Sunday, July 5, 2015

Whose Story Is It?

Saturday, March 14, 2015  Forgiving Effie Beck, a novel that took me two years to write, received the EPIC Award for Best Historical Fiction. Five months earlier it had won the Will Rogers Gold Medallion Award. Since I wrote the story without regard to most of the shoulds and shouldn’ts writers are hammered with daily, the EPIC announcement left me stuttering with confusion.

The Will Rogers Award: A fluke? I had to wonder. But a second honor: The EPIC?

I never, ever felt comfortable with anyone reading drafts of Forgiving Effie Beck. I wrote it in a style or voice I’m most comfortable with - like writing my journal entries about everyday observations. Agents, editors, publishing houses would probably label it “too colloquial.” The characters are far less than perfect, dreamed-up combinations of family members, old friends and past enemies. I put them in a setting familiar to me, then placed them in difficult situations. Words flew off my finger tips and onto the computer screen. I worried writing it had been too easy, probably not worthy of much. It was too elementary, too simple, entry-level work. Worse, I couldn’t name an age group or audience who’d want to read it. I’d always believed that trying to control reader’s perceptions stifles one’s particular writing voice. But I also believed my real story telling voice wouldn’t hold a novel together.

And yet . . . Awards? 

It’s true that authors can never be sure how their work will be read or interpreted, or what readers will glean from it when they’ve read to the last page.

We’ve all heard “write what you know.” Forgiving Effie Beck is what I know, some of what I’ve lived. I worried most about keeping personal agendas at bay - a point I believe vital to writing decent fiction. Especially if it is to have any universal meaning whatsoever. To guard against having my agendas seep into the story I gave the task of telling Effie Beck’s story to the characters. Characters like down-and-out Mike LeMay, heartbroken Red Kasper, lonely and isolated Effie Beck herself and ostracized Jodean Travis. They told my fingers what they thought, felt, how they perceived troubling events. All I had to do was set them free on the page. The voice, the writing, belongs to them.

I've often noticed I say, "Forgiving Effie Beck won an award." Then I'd wonder why I don't say, "I won an award for Forgiving Effie Beck."

Now I think I understand - It's not my story.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Power That Beckons

A few years ago, I realized with an excited flutter that I had two or three days of free time between writing projects. Without much planning I headed for the sea, the Gulf of Mexico – North Padre Island – to be exact. The lullaby of my childhood had been the caw and screech of sea gulls. I received my first kiss sitting on a pier that reached far out into Trinity Bay. And, every summer of my youth I fished and crabbed the bays and inlets with my cousins until our skin was the color of ketchup. Still, during the three hour drive to Padre Island, I struggled to understand the power that beckons me south at times like that. It's as if I’m called to heed a different code for living, if only for a short while.

After checking into my room I changed into a swim suit and dashed out to walk in the warm sand along the water’s edge. It was late day, a time when sunlight strikes the waves at low, long angles and the water shimmers clear and green as Chinese jade. I could not help but worry about Louisiana, my “sister state,” and how awful it was to watch TV footage of crude oil spewing into precious waters that literally housed my growing-up history. I wondered if people born land-locked far from any shore could possibly understand how painful it was to watch the ruin, to know the future of the Gulf of Mexico was in horrible danger and maybe forever changed by the careless hand of man.

"The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea." Isak Dinesen
The next day I waded out to a sand bar, floated on my back and hoped the rhythm of the sea would swallow me. The tide was low, what I think of as soft tide because the waves come in and go out like shallow breaths. I felt suspended on the edge of some dreamy "other" world where all movement, all life is determined by the Cosmos. Brown Pelicans, awkward creatures on land and yet elegant and graceful in the air, sailed above me on a gentle wind, mindlessly following a DNA pattern passed down over the millennia. It was easy to forget a world of email, cell phones, deadlines and oil spills.

During the drive home I felt healed. From what, I have no idea. I stopped to buy a few groceries and on impulse picked up a bouquet of roses. Since I’d never done such an extravagant thing, I could only blame the wind and the waves, the pull of the sea beckoning my particular DNA. I rationalized that the roses were for the sea, the power that had rescued me, made me worthy once again before depositing me back on life’s shore to return to my dreams and my stories.

It’s a blessing to know there is a place at the edge of land where I can let go of the ego-driven drama manufactured by every day life. A place where the Cosmos rules and eventually restores the mess of humans.  

Monday, July 1, 2013


Andrea Downing, author of Loveland
Recently novelist Andrea Downing invited me to join her for a week long visit in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Since I’ve always had an itch to see Wyoming, I accepted her gracious invitation, then forced myself not to read anything about the areas I’d be visiting. My purpose was to form first impressions from my particular perspective without any prior influence. So I boarded a jet in sunny, hot San Antonio, Texas and blasted off to a place of mountain peaks and broad valleys with no preconceived notions.  

Our first full Wyoming day, Andrea drove north to Grand Teton National Park. I worried that I’d not seen a straight line of horizon anywhere during the drive. Distances were constantly interrupted by mountains - the Teton Range, Gros Ventre Range, and Snake River Range. Not a single view of the horizon as I was so familiar with after a lifetime on the Texas Gulf Coast. I wondered how I would manage if I lived in such a place. All my life I’d watched stars spiral up from the flat line of horizon in the east to circle around to the west where they sink into an equally flat expanse of Earth. Sky above, Earth below, and only one clean line divided the two.

Antelope Flats - No flat line horizon
But not so in Jackson Hole, Wyoming where wide valleys are framed by craggy, sharp peaks all around. I felt very much a foreigner in that strangely cool - almost cold - climate thousands of feet above sea level. Sounds seemed muffled. The quiet was like that of a sound proof room. I supposed the mountains themselves acted as a sound barrier of sorts. At one point I turned to Andrea and asked if she ever wondered what the first explorers thought when they came upon all that beauty. Were they as awed by the place as me? Or had they seen so much beauty by the time they traveled from wherever, that it was simply another place to record on their maps.

At Grand Teton National Park we climbed into a boat for a ride around Jenny Lake, hiked what we thought was to be a paved trail (Will not mention that my travel companion got the details wrong...) From there we drove to Jackson Lodge for the best view of Jackson Lake with the mountains in the distance. I’d developed a really nasty head cold and Andrea was still recovering from eye surgery. We couldn’t help but laugh at our misadventures at times - like hiking an unpaved paved trail. We were an odd pair - me blowing my nose like a tuba, Andrea blinking like a hoot owl in sunshine.

Adrea enjoying the quiet sunshine at Lewis Lake
Exploring the shoreline at Lewis Lake

One day we hiked around Lewis Lake. At the end of the hike Andrea sat quietly on a bench taking an occasional photograph while I walked the lake shoreline picking through colorful rocks. Time stretched to late day sunshine and I felt healed from the stress of deadlines and the constant and overwhelming weight of internet connection.

We ate huge sandwiches at a little convenience store at Dornan’s, delicious ice cream cones at Colter Bay. We visited with a storekeeper at the historic Menor’s Ferry Crossing of the Snake River and in the same area, entered the Chapel of the Transfiguration where I stood drop-jawed at the window behind the pulpit. The view of the mountains would inspire religion in anyone.

Stunning view behind the pulpit at the Chapel of Transfiguration

Historic Flying U Ranch established by J. Pierce Cunningham between 1888 and 1890 (facts are not clear to the exact year) was one of my favorite sites to visit. A brochure provided just enough history about Cunningham, his wife Margaret and their attempts at cattle ranching that I’m inspired to follow up with more in depth research from home. Another of my favorites was Antelope Flats, where buffalo and antelope roam freely on a pristine expanse of natural grasses between mountain ranges.

The view from Cunningham's cabin
We followed the Lewis River north and crossed over into Yellowstone National Park where we watched Old Faithful do its thing and then doubled back to Geyer Basin, a place of unearthly beauty, mystic and Mars-like.

Saturday night we rodeo-ed and then Sunday we danced our hearts out at the famous Stagecoach Bar and Grill where the same band has played every Sunday afternoon for 40 years. I’ve never heard such yodeling ... two perfect harmonizing yodelers.

The yodeling duo
So, what is my unbiased impression of Wyoming?

It is a place of incredible beauty, rich in history, at times mysterious and as unspoiled by man as is possible given the fact that our world’s wild places are shrinking at an alarming pace. The one drawback? No horizon. But I’d go back in a heartbeat for more of its healing power and adventure.

I have searched for words of gratitude to adequately convey to Andrea Downing how much I enjoyed our week in Jackson Hole.

Thanks, Pal. I’ll carry the memories in my heart forever.

Andrea Downing will post her account of our week together today, too. Click here and see how her thoughts compare to mine. Both of us posted at Women Writing the West Blogspot a few days ago. Click on over if you are inclined. And, as always - leave comments. Writers cherish feedback.

Thanks for stopping by. Happy Trails.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Research Road


LaDene Morton

Today I’ve invited novelist LaDene Morton, self-described Research Junkie to share with us how she found the path to writing success. Her novel, What Lies West, was a WILLA Award Finalist for 2010. The award is presented every year by the Women Writing the West organization. Not only is LaDene an accomplished novelist, she is a former Women Writing the West Catalog editor and currently serves as Vice President of the Women Writing the West Conference scheduled for October 11-13 of this year.

Research Road - LaDene Morton

I love a good journey. I don’t mean conventional travel, which really only implies motion through space over time. Though I do adore a good road trip. Or train trip or boat trip for that matter. No, the journey is far more about where you start, where you end up, and how that interstice between the two points changes you.  Most writers I know are all about the journey, whether it’s the hero tale they’re telling or their own quest for self through the writing. I’m right there with them. But of all the journeys my writing has provided – real, metaphorical or imagined – the one that’s been the most rewarding took me down the Research Road.

I came to writing as a researcher, of policies and data and other prosaic matters of the social order.  So when the story that would become my historical fiction novel, What Lies West, was but a glint in my mind’s eye, I turned to research. Set in the mid 19th century and covering the exploits of one woman who travels west from Missouri to Oregon, there was a lot of real and literary territory to cover if I was going to write the book of my imaginings. I needed to know a lot.  No, I needed to know it all. So I began something that seemed to me an exercise justifiable from every angle – I amassed a library. Writers are indulged their libraries. They’re essential. So I built mine. Books on the trails, the Gold Rush, logging, maritime history, period clothing, the military, Native Americans…the shelves filled quickly.

What Lies West, WILLA Award Finalist, 2010

The pages, however, did not. Still, I knew this research would be helpful. The book would be better for it. I would be a better writer for it. That is, when I finally got around to writing. The problem was, I didn’t get around to writing. Not for the longest time. My excuse? I was researching. I was still in search of my personal Holy Grail – the one detail, that unique personal account, the one fillip that would propel my story from the ordinary to the sublime. I had become a research junkie, and like other addicts, it turned out that no matter how much I learned – and I did learn a lot – it would never be enough. For a brief but critical time, I felt like my beloved Research Road had betrayed me. It was nothing more than a blind alley leading to a dead end.

With nothing more to gain from research, out of desperation, I finally started writing. Just a bit at first, then a bit more, then before I knew it whole chapters. Only when I had reached enough altitude in my writing could I look behind me at the Research Road and really see where it had taken me – to the place where I finally had to turn around and go back to what had started the journey in the first place. The story I wanted to tell. I’ll be forever grateful for that not-so-short cut that the Research Road had given me. It fueled my imagination, offered endless possibilities for the story’s direction, and gave me confidence in my choices. However, the best lesson was about not getting distracted and straying from the path. Pull off for a while and reflect if you need to. But stay on the path.

Thank you LaDene. I feel sure most writers of historical fiction will find insight in your wise words.