Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Inspiration/Counting the Sunsets

The photo at left is not to be mistaken for a sappy attempt at recapturing the cover of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It is also not a stock photo. It is, instead, the view from our cottage on Chappaquiddick, and one of, by now, hundreds of photos of the sunset taken by my dear husband.

It is something of a mission for him every summer, capturing the nuance and texture of the sky as night approaches. Collected in one place, the photos are an extraordinary testament to the ever-changing nature of sky and sea. Not only from night to night, but from minute to minute, the scene on the horizon is dynamic. Look away and something is different--the color shifts from vibrant to muted, a cloud obscures, the wind ripples the reflection. There is nothing quiescent or dormant about the sunset.

What is continually changing in your world?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Discoveries/The Checklist Manifesto

A colleague recommended this book to me last week and I found its premise intriguing: the discipline of a checklist can have a profoundly liberating effect on one's work. It is less about ticking off accomplishments on a to-do list and more about the systematic steps--the seemingly unimportant details--that together add up to a job well done.

So often we think we can skip a step, skim over a minor point. But in life, as in writing, those details matter! I'm presenting a new (for me) workshop this Saturday at the conference of the New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America. It's about the process of developing engaging characters through the "telling detail"--particulars that inform and shape the approach they take to the world, the choices they make and the consequences they must deal with.

I attended a meeting today with OR nurses and medical researchers. Before any of them spoke I was acutely aware of how they presented themselves--the choices they had made in interpreting the "business casual" suggestion for dress or in selecting items from the breakfast buffet, the style of their cell phones or purses, the length of their hair. Such observations become a rich library from which to pull the details that are the building blocks of a character.

What choices did you observe today?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt-Extreme States of Mind

This is a challenging exercise from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, a text I turned to time and again when teaching creative writing.

Write three short paragraphs, the first "fear," the second "anger," and the last "pleasure" without using these words.

The objective is to create emotional states with precision and freshness.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt--Layering

Choose a scene you've already drafted and go back to it with the intention of adding a layer of sensory images. Focus on only one sense; for example:

the ripple of the wind through a stand of cottonwood trees or
the bellowing of a frightened animal in the middle of the night;
the blue of a lapis necklace against a milk-white throat;
a coarsely woven blanket crumpled stiffly in a corner.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


One of the pleasures of my life as a writer is speaking to groups about my books. A few years ago I was the featured speaker at a "Festa Italiana" held by the women's club of a small village just north of New York City. Most of the women were of my mother's generation and, like her, were the daughters of Italian immigrants. During the course of the afternoon I had the opportunity to speak with many of them individually and listen to the memories that my book, Dancing on Sunday Afternoons, elicited.

Of all the women I met that day, one in particular has retained a special place in my own memory. Her name was Ida. She was 80 years old, dressed in chinos, a pale blue shirt and a colorful vest, with short white hair in a stylish pixie cut and eyes that danced. She was full of energy and curiosity, always moving and engaging others in conversation. She was both a delight and a role model.

More and more, I find myself drawn to women who have lived long and full lives. They are passionate and generous and funny--traits that seem to me to be a fine way to live.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Inspiration/Reading Aloud

For many years I served as a lector in my parish. The role of a lector is to read aloud during the first part of the Mass--a passage from the Old Testament, a Psalm and an Epistle. The canonical years rotate the gospel among the four Evangelists--Matthew, Mark, Luke and John--and the remaining selections are tied to the theme expressed in the gospel of the day. (And yes, it is no coincidence that my two sons are named for Evangelists.)

I don't remember how I came to be standing at the pulpit one Sunday morning. More than likely, I got tapped to fill in when someone didn't show up. But I found the opportunity compelling. Reading aloud from sacred texts was a kind of calling for me, and a role I embraced. Some of my favorite passages are from the Book of Revelation:

Blessed is the one who reads aloud.

...the Spirit possessed me, and I heard a voice behind me, shouting like a trumpet, "Write down all that you see in a book...."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Discoveries/The History of Chappaquiddick

I am in the midst of creating a new story set in a very old place. Cape Poge is a strip of barrier beach on the sometimes an island/sometimes not of Chappaquiddick. As some of you know, I spend part of my summer in this isolated corner off the New England coast and I have finally decided to write about it.

Last summer I found a book in the house where we stay--a beautiful, thick, cream-colored volume filled with photographs and memories and geology. It is a priceless history, compiled with both passion and precision by the Chappaquiddick Island Association, and a window into the lives of families who have lived there for hundreds of years. Finding the book reminded me of a visit I made many years ago to the library in the city where I had grown up and where my immigrant grandparents had settled. The library had a local history collection, a locked room filled with the minutiae of daily life in the city's past. I had to make an appointment to use the room--an excursion that I fit into one of my trips back to the states. I was researching the time period in which my first novel, Dancing on Sunday Afternoons, was set. I'm not sure what I expected to find--dry tomes and dusty maps, perhaps. But what that room--wooden-panelled, windowless--revealed to me that day was a treasure.

There were file drawers filled with original documents organized by family--mine included. There was microfiche of a century of the city's newspaper, The Daily Argus. There were photographs of the neighborhoods in which my characters lived. I mined that material to create a sense of place and time that was essential to my story.

Discovering the Chappaquiddick history in the cottage was a similar treasure. Descriptions of meals created from what grew in the garden or came from the sea; childhood games; even the evolution of the ferry service that connects Chappy to Edgartown--all will find their way into my story to give it texture and particularity.

What are your sources for the details that shape your characters' lives?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt--First Lines

Here are a few "first lines" to use as prompts for some timed writing:

Cristina was scribbling notes in the back of a linguistics class when, in an instant, everything went black.

He said he had never been happy until he met the Egyptian chess player.