of my precocious grandchildren will draw the winner's name. Submit several different entries and increase your chances of winning. In the case of duplicate suggestions, the first one received will be entered.

What is the prize, you ask. Since I'm pre-published, I can hardly offer you a copy of my latest best-selling novel, but I will send you a package of genuine Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils, and you can write your own. (Rumor has it that more "great American novels" have been written with Dixon's Ticonderogas than with any other pencil, and it gets top billing in Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.) All entries must be received by midnight 15 July 2009. The winner will be announced right here shortly thereafter. Enter by email, with the subject line of "Silly Contest," or by commenting to this blog entry.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mama Said Don't Stare

Mama always warned me not to stare at people, but I've gone and become a writer. Here I sit, sipping my Komodo Dragon at Starbuck's while giving every customer the thrice-over.

Who does that woman hope to impress? Why does that man attempt to hide his large bald pate with those wispy long locks? What causes the look of despair in the eyes of that pale girl with the purple hair? Is that young man as arrogant as he seems to be, or has he just had a bad day? Why is that old gal so impatient that she feels justified in belittling the barista?

It's not so much that I stare at people as that I stare at books. I see each person as a potential protagonist or antagonist in a novel. Each one is a round character, an aggregate of comedy, tragedy, romance, melodrama, and mystery. Lacking the facts--I can hardly interview each one--I draw my own conclusions, snatching clues from their dress, stance, expression, and voice.

As I try not to stare outright, I've had to devise ways of doing so without being detected. Even Mama would approve of my latest method. I am seated in the middle chair at a three-person table. Though my back is toward at least half of the coffee shop, I face a glass display case that reflects everything behind me. VoilĂ !

Postscript: Mama also said that it is impolite to eavesdrop. Don't you just love cell phones?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Let Balance Rule," She Said

I enjoyed reading the comments of my fellow American Christian Fiction Writers recently regarding the usage of attribution tags. It seems that the fashion of the day disdains the word said. We should use action beats to introduce a line of dialog:

He scratched the stubble on his chin. "That dog ain't a-gonna hunt, Cloyd."

Last year, we might have written:

"That dog ain't a-gonna hunt, Cloyd," he said.

Action beats have obvious advantages. They help to develop the character or scene. In the example above, we know that the speaker doesn't shave regularly (or has been in a situation where shaving was not a priority). Scratching at his chin may be an idiosyncrasy. Action beats also let the reader know who is speaking while eliminating the need for a tag. I use them whenever possible, if they fulfill their intended purpose.

Conversely, if the action beat seems stilted and artificial, interrupting the flow and rhythm of the work, it becomes little more than verbal baggage and should be checked. I'm in the process of revising and editing a middle-grade manuscript. As I snip, clip, and trim away at it to get it down to around 36,000 to 37,000 words, I find myself weighing every phrase and clause. Exchanging a said for an action beat adds words. If I decide that the beat is worth it, then I try to trim somewhere else.

Of course, if only two people are speaking, the writer can move through a few lines of dialog without either a beat or a tag.

While I am not yet a published novelist, a couple editors have evaluated my manuscripts and commented that they flow well. I use said when it's needed, action beats when they serve to develop and enrich a character or scene, and nothing when possible. As with most things, balance is key. Since both editors requested to see the completed manuscripts, I must be doing something right.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Slow and Steady Wins

My friend smiled as she waited to greet me at the church door. "You must have a tremendous store of patience and perseverance."

"Why do you say that?" I said.

"Well, your bad knees force you to walk so slowly, but they don't hold you back from doing what needs doing."

I should hope not. There's too much to be done. I have books to write, dreams to dream, classes to teach, workshops to conduct, stories to tell, grandchildren to schnuggle (don't try to find that one on, songs to sing, spoons to play, books to read, and mountains to climb (figuratively speaking, I'm afraid). It's good that I don't write books or tell stories with my knees.

I have a storytelling friend who has chosen the turtle as her mascot. She also has some physical limitations, but nothing that interferes with her ability to spin a fine yarn. I tried to think of other slow-moving creatures in God's zoo that would suit me.

A sloth? No. Bad connotation. I certainly wouldn't want potential agents or editors to think that I sit around doing little other than growing moss in my hair.

A snail? Too slimy.

An inchworm? Not bad, but easily squished. Besides, I'm more of a Type B personality. Inchworms definitely are Type A's.

A tortoise? That's it! But is it too similar to a turtle? Would that be considered plagiarism?

Actually, the tortoise has much to recommend it. It's the MC of a beloved folktale. Its slow, steady pace wins for it the race. It's not afraid to stick its neck out, but knows when to briefly retreat. It carries its home with it. (For me, home is wherever Jesus Christ is.) It is impervious to those who would say, "You can't do it."

The tortoise makes its deadline. Remember? It has a tremendous store of patience and perseverance.

A fresh pot of coffee doesn't hurt, either.

Note: The lovely illustration that accompanies this posting is by author/illustrator Arlene Graston and is copyrighted. She graciously granted me permission to include it.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Getting an MFA the Hard Way: Part One

This week my writers' group met. (Random thought: why do we claim ownership of anything we're involved in? It's my group, my church, my home town.) Five of us gathered to mull over our work and gnaw on a couple conundrums. One writer wrestled with how to present five POVs in her lengthy fantasy novel, while another struggled to find words to describe the smells of an Amish restaurant when she herself has no sense of smell or taste. For nearly 90 minutes ideas bounced around the table like an erratic ping-pong ball.

I was the only one of the five who was an original member of the group. The others have come within the last three or four years. We've talked about how to draw more people to our meetings. It's a paradox, because we're not sure that we want more. Perhaps I should say need, rather than want. Back in the early days when we numbered ten or twelve at a meeting, we seldom had time for everyone to read even snippets of their work. A smaller group allows for that, and I love the exercise.

We five, along with a couple others who couldn't attend this month, form a nucleus of what I call serious writers. We readily learn from one another at the meetings and throughout the month via our Yahoo group. While I cannot speak for the others, I feel that I am working toward an informal MFA by studying my craft through books, online resources, participation in SCBWI and ACFW, and dialog with other writers, editors, and agents.

"This is work," said one of our SIWS members. It is. And we revel in it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Happy Poetry Month!


dangles above our heads
while he stands
like a spectre
shrouded in smoke and
backlighted by the campfire.
Haints hover just outside
the ring of light
waiting to creep closer as the
fire wanes.
blows away the chill bumps
but they return
when giants clamber through the woods
hehind us.
Faerie folk wish we'd leave
so they could claim our circle
and dance their rhyme
but we can't.
We're rooted to log seats
eyes glazed
jaws slack
hearts first slow
then race
all beating as one with the
cadence of the storyteller's voice as
tricksters and troubadours
strangers and waifs
strut among the fire's flame
and ride the backs of
donkeys and dragons.
Then he stops
becomes human again
but another rises
and we're ready.
Once upon a time
beyond the Silver Sea
beyond the Azure Forest
beyond the Glass Mountain
beyond the Straw Town
there was
and there was not...

Copyright 2001 by Sharon Kirk Clifton

Monday, April 20, 2009

I Break for Poetry

Blossoms, like snow, drift
and blow on the roof next door--
spring's fragrant blizzard.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Evolution of Rejection

Admit it. You've done the same thing--licked your finger and swiped it across a signature on a rejection letter to see if the the ink smeared, to see if the editor really did put pen to paper to sign. Or was it just another form letter that sounded more personal.

Through the years, I've noticed a steady progression in the quality of rejection. First came the post cards paper-clipped to the cover letter I had so painstakingly typed. Next was the form letter that bore an unsmearable signature. How thrilling to finally get a rejection that brandished a personal note scribbled at an angle across the bottom. . . one that passed the spit-finger test! The most recent rejection letter was all personal and encouraging, saying, "Our middle-grade list is full right now, but I have no doubt that you will find a market for this manuscript." That's progress.

Through the years, I've noticed a steady progression in the quality, determination, and intensity of my own efforts, seeking always to hone my skills. I recently joined a critique group through ACFW, and that has made a difference that even the members of my local writers' group, Southern Indiana Writers' Salon, have noticed. I will continue writing and honing, looking forward to the day when I receive that first acceptance.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Never Let Good Research Languish

I have been a professional storyteller for nearly a quarter of a century. My most popular programs are historical, and each one was funded in part through a grant or a commission. In order to develop a reputation for historical accuracy and an authentic persona, I do all I can to thoroughly research the time periods, just as I do for my writing, poring over original documents and books, interviewing others who have expertise on the subject, visiting some sites where the events happened, studying the clothing and other everyday details of the period, sewing the attire from authentic fabrics, and purchasing any necessary accoutrements.

I say all of that, not to impress the reader with my dedication and research skills, but to emphasize that much goes into developing a new historical program. What a shame it would be to allow all of that effort to languish, once the performance script is written. By the time the show premieres, I have gained a certain expertise on my subject and have acquired a small library, to boot.

The logical extension for this writer is to write a middle-grade fiction book that uses the body of research already gathered. (Of course, questions arise that send me off on new trails, so the research never really ends until the manuscript is finished.) For example, my first storytelling persona was "Jack's Mama," still a favorite among clients. As JM, I portray a pioneer mountain woman and tell stories from the oral tradition of the southern Appalachians. Through a Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship, I was able to spend a month wandering through the mountains, gathering stories, studying the dialect, and talking with the people about their lives. I used that knowledge and experience in the writing of Up the Rutted Road, my first book manuscript, currently undergoing a revision.

Four years ago, Storytelling Arts of Indiana awarded me the Frank Basile Emerging Stories Fellowship to develop Abigail Gray: Living under the Drinking Gourd, a program about the Underground Railroad. My second novel manuscript, The Second Cellar, this one for upper middle graders, is a historical fantasy that involves the Underground Railroad. I have written just over 100 pages on it. Here I go, recycling research again!

Recognizing that every perfect gift comes from the Lord, I thank Him for these opportunities. He allowed me to receive an Individual Artist's Project fellowship from the Indiana Arts Commission/National Endowment for the Arts to begin this second manuscript. They liked the idea, as did an editor who critiqued the proposal at a writers' conference.

Even as I revise one manuscript and write a second, I am thinking about how I can recycle the research I did for a storytelling performance about the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War and another about the Great Depression because one should never, ever let good research languish.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mystery of the Misplaced Modifier

One of my favorite Writer's Digest columns is "The Sentence Sleuth," where I notice that the writer Bonnie Trenga has written a book entitled The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier. While I would love to read the book, I'm not sure I dare. You see, misplaced modifiers have a peculiar effect on me, one that has caused me great embarrassment through the years.

In my college freshman English class, the professor distributed a sheet of examples. Naturally, I began perusing it before everyone had a copy, so I had a head start on the humor.

It all started with a smile that progressed to a quiet snort and on to a chorkle. By the time the professor had gotten through the third sentence<>

I flashed a furtive glance around the room, only to discover that I was the only one thus affected. Again, I made eye contact with the professor. She raised one eyebrow, and I lost all control. I rushed out of the room and down the hall to the nearest restroom. Once inside the security of that room with its stainless steel stalls and porcelain lavatories, I doubled over with laughter, likely frightening a student exiting a stall.

"Misplaced modifiers!" I tried to blurt. She gave me that same deer-caught-in-the-headlights look I'd received from my classmates and hurried toward the door. "You know!" I called after her. "Dangling participles..." She was gone. Without washing her hands.

Eventually, I regained some semblance of composure. Making my way back to the classroom, I stood outside the door, just out of sight, listening, testing my resolve. The professor peeked around the door at me.

"Are you okay?" she asked, broadening her smile. "You can come back in, if you like." I lost it, again, and returned to the sanctuary of the restroom.

When class was over, I hurried to the classroom to apologize profusely to the professor. "Are you an English major?" she said. I told her that I was. "I thought so. You had to be. Did you notice that you were the only one so affected?" I nodded. "They didn't get it. They didn't see what the sentences actually were saying."

If sentences with misplaced modifiers make you laugh, you can stop reading here, unless you're a glutton for punishment. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, read on.

A misplaced modifier is a word, clause, or phrase that is separated from that which it modifies (or describes), making it seem to modify a word, clause, or phrase not intended. Here are a few examples:

On the way home, Karen found a gold man's watch. [Oh, really? I'd like to know where she found that gold man. Or could it be that she found a man's gold watch?]

The child ate a cold dish of cereal for breakfast. [Poor kid. He likely would have preferred a dish of cold cereal.]

We ate the lunch that we had brought slowly. [Does the writer mean that it took a long time for them to get their lunch to the place where they ate it? Or does she mean We ate slowly the lunch we had brought or Slowly, we ate the lunch that we had brought?]

After being fingerprinted, the officer put the prisoner in the cell. [So they're fingerprinting officers now, before putting the prisoner in a cell. Hmmm....]

Perhaps you now understand why my reading of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier could prove fatal to me.