I’ve had Monarch butterflies
on the brain since last April when I read about their decline in several local
print articles. People were encouraged to plant waystations that contained
nectar sources and host plants for that species. The timing was perfect for me
and I got on board.
The point I want to make—not
only did I plant my new flower bed with the needed plants—I wrote about it.
I began with a letter to the
editor that expressed my appreciation for the original news item and told how
it influenced me. I took time to make sure it was concise and as grammatically
correct as I could manage, and then sent it off.
Not such a big thing. But
remember: this was writing practice.
Things that get printed in
the newspapers, like press releases for clubs or organizations, get noticed and
can potentially lead to bigger things. The best outcome would be the feature
article. Newspaper editors love a story written in a timeless fashion. They are
important for filling in empty spaces. Becoming one of an editor’s reliable
sources would never be a bad thing.
All this was part of my
progression: I got my writing out there and seen by more people; by working
with an editor, I developed useful skills for the writing craft; and I built a
there’s the nice little ego boost of seeing your name as a byline in print.
Reading is vitally important for becoming a writer and
reading a wide range of well written books provides an excellent background of
skills to draw upon. But for the past few of years, I focused my reading into a
narrow range: first novels. I wanted to see how the author started out. How a
series began. Get an idea of how they developed their craft. It was helpful,
Last January, in an effort to
read more of a variety, I joined two groups—one for books and one for short
stories—both meet at the Fairmont
branch of the Davenport Public Library.
The group that gets together
for the discussion of short stories also serves up sweets, hence the name,
Shorts and Sweets. Food must bring out the best in people, because attendance
is always high and so is the participation. I’m exposed to so much thoughtful
literary introspection I could swear I’m in a college class. I always learn
something. The treats are a nice bonus.
I can’t fault the selection.
I’ve liked some of the short stories so much that I’ve had to share them with
others. Free Radicals by Alice Munro
was a recent example. The way the elderly protagonist turned the tables on her
adversary still makes me smile. A very clever treat.
The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak is another example of good writing that impresses, stirs the
imagination, and satisfies the need to be exposed to quality writing.
My favorite passage: “Mystery
bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations
that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.”
To me, that quote speaks
volumes about writing, the unique journey between the beginning and the end, and
why every book has value.
However, instead of
discussing artistic merits of The Book
Thief at the last meeting of the West End Book Club, we spent most of the
time on the topic of banned books.
The young protagonist of The Book Thief rescued a banned book
from the ashes of a Nazi bonfire. The image of flames brought the group’s discussion
to the recent riots in Missouri
and how the banning of books still goes on there and in many other states and
communities in our free country. Here are a few lists to check out:
read quite a few of those books. Some made no impression and I have to wonder
why they were ever found offensive. Others have disturbed me. And others have
stretched my world and challenged my definition of right and wrong, good and
evil. I’m not the worse off for having
read any of them. I’m still a mild-mannered Midwestern soul who will say “Hello”
to anyone who crosses my path.
I am thankful that Davenport, my new home,
is not on any of those lists.
seemed like a good working title for my mystery. I liked the play on picture,
as in artwork, and on perfect, as it related to Erik Jansson—he wanted so much to
be perfect. (Don’t we all.) It would be good enough for the short term.
I knew going in that it
couldn’t last, a quick Google search confirmed that it’s been used quite a few
Unfortunately, good enough
had to do for some time because nothing else came to me.
While working on some
thoughts about who was on the inside and who was on the outside, as in society
and the art world, I made a mistake in typing. My typo: Outsider morphed into
I almost corrected this
transposition of letters automatically without thinking, but I stopped and took
a few moments to take in the significance. Oursider as a term sure seemed to
fit the tone for one of my characters. He had his own lifestyle, his own way of
creating art. He had a way with words and could certainly use the label:
Oursider Art. I decided I had to keep the typo and work with it.
After a little
experimentation, I thought it best to divide the word and the book title became
Our Side of Perfect. That’s what I’ve
been using in my query letters and it will have to do—unless something better
I made a list of my named
characters and did a head count: twenty-seven.
I didn’t start out with
twenty-seven. I began with the main ones, ten or so, and just kept adding
people as I needed them.
Since twenty-seven amounts to
a fair number of folks to keep track of, early on, I went to great lengths to
make up a chart, complete with pictures, to keep them all straight. It’s been
My list includes two
historical figures, long deceased. One comes back to an elderly woman in
dreamlike flashbacks—he sets the stage for the fictional mystery. Another is
only talked about in passing, but you could say—he is the key to the mystery.
My list includes two dogs
with very different personalities: one’s an opportunistic beggar, while the
other one’s protective and therapeutic.
Obviously, the protagonist
tops the list, along with the main ally and a few important, but lesser, allies.
The villains are equally
important. So much so, that I became reluctant to get rid of any of them. Why
waste a nasty character? A good villain ought to come back and do more villainy
at some point.
That leaves the many minor
characters. The funny thing I discovered about them—they can grow on you.
I had several minor
characters who started with small walk-on parts who came back to do more
important things. They surprised me on more than one occasion by being useful
What I don’t include on this
list of named characters are the towns in Henry County
I used for settings. I went out of my way to use as many as I could, because,
as a former long-time resident, they’re all important to me.
First of all, Bishop Hill. I
wouldn’t have a story without it. I thought about changing the name, but I’m
glad I didn’t. I just fictionalized it to suit my narrative needs. Make believe
is fun, but the real thing can be discovered any time someone wants to be a
Second, Galva. I shopped
there, my kids went to school there, and many friends live there still. I only
wish I could have used it more. Maybe next time.
Cambridge, Alpha, Altona, and the interconnected back roads all
play important parts.
And there are more—my list
keeps on growing.
I finally got around to checking
out The River Cities’ Reader’s 2014 short fiction contest: I’m with the Banned.
Out of the 20 listed prompts,
I found a two I liked well enough to sit down and work with for a couple of
days. The 250 word limit was a challenge, but that was the general idea.
I developed my story and
wrote it in first person. I’d been meaning to try an experiment, so I rewrote
it in third person. I’m going to test the results out at Saturday’s Writer's Studio at the Midwest
My next writing experiment
came to me by way of Funds for Writers, a website devoted to helping writers to
actually make money with their words.
I perused July 25th
issue and found a freelance opportunity that suited me. I liked the idea of
retelling a fairy tale and had been thinking of doing something kind of like
that anyway. I don’t know about you, but I can spend a lot of time thinking
about doing something without actually doing that something in any kind of
timely manner, if at all. Well, this opportunity came with a deadline. And this
deadline was four days away.
I asked myself, “Can you do
I spent one day in deep
preliminary thinking and attending to miscellaneous matters, but the following
three days were devoted to serious writing and frantic rewriting. I made the
deadline with a story I found fun to write and which suited my needs. I’ll get
their response after Aug. 15th.
So, my word count was 500 for
the flash fiction and 3400 for the subversive fairy tale.
A total of 3900 pretty good
words made for a pretty good week.