Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Snow day leaves lasting memory

Growing up in New York and Pennsylvania, snow doesn't thrill me as much as my friends and neighbors here in North Carolina. I have too many memories of being snowed in for days, trapped by icy roads and drifts that blow back as soon as you shoveled them out.

I recall the smell of wet wool mittens and scarves dying on the back of the old wood-burning stove and unbuckling galoshes with red, numb hands. Even the thrill of a no-school day faded as we realized that also meant a no-library day and we  had read every book in the house. This was before TV, so we amused ourselves by putting together jig-saw puzzles and listening to the radio.

I think those winters were when the term "cabin-fever" was invented.

I remember one day in particular. It had snowed, but the following morning saw blue skies and a field of the white stuff packed just right for sledding. Since we lived on a hill, the neighbor kids came in droves. Some had sleds, but others had a piece of cardboard or an aluminum tray.

Among the sledders were two boys from a neighboring farm. This family was extremely poor, and usually we didn't associate with them--not because of the poverty, but for a reason that shall become clear.

Mom looked out the window and saw that the boys' torn trousers revealed they were not acquainted with underwear. Their little butts were red with cold.

Mom called them inside to warm up, standing them near the registers that brought the heat from the furnace to the rooms above.

As they thawed, the odor of manure wafted throughout the house. It seemed they weren't acquainted with soap, either.

As soon as they were dry, she shooed them home. By then, the entire house smelled not so much like a barn, but the pile of fertilizer heaped outside the barn door. It took days for it to dissipate.

I know that child protective services were called more than once to investigate the family, but evidently the kids were fed and clothed (somewhat) and dry. And I know one brave teacher took her second-grade charge to the bathroom every morning to wash him and provide clean clothes. She reclaimed these at the end of the day because, like the clothing good-hearted souls donated to the family, they tended never to be seen again once they walked out the door.

This started out to be about snow, and ended up being about poverty. The two are forever associated in my mind.

And someone ought to do something about both of them.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Battling the alligators

I think most writers would agree with me that it is more difficult to revise than to create a book.

The first draft comes easily. Ideas flow and plot twists abound. Characters become our new best friends. Our fingers can't keep up with our thoughts. It's like dancing to music only we can hear.

But revision--that necessary evil--is a much slower process. I've been working on the same chapter for two days, taking out a paragraph, then putting it back in. Replacing a word with a more descriptive one. Adding  action to show what the characters are thinking. Adding description and then wondering if I've gone too far and it the reader really needs to know what something looked like.

I've removed whole sections  and  replaced them elsewhere in the story. I've removed other sections and hit delete. I've written new scenes.

In the last hour I've agonized over a section that might or might not be important to the plot. Not crucial, but not just filler, either. A point has to be made, a hint dropped. Am I taking too long to plant the seeds? Can I tighten the scene to make it move along more quickly?

In short, I feel as if instead of dancing I'm slogging through a swamp. With mosquitoes. And alligators.

I'm not complaining. I've been through this swamp before. I'll make it to the other side.

And then I'll take a break and start all over again.

Because that's what writers do.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The accidental writing exercise

Somehow, I have become secretary to five different organizations. I was either elected or found my hand going up as a volunteer.

I don't mind, really. If I have to be there anyway, I can concentrate better if I take notes. And, it takes me back to my newspaper days when I recorded everything I heard for publication. I was at a commissioners' meeting last week gathering background for a scene I'm writing, and found myself taking notes as if I were being paid for it.

I think being secretary helps my writing skills. I have to listen and observe. I have to write quickly, and check my facts afterward if I didn't hear something clearly, or didn't understand it.

Then I have to go back through my notes and organize them for clarity and continuity. Meetings don't always go according to a neat schedule. Something is said, something else is said, another point is brought up, the subject gets changed and then it circles around to the first subject again. Sometimes it is more important to record what was said than to record in what order it was said.

It's the same way in fiction. If authors wrote conversations the way conversations actually happen, with all the interruptions and interjections, the reader would soon be confused as to who was saying what. Actually, there have been times when I've been reading a novel and had to stop and go back to the beginning of the conversation and mentally add the "He said ... She said..." If those authors had ever been a recording secretary, they would have been more careful.

 So I count taking minutes as part of my writing time -- a four or five times a month writing exercise.

It's a win-win situation.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Polar Vortex; rarity or omen?

I learned a new phrase yesterday: polar vortex.

Okay, it isn't new, but it's new to me. Actually, it has a nice sound to it. Words you might run across reading an adventure novel; something the villain gets sucked into like a black hole.

Or maybe not so pretty if you see a map of the United States on television and it is all blue. As in freezing temperatures from California to Maine, from Michigan to Florida.

Skeptics are sneering about global warming as if today were proof positive that it isn't occurring. I think proof is in the extremes we've being having, and if this isn't one, I don't know what is.

I had to go out this morning and felt a real empathy for the kids waiting for the school bus. They looked as if they wished they had listened to their mothers for once and put on that hat and scarf.

I wondered about the stray cats we see in our back yard, the black and white tuxedo, the calico and the little black one. Are they safe and warm somewhere?

I worry about the homeless men, women, and families who need shelter and I hope they found it. If ever there was a time for a church to open its doors, this is it.

In a few days the temperature will begin to climb and we will mark this down on our mental calendars like  Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the Big Snow in 2000. In a few years we will be saying, "Do you remember when..."

Or maybe not. It could be that this rare event will become commonplace.

I hope not. But I have learned, as have you, that we can't count on the weather any more. It continues to surprise us.

Polar vortex. Welcome to our vocabulary.