A Dose of Reality

I blame it on author Frances Mayes. Her dreamy, flowery, prosaic descriptions of Tuscany won me over from the first time I saw the movie (based on her book) Under the Tuscan Sun. Once I’d made the decision to vacation in Italy, her books on life in Tuscany were all I could think about, so I grabbed copies from our local library and voraciously devoured her version of a Tuscan life (she lives there with her husband eight months of the year), including her mouth-watering cookbook (Recipes From Our Italian Kitchen: The Tuscan Sun Cookbook) based on the local cuisine of Cortona and the surrounding region of Arezzo. My idea of Italy was more of an ideal, it turns out. Then again, I didn’t get to visit Cortona or the Arezzo region (inclement weather kept me in Siena) so it’s hard to compare. Life in the Tuscan countryside, I’m sure, is a step up from life in the city – any city.

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Since I was flying into Rome, I decided to stay a few days and check it out. Yes, it has an ancient history famous around the globe and it smacks you in the face wherever you go. In other words, Rome is still ancient in many ways: stone buildings, stone streets, stone sidewalks (need seriously good shoes for walking them). Nothing but stone. But plenty of places to eat: on every block, there are ristorantes, osterias, trattorias, and gelaterias. You can’t go three feet without coming up on another place to eat. Lots of goodies to choose from but after a while I noticed the menus were awfully similar. Not a lot of variety in Roman cuisine. I did manage to score some good meals at small, local restaurants and their house wines were some of the best I’ve had (and the cheapest). Even the coffee was smoother and tastier and there isn’t a Starbucks anywhere (I doubt it would be welcome anyway since Italians are as fanatic about their coffee as they are about fresh cheese/meat).

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I did the touristy tours of the Colosseum, the Vatican, and the famous Borghese Gallery museum (think Bernini’s statues). They were gorgeous sites (the Colosseum was my personal favorite in spite of the freezing weather and pouring rain) but what struck me about Rome is how dirty it is. Trash lines the streets (loose and bagged); cigarette butts pepper every block, every inch of curb, and the stench of cigarette smoke is everywhere – Italians, it turns out, are big smokers. Nausea was my constant companion and a real appetite-buster.

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Most folks were friendly and had at least a basic grasp of English; I have a basic grasp of Italian, so I found my way around just fine. The food was fresh; cheeses and meats weren’t salty and had a flavor I’ve not tasted before and would like to again. None of the food was salty; they tend not to use it in their cooking, so at first food tasted a bit bland until you get used to all the fresh flavors in the dish.

At this point, the only sunny day I’d had was my last day in Rome so I took advantage and climbed to the observation deck of Castel Santangelo (the same deck Julia Roberts climbed in Eat Pray Love) for a full circular view of Rome and beyond. A most delightful experience, to see the Seven Hills of Rome, the Appenines (mountain range), and much more.

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Next stop was Siena, about ninety minutes west of Cortona and south of the Chianti region. It’s a small hilltop village, also lined with stone streets and sidewalks. The tall buildings and narrow streets, while charming, made it difficult to see any sun unless you walked to Il Campo, located at the north end of the city, where a wide piazza invites visitors and residents to open air and multiple eateries. It continued to rain and the temperature dropped so I decided to go shopping. With some Black Week sales (they stretch out Black Friday to increase sales during a slower tourist season), I scored a nice pair of leather boots and cashmere-lined leather gloves, both at 50% off. Who can say no to Italian leather?

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I topped off the trip in Florence, where I stayed the longest. Once again, rain and cold weather followed me. Once in Florence, I settled into my new room (they were all A+ in service and style) and planned my adventures. Florence is home to Michelangelo’s David, of course, so that was the main event, the main reason for a visit to Florence. I’m not much of a church person; one gothic church looks like another to me so I skipped the Duomo and other famous churches. I perused my travel guide and chose other sites to visit. Luckily, all were within walking distance of my centrally-located hotel.

In a previous blog, I wrote about needing to marvel at something…and David is certainly something to marvel at, a colossus. I spent an hour with him, among other marvelers, unable to leave the room. He is a sight to behold. Nothing else I saw in Florence matched up, not even close.

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Exploring Florence was an adventure; since I didn’t have an international package for my phone, I had to rely on my map reading skills to find my way around. It took a bit of adjusting; it was a strange feeling to rely on my gray cells instead of Google Maps but old habits settled back in and I wandered without getting lost. I loved the food here more than Rome or Siena. My favorite item, one that Frances Mayes got me excited about in her books, was cinghiale, or wild boar. It’s hunting season so restaurants get fresh meat from locals who hunt the boar. It’s basically wild pork, but with a much better texture and flavor. One of the ways it’s served in Florence is with roasted potatoes in a robust tomato (pomodoro) sauce. Scrumptious. It was one of the best meals I had on my whole trip.

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Then I discovered a little local place, La Capennina, up the block from the famous Mercato Centrale – a food market to end all other food markets – and ate there more than once. I stayed away from tourist traps because the prices were too high for lower quality food and service. Once again, the house wines were beyond compare; if we order the cheapest wine on the menu here in the states, we get something we need to spit out.

I ventured into wine country on a day trip/excursion with a group; we headed to the northern part of the Chianti region. Vineyards and olive farms dotted the lush fall landscape and we sampled (wine, oil) our way through the day, ending with a most delicious three-course meal at a vineyard/B&B that also included drinking some very fine Chianti wines. We learned about stone-pressed olive oil versus the more modern style that uses a centrifuge. I bought some of both for myself and for gifts, eager to crack open a bottle once I arrived home (I wasn’t disappointed).

lunch at Relais Villa Olma_Tuscany2

All in all, I enjoyed the trip. Honestly, one of my favorite and  most surprising aspects was how quiet it was at night; sleep came easily. No booming car stereos, no loud residents drunkenly cavorting by my window late at night, no sounds of street traffic. A very different way of life there, for sure. Will I go again? If I do, it will be to the countryside, to the place where Frances Mayes has made a home (or something like it). Cities are a nice place to visit but the countryside is where I’ll find more to marvel at: the friendships, the food, the community of residents, the landscape; this is what draws one in and makes one stay.

That’s marvelous.

Post Script: I mustn’t forget to mention Da Vinci, my personal favorite. Plenty of his work in Florence as well. He inspires me to be more: curious, thinker, creator, writer, etc.

DaVinci exhibit Uffizi_Florence

 

Tinker, Tailor, Oyster Pirate, Writer

JackLondonCredo500_theartofmanliness

In a recent blog I wrote about my visit to author Jack London’s Napa, CA home, now a state park. I’ve been a JL fan since I was a kid, when I read White Fang in grade school as required reading. He quickly became one of my favorite storytellers with that book. I think it’s because he lived what he wrote, which made his stories all that much richer.

Sci-fi novels are experiencing a resurgence, along with romance novels. I can’t help but wonder: how much of these stories were lived by the authors? My guess? Few to none. We live in a world where fantasy is favored over real life, where digital relationships (texting, sexting, selfies, vlogging, etc.) and its inevitable voyeurism have replaced the human experience. The richness, depth, and complexity of our existence are slowly disappearing as machines distract us from our lives and connections.

Jack had been a sailor, a fish and game warden, an oyster pirate, a gold prospector, a war correspondent, a rancher, and a farmer (the first in America to utilize terraced farming that he learned of in Asia), just to name a few. He was a busy man, experiencing life in the deepest possible way – by living it, then writing about it. How many writers can claim that today? And does writing solely from imagination make one a good writer? Is it possible to become a superior storyteller without living any part of the story? I’ve blogged about how bad decisions make good stories (sometimes the best ones) so I guess I’m old school in the idea that at least some part of the story should come from personal experience.

Maybe that’s what happens as we shape the characters in our stories; we pepper in a bit of ourselves, friends, family members, coworkers. The unusual color of the protagonist’s eyes, the wry smile of your antagonist belonged to a previous lover, the righteous anger of a scorned relative showing up in a minor character. Your pool of character quirks and physical/mental traits can be endless. Dig from your life to build your stories; no one has experienced your life but you, so no one else enrich your readers the way you can.

Here’s a short list of some of the jobs/experiences I’ve had that flavor my writing:

  • Waitress/bartender (upscale restaurants, nightclubs, etc.) – met many interesting characters 
  • Private investigator – some good cases where I found antagonists 
  • Tennis player/state champion
  • Lecturer/public speaker
  • Behavioral/psychiatric technician
  • Doctor/clinician (including time on a cruise ship in the Caribbean)
  • Drug/alcohol counselor
  • Criminal justice system – lots of characters here!
  • Homelessness (personal experience that I did write about)
  • 4 cross country trips –  where I met some great & some odd personalities, and experienced multiple landscapes

Wanna write? Get your ass off the couch. Seek out adventures. Make some bad decisions. Then make a similar list. They’ll make your stories feel more real, even if they aren’t.

Scribbling

Clothesline Notes in Jack London's Country Cottage

Courtesy Jack London State Park, Google Images

Here in Northern California, we’ve been experiencing a spate of wildfires (15 statewide total) that have all but drained our firefighting resources. A local news station did a Special Report on the damage inflicted by these wildfires, including land, homes and lives lost. Terrible. As they looked back over the past seven years to show how fires have increased in frequency and size, they focused on the 2017 Tubbs fire, the most disastrous fire in California history. They talked about how it nearly decimated the Jack London State Park in Napa County. For those of you who grew up reading great classic authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, etc., Jack London was a prolific writer and adventurer who settled here in the Napa/Sonoma region in the early 1900s. In fact, it was much of his worldwide adventuring that lead to the writing of some of the best works of the 20th century, including my personal favorites, White Fang and The Call of the Wild. 

The newscasters shared details on how State rangers packed up his personal belongings in order to save them in case the fire reached his home and property (it came close, but thankfully missed), storing them all the way out here in Sacramento for safekeeping. Now returned to its former glory, his writing room still contains all of his writing instruments and materials, his desk, and other accouterments: the twine strung across a closed-in porch, with a multitude of little notes clothes-pinned to the line. Jack scribbled these notes on small square pieces of white paper whenever something came to him (which was daily, evidently). He pinned them to the line for later use in his books. And did you know that Jack London wrote ONE THOUSAND words EVERY DAY, BY LUNCHTIME

The closest I come is a notebook marked “Write What You Know” on the front and it’s where I scribble when I need to unload. It’s not a journal; it’s simply a place to jot down whatever is rumbling around in my mind at a certain moment in time instead of pinning them around my house and looking like a crazy person. It’s where I scribbled the first chapter of my novel (I mentioned this in an older post), a dark short story, and some senseless meanderings I tore out. But I have never come close to a thousand words a day and likely never will. I’m not that motivated, even in a good month.

Out there on the world wide web you’ll find a plethora of expert advice by professional writers telling you to write daily. That’s nice if you’re fortunate to be earning a living from your writing, but what if you aren’t? And does it really matter if you write daily? I think not. I think we each should adhere to whatever writing principles fits our lifestyles, since one size surely does not fit all. Jack, like many famous writers, wrote daily (what else was there to do in the middle of a jungle at night?); I think it’s because he had so many stories in him to share it was the only way he could get to the next book. Do we have any less stories? Perhaps, perhaps not. Some of us don’t travel or adventure as much as folks did back then, when it was easier and more affordable; you didn’t need a passport (until WWI), so moving between countries was much easier. And we’re busy working full-time jobs, part-time jobs, raising families, caring for parents, finishing a college education, etc. We have (modern) lives to live! Which brings me back to the point of the title – those lives give us fodder for our stories. So if you’re not scribbling daily, that’s okay; but it’s probably a good idea to at least have a place (notebook, clothesline, etc.) for you to scribble your ideas – the good, the bad, and the ugly, so at some point you, too, can turn them into a cohesive work. Like Jack.

Scribble on!

 

Creating Movement in an Action Novel

wildfire

Source: WSET, Virginia

I don’t know why, but I’ve been fascinated with fire since childhood. The duality of its beauty and danger captivate me; flames licking, eating, destroying; yet warming, inviting, even trance inducing. Many years ago, as the first chapters of Rescue on White Thunder formed in my mind, it was very different from the end result. I suppose that’s where the creativity and individuality of the writer comes in to play. Fire has become a running theme in my books and it is once again a large part of the next installation in what has become a series because I so enjoy the characters I’ve created. (And I’ve already got ideas and a premise for a third.)

For a writer who prefers to write a good action story, movement is crucial and including fire made it easy. Fire provides good movement in a story, whether it’s the fire itself or the characters involved with the fire and what they’re doing with it or to it.

In this excerpt, you can see how the characters move into action as a result of fire:

Braddock was already well above the rest of his crew on the fire line when Jim suddenly yelled, “Wind change!” 

The crew immediately stopped what they were doing and ran downhill. When Braddock and Smoke turned to do the same, a flare-up stopped them in their tracks. It was an unexpected blowup – the southeasterly winds, with pressure from the storm overhead, shifted north and caused crown fires to increase rapidly. Flames raged high and hot and separated Braddock and Smoke from the rest of the team. Braddock turned in every direction, trying to find a way out as the flames shot through the loose underbrush, creating a wall of fire around them. Branches burned off trees fell to the forest floor, spitting burning embers everywhere.

In this portion, the fire itself is the action, providing rich imagery as well:

Fires spread quickly over a fresh, loose layer of humus covering the solid ground. Tree trunks caught fire one after the other as flames overran the surrounding brush and now-dead timbers toppled from last year’s big storm. The crackling roar of the fire amplified and they had to shout to hear each other. Braddock knew they would soon be forced to move to higher ground. Some of the firebreaks held but winds were increasing in strength and velocity, propelling fresh embers to other areas. More trees and small brush ignited, creating walls of flames that nearly licked the upper branches of the tall pines.

You can also have both the characters and the fire creating action where one influences the other:

6:30 am: The explosion reverberated throughout the house. Braddock flew out of his chair at the breakfast table and Jim sprung to his feet, knocking his chair to the floor, both of them spilling their mugs of coffee.

Quite a distance away, they could barely make out a thin grey line of smoke over the trees southwest of White Thunder Mountain. Minutes later, the wail of police sirens pierced the air; honks like foghorns from multiple fire engines interrupted the morning’s serenity.

When it comes to action, you have multiple opportunities to create movement in your story when you include an active subject matter like fire or other extreme forms of weather. Track whether the story flows or if it skips; too many changes between scenes may break up the story’s rhythm. Use whatever tools work best for you; have friends/family read portions for feedback, build a story board on a wall in your home office (or where in the house you write), even sketch out the physical layout of the story’s location (this works for me) to keep timelines and movement in sync.

Remember, movement is life in a good action story.

Walter Mitty and Me

It’s Memorial Weekend and am actually off today…so a bit of relaxing and writing is in order. I watched a movie while eating lunch, instead of sitting in my kitchen staring out the window. I watched the remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” with Ben Stiller. Cute movie. And a reminder of something I’ve written about before – a life on the road – or at least some adventures peppered with some bad decisions.

What caught my eye was at the end of the movie where Walter is re-writing his resume, since he’s lost his job at LIFE magazine. Instead of the usual humdrum skills checklist and god-awful BORING summary (Professional with a strong work ethic and multiple years of interaction with people in various work settings…yes, this is mine…), he listed his adventures (jet boarding down some road in Iceland, jumped from helicopter into the sea, etc.). It got me to thinking..if we are to get out of that conformist corporate box of a day-to-day J-O-B and move into our lives, how would a resume like that go over? 

As a writer, I often dream (like Walter Mitty) of writing and traveling and earning enough to live on. Competition is stiff in most fields these days, so thinking out-of-the-box is essential to succeed, especially as a writer. I’ve got that looping tape in my head of my mother telling me to “just get a job.” It’s been there for over forty years and I’ve yet to figure out how to erase it. The movie reminded me that when we’re busy living our lives we don’t have time for daydreaming, because we’re actually living our dreams. So I’m going to re-think how I present myself to the world, because I have had some great adventures (including some based on bad decisions) and I need to give myself more credit for them.

As a writer, I know I’ll never be a New York Times bestselling novelist. I’m okay with knowing that I’m a mediocre writer – what’s so wrong with average anyway? I may have a smaller audience but they’re an audience nonetheless. The fact that there are folks (like you) out there, listening and hopefully gleaning something from my work, is what’s important to me now. I no longer strive to reach or grab the brass ring. I have dreamed for years of becoming a writer, only to finally admit that I AM a writer – with or without the audience or brass ring.

Lesson: Dream your dreams. Take a chance every now and then to live one out, just to see where it takes you. Then you can write all about it.

Lay Your Past to Rest

I’m a Tarot fan and I check my reading daily. Today I got the Judgment card. With Fire as its ruling element, Judgement is about rebirth and resurrection, and laying the past to rest. It got me thinking, as cards like this usually do. Along with the usual emotional basement of hidden/repressed childhood experiences I’ve yet to resolve, I find myself pondering the mystery of my unfinished works: a sequel novel (to Rescue on White Thunder), a coffee table blend of family tree/cookbook, a separate adventure novel, another nutrition book, and some miscellaneous works. Should I finish them or move on? There seem to be many starts but few completions. I desire to finish them but I don’t. Do you have the same experience? What would you do in this situation?

I particularly liked this part of the reading:

“There is no way to leave the past behind. Each step wears down the shoe just a bit, and so shapes the next step you take, and the next and the next. Your past is always under your feet. You cannot hide from it, run from it, or rid yourself of it. But you can call it up, and come to terms with it. Are you willing to do that?”

So each book I write shapes the next book I write? I suppose I could apply it that way. I’ve ignored my writing for some time now; working two jobs leaves little time or energy for tapping the imagination or doing the nonfiction research. But this message is more about making the conscious decision, and having the courage, to let go of whatever is not working. And that includes any unfinished writing. Perhaps unfinished work is meant to be an exercise, a way to stretch my mind and sharpen my writing skills. Perhaps it’s a way to find my voice, a way to come to terms with who I am as a writer and storyteller. Am I willing to let go? Only time will tell.

In the end, it will be best to lay some of it to rest, and focus on what is most likely to flourish (and allow me to grow as a writer). I wish the same for you.

Happy Holidays

 mistletoe