Friday, February 24, 2017

2017 Iron Pen

I didn’t win or place in this year’s Iron Pen Contest. It didn’t come as a huge surprise. I spent all of 2 of my allotted 24 hours on my entry. This was 2 hours in the wee morning of Saturday. It was dark outside, chilly inside, and I was clasping at straws on how to use the contest’s prompt “Miracles are wrought with axes”.
The prompt had arrived in an email a 5 pm Friday just as expected. I read it, pondered its meaning, appreciated it wasn’t quite as esoteric as some past prompts, and spent the evening thinking about how to use it.

My working time this year would be, by necessity, a lot shorter than the usual 24 hours.

I’d been planning on going to the QC Theatre Workshop’s staging of the 1st Annual Susan Glaspell’s Playwriting Contest winners that same Friday night. I enjoy plays and don’t go often enough. The other major hitch for this year’s Iron Pen was Saturday’s trip to Madison, Wisconsin that had to have an early start. I’d planned on taking my laptop and sneaking in some writing time. (I’ve always been a little too ambitious with time management, so why stop now.)

Since I was so short on time, I didn’t look up the quote as I usually do. If I had I’d have found this excerpt from John Ditsky’s comments about a Bretolt Brecht play:

“Again, the Story Teller moralizes, and this time it is clearly the Christian ethic the weaknesses of which—as Brecht sees them—are under scrutiny:

   All mankind should love each other but when visiting your brother
   Take an axe along and hold it fast.
   Not in theory but in practice miracles are wrought with axes
   And the age of miracles is not past.

Especially in its combination of brutal referents [axes] and naïve beliefs [miracles], Brecht’s notion of revolutionary justice is obviously never without its element of simple force.”

This info might have shaded my interpretation of the quote as I was listening to the reading of the national award winner, A Whole Other Shade of Blue. Because to my mind playwright Gwendolyn Rice dropped the proverbial axe when she interrupted the otherwise ideal vacation of her protagonists with the body of a child, a refugee, washed up on a lovely white sand beach. (Seriously, I should have seen this coming. It was Greece. It was an island. It was all over the news last summer. Doh.)

Anyway, I thought of the quote. I thought about continuing my campaign for reviews. I went with it.

After 2 hours I had something short and, to my mind, pithy. I figured my chances of fine tuning it the next day were nil—so I sent it in. (I’d leave it to some future time to work on it some more.)

I don’t regret my decision. Iron Pen for me is a welcome writing challenge; a chance to donate to the MWC; and, if I ever win again, the opportunity to be my own kind of judge for the next year's contest.

I plan to go to the award ceremony and be impressed with the efforts of others.

There’s always next year.

Friday, February 10, 2017

My Swedish Tomte

I’ve wanted to write a short story with a Christmas theme for quite some time. The closest I came was starting a fairy tale about a tomte stuck in a December snowstorm. It didn’t get very far. For one reason—I couldn’t decide if it was meant for children or adults. I left it be.

When I went back to the tomte tale for another rewrite, I gave my little man more background and Swedish atmosphere. It still wasn’t what I wanted. I left it alone again.

Last December 17th, I was set up to sign books at the Colony Store’s Customer Appreciation Day Sale. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn to the wintery side and the usual crowds of discount shoppers didn’t materialize, so I had some extra time on my hands. While perusing the Colony Store for gifts, I came to a colorful display of the bearded little creatures from Swedish folklore—Jultomten. Lots of them. More than I’d ever seen in the past. It was a delightful treat. I picked up a small handout next to the display that explained the background, history, and references in literature of the little folks.

I have five of Sven Nordqvist’s wonderfully illustrated books in my collection, so his pint-sized tomten were the ones most familiar to me up to that point.

That little handout became quite useful for the next few rewrites of my story and I do believe I finally have my Christmas Story. It’s well ahead of the next Christmas season, but now was the time to get it done.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Reality in Stories

C. Hope Clark recently answered a reader’s question about writers using actual locations in their stories—“do they need to get permission?”

Clark’s response touched on all the issues I faced when I decided to use Bishop Hill, Illinois, a real place, in my mystery Clouds Over Bishop Hill.

Yes, I wanted that extra “oomph” of reality. I kept the centrally located village park and the layout of the streets around it pretty much intact. Same with most of the backroads. I altered the scale of the geography in a few places and relegated the wind turbines to a metaphor.

Yes, I knew a few people would not be pleased. There are quite a few pithy quotes out there about the folly of trying to write for everyone. Look them up for some inspiration.

Yes, I avoided shining a bad light on real people and businesses. They were my friends and neighbors for 24 years. I moved my fictional Lutfisk Café to a vacant lot across the street from the real restaurant that was my favorite haunt for a lot of years. I let the Colony-era buildings be themselves. They’ve been working on character since 1846. I took extra efforts to make sure my fictional characters had their own unique personalities. Overall, if a building or business or person could be changed or moved—I did it.

Yes, I made sure the bad stuff happened well away from the village in otherwise empty places.

Yes, I named as many local towns as I could. I wanted to spread the joy around, because it is a joyful experience to read about familiar places used in fictitious, mischievous ways within a book.

Yes, I tried to keep my villains, my bad guys, as out-of-towners and I almost made it. One local made it in, but he’s no one that I ever met.

Yes, I tried to be positive. It is just in my nature.

Find C. Hope Clark’s thoughts about “Using Real Places in Your Story” in the Jan. 20th edition of Funds for Writers.