Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Throw-Away Nation

Well, I'm back on my soapbox. But, when something is this important I just can't be silent.

My English cousin once told me the Brits think of America as the throw-away nation. We don't recycle as we should. We don't reuse either. We spend carelessly and have become an instant gratification nation. Things have to be new, the latest, and no matter the cost we have to get them. Our youngsters are being taught terrible lessons that will one day cripple our economy.

Speaking about youngsters—A caption in the newspaper recently caught my attention. It was titled "Dumpster Diving" and I immediately thought it was about the homeless and needy in our country. I was wrong! These dumpster divers were teenagers from Freedom High School in Hillsborough County, Florida. They were part of an archaeology program called 'garbology' sponsored by the government to see what kind of waste existed in the schools. They were diving into the school's dumpsters and they weren't finding fossils. No, they were finding huge piles of unopened milk cartons, slices of pizza and trays of lunch food. Do any of the students discarding these items take a moment to think there are hungry people all over our country? I doubt it. I hope the parents and teachers of these school children took note of the waste and have programs scheduled to explain what terrible consequences this waste will have on their future and of those who follow them.

Recently I overheard a mother complain that her kids lose so much stuff she is constantly replacing articles of clothing that just disappear; school supplies that mysteriously jump out of back packs, cell phone that are no longer around anywhere and towels that make one-way trips to the gym. She said the kids just assume if those things disappear there will be others to replace them.

Now here's the gist of my concerns. We must learn how to be thrifty; thrifty in our spending, our attitude about taking care of this wonderful world we have and in using our assets wisely. Recycling is one of the ways to instill this lesson into our daily life and at the same time show our family and neighbors that it's something all of us can do. It doesn't take a whole lot of effort. Just put aside the newspapers and magazines. Keep all the aluminum, plastic bottles, glass bottles and foam containers. There are bins for those things. Most counties have a great many recycling locations. Here in Florida, Publix supermarkets have recycling containers in front of their stores. Did you know you can recycle egg cartons, those foam trays under your meat and chicken purchases, those pesky foam peanuts and the little boxes you bring home filled with your restaurant leftovers? They can all be rinsed out and kept until you get to the recycle bins.

I try to recycle everything possible from the largest plastic bottle to a Jell-O box and the tubes paper towels come on. Is it a pain? Not really. I've organized five containers in my shed and hold the things to be recycled until I get to the locations available. I've read some terrifying statistics about the life and condition of our landfills. Apparently a plastic water bottle or a two-liter soda bottle takes 700 years to decompose in a landfill. The space this country has for new landfills is almost non-existent. If we don't recycle what kind of a legacy are we leaving for the next generations?

Think of all the ways you could contribute to the cause. We have enough tough problems, this one is easy.

Don't be a throw-away nation.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dissecting a Novel — A Grandma for Christmas

It's Christmas Eve and Madison Millhouse is running from a failed love affair through a snow storm in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

A brief stop for a cup of coffee at a mountain-top diner pushes her into a role she never imagined. She is confronted by an abandoned four-year old little girl named Bitsy who is convinced Madison is her grandmother. With no phones and the storm closing the roads, there seems to be no alternative but to take her along on her flight. Snowbound together in a mountain cabin for several days, her world changes dramatically. No longer is she consumed by her own problems, which don't seem nearly as important as the welfare of the pretty little angel who has fallen into her life. Who is this child? Where are her parents, her family? How can anyone abandon a little girl the day before Christmas? And, why is Madison suddenly burdened with the care and welfare of a child who seems to have no background? She was seeking peace not added responsibilities.

Alone but comfortable Madison and Bitsy celebrate a lonely Christmas together. Cut off from the word because of the blizzard, Madison discovers her charge is witty, intelligent and woefully uninformed as to any news of family or background. They spend the time becoming friends in the strange cabin until they can return to Philadelphia, the city Bitsy also calls home. But, the roads have to be cleared before they can leave. A neighbor, Philip Hendershot, observing the cabin that was never used during the winter months has visitors, stops by to see who is staying there. Charming and helpful, Madison stands her distance. She's been charmed and deceived for too many years to welcome strange a man into her circle; a circle that seems to tighten protectively around her and her new found ward.

As they wait she wonders if her longing for a child of her own for years is being answered by this unexpected blessing. A quirky answer to a silent prayer? Still she knows she must make every effort to find Bitsy's parents or guardians.

Questioning Bitsy, the information she supplies is painfully inadequate. Her mother worked but she doesn't know where; they lived in Philadelphia but she can give no address, and there was no other family. Madison wonders at the secrecy this little girl has been raised in.

Returning to Philadelphia, Madison makes efforts to weave together the few hints Bitsy has supplied. Mention of a diner she and her mother visited sends Madison on an ill-advised, terrifying tour of a poor and unsavory neighborhood. But instead of answers she discovers a hint of criminal world activities leaving her even more concerned about the child's safety.

Madison confides her concern and confusion to her girlfriend, Jo, and to her sister, Lolly, in California. Both caution her that keeping an abandoned child might be misconstrued as kidnapping but Madison is adamant that she won't turn Bitsy over to the authorities to be put into foster care. After all, she rationalizes, she can supply the needs of a little girl much better than any civil system fraught with unpleasant history and filled with strangers who might become surrogate parents from time to time. Besides she is becoming more and more attached to the obviously intelligent and beautiful child.

Convinced that she would be the best choice to care for Bitsy, and desiring to put as many miles as she can between herself and her one-time-lover and Bitsy's bewildering past, Madison makes a decision to move to Florida. As an author, she can write anywhere and the more miles between them and the past the better, she muses.

Remembering a brief conversation with Philip when he revealed he was only in Pennsylvania to settle an aunt's estate and that he really lived in a condo in Florida and was anxious to return, Madison takes a wild chance and calls him to see if he would consider allowing her to sub-let his condo for two or three months. Surprisingly, arrangements are made and Madison and Bitsy leave for Florida, leaving behind a worried and apprehensive Jo and a much concerned sister in California.

But life in Florida is not the Utopia Madison hoped for and she is hounded with questions. How will she get Bitsy into school? Where will they live after their brief stay in Philip's condo? Will Philip stay in their lives? Madison hires a private detective to look for Bitsy's past. Where is her family? Are there dangerous people looking for Bitsy? Looking for her? Can Madison really take on the role of grandma when she's never even had a child of her own? What does the future really hold for both of them?

Want to know more? This award-winning book is available by clicking on the cover. You won't regret it.

Monday, April 6, 2009

An Anatomy of a Novel

Whenever I hold a book signing, or give a speech featuring some of my work, I'm asked the same questions. "Where do you get your ideas?" and "How do you get started?"

Writing is such an individual occupation. You really can't get help with either of those questions. The ideas have to come to you, either through something that triggers the thoughts, an over-heard conversation, or an incident that the author thinks can be fictionalized. Beginning the novel comes after the original thoughts are set. Some of my books are based on facts, either from things in my life or others that I have known. Of course, whatever starts the thought process is never factually transferred into my books. That's not fiction. The spark is true but the fire you build with it is pure fiction and that's the way it should be.

I honestly don't know where A Grandma for Christmas came from but it was pure pleasure to write that book…and…it took first place in the 2008 Royal Palm Literary Awards sponsored by the Florida Writers Association. The plot certainly wasn't from my life. I remember driving along one day and thinking about women who are in relationships with married men and what would happen if, after a long time, they just said, "No. I'm not going on with the broken promises, the sneaking about and the lonely holidays." (Where that came from I couldn't tell you) I thought if it had been a very long relationship it wouldn't be an easy choice to make. But the decision would show long-overdue courage and that's what I write about—courageous women. A Grandma for Christmas was born.

Now that I had the initial thought the next thing was to figure out what to do with it. I didn't want to get into the nitty-gritty of the failed affair. She's calling it quits and needs to get away. That, in itself, isn't much of a story. But, ah ha, what if she always wanted a child and now her biological clock is ticking down. There's a thought that I took and ran with. It was time for my 'What if' tactics. 'What if' is what I apply to many things in the course of writing a novel. "What if they do this; or don't do that." "What if I make the guy meaner and the gal gutsier." Trial and error play a big part in coming to decisions as you work. Sometimes as the work progresses I am amazed at the turn of events as they unfold.

Once the basic plot is set the whole book lays open before you—but there are lots of blank pages and my job as an author is to fill them with the rest of the story. I know from experience that other characters will appear as you write; plot changes will come with the addition of those characters and sometimes the original plot will take a turn that I didn't even contemplate.

The basics of a novel are plot, characters, conflict, solutions and action. There are no rules, in fact W. Somerset Maugham once was quoted as saying, "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows that they are." Ah, Mr. Maugham, how wise you were. But if there are no rules there are basics and that is what I teach when I hold seminars, workshops and classes on creative writing. I do know that there must be a beginning, a middle and an end and there has to be conflict, otherwise the book is just too goody-two-shoes and ends up dull, dull, dull.

I love writing. I love teaching writing. And, I love mentoring those who genuinely want to improve their writing.