Friday, March 30, 2012

All Dressed Up - 1900 Style

Did they have a telephone? Was there running water? What kind of buggy did they use? What did they wear? The questions I face every time I sit down to write are never ending. Finding the answers is one of the joys of writing historical fiction.

What women wore at the turn of the 20th Century is at the top of my list since one of my characters is a seamstress. I got help on this topic from a trip to the Living History Farms 1900 Farm and to the Iowa State Historical Society.  Another resource came to me recently in the form of a new social media friend.

I'm delighted to be guest blogging today at J.P. Lane's blog All Dressed Up. I share some of my thoughts about 'stepping back in time' through my writing. I hope you'll come on over and take a look.

While you're there, look at some of her other posts. Joan delves into the intricacies of fashion going back hundreds of years. Her discoveries are fascinating. No doubt I'll be asking her to take a look at what I write about fashion in the WWI era.

Author J.P. Lane is a former fashion designer who also has 20 years of writing under her belt. She was an Addy award-winning copywriter for the Miami Herald's marketing division and has been published in other leading Florida publications. In her thriller, The Tangled Web, (due to be republished in May) she takes you behind the postcard facade of the Caribbean to reveal a horrifyingly corrupt underworld visitors never see.

If you'd like to know more about Joan:
Follow her on twitter
Follow her blog

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Do you sound like a writer?

This week I'm sharing good words on writing from others. Today's wisdom comes from George Orwell. In his 1946 essay 'Politics and the English Language,' he criticized the bad habits of many writers and promoted the use of clear language.

In that essay, Orwell provided the following list of rules for writers.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Some people I meet at book events say they hesitate to write because they believe they won't 'sound like a writer.' They seem to believe writers are imbued with some magic vocabulary and generally that vocabulary isn't found in everyday language.

Simple words in clearly stated sentences can have greater impact and connect more readily with readers. Readers understand simple and clear. Readers relate to simple and clear.  At the same time, simple words in clearly stated sentences doesn't mean writing has to be trite. See Rule 1.

Good advice when Orwell wrote these rules in 1946. Good advice 66 years later.

Thanks, George Orwell!

Monday, March 26, 2012

"When you can't create, you can work"

How do you write? Do you have a system for writing? Someone asks these questions almost every time I speak. As though there might be a magic formula.  As though if you do just the right things in just the right order, words will flow out of your fingertips. Don't I wish!

I came across the 11 Commandments of Writing and Creative Routine --words of writing wisdom from Henry Miller, written in 1932-33 when he was working on his first novel, Tropic of Cancer. Apparently he was struggling with the same challenges all of us writers face.

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
Miller's advice is to himself is practical and realistic. It recognizes creativity and how the pleasure can be encouraged or lost.

The commandment that resonates most with me at the moment is #5 - When you can't create, you can work. I write new material in the morning. When my creative energy lags--as it does around 3 every afternoon--then I can edit, work on my website, Tweet, add to a marketing plan. In other words, there are many ways to be productive. And success often comes from keeping at it.

 Thanks Henry Miller!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What inspires you?

Where do you find your writing inspiration? When a reader asked that recently, I had to think, and the more I thought, the more multi-faceted the answer became. Here are a few sources I rely on.

Stories to Tell - If an idea keeps hanging around, whether it's in my face or hiding in the weeds, of it keeps making itself known, that's inspiration. The idea for the novel I'm writing now (historical fiction roughly based on my grandparents, circa 1914) has been with me for a good 50 years. I couldn't ignore the story anymore.

Butt Glue - "I write when I'm inspired, and I see to it that I'm inspired at 9 o'clock every morning."-- Peter De Vries, American editor and novelist.   What I've learned is that if I sit down to write--and stay there, regardless--I WILL write. Someone referred to this source of inspiration as 'butt glue.' I buy it by the barrel.

Deadlines - Every two weeks, I meet with my writing buddy. We've each committed to having copy for the other to critique for every meeting. My years as a public relations counselor serve me well. If there's a deadline, I meet it.

Mighty Forces - Barbara Robinette Moss, author of Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter, signed my copy of her book, "Be brave, and mighty forces will come to your aid." I didn't know at the time what those mighty forces might be, but there have been many. My mother, for one, kept telling me I could write our family stories. She believed in me and kept telling me that until my memoir was finally published. Along side my mother were writing teachers, writing buddies, readers, family, friends. All, mighty forces.

Nature - The beauty of the outdoors always inspires. Bursts of spring flowers. Gale-force winds. Snow drifts blanketing the landscape. Steams trickling and floods raging. That's why you see me blogging so often about my prairie, which is both teacher and inspiration.

On any given day, one of these--or several--may come into play at just the right moment. And isn't that the way of inspiration?

There are more sources that inspire me. In fact, I'm already thinking of several. I could go on. But these are a good start.

And now I ask, What inspires you?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Burn, prairie, burn!

My experience with fire is limited. Contained blazes in fireplaces and smaller campfires are comforting, welcoming, inviting on cold nights. I'm rather fond of those.

Other fires--forest fires or grass fires to clear out roadside ditches? I've never experienced one, and I'm just fine with that.

Yet here I was this past week chomping at the bit to start a fire, because I have a prairie. Fires are prescribed on prairies - generally every three or four years. Part of the natural cycle of prairie life, cleaning off plant waste, keeping brush and volunteer trees under control.

With the open, dry winter we've had, any burn could be risky. My complete lack of experience makes it more so. I looked to my more experienced husband. He kept telling me it would only take 15 minutes. I know my prairie patch isn't all that big, but I was skeptical.

We went to the prairie, well prepared, waiting until dusk when the wind died down. We had newspapers and a lighter to start the fire and buckets of water and rakes to stop it if we had to. I called the county emergency services to alert them to our plan.

We tucked lit newspapers in the up-wind side of the prairie. In seconds, the dried plant residue kindled and flames grew. In less than a minute the fire was so hot I retreated 20-30 feet. The fire swept along, fueled by the brush, pushed by the breeze.

As a rabbit ran ahead of the fire, I couldn't help but think of a wide open range fire with buffalo, antelope and other wildlife stampeding to escape. I wondered at my own ability to escape such a blaze. A creek, for sure. But could I hide under an overturned wheelbarrow or any other inflammable structure? Someplace. Anyplace, to be safe. I doubt I could have outrun it. Scary thoughts, indeed.

Even in my small prairie, the fire was impressive. It was exciting. I called emergency services to tell them our fire was out. It was over in 19 minutes.

Friday, March 16, 2012

March in the prairie

Sometimes it takes a 3-year-old to make me see what's right in front of me. My Granddaughter Hannah and I took a walk out to the prairie this weekend. To me, the prairie looks brown. Flattened by wind and snow. There's not much going on.

Hannah saw something completely different. She waded right in. "What's that?" she asked. "That's Indian grass," I explained. She took a frond and waved it over her head. "What's that?"  "That's a dried cone flower. Want to pick a bouquet?" "No. What's that?"  "That's an aster; they're purple when they bloom."

The fallen plants I could ignore as I stepped over them with ease were waist high to her. "Just step on it!" I urged. "I step on it," she agreed, marching on.

We spotted a butterfly, small and brown/gold. A little early in the season, I think. But there it was, flitting about too quickly to be caught.

We flushed a rabbit. It heard us coming and shot out of the undergrowth like it was fired from a cannon. Hannah scrambled after it, unable to catch up, but passionate to try.

Every bit of my dried out, used up, blown down, patch of prairie was something for her to enjoy. I've been looking past the brown, eager for the new green shoots of spring and the brilliant colors of summer. It took a 3-year-old to show me there's good reason to visit the prairie and enjoy all that's there right now.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The challenge of making amends

"Make direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."  That's the ninth step of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program.

THE NINTH STEP, a  novel by Barbara Taylor Sissel, explores the complexity of taking that step through the lives of Cotton O'Dell and his fiance Livie Saunders.
On Cotton's wedding day, hungover and still drinking, he runs a stop sign, and hits a car carrying a woman and her daughter. Cotton stops long enough to call 911, see the child is unhurt, and talk to the woman as she dies. Then he flees - the scene, the state, the law. His fiance Livie is left at the altar, knowing only because Cotton sends a terse postcard later that he is not dead.

Six years later, Cotton sets out to make amends. But are some actions too awful to be forgiven? Can love lost ever be recaptured? Can he make amends without endangering his own life and the lives of others?

In a novel reminiscent of Jodi Picoult, Sissel introduces us to each of the people impacted by that crash. The action and emotions are intense. The writing is excellent. I cared about the characters. I found myself standing at the stove cooking supper with my Kindle in hand. I just had to know how it turned out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A host of golden daffodils

The daffodils burst into bloom overnight. March 14, 2012. One of the earliest dates in my memory.

I cannot look at these beautiful blooms without recalling the poem my 8th grade teacher required we memorize. So in honor of Mrs. Clausen who did so much to plant poetry in my mind, and in joy at the early daffodil blooms, I share William Wordsworth's lovely poem, penned in 1804.

"I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud"

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced;
but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Old dog, more new tricks

"Maybe I can retire before I have to learn this." That's a thought that actually ran through my mind in the 1990s when the Internet was new and I was struggling to figure out the brand new technology. 

That memory popped to mind this past week as I struggled to figure out Twitter. I signed up for Twitter because I know social media is critical to effective book marketing these days.

From a book marketing workshop run by Melissa Foster, I learned that effective tweeting requires posts a dozen times a day! And your Twitter effort can be accomplished in 30 minutes a day. Ha! Ha!  Just thinking of a dozen worthwhile things to say in a day boggles my mind. Melissa provided tips and tools (Tweetdeck) and a community (World Literary Cafe) to help make the task doable.

Right now, I'm bordering on overload. I spend more like an hour and a half a day on Twitter, which does not count the time I lay awake in the middle of the night trying to think of ways to fit my normally wordy self into 140 characters or fewer. Egads!

But, I did learn to use the Internet and from there, I set up my own website - a must for any author. Then I learned Facebook. Then blogging. With each new platform came new vocabulary and new skills. Now Twitter. I must believe I'll learn this one, too. And still find time in the day to write my novel.

I've always said that everyday that I learn something new is a good day. I guess this has been a really GOOD week!  Now that I have the Internet, I could no more imagine living without it than live without breathing. And that's hardly an exaggeration.

Will Twitter be like that? As I prepare another round of Tweets, I can only hope so.  In the meantime, I'd be honored if you followed me on Twitter - @CABodensteiner

Melissa Foster is a best-selling author of several books, including  COME BACK TO ME. She founded World Literary Cafe, a supportive on-line author community,

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Itching for spring, for green

I'm itching to be in the garden. The view outside my office window is brown, brown and more brown. With your occasional robin, which tells me spring is on the way.

This morning, I took the loppers and cut volunteer trees out of the hedgerows, a task I usually tackle in the fall. You can see how desperate I am to be outside. I found the task much easier to do before everything leafs out. This may become a new spring routine.

My daffodils are up and budding. I don't know if they know that it is still very early in March, and this is IOWA. Normally I'd be raking away the leaf mulch, but I'm hesitant - winter could still throw something big at us. I sure hope the daffodils know more than the calendar.

Since the sun is shining and the breeze is blowing and today is a very good approximation of spring, I'm going back outside. There are sticks to pick up. Daffodils to appreciate.

If the daffodils can pretend it's spring, so can I.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

When enough is enough

Some 20 years ago an animal rights activist dressed like a pig walked up to a young woman who wore the crown of Iowa Pork Queen that year and shoved a whipped cream pie in her face. The intent was to protest the killing of millions of hogs to "feed America's meat addiction."

The young woman was not hurt. The pork producers called the protest staged by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) "a childish act."

Until the pie-in-the-face incident, PETA's message had been gaining some traction among Iowa audiences. Their demonstrations had been outrageous but amusing: barbecuing a 'human' made out of tofu, "naked" women holding PETA messages parading on downtown streets. Crowds gathered, took pictures, talked, absorbed some of the activist message.

But then they shoved a pie in a girl's face. Public outrage was immediate and loud. Even people who supported PETA's message, could not countenance an attack on an innocent 19-year-old. PETA stepped over the line. They were forced to step back and back down.

We're seeing the modern day equivalent of that attack with Rush Limbaugh calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and "prostitute."  Over and over again. For three straight days.

Only when advertisers began to jump ship did he issue a half-hearted apology, saying he "did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke" and his words were an "attempt to be humorous."

Not personal? Really? Humorous? Really? Limbaugh makes a very good living making over the top statements about people. But this time he stepped over the line. Possibly into legal defamation.

As a public relations professional most of my life, I'm all in favor of an apology, when you've truly messed up - which Limbaugh did - and when the apology is truly meant. But the truth is that Limbaugh is not sorry - except that he's losing advertisers. And putting pretty words on it won't fix this problem.

Limbaugh stepped over the line. And the public and advertisers are saying, enough is enough. Finally.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Doing laundry with a brick

This morning, I went to the laundry room and propped the brick back against the dryer 'on' button. It began to whir. This was at least the 5th time I'd propped the brick back in place for this single load.  I heaved a heavy sigh - laundry is SO difficult. 

Then, as I sat down with my cup of coffee and the morning paper, I realized it is Monday morning and I had the good sense to laugh at myself.

Monday was always laundry day on the farm. All the dirty clothes went down the laundry chute to the basement where Mom sorted everything into piles, pulled the washing machine and rinse tubs out from the wall, filled them with water and began the all-day task of doing the laundry.

In summer, she carried baskets of wet clothes outside and hung them on the clothesline. In winter, she hung each item from lines stung along the basement ceiling.

Laundry took much of the day and it wasn't light work. Yet, Mom had it easier than her mother who took in laundry to support herself and her daughters and used a hand-cranked washtub to do it.

Our dryer is temperamental. The only thing wrong with it is that the 'on' switch doesn't stay on, despite my husband's diligent efforts to fix it. We've devised the brick as an interim solution until the day when we both throw up our hands at the same time and agree it's time to replace the machine.

This Monday morning, as I prop the brick in place and think about laundry day 50 and 100 years ago, I believe I will try not to feel quite so put upon. Wishing you all a modern laundry day!

Friday, March 2, 2012

They're back!

It's spring and love is in the air. Now we're ready for babies.  The Bald Eagles are nesting, so it won't be long.  The Decorah Eagle Cam is operating and if the past is any guide to the future, millions worldwide will check in to see eggs laid, babies hatch, eaglets fledge and leave the nest.

We're lucky in Iowa that if we look up, we might see eagles and their nests in real time. I saw one today.

As I walked around Gray's Lake in Des Moines, I kept watch because I'd heard reports of eagles there. Sure enough, there was one of these magnificent birds soaring over the river. And there was its nest, easy to spot since the trees haven't leafed out yet. The eagle stopped at the nest, flew to a nearby tree, perched there a while, flew out, looped around and returned to its perch. Several times. A remarkable sight to see.

Bald eagle pairs return to, and add on to, the same nests year after year until, eventually, the nests may weigh a ton or more. Though no longer protected under the Federal Endangered Species act, these birds are still covered by the Gold and Bald Eagle Protection Act.  Bald Eagles have experienced a remarkable resurgence, with nesting pairs of eagles documented in 84 of Iowa's 99 counties.

Next time you're out for a walk, look up. You might just see an eagle.