We’re Entering the Countdown

Well, fall is arriving. And the time for our road trip is drawing nearer.

We’ve made some reservations – and I’m beginning to have a lot more! We’ll be ordering tickets. And we’ll be making last-minute adjustments to itinerary and schedule.

We’ve added some stops and changed direction in a couple places. A sudden discovery of bonus points has eased some of the financial burden – which had increased. I work part-time at a church, too, but I won’t be paid during the road trip; like I said, I’m part-time. I’ve also been ill and missed not only regular time but some extra that I normally put in. I don’t know if the illness will leave me tired, something which would definitely affect how much the trip covers.

We have at least 8 touristy/roadtrip types of things to do, one of which lasts 3 days. Then there are the ordinary places we need to inspect closely for background and possibilities.

One thing that fascinates me. We know I already wrote the book, right? But as we’re looking at the specifics of things to do in each of the stops the ladies make, I see so much potential to make their antics more entertaining, their personal discoveries deeper, and the development of their relationships that much more poignant. I can’t wait to see the places in person and find how it affects the book.

How many of us, at a reunion of family where we see people we haven’t in a very long time, have remarked something like,

“I never knew you were allergic to sawdust!”


“What do you mean you hate cats? You’ve always had cats!”

Often it’s because people change during times we don’t see them, but sometimes it’s because we just aren’t paying close attention to what goes on around us.

Our kids and I have a running joke – which comes up even more often now that they are adults. I never remember what foods they like. After all, the oldest is 34 and there are 6 of them! I just never figured I had to keep track, that they’d tell me when they didn’t like something. But they all mock injury that I don’t recall their culinary likes and dislikes – and they’re all different, believe me.

So, sometimes we just don’t remember or notice things. Roadtrips, with their close quarters, are great at remedying this situation. This is, of course,  what happens to Claud, Billie, Rhonda, Frankie, and Shelley. The question is, will it be enough to bring them together? Or will it end up with them – quietly or not-so-quietly – dispersing, each to their own ends?

Despite the changes that may occur in the book as a result of our roadtrip, I think I know the answer. When I’m done, so will you.


It Got Me Coming and Going….

Southern Festival of Books     Like most writers, I’ve had several influences in my life. However, probably the all-time, most-important, all-encompassing influence has been The Southern Festival Books held (primarily) in Nashville, Tennessee since 1989. This festival, also referred to as a Celebration of the Written Word, captured me as a reader, with its booths and kiosks and tables of books, its author signings, and the logo’d totes and sweatshirts and Tees.  It snared me as a writer, with its free panel discussions and seminars by authors, illustrators, and publishers; as well as informal opportunities to discuss how publishing works; with an occasional session on how to attract an agent or even, [hushed, reverent tones], a publisher. And as a parent with writing children in all three levels of schools and who volunteered as a writing coach for elementary and middle schools, this festival enthralled me as an opportunity to introduce my ‘kids’ , both my personal children and my students, to the larger environs of the writing world.

Kids love to tell stories. They don’t so much like to write them down, but they love making up and telling stories. As a writing coach, my job was less about writing rules and grammar than it was about how the magical transfer of images and words in our heads was made to paper. It was also, once that mystery had been somewhat uncovered, about encouraging students to not be afraid to put words on paper, and to take the time to make a good job of it.

However, once that bridge was sufficiently crossed, my job – howevermuch it was self-appointed – was to introduce these ordinary young people to the extraordinary places being a writer could take them. From getting a better job after high school or essaying themselves into college to becoming a reporter or  poet or famed screenwriter or novelist, I wanted them to see where they could go. Enter Southern Festival of Books.

While many people go there just to hear a favorite author speak or see someone famous and buy their books, writers attend sessions, browse books, AND lurk in shadows waiting to pounce – ever-so-politely, of course – on the authors they’ve targeted from the lists published at the Southern Festival of Books site. Book Fest, as we term  it for short, is where I first spotted [and said hello to] Charlaine Harris. I met Dale Evans. My daughter and I spoke with Garrison Keillor, and two times we got photos with him – one was him holding the photo from the previous year, since my daughter was in Boston at the time. I met oodles of mystery authors at Sisters in Crime panels, and watch from afar as Kareem Abdul Jabbar unfolded his tall self from his char at the signing table. I hear Charles Dickens’ great great grandson, the actor Gerald Dickens, read and perform from Charles’s works and offer insight in the man’s process.

My own kids would go to sessions. From being dragged along by  me, they moved on to picking out their own authors to hear and meet. They all started their own collections of signed books. From Dom DeLuise (who even autographed a $1. bill for one daughter because he didn’t have his book handy) to the author of Because of Winn Dixie, Kate DiCamllo, a book my youngest was due to read the next semester. He was thrilled when she read from her  upcoming book as well. Eventually, a couple of my kids had writing contest entries of their own they could read aloud. The contests were from Tennessee Humanities Council-sponsored teen workshops that they’d attended. Another year, two of my kids were able to ‘work the Fest’ as part of their high school Humanities class.

Attending Book Fest provided me with annual inspiration, an appreciation of the excitement generated by the written word, and an awareness that, yes, it could TOO be done. For the whole time we lived in Nashville, every year would find us spending 1, 2, or all 3 days at the Southern Festival of Books.

Going to the workshops also inspired me for the work I did at the schools. I built on the examples of interactive exercises, researched topics to see how to ‘downsize’ them for my students, and learned about upcoming trends in literature and publishing to share. I also was moved to aspire to someday, one day, be able to visit Book Fest as an author, a presenting one. And while it’s still too soon for me, my protagonist will be there, doing exactly that. With my many visits in the past and the extra research I’ll be doing with the sponsors and support staff, Shelley should have a great experience. If, of course, that’s how it turns out.  FindVivShoes2


Organically Grown


A compatriot doing Camp NaNoWriMo asked for advice one day. She was stuck with the new world she’d invented and didn’t know how to develop it in such a way as to make it distinct and different. She had a feel for it, but couldn’t nail down details in order to communicate it.

I suggest she try an old trick I used when coaching kids to write. Take your world, I said, and just think about it for a steady, concentrated period of time. Think about things like:

  • What does the air feel like?
  • What plants are there?
  • Do the ‘humans’ look human?


Okay, now choose 3 arbitrary details.

  • Maybe the color of the sun.
  • Where does their power come from?
  • What’s a favorite food from a holiday they have? (okay, defining the holiday itself makes a 4th one.)


Now, use those. Maybe not in an immediate scene, but extrapolate from them. Keep thinking on it.

  • If the sun is green, what does that mean about their color perception?
  • How do their seasons work?
  • Is their power organic? off-planet? threatened because of declining resources ?
  • (You said they don’t use cars often, is that why? Why don’t they use cars often?)
  • Does their favorite food mean 6 drumsticks?
  • Is it genetically-engineered, or does everyone eat food native to the planet?
  • And what holiday requires 6 drumsticks and is it a religious holiday and what effect does it have on the culture?


Phew! You get the idea. Every society has mundane details that reflect its philosophy and culture. Making them arbitrary at the outset is like landing on an existing world. You take what’s there and figure out how it affects life and what it means.

She was interested in trying out this strategy. I told her it works sometimes for some people, but I tend to use this method a lot.

The method is a little arbitrary and challenging, but it gets you thinking in depth about what it means to be a part of the world you are creating, extra-terrestrial or not. You always change out the arbitrary factors later, when you’ve gotten to know your world better.

What I didn’t go into with my friend, was that you also consider what kinds of beings are on this planet. Set up a few characters, and assign them – again, often arbitrary – traits and characteristics, physical and psychological. Then, see what derives from that combination. What happens when:

  • Fred, who hates animals, meets – and likes – Sally who is a cat hoarder? What does that do to their burgeoning relationship?
  • A short king becomes physically dependent on a knight who could whip him in an instant, but must depend on him for food, and both are enamored of accordion polka music, and one (which one?) wants to dance while the other wants to dine at the banquet?
  • A gentle family stemming from a couple in an inter-religious marriage, where one is Christian and the rest of the family is Wiccan moves into an East Texas town that has only one church, a conservative Christian church where everyone attends?


Conflict and plot stem from character. How many times have you felt something in your life either wouldn’t have happened or would be different, if only the people you knew were different?

Writing that is about what rises from who the characters are is organic writing, and it is the best. No matter what your story may encompass, such writing is the most realistic and most solidly believable.

My current most favorite example is Craig Johnson’s Longmire series. While I admit to having seen more TV episodes than books, I know that these characters are what determines the plot, actually the entire stories. Much is based on what a character would or would not do because of who they are. In an epic episode, a judge allows bail in a murder case for Henry Standing Bear, because, as one Native American woman passionately testifies, he is a Standing Bear, and when a bear stands up, it is literally standing up to protect its own. It is standing to fight, and will not run. She guarantees he will not flee if he is out on bail. All of this plays out only because of who the characters are, from Henry Standing Bear personally, to the Native American background, to the willingness of the woman to testify because Henry had looked after her family in troubled times (and in a previous story).

Johnson’s stories (and the series) are substantial, because plots are intricately laid out with seeds planted and events foreshadowed skillfully, and all based entirely on who these people are. It is tight, exciting writing, well worth emulating.

In Finding Shelley’s Shoes, I am doing something similar. I wanted five sisters for personal reasons, twins amongst them for reasons mentioned in other posts. I also wanted something unique, even silly, to set them apart. It came down to names.

I’ve known families of kids where all their names begin with D or J. Some families split names up between two letters. Some families name all their kids after US presidents. I decided that, since the mother was going to be a pivotal issue and character, albeit a deceased one, she could be the cause of some quirky names. Each woman bears the burden of having been named after an early 20th century film star. That one characteristic provides a look at their mother. It is cause for discussion and baiting amongst the sisters. And, each of the women had to, over their lives, create a response to the name they were given. Was it a curse? An annoyance? Something to live up to?

Determining the answers that fleshed out this information helped create the women, and the women help create the plot and the novel. Shelley’s becoming a writer may, in part, have been a response to being plunked into an artistic fantasy world by her mother’s choice of name (she was named Shelley Winters deMille). Her being a writer influences the way she frames life and the activities she is embarked on in the book (she is presenting at a book festival, which means speaking in public, something that might not be wise, given her possible condition). Her older sister has always hated their mother’s name system. That probably influenced how she treated their mother when she was ill, a bone of contention amongst the sisters. In actuality, it affected her entire relationship with their mother and subsequently, with all her sisters.

Finding Shelley’s Shoes is about relationships, and about family, so the characters are obviously the story source. But in any book, the story is rooted in who the people are. Plot is what happens, but it only happens the way it does because of who the people are.

So, the question of the day is: Who are your people?