Category Archives: Writers’ Caffeine

A Story for Memorial Day

In previous posts I’ve written about the power of poetry to soothe our hearts and calm our minds,and  to teach us as writers about imagery and economy of language.

I attended a dirt- poor,  rural school that had no teaching resources apart from chalkboards,  textbooks and one 16mm film projector that was shared among all the teachers in grades 1-12. What we had were teachers who insisted that we learn the rules of grammar and spelling, and who required us to memorize and recite poems. Some of them, such as “The Little Turtle”, first memorized in third grade are still in my head along with “Invictus” a  poem that my father loved until his last breath, and Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

In May of my fifth grade year, our teacher assigned John McCrae’s 1915 war poem, “In Flanders Fields”, often quoted now on Memorial Day. I memorized it and recited it, word perfect but didn’t think much about it until I became an author  interested in knowing the stories behind the poems.  In 1915, Major John McCrae was serving as a physician with his Canadian unit during the Second Battle of Ypres. The unit came under heavy fire and an 8 inch German shell exploded, killing 22-year old Lt. Alexis Helmer. The unit chaplain was not available to conduct Lt. Helmer’s funeral service, so Dr. McCrae filled in. It is said that he composed “In Flanders Fields” immediately afterwards. He submitted it to The Spectator magazine, which rejected it, but Punch magazine published it in December of 1915 . It became one of the most often quoted poems of the time and popularized the red poppy as the flower of remembrance for the fallen.

As you read his words, experience it as the author did.  Feel his sorrow and his bravery, and notice also how his words paint a vivid picture of the field where artillery fire drowns out the songs of the lark, “still bravely singing by.”  I hope this poem feasts your writer’s heart, and inspires you to seek unforgettable  images for your writing.

In Flanders Fields

John McCrae, May, 1915


In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing by

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To us from failing hands we throw

The Torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Fields.

Did you memorize poems as a student? Have any of them “stuck in your head”? How have they influenced your writing? If you are a regular reader of poetry, which poets would you recommend to others? Leave a comment and let me know.



What Writers Can Learn from “American Idol”

Next Wednesday, voters will choose a new winner of the “American Idol” singing competition. I’ve tuned in every season– not so much for the singing which over the years has ranged from very good to abysmal–but for the contestants’  personal stories, and for the judges’ comments. This season I’ve thought quite a bit about how those comments might apply to writers of fiction. Singing after all is telling a story. Here are three lessons from the judges that apply to writers as well as to interpreters of song.

“To connect with an audience, you have to find a personal way into the lyric, to make the audience care about you, and about the story you are telling.”  Jennifer Lopez to contestant  Hollie Cavanaugh. Hollie, only 18 years old, had just performed Bonnie Raitt’s torch song, “I Can’t  Make You Love Me.”  Jennifer pointed out that since Hollie had not experienced lyric personally, she should have figured out a way to make that lyric applicable to her own life. So it is with our stories. If we don’t connect with our characters’ struggles, if we don’t leave  little pieces of our hearts on the page, it’s harder for a reader to care about us and our stories. As the poet Robert Frost once said, “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”   What is your personal connection to the story you are currently writing?

“You know who you are, man, and we love it!”  Randy Jackson to Phillip Phillips, one of this year’s finalists. The running joke all season with Phillip is that he rarely sticks to the original melody of any song he performs. He puts his own interpretation on each song, and it’s always consistent with how he sees his music, and with how he connects with an audience.  In the publishing arena, we talk a lot about “branding”–creating an expectation for our readers that is consistently fulfilled with every book.  In  my case, it’s Southern historical fiction that includes a little romance, a little mystery, a dash of humor. How about you? Do you know who you are as a writer? What kind of reading experience do you want to deliver to your audience, time after time?  Last week, I exchanged emails with a prepublished author who said that when it comes to defining her stories she is “all over the place.” I think this is a mistake at the begining of a career. Take a lesson from Randy Jackson. Know who you are. Your readers will love it.

“If you don’t  have a dream, man, it can’t come true.” Stephen Tyler to the top three contestants. When he first uttered this, I thought “huh?” It sounded like another of Stephen’s quirky, off the wall comments that are hilarious, even if they don’t provide much guidance to the contestants. But the more I pondered this, the more I think that what he meant was that we need to have a clear vision of what we want to accomplish, whether it be on the stage or on the page.  What is your dream for your writing? What do you want to accomplish? Set some goals. Shoot for the stars. Aim high.

Connect with your material. Know who you are as an author. Define your dream. And then, as Randy Jackson says, you ‘ll be “in it to win it!”


To Be Taken Seriously, Master These Essential Skills

A couple of weeks ago, a post to one of my e-mail loops regarding being taken seriously as a writer  generated quite a firestorm. I’m not about to open that can of worms again. Instead, I’m suggesting three skills that any aspiring author must master if he/she hopes to be taken seriously where it counts–with agents, editors, and ultimately, with readers.

First, master the fine points of grammar, usage, and mechanics. Invest in a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. When you have a question about which verb tense to use, where to place a comma, whether or not an apostrophe is needed, how to form a plural, instead of asking for the answer on an e-mail loop, pull  out your trusty Manual and look it up. A Chinese proverb says, “give a man a fish, he eats for today; teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” Waiting for someone else to supply the answer you need is the equivalent of eating for today. A week from now, a month from now, you might not remember the answer you obtained with no effort, but if you look it up for yourself, the information is internalized and becomes a part of your knowledge base, available to you for a lifetime. In one of her rare interviews, Harper Lee said that she never conducts research online, but instead heads for the library stacks, “because when I work to learn something, I remember it.”

The more you work to master the language, the less dependent you will be on others and the more confident you will become in your writing. Looking up the correct verb form is not as much fun as writing that next scene, but understanding the language, being able to use it with elegance and skill is an absolute requirement if you want to be taken seriously.

Master the art of  conducting research. Passion for your subject is a huge part of writing a successful novel. If you are not sufficiently engaged with your topic to want to ferret out the answers you need, maybe you are attempting to write about the wrong subject. Need to know how a body was embalmed in the 19th century? What kind of weapon an undercover cop in Miami might carry? What song was the most popular in 1972? Millions and millions of pages in university libraries, state historical societies, museums, and the Library of Congress are available online. Or, pick up the phone and call an expert. Most people are flattered to be asked and will give you more information that you knew existed. Doing the research yourself enriches not only your writing, but your life. Don’t shortchange yourself by prevailing upon others to tell you what you need to know. If you want to be taken seriously, be responsible for your own research.

Learn to spell. When I studied English grammar, words that sound the same, but that are spelled differently and have different meanings were called “homonyms”. Today some grammarians call them “homophones” but whatever you call them, they are the bane of many writers. So, along with your trusty Manual of Style, invest in a good dictionary and a good thesaurus. You will not be taken seriously if you submit so much as a query letter that is riddled with errors.  Here are just a few of the many  homophone errors I’ve noticed recently in e-mails, Facebook posts, and elsewhere.  Principal/principle. One is the head of a school, a main actor or dancer or musician in a company, or the first in rank or importance, as in the principal reason for the accident.   The other is the ultimate source or origin of something; a fundamental truth. They are not interchangeable. Nor are these homophones: clique/click, hear/here, way/weigh, sight/site/cite.  Master the differences. It’s a requirement if you want to be taken seriously.

Finally, take heart in the realization that every published author started out unpublished. Those who have successfully crossed the divide and entered the ranks of the published have done so because of the three H’s:

Hunger. A hunger for stories and for sharing them with others. Hard work: mastering not only the elements of story, but the nuances of grammar and usage and the maddening inconsistencies of English spelling. Humility: being open to the lessons of those who have gone before you and being grateful to the One who gave you the desire to write in the first place.

Here’s to excellence. And to being taken seriously.

A Southern Writer: Kaye Gibbons

Today is the birthday of Kaye Gibbons, one of my favorite Southern authors. Born in Nash County, North Carolina, she attended NC State and UNC at Chapel Hill. Her first novel, the highly- acclaimed Ellen Foster is based upon her early life as the daughter of an alcoholic and abusive father. Like all of her books, it’s written in a unique voice that blends wisdom, humor and pathos and  reflects her Southern roots. When I read one of her books I feel as if I’m sitting in a rocking chair  on a shady front porch, sipping tea and listening to a consummate story-teller.

As writers we can learn a lot  from her about word choice, rhythm and characterization, about the way just the right opening takes a reader’s hand and draws her into the story. Here are the opening lines of A Cure For Dreams,  one of my favorites:

When my mother was a young girl she spent the pinks of summer evenings sitting on the banks of Brownie’s Creek where it flows into the Cumberland River. She always sat with a ball of worsted wool in her lap, knitting and dreaming of love coming to her….The man who finally wooed my mother wasn’t a dream man and he didn’t find her knitting on a river bank. He found her at Quaker wedding in 1917 which was a very bold place for her to be…she was fifteen and therefore a slave to risk.

I discovered Kaye Gibbons just as I was starting my own writing career and counting every penny earned with my words. My earnings were  modest but I  imagined a day when I wouldn’t have to choose–when I would earn enough from my writing  to have everything. I am now  thoroughly disabused of that notion, thanks in part to Kaye Gibbons. Years ago she gave an interview to a magazine in which she described the day her agent called to tell her she had sold another book. “Great,” Kaye said. “Now I can have my hardwood floors.”

Among her other books are A Virtuous Woman, Charms for the Easy Life, and Sights Unseen.