Friday, July 3, 2015

Snippets of Story: #wordplaywednesday Edition

My tentative goal for One of Ours was to finish rewriting it by the end of this summer, if at all possible. Now it looks like that goal may actually be in sight. Yesterday I finished a crucial scene that I'd been basically terrified of writing as I approached it, and the rest of the story is pretty well outlined from here. So with that scene done, the pressure is off a bit, and I can enjoy our upcoming week of family vacation with a clear conscience and still have plenty of summer left to hopefully finish the rewrite!

I've been sharing bits of my work as I go along via the #wordplaywednesday hashtag on Twitter, so for today's snippets post, I thought I'd collect them in one place for the benefit of non-Twitterers. (If you'd like to see the original tweets, you can click here.) These represent the last three months of work:

Sandy McAllister turned his head toward Horner slowly. His look seemed to say he might have found it possible to resent Horner's tone, if he had not found it more interesting to remain unruffled and see what he would do next.

Britt knew that people must talk. No incident is ever closed until it has been discussed and re-hashed and everyone has decided for themselves exactly what it meant.

"I feel I don't know myself at all, or know my own mind, and I thought I did. It's like walking in the dark, and not even knowing whether you're in danger of falling."

There was silence for a few seconds, the sun beating down in the dust outside the shed; a meadowlark singing somewhere far out in the fields. "So you see," said Britt, "they were all right about me—they just found it out a little late."

In the very hour that she had stepped forward forever into a new chapter of womanhood, only the exuberance of childhood seemed adequate to express her happiness.

No one wanted to speak; they did not feel inclined to quarrel at breakfast, yet none of them had swayed a whit from the convictions that had splintered them apart the day before.

Britt looked steadily back at her, understanding, with the perception that sometimes comes with heightened moments; but he still cut his words crisp for Lavinia Fullerton's benefit.

(P.S. - Look out for the beginning of my summer blog serial, "Skirmish at McKendrick's," on Wednesday the 8th!)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Coming Soon - The Silent Hour: A Mrs. Meade Mystery

Things are moving along with the next of the Mrs. Meade Mysteries, The Silent Hour. Right now I'm aiming at early October for a release, though that date could move up a bit if editing and pre-publication work goes more smoothly than expected. You can now add it to-read on Goodreads, and we have a book description!

Major Cambert and his grandson Jim were known to have quarreled bitterly over Jim’s choice of a wife, so when the Major is found shot dead by his own fireside the next night, Jim is the prime suspect—and a suspect without an alibi. But there were others who may have held a grudge against the Major too: an obnoxious ex-soldier, a sullen ranch hand…and Jim’s fiancée. And none of them can account for their whereabouts during the dark hour when Major Cambert was murdered. With no other evidence to go on, Mrs. Meade will have to apply all her wits to discover who is really guilty…

Also, if you're not already on my email mailing list, I currently have a new offer running: subscribe, and you'll receive a free ebook of The Parting Glass, the second in the Mrs. Meade series! Click here if you'd like to sign up.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

One-Year Anniversary: Left-Hand Kelly

I've never observed any of my books' publication anniversaries before, for the simple reason that they always slipped past me while I was busy writing the next one. But I happened to notice recently when checking one of my Amazon pages that June 25th would mark one year since the release of Left-Hand Kelly, and that seemed like an occasion worth observing with a post.

As I wrote about in some detail before, Left-Hand Kelly took almost four years of off-and-on work to write and publish. I have a general idea, from journal entries, of when I starting actually writing it, but the single sheet of lined paper bearing the original idea is undated. I still have it in my catch-all binder, and I dug it out this morning to share it with you. The front side bears a brief synopsis of the plot, amazingly close to the finished product:

click to enlarge

On the other side, a list of character names, which also fell into place with remarkably little effort, and a few scraps of sentences that made it into the book in slightly altered form:

click to enlarge

I also pulled my old journals out of my hope chest today and paged through the entries relating to Left-Hand Kelly. Most of them are not very illuminating to anyone but the author—brief, slightly addled remarks that reflect the chaotic nature of the book's creation: the difficulties of ending chapters properly, or picking up in the middle of a conversation left off several months before; worries over whether certain characters talk too much or not enough, even speculations on exactly who the protagonist might be. Endless recaps of exactly how much editing I guessed certain chapters would need. Frequent references to working in a creative haze (Jo March would call it a vortex), and fruitlessly wishing that mundane things like eating and sleeping didn't have to get in the way.

February 21st, 2013: ...I'm torn between thinking this story is really good and thinking it's a mess. In other words, business as usual.

Last spring into early summer, if you recall, was occupied by pulling our whole house apart and painting every room—and at the same time, I was doing final edits on Left-Hand Kelly and formatting it for publication.

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014: I learned how to right-justify a table of contents last night! By setting tabs! With running leaders! The little things that can excite me.

Finally, I found the journal entry for June 25th of last year. This, my friends, is the life of an indie author.

June 25th: Exhaustion. Total exhaustion. Kitchen torn apart for painting—dog in heat—pouring rain—new book released.

Was it all worth it? Oh, yes. Not just for the thrill of good reviews or award nominations, but the fulfillment of seeing a story that spent so much time wrapped around my heart and mind turn into a real book. Even after a year, it's a little hard to believe.

So if you're curious enough to see where all this led...well, you could buy the book. You can sample the first chapter for free at Western Ebooks. And for a visual glimpse into the story, check out my Left-Hand Kelly Pinterest board:

Follow Elisabeth Grace's board Novella: Left-Hand Kelly on Pinterest.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Memories Between the Lines

The other day, I was looking through my reading record book, which goes back to the autumn of 2010. I'd been trying to make some lists of books, and I always enjoy skimming back over my records of reading from time to time. Let's face it, my memory is such that if I didn't keep a physical record, I'd never be able to recall what I read and when. Books that I enjoyed would stick in my head, but I'd never be able to retain the complete picture. But I never realized, until the other day, the other side of that coin—just how much memory is captured between the lines of a reading list.

As I skimmed down the titles, I found myself recalling sights, scents, colors, seasons—where I'd read the books, and how, and what was happening around me. I spotted where I got my first Kindle (Christmas of 2010) because I remembered that Her Prairie Knight was the first ebook I loaded on it. I could remember the smell of different library books, what the covers looked like—or the pesky not-to-be-removed cover slips on my plentiful interlibrary loans, which kept me from ever seeing what the covers looked like. I've never found any interesting scraps of paper or margin notes in library books; just one maddening copy of To Kill A Mockingbird where somebody had underlined phrases and sentences in pencil on almost every page—it looked like it had been diced up for some sort of grammar lesson.

Some books that I loved absorbed me so I don't recall a thing about the reading experience; with others, sharp details jump out of the reading list as if it was yesterday. I remember reading Nine Coaches Waiting and My Antonia curled up in the rocker-recliner in our parlor, forcing myself to stop every few chapters and save some for the next day, so I could savor the gorgeous writing longer. Pastoral and Kathleen I read up on the deck by our pool—and that sparks a memory from before I began keeping a record book, of reading Life With Father up there by the umbrella table on a late summer afternoon. Or sitting down on the deck steps, glued to The Woman in White for hours. Reading The Glassblowers sitting on the floor next to my bed one night, by the light of a single lamp, and finishing it even though I'd resolved to only read a few chapters before bed. The Way We Live Now and Little Dorrit were read over many afternoons on the lawn swing...Old Rose and Silver and Susan Coolidge's entire What Katy Did series kept me from boredom during a particularly nasty illness.

Something Fresh and Pendragon's Heir imperiled meals, as I continued reading them straight through the process of cooking supper. I remember blundering all over the house, trying to keep one step ahead of a housecleaning in progress, while devouring Dear Enemy by Jean Webster..."cramming" on Texas Civil War history (research for One of Ours) in the dentist's waiting-room because of non-renewable library books due the next day. Spilling orange juice on my Kindle trying to read Until That Distant Day during a solitary breakfast...snacking on a bag of salad croutons left over from a graduation party while absorbed in Cards on the Table...catching a few chapters of They Were Expendable while waiting for the Superbowl to begin and the meatballs to finish cooking (the year the Seahawks won)...reading Chekhov's The Lady With the Dog at the kitchen table while trying sausage and peppers for the first time, and deciding that I liked the sausage moderately well, but couldn't stand Chekhov.

Books seem to spark more vivid memories than any other inanimate objects—perhaps because they're not really inanimate once we begin reading them. Perhaps because we become so mentally engaged with a good book that it weaves itself into the fabric of our experience and memories. I suppose that's why many people have been able to write memoirs built entirely around their reading life. I'll bet it's surprisingly easy—glancing back over this post, I see every scrap of memory could become a story. At any rate, it gives me one more reason to be glad I started keeping a reading log almost five years ago.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Interview at Confessions of a Bookaholic

Today I have an author spotlight/interview up at Confessions of a Bookaholic. My host, Emily, provided me with a lot of great, thought-provoking questions, and it was a lot of fun as well as a challenge to answer them. You can read the full interview here (and also enter a giveaway for an ebook copy of Left-Hand Kelly).

In the meantime, Corral Nocturne and Wanderlust Creek and Other Stories each picked up really lovely blog reviews lately, at My Lady Bibliophile and The Edge of the Precipice respectively, so do check those out as well!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Currently: June

'River Landscape' by Gustave Courbet

Reading...a few P.G. Wodehouse short stories over again, whilst My Brother Michael and Pied Piper are winging their way toward me from the library.
Writing...One of Ours, again. I couldn't stay away from it for too long.
Watching...the NBA finals. In the evenings, that is. This afternoon, trying to decide between a Jane Powell musical and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. the soundtrack of The Proud Rebel when I need novel inspiration, and to Glenn Miller, Count Basie et al for fun. recapture an hour of sleep I mislaid somewhere during the spring months. Anybody seen it?
Hoping...for a little divine inspiration in the novel-writing field. Or at the very least a clear enough head to decide what order the next five scenes should come in.
Discovering...things I didn't know my laptop could do, even after having it for five years.
Loving...the fact that real summer weather is here at long last. This is the first week we've been able to go swimming!
Cooking...the most delicious and unhealthy summer recipe you never know when to stop eating: company potatoes. (We omit the onion and double the cream of chicken soup.)
Eating...Lake Champlain dark chocolate. No, really...I mean currently.
Smelling...just the faintest whiff of wild roses. Not nearly as much as last year; the crazy weather has shortened all the blossoming seasons.
Playing...with a big, beautiful black dog who loves her family and is as protective of them as I always heard German Shepherds were...I never quite believed it until now. catch a very vigilant pair of tree swallows off-guard so we can get a peek at the nestlings.
Sneezing...semi-regularly, though the allergies aren't quite as bad as they were last week. summer reading, finally.
Finishing...the journal that I began on New Year's Day. It takes much less time to fill one now that I've grown so fond of journaling.

Shamelessly appropriated and adapted.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Book Review - How the West Was Written, Vol. 3: Frontier Fiction Glossary

I've been looking forward to this volume for a long time, ever since its beginnings as a series of posts on the late Ron Scheer's blog, Buddies in the Saddle. Now this glossary has finally been gathered into one place, and is being published posthumously, and it's a tremendous resource. It provides definitions for hundreds of obscure words and phrases found in early Western novels published between 1880 - 1915, each entry featuring a quote from one of the books covered in the first two volumes of How The West Was Written to show the term in context. (You can read my review of Volume 1 here.)

This slang is a much, much greater variety than expected well-worn standards like "hit the trail." It's a collection of picturesque and expressive phrases ranging from "cut and come again" to "soft snap" to "up a stump," representing not only slang specific to the West, but also 19th/early 20th-century American speech in general. Besides this, there are also explanations of mining, logging and railroad terms, and dozens more for food, drink, clothing, tools, et cetera. It's a small education in itself on American life of the period, and many of the definitions are bound to be illuminating for anyone who reads a lot of classics and older fiction. For instance, I've seen dozens of references to a "deal table" without ever knowing exactly what it was—now I know that "deal" means "soft wood, pine or fir." Or how about "lambrequins"—"a short ornamental drapery for the top of a window or door or the edge of a shelf."

If you write Westerns or American historical fiction of this period, you're going to want this as a resource; and if you're a history buff or a reader interested in learning more about the everyday life of the times behind books you've enjoyed, you'll find this fascinating too. It's not just a typical scholarly study; the fact that this is all gathered straight from the casual speech of characters in popular fiction of the day gives it a particularly down-to-earth immediacy. Unique, and highly recommended.

Update: Now available in ebook and paperback. You can add it on Goodreads as well.

Sunday, June 7, 2015


I seem to have reached one of those periodic fits of burnout that one gets sometimes when working on a large project (which seems to have spilled over into a lack of blog posts too). When I have to slog my way confusedly through rewriting a scene, only to end up feeling exhausted and with little memory of the actual words I wrote, and begin to feel a bit depressed over the state of the whole project, that's usually a warning sign for me to lay it aside for a day or two. It's partly just the effect of working hard at one thing for a while, and partly a side-affect of a reading drought. I can always tell when I haven't been consuming enough good literature to fuel my creativity. For weeks I've been wavering back and forth between four or five half-finished books: the tail end of the Little Women read-along, Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac by Eugene Field (curious), The Gospel According to Luke by G. Campbell Morgan (excellent), and The Western Writings of Stephen Crane—which bear most of the same hallmarks as the eastern writings of Stephen Crane. I still haven't made up my mind whether I like Crane or not—one minute I'm admiring his writing, and the next minute it's exasperating me. But it is an interesting volume.

In addition to all this, early summer seems to be my own particular allergy season—the blossoms of spring don't bother me a bit, but grass pollen sets me to sneezing, coughing, and generally viewing things through a hay-fever haze. Burnout and hay fever together is not a very good combination when you're approaching a crucial section of your novel's plot, so I've taken a short break from One of Ours. For a few days at least I shall relax, sneeze (not by personal preference, but it seems I have little choice in the matter), read everything I can get my hands on, root for the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, and perhaps dabble in some lighter project if I absolutely can't keep myself from picking up a pen.

Meanwhile, in the intervals when the hay fever permits me to see and breathe, I've chosen the story for the summer blog serial I'm planning, and have polished it up a little till I think it's good to go—look for that to begin in early July!

Monday, June 1, 2015

Summer Reading 2015

I actually started putting together my summer reading list back in March. I almost always do it a little in advance—the delights of anticipation and the fun of list-making, you know; almost as fun as actually reading the books.

In summer, I find, I tend to start with a list about this size, and then add in occasional spur-of-the-moment books as I go along.  This year I seem to have managed to get a little of every genre possible on here. So here we go:

My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart
Five Passengers From Lisbon by Mignon G. Eberhart
Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
Gentle Julia by Booth Tarkington
Howards End by E.M. Forster
Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
Railroad West by Cornelia Meigs
The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
New Hope by Ernest Haycox
Summer Half by Angela Thirkell
Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons by Walter Lord
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

I've already got most of these queued up on my Kindle or in my library list—the only one I foresee as needing a little effort to acquire is the out-of-print Railroad West. (Tell me again, why are all of Meigs' books except her Newberry winners out of print?)

So what does your summer reading list look like?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Musical Interlude: Waltzing In the Clouds

This is one of my favorite movie waltz scenes, from Spring Parade (1940), a sweet almost-fairytale musical set in old Vienna. I can't help thinking it must have been a bit inspired by Johann Strauss Jr.'s habit of scribbling down tunes on anything that happened to be handy. Here Robert Cummings' character is seized with musical inspiration at an outdoor café, and manages to get his waltz written down and introduced with a little help from Deanna Durbin. (The song, "Waltzing In the Clouds," by Robert Stoltz and Gus Kahn, was nominated for Best Original Song, but lost out to "When You Wish Upon a Star.")

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Interrupted Party

There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her Beauty and her Chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men;
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!

~ Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto III, v. XXI

I sometimes wonder whether plot devices are something we use unconsciously—at least in first drafts. Perhaps in the second draft we recognize what we've done and say, "Oh, so that's what this incident is—now I can refine it and make it work even better for me." Or maybe I'm just still so green that I'm still discovering the existence of helpful plot devices. For instance, one which I now call the Interrupted Party. It began with my absently noting the recurrence of an oft-used scene across the work of one particular film director, and ended with my realizing that I'd unknowingly used it myself in One of Ours.

Classic-movie enthusiasts probably know this: if there is a dinner, dance or party in a John Ford film, chances are one of two things will happen: (A) a serenade, or (B) an interruption, in the form of a battle, bad news, or an unexpected arrival. Wee Willie Winkie, The Searchers, Wagon Master, Drums Along the Mohawk: one interruption apiece. They Were Expendable: one serenade and one interruption. Fort Apache: one serenade and two interruptions (I think that might be the record). Rio Grande: two serenades and two incidents that feel like interruptions, even though they technically take place after the party's over and everyone's gone home. The Grapes of Wrath has an attempted interruption; How Green Was My Valley a couple of quasi-interruptions (an unexpected guest arriving at one party, an argument among the guests at another). If a punch thrown at a wedding reception counts as an interruption, The Quiet Man has one too.

At about this point, I started getting the feeling that somebody thought this was a good idea.

If you think about it a little more you'd probably realize this is a recurring device across films and stories in general; Ford films just seemed to refine it into a kind of art. For a famous non-Ford example, take the Twelve Oaks barbecue in Gone With the Wind, which ends with the men pouring out of the house to join the army at news of the Civil War's beginning. Or the serenity of Lady Ludlow's garden party in Cranford shattered by the news that THE RAILROAD IS COMING. Lord Byron captured the drama of the situation beautifully in that verse quoted above, and the verses that follow (do look them up sometime). B-Western scriptwriters caught onto it too: off the top of my head, I can think of at least twenty B-Westerns where a celebration of some kind is interrupted by a hold-up, bank robbery, cattle-rustling, horse-theft, fistfight, or some other knavery. B-Western screenwriting is plot scraped down to its barest framework, free of additional layers like character development, motivation or emotion. But you can still build excitement and humor off that framework, which is what the best examples of the genre do well. And the writers knew the value of an interrupted party.

So I started considering: what are the benefits to a story? I came up with a couple ideas of my own. First, a celebration of some kind gathers all or most of your story's cast together in one place. Whatever the interruption is, everyone is there to learn of it, react to it, maybe discuss it; you can choose anyone you like to take part in the reaction or discussion. If it's an important event, it's a catalyst for everybody.

Second—and I think this is more important—it creates a dramatic mood shift. It emphasizes the significance, and possibly the wrongness, of whatever is interrupting. It's a bit like what P.D. James observed in Talking About Detective Fiction (I am paraphrasing dramatically here), that one body in a country library automatically makes the crime more shocking than a dozen crimes in a big-city alleyway—because it's incongruous, it's out of place. Isn't it more of a shock to have a battle or bad news put an abrupt end to gaiety than to have it come when everyone is already sobered or on edge with expecting it?

I wonder in which medium it's easier to create the necessary atmosphere of gaiety, and then pull off that mood shift—fiction or film? What do you think? Have you ever written an interrupted party scene yourself, or can you name some other good examples from books or movies?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Whatever the Weather

I've been planning on sharing my summer reading list, as I've made a habit of doing, but thought I'd wait until a little closer to the beginning of June. It would seem a little odd to be talking about summer reading when I honestly don't know what season we're having just now. Once the long-lingering winter chill had finally gone away, we had a burst of unseasonable oven-roasting heat for a few days, and then by the end of that same week we were back to running the furnace and wearing flannel at night. I've given up trying to guess what the weather will be next, and I certainly don't trust any weatherman to do it.

Life has basically been built around working on my novel. I'm enjoying it, even the tough parts. I feel like this rewrite has been a tremendous learning experience for me—I'm not just learning about this book or my own writing; the process has brought me all sorts of little illuminations about art, storytelling and creativity in general. I may talk a little more about that in future posts.

Also along the lines of plans for summer (whenever summer decides to get here), I've been toying with the idea of serializing a story on my blog, maybe in July and August. It would let me relax and step back from blogging a bit during summer vacations, without letting the blog go completely silent; and give me a chance to "audition" a story I'm not sure what to do with and see if there's an audience for it. I have a couple different manuscripts I'm looking over and considering for the part. What do you think?