Walk Right In!

I’ve heard about this sort of thing happening to other authors – i.e. a character appearing unbidden, “out of the blue” (or perhaps from the author’s subconscious) – but I had not personally experienced it before. Now, I have.

Recently a character “walked right in” to the novel I’m currently working on, second in my Women of Beowulf trilogy. Her name is Runa, she’s Finnish, and she’s a young slave in Beowulf’s home territory in Sweden.

The sudden appearance of Runa has opened up a whole new area of research for me: Finnish folk culture and particularly the national epic, The Kalevala. I’ve been devouring this fascinating document for several days and nights. The work had been on the periphery of my vision for years; I used to read aloud to high school students a story taken from The Kalevala, “Louhi, Witch of North Farm.” Now, I’m absorbing the richness of folklore and characters it has to offer.

Since Finland is now “on my radar,” so to speak, Finnish sources have been popping up all around me. For example, I recently discovered that a longtime friend here in the U.S. is of Finnish descent. She loaned me two books on Finnish history which are turning out to be a goldmine of information. So it goes. When “way opens,” as we Quakers say, you just don’t know who will walk through that door or where they will take you.

In Faces in the Fire I went to Denmark and Germany. With Book Two (as yet untitled) I’m journeying to Sweden and now Finland. I wonder where Book Three will lead me? Time will tell – or an unexpected character!

The Business End of Writing

Monday afternoon I had a sobering talk with a CPA about record-keeping for next year’s taxes. As an independent author I fall into the category of “Sole Proprietor.” Basically this means that, as a self-employed person, I am responsible for paying social security and Medicare taxes out of my book earnings, in addiiton to any income taxes owed. Wow!

Until I actually turn a profit, some of my expenses can be written off as losses, but the IRS wants definite proof that I’m in the serious business of writing and not just publishing books as a hobby. What kind of proof? I asked the tax accountant. Separating my business bank account from my personal accounts is a start, I was told. Something as simple as having and using a business card is another. Good! I qualify on both.

Next, I was told that keeping a current, continuous log of expenses is vitally important. Oops! Although I have a box stuffed full of receipts, I need to make a detailed list of all my appearances this fall – including mileage, motels, food expenses, etc. Royalty checks should be copied. Expense files should be set up (e.g. office supplies, research materials). My office needs to be a space dedicated solely to my work in order to be a legitimate deduction. Should the IRS come calling, I must be able to show them my office and put my hands on any receipts they request. By keeping good, complete records I will also help my tax preparer in 2012.

If and when I start making money, I”ll have to file quarterly estimated payments toward the annual taxes due – on a 1040ES form. Whew! I’m glad I had that little talk with a tax professional! When I started writing Faces in the Fire, I gave no thought to the busines end of the process. Now, I’ve decided that paying a CPA for his services will be a wise and necessary step. If you, too, are a published author, don’t forget to do your own homework!

Birch Bark Bonanza

Hello again! I’ve been working on my next novel for the past two months, but now I’m back to blogging.

In researching life in sixth century Sweden and Finland as background for book # 2 of The Women of Beowulf series , I came across many references to the use of birch trees or birch bark in everyday life. Since birch forests covered a large area of those countries, one would expect the inhabitants to use birch for fuel and timber, but its various domestic applications surprised and delighted me. I just couldn’t wait until publication of the second book to share this amazing information – so here it is!

Baskets of birch bark held the seeds (e.g. hemp and barley) while fields were sown. Smaller baskets became baking pans for a dough mixture of flour, salt and blood. Birch bark could also be fashioned into salt containers, or made into satchels to transport provisions for work and travel.

In the spring, birch sap was tapped to be drunk by humans and/or given to cattle to supplement their fodder. In times of famine, dried and ground birch bark could be added to flour as a filler.

The ash from burned birch logs was turned into lye for soap-making. Birch was also used to tan  the hides of cows and oxen for making shoes. Birch was burned to produce a tar used for lubricating tools and machinery. On a more fragrant note,  fresh birch branches were used as whisks to stimulate circulation after a sauna bath. Birch branches also became part of the decorations used inside and outside the house on the summer solstice.

I have always loved the beauty of fluttering birch leaves, and we wrap the trunk of birch trees at our northern cabin to protect them from the gnawing teeth of beaver. I’ve used birch bark to write love notes to my sweetheart, just as my father once used birch bark to write a journal of his fishing adventures in the wilderness. Now, after what I’ve learned, I have even more respect for birch and for the ingenuity of our ancestors.

Feasting on Crayfish

August in Scandinavia means crayfish parties, traditionally held outdoors as an end-of -summer ritual. But not everyone is so enamored of these small crustaceans.

Growing up as a kid in the midwest, I knew of “crawdads” or “mudbugs” only as fish bait. Certainly nobody ate them – ugh! At our cabin in Canada crayfish are the preferred food of mink, who scatter remains on our dock after an evening’s dining.

In Texas and Louisiana crayfish boils are a popular social event. Farm-raised in large commercial operations, gunny sacks full of live crayfish are dumped into huge pots of highly seasoned boiling water in which potatoes and corn-on-the-cob have already been cooked. The resulting spicy platters will bring tears to your eyes (literally) and the need to reach for a cold mug of beer.

Things are done differently in Scandinavia. They catch crayfish at night in chicken wire traps with funnel-shaped openings – very clever! A more restrained mix of seasonings is used in the cooking – water seasoned with only salt, sugar and quantities of dill. The crayfish are served with bread and butter, washed down with vodka, aquavit or beer.

The Swedes are famous for their crayfish parties, though the Finns are not far behind in their passion for this delicacy. No matter where you are, eating crayfish is a messy business requiring hands-on attentiion. You must twist off the head, split open the shell and suck out the meat! Fortunately the results are worth the effort. Short of eating lobster, nothing else measures up to these little gifts of summer – a delicious treat. Enjoy them while you can. I’m even including them in the second book of my Women of Beowulf series.

Closing the Cabin

Summer at Lake of the Woods in Ontariio, Canada, is coming to an end for this island dweller. Days are shorter, nights are cooler, the white pelicans that once flocked to our rock have been replaced by black cormorants. It happens every year. So does another dreaded activitiy: closing the cabin.

Long experience has taught us to set aside three days for this project. We have a checklist of 77 items to be completed, and our checklist grows longer every year. Any item left unchecked can be a cause for grief when we return next spring. Here is a sample of our list:

* Pack and haul trash, garbage and recycling (this is an island, remember?)

* Remove temperature sensitive materials (-65 degrees last winter)

* Drain all supply side plumbing

* Turn off electric panel

* Fog all cylinders and carburetors on outboard motors

* Put stabilizer in gas cans

* Remove fire extinguishers from cabin and boats

* Clean ashes from parlour stove

* Fill firewood box with starter paper, kindling and split logs

* Set out mouse poison in cabin

* Tether floating dock to shore and boathouse

* Add wire covers to boat seats (to foil squirrels, etc.)

* Take down boathouse phone line

* Drain and store washing machine in workshop

* Take home sheets and pillowcases to launder

* Plug in cell phone night before departure

* Cancel Internet connectiion

* Leave cabin doors unlocked and post sign” “No alcohol, guns or electronics” (remember the -65 degrees?)

Whew! Time to get busy!

How I Came to Love Beowulf

Growing up in rural Indiana during the 40’s and 50’s, the world of Beowulf was as unknown and foreign to me as the dark side of the moon. It did not enter my field of vision until gradute school in the 60’s, when I had to take a course in Old English Literature. Bingo! Beowulf – in the original! I struggled through the epic, got my degree and moved on.

Years later I found myself in a high school classroom, preparing to teach Honors English to 16-year-olds. On the curriculum: Beowulf. I immersed myself in the Burton Raffel translation, papered the walls of the classroom to simulate a sixth century mead hall, and drew a life-sized Beowulf with blonde hair and chain mail to occupy it.

On the day I planned to introduce the epic, I brought in a friend who played hammered dulcimer. We dressed in long cloaks and turned out the lights. As she “harped,” I intoned the opening lines:

“Hear me! We’ve heard of Danish heroes,

Ancient kings and the glory they cut

For themselves, swinging mighty swords!”…

My dumbstruck students knew they had entered a different world, one possibly occupied by a crazy teacher.

Every year I looked forward to making a deeper acquaintance with Beowulf. My students memorized passages to recite before the class. We made facsimiles of the helmet excavated at Sutton Hoo, we learned how to write our names in futhork, the runic alphabet. We immersed ourselves in an ancient world of gods, heroes and monsters.

Sixteen years down the road, I was standing before another class reading Beowulf when I had an epiphany. I stopped in mid-sentence as the idea hit me, then declared out loud, “I’m going to write a book about the WOMEN of Beowulf!” One of my sophomore boys jumped to his feet. “Yeah, Dr. Rogers – you can call it The Babes of Beowulf!”

As it turned out, I used a different title, Faces in the Fire, but I did write that novel about the women of Beowulf. In fact I’m now at work on Book Two of the series. I still love Beowulf and the world it represents, a world of gods, monsters, heroes – and women.

Inhouse or Outhouse?

When you live on a rocky island, special attention must be paid to the matter of waste disposal, human and otherwise. We have a choice: inhouse or outhouse? Rain and darkness dictate the former, but in the interest of season-long septic system sustainability, it is often best to use the outhouse.

Ours is located about 60 feet from the main cabin. It’s a little red shack surrounded by wild roses and evergreens. A tree branch handle secures the door – which does NOT feature the stereotypical half-moon carving. It’s a one-seater. There is no unpleasant odor because the waste is property treated, biologically.

The interior is downright decorative. To the right of the “opening” (a regulation toilet rim and lid) stand rows of covered coffee cans containing rolls of toilet tissue. To the left, stacks of old Reader’s Digests – some with antique status – provide for leisure reading. The walls are adorned with calendars: scenic, floral, and girlie. Two pseudo-license plates record the travels of one occupant. The green and orange model reads “Rio De Janeiro, Brazil 2008. Another, in black and yellow from Australia, features a kangaroo, koala, emu, wombat and crocodile.

The most creative decorations are produced by the spiders. Daddy Longlegs are sociable companions familiar from childhood. Don’t be alarmed if you see a big, brown, hairy spider as big as your hand. These “dock spiders” don’t bite; they’re just looking for a cool, dark place to hang out – much like the human occupants.

Historical footnote: In Viking times, such as those depicted in my novel, Faces in the Fire, the “outhouse” was the only choice available. Usually a shed-like privy, it was attached to the outer wall of a family’s longhouse. Even in winter you still had to go outside!

Advice for the Writing Life

Tops on my “To Do” list for summer: WRITE! Book Two of The Women of Beowulf is actually well along, but advice on “how to write” keeps coming my way. Last night on MPR I heard an author interviewed who had taught himself how to write by typing out other people’s stories word for word. He did this for two years. Such a regimen would drive me crazy!

In a book I recently picked up, Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life, he recommends reading all the great books as the best education for a writer. That, and learning how to use specific details. One of my favorite “how-to’s” is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which advocates that the writer address one thing at a time and just keep at it. Stephen King also had good advice in his book on writing, but I can’t now remember what it was!

My own technique for producing historical fiction is to research, research, research, and absorb, absorb, absorb. I spent five years doing this, including on-site exploration in Scandinavia, before writing Faces in the Fire, Book One of The Women of Beowulf. When my brain-sponge is almost full, I sit down, make a rough outline, and start squeezing.

(You may have heard that once you create characters they take on lives of their own. I’ve found this to be true. Mine love to talk, so dialogue is a prominent feature in my work.)

Interior writing – writing in my head – is also essential for me. I do it when I lie down to sleep, when I wake in the morning, when I’m driving a car. Scientists have fancy names for this process, but it is really just rehearsal – trying to get it right before going on stage.

My recommendation? Trial and error. It’s the only way to find what works for you.

“To Blog or Not to Blog…”

How does one survive when NOT hooked up to their “life support system”?? Of course I’m referring to my computer connection to email, Twitter, Facebook, website and blog!!

Talk about primitive!  Here in the “far North” of Canada (well, just across the border) I can only get dial-up Internet, because the rocks and trees interfere with more sophisticated signals. With this system, frustration abounds. For example, I can see gmails (i.e. Google) but can’t open them. Forget anything with lots of visuals, so Facebook is out, and so is Twitter. I can open AOL emails, however, and send messages. And finally…I can access to send out my weekly blog. Hurrah!

Wait a minute. I’m up here at the cabin in the first place to work on my second novel, # 2 in the Women of Beowulf series. Shouldn’t I be writing rather than blogging? Decisions, decisions. I must admit that I need that face time with my computer screen as much as I need my morning cup of coffee! So what’s the problem? Why not sit down and begin?

I’m a writer who puts down her first draft on yellow legal pads, written in ink. Only after extensive editing and revision do I commit it to computer. Old-fashioned? Yes, but it works for me. WOW! I just wrote my blog!

Footnote: speaking of blogs, go to and look at the Midnight Summer Festival entry for July 15th. Yours truly. Enjoy.

Here: Far, Far North

It’s a different world up here, “here” being a cabin on an island in Lake of the Woods, Ontario, Canada, about an hour north of the MInnesota state line. You need a passport to cross the border. You need a boat to reach the island, one of 14,000 islands in this huge lake. You need patience while opening the cabin and getting the water supply going (drawn from the lake). But it’s worth all the effort.

Through the open windows I hear wonderful sounds: water lapping on the rocky shoreline, wind rustling in the pine and birch trees, the distant shriek of eagles, the melodies of a song sparrow, the call of loons.

‘Here” is the place where I write: daily journals, weekly blogs, and – hopefully – the second novel in my Women of Beowulf series. Right now I’m still working on chapter one, but I’ve outlined the whole book in detail, so I think I know where I’m headed.

“Here” is also the place where I feel a part of the larger picture. Everything here speaks to me of life’s abundance: tiny strawberries nestled in the grass, wild roses arching over the outhouse, strange mushrooms sprouting on the trail, gangly teenage pelicans cruising past the dock, mink scat and crayfish shells left on the swimming rock, moss-backed turtles sunning on fallen logs. Even the float planes flying overhead seem a part of this gigantic jigsaw puzzle. I’m here. I’m home.