A master craftswoman

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British author Edith Pargeter, who also wrote under the psuedonym Ellis Peters, does a masterly bit of work in the second novel of her fine Cadfael Chronicles. That book, One Corpse Too Many, is set in 1138 England and includes a scene pivotal to the plot of the story, but also meaningful for its glimpse into human tragedy. Following the hanging of more than 90 men who were in rebellion against King Stephen, the families of the fallen come to claim their bodies for burial. It’s quiet and sad:

Some dozen or so had been claimed by parents and wives. Soon there would be piteous little hand-carts pushed up the slope to the gate, and brothers and neighbors lifting limp bodies to carry them away. More of the townspeople were still coming timidly in through the archway, women with shawls drawn close over their heads and faces half-hidden, gaunt old men trudging resignedly to look for their sons.

Among the men hung by the orders of the king, is one murdered and then thrown in among the other dead and it falls to the series’ hero Brother Cadfael to both discern that one corpse is not like the others and then to discover the killer.

I found myself moved by the small detail of a horror of war — the trauma of reclaiming the dead — and impressed that this scene was also pivotal to the development of the plot.

I’ve been enjoying Pargeter’s Cadfael Chronicles, impressed with her diligence in creating a believable historical setting but also with her skill in building a compelling narrative. It’s one thing when a scene evokes deep emotion. It’s a mark of expertise when it serves the plot so well.

Real world projects as metaphor

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I’ve had these director’s chairs for 32 years and the original white canvas finally failed on one of them. Since I’d taken them apart a few times over the years to clean the canvas, I knew replacing the old canvas wouldn’t be too difficult.

In the realm of projects, this was a short one and satisfying not the least because it’s simple and in the summer these chairs get daily use on the patio. A medium-term effort, bug screens for the van windows, took a few months. My long-term sewing project (a hand-stitched quilt begun in January) is two-thirds complete.

The varying length of these projects matters. Conceiving of, working on and finishing a creative task in a few days while other projects perk along at their own plodding pace, offers the reward inherent in finishing. Things that take longer — these middling length things that spin out of control because they involve unexpected problem-solving — provide the satisfaction of the ah-hah! moment when a solution presents itself and the making can continue.

They are like way-points, reminders that the long-term project, the 70,000 word book, just needs its own daily infusion of effort — solutions to thorny plot problems, taming of characters threatening to kick the book to pieces (a line I borrowed from E.M Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel”), releasing of the shy folk of the story who will unexpectedly step up to fix that plot issue. But it can only happen in the daily tedium of words going down on the page. Thinking of it in smaller chunks — this scene, that chapter, etc. — is useful.

And that is today’s little pre-writing pep rally.

In love with August

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When you get a dozen or so ripe tomatoes from the garden every day, dehydrating them into crispy sweetness is just too easy (after all the tomato sandwiches and fresh salsas, etc., have been indulged in). A note about food safety: We freeze the dried tomatoes to avoid concerns about not getting every last bit of moisture out of them. They hold up well in the freezer for well over a year. Many state university extension offices also have great recommendations for preserving fresh tomatoes.

Small bites

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In July I wrote about creating a better query letter. And then I promptly forgot all about it. That’s my go-to response to difficult tasks: I’ll do it later. Then months go by. So, today, I’m changing it up. Not going to do it later. Going to write 300 words of query letter today.

There’s another piece of the puzzle I’ve been avoiding: Writing the synopsis. This task I’ve started and stopped because it seems, on the best days, impossible, and on the worst days, futile.

I’ll keep showing up to both tasks — a little chunk at a time — until they’re done. This strategy may also help me improve them by virtue of the benefits that accrue from taking breaks, noted in this Scientific American article.

Or as my dad used to say: Little by little you can go a long way.

The mystery of a good book

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I’ve read or listened to more than a dozen books this year, but I only fell into one. You might know this feeling. You start reading a book and somewhere in the first 20 pages or so you become immersed in the story. When you open the book the world around you drifts into fog. When you are away from the book, it is sitting in a corner of your mind, waiting for you.

This is not the demand of a compelling plot that lures the reader on through the simple device of making you want to know what happens next. This is something else. The place of the book comes up around you. You see it, you hear it and smell it and it becomes a place you feel you know. As the characters in the book reveal themselves, you are drawn to them. You begin to feel what they feel. They rejoice or recoil, or are filled with wonder or alarm and you with them.

In the best books, you find yourself thinking in the special language of the book.

And when the book ends well, not happily but truly, having fulfilled the promise of its early pages, you are a little bereft because you will never have this experience again. You can never read this book in this way again, revisit it though you may.

Betsy James’ Roadsouls was this way for me. I don’t know how this happens, exactly, this resonance between book and reader. And we are all so individual in our tastes, in what resonates, that it can’t really be predicted. In a perfect world a book find its way to its perfect readers.

A writer wants to achieve this. To create a world a reader slips into like still water. And yet while writing, you don’t think about this. You are thinking about the plot. You are moving characters around in a room or on a mountain. You are describing place and setting mood. You are thinking about the words, the way they sound together. You are making choices every day in the writing that limit the choices that will come later. It doesn’t feel like a magical process. Some days it feels, in its middle parts, tedious. But worth remembering, at the end of a tedious writing day: the goal. Using words to create the illusion of a world and a story that will draw in the perfect reader, the one your book is written to, is a fine goal. And difficult. And worthy.

Inspiration in an unlikely place

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Sometimes you queue up a rom-com because it’s been a long week and you pick “Lost City” because Sandra Bullock is fun to watch.

And you get an unexpected gift.

Her character borrows a slogan from the crest of the Ferguson clan: Dulcius ex asperis, Latin for “sweeter after difficulties.”

In the middle of challenges, it’s a reminder that making an effort has rewards.

Listening pays off

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Listening to novels, a thing I do while engaging in the tedium of hand quilting, has been instructive for a couple of reasons. The repetition of words stands out after a few hours of listening. One author uses the word “prodigious” as his go-to whenever there’s a lot of something to describe. Another author has his female characters biting a lip or chewing on a lip whenever he wants to show them being pensive.

When I say these word choices stand out after a few hours of listening, I really am listening for a quilting session that lasts about three hours. Note to hand quilters: If you choose a pattern with lots of curves, like the stencil pictured below, you will be quilting for a long, long, long time.

This stencil, about 8 inches by 14 inches, repeats over the queen-sized quilt I’ve been working on since January. It takes me about three hours to stitch one of these panels.

But I digress. I don’t bring up what amounts to a kind of writer’s tick because it represents a flaw in the books. A reader rather than a listener might not even notice. But once I noticed, it did prompt me to go back over my writing project to see what go-to words showed up in my copy. It turns out my characters, whenever they’re involved in difficult conversations are always “looking away” or “looking down” “closing her eyes.” Also there is breath holding and sighing. Oh, the sighing. So the next edit I’ll be searching for some words and phrases and seeing if I can change it up a little.

Regarding the stencil: You lay it down over the fabric and swipe a chalk pounce across it. The chalk penetrates where the lines are. I used Full Line Stencil but there are other manufacturers.

Prototyping and creativity

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Sleeping in the van has made car camping easier, but since we’re talking about a mini-van rather than a slick Sprinter-type thing, it lacks a roof vent fan. Not wanting to open the windows and invite in the bugs on hot summer nights, I decided to make some window screens.

First thing I did was buy the wrong kind of screen, the kind of material used to make screens for house windows. Stiff. Unyielding. Must be kept flat or will kink up.

Second trip to the store, I bought soft mesh screen, the kind used in tents. Then I spent about a week trying to figure out how to attach it to the inside of the van. Soon I discovered I could attach it to the outside of the van with magnets, so I bought some extra strong magnets, sewed wide bias tape around the screen and inserted the magnets at the screen corners and midway along the edges. This worked about twice, but the neodymium magnets stuck to each other when the screen was not deployed and made storing the screens when we weren’t camping and deploying them when we were, a nightmare. Rare earth magnets really do not like to come away from each other.

I bought new screens, cut them to size, sewed bias tape around the edges to keep the mesh from fraying and then sewed in small wood dowels that sit in the door grooves and hold the screens in place. Magnets, not the rare-earth kind — hold the whole thing against the car. I keep them separately in a small bag. The screens wrap up neatly around the dowels when not in use. Deploying and storing just got simple.

The thing to remember about making things from scratch — whether it’s a work of fiction, a van window screen, or an original embroidery design — is that creativity is iterative. You start with an idea, you work on it. The flaws in your idea become apparent and you work to refine the design. It’s messy in the middle. But the only way to something better is through making something that’s going to end up in the trash.

Post script: There was also an unfortunate duct tape iteration, but I’d just as soon not go into detail…

Capturing summer sun

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Oregon’s embarrassment of agricultural riches (cherries! grapes! hazelnuts! pears!) includes the most luscious blueberries anywhere ever. In order for July to feel right to me, there has to be some blueberry jam creation. This is a labor of sweaty joy, from the trip to the farmer’s market for a flat of blueberries, to the inspection of canning jars and the filling of the big pot for the water bath processing. Small-batch production takes a while. I can only do 3 pints/6 half pints at a time. This year, we rocked 9 pints and 30 half pints. Can a couple of sweets-loving people such as Craig and myself consume all that jam? No. These delicious reminders of Oregon bounty will migrate out to friends and family sometime in the winter when the skies are heavy and we all miss the sun.

Water bath canning isn’t difficult but its rules must be respected. If you haven’t tried it, check in with your local county extension office for guidelines. Oregon State University’s extension office is a good place to start. And if you want to check your local public library for good recipes and guidance on the topic, check the books out in later winter or early spring. By July, there’s a waiting list for the best books.

My recipe for blueberry lime jam comes from the standard Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving. You can find the recipe online.

Ups, downs, etc.

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I stumbled on a couple of concepts that deserve mulling: performance goals vs. learning goals, described by Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck, and willpower as emotion, described by Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

Dweck’s work notes that learning goals help us work beyond mistakes and failure while performance goals can stop us before our efforts can lead to improved outcomes.

Inzlicht’s research, or my understanding of it, suggests that willpower comes and goes, much like happiness, anger, etc.

This week, I’ll keep learning goals in mind, as I work on the things that have challenged me lately (writing a successful query letter to an agent, for example). Also this week, I’ll recognize that in the face of ebbing willpower (sometimes it’s really challenging to reach for the fizzy water and not the glass of wine), there are strategies to deploy and keep me on track until the willpower circles back around. In other words, not a failure of character, just the normal cycling of my feelings.

For help with the agent querying, I’m delving into the great advice of agent Janet Reid, whose web site is really helpful and whose Query Shark blog is harsh but good education.