Monday, March 20, 2017

RIP - Rock In Peace, Chuck Berry

I was saddened, but not totally surprised, to hear the news that St. Louis legendary music icon Chuck Berry passed away on Saturday. Chuck Berry was 90 when he died in St. Charles County, Missouri, the same county where I live—about fifteen miles from my home.

It’s strange how the death of one person can trigger memories that have been packed away for decades. Although I never met Chuck Berry in person, his music and presence touched my soul and influenced my childhood.

Just about everyone in my North St. Louis neighborhood of the 1950s and 1960s knew about Chuck Berry and his music, including my mom.

Mom loved music, and she loved to dance. Her tastes ranged from the Country music of Johnny Cash, the soulful melodies of Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams, and the rock and roll of Elvis, Chubby Checker—and, of course, St. Louis songwriter and musical icon Chuck Berry.

My dad was a germaphobe, so it wasn’t surprising that Mom was an immaculate housekeeper. Music was Mom’s constant companion every day when she cleaned our house—make that rented flat—because my folks never owned a house back then.  

Once a week, to the sounds of whatever was playing the radio, Mom would wash and wax the floors. After the wax dried, she got out Dad’s old Army blanket and my siblings and I took turns riding the blanket like a sled as Mom pulled us around in her butts-on-the-blanket buffer.

In our cozy 1950s kitchen, Mom kicked up her heels and taught my sisters and me how to dance her version of the Charleston and Jitterbug to Chuck Berry’s songs such as: “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and of course, “Rock and Roll Music.”

So, rock in peace, Chuck Berry.

Thank you for bringing your gift of music to the world and a little bit of soul to my family.

Lastly, thank you for sparking this memory of dancing in the kitchen with my mom.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Dave Barry on Writing, Editing, Publishing, and Judging the Erma Bombeck Contest

This past weekend I caught an in-depth interview with C-SPAN's Book TV, featuring Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Dave Barry, one of our nation's premiere humor writers.

As usual, Dave was funny and entertaining, but he also offered some helpful advice about writing, editing, publishing, and judging.

Listed below are some notes I jotted down to share.

On Writing:

* Little decisions make writing better, not the big stuff.

* Don’t quit, even if you’re not gifted.

* It’s a process that takes work and practice.

* He likes writing books more than columns.

* He writes every day, although maybe a couple days he won’t.

On Research:

* Wikipedia is a valuable, but highly inaccurate. Cheap and easy and fast and general.

* To nail down a fact, confirm with some other site.

On Editing:

* Dave knows what’s funny

* Depends on his respect for editor’s advice, generally doesn't do major rewrites.

* As long as you’re laughing, He's OK. Does it work? Does it make people laugh?

On Publishing:

There are two ways to get published and reviewed.

Self-publish  - he doesn't think is the way to go. Easy to do, pay money to do it, but almost impossible to get distributed and reviewed. Basically no quality control over content. Some may be successful, but not from his experience. 

Traditionally Way - Get an agent, might want rewrites, they get it to the publisher. If publisher decides they have a sales staff and promotional people and get a review.

On Judging:

Someone called into the show and mentioned he was going to judge the Erma Bombeck Contest, which got my attention because I know what a thrill it was for my essay to win that contest in 2012.

Dave knew Erma. She was one of those funny writers and funny persons.

Dave said he hates judging because he wants to be nice even if he doesn’t like it.

In the end, it comes down to what he finds amusing.


You can watch Dave's complete interview by clicking here.

Monday, March 6, 2017

When PC Language Creeps into Historical Fiction

When I heard the historical fiction novel Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders was about to be published, my sister and I hurried to the library and put our names on the reserve list.

Lincoln in the Bardo is set during the American Civil War in 1862 at the time President Lincoln lost his beloved son Willie. According to historical accounts, after Willie's death, Lincoln visited his son's gravesite on several occasions and held his son's body in his arms.

Any parent who has lost a child (no matter what the child's age) understands the deep and dark sorrow President Lincoln must've experienced, so I was curious how that was handled.  I was also interested in the historical aspect of the story.

After the library called that the book was in, my sister and I picked up our copies. That was two days before my first chemo treatment, so I've been reading a few pages at a time when I'm feeling up to it.

The structure of the novel is creative and unconventional. The story is told mostly in dialogue through the eyes of the ghosts and without quotation marks. The speaker attributions appear on the lines beneath the dialogue passages.

Because of the novel's unusual structure, my sister told me she couldn't get into the story.  I suggested she try reading just the dialogue and narrative and ignore the attributions centered below. She tried, but last I heard she quit reading.

Yesterday I came across a tweet that George Saunders has written an article "What Writers Really Do When They Write" in The Guardian, so I checked it out.

In the article, Saunders discusses the mysterious process of writing. He writes about revising one's work, moving from the general to the specific--"revising up to the reader" and respecting the reader. As a writer, that's advice I can use. As a reader, that's what I expect from an author.

Last night I picked up Lincoln In the Bardo again, determined to charge ahead so I can return the book by its due date (today). Since there is a waiting list at the library I can't renew the book. I guess I could keep it longer and pay a fine, but that wouldn't be fair to the other readers on the reserve list, so I'm determined to return the book today.

Back to the novel: I was willing to suspend my disbelief that ghosts in a graveyard hold conversations. I even overlooked the unusual structure and lack of quotation marks.

I made it as far as page 73, when I could no longer suspend my disbelief. Not because of the ghosts talking, but because of what one of them said.

On page 73 my mind whipped from the story to the words on the page.

I wondered if, in 1862, a man (a ghost actually) would use politically correct language that is commonplace today.

The ghost in question uses the term "his or her choice." Somehow, "his or her" doesn't sound right to me for a novel set in 1862. Wouldn't a man in that era simply use the term "his choice" even if women were involved?

So, here I am this morning, wanting to finish the novel because of the reasons stated above, but knowing that rather than getting lost in the story as a reader, I will be looking for more PC creep.

Perhaps, after I return the novel, I'll try finishing it at a later date.

Or maybe I'll just give up the ghost.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Beating the Beast

Some of my friends already know what's been going on with me lately, but for those who don't, I thought I'd post about why I'll be taking a break from blogging.

Last month I went in for a mammogram, and a few days later I got "the call." It was definitely not one I expected. No one in my family has ever had breast cancer, so I thought I was immune. Shows how wrong I was. Several additional tests confirmed the diagnosis.

Last week I had my first chemo treatment, and it threw me for a loop. I'm not going to go into all the details of my treatment plan, but I've quickly learned that Cancer and Chemo aren't for Sissies!

I've found peace and comfort from family and friends and church members who are providing physical and moral sustenance and praying for me every day.  I'm also encouraged by the kindness of strangers who are including me in their prayers. Every kindness and prayer I've received has been a grace-filled blessing.

Today was a rough day, but this evening I'm feeling strong enough to blog. I'm not posting this for pity so please don't feel like you have to leave a comment, but if you're inclined to prayer, that would be a welcome gift!

I hope to get back to writing and blogging from time to time when I'm feeling better and beat this beast!

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Changing Face of Libraries

My, how libraries have changed over the years! What used to be quiet places to check out books and read in silence, are now hubs for socialization and a variety of activities.

My local St. Charles City-County Library (Spencer Road Branch) has something going on just about every day of the week. Knitting lessons, author talks, tax preparation classes, and healthy living seminars are a few events held on a regular basis. With a few clicks of a mouse, card holders can reserve the latest books, e-books, CDs, or DVDs or sign up for classes or events.

At the Spencer Road Branch Library last fall my sister and I attended a breast cancer awareness dinner co-sponsored by the library and a local hospital. The event included medical professionals and inspiring talks from survivors. Vendors, handouts, and a light meal were also available.

The following month we participated in an eight-week class for senior citizens on better balance co-sponsored by OASIS. We learned how to prevent falls, were shown how to safely preform exercises, provided healthy snacks, and were given workbooks to refer to after class completion.

At the end of 2016, my sister, one of my critique group friends, and I attended a “Book Buzz” presentation by a library marketing representative from Penguin Random House. Not only did the library provide snacks, the publisher gave each attendee a cool tote bag that read "Can't I'm Booked." Inside each bag was a free book. My free book was a copy of Always by Sarah Jio, which is on my to-be-read list.

During the slide show presentation, the publisher's representative highlighted books to be released in the fall of 2016 and winter of 2017. Along with displaying copies of dozens of book covers, he gave a description of each book. One element I was interested in hearing about was the print run of the books, which generally is an indication that a book  will be in high demand. After hearing about so many fascinating books, immediately after the presentation my sister and I hurried to the check-out counter to add our names on the reserve list for books that were especially appealing. 

Although libraries have changed from the time I received my first buff-colored library card when I was in grade school,  one thing has remained constant in my life, my love for libraries and books will never go out of style.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Dixon Hearne on "Setting as Character"

I'm pleased today to have acclaimed author Dixon Hearne as my guest blogger to speak about "Setting as Character." His works have been published widely, with his most recent, Delta Flats, published by Amphorae Publishing Group.
Photo courtesy of author
Dixon Hearne (photo on left) is the author of three recent books: Delta Flats: Stories in the Key of Blues and Hope (nominee, 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award) and From Tickfaw to Shongaloo (Second-Place, 2014 William Faulkner Novella competition), both set in Louisiana, and Plainspeak: New and Collected Poems. His website is

Setting as Character

I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it. ~William Faulkner

Beginning writers are often told: “Write about what you know.” Consequently, many of their first writings center on where they live and the people in their orbit. Once they have the basic elements of fiction (plot, character, setting, theme, and style), they typically feel more comfortable trying their hand at various genres. Fiction offers particularly rich ground for cultivating possibilities. Setting alone presents unlimited opportunity for experimentation.

More than Backdrop (physical, social milieu)

Setting must be as well fleshed out as any other character, by the use of specific and telling details. It can't be selected on a whim, with no purpose in mind; but it must feed into the story   ~Elizabeth George

Literature is replete with examples of places imbued with human qualities—beyond mere personification, symbolism, or metaphor. Consider, for example, the characterization of the moors in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights—a dark, brooding entity, ominous and ever-present, more than simply a literary device to set the tone of the story.

Consider also Scarlett’s Tara, more than mere symbol of strength and security. It beckons, nourishes, influences. She views Tara as a living entity—revels and wallows in its splendor, its spell. It is friend, healer, guardian angel. Similarly, Anne Shirley imbues Green Gables with life and joy-giving.

Examples of “setting as character” can be found in any number of novels and in noir films set in New York City, New Orleans, London, and other places alive with their own personas—where setting speaks to the reader/viewer, sets the tone/mood of the story, and exerts influence and control over characters and plot. Place is carefully developed into an unforgettable part of the story. Nowhere are examples more clear and abundant than gothic tales and horror movies set in haunted places, settings portrayed as living entities that act and react with other characters.

Southern writers seem particularly adept at featuring setting as character in fiction—from Dorothy Allison (Carolina) to Tennessee Williams (New Orleans) to James Lee Burke (swamps) to Faulkner (Yoknapatawpha County). Contemporary “raw South” fiction typifies the impulse of many southern writers to interweave place with other characters in their stories. Authors like David Armand (southeast Louisiana, The Gorge), Daren Dean (rural Missouri, Far Beyond the Pale), and Skip Horack (Gulf South, The Southern Cross) create settings well beyond the dimensions of mere time and place. They bring place to life.  

Examples from my own writing:

Many of my stories spring from a single image, a place in my head. I almost immediately step back and consider how place might affect my characters. They are often powerful images, like a cabin porch in fallow fields, as in my short story “This Side of Canaan.” A sweat-drenched couple and their ragged children peeking through the doorway complete the picture, tell the story.

Setting is central to my comic novella From Tickfaw to Shongaloo. Stokely, a Southern town, reflects universal themes and motives and actions. The dialect immediately identifies the geographical setting. We get to know the town as more than a place—its identity is inextricably tied up with its interactions with townspeople. Place is paramount in the story.

Photo courtesy of author
Delta Flats: Stories in the Key of Blues and Hope is about place as well as characters. In some cases, place is featured as a character itself, as in “Crescent City Blues,” which conjures images of decadence and a general atmosphere of laissez les bon temps rouler.

“Waves wash upon its muddy banks like the incessant beating of the Crescent City’s heart. Like eternal applause for the drama, with all its shadowy plots and subplots, unfolding in the decadent world of the French Quarter. No one escapes its influence, New Orleans. One might curse or spurn or dismiss it with the contempt of a religious zealot, but deny it—no. It floats like an island unto itself, a world shaped by half a millennium of vibrant tenancy.”

Native Voices, Native Lands brings landscapes of the Southwest and the central plains to life in story and poem. Indeed, many native Americans believe that the earth and its constituent natural parts (land, rivers, mountains, etc.) have souls. They write eloquently of waters and tribal lands as living entities.

Crafting Place as Character

In crafting a story that will feature setting/place as a character, one might consider the following:

How does a writer bring life to a setting—complete with mood, motive, and emotions?

How can the senses be used to add dimension and shape the character of the setting?

How does a writer introduce deliberate conflict and interaction between other characters and setting to create a believable entity. Like any other character, setting can cause problems or trouble for the protagonist(s).

Consider what motives a place might have as a character in the story. What is to be gained or lost? Use that to help develop a persona.

Create a list of words that capture conflict, mood, atmosphere, and setting. Carefully selected words add dimension and layers to place as character. 

Imagine yourself as the place in the story. What do you see, feel, hear, smell? What might your own actions/reactions be? 

Pay careful attention to language and detail.

Most importantly, read other stories—many stories—that feature setting/place as character.

Thank you, Dixon for your wisdom and advice, and congratulations on your many accomplishments.

Friday, January 13, 2017

May Your Soul Rest in Peace, William Peter Blatty

I was sad to hear the news that author and filmmaker William Peter Blatty died yesterday at the age of 89. His novel, The Exorcist, was one of the most frightening books I've ever read, and the movie of the same name gave me chills. 

Note: While the setting for the novel The Exorcist was Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., according to many, the story was based on an actual exorcism performed in 1949 in St. Louis, Missouri

Several years ago, when I wrote book reviews for, I was assigned to review Blatty's novel Dimiter.

 In my Bookreporter review I described Dimiter as "enigmatic, compelling, and beguiling. Part mystery and part spiritual thriller  . . . rich in detail and written with wisdom and grace."

At the end of my review I mentioned a minor detail in the novel that puzzled me. I wasn't sure if I should even comment on it. After all Mr. Blatty was an award-winning writer who won an Academy Award. Who was I to point out a mistake? Yet, I felt an obligation to readers to be completely honest in my review.

A few months later, I received an e-mail from someone whose address I didn't recognize. I scanned the e-mail quickly then started to delete it. But I paused and read it a few more times before realizing it was for real.

The e-mail was from Mr. Blatty himself, who thanked me not only for my review, but also for pointing out his mistake, which, he wrote, had been missed by him and several editors but would be corrected on the next print run.

Receiving his e-mail made me realize what a gracious and talented writer Mr. Blatty was.

May your soul rest in peace, William Peter Blatty. You were not only a gifted writer, but also a humble and generous man whose work inspired many.