Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In Memoriam: Beverly Barton by Peggy Webb

Today is the launch date for Beverly Barton’s latest romantic suspense, Dead by Morning.  It’s still unbelievable that Beverly won’t be showing up at the Heart of Dixie Reader’s Luncheon in Huntsville, Alabama this weekend to greet fans, hugs friends and sign copies of her new book.

Beverly died unexpected last Thursday, April 21st.  I was sitting in the doctor’s office for a follow-up visit with the ear, nose and throat specialist when the call came in from Debra Webb, who is not only my dear friend but also another amazing romantic suspense author.  “The doctor will be here any minute,” I told Deb. “Can I call you back?”  Her reply forever changed the way I view my life. “Yes,” she said, “but I have to tell you that Beverly Barton had a heart attack this morning and died.”
How could that be? Beverly was only 64. She was full of plans, full of story ideas, full of life. She was expecting children and grandchildren home for Easter. She was reveling in her role of wife, mother, grandmother.

Nothing is certain. Not even the next breath.

I first met Beverly when I was a newly published author and she was an aspiring writer.  It was in the early 80s at a writers’ conference on the lovely campus of the University of North Alabama in Florence, only a short drive from Beverly’s hometown of Tuscumbia   I knew even then that she was destined for success. She sparkled from the inside out. She was full of enthusiasm for story telling, and excited about meeting people who wrote, talked about, and loved books.

By 1989 she had published her first book – Yankee Lover.  When she died she had written almost 70 books and was a New York Times best-selling author.

But Beverly was so much more than an accomplished and much-lauded author.  She was a beautiful woman with a smile that lit up the room, a generous spirit that allowed her to mentor aspiring writers, and a heart big enough to love not only family and dear friends but everyone who came in contact with her.

I was one of the lucky ones.  Though we lived in different states, I knew I could always count on her.  When I needed sound advice, I knew I could turn to Beverly.  And when I needed help, she was there. Once when my plane bypassed my hometown of Tupelo because of fog and landed in Tuscumbia, I called Beverly.  She picked me up in the middle of the night, in the middle of a storm. 

I spent the night in her home, and for those of knew her best, that meant lots of laughter. She had me rolling on the floor with her story of getting so disgusted with her computer, she jerked the cord out of the wall, then proceeded down the stairs, cord in hand, computer bumping along behind like a disobedient dog. When her husband looked up, startled, she told him, “Don’t say a word.” On the carport, she took his hammer and smashed the offensive computer to bit. Then she marched back inside, announced, “There. That’s done with,” and drove into town to get a new computer.

Beverly Barton was charming, spirited, witty, gracious, focused, hard-working, generous and talented.  She was one-of-a-kind and she has left a huge void not only in the publishing world but in the hearts of her family, friends, and fans.

I invite you to share memories of her and express your sympathy to her family on this blog.

Peggy Webb has been writing novels since 1985. She expresses her deepest sympathy to Beverly’s family. Along with the other Heart of Dixie writers, she weeps for the loss of a friend and fellow writer.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Beauty and The Risk

By Andy Straka

        There is a light that sharpens the hunt during darkest winter, a delicate radiance belonging as much to the earth as to the sky.  After dawn, it clings to the trees like some corporeal messenger.  Remember the stark reality of cold possibilities, it says, black memory, the frozen echoes of hollowed-out veins beneath the ground….
So begins my third Frank Pavlicek novel Cold Quarry—a story set 

amid West Virginia’s mountains, coal mines, and forests.

Nature plays a pivotal role in the Pavlicek novels.  Former NYPD detective Pavlicek is both a private investigator and a licensed falconer.  I have often said he has one foot in the mean streets and another in the woods, which can turn out to be a pretty mean place itself, at times.

Part of the allure of falconry is experiencing the raw beauty of nature first hand.  There is so much to write about in the wild, so much to appreciate and to work to preserve, but with great beauty there also comes great risk.  I have recently experienced this for myself.

As many of you know, my research into falconry for the Pavlicek novels eventually led me to pursue the sport myself.  Two year ago this summer, one of my teenage daughters and I drove about seventy miles north of where we live in Virginia to the home of a falconer acquaintance to pick up my new hawk.  He was a four-year-old Harris Hawk.  My daughter promptly dubbed him “Harris Potter.”  

“HP”, as I soon came to call him when hunting with him, was not my first falconry bird.  During my apprenticeship I had also flown two red-tailed hawks and a kestrel, all of which I trapped from the wild and eventually released.  But I knew I was in for something special the first time I flew HP.  He was a breeze to handle, he “followed on” with me flying from treetop to treetop as if we’d been together for years, and took to game without any prompting whatsoever.

Harris hawks are desert birds, native to the Southwestern US and Mexico.  They have one especially redeeming characteristic as far as falconers are concerned.  Unlike other hawks and falcons, they live and hunt in family groups.  Consequently, Harris hawks have developed a social, pack-like mentality.  In a television special about them National Geographic called Harris hawks “wolves of the skies.”  This same pack mentality is what allowed humans to domestic dogs, and, as a species, Harris hawks take especially well to falconry.  They come to view the falconer and others in the hunting party as other members of their “pack.”

Not only was HP the best trained bird I have ever had the privilege to fly—owing both to his nature and the skills of the falconer from whom I’d acquired him—he was also a fearless hunter, throwing himself with reckless abandon at large prey such as rabbits and squirrels.  He seemed especially drawn to squirrels, which can be feisty, even dangerous prey for a twenty-two ounce hawk.  We took our share of squirrels and other game during the two seasons we were together, enough to keep us in the hunt, but it was the beauty of his stoops and pursuits I will remember above all, and if we came home without bagging any quarry it was invariably my failure and not the hawk’s. 

With this past hunting season coming to a close and spring upon us, I recently took to flying HP for exercise alone and begun fattening him up once again for his annual “molt” or change in plumage.  Then, as dusk was closing in one night a couple of weeks ago, he was attacked through the roof netting of his protective enclosure by an owl.  
It is a little unclear exactly what happened next.  The enclosure kept the larger attacker from getting at HP and attempting to kill him, which was the nesting owl’s intent, but unfortunately she must have somehow been able to slip a talon through the web of the roof and grab a wingtip as HP either rose to defend himself or flew down from the top of his wire.  I came outside later that evening to find my bold hawk staring at me with a fractured wing.  The owl returned a short while later to attempt to finish the job, but by then I’d already removed HP to a different location. 
I rushed him to the aviary specialist veterinarian and eventually to the outstanding vets at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, and, after x-rays under anesthesia, the prognosis was clear.  HP needed surgery.   He would live to make a great education bird in a zoo or raptor rehab center somewhere, but tragically, he would never fly again. 
I still find it difficult to convey the extent of the shock and sadness that came over me that day.

There is an old saying in falconry. . .There are only two types of falconers: those who have lost birds and those who are going to lose birds.  We all know nature can be unforgiving, but to have the privilege of working with such a magnificent hawk as HP and to lose him, not while on a hunt or flying him, but in such a freakish manner, has been a difficult pill to swallow.  

The good news is though HP is gone from my life, he is not gone for good.  I immediately donated him to the wildlife center and the veterinarians there report that, true to his nature, he came through surgery like a pro and is busy rehabbing in preparation for transfer into an education program.  I’ll be able to visit him, and I’m sure he’ll give enormous pleasure to the many people who will be able to see him and learn more about him.  

I hold no animosity toward the owl.  It’s nesting season, and she was simply protecting her own; she must have somehow viewed HP as invading her turf.  Though I have kept all of my falconry birds in this same enclosure with no problems whatsoever, I am in the process of adding heavy gauge steel hardware cloth to the roof structure of the enclosure to prevent such a thing from happening again.  I also plan to acquire another Harris Hawk this summer and begin hunting again in the fall.

Still, I can’t help but continue to grieve over memories of blue skies and days together with Harris Potter.   Another chapter has been added to my falconry experience, this one of sorrow and regret.  Hawks are meant to fly, and somewhere in the darkness of the wildlife hospital tonight, well-cared-for as he is, a brave heart is down. 

                                                                 "Harris Potter"
                                                            photo by Kevin Blythe


 video used with permission - purchase songs at www.heatherdale.com 

Publisher's Weekly has featured Andy Straka as one of a new crop of "rising stars in crime fiction." His books include A WITNESS ABOVE (Anthony, Agatha, and Shamus Award finalist), A KILLING SKY (Anthony Award Finalist), COLD QUARRY (Shamus Award Winner), KITTY HITTER (called a "great read" by Library Journal), and RECORD OF WRONGS, hailed by Mystery Scene magazine as "a first-rate thriller."

Andy has worked as a book editor, movie production accommodation agent, commercial building owner and consulting vice president for a large specialty physician’s practice, surgical implant and pharmaceutical sales representative, college textbook sales and manuscript acquisition representative, web offset press paper jogger, laborer on a city road crew, summer recreation youth director, camp counselor, youth basketball coach, assistant parts manager at an auto dealership, assistant manager at a McDonalds restaurant, and even been registered as a private investigator. (Not to mention a longstanding stint as a stay-at-home Dad to six, which makes neurosurgery look like tiddlywinks.)

Also a licensed falconer and co-founder of the popular Crime Wave at the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, Andy is a native of upstate New York and a graduate of Williams College where, as co-captain of the basketball team, he "double-majored" in English and the crossover dribble. Current projects include a soon-to-be released "Adult Fiction for Teens" edition of A Witness Above incorporating a falconry primer for teens published by Cedar Creek Press and a recently completed sixth novel. Andy is also at work on his Masters Degree in Creative Writing. He lives with his family in Virginia.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lilac, Garbage and Expensive Perfume

by Susan Cushman

When I read that the theme for this round of posts was “the effect of nature on your writing,” I was a little panicked. I’ve never considered myself a nature lover. In fact, I prefer the concrete jungle to the deep, dark, green, mysterious environs of the woods. But when I told my best friend about my anxiety, she said, “Oh, but you do love nature. You’re always telling me about the baby robins in the nest outside your kitchen window and you even wrote a poem once about your peonies blooming.” Was that me? Maybe the natural world just weaves its way into my city girl heart unawares at times.

And then, of course, there’s the beach, which for some reason I don’t consider “nature” in the same way that fields of wild flowers and mountain streams and dense woods are nature. The beach is the only place I love more than the city. The most productive time of my writing-career-in-progress was the month I spent at Seagrove Beach, Florida, this past November. Alone. Writing nine chapters of my novel. It was magical. I also memorized poetry as I walked along the beach every day and breathed in the salt air and felt the “flung spray and the blown spume” and heard “the sea gulls crying,” as John Masefield puts it so eloquently in his poem, “Sea Fever.” (Memorizing poetry is good medicine for the soul, especially during the cold, dark days of winter, as I experienced this past December.

The truth is I haven’t written any more chapters on my novel since I returned from my beach retreat at the end of November. Memphis experienced a historically cold, dark and wet December and January, and I found myself battling a severe case of depression. Some of it could have been SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and any number of other circumstances could have brought it on, but I was just blocked. For one thing, I couldn’t decide how the novel should end, and I’m still struggling with how to write the final chapters without knowing the ending. And just when our weather began to take a turn for the better and spring finally peaked out from behind the darkness, I found myself back on the beach for spring break with my best friend and her teenagers.

After a week of frolicking by the ocean in March (and coming home with a broken ankle) I was ready to return to the novel. But my daughter’s wedding is May 7 and now I find myself in “wedding central” with all the last minute plans during April. She’s getting married on the beach, and I’ll be leaving next Tuesday with my car packed with all the decorations we’ve made for the reception and everything else I’ll need for two weeks back at Seagrove. All this to say that now that the weather is beautiful and the beach is beckoning, I should be able to return to the novel, right? Maybe I’ll carve out a few days at the beach next week before anyone else arrives.

And then there’s always New York City at the end of May. My husband is speaking at a medical meeting in New York, and I love going with him for this trip every year. Me and my laptop will cozy up in our hotel room or at one of my favorite coffee shops in the East Village and we’ll see how the work progresses. Last time I was in New York I road a bicycle through Central Park, which was possibly the closest you can get to “nature” in the Big Apple. It was fun, but nothing compares to riding the subway to the eclectic shops in Soho, and to the Village to hang out in the coffee houses and used book stores, and to the Upper East Side to the art galleries and museums. I’ve written some essays while in New York, so maybe that will be the way to go.

Lilacs in Central Park, New York City
Joan Didion’s bittersweet memoir of living in New York City, “Goodbye to All That,” sheds some light on my love affair with NYC:

“I was in love with New York…. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring…. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume….”

Yes! The air from the subway grating and the plethora of smells from the city and the street corner vendors and the skyscrapers and the fascinating variety of people all around you. I could sit at a sidewalk cafĂ© and write about those things for hours. Maybe I’ll try an experiment while I’m in New York next month. Maybe I’ll try writing in the middle of Central Park one day, and then in a crowded coffee shop in the Village the next, and see which kind of “nature” seems to feed my writing. The possibilities are exciting! (Back in January I wrote a poem, "City Girl's Lament," while visiting my best friend at her mother’s lake house in Arkansas.)

How does nature, the weather, or the “setting” affect your writing? Leave a comment and link back to your own site to join the conversation. I’d love to hear from you!

Susan's essays have been published in The Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal (2007 finalist), First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life, and several other journals and magazines. Later this year, her essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer Shadow,” will appear in the second volume of the anthology, All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, from the University of Alabama Press. Susan’s personal blog is Pen and Palette, and she is a regular guest blogger on Jane Friedman’s Writers’ Digest blog, “There Are No Rules.” Susan is Director of the upcoming 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop  (September 23-25). Registrations are open and spaces are filling!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On nature and nurturing your inner Gladys Kravitz

by Karen Harrington

One of my former professors suggested that writing should be like taking a mirror with you as you walk down the road. That your words should reflect what you see. You should get out of the way and let the words do their job.

For a long time, this advice was a good guide for me. It was, after all, a short story class made up of young college students. We hadn’t lived a lot of life yet. Imagining oneself carrying a mirror down the road helped ensure that we weren’t just figuratively walking – but looking. He wanted to make sure that we didn’t just write “The man had a tattoo.” He wanted us to write “The man had a Superman tattoo.”

But now that I’ve put 20 odd years between that time and now, I’ve taken his advice and added to it. When I read something that really resonates, it’s usually because all five senses are at play on the page.

Writer E. L. Doctorow states it this way:

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon."

Lovely butterfly 
It’s not just taking that mirror down the road and writing what it what it reflects. That is reporting. The trick is capturing the feeling of rain, too.

This is why taking long walks outside informs my writing. It’s not only the much needed exercise of the body, but the experience with nature. How do things smell? How do things sound? How can there be so many different shades of green? And butterflies? Don't get me started. I photographed this one (pictured above) on one of my daughter's recent field trips.

But it's not always the sensations of the outdoors that inspires. It's the people we share this world with. 

Here’s a confession: I am something of a Gladys Kravitz when it comes to looking at people’s houses. Unlike Gladys, I do not go looking in people's windows. (If you are of an age where you don't know Gladys Kravitz, go here. I realize I'm dating myself.) 

Where and how people live sparks so many character ideas. When I walk, I get all kinds of ideas about who might live in the house with the black shutters. Do they realize one of them is cracked? Why so many seasonal lawn ornaments over there? Do they put these out there for grandkids? And why, for the love of nature, would you display a potted plant on top of a dead tree stump in the middle of your front yard? Did a mad housewife put it up there because her hubby refuses to take the stump out and this is her rebellion? (This stump caused me so much curiosity that I did, in fact, have to write a story about the people who lived there. Made up, of course.) 

And then, in my dad's neighborhood, there is this vehicle. (Yes, I have my camera with me most of the time. You just never know.) Wouldn't I like to know these neighbors? My inner Gladys Kravitz sort of explodes with questions about who would buy The Mystery Machine and did they ever pick someone up for a date in this van? I mean, Zoinks!


Maybe these aren't nature walks in the truest sense, but they never cease to inspire thoughts of human nature.

I’m still learning how to write the difference between rain and the sensation of being rained upon. I suppose the only true way to do this is to keep taking walks. 

Even in the rain.


Karen Harrington is the author of Janeology, a novel about nature and nurture. 
Visit her blog www.scobberlotch.blogspot.com 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Beneath Our Feet and Above Our Heads

By Augusta Scattergood

"Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet."

I started my short speech with that quote. I was speaking to my publisher’s publicity team about my inspiration for writing my first book. The sales people in charge of the book’s future wanted to know about me, why I chose to tell this story, and set in this place. They wanted to know where it came from and was it true?

Since the topic for this season’s blogging is Nature and Writing, I’ve been thinking about the “nature” parts of my book that are true.

My middle-grade novel is set where I grew up, in the Mississippi Delta. Some of the story is not true to my experiences, but it’s all true to history. The place, however, is a part of me. 

I wanted to get it right.

When I lived in that small Delta town, my grandmother’s take on the annual spring flood was “Whoever built the drainage system here ought to be tarred and feathered.” During the spring of my junior year in high school, the front page of the local paper ran a picture of our English teacher being rescued by the Civil Defense team in a flat-bottomed boat. My friends who lived near Fireman’s Park had sandbags protecting their houses. For the grownups in our town, like my grandmother, it was a nightmare. For the kids, it was sheer joy. Thankfully, we never had to worry about being swept away because of backed-up drains or overflowing bayous. For us, spring floods meant tromping all over town in water up to our knees. Missing school or skipping church.

A great scene for a kids’ book, right? So I wrote it in, muddy water and all.

I also tried to write what it felt like in July to sleep under ceiling fans with only minimal help from window air-conditioners. How the sun baked the sidewalks. How a cooling summer storm felt to kids.

I keep reminding myself that some of my readers will never have slept under a ceiling fan or walked barefooted across a park’s dry grass. They may only know a mimosa tree’s pink blossoms from the way I choose to describe them.

I have this hanging above my desk. Both the quote and the friend who made it help remind me that my vision counts:

My friend’s talented like that. We collected the sea glass together. We often talk about getting the writing right. She wrote something on the razor clam that’s worth paying attention to.

Whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will never be new again. It is only the vision that can be new; but that is enough.
Eudora Welty

From the description of those hot July days when my characters sit still under a big pecan tree and listen to the mockingbirds fussing, to getting the moon in the “right part of the sky” as Miss Eudora warned writers—I'm always asking myself did I write it true? After all, I didn’t spend those too-many-to-count years as a school librarian only to have my first book— historical fiction with an emphasis on historical—criticized as unreliable.

And perhaps even more importantly, did I write it so that young readers who’ll never plant a zinnia can imagine a row of them blooming along a white fence.

Putting the natural world into your writing seems simple enough. But writing it well, taking your readers’ collective breath away, making it true- now that’s a harder task.

Augusta Scattergood first middle-grade novel, Glory Be, will be published in January 2012 by Scholastic. You can follow her slow and steady progress on her blog http://ascattergood.blogspot.com.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dreams of Jimmy Carter and Jack Daniel

I have good days and I have bad days, as we all do, and I do have tendencies toward misanthropic or hermit-like behaviors. There are days when I love surrounding myself with people, talking, sharing stories. I recently went to a fundraiser dinner in Atlanta, met a Georgia Senator and the Governor, and almost met Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. I'd met the Carters before when Jimmy Carter was Governor, but I was only eight at the time. I don't consider myself much of a political person, but I have long admired the humanitarian efforts of the Carters. I followed them out of the event, but the secret service had them surrounded moving quickly, and I felt strange about following them, as if I might get arrested for stalking, end up on CNN, get fired, get tossed off this blog, and so on, so I stayed back once they got on the escalator. Besides, I had no idea what I might have said to them had I been able to meet them.

Leaving Atlanta after the event to head home to South Georgia is always a relief, not because I'm coming back to rural Georgia, where nature is still somehow preserved when compared to cemented Atlanta, but because there are less people and cars. Sure, Southern Georgia has its issues. I watched one such issue in the local tag office just last week when I went there to renew my vehicle tags. I was late, had considered making up something to see if I could sweet-talk them out of charging me the late fee, but now that I'm older and don't look near as good as I used to, my sweet-talking seems to come off more like insanity or perversion.  I stood there listening to an old woman carrying an oxygen tank with tubes going in her nostrils literally curse the poor clerk about her late fee: she wanted to know why in the hell Atlanta politicians were getting their tags free when poor folks like her had to pay extra just because they were a few days late. As she rambled and cursed, somehow she boiled all of society's problems to her having to pay her late fee.  I looked at her and found her to be an odd shaped lady with a long face, a tomato-shaped abdomen, pencil-thin legs and a flat behind. Her cotton candy hair style was from the early seventies, and I was stunned that she cursed the poor clerk. I decided not to try my sweet-talk and almost offered to pay her late fee just to get her to hush.

As I left, I stopped by the other window and told the clerk that I was sorry the old woman had treated her so ugly. The clerk told me she was used to it.  When I got home from a rather long day of dealing with people and issues, I told my wife I needed a vacation. I want to have a get-away cabin on my land in Tennessee, where I can escape to my property on a ridge overlooking Tim's Ford Lake with a view of the Northern Alabama mountains in the background. I want to sit on a porch and look at the twenty of so wild Dogwoods bloom in spring, or watch the Maple tree leaves turn bright colors in the fall. I want to see the wild turkeys strutting around and smell the mash of Jack Daniel drifting up from the hollows of Lynchburg. Wouldn't mind having a nip or two for medicinal purposes, of course. I'm not a transcendentalist like old Uncle Walt Whitman when it comes to nature, and while I use nature to set scenes in my own writing, I find nature to be an escape, to get me away from people and issues, to help me clear my mind and appreciate life all over again. Getting back to nature is like being baptized again, being renewed and cleansed of all the imperfections and problems we have heaped on this world. Most important, it allows those of us who write to get a new perspective and to begin fresh.

Niles Reddick in Lynchburg, TN in 2008 before his hair turned gray and he gained fifteen pounds.
Niles Reddick is author of a short story collection, Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, which was a best seller and finalist for an Eppie Award.  His novel, Lead Me Home, is a finalist for a best fiction award from ForeWord Reviews, has been nominated for an IPPY award, and he has been nominated as a Georgia Author of the Year award for first novel. Niles lives in Tifton, GA with his wife Michelle, children Audrey and Nicholas, and their two Brittany Spaniels---Jack (Johannes, named for Niles’ GGG grandfather) and Anna (Appollonia, named for Niles’ GGG aunt). He works for Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. His website is: www.nilesreddick.com 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Mentor/Muse

Nature appears as a character in everything I write. In my upcoming novel, Ghost On Black Mountain, she is a mountain that seems to be alive with a mind of its own. She manifests as a cluster of monarch butterflies that surrounds the protagonist and steals the scene. In another she is a waterfall with a hidden walkway, where a young boy learns to see his harsh world through a soft filter.

To write this post, I go out to sit on my deck under the tulip trees. The wisteria is shedding its beautiful blooms, resembling lilac snowflakes. A mockingbird sings through her song selections while lime colored worms drop on silk web strands. The wind blows and they seem to fly without wings.

I stop often and take deep breaths of fresh air. I was cooped up in a critical care unit waiting room all weekend. I watched the sky turn from the pale pink of morning to the brilliant red and orange of evening. The room provided a magnificent view of both the city and the mountains in the distance. In a small sterile room a hall away on a ventilator is a woman who taught me to love the outside among other things. Miss Ruth, as she is known to many, took her first whitewater rafting trip when she was hugging seventy. Up until she was eighty-two, she camped in the North Carolina Mountains. Now, I’m not talking about RV camping or cabins with running water. I mean the real thing, tent camping without electricity, showers, or beds. Miss Ruth pointed me in the direction of the best hiking trails and gave me lessons in plants and wildflowers. Many an evening I spent sitting around a campfire listening to her tell stories about raising her eight children.

My novel in-progress stares at me from an open notebook. This story has been written in longhand outdoors in every kind of weather. One of the main characters is a granny woman/herbalist, who I would like to think resembles a young Miss Ruth. Nature shows up in the massive garden the granny woman creates, in the aroma of the herbs, in the passionate way the granny woman loves the birds, in her knowledge of hidden mountain trails.

I guess one could say Miss Ruth is my nature mentor, and this makes her my writing muse in many ways. So what does a writer do when her mentor/muse might leave her behind? Does a person like Miss Ruth ever really leave us? At this writing she fights in that little sterile room to get up and take one more breath of fresh air. She is a tiny woman with a huge attitude and has defied her doctor’s predictions a few times before. If anyone can stay here, she will. Don’t count her out.

What began as a blog post about nature and her role in my writing has evolved into a love letter to a tough little woman, my mentor and muse. Miss Ruth, may you get the opportunity to witness another sunset and tell another story around the fire. But if you don’t, we’ll find you in the trees, the mountains, and in your stories that will never leave us.

And that is the beauty of nature. Every living thing comes full circle. What dies out revives again in new life. Amen.

Footnote: This piece was written on Monday April 11th. As of this posting, Miss Ruth still holds her own.

ANN HITE has written short stories, personal essays, and book reviews for numerous publications and anthologies. Ghost on Black Mountain, her first novel, is inspired by stories handed down through her family and will be released by Gallery Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) on September 13, 2011. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, daughter, and her laptop.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cupcakes and Creativity

Dressed as Julie in Julie and Julia with
Kathy Patrick of the Pulpwood Queens!
I'd like to talk about cupcakes for a while. Rather, cupcakes and writing and how the two go together.

See, there's this place in town where all they sell are cupcakes. I was there today. One cupcake cost me more than three dollars. A three dollar cupcake! Do I need to say more? I split it with a knife into three sections and shared it between my two kids and myself. I had a bit less than a dollar's worth. That was one hefty cupcake.

Seeing as that one was three dollars, it was pretty much out of the question to order 20 cupcakes for my daughter's class tomorrow. She's turning 8 years old over spring break next week, so we're celebrating early with cupcakes in her class. Last year as I was traveling with birthday cupcakes to her class, someone rear-ended my car and the cupcakes went flying, so I'm a little nervous about tomorrow, but that's neither here nor there.

So about these cupcakes...and about my daughter. She cares about people. She likes to please people, but she's not so much interested in pleasing the masses, per se. She's more interested in pleasing those whom she cares about. My daughter told me she wanted cupcakes with no eggs in them since a boy in class is allergic to eggs, which is why we were in this three-dollar-cupcake shop in the first place. Apparently, they make some without eggs. However, the cost is prohibitive.

So while the kids were in the dentist's office, I ran over to the grocery store and bought a cake mix, icing, and applesauce. On the Internet, I read that you could replace the eggs with applesauce and a little vinegar, and something else. The something else is what I couldn't remember because the Internet was down tonight. So I made the cupcakes with oil instead of butter and applesauce with a dash of vinegar instead of eggs. Sounds awful, doesn't it? I was worried. My mother, the baker in the family, said, "How are they going to rise without eggs?" I SO don't know. I write books. I paint pictures. But I don't bake much.

I poured the batter into the cupcake thingies and stuck two pans in the oven. Every few minutes, I checked to see if anything was happening. They rose, ever so slightly, barely a blip, but I saw them. I noticed. After twenty minutes, I pulled them out and saw that they were chocolaty and semi-firm. I let them cool. Later my daughter and I piped on whipped white icing out of a plastic bag, and my daughter insisted on not icing one of them so her other friend who doesn't like icing could have one. Great. An eggless cupcake with no icing. Delicious.

I made two dozen, so the four of us at home could each try one tonight and send in the 20 we needed for school tomorrow. I wrote a note to the teacher assuring her I did not put eggs in the cupcakes (as if she wouldn't notice), and then we tasted. I held my breath. And bit.

Scrumptious, melt-in your mouth, chocolaty goodness, rich, heavenly...yum. Almost like molten chocolate cake. I was very pleased and figure I'll be winning mom-of-the-week around my daughter's class tomorrow. What a surprise. Can't wait to tell my own mother.

So what do these cupcakes have to do with writing, you ask? This is a writing blog after all. Well, I'll tell you.

My daughter did not set out to please the entire second grade with these cupcakes, not even the majority. There were one or two people who had special needs, and she simply wanted to please them. This made her happy. This also made her (read me) take a risk. I have never baked a cupcake without eggs, never even heard of it. Even my mother, the baker, doubted it. But my daughter and I tried something new. Everyone knows a cupcake is made from mix, eggs, butter, and water (unless you're a by-scratch person), but we put it together with oil and applesauce and vinegar, and guess what? Maybe it's not a cupcake for the masses, but sometimes baking--or writing--for an audience of one is more important. And more memorable.

I try to write for an audience of one, for my father in heaven, and when I do, there are no set rules about what order to put things in, no set ingredient list, no mass of people clamoring for eggs and rising batter. Writing for an audience of one means sometimes you'll create an unexpected delicacy, an original idea, a decadent combination that a certain audience will find perfectly palatable.

I love taking risks with my writing. I love doing something I've never done before, something that may not even be doable. I like to write for an audience of one. It makes me happy. And if it flops, at least I got to spend time with my father in the kitchen and lick the batter off the wooden spoon.

Nicole Seitz is the author and cover illustrator of The Inheritance of Beauty, Saving Cicadas, A Hundred Years of Happiness, Trouble the Water, and The Spirit of Sweetgrass. The Inheritance of Beauty is a Books-a-Million Faithpoint Book Club Selection for May 2011. Nicole teaches art at a local private school in the Charleston, SC area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She is currently editing her sixth novel. http://www.nicoleseitz.com/

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Nature of People

This months wonderful topic is how nature plays into our writing. I've been looking forward to this for so long, waiting for my day because nature in my fiction weighs in loud is remarkable and redemptive ways. Lightning crash, thunder roar, hurricanes abounding. From moonlit magical nights to breathless sunrise the good Earth plays itself out full of Glory.

But then I realized my most recent offering has been one of a very, different. type. The book I never meant to write. A non-fiction memoir that surrounds itself in nature of another kind - the human heart. In December of 2008 I had the strangest idea for a resolution - to say a silent prayer for a stranger I passed in life every day for the coming year. A different stranger each day.
2009 revealed a landscape and side of nature that I had never dreamed would be something that I would capture by putting pen to page. I met the lonely, the hungry, the famous, the broken, and the beautiful - all thirsty for a touch from a stranger that surprised me day after continuing day.

What I discovered was that the nature of the world is that it seems to be so dry, so thirsty for a good word, for a prayer , for a stranger's touch that time and time again my whispered resolution brought a smile, a respite, and a story.

The stories of these short but amazingly, meaningful and lasting encounters, and of how they affected my life are captured in Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit which just debuted Tuesday. As such, I am currently on the road reading, speaking, and discussing how this ongoing adventure has continued to play such a major role in my life. I completed the resolution at the end of 2009. But I never stopped praying for strangers. It's two years, and four months later, and the adventure continues.

Thank you for visiting the new Praying for Strangers website, and sharing with friends. It continues to be an honor to be here at A Good Blog is Hard to Find, to have the privilege to write the stories that find us, and to be in your good company.

River Jordan is a critically acclaimed novelist and playwright. Her fourth novel, The Miracle of Mercy Land, a southern mystical work set in 1938 features a protagonist full of moxie and a ‘backbone of worthy’in this suspenseful story about love, mystery, and the choices we make. Jordan’s first non-fiction
narrative, Praying for Strangers, An Adventure of the Human Spirit arrived from Penguin/Berkley in Hardcover April 5, 2011. She speaks around the country on the “Power of Story,” and produces andhosts the radio program, Clearstory on 107.1 FM from Nashville, TN where she makes her home.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Carolyn Haines: The By-Gone South

This weekend I participated in a “porch reading” of a one-man play that Broadway actor Joel Vig is putting together. The subject is Eugene Walter, a Mobile writer who won the Lippincott Award at the age of 26 for his novel, The Untidy Pilgrim. Poet Sue Walker, Joel, professor John Hafner, and I read the play from the porch of the Cox-Deasy historic home on the Oakleigh Museum grounds as part of the three-state Literary Trail of events that ripple across the South each spring.

Eugene, a man I adored, once lived at the Cox-Deasy.

Eugene Walter
Joel took Eugene’s words and blended them into a short version of his play that captures Mobile in a way uniquely Eugene. “Down in Mobile they’re all crazy because the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts and musicians, and Mobile is sweet lunacy’s county seat.” This is the opening line of Eugene’s novel and Joel’s play.

Eugene would be 90 this year. He died at the age of 78. It is just now that Mobile is beginning to recognize the literary treasure that lived in the midst of the city, for Eugene was Mobile’s strongest supporter. But he was also an out-spoken critic of many things that are now proving what a wise man he was.

Our topic for the blog this time is about how the seasons affect us as writers. There can be no better example than Eugene. He lived for many years in Europe, where he worked with Fellini, wrote, painted, and cooked. He was an extraordinary chef (he has several cookbooks, including one for Time/Life on Southern cuisine) and an avid gardener. He was completely in touch with the seasons, the day-to-day workings of insects, mice, the small creatures who are part of our eco-system and who many want to eradicate but which Eugene championed.

 In his musings, Eugene talked about how the advent of air conditioning was destroying the South of his childhood. And mine. I grew up in the ‘60s, and we had a window unit to cool the kitchen for my mother to cook and for meals. Otherwise, we had an attic fan, which meant good screens on windows because we opened up the house and let the fan pull the cool night air over us.

The nights of my childhood I fell asleep to the sounds of crickets, moths batting against the screens, night birds, and the occasional slish of car tires on the paved road in front of our house. The little town of Lucedale slept with only a latch on a screened door.

Air conditioning, like television and now computers, have moved our society toward isolation. We live insular lives. Our emotional experience is achieved not through community, or at least not the community of a street or neighborhood or region, but through electronic devices that emphasize our individuality, not our commonality.

We drive in our air-conditioned cars (and god knows in the Alabama humidity, I love my a.c.).

Yet I still have one foot in the world that Eugene loved, a world that I feel slipping away so quickly. I am a farmer. The weather—the seasons—dictate my daily life. This past winter was very hard. My older horses suffered, so I did, too.  

My writing routine depends on the weather, the season. In the summers, I write in the middle of the day, when it is hot. The horses are under fans, the dogs and cats are lounging on the sofas in the a.c. (yes, they love it too!) and I am at my computer. I do my farm work early in the morning or late in the evening. 

In the winter, this is reversed. I write early and late and do my farm work in the middle of the day when it is warmest. Of course, there is the 10 p.m. hot mash session for the horses when it is bitter cold.

This spring break, my friends Joe and Perry came out to the farm with heavy equipment and dump trucks filled with clay and sand to work on my erosion problems. My plans to write for the whole week I was out of school were abandoned for the necessity of doing this work while the weather was good. 

It is the weather that dictates my life. It is the blessing and curse of those of us who still are linked to the land in a way that few people know today. But in a very strange way, it feeds my spirit. Without this bond, I would not be the writer I am. My senses are attuned to the natural world, and I believe that makes my characters and my settings more powerful, or at least I hope so. 

Eugene said that air conditioning would be the death of the South, and he has been proven right in so many ways. The days of front porch visiting, story telling, the courtesies and manners of that era when people lived and relied on each other to survive—those have slipped from us. 

Now, as developers cut the trees and pave the pastures and corporate farming brings us genetically modified vegetables and the brutality of factory farming, we will lose the last things that tie us to a way of life disappearing all over the country. I do not think we will be better for it.

A native of Mississippi, Carolyn Haines lives in Southern Alabama on a farm with horses, dogs, and cats. She has a family with enough idiosyncrasies to give her material for the rest of her life and a bevy of terrific friends. Follow her on Twitter, Visit her on Facebook and her website and be sure to sign up for her newsletter.  

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

We've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts

A good spring day to y'all. Contrary to popular belief we do have a noticeable spring in the southern tip of Florida, although it's not marked by all the normal natural occurrences common in places farther north. One way I know it's spring is when I hear a knock on my door ...

... I answered. The small Asian woman pointed to the  the street and said, "Coconut? Coconut?"

"Yes, of course," I replied. "That's exactly what they are: coconuts. Those are coconut trees. And those are coconuts."

She looked at me quizzically, then turned inward, searching for what to say next. "Ah!" she exclaimed. "No. Me please have coconuts?"

"You want my coconuts?"

"Yes. Please me have coconuts."

There was a battered white van in the street, driven by some man … and not a ladder in sight. My coconut trees stretch and arch upward for nearly thirty feet. That would put about 25 feet between this woman's head and the fruits she desired.

"How?" I asked.

"Yes?" she answered.

"No. How can you get them? Do you need a ladder? I have an extension ladder."

"So I can have coconuts?"

"Uh, sure," I said ... and you would have done the same thing if you've ever tried to hammer open one of those damn things. Honestly, we have so many coconuts on Coconut Drive that we don't know what to do with them. It's one of those things you get jaded about very quickly after moving to a place like this. They become something to dodge while driving down the street. Or something to throw into the river before hurricanes so they don’t become airborne missiles.

The woman smiled and waved at me and scampered out to the street. She then smacked the side of the van, and the young male driver emerged. He was lean and young and wore nothing but a pair of cut-off blue-jeans. And, honest-to-God, here's what happened next:
He pulled a long machete from the van, put it between his teeth as would a pirate. And, then, with an unceremonious hop, jumped upon the tree and began to shimmy upward as if it were a thick rope. He reached the top in seconds.

Meanwhile, the woman reappeared with a stained, mildewed sofa cushion, and as he hacked away upstairs she stood beneath, trying to catch the coconuts as they dropped.

I came out and watched with fascination, and I leaned into the van for a look. It was stuffed, floor to ceiling, with green coconuts. Obviously, this was one of their final stops of the day. And I realized with irony that there was a good chance I'd be paying $3.46 for one of these at the supermarket that next week.

Now imagine the gravity of this situation: Coconuts falling thirty feet from the ground, right toward your head. The sheltered, pampered Anglo-parent in me wanted to yell, "Stop! Stop! Someone's going to get hurt … or poke an eye out."

Evidently, something did happen shortly after that because when they returned six months later she was wearing a bicycle helmet for the task.

"Coconuts?" she asked me.

"Of course," I replied. And I patted my head, pointed to hers, and nodded in approval.

 This is me and my daughter Haley. Currently am working on an empty-nest memoir, which is proving to be the biggest challenge I've ever had as a writer. 'Sorry this one is taking so long, but it'll be worth it in the end, I promise. Until then, you can catch me on facebook and twitter and at my blog at adhudler.com. I'll also be teaching at the Kentucky Writers Workshop April 15 and speaking at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest April 16.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Rivers Are My Roads

Rivers are My Roads
Patti Callahan Henry

Rivers are my roads. When others talk about their “road of life” or “the narrow road” or any other “road” metaphor, I see a river in my mind’s eye. Right now I live along the Chattahoochee River, but we’re moving. I’ve lived here for sixteen years and I walk along the red-mud pathways while I untangle plot lines and my own life story. When I am near this flowing water, near any river at all, something warm and happy opens inside me.

I am today mourning the loss of this river and how I will no longer walk its jagged edge, watching the seasons change and the water turn from muddy to clear after a storm. I am sad that I might lose the lessons it teaches me about impermanence and change and the beauty and necessity of silence in a noisy world. Then I have a brilliant plan: I will take part of this river with me when I leave. I’ll get a vial or even a large bottle and fill the container with this muddy water and place it on my new desk in my new home in Alabama.

Yes, what a fantastic plan. I’ll look at that river and remember and keep it with me. Thrilled with my brilliant plan, I stand too long watching a grey heron (if one can ever stand too long watching a grey heron) perched on a rock, still and silent as everything flows by and it is only now I realize this stunning fact: the water isn’t the river. Nope. The water flows through the river, going wherever it is that rivers go. But the water is not the river itself. Like energy or emotions passing through me, but going wherever it is that energy or emotions go when they pass.

And then that beloved river offers me another lesson – I do this possessing thing too much. I love thoroughly and then I try to take a piece of whatever or whoever I love and carry it with me, own it, make it completely mine because it or they make me completely happy.  If I love something or someone, I want to keep it or them; who doesn’t?

So what is this thing about loving without having? Is it about taking the joy and the peace or whatever is offered and leaving the thing itself alone? Is it about walking away and allowing myself to love without keeping or having or owning? No! Everything in me screams “No”. I want to scoop up that river and put it in my new backyard and walk its shores and listen to its whispers.
Absurd, I know.
But seriously, I would if I could.

It’s not lost on me that this feeling of possession is also about the fact that my daughter is graduating and leaving for college at the same time that we are moving.

Standing on that riverbank, I learn again and again and again what I know but forget: Sometimes I have to love without having, possessing or owning.

I’ll still probably take a vial of that river water to my new home, but only as a reminder of joy, not as an owner of joy.  I can take the memories and the love with me, but I can’t take the river.