A series of series

dsc02063I’ve been back in NYC for 3 weeks now and am just about recovered from my travels — in time to start planning my next sojourn (more on which later).

Lengthy travels make me long for homely comforts — my own food, bed, and favorite books. So when I returned, I made some mac-n-cheese and, with a stack of books next to my bed, indulged myself.

First I took myself off to Earthsea, thinking magical stories set in the Archipelago would be sufficient distraction from current political realities. But as hundreds of thousands of women were preparing to march worldwide, LeGuin’s feminist U-turn in her created world only underscored what is now at risk.

The first 3 Earthsea books were published 1968-1973 and set in a male-only world of wizardry, where the saying Weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic was frequently repeated (note: only by wizards). There are hints of the Old Powers (connected to women), but Ged, with a woman’s help, escapes them. Then, LeGuin has a rethink and, beginning in 1990, she goes back to Earthsea to try to figure out why men fear women.

Why men fear women. Of course not all men and of course not all women. Earthsea holds wizards who welcome women as sources of magical power and try to learn from them; there are also women who are happy to leave magic in the hands of men — yet they’re still subject to the whims of men, whether wizard or not. But that question of fear is critical: The wizards fear death so much that they change it into a prison rather than a release. They fear women so much that they ban them from their lives, convinced that loving relationships will sap their powers and defile their sacred groves.

I leavened the mental challenges of diving into Earthsea with a quick run through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s semi-autobiographical Little House books. My favorites in this series are By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter, which cover her family’s first two years in Dakota Territory, including a horrifying winter of non-stop blizzards during which her family nearly starves. My companion for this series is Pioneer Girl (Wilder’s autobiography), annotated and illustrated with photos, maps, and other resources that show how Wilder, with assistance from her daughter, turned a lively but brief set of memories into 7 carefully crafted novels.

And then, since I haven’t yet read the third novel in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series, I started that set (I’m now about 70% done with the first book).

Which sparked the idea for this year’s reading theme: series, for both children and adults. This gives me the excuse to wallow in the comfort of the familiar (here I come, EF Benson and Arthur Ransome, possibly even JRRT), and the push to finally open unread installments in other series (including The Brotherhood of the Conch, set in India).

Because I’m still working on my own writing, I can’t promise to post much about the books I read, but I’ll come back now and then to let you know how I progress. As for my next sojourn: a lengthy trip in spring and summer will take me back to the UK and Scandinavia, and then on into Eastern Europe. Trains and boats and planes!

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Winding down, revving up

British Museum, Imdugud, about 2500 BC

British Museum, Imdugud, about 2500 BC

Episode 5 from my Writer’s Studio in the Woods series.

I’m sitting in front of my penultimate fire at the Guild’s central room. It seems to have caught — at last! — so I can take this moment to put 2016 to bed and wake up 2017.

Yesterday was the official end of my artist’s residency, although I don’t actually leave until the 3rd. Last night I was asked if I’d written as much as I’d wanted — No, but I wrote much more than I’d expected, so that’s an accomplishment. After the mad and enervating dash of NaNoWriMo, I didn’t think I’d have the energy to wrestle the raw draft into something others could read. But I did — and I now have about 150 pages’ worth of decent story. I didn’t get to the end, but I know now how it will end, and I’m nearly there.

For 2017, my goals are simple: read more, write more. This year’s wish-list includes finding an agent and/or publisher for my MG fantasy, but I know that won’t just land in my lap. Ergo, “write more” means queries as well as fiction.

The writing tasks I have ahead of me will, I must confess, make it easier for me to neglect this blog. I’m not going away, just stepping back for a while. Of course, if anything exciting happens, it’ll find its way here.

Meanwhile, best wishes to all for a new year that brings satisfaction in all arenas. And for anyone who’s keeping track, we’ve had at least 4 feet of snowfall in the month I’ve been here.

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Character development

snowmanEpisode 4 from my Writer’s Studio in the Woods series.

Creating interesting characters, ones that meet all the requirements for “roundness” — they must be layered, not wholly bad or good, with goals and challenges that fit the tone of the novel — I’ve been struggling with this on my current project.

I’m having fun with my characters, yet one has been giving me problems all along. It took a while, but I think I’ve finally figured him out. He’s a 13-year-old semi-bully, and I had to settle on a reason for his bad behavior, something that would fit a comic novel without being too trite or heavy-handed. This past week, I found it — but, sorry, I’ll reveal no details here; I’ll say only that it doesn’t involve a fatal illness, ADHD, child abuse or any other issue-of-the-week disorder.

As for my artist residency, I’m astonished to realize I have less than 2 weeks left. Each day begins with a trek through the previous night’s snowfall — enough to make walking a warming activity — to the kitchen for breakfast and tea. Then I shovel off the deck and stairs outside the main building and then head to my little hut. I can’t say I’ve done as much writing as I had hoped, but I know I’ve written more than if I had stayed in NYC.

Time now for second breakfast and then more writing. I’ll add one more post before I leave the Guild, so until then: Happy Christmas!

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Sleigh rides are cold adventures

Episode 3 from my Writer’s Studio in the Woods series.

bkfst-1bkfst-2K and I went for a sleigh ride today. Up at 7 for first breakfast — tea and cold cereal. Then we walked a mile to get to the lodge for second breakfast: a plateload of food featuring the chef’s fresh home made bread and his pepper-cured bacon.

It reminded me of Almanzo Wilder’s breakfasts in Farmer Boy, on those winter days in upstate New York that started at 5:00 am and seemed to go on forever.


Each sleigh seats 18, not counting babes-in-arms, or the driver.

A group of over 30 people from Seattle, including nearly a dozen toddlers, joined us after breakfast, and we had enough passengers to fill two sleighs. Jack and Tiny were our horses, each weighing a bit over 2000 pounds (that’s a bit over a ton each). The horses do this route a few times every day through the winter, and they seem to know every downhill and climb along the way. We traveled through woods, on trails often shared with snowmobilers. The driver said the loud engines of trucks and snowmobiles don’t bother the horses, but a chipmunk in a tree can spook them. They’re wired to run from predators, who tend to be silent rather than noisy.


Jack’s on the left, Tiny on the right.

K and I were at the front and learned from the driver that his great-great grandfather had settled in this area in the late 1890s, the nearest supply town a day’s ride by horse and wagon. But now the area is busy with tourists — winter and summer. In fact, as we drove by some hay bales stacked in a yard, the driver said those would be used the next day for an outdoor wedding: the guests would sit on them (although whether during the ceremony or during the celebration afterwards wasn’t clear). The ride took us through woods — pines looming on either side, hills deep in snow in the distance. Once we entered the woods, there was not a building in sight.

cauldronturkeysThe temperature was below 20º F (-7º C), so we were all grateful for a hot cider stop near the end of the ride, where we warmed our hands over a flaming cauldron. Nearby, wild turkeys feasted on grains tossed them by the drivers. The whole experience made me feel I was living in Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow.

I’m glad to be back at the Guild now, in front of the fire, about to head to my dorm and a good book before falling asleep.

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Roof avalanches and tree dumps

Episode 2 from my Writer’s Studio in the Woods series.

riverThe past few days, it’s mostly been about the snow. We glimpse the sun during the day, but then the clouds return and, with them, the snow. I’m used to city snow — dirty, slushy, salted and sanded, pushed aside to make way for vehicles and pedestrians. The Guild has a snowplow, but its impact is minimal, leaving wide swathes of snow. Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself, stuck in these snowy woods, I remind myself of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter and O. E. Rølvaag’s Giants in the Earth. I may experience a few moments of discomfort as I walk from my sleeping quarters to the kitchen to make my breakfast, but I’ll never have to risk freezing to death in a haystack as I try to shelter from a blizzard. And they didn’t have snow plows!


Labyrinth, almost invisible under snow. Time to walk it and recreate the path.

The writing progresses, albeit slowly. I’ve been having fun with some chapters about the 1960 presidential debates and election. Those debates took place in September and October, so I love that I can follow them up with some Halloween pranks. But it’s also time to introduce some new characters, and I’m thinking a couple of nutty aunts will be perfect.

It’s time now for second breakfast and then a few hours of steady writing.

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Writer’s studio in the woods, episode 1

snowNearly a week has passed, and I’ve settled into a routine that, sadly, seems set to a clock 3 hours away: awake by 4 am, asleep by 8:30 pm. I sleep in one building, write in another, and eat in a third. There are other buildings here as well — studios for various creative activities — spread over several acres of land studded with pines, deciduous trees, shrubs, and a few low stumps marked with tall posts for the benefit of the snowplows. A road curves past one side of the campus, and early mornings I watch the headlights’ reflected paths cross the ceiling of my dorm room.

This is a quiet time of year for this community, with few visitors — just 7 staff, plus two resident artists (I’m one; the other is a painter). This weekend a large group is coming in, and before they arrive the painter and I will help a staff member flip the mattresses in all the dorms. (If it’s been more than 6 months since you flipped your own mattress, you’re falling behind.) About once a week, we have a communal meal, cooked by our chef/ceramicist; otherwise we’re on our own. Three times a week, dishes get washed — I’m on duty today, so I’ll be busy after lunch working my way through a weekend’s worth of bowls, plates, mugs, and silverware (someone else gets the pots).

labyrinthOutside my studio is a labyrinth. It’s a triple spiral, each feeding into the next, with no set starting or ending point. You just walk until you feel you’re done, moving into and then out of each spiral, completing the sequence of three as often as you like. My predecessor this morning was accompanied by a dog. Its paw prints rarely strayed from the path. If only we could all move so neatly through life.

seed-podsAfter breakfast, I start writing, although I fear this mostly looks like me staring at my notes pinned to the corkboard in front of me. I’m at that stage in this manuscript when I have mostly doubts about it — the characters are insipid, the plot pointless, the writing frustratingly arduous. But I’m familiar with this feeling and know it will pass. It comes most often when I’m facing a major revision of something I thought, several weeks ago, was really clever but now see as moving my characters in the wrong direction. So, it’s time to stop wasting time and get back to work.

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The second part of the journey

blobserverI’d have posted this earlier, but Amtrak’s Empire Builder doesn’t have wifi! That put a real cramp in my style, I can tell you. How did we live pre-wifi?

Obviously, I survived. Much of the trip, including our path through the Rockies, was at night, so it was too dark for me to gawk at the scenery. But what was visible made me want to return during the long days of summer. We crossed the Mississippi River, and later paralleled the Missouri.

A snow storm in North Dakota didn’t slow us down. Drifts of nearly 2 feet were visible at the various station stops. But by the time we reached Montana, the snow was gone. Nothing visible but brown grass and corn stubble on rolling hills.

saunaNow I’m at the Guild, settling in quickly. Two days of stuffing envelopes and then sorting them by zip codes, but also writing, reading, and even a labyrinth walk. My work space is a tiny building — a table, chair, lamp, and heater, with a cork-board on the wall for my writer’s notes. There ought to be snow, but it hasn’t arrived yet. Instead, the sandy ground is covered with pine needles and cones, oak and sycamore leaves. Rain for now, but snow will come eventually.

This morning I resolved a problem with my book’s opening — what a relief to get that taken care of. I hope I’m still happy with it tomorrow. Now I have to retrieve my flashlight before it gets too dark to move around outside without one. Life in the woods!

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