Wednesday, August 8, 2012
I have the unique joy of being able to trace my family heritage back to the early 1700s. The tomb stones of many of those relatives are placed behind an historical country church established in 1759 less than two miles from where I live today. Consequently, I’m not just talking about tracing as on a genealogical site, I’m talking about walking up to their grave and saying out loud… “See here, right here I stand. The fruit of your loins 200 years down the road, and counting.”
Fortunately, I have a family that not only remained local, but also believed in education and schooled their children to write extensively. It’s in my genes. As icing on the cake, someone had enough insight to save their letters and pack them in a crate for me to open 150 years later. Those letters have been great fodder for my imagination.
Imagination is the key word here. Predominantly, I write fiction, so I juice things up a bit. I play around with names and take a bit of one person’s history to combine with another. I create places of intrigue and there’s nothing more fun than ghosts and spirits and sounds in the night. To put all of that in a grave yard, well, the combination is irresistible.
Herein lies the problem. The embellishment of these stories by me and others over the years has become viral, and with the onslaught of tweet and twitter and all these nasty little messenger devices, the church sees more action at night than during the day. The congregation only meets every other week for one hour. The cemetery is busy from midnight to dawn. Our surveillance cameras caught a bevy of not-so-tantalizing beauties dancing in the nude last weekend. It was hard to identify them because they didn’t have any clothes on but their bare breasted frolic would have been more pleasing had more been hidden. Just my personal opinion, of course.
Do I care? I didn’t used to. Get your jollies by tiptoeing around graves under a full moon or pretending that some ghost appears to reclaim his golden arm at the stroke of midnight. What I care about is that frivolity is turning more often to vandalism and we pick up beer cans, liquor bottles and broken glass on a regular basis. Our “no trespassing after dark” signs are ignored and the security camera and lights are destroyed. Recently, church windows were broken. Last night I ventured out and confronted six more young people at midnight. Really, midnight is long past my bedtime. I don’t like doing this, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to start prosecuting for trespassing in order to close the flood gates. And yes, we already have a gate. It appears to stop no one.
I write this because this senseless destruction has made me rethink my own writing. What have I written that people actually believe is true? I used to think that was the height of a good writer, to be so convincing that your reader confused fiction with reality. I’m having second thoughts, especially now that tweeting appears to be able to broadcast tidbits of misinformation to thousands within seconds, without anyone having read the book.
I’m open for suggestions.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Five years ago when I retired my husband gave me a very special present. We had a screened-in sleeping porch off of our upstairs bedroom. He replaced the screens with ceiling to floor windows, extended the vents for air-conditioning and heat, put in electrical outlets and bought me a wrap-around desk. “Write,” he said. “Write to your heart’s content.”
I did. I do. I still want to.
Last month my husband retired. Lord knows the man deserves to retire. He’s worked almost every day of his life since his first paper route at age eight. At the same time he’s been an attentive son, a devoted father and a loving husband. But he’s now about to drive me crazy.
I’m an early morning writer. I wake up, I’m ready to write and go full steam until around 3 p.m. If I’m on fire, I’ll go into the night. If I’m stalled, I put my head back and stare out into the forest through those magnificent windows, mired rewrites rambling through my head. Someone, somewhere, called that the creative process, so I claim the caption when lost in thought.
Normally, my husband would be up and gone by 7 a.m. Now he wraps his arm around me and whispers, “Stay with me, just a little longer.”
“I’ve got to write,” I say.
“Don’t get up yet,” he pleads.
I untangle myself around 7:30 to get to my computer. He talks to me from the next room. “What are your plans for the day? Going into town? Need anything? Shall I fix you breakfast?”
I’m already starting to get agitated. Once he goes downstairs I’m sure things will be better. I hear him bang through the pots in the kitchen. Then he turns on NPR. Since we both have some hearing loss, he turns it up loud enough for me to start to catch tidbits of disturbing media excerpts. I close all the doors between him and me with unnecessary force.
If it’s good weather, I’m blessed by the fact that he’ll then go outside and straddle his John Deere tractor for a couple of hours, regardless of whether or not the front forty needs mowing. All I hear is the rumble of the tractor going back and forth. I can deal with that. In reality, John Deeres are every man’s sedative. When in doubt, in lieu of marriage counseling, get a John Deere. It’s a better long term investment.
By noon he’s back upstairs. “Planning to break for lunch?”
“Should I fix you something?”
“Okay, well, then…” back downstairs, more banging of pots and pans, NPR back on for unsettling noon news which requires me to go on-line to find out what the heck is going on in the world now. Then I go and close the doors he left open on the way down.
Forty-five minutes later he’s back upstairs. “Whatchadoing?”
“Can I help with anything?”
“Not yet, maybe later.”
“I’ll just read some,” he says as he settles into the chair across from my desk. “I’ll be quiet, I promise.”
I don’t know about you, but having someone seated across from me while I’m “thinking”…even a quiet someone…is somewhat distracting. But it is a beautiful spot in the house and on hot or cold days when the back porch won’t do, I try to be mindful of his needs, too.
“Listen to this,” he says. “It’s really good.”
“I’ve already read the book,” I say a bit too spitsy. “Remember, I recommended it to you.”
“Oh, right,” he concedes, “but I really like this particular part.”
I give in. “Read it to me.” He does. I agree it’s good.
“Thought I’d go into town. You wanna come?”
“Did you finish the lawn?”
“Will do the rest tomorrow.”
“No,” I say, but I’m thinking fast in hopes of coming up with something that requires his departure.
By 4 p.m. the car pulls back in the drive from town and my creative juices have ceased altogether. My husband unloads the car with pretty much the same groceries he bought the day before and today chicken legs were on sell for .49 a pound. The fact that we already have about twenty pounds of chicken legs doesn’t deter him. I try to find a place to cram them into our already stuffed freezer. I’m feeling pretty guilty by now. Who could ever begrudge such a goodhearted soul and I know that one day in my life I may yearn to hear him whisper, “Stay with me just a little bit longer,” and wish that I had made a different choice. Time gives life such better perspectives on what’s really important. I succumb to figuring out what to cook for dinner and being a bit more commutative. After all, we’ve made it forty years, and this, too, will eventually find some natural flow. But, it is a new and different challenge in our lives.
Monday, April 16, 2012
(Old Poker Table from early 1900s still resides in the back room of the local small town pharmacy.)
The “real” story behind the story for me is often in the history behind the characters I create. Repeatedly, writers tell me “get to know your character, put them in the proper place and your story will emerge.” I don’t think I appreciated this fully until I was working on about the fifth draft of my novel and while there were multiple chapters I had written and discarded, it was in these discarded pages that we had become friends. There was too much background material to include in the novel, but enough for me to get a clear picture of the people I had created. They become real in my mind with jobs and families that I knew and understood. I have to remind myself, like Lake Wobegon, they are all fictional.
In developing a character and the place there is usually something that starts my juices flowing…someone who always wears pink, or a particular meeting place where the locals all go. Once you notice a quirk, it’s a lot easier to embellish and move forward. Where did that quirk come from? How do other people respond to it? It’s kind of fun seeing how people and places shape up. Sometimes it’s too much. I have to let something go.
I lived in a small town with enough stores on Main Street to count on one hand. One of those stores was a pharmacy. Another was a local restaurant. Both of these places are where much of the action occurs in my novel. While the local mom and pop diners haven’t yet become extinct, the small town local pharmacies are getting hit pretty hard. When you take into account the chain-drug outlets and recognize anyone can get their prescriptions filled at most grocery stores and then add the online Medcos and Express Scripts there’s not much room left for Shuckers Local Pharmacy on the corner. Pharmacists now stand behind mega counters shuffling pills and plugging in insurance codes while supervising a half dozen pharm techs.
When I started writing about a small town pharmacy operating in 1992, I remembered a place where people helped themselves to a cup of coffee out of the pot that sat on the counter and you spent the first ten minutes catching up on the family before the pharmacist got up to fill your prescription. When I wanted to find out how it was fifty-five years before that, I went to Billy, one of the few remaining small town pharmacists.
Billy walked me through the years he worked as a soda jerk when he was in high school. The soda counter sat at the front of the pharmacy. Ice cream and milk shakes were the order for the after-school crowd. Seltzer water with a spurt of cola syrup or lemonade made from a jug of sugar water and two or three squirts of hand squeezed lemon juice were other favorites. In the morning there was a checker game going in the front room. Billy was responsible for having all the orders off the table in the back by 3 pm in preparation for the daily poker game. A special table (pictured above) had ash trays set in each corner of the table for the cigarettes which were always a part of the daily ritual, although as years of use show, frequently a lot of the cigarettes didn’t make it into the tray, but sat directly on the table leaving circles of wood burns to attest to the longevity of both the table and the game.
Certain customers were known to have their favorite drinks waiting. A teaspoon of bromine in a coke could settle-your-nerves, and a squirt of ammonia in a coke was used for a pick-me-up. The first sales of Coca-Cola began in a pharmacy, Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta, on May 8, 1886, with an estimated nine milligrams of cocaine per glass. It was claimed to cure everything from headaches, heartburn, and depression to impotence. The cocaine was removed in 1903 when the Stephan Company in Maywood, NJ, started using a cocaine-free coca leaf extract. To this day it remains the only manufacturing company authorized by the Federal Government to import and process the coca plant. The cocaine that is extracted from the leaf is sold to a pharmaceutical manufacturer that purifies it for medicinal use.
The particular pharmacy I knew in 1992 isn’t there anymore. The owner died. People either mail order their prescriptions or pick them up at a Wal-Mart thirty miles away. A couple of independent pharmacies still hang-on in adjacent towns, and yet Americans are buying more drugs than ever before in our history. Still, I write about how things were, (not so very long ago, really) not so much because I want to return to those days, but because some things are worth remembering and passing on. The local pharmacy “where everyone knew your name,” is one of them. As one grandchild was heard to ask, “Grandma, how did you get on the internet before computers?” Come sit down, child, and let me read you a book of how it used to be not so very long ago.
Monday, February 27, 2012
Michael retired to the upstairs of his home in 2001 and took refuge in two rooms of his art studio. “God is not a bookkeeper,” he tells me. “God is a painter.”
While writing Miss Ellie's Cafe, I stumbled on a painting by Luis Canizare in a restaurant on Old Brompton Road in London. I am by no means an art connoisseur, however I was taken with this particular painting, Cambio de Tercio, and began to think of ways to incorporate it into the novel. I had a painter as a minor character. I needed to know more about the methods and what inspires painters, so I called Michael to schedule a visit.
Before you walk into Michael and Brenda’s modest home on Main Street, you are at first reminded of grandmother’s house in the early 1900’s; two story, white clapboard with a wrap-around front porch. Once inside, however, you know that grandmother would never have allowed such things. The walls are covered from ceiling to floor with large canvases and an assortment of serial abstracts. In the middle of all of this sits a newly renovated kitchen with brass pots hanging from the ceiling and an antique cherry dining room table with silver tea settings on the buffet. That’s Brenda’s world. Michael’s world is upstairs. “The most important benefit in my life (and strong goad to believe in Divine Providence) was to get the right wife,” he says.
Upstairs, paintings continue to hug one another frame to frame, and then you walk into “the studio.” It is the desk of the great mathematician who has no time for organization, the desktop of the financial wizard who deplores folders or the philosopher who refuses to keyhole ideas into categories. Surrounding me is a sprawl of acrylics, oils, pastels, brushes, oils, turpentine and, gasp - electrical wires. A small heater sits in the corner of the room and a lamp from Michael’s boyhood provides light across a 6’x 6’ piece of plywood, used to create an extended table-top.
Having oriented me to the place he most loves, Michael proceeds to demonstrate a technique he’s developed call Line Painting. Taking a pre-stretched canvas, which runs about $50 - $60 each, Michael uses an eyedropper to dip into small amounts of paint he has poured into plastic dishes. As cautious as a surgeon, he releases two or three drops at the top of the canvas. He slowly turns the canvas as the drops move to give the paint a bit of a sinuous curved. When the paint slows to a stop, he adds a few more drops to extend the line and continues to turn the canvas to accentuate the sinuous curve. This is done several times before the line finally reaches its home base on the other side of the canvas. That’s the FIRST line, mind you. The first of hundreds more to come, maybe even thousands.
Michael warns me there are several things to watch for. If the artist becomes impatient and adds too much paint at once the line may break and take off in an entirely different direction. The paint must be the correct viscosity, thin enough to flow freely but thick enough to create solid opaque lines. “It’s all so simple when you think about it, and yet, I’m amazed at the number of unspoken assumptions I live by.” A painting can start out as one picture and slowly develop into something entirely unexpected…sort of like life.
Line Painting is labor intensive and time consuming. Each line has to dry before the next one can be added to make sure that the first and second don’t bleed into each other. This requirement for patience can sometimes be excruciating. “The Devil is always tapping on the window. I have to constantly remind myself to honor my profession.”
Michael’s work can be found at Harbor Gallery in Norfolk, VA. For more information regarding his paintings, contact me at www.brendaremmes.com and I will gladly forward messages. Bits and pieces of the information he provided are scattered throughout my novel, but unfortunately, far too much related to the talent and labor involved was determined to be unrelated back story. Back story for a novel, perhaps, but the ingredients that create masterpieces in real life.
Monday, February 6, 2012
Four basic tasks take up my time: writing, research, critiquing, and marketing. One of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had is how much I enjoy the research. I’m not talking about computer research, although I do plenty of that. The fun lies among the people who’ve been there, done that, and will share what they know. Their stories are the sources for the evolution of some of my best scenes.
While writing The Quaker Café, here are a few of the people who guided me through my research: Quakers much more knowledgeable than I, an oncologist, a director at the Red Cross, a psychologist, an abstract artist, volunteer firemen, a hairdresser, a bridal shop owner, an Episcopal Priest, an estate lawyer and a gun expert.
While working on my second novel I’ve put even more time into one-on-one interviews. To date I have flown with a pilot who handed me the wheel in a Cessna Skylark, driven a tractor, made several visits to a root doctor, gotten basic instructions on the handling and shooting of a Colt 45, arranged for a date in juvenile court, met with both a judge and criminal lawyer, spoken with a drug task force officer, and made my first of several visits to a free range turkey farm.
I gather a lot of information, but often use only tidbits. I cut an entire chapter on abstract art, which I regretted since the artist had so graciously spent several hours with me. But I failed to tie the chapter into the arc of the plot, and too much background on a minor character can bog things down.
Similarly, an oncologist shared an abundance of his valuable time to exchanged phone calls and e-mails to help sift through a plausible progression and treatment of a deadly disease. Most was cut. Too technical. The medical terminology slowed down the reader.
After visiting Doko Farms last week, I thought of the amazing story to be told around that farm. Add a mystery somewhere in there, bones being dug up on the property, etc. etc. and there is a novel. But, that’s not what I’m about at this particular time, and while I will definitely use some of the information to develop my character, there remain many unwritten chapters.
So, I thought on my way home, “Why not include some of these interviews in a blog instead?” Therefore for the next several blogs, I am going to focus on some of the people involved with my research. What links them together is the fact that each one is passionate and committed to what they do and their enthusiasm is contagious.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
A Letter to My Great Grandmother
I moved into the home of two great aunts over twelve years ago. While combing through the remnants of furniture that were left, I stumbled onto a trunk filled with pictures and letters they had saved. This little adventure began my research into my family history.
The house next door was built by my great-grandfather. My cousin invited me into her attic one day and together we opened a sealed barrel. This barrel contained dozens of letters wrapped in bundles and tied together with ribbons. We had hit the mother lode, letters dating back to 1827. For weeks I sat and organized the thin parchment papers by author. Each letter remained in its envelope, so that I could identify dates and the location from which it had been mailed. I read for weeks, connecting the names within the family. There were business letters, land agreements, letters of love and letters of disagreement throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. The one letter that sticks with me, however, was written by my great-great-great grandmother to her granddaughter in 1879. It begins, My dear Maude, I am now 74 and will not be able to give dates. I forget so much now, and then proceeds to give an eight page account of her life.
Until that moment, the only thing that any of the family members knew about this particular woman, Martha Ruberry McBride, was her name and the dates of birth and death as recorded on her stone in the church graveyard. Suddenly she became alive with a story to tell. She walked us through her life before and after the Civil War, the deaths of her husband and only son, her love for her grandchildren, and her remarriage.
What fascinated me the most, however, was this record of a life for others to read. That letter sat in a barrel for 130 years. Someone had the good sense to save it and store it properly. What may have seemed like an effort to provide remembrances to a granddaughter blossomed into a treasure of history for my generation. I have since donated it to the archives of the Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina.
Everywhere I speak, I encourage people to write at least one personal letter to someone they care about describing their life. E-mail will not suffice. Write your personal history down on paper and either mail the letter to someone you love or place it in a safety deposit box with your will. As Roger Angell writes in The New Yorker, If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare to venture upon a biography? You never know what great-great-great granddaughter, nephew or niece, might discover the letter 130 years from now that inspires the great American novel, or at the very least shows your family that you were a living, breathing person with a story to tell.