Friday, March 29, 2013

On Outlines and Planning Your Novel

I photographed this leaning royal palm while on vacation in St. Lucia. It got my attention. I don't know why the tree leans to the right, it just does and it has grown into a beauty. Perhaps heavy winds of a tropical storm or hurricane caused it to lean or maybe the tree to the left shaded it and the palm like a flower, kept searching for more light. Maybe it was always meant to lean, who knows! But for whatever reason, to me it's still a majestic royal palm with a quirky, interesting side. It wouldn't have gotten my attention any other way.

As a new writer, I made quite a few mistakes with my first novel, A Decent Woman, but I was enthusiastic! All I knew was that I loved to write and I kept at the business of telling my story. Ignorance was indeed bliss with me. I didn't compare myself to anyone and I didn't try to emulate other writers. As a matter of fact, during the year that I wrote the first draft, I didn't read novels about Puerto Rico so that I wouldn't be swayed by other writers. I wanted to see what I could come up with on my own, realizing that nothing is really original in this world and also realizing that five writers could write about the same town and come up with five distinct and original story lines. But I'm a little stubborn and love a challenge. So, that was my plan - just write.

I wrote the first draft without worrying about specifics. Some writers plan out every single detail with outlines, charts, plans and index cards, but I didn't. I had an outline and knew where I'd wanted to begin and end, but the middle was pretty much organic. Both methods work well in my humble opinion.

I thoroughly enjoyed writing my first novel and afterward, I began reading novels about Puerto Rico again and started reading books on the craft of writing. I did, however, do research along the way. When the first draft was finished, the editing began. I rewrote, strengthened the story and my characters and the direction and side roads that my characters chose became clearer. I learned a lot and tried out many different approaches in trying to better my craft and my novel, but being held to a rigid outline in the beginning wouldn't have worked for me. I'm a flexible, spontaneous person by nature and it shows in how I write books.

When it comes down to writing my second novel...I'm sticking to writing without a detailed outline, it works for me. I want my writing to be fluid, organic and I love the discovery along the way. To do otherwise would discombobulate me! I paint the same way - I don't have a plan in mind. I might have a theme or might have a series in mind, but that's about it. I just paint and see what comes about.

There is no wrong or right way to write a book, go for it. Just write. Write your story. Do what works best for you.

I'm following the same path with my second novel, Finding Gracia on the Path, a novel about a woman who finds herself along El Camino de Santiago in France and Spain. I kept detailed journals during our two week walk, I took dozens of photographs, and I have personal accounts of pilgrims I met along the way. I walked the medieval pilgrimage path with my children right after my husband left our family home. Talk about combat enlightenment! You know, that wouldn't be a bad title, either!

I'm getting it down in West Virginia...my way.

Happy Easter to you!
Ellie






Monday, March 25, 2013

Necessary Research for Writing Chapter One

How long have we been naming snow storms? Did the naming of snow storms just start or did I just begin to notice this year? I find the naming of snow storms annoying and I'll tell you why. I can barely remember and retain the names of hurricanes and tropical storms I discovered during the research for my historical novel-length manuscript, A Decent Woman. Too many names!

Hurricane San Felipe, Ciriaco, Cirilo, Isabel, Ana, Betsy, George, Irene, the winds of Santa Ana and the Mistral, Snowmageddon and now, Snow Storm Virgil. I think that's where we are today - Virgil - which leads me to believe that I don't know the names of the snow storms that preceded Virgil if in fact, they (who names them, anyway?) are keeping to the alphabet I know.

When I was a kid it just snowed. No name, no saint's name, it just snowed! 

However, since the first decades of the 15th century, hurricanes and tropical storms have had names. Hard to believe, isn't it? I found it fascinating to learn about the hurricanes and tropical storms that either were direct hits or came within a few miles of Puerto Rico in the early 1900's. Research was paramount for my first novel which begins in 1901 in Ponce on the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico, and Ponce took many direct and indirect hits from hurricanes and tropical storms.

Christopher Columbus discovered Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493 and the first Spanish settlement was established years later by Juan Ponce de Leon. The first recorded tropical cyclone (hurricane) to hit the southwest part of the island in 1508 was recorded by Juan Ponce de Leon - Hurricane San Roque. From the 15th century until 1961, the naming system of storms was based on the Catholic tradition of naming cyclones after Catholic saints, the saint of the day in which the hurricane hit. San is the masculine word for saint in Spanish and Santa is the feminine word and there are more names with San than Santa in the history of recording hurricane statistics. No comment, just an observation :)

Many times, I had to remind myself to keep moving my story along and leave the Internet behind, but I couldn't very well write a novel about life in Puerto Rico without adding description, detail and dialogue about hurricanes and tropical storms. Every year, from June to November, hurricanes were/are a constant threat and in the months where the island is relatively safe, people are cleaning up, recovering and rebuilding in the aftermath. Hurricanes were and are a fact of life on the island and no one was/is spared. Nearly everyone on an island is affected by nature in one way or another.

I discovered 67 hurricanes and one major earthquake that I had to think about in the years that my novel takes place! So, I decided that the opening scene of my novel would introduce my main character Ana, an Afro-Cuban midwife, who is assisting seventeen-year old Isabel in the birth of her first child during Hurricane San Cirilo, the first tropical storm of the 20th century. I never hesitated that this was how my book would open. As you can imagine, it's a dramatic scene. I loved writing it and still see it in my mind's eye when I think of the first chapter.

In Chapter One, Puerto Rico is still recovering from the devastating loss of life, crops and livelihood from Hurricane San Ciriaco the previous year, the most dangerous recorded hurricane on the island that claimed nearly 3,400 lives and had the damage estimates at nearly $36 million dollars. The Americans had invaded the island two years prior, food is relatively scarce, many buildings have been destroyed, and it seems that the life the islanders have known has been turned upside down. Many believe that God has turned His back on the island and wonder what sins they are being punished for. Some like Ana know what sins they might be punished for.

It's a story of survival, courage, loss, redemption and love...and white squalls, damaging gale-force winds, white-capped waves battering the coast, ten foot storm surges, flooding, sideways rain, and ominous black skies. There are, of course, days of azure skies with no clouds, calm seas, lush tropical vistas and heat...body and otherwise :)

Snow Storm Virgil dropped four inches of snow in my town this morning and we're expecting three more inches by tonight. I'm hoping that the next snow storm that will begin with the letter 'W' doesn't show its face until next winter!

Peace and love,
Ellie


















Thursday, March 21, 2013

Do You Feel What I See?

When I was painting portraits back in the day, the best exercise I was introduced to was the timed gesture drawing. A couple of friends and I would hire a model and once he or she was ready, we'd ask the model to give us a one minute, five minute, ten minute and a 30 minute pose. We were challenged to sketch as much as we could in the allocated time. It was tough and took some getting used to and many times, all I'd drawn was an oval for the model's face when time was called!

In addition to loosening up and learning to sketch quickly, I found it interesting how creative, free and spontaneous my drawings became in a short amount of time. I learned to glance at the whole and select the most interesting angle or the part of the body that told the entire story or perhaps, told an entirely different story. I love looking back at those sketches and sometimes it feels as someone else drew them. It's like when you're in the zone and I love being in the zone creatively!

I've found that the timed gesture exercise works with writing, as well. If I'm at home, I select a photograph that is unknown to me and  I write what comes out in the time I select. The Internet is useful here or a magazine at the doctor's office while I'm waiting to be seen. I always carry a notebook and a pen with me, so it works for me. I might describe the vet tech, a photograph in a newspaper left behind, or the barrista who has just made my cafe latte with half and half and two Splenda. 

This gesture drawing exercise trained my eye and brain to look at a photograph, the whole if you will, and very quickly dissect the photograph. I look for interesting, subtle, the strange or the elusive bits that perhaps most people miss. I've trained myself, if you will or was I the only kid, teenager and adult who noticed(s) strange and interesting things others miss?!

When I'm writing a description of a person, place or thing I use a similar technique. I imagine and survey the scene in my mind's eye if it's not a familiar person, place or thing to me and I dissect it. I squeeze my mind's eyes into slits and I might write about the patina an object in the corner and how it got that way, the texture and color of a person's skin when they are very embarrassed or describe and wonder about the scratches on a door I'm about to push open.

I love reading books by authors who notice the small stuff, the minute, the mundane and make the uninteresting a fascinating experience. I love authors who open my eyes, teach me something new, make me smile and show me their wonderful world through their incredibly original and unique eyes.

I challenge myself not to describe the girl as pretty, the spoon handle as cold and the view of the mountains as majestic. I push myself to see beyond what's in front of me. I believe this learned behavior is what makes a writer an exceptional writer. A writer who can transport me to new places and encourage me see a known object in new ways fascinates me and encourages me to push my writing even more.

When I taught drawing for kids and adults, I'd say that it's not hard to draw - you just have to train your eyes to SEE and then, your mind and hand will follow.

Peace and love,
Ellie

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Pictures, Words and Stories

Happy first day of Spring!  I know friends have snow on the ground as I write this blog post and I'm hoping that it's at least sunny for them today. It's a beautiful morning here.

"A picture is worth a thousand words."

The adage refers to how ideas can be conveyed by a single photograph. In writing novels, however, we need the thousand words or more to convey the idea. My historical novel, A Decent Woman, clocks in at 85,950 words. That's a lot of words :)

I took this photograph last Spring and I could tell you so many stories about this photograph. You might think it's just a nice photograph taken of a cat lounging on an overcast day and of course, that's true. It's much more than that to me.

The wicker table sat in my maternal grandparent's white clapboard country house in Cacao, Puerto Rico, high up in the mountains where they grew coffee, banana and plantain trees, oranges and lemons on their large farm.The ceramic pot belonged to my girlfriend K's father who passed away a few years back in Winchester, Virginia.The black cat I've named Noir belonged to my next door neighbor, Mr. Don who passed away a year ago. My friend M and I found the unpainted wicker chair next to a dumpster in Northern Virginia.The mountain laurel in the pot on the small retaining wall came from a holler in Front Royal, Virginia. A man I was seeing brought me the plant on our first date.

The little wicker table belonged to my maternal great-aunt Paquita who gave it to my grandmother. I don't know who owned the table before that. My grandparents took it to their coffee farm where it sat for decades before the farm was sold. My cousins and I played on that table, used it to play school and had tea parties on it. My mother packed this little table in brown paper and tied it with rope like a present and checked it in as luggage on a TWA flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Alexandria, Virginia in the days when we could travel with two pieces of luggage.

In those days, my grandmother and mother traveled back and forth from Puerto Rico to the US with plants with clean roots, plant clippings, food, clothing and anything else that fit in two suitcases. My Polish grandmother used to visit us bearing huge kielbasa, Polish sausages, in her luggage! A suitcase to us kids always meant it was Christmas. We couldn't wait to see what our relatives had packed and whether or not the items for us was still exciting.

The well-traveled little table. It traveled by jeep from the mountains of Cacao to the city of Ponce where my grandparents lived and then, to Alexandria, Virginia where my parents lived. The little table traveled with me to California, Austria, back to Virginia and when my mother passed away, we headed to Belgium where the table lived for 13 years. I packed the little table and drove it to France where it continued to be an end table in my daughter's bedroom. When my kids and I left Europe, the table traveled to Maryland, Virginia and now, it sits on my patio in West Virginia. The little wicker table has traveled almost as much as I have!

I hope one day that the little white wicker table will sit in one of my children's nurseries, so I think it's time for it to come inside. I know Noir will miss it :)

Peace and love,
Ellie




Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Thoughts of Dogwoods and Life

The sidewalks and streets in my neighborhood are wet and my garden is green again. I looked out the window this morning and smiled. No snow and the sun is out. I instantly felt energetic and wonder if the lack of sun affects me or is it just that I love the sun and sunny days. I immediately feel more energetic even if I'm home and don't go out in the sun, just seeing the sun makes me feel better. My neighbors must feel the same way as I hear my neighbor's children playing in the yard and all this week, I've heard birdsong around dawn. Spring has arrived.

After breakfast, I walked through my garden in my white robe, sipping hot tea and checking on all my babies. I hope that the perennials I planted last summer bloom again. I spotted two robins along the back fence and noticed new growth on the hydrangea plants and the astilbe. The daffodils and lilies are six inches high now and the ivy in the pot is as strong as ever. I still have this month to prune my ancient grapevines and the little dogwood tree my friend D gave me last year has tiny buds on the branches. That made me happiest of all. 

Last year on Earth Day, my friend D was offered two 'twigs', dogwood trees with roots in a plastic bag of dirt. She surprised me with one 'twig' last year as a house warming gift and couldn't have known how happy that made me. D said she didn't know if the 'twig' would survive, but I was hopeful and so pleased.

You see, dogwoods were my mother's favorite tree. They will always remind me of my mother who passed away in 1992. She also loved lilac bushes. I love both. My parents had several flowering dogwood trees on their property in Northern Virginia. Beautiful dogwoods in creamy white and shades of light and darker pink. They're delicate-looking, compact trees that don't grow huge like an oak or a maple, perfect for a smaller yard like mine. Well, I was thrilled.

A Virginia dogwood had ended up in a West Virginian garden. Just like me, a Virginia transplant in a new home, I told D. I too, had been delicate, fragile, and had replanted myself many times after my divorce. My kids, family and many friends feared for me in a new town and state, worried that I'd hate West Virginia and that I'd made an awful mistake in moving. It didn't matter that it hadn't been my choice to leave Europe, end my marriage, and move across the Atlantic, but here I am.

I immediately planted the little dogwood in a large clay pot and decided that we would no longer call it 'twig'. It's a dogwood and I babied that tree all last spring. Midsummer D visited again and we planted the dogwood in my yard. I decided to plant it along the side fence away from the wind that always blows like crazy through the side yard. She reminded me that I would have to move it, but I was dead set in protecting it first. I staked the little dogwood and it has thrived there. The dogwood grew four inches last year and I'm praying that it survives the winter and continues to thrive. But, I might have made a small mistake with my precious little dogwood...

I planted it along the side fence, way too close to the fence, actually. In my attempt to protect and save the sapling, I'd forgotten about trust and allowing things to progress as they are meant to. I'll have to move it to a location where it is able grow as large as it wants. The spot is confining and not conducive to future growth...I forgot to trust.

as I write this blog post, it feels eerie. The comparisons between my new life in West Virginia and this little dogwood are amazing to me. I've always felt in tune with nature, so this shouldn't surprise me.

Two springs ago, I moved to West Virginia to start a new life. I bought and move to a house that I could well afford and to a location that would allow me to write full time. At the time, I saw no other option. Friends and my children encouraged me to look at other houses, but I was so afraid that I just made the decision and did it. West Virginia isn't forever, but it sure has been a soft place to land and I've been able to live my life as I envisioned it. I've felt safe and protected in this place. The experience of moving on my own has been difficult at times because I'm away from my two adult children, but I've healed here. I'd put down tender, shallow roots and they spread. I've grounded myself in this town and I feel I've thrived...

but, I now realize that I've planted myself real close to the fence in an attempt to regroup after divorce. I wonder what would have happened if I'd trusted and been a bit more patient? Well, I'm not one to dwell on the past nor agonize over decisions. I did what I thought was right for me. I finished my novel and have begun to write my second book. I've made friends and feel a part of my crazy and colorful neighborhood. I've also protected my heart in many ways...there it is.

Is it time for me to move away from the fence? What will moving away from the fence mean for me? What will it look like?

It looks like book #3, that's what it looks like :) The outline is already written because I've lived it. That book will be the sequel to the book I'm writing now or the ending...and I didn't realize it until just NOW. Just this second.

Trust.

Peace and love,
Ellie








Monday, March 18, 2013

Heaps and Loads of Patience...

I woke up to a couple of inches of snow this morning...no, no, no. That wasn't supposed to happen! The primroses and daffodils are blooming and I'm in the throes of a major Spring cleaning, enjoyed airing out the house on a few warmer days and now snow? Major disappointment! 

This disappointment feels like my disappointment in not hearing back from the agent with the exclusive read of my sample chapters. I want to hear yesterday...and like winter it's taking more patience than I think I'm capable of mustering. I'm hanging in there, but it's tough. God gave out heaps and loads of patience on the day I was absent.

I don't know where I'm going to find more patience to wait for Spring AND an agent. I know agents are busy, I really do, but it doesn't make it easier to wait. I know and understand the writing business, but that doesn't mean I have to like it :)

I'd dared to dream of wearing shorts and a T-shirt which led me to trudging upstairs with my bulky winter coats last week, only to throw down my puffy vest this morning. I'd lowered the temperature in my house and shut off the ceramic heater in my bedroom a few nights ago only to turn the heater on high last night! Argh!

I've dared to visualize my book cover, I dream of crazy book sales, and great reviews, only to have to keep waiting patiently for the first step - finding an agent. I've begun writing my second book and I'm loving the research and writing only to find a typo on page 257 in my first manuscript! Argh! The discovery gripped my throat and now, I'm worried that there are more typos. Thoughts of what else I've missed plague me. Time to enlist the help of the lovely ladies at my local library who've offered to read my novel and hell...I'm also thinking about Kindle Publishing. Hey, I have to have Plan B, don't I?

So, Plan B for my first book is in place. I'm going to investigate Kindle Publishing. An ebook might be interesting as that's exactly how I buy my books these days. My Plan B for waiting for Spring to arrive is a trip to Florida. In a couple of weeks, I'll be flying to FL with my sister and we'll be visiting our father and his wife who might be recovering from surgery this week. I canNOT wait to feel the sun on my face and dip my feet in the ocean.

I'm going to keep writing my second book which I'm loving already. I'm writing it in first person POV which I've wanted to do for a long time. It's liberating and my writing is flowing. I'm happiest when I'm writing and I have a strange peace, but I'm having to force a huge smile this morning :/

Fake it until you make it! That's my mantra this morning.

Peace and love,
Ellie




Friday, March 15, 2013

Sometimes There Are No Words

In A Decent Woman, my historical novel about Puerto Rico in the early 1900's, I deal with many issues of the day - racism, poverty, the forces of nature, birth and death. The situations my characters find themselves in are no different from issues we face today. My heroine is a midwife who encounters all those issues. I was familiar with many of the situations that my characters found themselves in, so many times it wasn't a huge stretch for me to write those chapters. When I wasn't familiar with a subject, I used my imagination and research to fill in the gaps.

I put myself in my character's head, body and soul when I write. When I can't come up with an appropriate or poetic word or when I need a more powerful word, I go to the thesaurus and dictionary that sit next to my laptop. I can usually find and select words that convey and enhance what I'm trying to say, but most times, I show and don't tell.  A character's actions and behaviors can very often give the reader a good sense of scene, mood and feeling, so I challenge myself to not use fancy words.

One of the most difficult scenes in my first novel to write was when a minor character's infant dies. I've never lost a child which I've always said would be the death of me. I'd surely lose my mind. How cliche those words and phrases sound. Working on the scene, I found words such as palpable, gut wrenching, anguish, sorrow and pain. None of the words seemed appropriate, so I wrote what the mother's face looked like, what she did with her hands, body and eyes. It was a tough scene to get through. There can be nothing more painful than losing a child. I did the best I could. I'm a mother of two adult children.

Yesterday, a good friend invited me to share a late breakfast with her. I was excited to see her as we'd both been so busy this winter. As we sat in the restaurant catching up with omelets and a side of pancakes, she took a phone call. I watched the blood drain from her face as her eyes filled with tears. "I have to go see my friend and you must come with me. I can't go alone." Her face told me that there was no backing out. We quickly paid our bill and left the restaurant. On the drive to her friend's house in another town, my friend told me that she'd found her adult son dead that morning. Her only child. A woman I've never met. My friend had lost her daughter years ago and although I felt like a major, major intruder, I would be there for my friend. No doubt, memories were flooding her mind, as well. I couldn't imagine. I said prayers for everyone.

I won't go into the scene that we walked into. I will tell you that at times of deep sorrow, anguish and pain, there are no words.

Rest in peace.

Ellie

Thursday, March 14, 2013

I Sure Can Pick 'Em



Do you remember the Disney film with Kurt Russell where a chimp watches television shows and picks the top show of the week? I don't remember the title, but I do remember watching the movie as a teenager.  I also remember reading the newly published children's book, Jumanji to my kids when they were toddlers, saying, "This would make a great movie!" Later, I read Jurassic Park to my kids who were nine and seven at the time, thinking that a movie had to be made of that amazing book. When my daughter went to college and I was on my way back to Belgium via Puerto Rico to visit my cousin, I was reading, The Da Vinci Code. I read it in two days, couldn't put it down and really hoped to see it on the screen. Voila. My picker was right.

Another book I've always thought would be AMAZING on the silver screen is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I would pay good money to see it. Maybe a movie studio has already bought the movie rights for the book and if not, why not? The book would make a fabulous movie in my humble. The other book is mine.

I smile now because as a new writer, the first draft of my historical novel, A Decent Woman was a screenplay of sorts. I was learning the ropes (still am) and very passionate about my book (still am). I just had to get the words down as quickly as I could and because I didn't know any better, I made lots of mistakes. I often said that the characters whispered in my ear as I wrote. I still have the first draft of my novel and I kind of cringe when I read the first chapter. The characters are interesting, but not fleshed out and the dialogue is a he said, she said type of ping pong match! There is more intrigue now with meatier chapters, fleshier characters, meaningful dialogue, flashbacks, and back story. As I've written draft after draft, I've learned a lot and I'm still learning. The more I read, the more I learn about the craft of writing.

When I wrote that first draft, I could see my characters as clearly as if they were standing in front of me. I saw the hurricane just off the coast, I smelled the salty ocean, heard babies cry, and felt the spray off the waves on my face as Ana stood thinking back to her childhood in Cuba. I cried with my heroines, prayed with them and laughed at what came out of their mouths. I heard them speak, whisper and I fell in love when they did. I rooted for my characters when they were in dire straits and although I dreamed of happy endings for them all, I complicated my character's lives and then tied up loose ends only to have another challenge present itself.

From the beginning draft of my novel to the draft I now hold in my hands, I've lived and breathed with my characters. As I patiently wait on the verdict of the exclusive read the agent asked me for - I am hopeful. I still see this book as a movie. I'd watch it :)

Patience, patience, and more patience on this blustery day in March.

Peace and love,
Ellie



Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Why I'm Wearing Tight Shorts Today

According to the Internet, the first day of Spring will be at exactly 7:02 a.m. on March 20, 2013. If you're like me and you live on the east coast, you'll be smiling and wearing shorts. It might not be warm enough for shorts that day, but I'll be wearing them because it's the principle of the thing!

I'm more than ready for Spring on the east coast. To say that I have cabin fever today would be putting it mildly. I'm tired of sitting at home and I need some fresh air, but that means I have to bundle up and I'm sick of that! I'm wearing tight cotton shorts on this sunny, blustery, cold morning for these reasons:

1. Today is laundry day. My jeans and sweatpants are in the washing machine and I canNOT find my loose shorts with the elastic waistband.

2. I'm pretending it's warmer. I'm trying to forget that I had to put the heat on last night. How disappointing was that! I might even have to raise the temperature today; it's way cold and windy out there.

3.  I've gained weight and need to lose weight. Since I decided to write full time, I've clocked in a zillion hours sitting on my arse. Wearing tight shorts creates a really nice muffin top, reminding me of why I'm eating right these days and why I have to delete the pizza parlor's phone number from my cell phone. Yes, I'm weak.

4. Spring break. I'll be flying to Florida with my sister to visit our father this spring which means we'll probably be on the beach which requires a bathing suit which is a horrible thought right about now. Time to exercise and delete the pizza parlor's phone number on my cell phone once and for all.

Right. It really is time to lose the weight I've gained by writing and editing my first novel. I won't even talk about how white my legs are. There are spray tanners for that, but no sprays for weight reduction. Yet.

No one told me that I'd gain weight writing my first novel, but it's true. I've loved the writing, the research, and the process. I love my novel and how it's turned out, but I'm not loving that I can hardly breathe in these damn shorts! No one told me that I'd gain weight by writing my first novel. I truly must be nuts because I've already begun writing my second novel.  Oy vey...I see a muu muu in my future.

Happy Wednesday to you :)

Peace and love,
Ellie



Monday, March 11, 2013

Synopsis and Future Book Cover?

Last week, I was thrilled to be the first guest blogger of The Latina Book Club blog for their Writers Wednesdays - www.latinabookclub.com and as I reread the blog this morning, I realized I forgot to add something very important to my guest blog - the synopsis of my novel, A Decent Woman. Unreal.

I wrote about how I came up with my characters, Ana and Serafina, and although I added a bit at the end about what the novel is loosely about, it doesn't give a reader a sense of the book. I learned the hard way here, folks!

This morning, I offer you the synopsis of my novel as it appears in my query letter to potential agents:

In the male-driven society of 1900 Puerto Rico, women compete against each other for protection, respectability and economic support for themselves and their children. Ana, an Afro-Cuban midwife navigates poverty, racism, machismo and male doctors in a changing medical world. She is known as a “formidable and decent woman”, a caring and experienced midwife, but getting emotionally close to people is both Ana’s strength and vulnerability because of a secret that followed her from Cuba.

My 85,950-word historical novel, A Decent Woman, is the story of the friendship between the midwife Ana and Serafina, a high-spirited young woman who marries into Ponce high society. Despite differences in race and their places in society, the women forge a life-long friendship that will take them to the brink of insanity and the edge of death. Betrayal and resilience are common themes in my protagonist's lives and conflicts arise as the women are forced to look at the idea and definitions of decency that will threaten Ana's old secret as a new secret is born.



Creole in a Red Turban, was painted by Jacques Guillaume Lucien Aman, 1801-1888.  The interesting part to me is that when I began writing my novel in 2006, I described my heroine Ana as wearing a white turban and an off-the-shoulder white blouse. I found the painting on a Google Image search just last week. It's as if the lovely woman was waiting for me to find her and because of her, I'm inspired to paint a portrait of my heroine Ana for my book cover when I'm picked up by an agent and the book is published :) Yes, I can dream!

Ellie

Feeling Stuck?

Are you feeling stuck?  Do you need a shove out of your comfort zone? Are you impatiently waiting for an agent to email or call you about representation after asking for an exclusive and it's been long enough that you're considering self-publishing because you don't think you'll ever land an agent? Do you secretly fear that your book won't ever be in print? Oh, wait. That's about me. I'm waiting impatiently for a specific agent to get back to me and fear that my book won't ever be published. Back to you!

If you're stuck in a place where you don't know what the next thing to do is and you're afraid of doing something out of your comfort zone, may I suggest singing karaoke at a country bar? Piece of cake you say? Okay, let's up the ante. Let's have you sing a country song in a packed country bar after a country gentleman sang, "On The Pontoon" which is a real sing-along and favorite in my neck of the woods that nearly brought down the house. What do you say? Would you go on next if you'd only sung in public once in your entire life?  Deal?

Well, that's exactly what happened to me on Saturday night. And, no...I didn't sign up and had no idea my friend had secretly signed me up to sing, "Crazy" by Patsy Cline. She knew I'd only every done karaoke once and I'd just finished saying that I had a fear of singing in public, no matter how friendly the crowd was. She asked me what song I would sing IF I had the chance and I answered Cline's song because I have a low voice.

The one time was when I sang backup or more to the point, I was comic relief for a girlfriend whose birthday we were celebrating at the river and only because we'd done a few tequila shots beforehand. It was one of those moments where you are feeling the effects of liquid courage, believe me. I have a fear of singing in public, but I'd done it and although I didn't bring the house down, it was not nearly as terrifying as I'd thought it would be.

So, when I heard my name called out, I froze. What?! There had to be a mistake! "Come on, little lady! It's your turn to wow us!" My jaw dropped, eyebrows raised and I looked at my friends with a look that said, Are you friggin' kidding me?!" There was no backing out, people were clapping and I walked up to the stage, knees knockin'. The karaoke guy was ready with "Crazy", holy shnikies. No backing out now. The guy asked for a warm country welcome and the music started. He pointed at the reader and winked at me.

Good God. Well, I love that song and knew the words, but at that moment, if the screen hadn't been in front of me with lyrics and a bouncing ball on the words to be sung in what order, I'd have bombed.

I sang sort of on key and lo and behold, as I sang people went up to the dance floor to slow dance to me singing!  CRAZY~! I enjoyed it and enjoyed the applause when I finished. What a hoot! As I walked back to my seat, I heard the karaoke guy say, "It's always the shy ones who surprise us." Well, waddya know :)

No, I'm not giving up my day job of writing and I'll continue to wait for said agent to respond. I have no illusions of landing on "American Idol", but I did conquer my fear of singing in public...and, as the night wore on and more people got up to sing, I realized I wasn't the worst singer of the night :)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Nest


I don't know when the first day of spring is this year, so I'm pretending it's today. The skies are blue, the sun is shining and it's a beautiful, albeit chilly day. 

On our walk this morning, Ozzy and I came across a bird's nest in a tree that we've probably passed every day. Either I never noticed the nest or it's being prepared. I raised up on my tip toes to peek inside and it was empty. The nest sits on a branch of a young tree in our common area where people walk their dogs and of course, there are those who don't pick up after their dogs. It's annoying because I have to walk gingerly, looking down or I'm liable to step in a hot mess that usually isn't easy to remove from my shoes or boots which has, of course, happened.

I'm surprised the birds have built a nest in this spot because it's heavily traveled and the little tree is barely seven feet high. Last summer, I heard chirping and found a baby bird lying on the ground, its eyes barely open. I always walk with my eyes to the ground for poop purposes which is a good thing because I might have stepped on the baby. The birdling was weak, wet and not happy about his situation. He kept opening his mouth for food and my immediate impulse was to pick up the birdling and place it in the nest I'd discovered on a low branch of the tree closest to the baby. But I didn't touch the baby for fear that I'd do something wrong. I remembered someone telling me that if a human touches a baby bird, its mother might reject it and I didn't know if that was an old myth, so I went home to search the Internet to see what I should do. As I walked home, I had a real fear that the many feral cats in my neighborhood would snatch the baby before I got back. I was a nervous wreck!

What I learned was that I had to fill a clean, plastic container with shredded paper and nail it to the tree, as close to the nest as I could and using gloves, pick up the baby and place it in the makeshift nest. I left Ozzy in the house and ran back to the common area with the materials to save this baby -- I was on a mission! Thank goodness the baby was still there. I looked around for the mother, but I didn't see any birds. I could hear one though, off in the distance as I nailed the container to the tree.

The instant I picked up the baby, a bird came out of nowhere and swooped down, aiming for my head! I ducked and honest to God, that bird continued her 'attack' until I moved away from the tree and crossed the street. Then, the bird sat on a power line and we watched each other. How stupid of me to think that the bird would be thankful that I'd rescued the baby! I laughed at my naivete and told the bird that I would have done the same thing if anyone had touched my babies.

The next day, Ozzy and I went out for our walk and the nest was empty. I listened and checked the surrounding area and nothing. I hoped the bird had taken the baby to a safer location, but I also wondered if a cat had indeed killed the birdling. I'd never know. I'd done my part and realized that nature would do as nature does. I also laughed because if it weren't for the poop left behind by irresponsible dog owners , I might not have been looking down that day :) C'est la vie.

Happy weekend to you!

Peace and love,
Ellie



Friday, March 8, 2013

The Perfect Fit

This winter, when I've dealt with rewriting and fleshing out chapters in my novel or when a rejection letter from an agent I've queried has arrived, I usually redecorate my house. It's as if I must get a hold of myself and make myself happy in some way and I've always loved redecorating, painting and moving furniture around in my house. I view it as a mental health must. I take control back and make sense of my world.

In spring and summer, I usually go into the garden and dig in the dirt when I need a mental break. I find working on my old house and gardening very meditative. The activities reground me after losing balance and my footing which is what it feels like to be rejected by an agent you've queried. Not a great feeling. I simply tuck the letters and emails away and forget about them. I've never received a rejection with any advice as to what to change in my novel, so I shrug my shoulders and improve my chapters.

Last week I visited a used furniture shop in town and found an old wood fireplace mantle painted black. I've been searching for one for quite some time and there is was, propped up against the wall. I instantly fell in love with it and was excited that it was in my price range -- cheap! I couldn't write my check out quick enough. The shop owner said he recognized me. He'd fixed the fence next door to me that runs alongside my garden and he complimented my garden. How nice! He then kindly offered to walk the fireplace mantle around the corner. I was thrilled to finally place the mantle in the place I'd chosen and stood back to admire it as I removed decades of dirt. It's a perfect fit.

I didn't receive any rejection letters from agents last week, but I was at a tough place in my novel that might require rewriting. I instinctively knew I'd need a break before tackling the chapter and felt it was time to paint something. I decided to paint the interior of my front door black. Of course, that led to moving furniture around! Redecorating is like standing dominoes in a pattern and then, pushing the first tile forward and watching them all fall. Removing the Art Deco coat rack by the front door and replacing it with my oak secretary meant that other things had to be moved.

Moving the coat rack out of the way led to assembling my pine armoire in the kitchen and moving the pine hutch to the little nook in the hall way that leads out of the kitchen. The perfect fit. Of course, paintings had to be moved and I am so pleased with the results. My 106-year old, quirky house is taking shape, moving to a place where I'm happy.

Once that was all done, I looked at the before and after photographs I shot and was pleased. I am satisfied. I love my house again.  Now that the redecorating is done, I can sit down in my beautiful living room and rework that chapter.  I just needed some grounding, self-confidence and motivation.

One agent has the first 50 first pages of my manuscript as we speak. He asked for an exclusive, so there's not much I can do but work on that chapter and pray that he wants to see the entire manuscript.  All I need is the perfect fit. Much like my house, I've tried this agent and that agent and won't be dissuaded because I know the end result will be beautiful. 

I can visualize that perfect fit.

Happy Friday to you!

Peace and love,
Ellie


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Moments of Pure Magic

Three inches does not a blizzard make. The weather experts on the local and national news stations looked a bit sheepish last night when they announced that the DC area had barely reached two inches of snow. I couldn't help but feel bad for them and was happy for all the kids who were off from school yesterday. I'm sure kids all over the area were hooting and hollering on their way out the door with sleds and dreams of epic snowball fights. Ya gotta love kids.

On the news last night, a mother told a reporter how she'd searched online for the location with the most snow in the area and she'd driven her kids to Manassas, Virginia so that they could play in the snow. Beautiful! Good for her and her kids, I thought.

I love a good snowfall, but I didn't enjoy trudging through the slushy snow to the post office yesterday. The sidewalks were impassable which meant that the only recourse I had was to walk the one block to the post office in the cleared street. Almost immediately, I felt cold wetness in my sock. Nice. The winter boots I purchased two winters ago were no longer water-proof. Fun!

I remember as a kid when NOTHING kept me inside and nothing prevented me from playing outside other than restriction, no matter what the weather was. My mother bundled my sister and I up until we looked like mini-blimps and once she opened that front door, we were gone until nighttime. How did we do it? How did we stay out that long? I suppose those were more innocent times when parents could let their kids out to play and not worry so much. We had no cell phones to keep us connected with our parents and were never where we told our mother we'd be. Never!

I remember one snowy afternoon when my sister, some friends and I decided that we would make an igloo. I'm laughing as I type this. Not should we or could we, we would. I love kids and their incredible imagination. They have no fear and no censor in their heads telling them that it's impossible. Of course we made that igloo! It was a fine igloo-like structure and it took us all afternoon. I still remember peeking out of our makeshift doorway in wonder as the sun went down and the snow glistened under the back porch light like millions of diamonds. A moment of pure magic! We heard my mother yelling for us shortly after that and I remember worrying that the boys would destroy our igloo in the morning. I hardly slept.

When we got inside, my sister and I stripped off our wet clothing onto the bathroom floor. The hems of my pants were frozen and I probably could have balanced my stiff pants to stand upright. I remember looking at my red, chapped legs as I entered the hot bath, wondering if I'd lose my legs to frost-bite. The steam rose off the hot water and soon, I felt tingling sensations as my skin warmed up. I never did lose a limb to snow, but in later years, my sister and I would laugh that a hot bath is probably the worst thing you can do for near-frostbite! We didn't know and we didn't have a Merck manual at home. We simply played outside until we could no longer feel our fingers and toes and then, we went home with runny noses and huge smiles.

My mother was a relaxed mother or maybe she just needed time to herself. I, on the other hand, was not so relaxed with my young kids. I owned a Merck manual that listed every disease known to man and I used it! "Let me see that spot on your leg again," I'd tell the kids. "What were your symptoms again?" It got to the point where I was so frightened that something would happen to my kids that I couldn't relax. I threw out that Merck manual and my kids taught me to play again. It was either keep my kids inside or go outside with them because the world in the late '80's was much different from the world of the 60's. So, I joined in.

Last night, I took a slushy walk with my Pug, Ozzy. Again, I marveled at how the snow glistened and sparkled under the streetlight as we walked home. Pure magic. Today, my inner child is alive and well. Take your inner child out and get your play on.

Peace and love,
Ellie






Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Writers Wednesday at The Latina Book Club!

I took this photograph of my back patio early this morning and I was right - if you don't prepare for a snow storm, it snows! I'd prepared for several winter storm warnings many times this winter and nada. I decided to see if it would happen if I did nothing and it snows. We now have about four inches of snow and it's snowing hard!

I'm so pleased to be the first guest blogger/writer on The Latina Book Club, thank you for your kind invitation, Maria! It's an honor and privilege to write the first blog for Writers Wednesday!  My blog is up this morning, so please go take a look.

http://www.latinabookclub.com

The Latina Book Club's mission is to promote Latina/Latino authors, which we do through book reviews, author interviews, publicity announcements, book of the month selection, etc. A new feature we are adding is 'Writers Wednesdays.' The first Wednesday of each month we will feature a Latina/Latino writer talking about...writing. We welcome published and prepublished writers.

I decided to write about how I came up with the characters of Ana and Serafina in my historical novel, A Decent Woman. My story begins in 1901 in Ponce, Puerto Rico and chronicles the lives of Afro-Cuban midwife Ana Belen and the young socialite Serafina Martinez. The two women who despite the social and racial differences, forge a life-long friendship that will take them to the brink of insanity, the edge of death as Ana wrestles emotionally with her secret.

My link doesn't seem to be working, so please check it out! Could be that the power or my cable is about to go out, so I'd better be brief!

I enjoy keeping up with The Latina Book Club and love that Maria is inviting writers, published and unpublished to write blog posts about the writing life. The writer's life can be quiet and yes, sometimes lonely, so it's wonderful when we can 'meet' new writers and published writers through their blogs.

Stay warm and safe out there! Remember to share body heat when you can :)

Peace and love,
Ellie


Monday, March 4, 2013

Movie Lines, Sayings and the Weather

"We're getting a blizzard this week!" Yeah?

"Better get under cover, Sylvester! There's a storm blowing, a whopper!" Well, I've heard the first line a couple of times this winter and the second line is from The Wizard of Oz. My West Virginia town has yet to see more than two inches of snow this year."Bah, humbug," I say.

I lived to tell the tale of surviving two back to back blizzards three years ago when I lived in the DC area. I lived in Dale City when the monster blizzard of 1978 or '79 (can't remember which) hit. I took this photo from my kitchen window right after the snow plow went through my townhouse development in Falls Church, Virginia. It was freaking awesome that we didn't lose power once and that I lost a dress size from shoveling. I should have gotten brownie points or at least a T-shirt for those two. I lived alone at the time and there were no chivalrous men in my neighborhood, let me tell you.

I've run out to Walmart several times this winter to buy water, wine (hello??), food and candles when the national and local weather people were SURE as shinola that we were going to get pounded with over a foot of snow only to wake up to a measly flurry. The boy aka the weather people, have cried wolf too many times before for my region of West Virginia and I'm not budging this time. "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not taking this anymore!" Ha! 

Maybe we'll get a foot of snow on Wednesday now that I'm doing nothing to prepare and that would be okay with me - I love snow. But, then I want it to melt and not reappear until next winter. "Go big or go home!"

Even the poor daffodils and robins are confused! On Saturday, I walked home from the library and saw several groupings of daffodils with five inches of growth. On Sunday, I would swear on a stack of Bibles that I saw a robin in the tree in my yard!

**This blog post was inspired by my search for cliches, adverbs and all-around dumb dialogue that I've written for my characters Ana and Serafina from my novel, A Decent Woman. The adverbs were easy to find and delete and honestly, some just fit, so I left them in.**

The false starts and surprises of winter in Berkeley County, West Virginia. You just can't predict diddly squat in my area these days. My neighbors, born and raised in this town, tell me that we're due a storm of epic proportions, historic even. "We're gonna get hammered, just you wait and see!" This happens every year and they tell me that March is that cooky month to watch. "Show me the money!" Wild and Wonderful West Virginia, eh? Okay, show me some extreme weather because in the two winters I've spent here, I haven't seen a thing. Nada. Puny snowfalls and a whole of ice last year.

My daughter texted me this morning to tell me that Northern Virginia is expecting 5-8" of snow and the weather pundits are predicting 8-12" for me. I honestly hadn't known and haven't turned on the weather channel this morning. I thanked my daughter and then, texted both my kids to tell them to be safe! Is this true? "Please, sir. I want some more." Well, we sure can count on global warning...this I believe to be true. Global warning isn't a myth, but that's for another blog post.

The weather isn't as predictable as it once was. Or was it predictable, at all?  Maybe I've gone all batty, but I want things to happen when they're supposed to. It snows in winter, the daffodils come up in March and I can safely wear white on Easter Sunday with bare legs. Not so, brothers and sisters. The only things I can count on never to be late are the bills and taxes; they're never late. Okay, and death. But, I'm living until I'm way past 100. The psychic told me so, but I may delete this line because I'm very superstitious...

I find it interesting that although I want certain things to be predictable and on-time, I'm also a person who doesn't enjoy routine and predictability. I never have. I don't make appointments to get my hair done, I prefer walk-in salons. I'm forever running after the trash truck and I'm not great about paying my bills on time. I detest making appointments and have been known to cancel at the last minute because I'm experiencing a fabulous writing streak.

I want things my way or the highway, thank you very much. Is that too much to ask?

Peace and love,
Ellie




Sunday, March 3, 2013

Turner Classic Movies, Here I Come!

As I walked the perimeter of the viewing deck of the Empire State building, taking dozens of photographs of the sunset and praying I wouldn't lose my kids in the pressing crowd, I thought of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan's first meeting in the movie Sleepless in Seattle. I love the classic romanctic films and Sleepless in Seattle is on my list of top 25 favorite films.

I also wondered why a woman who loves romance and love as much as I do, doesn't enjoy reading romance novels? Strange, I know.

Personally, I hope I have a happy ending because I'm a very romantic woman! My novel, A Decent Woman, could have two endings - a happy ending and a not so happy ending, depending on how you look at it and how you view life. I leave that up to my reader. We all come away with what we come away with by the lenses with which we view life. Like art, literature is subjective.

I find it interesting that I adore great romance novels and classic films like When Harry Met Sally, Anna Karenina, An Affair to Remember, Amelie, Like Water for Chocolate, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Under The Tuscan Sun, Gone with the Wind, You've Got Mail, Casablanca, The African Queen, The Philadelphia Story, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Tess, A Room with a View, Shirley Valentine, Eat, Pray, Love, and Mansfield Park, to name a few, but I don't enjoy reading romance novels. Strange. I don't know why that is. I enjoy reading chick lit, however, if it's witty, real-life and well-written. I suppose I want love, angst, longing and drama along with a believable, realistic ending. The Holiday, Chocolat, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Love, Actually, Something's Gotta Give, Tristan & Isolde and Bridgit Jones's Diary are other films I love and can watch over and over.

Maybe I shy away from reading romance novels because I'm too much of a realist. A happy ending every single time? That would get old, wouldn't it? If you already know the ending, why bother and I have very little time to read while I'm writing my novels. I want to read a taut, witty and intelligent story set in an exotic country or a city and time period I know nothing about. Let's face it, not everyone has the happy ending all nicely tied up like a box of chocolates and a spray of Chanel perfume. But then again, in this economy where people are suffering financially, losing jobs, their homes and livelihoods, maybe a little romance is a good thing.

Any suggestions on a great romance film or romance novel? I just realized that my list included 27 titles and I wasn't even finished :)

Peace and love,
Ellie


Friday, March 1, 2013

Thoughts on Divas and Egos

There's nothing like a good ol' winter cold to zap your energy and turn you into a whiny, nostalgic hermit. Actually, I don't need a winter cold for the hermit in winter part, it's too cold to venture out for too long this week. I'm talking frigid, kill everything in its path cold. I have three layers on, the heat is on and I'm still cold.

I get nostalgic when I'm sick which is probably why I wrote yesterday's blog post. I always miss my mom and grandmother and much more when I'm sick. I remember their arsenal of home remedies that worked along with many warm hugs and kisses. There's nothing like Mommy Love and Vicks Vapo Rub - my mother's cure all!

I believe nostalgia found its way into my heart yesterday because I'd also been working on a chapter in my novel, A Decent Woman, where my protagonist, Ana cares for her best friend Isabel who is dying from tuberculosis. Women taking care of other women and in the process, healing themselves. When women help other women, they are never more beautiful in my eyes.

Before I entered the writing life and world, I was (and still am) a working artist. I'm a multi-media artist/photographer who has painted and exhibited for over 25 years in the US and in Europe. I wasn't a newbie to interacting with creative people when I wrote my first novel, A Decent Woman. At the time, most of my close friends were artists, poets, photographers and dancers, and one self-published author who was very kind and generous with me as I wrote my novel.

The art world, much like the publishing world, is a tough, unforgiving and complicated business.  Art societies, guilds and groups can be rife with big egos, petty arguments and jealousy. I've seen it first-hand - artists and divas who complained when they weren't given the best wall for an exhibition, the best lighting was on another artist's pieces, artists who made catty comments about whose name was ahead of whose in the programs, and snide comparisons about their fellow artists. I helped organized several exhibits and I think my gray hairs came in right about that time. Any time you have big Egos involved, there are bound to be issues and conflict. A little Ego is healthy, but there's a delicate balance. Too much Ego can go toxic.

For years, I was on the board of our local art group and I was able to escape scrutiny (I think!) and didn't participate in the pettiness, there was enough around me. Consequently, the diva's pieces were highlighted because they made the loudest noise. The divas, male and female, were tough to work with at times and I eventually left the board position to give painting classes and facilitate creativity workshops to help others find their passions in life. Yes, it took me away from painting and photography, I'd say. What's two days a month in the scheme of life? Being a mentor and helping others helped me.

I hate to admit it, but it's true - when I entered the writing world, I had the preconceived notion that writers would be as closed, jealous and petty as some of the artists I'd encountered in my past. I was the little girl looking through the fence into the playground where the bigger kids played and ran around. I remained a writer/observer for a long time.

I observed for five years by blogging semi-anonymously (that's another story!) on another site before I began this blog about the writing life, my life and my novel. I read other authors, read their blogs and studied their websites, Facebook and Twitter pages. As with art, I found self-promotion off-putting and uncomfortable, but it had to be done. I wondered if I would have to scream the loudest to be published? I joined groups, writing critique groups, subscribed to author's blogs, joined a foundling group of writers who write women's fiction and joined Goodreads. I love reading reviews by women authors about other women author's books and enjoy catching up with blog tours when I see them advertised.

In the process of watching from the sidelines as a newbie, I discovered a beautiful thing -

Women WERE helping other women. Women ARE helping other women in the writing world.

I've made friends with debut and established women writers, marketers, editors and have had the occasional agent take the time to write me a personal note. That speaks volumes to me, we're all busy. But, the main 'thing' is to write, right? Again, it's a delicate balance and I believe I've found a nice balance. I blog first thing in the morning, followed by reading and making comments on other writer's blog posts. I check my emails and two Facebook pages, write a few lines for Twitter and then, it's full on writing for the rest of the day. It works for me.

It warmed my heart to learn I was mistaken about writers and I'm happy to be a part of the writing world. As for my painting, two years ago I joined an artist's cooperative group in West Virginia and so far, the Egos are in check...so far :)

Peace and love,
Ellie