The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 45

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 45

HOUSES: Use your imagination!

During this Covid Crisis, my husband and I have been going for drives every afternoon. It’s been great! We take our dog Roxie and we get out of the house and into the fresh air and explore the area around us.

We live in Brunswick County, North Carolina, so there are beaches and golf courses, historical old homes and plantations, parks and tree farms. There are cornfields and cows, luxurious vacation homes and trailer parks. Single-wides, double-wides and abandoned old shacks.

The sheer variety of homes in this area is staggering. And, even within each community, there are great variations. A tiny single-wide might have junk cars littering its perimeter. Next door, the same size house may have beautiful plantings, with birdhouses and blooming flowers. A large two-story might be austere with perfectly round-cut shrubs, the home across the street will be a crazy riot of color and texture with winding walkways and fountains.

What about abandoned houses? Why are they abandoned? What happened? Did the resident grow older, unable to care for the house? Were there no living relatives to help and intercede? Did the county take it over for non-payment of taxes? Why wasn’t it listed and sold?

There’s a story in every house and I’m especially intrigued by these abandoned ones. There it sits, a rusty old trailer, half-covered with vines, grass knee high, broken swing set in the back yard.

What happened?

Another home is buried in the woods. This one is large, two stories with the chimneys showing above the encroaching trees and bushes. It was a big home, obviously the owner had money or he (she, they) wouldn’t have built this house.

What’s the story?

How about a big field, overgrown with weeds? A line of old oaks marks a defunct road that leads to a grove of large old trees with the remains of fireplaces and chimneys in the middle.

Another story.

When I see these sights, my imagination is stirred. Was it a simple aging process and neglect that led to the abandoned home? What about murder? Abuse? A malignant divorce? A romantic triangle that led to chaos? Children who were abused and neglected and later abused and neglected their aging parents?

Did someone go bankrupt? Or suffer a financial reverse? Are those people now homeless or living in shelters? Or with their grown children? Or in a senior community?

Wait! I see an open window, a cracked doorway!
Is a homeless person living in the abandoned house?

What’s their story?

The journalist in me is always inquisitive, wanting to ask questions, to discover the story behind a house whether it’s occupied or not. I want to go to the hall of records and trace the history of that home. I want to interview the people who lived there.

There’s always something to write about, always something to explore.

My advice? Never feel tired or burnt-out. Go for a ride through different areas in your county. Explore unknown paths. Walk past an old, neglected hulk of a house. There’s a story there.
Drive through a trailer park. See the variety of homes. There are many stories around us.

Find them. Use them. Write that book!

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 44

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 44

Mother’s Day Tribute to My Mother-in-law

One of the best things in my life was the pure fortune of having a fabulous mother-in-law.
Her name was Ruth Irene Bonstein (known as Irene), a terrific woman in many, many ways.

First of all, she loved and accepted me from the start. Here I was, a chicken farmer’s daughter from rural Maryland. My parents were immigrants from Finland. I had met her son on a blind date at Syracuse University.

My husband’s family traced their family line back to a couple of Hessian brothers who came over and fought in the Revolutionary War. My father-in-law had a great job with Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, covering the whole east coast heavy equipment sales. Irene played the piano beautifully, everything from Beethoven to the 12th Street Rag. She could read music and also play by ear. I had had music lessons and this gift was amazing to me. I once asked her how she did it. “Oh, I hear the tune and it somehow comes out through my fingers,” she said modestly.

Despite the differences in our family backgrounds, she welcomed me with open arms and we became good friends as well as in-laws.

Holidays and family gatherings were fun. She played the piano and we had loud noisy sing-a-longs. You could hum a tune and she would pick it up and play along. Irene had special recipes that were devoured by the grandchildren. I have most of them in my personal cooking file.

Best of all, she was a lot of fun, loving jokes and telling them. Regaling us with stories of past family adventures and poignant moments.

Irene was kind and loving and I still miss her.

In fact, I wrote a humorous article for New Jersey Woman (magazine) years ago called Wives and Mothers (in law). It recounted what a curse it was to have a terrific mother-in-law. I had nothing to talk about with my friends, in fact, they had a hard time believing that I really liked and respected my mother-in-law.

So, Happy Mother’s Day to you, Irene. You were an inspiration to me. I only hope I can be half as close to my four sons-in-law.

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 43 

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 43

For 14 years, I wrote a weekly golf column for the Brunswick Beacon, a weekly newspaper in Brunswick County, North Carolina, with a circulation of over 15,000. I mostly wrote about golf in the Coastal Carolinas, but once in awhile, I wrote about other things. This article is as relevant today as it was then.

Golf Gab for September 15, 2011

Retrospective of 9/11
My family had an intimate knowledge of the World Trade Center in the years prior to 9/11.  My husband’s firm, Deloitte & Touche (then Deloitte, Haskins & Sells), took up five floors of the North Tower starting in 1980.  We have many happy memories of the World Trade Center: dinners at Windows on the World Restaurant; the whooshing express elevator that brought you from the lobby to the 110th floor in a matter of seconds; the views of Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, New Jersey, the Hudson River, the Battery, and the Statue of Liberty.
To look straight down from the 99th floor, where my husband’s office was located, took an act of will for someone like me who does not like to climb a six-foot ladder.  The cars far below were smaller than a paper clip; the people were almost invisible, tiny ants crawling on the thin ribbons of sidewalk far below.
We lived in New Jersey at the time.  Our four kids were little during the early years and I took them into “the city” as often as I could.  We toured the museums (Natural History was the favorite), visited Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, went to the Central Park Zoo and the Bronx Zoo and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.  We visited the Cloisters, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and went shopping at Bloomingdales (Saks was too expensive).
We had Afternoon Tea at the Plaza and when the Crocodile Dundee movie came out, we felt like sophisticated New Yorkers.  “Ahh, yes.  We have tea there when we’re in the city.”
There were certain small things that we, as insiders to the towers, knew.  All skyscrapers are built with a certain amount of sway and when there was a high wind, the water in the toilets literally sloshed back and forth.  It was a bit disorienting and sometimes made me feel a bit squeamish.
For several years, I was the youth group leader at our Presbyterian Church.  Each year, I scheduled a trip to New York with the teens and other advisors.  I often brought them to my husband’s office to look out the windows.  Why pay to go up to the Observation Deck when we could see the same stuff for free?
As the kids got older and I began to do more free lance writing, I often went to the North Tower with Gene when he had to work on Saturday.  I would sit at his secretary’s desk and work on my articles while he worked in his office.  We’d finish late in the day and then have dinner before beginning the 1 ½ hour commute back to Holmdel.
After the 1993 bombing in the basement of the North Tower’s parking garage, the lease on the five floors came up for renewal.  The managing partner of the New York office made the decision to move the Deloitte offices to the World Financial Center, a smaller building across the street.
Cantor-Fitzgerald took over the vacated office space.  In 1988, Gene was transferred to the New Jersey offices of Deloitte, and eight years later, he retired.
When the attacks occurred in 2001, we were devastated.  Many of our friends lost family and friends in the disaster, and while Deloitte employees were spared, it was a crushing blow to everyone.  The buildings had been so vibrant, so much a part of our lives, so strong and impregnable.  They symbolized the very heart and bravery and innovation of our country.
And that’s why the cowardly terrorists drove those planes into them.  They wanted to rip out the heart and soul of our nation.  They wanted to humble us, to make us afraid.
When I saw the first plane go into the North Tower, it felt like a stake had been driven into my own heart.  The plane went right into where my husband’s office had been.  I knew that space so well, the desks, the partitions, the bathrooms, the corridors, the sounds of computers and murmur of voices, the sway of the building, the walls of glass that drew you to see the world from a bird’s eye view.
I stared in horror at the television as the second plane went into the South Tower, then another to the Pentagon, then the crash into a field in Pennsylvania (that could have been into the Capitol Building or the White House).  It was unbelievable, horrific, ghastly, hurtful.
This is America, a beacon of freedom in the world, a country that sends aid and assistance to famine-ravaged lands in the far corners of the globe, a country that landed troops on the beaches of Normandy when freedom’s light was dying under Hitler’s onslaught.
Why?  How could this happen?
Gene and I sat in front of our television set for days, watching the horror again and again, the collapse of the towers, the rescue attempts, the faces of the firefighters and other first responders who gave their own lives to save others.
Ten years have passed and we can still feel the pain and the loss and empathy for those who lost loved ones in that American Holocaust.
But I can say this with clarity and conviction:  It did not work.
They tried to bring us to our knees, to make us afraid, to make us give up the beacon of freedom that we raise for the rest of the world.  This is the country other people flee to, the place where they sneak, swim, tunnel, and raft to.
Why?  Not because we have jobs or Walmarts, but because we have freedom.
We have freedom to worship or not.  Freedom to disagree with the President and the Congress, freedom to march, to sing protest songs, freedom to travel where we want, when we want, freedom to vote, to wear a bikini if we so choose, to show our faces to strangers.  To meet and greet people of all races; to watch and participate in sports.
And that’s what the terrorists hate most about us.
On Sunday, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the NFL played football in packed stadiums all over the country with cheerleaders tumbling and shouting and gyrating in front of thousands.  In the finals of the US Open, Serena Williams lost to Sam Stosur.  The LPGA played in Arkansas, women played college soccer and golf.  Professional baseball continued.  NASCAR Sprint Cup took place in Richmond.
In the United States, women can play golf and tennis and soccer.  They can drive in car races and vote and own property.  They can show their faces and be proud of who they are:  the other half of the human race, partners of the human spirit.
Not chattel, not subservient, oppressed, covered and cosseted lesser beings.
The principal of freedom will endure, because it is embedded in the hearts and minds of men and women.  No one can take that away.

 

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 42

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 42

Tragedies Help the Writer

Bad things happen to all of us. No one’s life is perfect and if your life is wonderful today, trust me, it won’t last forever. We, as human beings living in an imperfect word, will experience illness, loss, betrayal, accidents, and death.

How we deal with these set-backs and tragedies is important. Often, we survive and become stronger. We accept and move forward. We become wiser.

Tragedies on the road of life are a blessing to writers. They open doors to empathy and understanding. We know what something feels like, because we’ve been there.

Let me tell you about one of these awful moments that grew me as a person and a writer.

My mother was the dearest, sweetest, most caring woman in the world. I grew up on a chicken farm on the end of dirt road in North East, Maryland, the only child of Finnish immigrants. We didn’t have much money, but my mother did her best to give me the finer things in life. She sold cracked eggs to pay for my piano and voice lessons. She taught me now to cook and clean and to be a responsible, hard-working citizen. She made birthdays and holidays special for everyone around her.

After my father died and she was in her late 70’s, she moved to a senior residence about 10 minutes from where my husband and I lived in New Jersey. One of her favorite things was to go for a ride with me, particularly along the Jersey Shore. She really liked the Atlantic Highlands and the wonderful views of the ocean there.

One Tuesday afternoon, planned to pick up my new car, a wonderful little aqua-colored convertible. I called my mother the night before and invited her to go for a ride with me the next day. She was very excited.

I picked up my fabulous little car the next afternoon and drove to my mother’s apartment, planning which scenic routes we would take.

I rang the doorbell. No answer. I rang again, several times.

My mother was never late for anything and I had just spoken with her the night before. Something was terribly wrong. I felt a chill.

At my request, the superintendent of the building, unlocked the door. She was lying there, unmoving, seemingly asleep. I touched her shoulder. It was cold and hard. She had been dead for several hours.

The emotions that ran through me are hard to describe, even for a writer. Horror, grief, sadness, regret, nostalgia, love. Memories of a warm kitchen and her pulling out a fresh-baked apple pie made with apples I had picked myself. Her wonderful flower gardens with gladiolas and tulips and daffodils. Her voice, singing old Finnish folk songs as she gathered eggs. She and my father dancing the polka at a Scandinavian dance party.

Taking care of me when I was sick. Cheering me on when my grades were good or I won an award in school.

All of it gone.

I got over it and moved on with my life, raising four daughters and writing magazine and newspaper article, children’s stories, poetry and novels. But this (and other sad and terrible moments) have impacted my thoughts and how I put words on paper.

I don’t have to imagine sadness and loss. I’ve been there. And today, I am a caring and empathetic person because of my experiences with loss and tragedy.

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 41

Writers bloc?  Get a Dog!

One of the true blessing in my life is my sweet dog Roxie.  She’s a rescue, as were all but one of our previous dogs.  She weighs 70 pounds, is a husky mix, and has the most adorable face.

Energetic is the best word to describe Roxie, and the thing she loves best is going for a walk.  We live in a gated community with strict leash laws so I can’t just turn her loose.  I must put a leash on her, grab a poopy bag, jacket and/or raincoat and umbrella (if needed) and go out the door.

Roxie and I usually walk a mile or more each morning and another mile or more in the afternoon and WE BOTH LOVE IT!

Walking Roxie gets me away from my computer and outdoors at least twice a day.  I feel energetic most of the time and don’t have any weight or back problems because I walk regularly.  Owning a dog is better than joining Weight Watchers or a gym.

Sometimes, I’m busy with a project and just don’t feel like walking, but then Roxie prances into my office.  She pants, nudges me, waggles her whole body and before I know it, I’m out the door.

Sometimes when I walk, new perspectives and ideas come to me.  Sometimes, the walk simply refreshes me, calms me down, relaxes both my body and my brain.  It’s a real catharsis.

Most mornings at 7:30, I walk with my friend Cathy and her husky, Codie.  Somedays we talk a lot, other times, we stroll and simply enjoy the fresh sea air, the beautiful sky and blossoming flowers.  We greet other walkers and enjoy our beautiful neighborhood.

If you’re alone and would like to meet new friends, get a dog!  It’s one of the best ways to meet other people.

If you’re a writer and suffer from writer’s bloc, get a dog!  It’s a sure cure.

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 40

Stimulation Through Travel

I love to write and can easily spend 8 hours or more each day, creating stories on my computer.  Time flies when I write.  I’m never bored and thus far, I have never experienced writer’s block. On the contrary, I probably suffer from writer’s release.

I am fortunate to work at something I love.  Writing a 350-page book is more like fun than work.

Despite the fact that I love what I do (newspaper articles, novels, children’s stories, and poetry) it is important to get away once in a while and do something totally different, to have an adventure that immerses me in a new world.

 

My husband and I did just that last month.  He had always wanted to see the Panama Canal and, by God, we did.  We took our very first big boat cruise on a Holland-Ameica ship to the Caribbean.  We left Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and in 10 days, visited several islands and Panama.  We saw Half Moon Cay, Curacao, Cartagena, and Costa Rica.

The trip through the Panama Canal and up to Lake Gatun (the middle point before turning back to Colon) was amazing.  We marveled at the effort that it took to build the locks that take the big ships up and over the mountain range that runs through the middle of Central America.  Our cruise only went half-way through, other cruise ships will take you all the way to the Pacific. It was astonishing and the views were breathtaking.

 

The second most exciting part of the trip was going through the rain forest of Costa Rica.  We took a bus ride to the top, toured around for a while with a guide, and took the elevated tram ride back.  It was so beautiful, that (even as a writer) words fail me.  Leaves a big as me, hundreds of different kinds of plants.  Butterflies as big as my hand.  The Costa Rican Rain Forest has more different plants and animals than any other place in the world. Scientists from all over the world come there to do research.

Now I’m back at my computer, totally energized and feeling very creative!  I truly believe that getting away once in a while is important for everyone, whether you ae a teacher, a CPA, a nurse, a lawyer, or a stay-at-home mom.  You can sit on a beach, hike a mountain trail, camp in Yellowstone Park or go to New York City and see a play.  It doesn’t have to be 10 days; it doesn’t have be a cruise.

It just needs to be different from your everyday life.  If it’s educational and you learn something new about our world, all the better!

 

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 39

Describing Life (making a connection with others)

As a journalist, novelist and poet, I have written in many forms. A newspaper article has just the facts, mam. A column gives the writer more freedom to express his opinions.

A children’s story has to stay within the parameters of that particular age group. A picture book for preschoolers must be simple, amusing, and exciting. For middle grades, the plot and concepts can be more complicated. It is good to challenge the reader, but not to the point where they lose interest.

Novels are still another challenge. You want to keep the reader moving forward. A professor at Syracuse once told me that a good story teller is like a pretty lady standing by the door beckoning, inviting the reader to come in, see more, experience more. That sounds a bit tacky today, but we get the point: LURE THE READER FORWARD.

Poetry is different in that it shows the reader a slice of life, or a concept, a moment in time, an awakening. Ordinary words work for me. Some of the more beautiful poems are simple. Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe all wrote simply and understandably, but they moved us all with their words.

To me, poems are “Word Pictures of a Life” and I have a collection of my poems by that name.

On November 27, the online journal, Rue Scribe, published a poem of mine called “Evening”.
It is about a night years ago when my husband and I had a group of friends over for dinner. We laughed and talked and when it was over, and the dishes were done, I simply had to write it down. Check our Rue Scribe. They have great short stories and poems. A good quick read.

Evening

There was a night when friends were near
and, Oh Christ, we laughed as the jokes were told.
Funny quick lines of turned-around wit,
long rambling stories of salesmen weary and maidens willing. 

We drank beers and smoked cigarettes, one after another
and the laughs were like that, easy, one after another. 

Later, the talk turned sad, someone would lose a mother,
a child was ill and the Flanagans would be transferred to Saudi Arabia. 

When the evening was over, we remarked upon the fun.
Nothing was done or undone, the world remained the same,
but God, did we laugh that night. 

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 38

Two Movies to See

I love going to the movies, I mean going to a real movie theater with popcorn, soda, surround sound, and a big huge screen.  I get totally lost in the film and for that two hours (more or less) I am not of this world.

The big sounds, the close-ups of weeping or smiling faces, planes lunging through the air, cars racing, lovers kissing….it’s a totally engrossing experience.  Why anyone would want to see a really great movie on their home TV, laptop, or even cell-phone is beyond me.  It’s just not the same.

My husband and I saw two totally wonderful movies this past week.  We watched Midway first.

What a great movie.  Gene has read the book and, over the years, many more about World War II.  Midway was a huge turning point and without a win there, who knows how much longer the war would have continued?  After the victory in Hawaii, and with our navy disabled, the Japanese had plans to invade Alaska and the northeast coast of the United States.  Our win at Midway stopped those plans.  We should be eternally grateful to our brave service men and women who fought and died there.

The movie shows us Destroyers and Aircraft Carriers.  We meet pilots and support staff and follow them in one of the greatest air and sea battles of modern warfare.  It’s exciting and tragic, happy and sad, and informative.  I loved it!

The second movie we saw was Ford vs. Ferrari, a true story of how the Americans created a racing car that finally beat the always-winning Ferrari at the famous Le Mans race in France in 1966.  There’s a lot of corporate maneuvering just to get the car made, but the most exciting part of the movie is the 24-hour race.  Imagine: driving a race car over a twisting track at speeds over 200 miles per house for 24 hours.  Crazy!

We loved both movies and learned a lot.  Go see them while they’re still on the big screen.

 

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 37

Veteran’s Day 2019

As a child of Finnish immigrants, I love all our Patriotic Holidays: July 4th, Veteran’s Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day and the rest. This country is soooo special to me, unlike any other place in the world.

Here in America, we can say what we want, befriend who we want, attend religious services or not, work and live where we want, and with whom we want.

Plus, we vote for our leaders and put our trust in them to govern wisely. Amazing!

My parents came to America in the middle of the Great Depression. There was no welfare or free food or medical care. They made their own way through hard work and perseverance. My father became a citizen early on because he had a college degree and knew English. During World War II, he was exempted from military service because he was performing an essential job: welding Liberty Ships in Baltimore Harbor. My mother said he worked double and triple shifts.

My mother was a farmer’s daughter and had only an 8th grade education, so obtaining her citizenship took a little more time. She was determined to do it and when we were living in Cecil County, Maryland, she took courses. I helped her study and finally when I was in 5th grade, she passed the exam.

I remember coming home from school and to find her crying and laughing and holding up the papers. “I’m an American!” she exclaimed over and over again with tears of joy in her eyes.

I had voice lesson early on and did a fair amount of singing at weddings, funerals, church services and the monthly gatherings of the Scandinavian Community by us. The best thing I ever did was sing the Star-Spangled Banner at the University of Maryland Women’s Gymnastics Meets when my daughter was on the team there. It was such an honor and doubly so because of my background.

So today, I praise and honor all of our military who keep us safe by serving here and around the world. They are the essence of our life and enable people like me and you to sleep safe at night.

God Bless Our Veterans! And God Bless the United States of America!

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 36

I belong to a terrific writer’s group called “WRITER’S BLOC”. We meet every other week and it is both fun and inspirational.

For the first few minutes, we catch up on what we’re doing in our writing careers, then each member has an allotted time to read their work out loud to the group. Members are able to send their chapters, short stories, or whatever early so members can preview it before we meet.

Some of us write fantasy, others write mysteries, romances, historical fiction, whatever. I love to hear and read the rough drafts of my writer friends’ projects no matter what the genre.

Reading out loud is crucial. You hear flaws and inconsistencies; you hear the use of too many similar words. Reading out loud makes errors much more apparent.

Sometimes reading out loud amplifies that excellence of the words. Descriptions resonate. Today one of our members read a chapter that takes place in the Rocky Mountains. I’ve been out west several times and I could see and feel and smell the area. She did a great job and reading it out loud made it even more apparent.

Dialogue that is stilted or contrived becomes apparent when reading out loud. Would someone really say that? Would they use those long words, those endless adjectives? People use short answers or phrases.

Next time you’re writing dialogue, read it out loud. Take the man’s and the woman’s parts and pretend you’re on the stage or bus or walking in a garden or in bed. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. You want the reader to hear a real conversation or expletive or confession. Reading out loud will help you achieve that.

Also, you want to show the readers a scene, not tell them about it. Let’s say that it is a dark and stormy night. (pardon the cliché). You could describe the night like this:

The storm clouds gathered over the tiny building and the sky darkened. Soon rain started pouring down on the roof. Where was Matthew?

Or you could write:

Tracy was scared. The night got darker and darker and soon she heard rumbles overhead. The wind kicked up and rain pelted the window next to her with such force she thought the glass would break. A simultaneous blast of lightning and thunder shook the tiny house. Where was Matthew?

Which is more compelling? You need the reader to hear and feel and smell and see and use all his senses as he reads your story.

My advice? Join a writer’s group. If there is none nearby, create one. You don’t have to be professional published writers. Everyone has a story to tell and often the beginning writers have the best insights.

Meet regularly and critique each other’s work. Do it with honesty and love and you’ll achieve great things. If it wasn’t for the Writer’s Bloc and their comments and encouragement, I would not be a published author today.

Thanks, guys.