Sunday, September 28, 2008

Have Pencil, Will Travel

Ever since my husband died several years ago, I’ve been traveling to all of the countries we’d planned to visit together after his retirement. (He died suddenly the morning after he brought home his retirement papers.) Whenever I tell people I’m going to Ukraine or China or Poland, some of them say, “Oh, you’ll find a lot to write about there.” I smile and nod, but the truth is what I’ll write about will be things I learn and observe from the people I travel with.

One of the great Southern writers -- it may have been Faulkner -- said once that he could spend his entire life writing about a square foot of land in the town where he grew up. I’ve written extensively about my home town, the small farming community of Mink Creek, Idaho. Most of it is fiction, but I get my inspiration from the history and customs of that little village, and especially the people, whom I love dearly, both past and present. And so, when I travel, I watch and listen to my companions. I hear their life stories, the way they speak, their attitudes, their comments about the country we’re in and the towns they came from. I observe their mannerisms and how they relate to other people. I make notes in the little pad I always have with me. They, or something about them, may appear in my next book. Very likely they wouldn’t recognize themselves, because the characters I create are usually a synthesis of several people. Sweetie Farnsworth in my Blue Skye was an amalgamation of a warm-hearted woman I knew back in Mink Creek and a Scottish lady I met on one of my trips. Reanna, in Lake of Secrets,was in reality a flighty young woman I knew in high school with a dash of a girl who was part of my tour group in the Czech Republic.

That’s not to say I don’t use the countries themselves in my books, or rather events that happened in those countries. In the trilogy of books I wrote with co-authors Nancy Anderson and Carroll Morris, we had our three characters vacationing together in Williamsburg, Virginia, at the time the World Trade Center was destroyed. Nancy, Carroll, and I had actually vacationed in Williamsburg, but three years before 9/11. On the actual day, September 11, 2001, I was with a small tour group in St. Petersburg, Russia. We were to fly out the next morning, and we were attending a farewell dinner at one of the Romanoff palaces when we passed a vendor’s table and saw the first plane fly into a tower. The commentary was in Russian, so we didn’t know what was happening. It seemed to be an accident, so we went in to dinner. It wasn’t until afterward that we found out it was no accident. We asked the vendor what happened, and in broken English he told us New York was under attack.

Back at our hotel we flipped through the TV channels, trying to locate one we could understand. Finally we found a broadcast from Germany, with English subtitles. We sat there stunned, watching the horror play and replay. We heard that the United States borders had been closed. What was to happen to us? We were shut out of our own country. We would not get home the next day.

The hotel staff wept with us and put up a sign expressing their sorrow and sympathy. Luiba, our wonderful Russian guide, said she would make sure we’d have a hotel to stay in when we got to Warsaw, which was as far as we could go. She hugged us all the next day when she took us to the airport.

The small hotel near the airport in Warsaw had just opened, and the rooms were beautiful. The staff surrounded us with love and concern. The week that followed would have been a pleasure if there hadn’t been such horror going on back in the U.S. The hotel manager gave us a van and driver to take us around the city free of charge. We saw the triumphant rebuilding of the Warsaw city center, which the Nazis had totally razed in World War II. We saw the U.S. Embassy, surrounded by hundreds of people, many of them weeping, and mountains of flowers they’d brought. And we saw the lovely Latter-day Saint chapel, where several of us went to church on Sunday and found peace of mind and the assurance that we would get home safely. We were charmed and touched that one of the Sunday School classes was in English so that we could understand without the missionaries translating.

In the second book of our trilogy, Three Tickets to Peoria, Nancy, Carroll, and I had our characters going through the same emotions that I’d felt when they are stranded in Williamsburg. They can’t get home. But their solution was easier than mine; they simply changed the destination of their rental car and drove to Florida where one of the characters was living.

One need not travel to find inspiration for characters or ideas for events. To paraphrase Faulkner, or whoever it was, I could find enough to write about the rest of my life right here on my own block. In fact, one of my neighbors made an appearance in my book Shanny on Her Own as independent and crusty old Aunt Adabelle. You can tell her if you want to, but she’d deny it. She doesn’t see herself as I see her, and besides I stirred in a hefty measure of my own Aunt Mahalia.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review of The Santa Letters by Stacy Gooch Anderson

This handsomely presented book begins by giving the reader a glimpse of a happy family -- William and Emma with their three sons and small daughter -- enjoying their time together. But in the second chapter, everything has changed. William has been killed by a hit-and-run driver, and the family is plunged into loss and pain and darkness. Emma, immobilized by grief, wants nothing more than to huddle in the comforting warmth of Grandma’s quilt and think of the past when William was still with her. Christmas is coming, but the joy of the season has died with her husband, as far as she is concerned. She pulls herself together enough to hold down the job she must take to provide for her family, but she feels her life is in total disarray.

Then, to the surprise of all of them, they find a red envelope on their doorstep. Emma is tempted to throw it away. Her children have had enough ‘surprises.’ But the kids are too focused on the mysterious letter to simply dispose of it, so after dinner Emma opens it. The writer of the letter expresses sympathy for their loss and changed circumstances, and then talks about the Christmas season, telling how the word ‘Christmas’ combines Christ’s name with a Middle English word meaning ‘festival’ or ‘celebration.’ The letter goes on to say that a box will be left on their porch each day along with instructions about what the family is to do with the items inside.

The letter is signed, “Santa.”

Thus begins an adventure of mystery and realization and growth. One of the letters speaks of traditions, and inside the box the family finds tree ornaments with instructions to obtain a tree and decorate it as in past years. “Symbols, services, songs, sacraments--they all have withstood the test of time,” the letter says. Another day the letter is about the importance of laughter, with scriptural quotations about rejoicing. Inside the box are a comedy DVD, a box of popcorn, and root beer for all for a festive night at the movies.

And so it goes, with a Santa letter and a box delivered each day. But who is leaving them? There isn’t a clue. Emma is immeasureably grateful to whoever it is because she and her family are once again finding joy and fun in life. They have something to look forward to.

But will they ever find out who this ‘Santa’ is?

This book brings to the reader not only a touching story but also a whole education about Christmas and the Savior and the true meaning of “Santa.”

You can learn more about Stacy Gooch Anderson by clicking here and here.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Review of The Journey by J. Adams

There’s an old saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But when I looked at the jacket of J. Adams’ book The Journey, I knew beyond a doubt that I was in for a good read, and I compliment the designer, Jonathan Pace. In a tranquil setting, he has inserted two eyes peering through the tangled underbrush with a hint of both curiosity and fear, which is how Ciran, the heroine of the book, views the new world she is sent to from the familiar kingdom where her father rules supreme.

As a child, I loved fairy tales. This book, to me, felt like a fairy tale at first, but as I progressed through it I found that, like any really good fairy tale, it has a number of levels. It can be read simply as entertainment. Or it can be looked at as a multi-level allegory, drawn from the greatest story of all, the plan of salvation. Right away, in the prologue, the reader is introduced to the ominous opposing force, so before we even meet Ciran, we fear for her safe passage. Then immediately we find ourselves in Krisandor, “a kingdom in which one longed to stay but inevitably had to leave for a time.” Ciran, like those before, had to leave it and go into The World With No Name in order to prove herself and progress. Her father promises that although he won’t be by her side, he will nevertheless be with her at all times. Her brother Sakriel will soon come to be with her, the father promises. “Since he has already made the journey himself, his knowledge will be a strength to you,” he says.

Thus begins this story of the unending battle between good and evil. It winds through scenes of breathtaking danger and temptation and treachery. But there is always the guiding star of love. It is up to Ciran to choose which way she will go.

J. Adams’ lyrical prose keeps the reader wondering if Ciran is truly up to the task of completing the journey, and if we, ourselves, can make the right choices in order to return to the father. The book is indeed a good read.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Virtual Tour a Great Success - by Carroll

Nancy, Lael, and I had never heard of a virtual book tour until we went to the LDStorymakers writers conference last March. We were all amazed at the extent of self promotion authors can do these days, much of it via the Internet. Thank heaven for Tristi Pinkston, our good friend and guide in the world of technology! (See Lael’s review of Tristi’s book Nothing to Regret.) Tristi set up a virtual tour for us and Surprise Packages. Almost every day during the month of August a blogger with ties to the LDS community of readers and writers posted a review of the book and/or our answers to interview questions.What fun it’s been to visit those blogs and discover what the writers had to say, even when the comments weren’t completely positive.

Several reviewers hadn’t read the first two books, so they had a hard time picking up the story lines and getting the characters straight. We’d thought about starting the book with a Cast of Characters page—I’m not sure why we didn’t follow through. Maybe we can plead deadline denseness!

Others wished that we’d written more scenes rather than reporting events via e-mails and phone calls. We wanted to, but word count rules! I guess we could have made the series longer, but that would have had its perils, too.

And then there was a comment on less than stellar editing… No excuses for that.

Here’s a sampling of the positive responses:

Nichole said: We should all wish for a group of friends like this…. I saw parts of myself and my girlfriends in each of these women.

Shirley said: It’s like reading the big, fat, juicy family newsletter you always wish you had.

Karlene said: Not only a great read, but also surprisingly inspiring to me.

And from the two men who hosted us on the tour:

Don said: It reminded me of listening to my mom and her sisters catching up on each other's lives.

Keith said: Being a man, I’m not a big fan of women’s fiction, but I found it fulfilling. I love the blend of characters, the way they fit together in the narrative works well.

We’re amazed at the support that LDS authors give each other through the LDStorymakers group and through being willing to feature each other’s work on their blogs. This is a great community, and we’re honored to be a part of it. We’ll be returning the favor by reviewing new LDS books on this blog.