Friday, February 5, 2016

Weekday Odds and Ends #4

  • I got a chuckle out of this humorous piece by Robert Benchley (circa 1921) on the old-fashioned way of following football—by telegraph! Some things never change, though...the audience reactions are very much the same. (Project Gutenberg's links act oddly sometimes. If it doesn't take you right to the story on first click, exit the window and try again.)

  • This looks like it would be fun to browse: a literary map of London, made up of the titles of books set in the areas represented.

  • Excellent article on the concept of "idea debt"—spending so much more time thinking about a project than you actually do in working to make it happen. While the thinking-and-dreaming part of creativity is definitely vital, I think it's also easy to slide into the trap of overdoing it.

  • Probably the cutest thing to come out of the Great Blizzard of 2016 (which we did not get our share of, thank-you-very-much): a giant panda cub at the National Zoo playing in the snow.

  • At Vintage Novels, Suzannah Rowntree offers a contrarian view on the popular TV series Agent Carter, contrasted with a biography of real-life WWII resistance fighter Nancy Wake.

  • Oscar Wilde's Impressions of America sounds like it would be rather entertaining, based on this snippet of his experiences in Leadville, Colorado.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Historical Settings I'd Love to See in Books

This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic is a great one—either ten historical settings you love, or ten historical settings you'd love to see in books. I decided to go with the latter. My picks may wobble back and forth over the line between "setting" and "subject," but it's close enough, isn't it? They're not in order, just roughly categorical.

1) Westerns set in the early 20th century. A lot of Westerns nowadays seems to lean toward an 1870s or 1880s setting (which is perfectly fine), but when I began reading early Western fiction I was surprised to find a lot of it was set around the time it was written: from the turn of the 20th century up to the beginning of WWI, and even on into the early '20s. It's an interesting dynamic—the mingling of increasing modernity like automobiles and telephones with a still-existent frontier—and it's a lot of fun to read.

2) Cavalry westerns. Here's a branch of the genre that doesn't seem to have been explored half as far as others. In film the cavalry western is a recognized subgenre, and some short-story writers have tried it, but how about some novels featuring soldiers and their families on frontier outposts?

3) Far west theater of the Civil War. I'm most familiar with the eastern campaigns of the Civil War, and enjoy reading about them, but I can't help thinking there must be a lot of unexplored material for good stories in the events of the war in places like Texas, Missouri and Kansas—states that were divided in sympathies and also possess a frontier element to the setting.

4) More Great Depression fiction, but not just about the Dust Bowl and migrant workers. How about exploring the impact the Depression had on average middle class families from the farms and small towns of New England and the Midwest? (Bonus: what was the Depression like in other parts of the world besides America?)

5) Edwardian-era fiction set in small towns and among more middle-class characters. Most authors seem drawn to the glamorous heights of Gilded Age high society, and you can't really be surprised or blame them, but I'm always interested in the everyday life of a given time period, and it would be nice to see more good novels with that kind of setting.

6) Victorian or Edwardian novels set in the Alpine countries of Europe. We've had our fair share of stately English manor-houses (and even American ones) in this era—and I'm just crazy about the gorgeous mountain scenery of Alpine countries like Austria, Switzerland, and even France and Italy. Wouldn't it make a wonderful background for a historical novel?

7) Classy mysteries set in the 1940s. Basically I wish some author could capture on the page the atmosphere that makes the '40s one of my favorite decades of classic film—the world of fedoras and trench coats, posh apartments and elegant evening gowns, taxicabs and telegrams—without it being merely a hard-boiled spy thriller or a cheap imitation of film noir. (Attempting this myself is a writing pipe-dream of mine.)

8) Pacific theater of World War II. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the European front gets a lot more attention in fiction. I've read a lot of deeply interesting nonfiction about the Pacific that seems like it would make great material for stories.

9) Fiction set in the 1940s that isn't necessarily about WWII—novels set in the post-war years, or home-front stories where the war merely forms a background. Basically I just like this decade as a setting...

10) Upstate New York. Now, this is a pretty personal pick, since I've lived here all my life. Though it's an area rich in early American history, the only historical novels I've encountered with a real upstate setting are Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans and Kenneth Roberts' Rabble in Arms. Plus in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the city of Troy was a thriving manufacturing city teeming with industry and a destination for European immigrants. It's just waiting for someone to make a fascinating novel out of it.

Of course, being a writer myself,  I've toyed with all of these as "someday-ideas" with varying degrees of if a few years down the road you see a book in one of these settings under my name, you heard about it here first.

What are some historical settings you'd like to see more of?

Historical photos from Pinterest; Alps and Catskills from Wikimedia.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Quote: A Character in a Writer's Head

A character in a writer's head, unwritten, remains a possession; his thoughts recur to it constantly, and while his imagination gradually enriches it he enjoys the singular pleasure of feeling that there, in his mind, someone is living a varied and tremulous life, obedient to his fancy and yet in a queer, willful way independent of him.
~ W. Somerset Maughham

(To which I can only add a resounding YES.)

Monday, January 25, 2016

Release Announcement: Lost Lake House

Today, I'm excited to reveal the cover and release date of my upcoming fairytale retelling, Lost Lake House! The cover was designed by Jennifer Quinlan of Historical Editorial, and I'm just thrilled with the way it evokes the story, and also makes a beautiful companion cover to Corral Nocturne.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses meets the heady glamor and danger of the Jazz Age

All Dorothy Perkins wants is to have a good time. She’s wild about dancing, and can’t understand or accept her father’s strictness in forbidding it. Night after night she sneaks out to the Lost Lake House, a glamorous island nightclub rumored to be the front for more than just music and dancing…in spite of an increasingly uneasy feeling that she may be getting into something more than she can handle.

Marshall Kendrick knows the truth behind the Lost Lake House—and bitterly hates his job there. But fear and obligation have him trapped. When a twist of circumstances throws Dorothy and Marshall together one night, it may offer them both a chance at escaping the tangled web of fear and deceit each has woven…if only they are brave enough to take it.

Novella, approximately 26,000 words.

Lost Lake House will be released as an ebook on March 16th, 2016! In the meantime, you can add it to-read on Goodreads. You can also check out my Lost Lake House Pinterest board and playlist to get a glimpse into the world of the story!

Also, my friend Suzannah Rowntree has just announced the release date for her next fairytale retelling, The Bells of Paradise, which I beta-read last year and loved enough to put it in my top ten reads of 2015. This is one you don't want to miss! You can check out Suzannah's announcement here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Occupied Indoors

Getting back into the swing of writing after New Year's proved to be a slightly rocky process. I sat down to write a couple of new scenes for Lost Lake House, and a few hours later found myself staring at a few of the messiest scrawled paragraphs I've ever produced in my life. But after switching back and forth from notebook to laptop a few times and re-typing some paragraphs about ten times apiece, I finally settled in and got the revisions done. Now I just need to have a few people read the finished product, then do any final polishing and proofreading. I've also been exchanging emails with my cover designer, and the cover is taking shape—can't wait to share it with you! I should be able to do that, and to announce a release date, sometime within the next few weeks.

After an unseasonably warm and muddy Christmas, winter has finally set in—single-digit temperatures and blustery winds, anyway, but still no more than an inch of snow. (I'm still hoping.) The biting temperatures mean we're basically immured indoors most of the day. When not working on Lost Lake House, I've been doing a fair amount of reading, and indulging a couple of hobbies I discovered over the holidays. One is playing pool. During Christmas vacation it occurred to me to uncover the pool table for the first time in a while and play a few games with my dad (who is very good at it); and I found it so much fun that I've been going downstairs to practice by myself many afternoons since. It's something that requires practice and skill, but not a terrific amount of mental effort, which is a refreshing change after a morning spent wrestling with one of those aforementioned paragraphs that needed re-typing ten times. Since the pool table is in our unheated cellar, I have to wear a sweater or jacket down to play, and my fingers sometimes get chilly...but I'm getting to be a pretty good shot.

The other is blackout poetry. I got the Steal Like an Artist Journal for Christmas, and it's one of my favorite gifts. I've had a ton of fun doing the various exercises, and liked the blackout-poetry page in particular so much that I hailed the arrival of our local pennysaver newspaper (which usually goes straight to the recycling bin) with glee. Now its arrival is a weekly event for me, and I've even converted an old notebook into a blackout-poetry scrapbook. My creations tend to be on the humorous side, I find. I particularly relish taking a marker to political items and turning them into something satirical.

Back on the writing side, this month I had the thrill of seeing my book Wanderlust Creek and Other Stories on blogger Hanne-col's list of top reads in 2015! What makes it even more of an honor is the number of awesome authors, many of whose books are favorites of mine, who were also on the list.

What have you been doing to keep occupied through the winter months?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Soundtrack for a Story: Lost Lake House

I honestly didn't listen to any music to inspire my progress when I was writing Lost Lake House, because (A) I did most of my writing outdoors, (B) I pretty much zipped through the first draft without needing extra inspiration, and (C) I wasn't all that familiar with the music of the 1920s to begin with. But after Suzannah beta-read the draft, she pointed me to a Shostakovich waltz that she said the aura of the story reminded her of, and it was perfect: the music called up the same moods and images I'd been imagining. Then I also had to do a little exploring of 1920s popular songs to correct some references in the story—and in the process I had so much fun and discovered so much great music that I created a YouTube playlist. I foresee listening to it quite a bit while I'm formatting and proofreading. So I thought I'd share some of my finds here on the blog today:

  • Tanzerische Suite by Eduard Künneke—particularly the Overture foxtrot, the Blues, the Valse Boston, and the Finale foxtrot. This is awesome; the music is Lost Lake House absolutely to a T!

  • Here's the Shostakovich waltz I mentioned: the Waltz II from his second Jazz Suite. Then there's also the Lyric Waltz from the same suite and the Foxtrot from his Jazz Suite #1.

  • "Wonderful One" by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra

  • "Three O'Clock in the Morning" by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra

  • "Fascinating Rhythm" by Sam Lanin and His Roseland Orchestra. For an old version with lyrics, here's Fred and Adele Astaire with George Gershwin himself on piano (!).

  • An early version of the Charleston by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (starting to notice a trend here?) accompanied by a little instructional film from the '20s demonstrating how to do the dance step.

  • The Three Shades of Blue Suite by Ferde Grofé, who (surprise, surprise) worked with Paul Whiteman and did orchestral arrangements for Gershwin: "Indigo," "Alice Blue," and "Heliotrope." Grofé is a composer whose music I've adored and included in several "writing soundtracks" before.

Like I said, much '20s popular music was initially unfamiliar to me, and it surprised me a bit. It sounds light, perky, much of it in a cheerful major key—almost tame compared to the brassier punch of 1930s and '40s swing. I guess one has to keep in mind its newness to hearers of the time, to whom the jazz style was much more unfamiliar. The jazzy classical pieces, however, are by far my favorite—I've always enjoyed that style, and poking around finding music for this playlist introduced me to a whole treasure-trove more!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Harper Lee on Writing

Recently I came across a link to a 1964 interview with Harper Lee, one of the last she gave before withdrawing from public life. It's an interesting read, and a few passages particularly struck me. For instance, Lee's response when asked what she most deplored about modern American writing (and this was over fifty years ago!):

I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing, and especially in the American theatre, is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this—the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea. It takes time and patience and effort to turn out a work of art, and few people seem willing to go all the way.

I see a great deal of sloppiness and I deplore it. I suppose the reason I'm so down on it is because I see tendencies in myself to be sloppy, to be satisfied with something that's not quite good enough. I think writers today are too easily pleased with their work. This is sad...There's no substitute for the love of language, for the beauty of an English sentence. There's no substitute for struggling, if a struggle is needed, to make an English sentence as beautiful as it should be.

This bit about developing imagination in childhood, one of the things Lee captured so well in To Kill A Mockingbird, in many ways reminds me of my own childhood—make-believe and storytelling was always front and center, whatever toys I may have had to play with.

This was my childhood: If I went to a film once a month it was pretty good for me, and for all children like me. We had to use our own devices in our play, for our entertainment. We didn't have much money. Nobody had any money. We didn't have toys, nothing was done for us, so the result was that we lived in our imagination most of the time. We devised things; we were readers, and we would transfer everything we had seen on the printed page to the backyard in the form of high drama.

Did you never play Tarzan when you were a child? Did you never tramp through the jungle or refight the battle of Gettysburg in some form or fashion? We did. Did you never live in a tree house and find the whole world in the branches of a chinaberry tree? We did.

In retrospect it's odd, and perhaps a little sad, to read this interview of an author apparently in the midst of her career and talking freely about future ambitions and novels, while knowing she never wrote another. It makes one wonder what might have been.

I want to do the best I can with the talent God gave me. I hope to goodness that every novel I do gets better and better... In other words all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama.

You can find the full interview here.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Writing Goals for 2016

Looking back, 2015 was certainly a productive year for me writing-wise. Wanderlust Creek and Other Stories was published in March; in April Left-Hand Kelly was nominated for a Peacemaker Award. I also had a short story, "Revolt," published in an ezine. I wrote the fourth Mrs. Meade mystery, The Silent Hour, in February and March, and published it in October. In September and October I wrote the first draft of Lost Lake House. And most importantly, I finished the complete rewrite of One of Ours, which I'd been working at steadily (with a few short breaks for those other projects) since the autumn of 2014.


Retrospectives like this should be a lesson to me. When I'm focused in on my current project, chipping slowly away, it often seems like I'm accomplishing practically nothing. But when I look back at the end of a year or a few months, I realize that slow-but-steady really did accomplish quite a bit after all.

I'm not too good at setting long-term goals—if I set a goal months or years in advance, by the time I get there I often find that my mind or the circumstances have changed (and then feel rather silly). A month at a time is a more manageable system for me. But I do have a short list of things that I think I can reasonably accomplish in 2016, without carving in stone the exact time I want to do them:

1. Revise and publish Lost Lake House. This will be the first order of business. I have beta-reader feedback and several pages of notes for revisions, so that's what I'll be digging into this January. Hopefully looking at publication before spring. We now have a Goodreads page and a book description, which you can get a peek at here!

2. Continue to polish One of Ours into shape. Right now the next steps in sight are re-reading the manuscript and maybe editing it a bit, and then giving it to a few first test readers for their reactions. I'm not letting myself think any further ahead than that at the present moment. It's taken me nearly six years to get this far, and as Mr. Holbrook would say, we would be unshaped if we began to move at speed now.

3. Write the first draft of The Mountain of the Wolf, another fairytale-retelling novella (a Western "Little Red Riding Hood"). I'm still working on ironing out the sequence of the plot, but I imagine that I will probably be ready to start the first draft sometime during the upcoming year. It'll happen when it's ready to happen.

4. At least begin a course of research reading for a World War II novel, a semi-secret project I've had brewing for some time which is not entirely a secret anymore...because my research list currently looks like this, and my Pinterest board looks like this:

Follow Elisabeth Grace's board Novel: Dearest Lieutenant on Pinterest.

I'm awfully fond of that Pinterest board.

I know this project will require diligent research if it's going to turn out well—and I figured that it was time I learned how to pursue a line of historical research in disciplined fashion. Looking back, 2015 was the year that I finally got the hang of a writing schedule that fit into my daily life; so perhaps 2016 will be the year I at least begin to work out a good system for research. We'll see.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Ten Favorite Movies Watched in 2015

Time again to tally up my ten favorite movies seen for the first time this year. I notice this year's list has a little bit of a different feel than those of recent years—a good half of the films featured are comedies or lighter-hearted fare, and it also features more color films than usual...a whopping three.

The Swan (1956)
In a fictitious European country, a young princess has been groomed to restore her family to the throne by marrying her older cousin the Crown Prince. But when the Prince comes to visit, his unpredictable behavior and the princess' conflicted feelings for her brothers' handsome young tutor threaten to cause upheaval for all involved. Funny, sad, romantic, and absolutely gorgeous to look at.

That Darn Cat! (1966)
When a prowling housecat brings home a clue to a recent kidnapping, an FBI agent (who of course is allergic to cats) is assigned to tail the cat in hopes of being led back to the criminals—setting up operations in the home of the cat's owner and putting on quite the spectacle for nosy neighbors. A mix of slapstick-comedy pratfalls and witty dialogue that had me grinning for a week afterward.

Goodbye, My Lady (1956)
I don't know why this lovely film isn't better known among dog lovers. A young boy living with his uncle in the Mississippi swamps finds a stray dog of some unusual breed, and forms a close bond with her while training her as a bird-dog. But there is still the question of where the dog came from...

The Affairs of Martha (1942)
A posh Long Island community is thrown into a flurry at a rumor that one of their maids is writing a tell-all book about her employers. It's true...and as housemaid Martha juggles her secret and another secret concerning her employers' son, comedy ensues.

Angels in the Outfield (1951)
A loud-mouthed bully of a baseball manager begins hearing the voice of an angel promising him divine assistance if he mends his ways. But when a little orphan girl claims to see angels on the field, it launches a media circus. Watched with tongue firmly planted in cheek, it's great fun (the Shakespearean-insult scene is priceless). And can I please have Janet Leigh's entire wardrobe?

The Cockeyed Miracle (1946)
This year's obscure entry: a quirky, absurd little comedy in which a man lingers as a ghost to try and straighten out the financial tangle he left his family in, assisted by the ghost of his father. There's a few slips into unimaginative silliness, to be sure, but it's kept afloat by a deft mix of comedy and poignancy in the right places and a cast who just seem to be having fun.

My Darling Clementine (1946)
After watching this fictionalized retelling of the story surrounding the O.K. Corral gunfight, I think I now understand the term "elegiac" applied to John Ford's Westerns. Read my post about this movie here.

Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958)
A wealthy heiress is trapped in a nightmarish situation when a man claiming to be her dead brother turns up—and strangely, no one will believe her when she says he isn't her brother. A plot that seems a little strange at first, but then takes a terrific twist at the end that changes the perspective on everything that happened before. It reminded me a little of the atmosphere of a Mary Stewart novel, with its Mediterranean setting, fast cars and glamorous '50s fashions.

A Date With Judy (1948)
This is the equivalent of cinematic cotton candy—cute and humorous with some sweet songs. A couple of high-school girls who think they know much more than they really do cause a series of humorous mix-ups in their families' affairs, all the in the loveliest of vintage fashions and Glorious Technicolor.

Intruder in the Dust (1949)
It was almost a coin-flip between this one and George Washington Slept Here for the final spot on this list—I sure laughed hard enough at the latter, but overall, Intruder in the Dust is probably the superior film. Filmed on location in the Deep South of its setting, it has a realistic look and feel and a plot that rather interestingly foreshadows To Kill A Mockingbird, with a young boy and an old woman forming an unlikely team to help a black man accused of murder prove his innocence.

Runners-up: George Washington Slept Here (1942), Mister 880 (1950), Night Must Fall (1937), The Little Foxes (1941), Operation Pacific (1951), The Whole Town's Talking (1935), Watch on the Rhine (1943), San Quentin (1937), Torpedo Run (1958). Worst film of the year? Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), which took an interesting premise and a good cast and sunk both like lead weights.

If you're interested, you can see the full list of films I watched this year on my Letterboxd account. That includes some but not all re-watches; I only log a re-watch if I want to tag it with a genre.

Previous years' lists: 2014, 2013, 2011.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My Year in Books

Comparing my record book with my Goodreads shelves, I find I read 92 books this year. As always, that number includes novellas, Kindle Singles, individual long poems, et cetera. Twelve titles, however, were cover-to-cover re-reads of books I had previously read. Highlights there included re-acquainting myself with Jane Eyre after many years, and re-reading my two favorite Booth Tarkington novels, The Magnificent Ambersons and The Turmoil. A couple of childhood favorites were also on that list: Little Women (for a read-along at The Edge of the Precipice) and Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess.

You can see my full list here, but here's the main highlights:

Rather to my surprise, there's only one "classic" novel on my list for this year, Anthony Trollope's The Warden, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I'm delighted at the prospect of many more Trollope novels to work my way through. My other forays into the classics came in the categories of plays and poetry. I continued my journey through Shakespeare with Macbeth and Hamlet. Other plays read included the absolutely charming Quality Street by J.M. Barrie, and Watch on the Rhine by Lillian Hellman, which I felt was rather better than the movie version, being more restrained and less whack-you-over-the-head-with-its-message. In poetry, I enjoyed G.K. Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse and fell in love with Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," but must admit I bogged down midway through his Idylls of the King. I don't know quite why; I didn't dislike it, but it doesn't seem to have the same rhythm and flow of his other poems I've read. I was also enchanted by a volume of letters between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which left me with a resolve to explore both of their work. So far I've just read Elizabeth's beautiful Sonnet 43.

2015 became The Year I Finally Got My Hands on Angela Thirkell's Books. I'd wanted to read Thirkell for years, having once randomly picked up a later book in her Barsetshire series and loved it, but my library system had a slim selection and none of the early titles in the series. But they're now being released on Kindle—hooray! Besides High Rising, which made my top-ten list, I read Wild Strawberries, Summer Half and August Folly, with Summer Half being my favorite of those.

I find I didn't read many short stories this year. Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fitzgerald was local-color "research" for writing a Jazz Age story, and was as mixed a bag as I usually find Fitzgerald. I did read a couple of Western collections: The Western Writings of Stephen Crane, which held a couple of impressive pieces and a number of merely interesting ones, and New Hope by Ernest Haycox, a collection that showcases two distinct styles: light pulp fiction and "serious" short fiction—the latter quite good. Didn't read too many other Westerns, but Partners of Chance by H.H. Knibbs, The Man Called Noon by Louis L'Amour and Stand to Horse by Andre Norton were decently good.

History-wise, I read two books on World War II in the Philippines, We Band of Angels by Elizabeth M. Norman and Rescue at Los Banos by Bruce Henderson; and circling back to the book and film that first piqued my interest in the subject, Behind the Scenes of They Were Expendable by Lou Sabini and Nicholas Scutti. (I leave the nonfiction subtitles to fend for themselves this year.) In theology, I was introduced to the works of G. Campbell Morgan, which are brilliant and which I highly recommend; so far I've read his books on the gospels of Luke and Mark. Other nonfiction was mainly bookish miscellany: Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon, Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James, and a couple of literary-themed Kindle Singles, I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant and Disappearing Ink by Travis McDade. Also How the West Was Written, Vol. 3: Frontier Fiction Glossary by Ron Scheer, which is terrific both as a reference book and a glimpse into history.

I read quite a decent amount of mysteries, highlights being The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey, Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg, and Five Passengers to Lisbon by Mignon G. Eberhart. Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate was a technically impressive and interesting mystery rather spoiled by distasteful elements in the story; The Nameless Thing by Melville Davisson Post was as unusual and philosophical as Post's books usually are, and Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy Sayers was an amusing though uneven collection of short stories. Mainly to be enjoyed by those who are already die-hard fans of the Lord Peter series.

I disappointingly hit on just-middling entries from two favorite authors this year, My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart and Railroad West by Cornelia Meigs. But I did find some good ones from both new and familiar authors! To wind up, a selection of novels and novellas in varying genres that I particularly enjoyed: Howards End by E.M. Forster, The Aviator by Ernest K. Gann, King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard, The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope, Pied Piper by Nevil Shute, The Prince of Fishes by Suzannah Rowntree, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, and Come Out of the Kitchen! by Alice Duer Miller.

Previous years' reading roundups: 2014, 2013, 2012.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Bird of Dawning: A Christmas Story

I wrote this short story last week, when I felt like writing something and knew that it had to be a Christmas story...and perhaps in order to revel in a little vicarious snow and ice. I had run across a favorite passage from Shakespeare quoted in Washington Irving's Old Christmas, and it inspired me to do a little brainstorming. A Western Christmas story, because I've never really tried that before...drawing on that quotation. I decided I'd share it here, even though it's rather longer than any fiction I usually post on my blog...because it's Christmas. Make sure you click on "Read more" to get the full story!
* * *

A million diamonds glinted in the smooth, untouched white curve of snow in the basin, struck out by the sun that pierced the bright silver-white sky. The bitter wind whisked across it, kicking up little powdery swirls. Cal Rayburn turned up the collar of his sourdough coat with one hand, hunching his shoulders a little so the collar half covered his ears. He squinted at the blinding-bright landscape, and one side of his cold-numbed lips twisted back a little in a half-smile. Not another human being for miles, but still he fancied he could feel an odd festivity in the air. What did it come from, he wondered? The fields and mountains looked the same as they did every day. If he had not known it was Christmas Eve day, would he still have felt it?

Cal reined his horse to a stop at the crest of a white rise, and looked back over his shoulder toward the rampart of mountains that towered over the line camp. Their white peaks were seamed with black and silver where the wind scoured the snow from the rock faces, their lower slopes heavy with snowy pines. As he looked, a wind roused among the trees of the nearest slope, blowing clouds of snow like white smoke shot with crystal from their laden branches. The beauty of it caught in Cal’s chest and almost hurt. It was moments like these that he didn’t mind being alone out here.

His horse stood hock-deep in the trampled snow, its head tucked down a little against the wind. Cal scanned the empty, untracked basin again—no sign of cattle; they would all be back in the shoulder of some sheltering hill, or deep under the pines. No sign of anything. He smiled, and his lips formed the words softly aloud: “Here shall he see no enemy…but winter and rough weather.”

His horse swiveled a blue-dun ear backward, inquiringly. It was a habit that had grown on Cal from his grandfather. Gramps had always been a well of quotations: poetry, Shakespeare mostly, bits of psalms and other scriptures—an apt phrase for any occasion, and some things that sounded surprising coming from a little dried-up old man who’d been a farmer and blacksmith all his life; but the beauty of them you couldn’t deny. Gramps had set store by that.

“When you got some beauty in your mind, boy,” he would say, “it don’t matter how ugly a place you’re in. You get by.”

Well, there was nothing ugly here…except the aloneness.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

December, Without Snow

There is still no sign of snow outside. Not even a nice crisp frost; just damp grass and brown woods and frequently rain. But at night when it's too dark to see and all the Christmas lights are on, we can pretend. Meanwhile I've been baking gingerbread cookies, safeguarding the tinsel on the tree from the ebullience of dogs' tails (tinsel-straightener's mate 2nd class, that's me), playing Christmas music and doing my best to cultivate a holiday spirit indoors.

- Reading -

My reading usually slows down in the busy first part of December; the vacation week after Christmas is the better time to curl up with a book. I do like to try and read a new Christmas story of some sort each year along with old favorites, though. This year it was Old Christmas by Washington Irving, which was charming. Written around 1820, it's a nostalgic, delightfully detailed reminiscence about a Christmas celebrated on an English country estate in a manner already considered old-fashioned for the times. I've been reading it aloud to my siblings, who have enjoyed it so much they wish it was longer than just five short chapters. Perfect for getting into the holiday spirit.

- Listening -

Christmas music, of course! Some of my favorite CDs are Michael Buble's Christmas album, the full score to The Nutcracker, and the soundtrack from The Homecoming; besides family staples like the old Listener's Choice album Here We Come A-Caroling, which we used to have on cassette tape years back. My Christmas playlist on my mp3 player is mostly filled with instrumental carols by the likes of the Cincinnati Pops, Boston Pops et al, along with miscellaneous favorites: "I Heard the Bells" by the Irish Tenors, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Margaret Whiting, and so forth. Another special highlight is re-watching the musical special Christmas With the St. Olaf Choir, which we were captivated by when it aired on PBS last year. Do watch it if you get the chance; it's exquisite.

- Writing -

I finished typing the manuscript of One of Ours back on December 8th. It totaled up to just over 146,000 words and 39 chapters. During my last few weeks of work on that, I shared a few brief excerpts using the #1lineWed hashtag on Twitter, most of which weren't in my last snippets post; you can read those here if you like.

Since then I've been pretty much on vacation, officially at least, and occupying myself with holiday preparations and miscellaneous other tasks. I always seem to be seized with an organizing fit after finishing a big project: I overhauled my big catch-all three-ring binder of writing stuff (remind me again why I ever took notes on loose-leaf paper?) and managed to organize all the essentials into a smaller and much more compact binder. I've also scribbled several pages of notes for projects I'll be undertaking after New Year's (more on that another day). But the other day I got a little fidgety without my pen and paper, and so I started writing a spur-of-the-moment Christmas short story. I haven't decided exactly what I'll do with it yet...if it turns out to be any good, maybe I'll be able to share it.

Don't forget, Some Christmas Camouflage is free through New Year's! If you haven't read it yet, grab a copy today.