The Invisible Volcano and Keeping Writing Flexible

I looked forward to this week’s post for about six months.

Our family and several friends  invaded and conquered Seaquest State Park’s ‘Yurt Village’ for an end-of-summer camping trip. (Well, ‘conquered’ in the sense that we made reservations months ago…but in my opinion, camping with small children deserves more adventurous-sounding verbs.)

 

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“Yurt, sweet Yurt”

 

Like most of western Washington’s state parks, Seaquest sports towering evergreens girded with huckleberry bushes and clumps of sword ferns. It’s pretty and peaceful. The real draw, however, is its neighbor.

Mount St Helen'sMount St. Helen’s impressed herself into American memory with a catastrophic eruption which climaxed in the collapse of the peak on May 18th, 1980.

 

Mt St Helen's
For perspective: The mountain before the eruption.

My husband and I hadn’t visited the Mount St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument for twelve years or so. I remembered it as a broken, blasted landscape, still eerily empty two and a half decades after the big blow out.

On this trip, I hoped to return to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, a close viewpoint to the crater, where the words of the man for whom the observatory is named are immortalized.

“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”

Unfortunately for him, it was.

I looked forward to sharing a blog filled with pictures taken by my talented other half, and even had a ‘writing connection’ planned out- how the history of a setting affects the mood of our writing.

I think it could have been an interesting piece.

The volcano didn’t cooperate.

 

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There it is! Or that’s where it’s supposed to be…

 

The crater was entirely covered in haze. The members of our party who attempted the drive to the observatory found the same.

No volcano. No pictures. No blog article.

And no new ideas.

Except… it does serve as an example of why writers need to keep flexible…

Yeah, that could work!

Maybe your writing experience has been like mine. My best laid plans, whether for blogs, for plot points, for character backgrounds, for (insert any that apply here) constantly need adaptation.

Some changes I choose to make.

Others, I’ve been forced into.

For instance, the manuscript I’m querying for right now is historical fiction, set during the Second World War. When I started writing the piece, I already had my story arc planned out. Research, I was certain, would put flesh on the skeleton.

I hadn’t finalized the locations for all of the story events, but I had some exciting ideas. I was fascinated by unfamiliar places and names- names like Tobruk and The Desert Fox and El Alamein. I dove into sources detailing the conflicts in North Africa.

Things went well, and I wrote some scenes that felt vivid and interesting and as if they’d fit the story just right…

…and then I found one, fatal piece of information. During the time period I was scouring, the Allies were not in control of the Mediterranian. Transport to and from these North African conflicts would require an 8 week voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.

This one fact completely destroyed my timeline for the rest of the story.

Oh, I tried to wiggle around it, adapt a few things, invent some convoluted backstory, but I finally had to admit it- my characters couldn’t have been there.

Delete. Delete. Delete. Back to the books.

This wasn’t the first, or the last, time the facts forced my story to change. I’d already had to drop my research on the Norwegian campaign (sorry, distant relatives!) and would subsequently axe  bits with V1 rockets, the ‘Baby Blitz,’ and a little section with the history of the cherry tree. Granted, that last one didn’t really have much to do with anything except a clumsy attempt at symbolism. It was a good cut 🙂

As a matter of fact, they were all good cuts.

Every time I hit a roadblock, every time I found that my expectations didn’t fit reality, every time I had to rewrite and rethink, I had another opportunity to grow and improve. Flexibility in my rewrites enabled me to eliminate the dross.

I imagine that this applies to writing in other genres, too. After all, unless you are writing an entirely new universe with rules that don’t match any of ours, (and if you are, I’d like to shake your hand- that’s no mean feat,) it’s likely that you’ve got some background research to do, whether it’s the proper mix of gasses for a dirigible, the load-bearing capabilities of swallows, or just how far the sound of the murder weapon will carry with or without a silencer.

The writer’s willingness to keep their story flexible, to learn the facts and build their fiction around those facts shows through in a polished finished product.

When the facts aren’t there… I’m not certain if the author of the ‘Farm’ board book my children received didn’t quite understand the “facts of life,” if it was a typo, or if they were just confused as to how pronouns work, but somehow the cows were all referred to as ‘he.’ As a child of dairy country, I can’t help laughing a bit when we get to that page. (I’ve tried to explain, but the kids still don’t quite get it.)

 

cow
(Pssst! Just in case, ‘cow’ always refers to the females. If it’s male, it’s a bull or a steer.  Bonus fact: the pretty black-and-white ones are Holsteins. :))

 

Forcing myself to be flexible is hard work, but it doesn’t have to be devastating.

After all, we didn’t see a volcano, but our kids likely enjoyed chasing each other around the woods more than they would have enjoyed educational hikes.

My fictional characters couldn’t get to all of the places I wanted to send them, but I kept their story tighter and more believable.

I didn’t get a photoblog about Mount St. Helen’s, but I was able to share this experience instead.  I also now have a reason to plan another yurt trip someday, and maybe next time we’ll see that volcano, and that bear we think we heard snuffling around!

yurts

Have any of your writing (or other) plans gone in unexpected directions lately?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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10 Tips for Surviving the ‘Query Crazies’

cat waiting
If I just…stare…hard enough…

I am excellent at encouraging my children to be patient.

I am less than excellent at following my own advice.

When I submitted my first round of query letters to literary agents a couple of weeks ago, I knew that waiting for a response was just part of the game.

Ok, they all say to wait four to six weeks for a response. No problem. I’ll just keep busy and not even think about it until then.

Riiiiight.

I kept that resolve for about….half a day?

Throwing that query letter out into the world where I have no control over it, and waiting, waiting to get a request for more… or a rejection… or (THE WORST) no response at all, has left me a bit nervous.

SO, in case any of you are in the same boat, (or just want to share in my misery- thanks!) I’ve written the following handy guide to surviving the ‘query crazy.’

  1. Don’t obsess over your e-mail Inbox. After all, if an agent is going to write back, they’re going to do it on their own time. It’s not as if you’re going to get a manuscript request withdrawn by not responding immediately. (But just in case you will, maybe check just one more time.)
  2. Remind yourself that everything is a process. Whether you get picked up at this time or not doesn’t eliminate the hours…and hours…and hours you put into your manuscript. (And if you DO get picked up, you’ll likely be spending more hours on it. So really, this is like a mini-vacation!)
  3. Catch up on housework. If you are like me, during the crazy writing and researching and submission processes, something in your cluttered sink has begun smelling like death. It’s as good a time to mend this as any.
  4. Stop! I said don’t obsess over your e-mail. But, if you need to check if your mom has responded to your last and you just happen to check the rest of your inbox, who can blame you?
  5. Bake. You’re cleaning the kitchen anyway. It’s always more fun to clean when something is baking in the oven, and then when you have the urge to stress-snack you have something homemade.  So far in this process we’ve made it through two chocolate zucchini cakes. (Hey, it has zucchini in it after all- it’s practically a salad.)
  6. Remind yourself that rejection is typical. After all, Kate DiCamillo was rejected 47(?) times before Because of Winn Dixie was picked up, and then she won the Newberry.*
  7. Ride out the mood swings. “I hate my story now! It’s awful and they won’t like it either!” is not productive. You liked it before, remember? You will again. Be confident!
  8. Let it go. Yes, you just realized you missed a typo in the first query you sent out. Don’t panic. Improve your proofreading, and hope that she won’t hold that ‘who’ rather than ‘whom’ against you
  9. Try not to drive your friends crazy. You may get urges to pester sweetly ask your spouse/friend/beta reader/random facebook acquaintance for reassurance. “You like my story, right? Right? What about this bit? What about this character? What about…?” Settle down, friend.
  10. Don’t check that e-mail again! It’s after working hours now- they won’t be writing you. (Unless they picked up your pages at the end of the day and just couldn’t put them down…maybe one more check…)

Hang in there, writers! And to the rest of you, thanks for your patience!

Anyone else have tips to make waiting (whatever your current wait is 🙂 ) more bearable?

 

* This is based off of my memories of a wonderful presentation she gave while I was in college. Knowing my memory… well, I’m reasonably sure the number is correct, but feel free to prove me wrong!

 

The Blitz

It’s time!

It’s time to continue the series of articles on major World War 2 events that I began with After Dunkirk: The Fall of France and The Battle of Britain!

We’ll pick up chronologically right after the last, and take a brief look at the story of The Blitz.

Observer corps
Tens of thousands of men, women and youths participated in the Observer Corps, watching for enemy planes and supplementing the still-inadequate radar systems of the day.

The British knew the bombs were coming.

With Hitler’s forces just across the Channel, attacks were inevitable.

They had taken early precautions, evacuating around 800,000 mothers and children from cities in September of 1939, but when the threat did not immediately materialize, many returned to their homes.

About a year later, on September 7th, 1940, Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe shifted its attacks from RAF facilities to civilian centers. Attacks changed from daylight runs with specific targets, to night attacks on the massive population of London.

The people endured continuous bombing raids every night until November 3.

For the first three nights, London’s few anti-aircraft guns remained silent in the hopes that their pilots would be able to engage the Luftwaffe craft successfully.

Night fighting…didn’t go as well as hoped. On September 10th the guns opened up. Winston Churchill reflected,

“This roaring cannonade did not do much harm to the enemy, but gave enormous satisfaction to the population. Everyone was cheered by the feeling that we were hitting back. From that time onward the batteries fired regularly, and of course practice, ingenuity, and grinding need steadily improved the shooting.”               (From his memoir Their Finest Hour, pg 343)

Air raid sirens (sometimes) warned the citizenry of incoming attacks- the sound became almost commonplace. Mr. Churchill also recorded his memories of watching people vacating the streets at the sound of one, “except for long queues of very tired, pale people, waiting for the last bus that would run.”

The government provided families individual shelters free of charge or for low cost. The Anderson Shelter was made of corrugated metal and could be buried in the garden. The metal Morrison Shelter could fit in place of a dining table. These protected their occupants from debris or shrapnel. They could not withstand a direct hit.

shelter3
Photo from http://www.andersonshelters.org.uk/

Others found public shelters or slept in the Tube beneath the city. Still others remained in their homes or workplaces when the alarms sounded, carrying on in spite of it all.

Different types of bombs brought different types of danger and damage. Time bombs and regular bombs that did not explode on impact necessitated the forming of unexploded bomb (U.X.B.) disposal squads. This tense, dangerous work left its mark.

“In writing about our hard times, we are apt to overuse the word “grim.” It should have been reserved for the U.X.B. disposal squads.” (Churchill 362)

October’s full moon brought another horror- 70,000 incendiary bombs dropped along with the regular load of explosives. Rather than taking cover, the people of London were encouraged to head to the roofs. They organized fire-watchers and fire-services to combat the destruction.

On November 3 the London air raid sirens remained silent for the first time in nearly two months. The Luftwaffe had changed focus again, dispersing their targets to various industrial centers.

Coventry suffered their blitz on November 14th. Six hundred tons of high-explosives as well as incendiary bombs dropped, killing four hundred people and seriously injuring many others.

Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton, Liverpool…the list of cities struck by German bombs grew.

On December 29th the Germans planned another assault on London to correspond with the low tide. Having also destroyed the water-mains, they rained incendiary bombs over London, starting nearly fifteen hundred fires.

london blitz

The bombings slowed by May of 1941, as Hitler turned his attention towards attacking Russia.

These painful eight months left tremendous damage to property and homes, 43,000 civilians dead, and Great Britain’s resolve undiminished.

Of course, the end of the ‘official’ Blitz did not signal the end of bombings. The Allies and Axis traded explosives of increasing power throughout the war, to tremendous loss of military and civilian life. Mr. Churchill reflected,

“Certainly the enemy got it all back in good measure, pressed down and running over. Alas for poor humanity!” (pg. 349)

 

NEXT TIME: It may take me a while to get my research lined up as fall is a busy time, but I’m planning on the next history article to visit the campaigns in North Africa. I hope you’ll come along!

OH, WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

This is a recording of a rather wonderful speech Winston Churchill gave during this time- worth a listen if you’ve got five minutes.

If you are interested in more detail on this period from people who have studied it much longer than I have, the following sites might be of interest.

General information: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/the_blitz

Memories of people who LIVED it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/categories/c1161/

Information on Anderson/Morrison shelters: http://www.andersonshelters.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

Nightmare Season

johannes-plenio-317653
Photo courtesy of Johannes Plenio via Unsplash.com

It’s my nightmare season.

I had my first one just this week. After twelve years, I ought to expect them.

Each is a little different, but it’s just a theme and variations. I’ve named them “the teacher nightmares.”

I stand in front of the classroom.  I have all of my plans in my head, ready to go, and I haven’t remembered to prepare any of the materials.

Chaos slowly consumes the classroom as the children, sensing weakness, descend into anarchy. Nothing I say or do makes any difference.

I am completely ineffective.

Granted, as nightmares go, my “teacher nightmare” is a mild example. I wake feeling uneasy, and it takes a while (and a few successful lessons) to be fully comfortable again.

Some of the other dreams that drift in from time to time…they aren’t so easy to shake.

Am I right in supposing that each of us has at least one nightmare that we can’t forget? One that haunts us and lends weight to the fear of the sailors in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when they realize that they are in danger of running aground on the isle where such dreams take on flesh and bone?

No, my annual nighttime expressions of classroom anxiety aren’t my worst dreams- not by a long way. At least they serve a useful purpose- they keep me on my mettle as far as planning and preparation!

After all, fear is a powerful motivator.

The start of ‘nightmare season’ got me thinking about novels that use dreams- specifically nightmares.

For instance, in Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, Jane’s pre-nuptial nightmares blend in to a frightening reality, warning her that the future may not be as bright as she hopes. (If you haven’t read it yet, yes, I KNOW it’s long, and has a great deal of backstory at the beginning. I still LOVE IT!)

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte (Charlotte’s sister) uses a nightmare in the beginning of the novel to introduce the main storyline- the tragic relationship of Heathcliff and Catherine.

Other classics such as Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and Macbeth involve characters tormented by nighttime terrors.

More recently, the ever popular Harry Potter’s nightmares not only terrified, but provided valuable (though at times, unreliable) information, and Katniss Everdeen’s nightmares strengthened her bond with Peeta, her fellow Hunger Games contestant.

Of late, I’ve worked on writing some nightmares myself. My male protagonist in my WW2 novel is a platoon sergeant. While James is able to keep his fears in check and put on a brave face during waking hours, sleep brings little rest. He is haunted by dreams- flashbacks twisted to remind him of every way he has failed and could fail the men he’s responsible for. He runs the risk of being crippled by survivor’s guilt- made inneffective by his fears.

If you’re writing just now, and are working towards well-rounded characters, it’s worth taking some time to consider how fear motivates them. How will they react when their nightmares appear to be coming true? Will fear and foreboding galvanize them to action, or paralyze them?

Can you think of any other examples of nightmares/dreams in stories you’ve read or written or watched? Did they ‘work’ for the story?

In any case, I’ll close tonight by wishing us all sweet dreams. 🙂

 

EPILOGUE: Teaching day one went well. No supplies forgotten, minimal anarchy, no bleeding or tears. Chalking it up as a win 😉