Monday, November 30, 2009

My Kids Kill Me and Other Fun Stuff

My daughter probably gets the most play on this blog, because she cracks me up so much. At twelve, that sense of humor and sarcasm is just hysterical. But lately, littlest guy has been overshadowing her sharp wit with a bit of shenanigans of his own.

I should’ve probably seen it coming. When he was four, his grandparents stayed here for a week. Grandpa was putting his already worn clothes in one bag to take back home, and littlest guy told him, “You don’t have to do that. Just throw them in the hallway, Mom’ll wash them.”

Mind you, littlest guy is only seven now, so I’ll have years of laughs and hopefully won’t ever have to bail him out of jail.

My kids all play a Sims game on the computer. It’s actually my daughter’s, but the boys have their own little families and games going. If you’ve never played it, you get a character, and you can build their house and pick their career and friends, etc. I don’t actually know what’s so exciting about it. This version isn’t online, so they’re playing with the game, but not chatting or playing with other real people. And they have different versions, so you can make sure they’re pg-13.

Like I said, littlest guy is seven. I sat down to watch him play on this game. His character has a wife and kids, he designed his own house (a lot nicer than mine, I might add)... he wanted a dog, but this particular game doesn’t have a ‘pets’ option.... so I’m watching him maneuver around the game and notice an extra female character. Yeah, that’s his character’s girlfriend. He has a wife and a girlfriend on the side...

The latest and greatest – I took him to the grocery store the other day and they had one of those big freezers empty and all cleaned out. They were probably getting it ready to stock with holiday stuff. So we’re walking past and I’m looking at my list with the kids following behind me, and suddenly I hear him say:

“Woah! That’s a huuuuuge freezer! You could fit like ten bodies in there!”

And some guy’s walking around the corner, as my jaw hits the ground. And this guy turns about two shades of red and hightails it back the way he came from.

I swear to God, I’ve never let him watch Goodfellas, I have no idea where he gets it from... but I’m thinking I have to start reinforcing the, “thou shall not be a sexist pig” commandment... okay, it’s not actually in the top ten, but it’s definitely in mine. At this point, I’m kind of hoping he’s a natural born crime writer.

Oh, and on to the other stuff:

Book Give Away!!!

At the beginning of November, I did an interview with Linda Weaver Clarke, which you can find here. For those of you interested in historical fiction, and those who just like free booksies, her novel, Jenny’s Dream is being raffled off for the price of a comment on Suko’s Blog The drawing is on December 7th, so get your post up before next Monday!

Monday, November 23, 2009


I’ve been thinking a lot about characters. What makes me want to take their journey with them? While there are different variables to what makes a good novel, it always comes back to the characters. The greatest plot and most driven action only work if the characters are fully formed. Okay, that’s not exactly true. You can rest a lot on good writing and a fantastic hook – but without that spark of life in the character, you might have a publishable book, but not a great one. The thing I notice is that great characters can sometimes make up for failings elsewhere, but without them the novel will eventually fade from my memory. It becomes lost in between all the other ‘meh’ books I’ve read – not really pinpointing what was wrong but not special enough to love.

I doubt the authors are completely aware that they haven’t gone the distance with the character when it happens. Usually there are things, qualities, which put together on paper seem to make a really remarkable person. But there’s something missing from point A to point B. Something gets lost in the translation between what’s in the author’s head and what the reader gets.

Every great novel, or movie, or story that’s ever stuck with me in that life-changing, earth shaking way share a common denominator – I fall in love with the characters. And whenever I fall, it’s in the moments. You can count on spectacular writing (or movie making, or singing... insert artistic medium here). There are particulars, of story or plot or theme, that change and have some of this and a little of that. But there are always moments. I’ll give you a few examples, so you can see what I’m saying.

I love Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast. I was surprised how much I adored this book – and I’ve seen Stuart around the blog-o-sphere for a very long time, so I already knew he was brilliant. But I’m not a big thriller reader – here and there, but I don’t go out of my way to pick up thrillers or crime fiction. He got me in the moments. And against all odds, I couldn’t help but fall for Gerry Fegan – and believe me, if you haven’t read it, Fegan himself gives you ample reason to stay the hell away from him.

And I don’t want to mislead you – the writing was brilliant enough to keep me turning the pages, but it was in those moments that he hooked me. There were more than a few peppered through the book, but here’s the one that sticks most prevalent in my head:

Marie McKenna lay naked beside him. It was his bed, but it wasn’t. It was his house, but it wasn’t. Fegan was naked, too, and it shamed him. He went to cover himself.

“Don’t,” she said, moving his hand away.

“I’m not clean,” he said.

She hushed him, and moved in close. Her body was warm against his. She kissed him. Her mouth was soft, like summer air.

When he was free of her lips, he said, “It’s been so long. I don’t know what it feels like.”

“It feels like this,” she said, taking his hand and placing it on her breast.

Her skin was soft, her breast round and supple, with a hardness against his palm. Yes, that’s what it feels like. Smooth, warm...slick?

He looked down. His hand had smeared red on her body. She looked down, too, and he saw her mouth twist in disgust. He tried to wipe it away, but only made it worse, great crimson hand-prints across her breasts and stomach.

To be fair, this was a dream sequence, and picking it apart with the other scenes that really got me, it was the juxtaposition of who this character was on the outside, what the world saw of Gerry, and who he was inside. It was the hope, in this scene it was the hope, when so much else going on said quite plainly that the only thing coming was death, I couldn’t help but love a guy who still carried a glimmer of hope with him, even in the face of despair.

An all-time favorite of mine is Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Again, too many moments to pinpoint them all – and of course, his mastery of dialect has always enthralled me in a way that I can’t even express adequately. But there is one scene above all others that springs first to my mind whenever the book is mentioned.

Throughout the novel, Huck struggles with the fact that he’s helped Jim run away. Conventional views of the time tell him over and over again that this is a great sin, that Jim is property and he’s essentially stolen him from his owner, a woman who’s never done anything to deserve the theft. He gets to the point where he can’t even pray over it because, as he realizes, “You can’t pray a lie.” And he knows that he can’t ask for forgiveness when he has no intention of giving Jim over. So he writes a letter to Miss Watson, thinking that once he’s got it out, and can send it, he can go the “right” way:

...and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now: and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

The moment is obvious, how can you not love a kid who would go to hell, who literally believes he is damning his eternal soul, rather than turn over a friend?

When I started really picking apart these moments, I notice that for me they always let me inside the character. Sometimes they’re internal thoughts, sometimes actions, sometimes scenes between two characters, but they always let me inside... the same intimacy that makes you fall in love with a person.

What are your moments? I’d love to hear them, a passage from one of your favorite works, or one you’re proud of from your own fiction... Or if you’d like, a paraphrase from one of your favorite novels or movies... what makes your moments? Bonus points if you can make me melt.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Middle School Sucks

Being that this is my daughter’s sixth grade year, I’m still learning how to be the parent of a middle school kid. And you forget exactly how warped and mean some of these kids can be, but you forget other fun stuff, too.

My kid is predictably unpredictable. She’s back in piano lessons and the first time we talked to the guy in the office at her new music school was a trip. He heard she was twelve and immediately started telling me how she could learn anything from classical to Hannah Montana... at the mention of the later, she rolled her eyes so hard it put a crack in the ceiling and said, “How about Led Zepplin, or Aerosmith, or Kiss?!!!”

Yep, that’s my baby. She also likes jazz, not so much pop, but a few songs here and there. Rock is a little more her speed. I think, at first she expected me to be the typical mom who frowns on that sort of thing, except, ya know, I know all the words and tend to hum along while she picks out the melody. She’s got a real knack for figuring out a song by ear.

Brag, brag, back on point. She’s creative. Not just with music, she does voices. She’s got a bit for almost any nationality you could think of, complete with multiple characters... Ask her to do the Hispanic Darth Vader and I would bet money you’d be on the floor. She makes up characters and directs little shorts with her video camera. The latest is The Adventures of Peeky – I don’t actually know what it’s about. But since I won’t let her have a YouTube account (because I’m paranoid of having my kids’ faces out online), she’s taken to enlisting her little brothers and assorted friends in acting the bits out wherever we are. Apparently it’s pretty funny, because a gaggle of kids will follow her around at my son’s football practice or picking up the youngest from his school, asking her to do another “Peeky Scene”.

This is all well and good, I guess. It’s just in her nature. I was always creative, but I am nowhere near as extroverted as she is... she’s a born performer and she enjoys the spotlight.

But the last thing you want to do in middle school is stand out. So this year, she’s had some issues, with one girl in particular. And we’ve had discussions at home about being popular and all that jazz... surprisingly enough, she doesn’t want to be popular. According to her, to be popular you have to pay too much attention to your clothes and hair and you don’t get to do anything fun, like voices. (I have a sneaking suspicion that she’d relish being popular if she still got to be herself – we all want to be liked... but I’m fairly happy that she’s not willing to compromise who she is to get there).

At first this girl called my daughter “weird”. But that didn’t work out so well, because my daughter just agreed with her. “I am weird. I’d rather be weird than normal.”

So, of course, as with all things, it escalated. The one that really, really bothered me - this girl told her, “You’re ugly and no boy will ever want you.”

Seriously, where the fuck does an 11 year old get this perception? That you’re only worth something if some boy wants you!!! I know, I’m weird and the insult wasn’t near as bothersome as the mindset it sprung from... and I should probably dislike this kid who’s picking on my kid, but really I feel sorry for her and I hope to God it was some random insult rather than the way she really sees the world, and her place in it.

And I’m sure my daughter’s not telling me all of it, probably just the watered down version of events – I’m just happy she’s telling me any of it, to be honest. I wouldn’t have said a thing to my mother... and I’m trying to let her handle it on her own at this point, but checking in with her about it pretty much daily. I’ve had other moms tell me to call the school but I told her I wouldn’t and I don’t want to break that trust and have her hiding things from me.

I’d love to give you guys some kind of ending here... like a story, to wrap it up in a neat little bow and tell you how it ended... but it’s likely to be ongoing for quite some time. And I’m not sure how we’ll handle the next thing. Another reminder of how fiction is different than real life – in fiction, you can make Karma work a lot faster... on the other end of the scale, none of this will matter much in the long run, except maybe as fodder for her future characters.

How much do you remember from middle school? If you have kids, was it harder to watch them go through it? And for you middle school writers, how much of the reality colors your work?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Wasting Time and Self-Imposed Boundaries

Nathan Bransford’s recent blog asked the question, “Can anyone be a good writer?”

For me, the answer is simple. But the commenters’ answers were more fascinating than my own take, because most of them were so adamant.

A few years ago, I volunteered to run an art appreciation program at my kids’ school. I designed classes around famous artworks and spent a good portion of the time discussing the artist and time period, and then modified projects so that the kids could use an array of mediums throughout the school year that were age appropriate – depending on the grade. I worked with every grade from pre-k through sixth and wound up teaching a lot of classes instead of just my own children’s classes.

Now, I helped other moms design their projects, found volunteers, even put together the art show at the end of the year, and worked with the program for I think two years... but the most vivid memory I have of the entire experience is this:

I set up a still life in the middle of the fourth grade classroom. I don’t even remember who the artist we studied for this one was, but the fun part was letting each of the kids find things in their desk or around the room that they thought were interesting and decide where to set them on the table in the middle. So there was this great big hodgepodge of STUFF. And I had them all sit in a circle around the table and then I told them to draw it... oy, the looks on their faces! Like a deer caught in the headlights. I wasn’t thinking.

When you tell someone to draw, someone who hasn’t already studied how to see things in that way – with an artist’s eye, well, they need something specific. You can’t give them too much. They don’t know where to look.

So I slowed them down a bit. Told them to breathe and told them each to pick a spot out of the still life that most appealed to them; I even let them move around the room to find what they found most interesting. They could draw it as large or as small as they wanted, include as many things as they wanted... it was all about their own perspective.

As I was walking around, a boy raised his hand, his page was still blank and the pencil was in his hand... and he looked at me and said, “But, most of us won’t be good drawers, right? I mean, like, some people are good drawers and then the rest of us will never really be good at it, right?”

So I told him the truth. “No, that’s not right. Anyone can learn to draw. Any person who wants to spend the time and put in their best effort can learn to draw and draw well. It’s a skill, and there are techniques, and to get really good takes a lot of practice, but there is no special ‘thing’ you either have or don’t that says you can draw. It’s all about working on it.”

See, there was another kid in this class who was talented. She had that X factor and had the ‘artist’ title in the class... so that’s probably where the question came from, but I wasn’t about to be the person that gave this kid a boundary and told him he’d never have the capacity to cross it.

And you know what – he crossed it. His drawing was good, and detailed, he picked small little skeleton erasers and some portion of a weaved basket thing... you could see every bone.

Now I’m pretty familiar with the whole, talent vs. work debate. And I do personally think there is a little kernel of something, that intangible we call talent, in great artists, writers, or really anything... I mean, there’s probably some intangible in surgeons and mathematicians, too, we just don’t generally call it talent, we call it intelligence instead... but it’s the same thing really. Some people have a natural ability in certain areas. That’s talent. It comes easier or there’s a spark there, and you’ll often hear other writers or artists talk about how you could see it as far back as grade school.

I had it. I got all that attention for being talented and creative... in drawing, not writing. If teachers from grade school saw me today, they’d probably wonder if I was doing anything with visual arts, because that was what I was known for then, what seemed to come easy for me. No one noticed anything interesting in my writing until late in high school... in fact, I was in one of the lower reading groups in grammar school.

And, getting back to the talent thing – I don’t actually have that spark in the visual arts. I figured that out on my own, and I think that’s how everyone should come to their own limitations or lack thereof. Just because my early dispositions leaned toward drawing doesn’t mean I was talented, it means I was interested. Interested in saying something. That’s what it was about. I’m still interested in the same thing, telling a story, but I’ve found I like doing it in words, scenes, through characters... or sometimes through blog rants.

So I don’t know – can anyone be a great writer? A great artist? Well, I guess it depends on your definition of great, and that’s subjective at best. What’s more interesting though, is why you come up with your answer to that question, and who you’re drawing boundaries for... because really, all of the years I spent drawing and painting... they weren’t wasted. I’ve taken the techniques and way of looking at things into every other area of study – no time you spend learning anything is ever really wasted, the skills always translate to other areas if you’re just open to it...

What’s your answer? Can ANYONE be a great writer? If your answer is no, who do you think needs to stay behind the line your boundaries draw? And how did you make it across, or did you?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Getting Historical - My Interview with Linda Weaver Clarke

One of the best things about blogging is that it gives me the opportunity to meet so many fabulous people. Recently, my blog introduced me to another great writer. Linda Weaver Clarke writes historical fiction and she also goes around the country lecturing on genealogy and writing out your own family history. She was kind enough to let me interview her for the blog, and Linda will be around to answer questions. So away we go:

Merry: I find the idea of teaching a Family Legacy Workshop fascinating! I'm wondering, did you get the idea from working with historical fiction, or did you start by working on your own ancestry and then got into historical fiction?

Linda: I was first interested in putting my own family stories together. After writing my ancestors’ stories, I couldn’t stop writing so I turned to historical fiction.

Merry: How do you spur your ideas, as far as setting as historical placement for your novels? Do you find something in your research first, or do you have the idea and then research the time-frame?

Linda: Sometimes in my research about an area, I find something that gives me an idea for a book. I get most of my ideas from true experiences and every day life, though. For example, in my first book, “Melinda and the Wild West,” it was inspired by a true experience that happened to me as a substitute teacher. A teacher labeled a young girl as a troublemaker and put her behind some bookshelves so she wouldn’t be a menace to others. I based my story on this experience, but I also wanted it to be a love story. This book eventually won an award as one of the semi-finalists for the “Reviewers Choice Award.”

In “Edith and the Mysterious Stranger,” I based this story around the courtship of my parents. They didn’t meet the conventional way. They wrote letters to one another before they ever met. She said that she fell in love with the soul of my father, and they didn’t even know what one another looked like. The day they met, my mother told me that her heart leapt within her and a warm glow filled her soul and she knew she would marry this man. I knew this would be the basis of my next novel, but there’s one difference. In my story, you don’t know who the mysterious stranger is until the end of the book. Some readers guessed correctly while others were pleasantly surprised.

“Jenny’s Dream” was inspired by events that happened to me in my youth. I learned that forgiveness was essential for true happiness. In this novel, Jenny must learn to forgive and put her past behind her. This story is about accomplishing one’s dreams and the miracle of forgiveness, with a bit of adventure from Old Ephraim, the ten-foot grizzly bear taken from Idaho history. The research about this old grizzly was exciting to me because I had grown up with the stories of Old Ephraim. He wreaked havoc wherever he went, slaughtering sheep and calves, and scaring sheepherders so badly that they actually quit their jobs. With one blow of his paw, he could break the back of a cow. I found that he was the smartest bear that ever roamed the Rocky Mountains. No one could catch him. Every bear trap they set was tossed many yards away from where they had put it, and the ones that weren’t tripped had “Old Three Toes” tracks all around it. He was too smart to be caught. In this story, I included every detail about this bear and his deeds.

My great grandmother, Sarah Eckersley Robinson, was my inspiration for “David and the Bear Lake Monster.” Sarah lost her hearing as a child but she never let her deafness stop her from developing her talents. I took a lot of her experiences from her biography and gave them to my heroine to bring some reality into my story. Sarah was known as one of the most graceful dancers in town. She was known for gliding across the floor with ease, with just a touch of her partner’s hand. Sarah had such agility and gracefulness while swimming, that people would actually throw coins in the water so they could watch her dive after them. Once an intruder hid in her bedroom under her bed, thinking he could take advantage of her since she was deaf. He must have thought she was an easy victim but was sadly mistaken. She swatted him out from under her bed with a broom, and all the way out of the house, and down the street for a couple blocks, whacking him as she ran. What a courageous woman! In this book, I also added real experiences about the Great Bear Lake Monster, a part of Idaho history. Does it exist? Well, the people of Bear Lake believe in it. I’ve met people whose grandparents actually saw it. This part of my research was fun. To read an excerpt from each of my novels, visit:
Linda’s Website

Merry: For family histories, how would you advise someone new to genealogy to get started?

Linda: It’s important to teach our children their heritage. Our children need to understand their ancestors and be proud of them. First, write down any experiences that you remember. Talk to family members and discuss memories. Use letters they wrote to one another. If possible, go to the area your ancestors settled, walk around, find specific places of importance, where your ancestors lived, went to school, and played. If you can’t go there in person, then do research and find pictures of that area.

Time Period is another important part of research. Find out what existed back then. During the roaring twenties, bobbed hair was the rage. If your grandmother bobbed her hair and went to the dance marathons, write about it. If they lived during war times, it helps your children understand why their grandparents had such tough times. When writing my father’s biography, I found out that in 1942 they rationed gas to three gallons a week. To me, that was amazing. How about prices? Did it cost ten cents to go to the movies and five cents for an ice cream cone? And what flavors existed? Did they travel by horse and buggy or a Model T Ford? All this info makes an interesting story. To read samples of what you can do with your stories, visit my website at and read the “short stories” of my ancestors.

Merry: Are there any research methods you find particularly helpful or favorite sources you revisit for various projects?

Linda: I do research on the Internet and in books. If I research the Internet, then I always make sure there’s a bibliography along with it. You don’t want people’s opinions but facts. I had a blast researching for my last book, “Elena, Woman of Courage.” It was in the 1920s so I did a search about the language for that time period. I found words that I didn’t even know such as: Cat’s pajamas! Ah, horsefeathers! Baloney! You slay me! If you were All Wet, you were mistaken or wrong about something. If a man said, “Hey, look at those gams!” What were gams? Of all things, it’s a woman’s legs. When referring to a woman, they used doll, tomato, and bearcat. When a person was in love, he was goofy. If a person was a fool, he was a sap. And when a woman wasn’t in the mood for kissing or romance, she would say, “The bank’s closed.” I was able to use all these words and much more in my book. The language was great!

Merry: I love historical fiction, but as a writer I find it daunting because I'm afraid I won't have a firm enough grasp of day to day life in the time period. Do you have any advice for would-be historical fiction writers on how to stay accurate and capture the voice of the time?

Linda: Research is the secret for me. I research the time period, the clothes they wore, whether electricity was used or not, whether closets existed, etc. I found out that clothes closets weren’t used in 1896. Melinda had to put her dresses in a Wardrobe. I found out that pencils were painted yellow for the very first time in 1896 and for a very good reason. I included it in my first novel and received many e-mails about it. I found that Idaho allowed women to vote in 1896. They were the fourth state to give women rights. Wyoming was first, Colorado was second, and Utah was third. It was fun to learn this trivia. Yes, research is the best way.

Linda’s books are available on Amazon, through local bookstores that buy from Baker and Taylor, and on her website: Linda Weaver

You can also get to know Linda through her blog.

I’d love to hear from you guys in the comments section. If you have any questions for Linda, she’ll be stopping in, or if you just want to discuss historical fiction, genealogy, or your own methods of researching, fiction and non.