Books -- reading and writing.
Home, cooking, the weather.
And whatever connections I can make between these chapters of my life.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Great Fig Fiasco

I'll admit it. I'm a fig fanatic.

My sister just emailed me that her figs are almost ready. Since I've searched my own Florida neighborhood and see nothing but bushy trees and tiny fruit, I'll look forward to traveling to Mississippi in time for fig season. If I hurry, and she's vigilant, I may beat the birds to the feast.

With that on my mind, I just reread my funny fig fiasco story, the first essay I wrote for A Good Blog is Hard to Find. If you need a good laugh, or love a good fig, check it out.

Southerners have a thing for the fuzzy fruit. Whether it's the memory of playing under a grandmother's fig tree, a nice glass of something accompanied by a tasty fig and goat cheese appetizer, or a scary memory featuring glass jars of preserves lined up in the pantry, love 'em or hate 'em, we can't seem to escape figs.

Fig thoughts, anyone?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Quote of the Day

In keeping with my quotation theme from yesterday, can't resist sharing this one.

I think it is good that books still exist, but they do make me sleepy.

-Frank Zappa

(Thanks to kids' writer Barbara O'Connor's blog for that quote!)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My Favorite Quotes

Blogging about them today over at my Southern Writers Group Blog. Here's a sample, from a truly terrific writer, Rick Bragg:

Someday…some Yankee photographer will drive past, see it as quaint, and put a picture of it on a coffee table book. That’s where a big part of the Old South is, on coffee tables in Greenwich Village.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Delta Blues

If there's anybody out there who doesn't know where The Delta is, you must not be from Mississippi. Some have claimed it's as much a state of mind as a geographical designation. But for those who may not have set foot in the Mississippi Delta, it's the flat, rich farmland tucked between the Mississippi and the Yazoo rivers, the northwestern part of the state. And it's my birthplace and my heart’s home.

It's also the birthplace of the Blues. Music, that is. And now it's the title of a collection of short stories, edited by Carolyn Haines.

In this very readable collection, James Lee Burke, John Grisham, Les Standiford, Beth Ann Fennelly, and more—a total of twenty of the best Southern writers—link music, crime, passion, the Blues and the Mississippi Delta.

Many of the stories really grabbed me, sent me searching for more by that author.

In Suzanne Hudson’s “All the Way to Memphis,” two unlikely characters set out on a road trip, stopping at Buck’s Diner, a place where time has stopped. A lone waitress saunters to the table offering more tea, calling them honey and sugar and baby, her “blood red fingernails clicking against heavy glass.”

The characters in Lynne Barrett’s “Blues for Veneece” uncover, quite literally, a crime scene one family had hoped was buried forever. In another story, the wife of a captain of the Parchman State Penitentiary dreams of any life but the one she has.

In fact, most of the characters in these stories seem to dream of elsewhere, singing their own Blues tunes to the beat of an ordinary life.

Often played out against a backdrop of murder and misappropriation, the stories tell of second chances and new beginnings, lives wasted and more than a few rescued. Moonlit nights, shape shifting, concealed and un-concealed weapons make appearances, leaving readers with chills running up spines or hearts beating faster.

As if reading this collection for the pure enjoyment of the writing isn’t enough, a portion of the sales will be donated to literacy efforts in the Delta. Well done, on many counts.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Writing Mysteries...

My friend Kay and I once thought we'd like to dip our pens into mystery writing. We both love to read the genre, why not try to write one? Did I say we were brand new to the writing game and had no clue? (pun intended) I've taken a workshop or two since that thought crossed my mind, and I see how hard it is to write a mystery, especially for someone who struggles to come up with plots that don't leave threads hanging and guns on mantlepieces.

So this recent bit from the
ICL newsletter written by Jan Fields, made me sit up and take notice. With permission, I'm sharing what I consider a concise, readable, easy-to-follow take on writing mysteries.

Not that I'm planning to write one any time soon, but if I were, this would help. And, hey, maybe it will even help me figure out an easy way to plot any old story.

Feeling Mysterious?

Mysteries have been one of the most popular genre in literature since Poe created the first detective novel. In books, there are even thriving sub-genre, like cozies, hard-boiled detectives, and police procedurals, that have countless fans. Magazines like Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine have been feeding the adult reader's need for short mystery fiction for generations. But what about kids? Do children's magazines still want mysteries or is this the land of books only?

Many children's magazines do want mysteries. Boys' Life, Cricket, Highlights, Hopscotch, and more list mysteries among their acceptable story types. Many editors say they would love to get more good mysteries. So what makes a story good?
* A fresh idea with a clever puzzle.
* Strong characters.
* Lively, real dialogue.

In other words, the same stuff editors want in any story. So why aren't they getting these things in mysteries? Well, mysteries can be kind of tricky. First, you really need to plan a mystery before you start writing it. This flies in the face of the writing style of many (especially many newer writers). Thus, they come up with a possible problem - who took the teacher's special fountain pen? - and they know who the main character will be so they jump in and start writing. But, when the writer doesn't know who took the pen, often the result is (1) a solution that doesn't flow logically from the clues, (2) a solution that flows too logically - making it not a puzzle at all since everyone knew who the villain was well before your 'detective,' or (3) a solution that falls back on old clich├ęs (more on these in a minute.)

How do you plan your mystery? Begin by choosing the age group for the mystery. A mystery for Boys' Life will be very different than a young mystery for Highlights. Boy's Life will be more comfortable with putting the main character in danger and more comfortable with real "crimes." Mysteries for younger children are usually more focused on the puzzle aspect - a child sees or hears something unexpected and investigates to find out what caused it. Mysteries for the youngest reader are often these kind of cause-and-effect puzzles. They challenge the reader's thinking skills but virtually never involve moral questions or danger. So a mystery for a young reader might involve the family acting strangely and the child hearing odd noises - the solution might be that the family was hiding a new puppy to be given to the child for a special event.

Mysteries for older reader are usually more what we think of as "traditional" mysteries. To read a great example of this kind of mystery, check out Joan Lowery Nixon's "A Purr-fect Mystery," originally published in a Scholastic magazine. Notice that this mystery has something you often find in mysteries for young people - a double story problem. The mystery part of the story problem is finding a string of pearls but the personal side of the story problem is the main character's friendless state at the beginning of the story and how working out the mystery also changed the personal side of the plot problem.

The pacing for a magazine mystery is fast - you need to catch reader interest early and keep it throughout the telling. The solution to the mystery should be unexpected and unusual. Some "too common" plots include (1) the haunted house that turns out to be the wind, or a mouse, or some easily explained natural phenomenon mixed with a vivid imagination - if you're going to have a haunted house, make the solution unexpected; (2) the "stolen" item where the thief is either an animal or the owner's own forgetfulness - make your villain unexpected and unusual. If you have to have the thief be a raccoon or a magpie, make the puzzle leading up to the resolution so tricky that we're actually surprised to find a common solution and impressed by the clever path we walked to reach it.

Also, do take care when titling your mystery. I've seen writers who give the ending away (or strongly hint at it) in the title. Make your title interesting and lively but not revealing. The solution to the mystery must be (1) logical from the clues given, (2) elusive so that it requires some work on the part of the reader to figure it out ahead of the main character, and (3) surprising. If we see the end coming from the beginning, you need to dig a little deeper for more twists.

One thing you must keep in mind for magazines is that they are virtually all more conservative than book publishers. Although book mysteries (even for middle readers) sometimes involve deaths or violence - magazine stories almost universally never do. Book mysteries can have the main character doing fairly dangerous stuff, but magazine stories rarely let main character indulge in anything dangerous (at least not mysteries for readers younger than teens.) Book mysteries can also have the main character lying to parents and magazine mysteries rarely do this also (again, sometimes for older kids - but it's still fairly rare and never without consequences.)

So if I haven't scared you off yet -- give a mystery a try. Readers will be glad you did.
Jan Fields

Monday, May 17, 2010

World's Largest Book Club?

I admit. I'm intrigued.

I know a little about traditional Book Clubs. I edited a monthly magazine column, reading dozens of submissions about mostly women's book groups. I've been in at least two of my own. I mostly like talking with other readers about books we've all read. So maybe I'll hustle on down to my local bookstore and get this one to twitter about.

It's just one step away from the whole One City One Book concept. It might just work.
Click here for a good piece from the Christian Science Monitor's book editor about the undertaking.

A few words from the article:

Gaiman told The Guardian that he's "half-pleased and half-not," because "American Gods" is "a divisive book" and "some people love it, some sort of like it, and some people hate it." Gaiman figures he'll end up spending some time on Twitter himself, "sending helpful or apologetic tweets to people who are stuck, offended, or very, very confused."

(Gaiman may be half right. This morning's comments range from, "Chapter's just too good to stop at 6. :)" to "well, no book is for everyone :)" ).

Something about discussing a book via twitter has my book antennae going. Is it a good thing, a fun thing, a gimmick?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Character Naming

You'd have to be living in a newspaper/computer/TV-less world this week not to have seen the recent story about the most popular baby names. It was everywhere. Yes, there's the whole Isabella and Jacob thing, as it relates to the Twilight movies and books. But writers have known for a while about the usefulness of baby name sites for choosing character names. Matching a name and a character can change the way you think about your people!

Click here for an interesting post from Darcy Pattison's always helpful writing blog.

Don't forget to check the Social Security Administration site, as she recommends. And ponder her comment about how popular President Obama's girls' names are becoming!

Here's an earlier posting of mine about naming characters in books. Makes me realize how long I've been living with some of my fictional people.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain

I don't know what I thought this book was about when I picked it up. Months ago, a friend-- an avid reader and fellow dog-lover-- said I must read it. (Thank you, Pat.) So I bought it, wrapped it up for Christmas, and passed it to my husband. He loved it.

But still, a book told from the POV of a dog, about car racing? Please. It continued to wait on my bookshelf.

Last weekend as I was about to face a long plane ride with no book, I panicked. My airplane books must be paperback and light. Kind of like the way I travel. I grabbed THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN just moments before I zipped my carry-on shut. And am I ever glad I read this one.

The book is a family story, a meditation on all things good, a funny laugh, a warm glass of milk. It made me cry (which is so embarrassing on a middle seat) and it made me smile a lot.

Here's just one small quote, among many, that I love. This one appeals to the writer in me, possibly his only musing on that topic.

Enzo the dog, talking:

I loved it when he talked to me like that. Dragging out the drama. Ratcheting up the anticipation. I've always found great pleasure in the narrative tease. But then, I'm a dramatist. For me, a good story is all about setting up expectations and delivering on them in an exciting and surprising way.

Put this one on your list, dog lover or not. Great book. And not just a Great Airplane Book.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

One Crazy Summer

That's the title of a great middle grade novel I just reviewed, posted at Joyce Hostetter's blogs.

Set in Oakland, California, in 1968, One Crazy Summer is funny, warm, fascinating historical fiction about the Black Panthers (sort of). Told in the unforgettable voice of 11-year-old Delphine, it's a book that I keep thinking about. Rita Williams-Garcia has really scored with this one.

And I love what she says in a Horn Book interview, linked at Joyce's blog, about writing historical fiction:
I’m hoping younger readers will uncover more personal stories through the “live historians” in their homes and neighborhoods.

And, because she also writes for the YA market:

I like my younger readers to discover more; I like my older readers to wrestle with more.

Well said. And a book worth reading.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In Honor of the Final Season...

"There's a difference between doing nothing and waiting."
John Locke, on a recent episode of LOST.

Writers who are waiting are really thinking, brainstorming, trying, pretending, rejecting, accepting, fiddling, reading.
So waiting for the muse is a lot different from doing nothing. No matter that they look the same.

(I'm not sure anymore what John Locke is up to...)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Practicing To Be Perfect

Over the past few days I've been offered lots of pats on the back, much appreciated. And the most notable congrats coming my way seem to agree: One thing it takes to move your writing along the road to publication, besides that whole 'butt in chair" thing, is perseverance. Blame my parents who disapproved of throwing in the towel till you'd exhausted all possibilities, blame my writing groups who kept pushing me, whatever. This quote keeps rolling around in my head so I had to share.

Thanks to one of my favorite kids' writers Linda Urban, writing about revising, for the Malcolm Gladwell quote, from an interview he gave about his book Outliers:

"Talent is the desire to practice, right? It is that you love something so much that you are willing to sacrifice and commit to that -- whatever it is -- task, game, sport, etc."

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

MY Agent!

In answer to all my writing buddies who've been emailing to ask whether I've touched ground this week, the answer is no. I'm still pinching myself over the amazing news that came late last week. The terrific, delightful, smart Linda Pratt of the Fogelman Agency is now mine (ok, mine and a few others, but still...). Yay! Agents make the book world go round and I'm hoping she'll find a happy home for my middle-grade historical fiction novel.

(For my non-writing buddies, this is a big step in the right direction, but it doesn't mean you'll be reading this novel in a month or two! Still crossing fingers and toes though. Stay tuned.)

James Beard Awards

Did I say how much I love cookbooks? Not necessarily for cooking, mind you, but my shelves are filled with them, mostly for looking.

This week the James Beard Foundation announced its awards. Wow. John Besh's new cookbook is on the list. Must check that one out.

And while you're there seeing who won this year, don't miss all the restaurant and chef awards. Many from places I know and love, or plan to visit soon: Washington DC, Chicago, NYC, NOLA.
That best new restaurant category is always intriguing.

And yay for John T. Edge's Oxford American magazine writing award. Now not only will I have to scope around for those cookbook winners, I can see I'll be searching for a few magazine essays also.

It's a long list, always fun to peruse!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Edgar Awards Announced

Happy to report a book I reviewed and loved has just won a 2010 Edgar Award. Click here for the entire list of winners and nominees (winners in red). The only book on the winners list that I've read is THE LAST CHILD, by North Carolina writer John Hart. (It's a page turner.)

Now my list of mystery books to read is expanding. And just yesterday I bought the newest Elizabeth George book. Not to mention the possibility of a new Kate Atkinson mystery arriving this summer. I think I should just put everything aside and read for a while...

Related post: First in line for The Last Child

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Poem to End Poetry Month

Just because April has ended, we don't have to stop reading poetry. And because I like the poems of Wallace Stevens, and because talented kids' book writer Jo Knowles wrote such a thoughtful blogpost about this one, I'll share it here, putting an exclamation point at the end of Poetry Month. Vowing to read more, all year round.

The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm
By Wallace Stevens

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.