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.

The Kindness of Strangers

For all my adult life I’ve taken pride in my ability to function independently. When traveling I make my own arrangements and tote my own bags. In foreign countries I find my way around even when I don’t speak the language. Thus it was with some chagrin and a deep sense of irony that I found myself totally lost in my home state of Indiana on a recent trip to visit relatives.

The telephone directions I’d received seemed clear and simple, so I set forth with confidence on what should have been a fifteen minute jaunt. Over an hour later I did finally arrive at my destination – but only with the help of a stranger.

Paved roads had given way to gravel by the time I pulled off onto a country driveway. As I pulled out my cell phone to contact my waiting hosts, I became aware of a man walking toward me from the house. I nodded at his inquiring look, but kept my door locked and windows shut while I tried to describe my location to the voice at the other end of the line. Finally, in frustration, the voice said, “Let me talk to this guy you mentioned; maybe we can sort out where you are.”

OK, the guy looked harmless enough – an older man in work clothes with thinning hair. I rolled down my window and handed him the phone. Extensive discussion ensued, with streets and roads named that meant nothing to me. My ears perked up, however, when the man said, “I’ll bring her,” and handed back the phone. ‘My car has no reverse,” he said,” but if you’ll back out and let me turn around, you can follow me in your car.”

Ok, worth a try. It couldn’t be far if he was willing to act as lead dog. So, off we went – over the river and through the woods, literally, then through main streets and back streets of a fair-sized town and out into the suburbs – a considerable distance, especially with gas at $3.50 a gallon. My eyes were glued to his back bumper, where the license plate read “Purple Heart Veteran.”

Arriving within a block of my destination, I got out of my car, thanked the gentleman profusely and pressed a bill into his hand -“for gas money”- though he tried to decline it. Off he went, going forward, while I backed up to turn into my cousin’s driveway -safely delivered, with a tale to tell about the kindness of strangers.

Celebrating Summer Solstice

Tomorrow, according to the calendar, is June 21st, the first day of summer, the longest day and shortest night of the year. Known by many names – Litha, Midsummer, St. John’s Day – it has been celebrated through the ages, first as a communal agricultural rite to ensure a good harvest and as a fertility ritual. Bonfires are lighted, May poles are erected (pole = male, earth = female), mead made from fermented honey is drunk (hence “honeymoon” in June). Dancing, drinking, dreaming and lovemaking ensue.

Yesterday in Minnesota I wove a wreath of daisies for my hair and danced around the Maypole in a public park. I ate heart-shaped waffles doused with fresh strawberries and sweet cream. Families with picnic baskets sprawled on the grass.

Had I been living in Sweden, where Midsommer is a national holiday second only to Christmas, I might have  joined friends for pickled herring and new potatoes, washed down with schnapps and beer, then taken part in games and dancing.

In England thousands will gather at Stonehenge to watch the sun rise over the central axis of this megalithic stone circle. In Ireland neo-pagans may gather at New Grange, a megalithic grave mound constructed so as to receive the last rays of the setting sun on a stone at the back of the cairn – only on the summer solstice.

Midsummer. A time of magic? A time to head out for vacation? A time to renew your committment to preserving Mother Earth? You decide, but don’t let the day pass unmarked.


Rapture Rescheduled

In case you haven’t heard, the May 20th failure of the world to end has now been termed a ‘spiritual rather than a physical event’ by evangelist Harold Camping. The REAL end of days has been rescheduled for October 21, 2011 – according to a “revised revelation” revealed on Stand by for further updates.

End time Viking style

As we know, the world did not end on May 21, 2011. This fact is not likely to deter those obsessed with predicting Doomsday, however, for we humans seem fascinated with stories about the earth’s ultimate demise – be they blockbuster summer movies or ancient prophecies. Think the Book of Revelations with Apocalypse, think Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle with Gotterdammerung, think Norse mythology with Ragnarok. Ragnarok? Now there’s a spectacle for you! Gods and men battling giants and monsters, the forces of order and control versus chaos and old night. Ragnarok incorporates elements common to other disaster scenarios, such as earthquake, tsunami and fire, but there is one major difference: the end is not the end.

Ragnarok sets the stage with portents of doom: successive winters, return of the dead, and the loosing of monsters via earthquakes and tidal waves. (In my novel, Faces in the Fire, King Hrothgar’s court fear that the appearance of the Grendel monster is a signal of such approaching doom.)

Next comes the gathering of forces from each corner of the nine worlds to square off in a final battle. (Think Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Book Three) Finally the battle itself, in which opposing forces destroy each other, fire burns everything, and the land sinks into the sea.

End of story? Not quite. Unlike most Christian versions, the pagan Ragnarok ends with a vision of the earth’s renewal. A new world rises from the sea, new gods and men are born, and in this ‘brave new world’ men and gods live happily together – a golden age.

I vote to Ragnarok.