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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Writing crime in the Northland


“I was a big reader as a child. My father is a great book lover and a librarian, but he forbid me to read bad literature. I was not allowed to read Nancy Drew or books like that. I often say to him that me becoming a crime author is both a way of pleasing him and annoying him.” – Asa Larsson

Born on this date in 1966, Larsson grew up in the far north of Sweden, the granddaughter of renowned Olympic skier Erik August Larsson. 

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, she was a tax lawyer, a profession she shares with her heroine Rebecka Martinsson.   Asa’s first Rebecka Martinsson novel, Solstorm (Sun Storm), came out in 2003 and was awarded the Swedish Crime Writers' Association prize for best first novel.  It was re-published in the UK and US in 2007 under the title The Savage Altar. 
Not one to rest on her laurels, Larsson’s subsequent tales about Martinson     have won a basketfull of awards, including the Best Swedish Crime Novel Awards for both Det blod som spillts, (The Blood Spilt) and her most recent thriller Till offer åt Molok (The Second Deadly Sin).

“It is so much hard work writing your first novel, you're not even sure that it is possible to do,” Larsson said, advising new writers to “get help if you can.  I don't think there is anything wrong with learning from people who are better than you.”


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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Writing from the heart


“The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.” – Helen Keller
 
Today is Helen Keller Day, proclaimed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter in commemoration of the anniversary of her birth (in Alabama) on this date in 1880.  Author, political activist, and lecturer, she was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree and a longtime writer, first being published at age 12.  The story of how teacher Anne Sullivan broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing Helen to blossom as she learned to communicate, is depicted in the wonderful book, play and movie, The Miracle Worker.  

Inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 1971, she was one of 12 inaugural inductees into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame in June 2015.    Keller proved to the world that deaf people not only could learn to communicate and that they could survive in the hearing world, but to excel at anything they chose to do.   “When we do the best that we can,” she said, “we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another.” 
She authored a dozen books and hundreds of essays and other stories       and inspired countless others.  In 1964 she was a recipient of The Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the nation’s highest honors.

“I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad,” Keller said.  “Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers.”   She died in 1968.


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Monday, June 26, 2017

Use the past to write the present


“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” – Pearl Buck
 
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Good Earth, a novel that paints a compelling picture of Chinese peasant life, Pearl Buck saw the world unfolding around her and chronicled it in a writing style that melded the past and present with clarity and intensity.  Over her lifetime she penned nearly 40 other novels, as well as numerous short stories and non-fiction works. 
 
Born this date in 1892 in the backwoods of West Virginia, she spent much of her growing up years in rural areas of China where her parents were missionaries.  Throughout her adult life, she was a staunch supporter of multiple humanitarian causes, particularly in support of overcoming poverty faced by children, whether in Asia or America.  
After winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938        (the first American woman to win the award), she utilized her prize money to establish the East and West Association, and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to address humanitarian issues around the globe, but particularly in helping Asian and Asian American children.    For more than 50 years she spoke out and wrote against injustice whenever and wherever she saw it.
 
“The truth is always important and exciting,” she said. “Speak it, then. Life is dull without it.”





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Sunday, June 25, 2017

It's a 'nourishing' profession


“People need dreams, there's as much nourishment in 'em as food.” – Dorothy Gilman

Born in New Jersey on this date in 1923, Gilman is best remembered for her Mrs. Pollifax series that was a huge hit on the written page and the movie screen.   Begun in a time when women in mystery meant Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and international espionage meant James Bond or John Le Carre, her heroine became a spy in her 60s and might be the only spy in literature to belong simultaneously to the CIA   and her local garden club.

She started writing when she was 9. At 11, she competed against 10- to 16-year-olds in a story contest and won first place.   She wrote children’s stories for more than ten years under the name Dorothy Gilman Butters and then began writing adult novels about Mrs. Pollifax, a retired grandmother who becomes a CIA agent.

Most of her books feature strong women having adventures around the world, reflective of her own international travel background.  But they also feature small town life and puttering in the garden, something she enjoyed doing – cultivating vegetables and herbs and again using that skill and knowledge in her writing.

Named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, she died in 2012 having authored dozens of books and myriad short stories and pieces for magazines and newspapers.  Her advice to writers was always be on schedule in everything you do.   “If something anticipated arrives too late it finds us numb, wrung out from waiting, and we feel - nothing at all. The best things arrive on time.”


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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Planting the seed of an idea


 “A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea.” – John Ciardi

How Does a Poem Mean? asked John Ciardi in 1959 and this interesting and insightful teacher and writer suddenly opened the door to the wonders of both writing and reading poetry to generations of young people who continue to study his book in classrooms everywhere.    Born on this date in 1916, Ciardi was a poet, a terrific etymologist, essayist, radio commentator, and translator of one of the most complex writings in history – Dante’s Divine Comedy. 
                            Read Ciardi’s book on how to write and understand poetry, then read his books – Homeward to America and Other Skies, bracketing World War II, to see the breadth and depth of one of America’s best poets.    Also a much sought after teacher, he directed the famed Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont and noted, "The classroom should be an entrance into the world, not an escape from it.”  For Saturday’s Poem, here is Ciardi’s,
 
                     Lines
I did not have exactly a way of life
but the bee amazed me and the wind's plenty
was almost believable. Hearing a magpie laugh

through a ghost town in Wyoming, saying Hello
in Cambridge, eating cheese by the frothy Rhine,
leaning from plexiglass over Tokyo,

I was not able to make one life of all
the presences I haunted. Still the bee
amazed me, and I did not care to call

accounts from the wind. Once only, at Pompeii,
I fell into a sleep I understood,
and woke to find I had not lost my way.





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Friday, June 23, 2017

An 'exploratory' journey for shape and reason


“There’s a beauty in writing stories—each one is an exploratory journey in search of a reason and a shape. And when you find that reason and that shape, there’s no feeling like it." – T.C. Boyle

Thomas C. Boyle excels at writing short stories, even though he’s also darned good at writing novels, having published 14 of them.  His book World’s End, in fact, won the coveted PEN/Faulkner Award.  But, it’s his short story list that’s most impressive and it continues to grow.  To date, he has more than 100 in print and many more “in process.”    Boyle also is unafraid of sharing his writing skills and serves as Distinguished Professor of English at USC where he founded the creative writing program.

An advocate of the stream of consciousness style – he says start with a word or phrase and then just see where it might take you.  It’s also a great technique for overcoming writer’s block.  Just pick something and start writing.                                   
                             “I have an idea and a first line – and that suggests the rest of it,” he said.  “I have little concept of what I’m going to say, or where it’s going. I have some idea of how long it’s going to be – but not what will happen or what the themes will be. That’s the intrigue of doing it – it’s a process of discovery. You get to discover what you’re going to say and what it’s going to mean.”



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Thursday, June 22, 2017

What writing suspense is all about


“For me, a good thriller must teach me something about the real world. Thrillers like Coma, The Hunt for Red October and The Firm all captivated me by providing glimpses into realms about which I knew very little - medical science, submarine technology and the law.” – Dan Brown

Best known for The DaVinci Code and several subsequent works with the same main character, Dan Brown was born on this date in 1964 in New Hampshire and grew up on the campus of an elite private school where his father was a “live-in” teacher.

Although he thought about a teaching career himself, he seriously considered music instead and was both writing and performing regularly when his career path took a sharp turn in 1993 while he was on vacation in Tahiti.  While there, he picked up a copy of Sidney Sheldon’s bestselling thriller The Doomsday Conspiracy and said he was instantly captivated and decided he, too, wanted to be a writer of thrillers.  Brown’s first three books met with little success before he came up with the idea for DaVinci and the rest – at least for Brown – is writing history.  His books have been translated into 52 languages, and as of 2012, sold over 200 million copies. Three of them, Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and Inferno have been adapted into films.

Brown says he’s a slow writer because he is constantly striving for the best way to portray each and every scene.  “I often will write a scene from three different points of view to find out which has the most tension and which way I'm able to conceal the information I'm trying to conceal,” he explained.   “And that is, at the end of the day, what writing suspense is all about."           
 
                                   “I still get up every morning at 4 a.m.  I write seven days a week, including Christmas. And I still face a blank page every morning, and my characters don't really care how many books I've sold.”

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Weaving an 'intense' curiosity


“The suspense of a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist, who is intensely curious about what will happen to the hero.” – Mary McCarthy

Born on this date in 1912, McCarthy was orphaned at age 6 when her parents both died in the great flu epidemic that swept the world right after World War I.  After living in fairly harsh conditions for several years, and separated from her siblings, she was finally taken in by her maternal grandparents who raised her to adulthood and also helped shape her views on politics and writing.
As an adult she not only became a renowned writer and teacher        but also a political activist, particularly as an opponent of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  Her most acclaimed works were The Company She Keeps and The Group, the latter on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 2 years.  Over the years she authored over two dozen books and won numerous awards including the National Medal for Literature.

As a professor at several prestigious colleges and universities, she said she often told students not to be afraid to include elements of one’s own life in the words that you share.  “We all live in suspense from day to day; in other words, you are the hero of your own story.”


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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A happy song for the ages


“I’d love to say Walking on Sunshine relates to a significant event in my life, like walking out of my front door, seeing a comet and being inspired. But it’s just a piece of simple fun, an optimistic song.” – Kimberly Rew

Rew wrote Walking on Sunshine for his band Katrina and the Waves.  Sung by Katrina Leskanich, it was a massive 1985 hit song that has remained one of the all-time best-sellers – re-recorded by dozens of singers, featured over and over in commercials and movies, and making millions for the band members, who wisely chose to keep the rights.   Besides Rew and Leskanich, the other members are Vince de la Cruz and Alex Cooper.                    
                             “The song changed my life,” said Leskanich, who first thought it wasn’t that great and they might be wasting their time recording it.   “I’ve ended up adoring it.  People are always coming up to me and saying: ‘We played it at our wedding.’”

It wasn’t yet around for OUR wedding, but it did roll up the charts in June 1985, and reached its high point right around this date – June 20 – which happens to be our anniversary.    I liked it then as our anniversary song, and still do.  So, happy anniversary to my wife Susan (our 48th) as we continue “walking on sunshine.”   And here’s the song.  Enjoy! 


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Monday, June 19, 2017

Anatomy of writing success


“I'm a fisherman who likes to observe and tell yarns, and so I told stories about things that I knew about.” – John D. Voelker

Born on this date in 1904, Voelker is best known for his book Anatomy of a Murder, written under his pen name Robert Traver.  An avid fly fisherman and practitioner of the law, Voelker almost became a bartender like his father, but was constantly encouraged by his mother to get his education and pursue the law instead.

In law school at the University of Michigan he nearly flunked out, but fought the grade ruling, got reinstated, earned his degree and went on to a highly successful career, first as a trial lawyer, then as a judge,       and finally as a Michigan Supreme Court Justice.     

Voelker wrote his first story, "Lost All Night in a Swamp with a Bear" at age 12 and had his first published piece, a short story called "Iron" in 1934.  By that point he was immersed in the law and so took on a pen name, a combination of brother’s first name and his mother’s maiden name – because he "didn't think the taxpayers would fancy [him] doing [his] scribbling on their time."

Anatomy of a Murder is based on a real case that he won for the defendant in 1952.  It not only was a best-selling book but also an award-winning movie, filmed almost entirely in Voelker’s Michigan hometown and county courthouse, the first time that type of filming had been done.  It has been named one of the best trial movies of all time.

Voelker said he was glad he chose the law and combined it with his love of writing tales.  “Spinning yarns,” he said,  “is a protection against the nuttiness... the greed, and the hate all around us.”


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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Constantly freeing up new designs


“I write the way you might arrange flowers. Not every try works, but each one launches another. Every constraint, even dullness, frees up a new design.” – Richard Powers

Born on this date in 1957, Powers is noted for exploring the effects of science and technology, something he says are essential to modern writing.  “I think that if the novel's task is to describe where we find ourselves and how we live now,” he explained,  “the novelist must take a good, hard look at the most central facts of contemporary life - technology and science.”

A native of Evanston, IL, Powers spent a number of his formative years in Thailand where his father had a key position at the International School Bangkok.  While there, he developed both writing and musical skills, becoming proficient in cello, guitar, saxophone and clarinet, studying voice and vocal performance, and also immersing himself in books, especially the classics. 

His wonderful book The Time of Our Singing is a story about the musician children of an interracial couple who meet at Marian Anderson’s legendary concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.   The book shows off Powers’ knowledge of both music and physics while also exploring both race relations and the burdens of talent.
His most honored novel, 2006’s The Echo Maker won         the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  Since then he’s won dozens of other major prizes, including a MacArthur (Genius) Grant, the Lannan Literary Award and the Dos Passos Prize for Literature.  
                        Now teaching at Stanford, his advice to students is to delve into whatever opportunities arise.  “If you're going to immerse yourself in a project for three years, why not stake out a chunk of the world that is completely alien to you … and go traveling?”

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

We all need poetry


“We all need poetry. The moments in our lives that are characterized by language that has to do with necessity or the market, or just, you know, things that take us away from the big questions that we have, those are the things that I think urge us to think about what a poem can offer.” – Tracy K. Smith

Named the nation’s 22nd Poet Laureate this week, Smith, who was born in 1972, grew up in a house lined with books of all kinds – ranging from Sci-Fi paperbacks to Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Now, as laureate, she has the world’s largest library available to explore – when she’s not busy teaching poetry and creative writing at Princeton.
                                 Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize – for her spectacular book of poems Life on Mars – Smith told Washington Post reporter Ron Charles that her new appointment gives her an opportunity “to immerse myself in the conversation that poetry generates.  When we’re talking about the feelings that poems alert us to and affirm, we’re speaking as our realest selves.”   For Saturday’s Poem, here is Smith’s,

              The Good Life
 When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine.



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Friday, June 16, 2017

Carrying the lamp for editorial fairness


To love what you do and feel that it matters – how could anything be more fun?”
 – Katharine Graham

 Award-winning writer, and publisher of The Washington Post for over two decades, Graham was born this date in 1917.  Today, she’s especially remembered for her newspaper's role in exposing the Watergate Scandal.  I loved reading her Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, simply titled Personal History, and what a history it was, exuding both her joy of working in media and the fun she had doing it.  She and her editorial team revived a so-so newspaper and made it a national powerhouse, and the investigative effort during Watergate stands as a benchmark for “how it’s done.”

A Republican who oversaw investigative reporting of a Republican president, she said politics should never get in the way of good reporting.  “It matters not if a person is from one party or another.  If someone has done something that needs to be exposed in print, then that’s what a good reporter should do.”                      

A personal friend of luminaries like Truman Capote and Adlai Stevenson, who was twice a candidate for U.S. President and served as the U.N. Ambassador, she was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly before her death in 2001. The International Press Institute named her one of the world’s 50 most influential and powerful media people of the 20th century in 2000.

“Once, power was considered a masculine attribute,” Graham said when told of the honor.  “In fact, power has no sex.”



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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Write the words that won't wear out


“Honesty is something you can't wear out.” – Waylon Jennings
 
Born on this date in 1937, Jennings grew up in Littlefield, TX, where he learned how to play guitar by the time he was 8 and started in the entertainment business at age 12 – working as a DJ at a local radio station.   In 1954 he befriended rising star Buddy Holly who also became his mentor, collaborating with him on songs, and helping produce Waylon’s first record.
  
Jennings also became a fill-in player for Holly’s group The Crickets and was with him in Iowa on his final tour that ended in Holly’s death in a plane crash.  Jennings was supposed to be on that plane with Holly but at the last minute gave up his seat to The Big Bopper because the latter was suffering from a bad cold.
Ultimately, Jennings became one of the great songwriters       and singers of country, country rock, and a new genre – founded with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Jessi Coulter – called Outlaw Country.   He was still at the height of his career when he died in 2002 of complications from diabetes at the relatively young age of 64.

Jennings was known for his support of many social issues and causes, saying it was an easy choice.  “A lot of times people don't want to hear it.  But you know, if some good is done to you, you should pass it on.”

YouTube is filled with Waylon Jennings songs.  A couple I've always enjoyed, both for their tunes and the terrific lyrics are “Luckenback, Texas,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-qj-CnGZd4  and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” here sung as a duet with old pal Willie Nelson, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkYmvKnZHtE    Enjoy!





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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Writing what you see and hear


“Whenever I write, I write what I find to be the way people are. I never use any symbolism at all, but if you write as true to life as you possibly can, people will see symbolism. They'll all see different symbolism, but they're apt to because you can see it in life.” – Carolyn Chute 
 
Born in Maine on this date in 1947, Chute is a populist political activist strongly identified with the culture of poor, rural western Maine, although her works speak to other similar areas in the U.S. such as rural Appalachia.  An award-winning writer (both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Thornton Wilder Award) who “knows of what she speaks,” she writes by hand, lives off the grid (no electricity or running water in her home), and raises much of her own food.
  
 She started writing as a part-time newspaper correspondent, then taught creative writing while finishing her best known, novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine.  Published in 1985, it was made into a 1994 film of the same name, directed by Jennifer Warren.  She has since published a number of other books and short stories and is a frequent speaker about class issues in America.  She also publishes "The Fringe," a monthly collection of essays, short stories, and intellectual commentary on current events.
Her advice to writers is to just write what you see and hear.         “Every time I think I know what's right and wrong, I end up being wrong. All I want to do is explore. I want to see what people would do. I say, 'What would this person do in this situation?' and I write it down.”


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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Reader, writer, characters: A terrific triad


“The interesting thing about fiction from a writer's standpoint is that the characters come to life within you. And yet who are they and where are they? They seem to have as much or more vitality and complexity as the people around you.” – Whitley Strieber

Born in San Antonio, TX, on this date in 1945, Strieber has split his writing talents between horror stories, science fiction, and speculative fiction with a social conscience – interrupted (both literally and figuratively) by his nonfiction account of being abducted by “non-human visitors.”   That particular book, Communion, while pooh-poohed as “improbable if not impossible,” was a huge bestseller and a subsequent successful big screen adaptation. 
Two of his other books, The Wolfen and The Hunger,         also were made into successful films.  Still going strong at age 72, Strieber had three books out in 2016, including the acclaimed Sci-Fi book Hunters, now set to be made into a new series for the SyFy Channel.

As for what makes for successful writing?   “The truth is, everything ultimately comes down to the relationship between the reader and the writer and the characters,” Strieber said.   “Does or does not a character address moral being in a universal and important way? If it does, then it's literature.”


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