I've written on another blog about my interest in Ann Morgan's Reading-the-World Challenge in which readers are invited to try to read one novel or collection of short stories from each of the 196 countries in the world. I think this is a fascinating and worthwhile endeavor. I know as I am working at my list my view of the world and its people is altering considerably. That is the triumph of great art. I've set up a separate page on this blog to chart my progress and I hope to cross-link any blog posts I make about it.

So, since I started this two weeks ago, I've finished three books (and dipped into four or five more.) Today I am happy to have spent time in Peru, Yemen, and Pakistan. I have a feeling I may be spending a lot of time in Pakistan.

This is a simply beautiful novel that pays homage to that most ancient and, to me, beloved, art formstory-telling. Saul Zurastas is a Peruvian Jew born with a terrible birthmark over his face but he has managed to stay oblivious to that. Saul becomes obsessed with the Machiguengas, a tiny, indigenous tribe dwelling in the Amazon rain forest where they wander in small bands, connected by their ancient tradition of story-telling. Eventually, by living among them and learning their culture, Saul becomes a habladore—a storyteller. It is a story filled with mysteries—from the mythic nature of the Machigungas trying to survive in a modern world, to that of a Jewish outsider who longs to keep their traditions alive. It is beautifully written as all of Llosa's books are and won my heart because story-telling is a sacred art for me.

This is a little bit of a cheat because it is not a novel but non-fiction. I had already purchased it before I began working on this list and, because the author is Yemeni and writes beautifully about her people and her country, I decided to include it. I loved her description of the tiny village in which she grew up, the groves of eucalyptus trees, and the people of the village. At the age of ten she is married, against her will, to a man who is 3 times her age. We learn that her father so feared the “disgrace” that had befallen his older daughters he thought it best to marry off Nujood as quickly as possible. Her husband promises not to have sexual relations with her until a year after she begins menstruating but, of course, as soon as they are married and she has been taken to his village, he betrays that. Eventually, little Nujood makes it to the city of Sana'a where she pleads for a divorce which is granted. This was not an easy story to read but it is well-written and gives insight into a people that, even this world today, seem completely out of time.

I did not know what to expect when I began this book but it grabbed my attention from the first page and didn't let up until the last--and what a last page it was. I can honestly say, NOTHING was what I expected. The main character, Changez, is a young Pakistani from a family that was once affluent but is now in decline. He receives a scholarship to Princeton where he graduates with all A's at the top of his class. He is promptly recruited by a top corporate valuations company, and in no time, is living a life he could not have imagined. He has a great job, a beautiful American girlfriend, and a non-stop social life. He is tall, handsome, well-dressed and well-liked. His boss takes him under his wing and it seems his future will be a brilliant one. And then the World Trade Center is attacked and Changez world view shifts.

I was quite startled by the author's naked openness about his feelings in this story. Changez is in the Philippines on business when the Towers are attacked and his first reaction is one of happiness. He is ashamed of himself for feeling that way and immediately regrets the loss of life but, at the same time, cannot help but approve of the symbolism. Yet, he is well-aware that America has given him so much--why would he feel the way he did?

Slowly Changez slips into decline--a decline that even he does not understand. He is deeply conflicted and divided inside between his gratitude to a country that has given him so much and the land of his birth that he feels loyal to. During a business trip to Chile he begins to fall apart and, while visiting the home of poet Pablo Neruda, he makes a terrible decision.

This was not an easy book to read at times but the deep conflict and confusion Changez experiences is gripping. The author takes no shortcuts and avoids the trite and expected. The end was shattering. I am very glad to have read this book but believe it is not for everyone.

I have now moved on to Ethiopia with Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone but also have books for Syria and the United Arab Emirates that I am dying to get into. I must say I am very much enjoying this journey.

Thanks for reading.
Volleyball in full swing.  A walk on the beach.  Gulls and people!  The kick!  Life guard looks bored!  Kids! Two beach chairs!                             A 1966 Dodge Polara cruises by the beach.  "New Boston"  Bow on.  Starboard view.  Lobster pots. Hoover Dam from 2006, look at the face lower left! I just discovered this after all these years!  Oskar
I've been thinking, and writing, a lot lately about the nature of characters and how powerful they can be in the lives of ordinary humans. In fiction, whether in books or in film, really good characters can not only fascinate and entertain us, but also serve as an impetus for things we decide to create in our lives. For me, and most likely for other writers, this is often other characters—characters of our own. I do not know how artists and musicians, etc., use this sort of inspiration although I suspect that they do, but regular, normal people sometimes find qualities in a character so appealing that it becomes something they find desirable in those around them.

Rudolph Valentino

The actor Rudolph Valentino once said, Women are not in love with me but the picture of me on the screen. I am merely the canvas on which women paint their dreams. For Valentino this became such a burden that he felt he had no control over his own life and that, as he grew older he was becoming a caricature of himself. Years ago, I used to say that I loved the actor Harrison Ford. Then I realized that, though I think he is a fine actor and a handsome man, it was really Indiana Jones that I had a crush on. When I realized that, I realized it is important to understand the difference. As my friend Clare says, “Characters don't leave the seat up.”

These days I hear the term “Book Boyfriend” used frequently. It's a cute term and I certainly understand it. My first Book Boyfriend was Laurie Laurence in Little Women followed closely by Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. I know a lot of women who have had a life-long love for Sherlock Holmes. In fact Dorothy L. Sayer is alleged to have been so in love with Lord Peter Wimsey that he eclipsed all other relationships for her.
Christian Bale as Laurie Laurence

I know that men must surely have Book Girlfriends but I don't know as much about that. What makes a character so fascinating, so appealing, so alluring that a reader can “paint their dreams” on them? If I had an absolute answer to that, I'd have it made as a writer. But there are a few things that I think contribute to it. Physical strength and presence is part of it, intelligence is another, and the capacity to be both violent and tender—those things draw women in.

Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester
Among the characters that I've found myself being mesmerized by is Henry Winter in Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Judging from what I've read in reader reviews, I am not alone in that. Henry is tall and aloof, utterly brilliant, emotionally distant and yet devoted to his friends, and a cold-blooded killer. I don't know about other readers, but that tender core always gets to me. It's why I fell under the spell, as I've mentioned before, of Sayid Jarrah, the Iraqi interrogator on the television show, Lost. Judging by the number of tribute videos for him posted on YouTube, I am far from alone there either.

Once, when I was younger and thought myself too mature for such foolishness, I resisted my infatuations with characters but these days I love them. I love falling for a character and then letting them grow and develop and transform in my imagination until they take on a life of their own and become someone I can write about. And, having said that, I think I'll go re-read Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist. I love her hero Talmudge and I think I need to spend more time with him. Who knows what might happen?

Thanks for reading.
The weather always can be interesting, you can get the best weather forecast yet you never know what it will look like. Here a rare "Shelf Cloud" swept over Cape Ann then about an hour later I checked out Good Harbor Beach as dusk was taking hold. Also some more "rescued" images and finally the International Space Station! "Rescued" image of Good Harbor Beach in the fog!  Only the top of
Like most writers I read a lot and, like most people, I don't have nearly as much time to read as I would like. Much of my reading is research—I've recently read a number of books on different aspects of the Civil War, all as research for The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk. But finding time to read for the sheer pleasure of reading often eludes me. I invariably have several books going at the same time—an audio book to listen to while cooking, sewing and knitting; a DTB book for the car and/or the back porch; Kindle books—fiction and non-fiction—in bed at night. I get a little covetous about my reading time.

Orhan Pamuk
Last night I was reading in bed—the story was a contemporary thriller by a writer whose work I have read before. It was reasonably interesting—a murder was committed and a group of people were conspiring to keep it covered up; a burned-out detective, still lusting after the wife who left him because she wasn't getting enough attention, etc. etc. The writing was good, the characters were semi-interesting. I don't want to blame the book because I think it was just me. I wasn't getting anything out of it and I couldn't figure out why. Finally, I decided to try something else and I switched over to Orhan Pamuk's The Naive and Sentimental Novelist: Understanding What Happens When We Read And Write Novels.

First, let me say, though I have not read all of Pamuk's work, I have loved everything I've read. Like Salman Rushdie and Isabelle Allende, he has the ability to paint landscapes that draw you in and stay in one's memory so visceraly it is almost possible to believe you have once visited there. This book is a collection of essays about the experience of reading and I have been savoring the essays one at a time—giving myself time to think about them between each. As I was reading I was, again, struck by the distinction Pamuk makes between the “naive” novelists who are unaware of the novel's artificiality, and the “sentimental” novelist who build the story around self-reflection and a relationship to the story. And, as naturally follows, the reader of naive work and the reader of sentimental work will experience the work accordingly.

I had this idea that maybe that was the problem with the thriller I was trying to read. On the surface there was nothing wrong with it except that I just didn't feel any sense of engagement. It was just a well-written story of some artificial characters in an artificial setting doing artificial things. It was all about what happens next. There was nothing wrong with it—it just wasn't holding my interest.

Luay Hamza Abbas
Another book among those that I am juggling is Luay Hamza Abbas's Closing His Eyes: Iraqi Short Stories. I picked it up after reading an article about someone who decided to read a book by an author from every country on the planet. Also, it only cost a dollar. The stories are short—some only a few paragraphs. In many the main character does not have a name. Like Pamuk's essays, it would be a mistake to read these all at once because each story is so filled with imagery and so evocative that they must be digested slowly. Because Iraq is a country that has been torn apart by violence both from within and without, violence is often the theme, but in such a subtly beautiful way. There are no politics in these stories. No judgements or ideologies. They are just stories about people who have to live in this place and go about their lives and do the best they can in the face of horrors.

In one story a person just wants to go to work and do his job, another just wants to tend his garden, another, another wants to make tea for her family, or roast fava beans. They are going about their days like any average person anywhere in the world goes about a day. But then a shot rings out and someone drops dead. Men drag someone into the street and an execution takes place. They are just stories—stories from a place where if you happen to glance into a ditch as you walk home from market, you just might see a pair of white-coated, lifeless eyes staring at the heavens. The reflection they produce is unavoidable.

Sometimes a naive story is just what we need to slip out of the world and let our minds take a break. But other times we need that sentiment—we crave it, because in it we learn more about ourselves and the world in which we dream.

Thanks for reading.
Early Saturday morning on my way home from work I stopped at Stacy Boulevard. The entire Boulevard had been decorated just in time for Memorial Day and will remain for the Summer. The next stop was over to the Fish Pier to capture shots of the coastal cruise ship "Pearl Mist". Last week I was in the process of deleting old image files in an attempt to free up space on my hard drive. I
Bobby Dancing
I blogged this week about a novel I am doing research for and today that research resulted in a picture from long ago and a trove of memories from way back in time. One of the characters in this book is named Astarte Safiya and she is a Ghawazi dancer descended from the Nawar people of Egypt. Back in the 1980s, when I was studying danse Oriental and taking classes and workshops, one of the most revered teachers of that time was a man named Ibrahim Farrah. Everyone called him “Bobby” and he was a magnificent dancer.

Today, as I was watching YouTube videos of various Middle Eastern dances, I came across a video of Amoura Latif dancing Bobby's choreography for a Cafe Dance. I hadn't thought of Bobby in years and, with a little bit of research, I discovered he died in 1998—such a loss to the world of Middle Eastern Dance.

It's a funny thing how I even got into dancing in the first place. A friend and I had decided to take an evening watercolor class for six weeks, but when we went to sign up, the class was full. We looked at the list of available classes and one was Intro to Belly Dance. Out of sheer silliness we signed up. My friend quit after two classes. I kept dancing for five years. In fact when I decided to leave Houston and move to Maine, my going-away party was held in the belly dance studio and dozens of dancers came to dance with and for me in farewell.

Penn State's The Corner Room
I was not a particularly accomplished dancer but I loved it. As a big, blond, American woman of German heritage I often thought I had no business doing this sort of dance. But every time I danced in public it was the Middle Eastern men who would praise and encourage me. These beautiful, copper-skinned, dreamy-eyed men would scream and clap and go crazy when I danced. They'd call “you're beautiful, I love you!” It was heady, addictive stuff. Bobby was like that. He could make you feel like you were the most desirable creation ever.

The first time I met him something sort of wonderful happened. He was coming to Houston to teach a workshop and needed a ride from the airport to the dance studio. His plane was arriving late at night and I offered to go pick him up. I only knew him by reputation so I was excited. He came off the plane, a handsome, but very normal looking guy in jeans and a white dress shirt—no elaborate costumes for something as ordinary as a plane ride.

My dancing days
As we headed back to Houston I asked if there was anything he needed. He said that, actually, he was starving and would love to stop at a restaurant. So I took him to a favorite place of mine in River Oaks. It was a cozy, charming place with high-backed wooden booths and a good variety of dishes. We ordered and he proved to be a delightful dinner companion. When we were about to leave he leaned back, looked around, and said, “I love this place. It reminds me of a place I hung out at when I was in college.” Really? I said. Where was that? “It was called The Corner Room. It was right across the street from campus,” he said.

I stared at him. Penn State? I managed at last. “Yes.” He grinned. “Have you been there?” I graduated from Penn State and spent a lot of time at The Corner Room.We were instant buddies—two Penn State alums in the far-off land of Texas.

For the rest of the weekend, at any given moment Bobby would begin singing “Fight On, State” just to make me laugh. I danced in the final show of that weekend and I drove him back to the airport. It was such a wonderful experience.

So now my dancing days are over. Bobby is gone from this earth. But I have Astarte Safiya to create and I look forward to the experience.

Bobby performing with Dahlena at Club Cleopatra, Sacramento California, 1964.
Thanks for reading.
It is always bittersweet when a writing project I have been working on for a long time is coming to an end. The first Volume of The BucktailCap in the Trunk: More Secrets of Marienstadt is now available for Kindle and the next 2 volumes are nearly ready. A paperback will be coming out with all thirteen stories as well. I still have polishing to do on them but I'm also thinking about what comes next.

For a long time now I have had a story in the back of my mind that has been nagging at me and I think it may be my next project. It is a full-length novel set mostly in the back country of the Adirondacks—a setting I love.

The story starts with a young woman named Lydia Morningstar who grows up in a traditional suburban home with nice, middle-class parents and lots of promise and possibilities but Lydia is a different kind of kid. She wants to be a farmer and it sort of drives her parents crazy. She starts by planting carrots and lettuce around her mother's rose bushes and growing watermelons and peppers behind her father's garage. Her gardens grow and expand and soon take over the entire yard, much to the annoyance of many of the neighbors. Her parents aren't exactly pleased by this but they are modern parents who want their child to develop into her full potential.

By the time Lydia is in college, she is consumed with sustainable living and spends a year in Europe working on various farms. Back in New York she hears about a farm that was started by a couple of hippies that is a model of sustainable living. It is in a remote, wooded area and for many years people visited it just to marvel at how creative and productive it was. But now there are problems. The husband has died and the wife is looking for someone to come, live with her, learn to run the farm, and, ultimately, inherit it. Lydia and her boyfriend decide to give it a try.

Now available for Kindle
A few years go by and Lydia is now the sole owner of the farm. Her boyfriend didn't last long—it was too much work for him. She loves the farm but it is a tremendous amount of work for one person. Then a strange thing happens—she becomes aware that there is a boy living in the woods behind her farm. Slowly she coaxes him into trusting her. At first she thinks he is a feral child who was abandoned or lost. He is a dark, strange, homely child, who is very guarded and fearful but, once he begins to trust her, she realizes he is much more than he seems. He tells her his name is Asher and he is twelve, but he does not want to talk about his past. He is very willing, eager even, to work on the farm in exchange for room and board, but he doesn't want anyone to know where he is. She knows he will take off if she pressures him about anything.

Slowly, Lydia discovers that, while he has some education, there is much he is totally unaware of. He reads well and is very good at math, but has no idea that there are other countries in the world, or that people in them speak other languages. He has never seen television or been to a movie. But he has strange, mysterious powers that may or may not be natural.

Well, that's as far as I've gotten but I think Lydia and Asher are going to be good companions for the next few months as I gradually get to know them. I'll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading.    

A Place of Honor !

The Fishermen's Memorial Statue has looked out past Gloucester Harbor to the open sea since 1923 to honor the over 10,000 fishermen who never returned to this port. I've been honored by the city to provide photos of Gloucester fishing vessels for banners that flank the memorial. Fishermen's Memorial at dusk.  The Fishermen's Memorial Service 2014.  The banners  Stacy Boulevard  
William Hoehn from my hometown, St. Marys, Pennsylvania, told me a great story about "Roaring" Jack Dent--an old-time log drover. So, naturally, I just HAD to work into my current work-in-progress. This is from Peeper's Treasure Hunt which will be part of The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk: More Secrets of Marienstadt. Take a look:

In the pantheon of Marienstadt’s “colorful characters” Blaise Hanes was a star. No one ever knew for sure if any actual Native American blood ran through his veins but his appreciation for and knowledge of the Seneca tribes of north central Pennsylvania was vast. He was a solidly built man with warm, dark eyes surrounded by laugh lines, and hair that was more gray than black now that he was in his fifties, hanging in a single, thick braid down to the middle of his back. His taxidermy shop behind the modest house in which he and his wife, Sara, had raised twelve children, was a wonderland for the school children and Cub Scout dens that regularly visited it. Not only were there dozens of stuffed animals but all manner of Seneca artifacts displayed in cases. For over three decades children were welcomed there and had been dazzled as Blaise told them stories and legends about the early days of The Great Buffalo Swamp and The Wildcat District, as their environs had once been known.

His latest carving, commissioned by Boone for the tavern, was a tribute to “Roaring” Jack Dent and his band of log drovers who once opened splash dams and floated logs of chestnut and white oak down the Sinnemahoning Creek to the Susquehanna River. Blaise’s carving showed the men in corked boots laced to the knee and carrying cant hooks, as some of them waded waist-deep into the freshet of melting snow at the end of winter, dodging rattlesnakes as they worked.
“That’s a beauty,” Boone said when Blaise carried it into the tavern and propped it up on a pool table. “You outdid yourself on this one.”
“Thank you.” Blaise stood back, smiling, his thick arms folded across his chest. “I think it turned out okay.”
“I’d say it’s a lot more than okay. When Lucius comes in I’ll have him help me hang it. Come on over to the bar and let me buy you a drink. Or a cup of coffee.” Boone corrected himself. It was well-known that Blaise didn’t drink alcohol.
“Coffee would be great.” Blaise sat down at the bar and studied his carving of elk behind it. “I sure appreciate your business.”
“I sure appreciate your talent.” Boone poured coffee and placed it on the counter. “Peeper,
you ready for another one?”
Peeper Baumgratz sat two stools down nursing a draft as he did most weekday afternoons.
“Sure.” He drained the last few drops from the glass and pushed it toward Boone.
“I’ve been thinking about another one,” Boone said to Blaise as he drew Peeper’s beer. “A guy was in here a couple weeks ago and he told me about the forty thousand dollars from a hold-up that’s supposed to be buried over in Mount Jewett under the Kinzua Viaduct.”
“I’ve heard that story,” Blaise said.
“I think it would be great if you could show the Viaduct before it blew down, what do you think?”
“Forty-thousand dollars?” Peeper’s ears perked up. “Up to the Kinzua Bridge, is that where you’re talking about?”
“Yeah.” Blaise turned toward him. “That story has been around for years. They say a guy held up a bank in Emporium and got clean away but on his death bed he confessed and said he buried the gold under the bridge.”
“And ain’t nobody ever found it?” Peeper’s eyes were enormous.
“Nope. If you believe tall tales there’s treasure buried all over these hills. Back in the sixteen nineties the French warrior Louis de Buade de Frontenac was supposed to have brought barrels of gold coins up from New Orleans to finance his endless wars against the English and the Indians. But something happened and they say the gold was buried up around Coudersport somewhere.”
“No shit?” Peeper was enthralled. 
“No shit.” Blaise appeared to be enjoying himself. “But the real mother lode of lost treasure is the gold that was lost during the Civil War down in Dent’s Run. Did you ever hear about that?”
“Oh, crap.” Boone covered his face with both hands. “I forgot all about that. Me and my brother Kit and Lucius and Jim Loeffler went hunting for it one summer when we were in high school. We spent five days camping down there and all we came home with were sunburns and ten thousand mosquito bites.”
Blaise laughed a deep, hearty laugh.
To be continued...

As a writer I am continually amazed by the reactions readers have to certain characters. I can never quite predict which character my readers will take a fancy to and am often delighted, although surprised, at their choices. I like this though because it is easier to write about characters filled with flaws than the unnaturally good ones. I suppose there is something in us that relates to these people and their search for redemption.

When I created Vivienne Lang in the second crazy old lady book I wasn't sure if people would like her or not. I wasn't sure if I liked her. She was raised by her grandparents who were wonderful but then at the age of twelve her mother forced her to move to California and used her as bait to attract lovers for herself. Out of both grief and desperation, Viv turned into a careless, promiscuous young woman. She also turned to martial arts as a defense against being used against her will. Eventually, this gave her the skills to be a force to be reckoned with but a force that was fragile and broken inside.

As I wrote about her I fell more and more under her spell and by the time I wrote the fourth book, The Crazy Old Lady's Secret, in which she is now married and a mother, I wanted nothing but good things for her. I'm not quite sure how that happened.

Last week I wrote about dangerous characters and I mentioned my fascination with Sayid Jarrah, the Iraqi soldier and former torturer, on the old television show, Lost. Since then I've read a few articles in which his character was discussed and one of the writers for the show said they originally had intended him to be an irredeemable character that the audience would love to hate, but that isn't what happened. The audience loved him—they saw him as a romantic, tragic, and even heroic character. The writers had to do a lot of rewriting and by the time the last season came around, even though he had continued to be a relentless killing machine, he died the most heroic death they could give him. I got a lot of comments about that blog post and most of them said that they loved him.

Something similar happened with my first novel, The Old Mermaid's Tale. The main character, Clair, has romances with two men in the book—Pio, a delicious, sexy, Italian fisherman, and Baptiste, a man 20 years her senior who ran away from home at 16 to go to sea and, following an accident in which he lost his leg, became a vagabond and a drunk until he straightened himself out—sort of. I have always been both pleased and a little bit astonished at how many women tell me they love Baptiste. How sexy and desirable they find him. Of course, to me both Baptiste and Pio were very alluring but I suspect Baptiste's many flaws make him somehow more delicious.

I think about these things and I wonder what we see in these characters. Do we romanticize their broken places? Do we identify with them? Do we think we could redeem them? I've mentioned before how I am dumbfounded by the women who love Christian Grey in the 50 Shades books. To me he is a twisted, manipulative stalker but a lot of women—millions of them—find him delicious.

As a writer I doubt I'll ever understand this but I continue to pursue my fascination with characters who are both a mess and mesmerizing. I seek them out, I want to read about them and I want to create them. This is all very mysterious—a mystery that borders on obsession and I love it.

Thanks for reading.  
Spring was slow to spring to life but on Sunday, Mothers Day we shot past Spring into summer! The temps made it to the low 90's and the beach crowds made use of it. I took a few shots of the beach last week and thought it would be cool to compare what it looked like a week later. But first a ride down the Boulevard 5/4/15.  From the creek 5/4/15.  5/10/15  Under the tree 5/4/

Full Moon Rising!

I had a theme in mind for this post and set out to photograph those subjects when I realized the light was all wrong. By that time I refocused to try to get some sunset pics, but that failed because I was in the wrong place with no time to relocate. It was getting late and the available light was fading away. I was about to pull onto Rogers Street from Commercial Street when out of the corner of
My young friend, Christian Galacar, is a very talented writer. You can read more about him on Amazon and Goodreads and follow him on Twitter. His blog is The Honest Scrivener. I am very pleased to have him as a guest on my blog.

My girlfriend and I just signed a lease on a new apartment. That is exciting news in and of itself, but something equally exciting happened to me this weekend while I was cleaning out my bookshelf and boxing things up: I found my copy of Strunk's The Elements of Style. Immediately I recalled how fun and terrifying those first baby steps into the perilous world of writing were. The feeling was a strange combination of fear and longing that made me thirsty for a cold beer with old friends. I missed those earlier times.

Ahhh nostalgia, what a fantastic and powerful drug. *Long thoughtful sigh*

Moving on now. 

Even better than the book discovery, was when I cracked it open and leafed through the pages and the receipt for it fell out (Spirit of '76 Bookstore, which, coincidently, is now carrying my first novel, Cicada Spring). The receipt was faded and creased in all kids of strange ways that seemed impossible, especially when you considered that it had spent nearly three years pressed flatly between pages. But there it was in all its magnificent glory—proof of a beginning. For all intents and purposes, it was my birth certificate, a reminder of when I decided writing was what I wanted to do.
According to the tiny piece of paper, May 20th, 2012, was when Christian the Writer was born. I'm still a lot of other things: Christian the Banker, Christian the Over-Confident Golfer, Christian the Hungry, Christian the Habitual Line-Crosser. But Christian the Writer is certainly my favorite of all these identities. He is the one who feels most at home in his awkward and often sunburned skin. Christian the Writer doesn't tan well.

It's funny to think about how three years can feel so short yet so long at the same time. From my current standpoint, it flew by (a tad cliché, I know), but when I try to place myself in my younger self's writing shoes, I can only remember time passing in a grim slog of impatience.

When I was first starting, pumping out short story after short story, all I wanted to do was get better. I wrote hard and fast, with little regard for the rules. I was aware I was making mistakes, but I didn't care. Damn it, I wanted to be good NOW! Get out of my way punctuation and grammar! However, deep down, I knew there was work to be done. Very. Hard. Work. Talent, in my opinion, is less about the 'genius' you think you have inside you, the gift you believe you were given, and much more about how hard you are willing to work to coax it out of you and shine a light on it. It'll be an ugly bastard at first--squinty eyes, no teeth, opaque pink skin (picture a baby rat)--but eventually you can pretty it up some and maybe even find someone who'd be happy to date it.

What I'm getting at is this: I knew that if I kept at it, if I promised myself that no matter what happened, if at the end of the day I never gave up, then inevitably I would get better. And sure enough, I did. At least I think so. The progress was slow. The results, I was certain, would never come. But bit by bit, word by word, then sentence by sentence, things started to get better and easier. I have no delusions of being a genius writer, but I do, however, think that the talent I felt simmering inside me is finally a little easier to transition from my head to the blank page. In short, it's gotten easier to say what I want to say the way I want to say it. And in writing, that's pretty darn important. It is your voice.

So, while I know 'writing advice' is an over-touched-upon subject, and one I'm not even sure I am qualified to discuss, I would still like to talk a little bit about what I picked up along the way. Bits and scraps from here and there. Things that worked for me. Some might be helpful. Some might be better suited as dog food. But if you, dear reader, should glean even the tiniest morsel of inspiration or insight from it, I will be satisfied. Think of this less as advice and more of me telling you what has worked for me. There is no one size-fits-all with writing, so read this and interpret it widely. These things are simply the things I've noticed I was doing when I felt most in control of my craft.
Let's begin.

1) Write Honestly
This is something of a staple in almost any book on writing you will ever read. My favorite, of course, is Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and he discusses the topic the way only Stephen King can. I doubt he would claim to have invented the notion; it is simply something any writer worth his or her salt learns along the way—that the words are best and have the greatest impact when they aren't dumbed down out of fear of what people might think or who might get offended.
Many writers, I have found, are the sort who were often thought of as weird in their adolescence. Not because they were actually weird necessarily, but because they would say things with little care of what others would think of them. Little did we know we were preparing ourselves at such a young age to say what we wanted to say the way we wanted to say it.

So what exactly does 'write honestly' mean? It can mean many things to many people, but to me it means don't hold back. For example: If you want to make a character convincing, say a character who is supposed to be devious and evil (serial killers are a good blank canvas for the dark inclined mind), then I hate to tell you this but you're going to have to conjure up some dark thoughts that disturb you. And when you finally go to put them down on the page, cringing as you type the words, second guessing yourself as to whether or not it's too much and you've crossed a line, you need to know that that's when you should keep going. If you aren't feeling it as a writer when you're writing it, then you better believe the reader won't feel it when they read it. That goes for any emotion—fear, love, lust, anger, humor, sadness.

To write honestly you need to know your characters inside and out. They have to think and behave the way they were meant to, and often times the way that they want to; they can easily take on a life of their own and say things that catch you off guard. So if they decide to speak up, for the love of God do not censor them. It's an unforgivable sin, if you ask me, and you should be nibbled to death by a duck.

2) Surprise Yourself
When it comes to twists and surprises you need to avoid doing the first thing that comes to mind. You are the writer, but you are also the first reader. If you get to a point in your story where you can see the setup/opportunity for a plot-twist coming, take a break for a moment. During that break, think of the first two or three scenarios that would best fit that twist... then throw them away. If you thought of them that fast, then chances are a reader will too. Sometimes the cleverest twists are the ones that seem more obvious (sounds counterintuitive, I know), but people automatically look for the obscure when they start to realize things aren't what they seem. Hiding in plain sight isn't always bad if it suits your story. Points for clever twists are always good, but not the ultimate currency in storytelling. Stories are so much bigger than gimmicks.

In a roundabout way, I think I am trying to say to be real as often as possible. Root your lies in grains of truth to lend them believability and ground them in reality.

3) Find What Works For You and Do It
Writers are creatures of habit, if nothing else. We have our routines and our environmental requirements in order for the words to flow freely. Some writers like to drink or smoke a cigarette or wear aluminum foil on their feet. Find what works for you, your comfort zone, and stay there for the duration of your writing session, whatever it may be. Me? I need to be warm. Scratch that—I need to be blazing hot. I bundle up and turn the heat to 78 degrees. It's the only way I can relax enough to get things moving along. By the time I've managed to get down a thousand or so words, I'm usually a sweaty medium-rare and ready for consuming.

4) Write, Damn it!
This one should go without saying, yet I cannot tell you how many "writers" I have met who tell me they want to write something. It's usually at this moment that I am overtaken with ungovernable rage and want to grab them by the lapels and shake them, all the while screaming "Well then write it, damn you! Don't tell me you want to write... WRITE!!" 

What I am getting at in a not-so-subtle way is that if you want to write, you need to write. Even if it is only a hundred words a day, you have to write. It is the only way to get better, and it is the only way to be a writer. Hence the old chestnut: A writer writes. It's old and it's a chestnut because it is true. I have a minimum goal of five hundred words per day, and I always hit that no matter what, even if the words are crap. If I don't, I honestly have a hard time sleeping. Writing, as with so many other hobbies, can quickly become a compulsion and an obsession that demands things from you. It is not unlike an unruly child without manners. It wants what it wants when it wants it. So feed it and you'll be happy.

5) Read Everything
That's all I have to say about that.

6) Dialogue
Dialogue can be tricky. I have always been jealous of those to whom it comes easy. My brother, for instance, can write clever and witty dialogue as if he has been doing it for his entire life. I should mention he is not a writer and the dialogue he does put down on the page is usually just part of some funny email he has decided to send me when the hours of our day jobs are ticking by slowly. But still, he is damn good at it. The trick is, I have found, to remove the boring parts (Elmore Leonard says the same about all writing, in fact). Dialogue should always move the story along or build a character's depth and reveal subtle motivations. It's a great way to show instead of tell.

If you want to try an exercise that can help you improve your skills, try this: listen to conversations on a train and transcribe them, then after you've creepily jotted down everything the couple next to has said, take out all the parts that didn't lend a person character (mannerisms and stall words etc) and take out all the stuff that didn't advance the conversation. What you are left with is the good meat.

7) Finish Something
One of the biggest confidence boosts I got when I was first beginning to write was when I finished my first story. I had a wicked habit of starting things and putting them down, never to be finished. The problem is that when you first come up with an idea to write, there is this initial euphoric blast of adrenalin and excitement. You are like a child with a new toy. But after a few thousand words the excitement wears off and you are left with a bill for the hard work required to finish it. This is where the men are separated from the boys, the women from the girls. This is where it's time to show that story who the hell's boss. So do it. Come to the page every day and finish that story. Even when it gets hard, even when the idea seems stupid at second thought, even when the characters don't resonate, finish it. I promise you when you sit there at the end of it all, finished first draft in hand, it will all be worth it. One cruddy but finished story is far better than a dozen brilliant first paragraphs. And besides, first drafts almost always stink anyway. It's okay. Rewriting and editing is an equally important craft to hone, and you will do just that, grasshopper... you will. It just takes time and practice.

For now I think I have said enough. There is more kicking around in my noggin I am sure, but much of it is probably nothing more than opinions on what you should eat for breakfast and what brand of tea to drink while writing (Earl Grey). So I shall depart posthaste, before I lose your attention, dear reader. But first I would like to thank Kathleen Valentine for the opportunity to write this piece for her blog. The advice she has given me over the past few years has been invaluable.
Thank You.

There is no denying it—most readers love dangerous characters in books. You can fall in love with a hero or heroine but there's something just so alluring about a dangerous character. I started thinking about this because, though I have not had cable TV in over 30 years, when I am doing a lot of knitting I tend to binge watch TV shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Recently, I got hooked on the ABC series Lost which ran from 2004 to 2010. Three episodes in I wasn't sure if I liked the program but I sure liked one of the characters, Sayid Jarrah, as played by actor Naveen Andrews. There's just one teeny problem—the character is a former Iraqui soldier, a former Republican Guard, and a torturer. But there's just something about him.

I mentioned my fascination on Facebook and was astonished by the number of women who agreed with me. There's just something about him... Of course the muscles, and the copper skin, and the dreamy eyes, and the accent don't hurt, but there are lots of muscles, and good looks, and sexy accents (Desmond the Scot!) so what makes Sayid so mesmerizing?

Most of the dangerous characters I've loved have been in books. Julian Cash in Alice Hoffman's Turtle Moon immediately comes to mind. Anne Rice's Lestat is another. And there are dangerous characters that, though I didn't love them, I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about—Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men haunted me for weeks. Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist and Captain Ahab and Severus Snape. Some of them are evil, some are not, but all are very, very deadly. And all of them have a core of vulnerability inside that dangerousness.

As a writer I've created a few dangerous characters of my own—including two female characters. One is a sweet, beautiful woman who bakes delicious treats but just happened to kill her husband. And then there is my emotionally fragile but physically lethal Vivienne Lang in the Crazy Old Lady books. What makes these characters so incredibly fascinating is wondering how did they get this way?

One of the things art is supposed to do is make us think. For that reason alone Sayid Jarrah is a fascinating and important character. The character came into American homes when our country was at war in Iraq and when scandals about torture were everywhere. If you say “this character is an Iraqui soldier who tortured people” the first reaction would be negative—what a loathsome individual! But as we get to know Sayid we come to understand how he became what he did—and how he wants to leave that part of his life behind but cannot. We feel bad for him. We want him to find happiness. Dear readers, this is important stuff! We are coming dangerously close to feeling empathy and compassion for someone we should be horrified by—and that is the triumph of really good art.

I imagine a lot has been written about that character over the years and I am coming late to the party but I am glad I met him. I'm glad so many people loved him on Lost. I read somewhere that when the actor, Naveen Andrews (who is British/Indian), was asked how he felt about playing an Iraqui torturer said, “I felt it was a great responsibility.” That is what we writers should feel when we create these characters, too. Great responsibility to the person inside the danger.

Thanks for reading.

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