Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Cover reveal for The Saffron Crocus

I’m so excited that a friend’s novel is releasing! Alison McMahan’s young adult novel The Saffron Crocus officially launches Dec. 13, but I’m giving you the jump on it—it would make a great holiday present for the young reader in your life. To pique your interest, Alison's doing a cover reveal. Isn't it a compelling cover?

I met Alison a few years ago at the Historical Novels Society conference through the Blue Pencil Café. We got to be friendly and enjoyed hanging out during the costume pageant. Afterwards, we stayed in touch and she has twice taken my mediabistro.com online novel writing class although she does not need my guidance and in fact has given me some on occasion! I think she takes it just to have a deadline to be held accountable for.

Alison’s a fantastic writer, and I’ve been privileged to be able to see her work in its beta stages. I know you will love The Saffron Crocus, and the other books she has in the works which will be finding publishers soon. I have a very special love of her Alice Guy Blache novel, for instance, still underway!

Without further ado, here’s more about the book itself.

Venice, 1643. Isabella, fifteen, longs to sing in Monteverdi’s Choir, but only boys (and castrati) can do that. Her singing teacher, Margherita, introduces her to a new wonder: opera! Then Isabella finds Margherita murdered. Now people keep trying to kill Margherita’s handsome rogue of a son, Rafaele.

Was Margherita killed so someone could steal her saffron business? Or was it a disgruntled lover, as Margherita—unbeknownst to Isabella—was one of Venice’s wealthiest courtesans?
Or will Isabella and Rafaele find the answer deep in Margherita's past, buried in the Jewish Ghetto?

Isabella has to solve the mystery of the Saffron Crocus before Rafaele hangs for a murder he didn’t commit, though she fears the truth will drive her and the man she loves irrevocably apart.

KUDOS for The Saffron Crocus

I adored this beautifully written, passionate book. The Saffron Crocus is a glittering, thrilling opera of a novel that plucked my heartstrings and kept me reading at fever pitch. Brava, Alison McMahan! Encore!

~ Nancy Holder, New York Times Bestselling Author of the Wicked Saga

WINNER: 2014 Rosemary Award for Best Historical for Young Adults

Author Alison McMahan

I know Alison was really excited about the cover for the novel, and rightly so. It was created by Mishi Bellamy. Mishi lives in both India and France, where she has her own art gallery, the Atelier des Colombes.

Alison herself has a pretty interesting background: she has “chased footage for her documentaries through jungles in Honduras and Cambodia, favelas in Brazil and racetracks in the U.S.”And she's a fantastic plotter, thinker, critiquer and writer. I heartily recommend this book! Surely there's a teen on your holiday gift list who could benefit--or perhaps you yourself.

Links to learn more:
Webpage for Saffron Crocus:






Alison's webpage:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Capitol Book Festival

Me, courtesy of buddy Susan Spann

This last weekend at Sacramento's Capitol Book Festival was a great event. I enjoyed meeting authors and readers and reconnecting with a few folks from long ago. I noticed an interesting thread that went through several panels: the idea of a supernatural way in which a story presents itself to an author. Here's the rundown:

1. In my panel with Gini Grossenbacher and Kate Asche, an audience member asked about the word "muse" and how we see it operating in our work. I talked about my experience of not remembering writing entire pages of The Witch's Trinity, yet there they were on my computer so I must've written them. (Unless: elves?) I admit that there is a certain form of mystery around how stories and words funnel through our bodies and to our pens or keyboards. Toni Morrison has famously said that Beloved was channeled through her from the ancestors.

2. I then attended a historical fiction panel with Elizabeth Rosner and Bruce Holbert. They both were talking about how mysterious the process is, so I firmed up the deal by asking them outright during the Q&A if they believed there was something supernatural to it. They both agreed. Elizabeth said an old photograph of Steinmetz, the main character in her novel Electric City, appeared to be looking right at her, and she believes she was made to tell his story which has been lost to time.

3. Next was a panel with Cara Black, Rhys Bowen and Terry Shames. Cara talked about how she was loading her clothes dryer one day and a huge change just came to her; a voice spoke. It gave me chills--she literally heard a voice. [As a side note, I have to say I laughed heartily when Rhys Bowen reported coming to an unpleasant realization about a character and yelling at her computer for 10 minutes: "is she really French?"]

After this, I had to head home for childcare swap although there were many more things I wanted to see (and I was bummed that several panels were double-booked--including against mine--so I had to make some reluctant decisions about where to go and what to see.)

On Sunday, I returned kicking my heels up, without the responsibility of presenting. In fact, a volunteer asked me at the top of the escalator if I was an author and without thinking, I said, "No, just a participant." I hasten to say, I feel very grateful to have presented at this festival, which was magnificently orchestrated by Marion Englund, Kelli Hanniford, Fred Palmer and a field of incredible volunteers...it's just fun sometimes to go and not have to worry if I'm sweating. I circulated around the booths on the main festival floor and was impressed with all the offerings. I ran into friends Mark Wiederanders, Bethanie Humphreys, Christian Kiefer, Lois Ann Abraham and even Holly Brown for a millisecond in the hallway: old buddy from San Francisco Writers Group lo these many years ago! (I'm worried I'm missing someone...sorry if so!)

Then I attended a fantastic panel with Susan Spann and Jennifer Laam--they were great and had the crowd laughing.After that, at the Barnes & Noble booth we ran into Erin Lindsay McCabe, and we headed out for a historical novelist women writers (and reader: Erin had wonderful blogger friend Jennifer Wolfe with her) lunch nearby. I regret to say, I did not return to the festival and missed some more great presentations. But I was inspired by the whole weekend, and wanted to head to a cafe and do some writing before I returned home.

Suffice it to say, Sacramento has an incredible writing community (over 100 authors presented!) and I'm so glad to be a part of it. This was the inaugural Capitol Book Festival, and I can't wait to see what happens next year.

. . . . .

Thursday, October 23, 2014

California Capital Book Festival

I'm delighted to be part of Sacramento's inaugural Capital Book Festival taking place this weekend. I'm going to be presenting on the all-inclusive topic, "Writing Your Book." Wow...I could cover a lot of ground with that!

Luckily, I'm presenting with two other authors to lessen the load: poet Kate Asche and young-adult author Gini Grossenbacher. Here's the link to my presentation and the link to the festival website. The festival is huge, with over one hundred authors! Who knew Sacramento had so many of us? I've just moved to the area a few years ago, so I'm excited to meet writers who are already part of the literary community and touch base with those I already know through the Historical Novels Society.

My presentation takes place this Saturday at noon in Room 305 of the Sacramento Convention Center. The entire weekend is free. There are events for kids as well...check it out!

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A saucy reading at HNS conference

A year ago, I attended the Historical Novels Society conference (then held in St. Petersburg, Florida; the next stateside one will be Denver in 2015). It's an infamous custom that Diana Gabaldon hosts a Saturday Night Sex Scenes Reading where participants gamely step on stage and read a short sex scene from their fiction (no memoirs please!)

Diana selected a bunch of us randomly and emailed us to let us know we'd been picked. I never got a chance to say hello to her before the night of the proceedings. I sat at my table between Kathleen Kent and Alison McMahan (Xina Uhl was there too), nervous beyond measure. I wasn't going to permit myself a (badly-needed) drink until after I had gone up to the stage, and wouldn't you know it....I was picked second to last! I was a frayed nerve bundle sending random neurotransmitter blasts by the time my name was called.

So, picture the scene. We're in a hotel ballroom that holds 600 people. The acoustics are tough, and let's face it: a sex scene read into the vastness has special challenges as opposed to one read from a pillow. I knew that from the last Sex Scenes I'd watched in San Diego a few years earlier, so I'd deliberately chosen a funny scene. Many people can get away with breathy voices into the microphone (including La Dame Gabaldon herself) ...but I knew I couldn't. My best best would be to go with a scene where the sex didn't go right.

Although it was nerve-wracking for me to wait so long to be called, it was ultimately in my favor as many people had imbibed generously and were, let's say, receptive to my reading in a way they may not have been an hour or so earlier. My friend Alison offered to tape my reading on her phone and I shuddered as I declined. I would come to regret that, though, since the official conference video left an unused microphone in the middle of the shot... but at the time I didn't know the performance was being taped.

Diana introduced me and I climbed the steps to the stage without tripping (it's things like this I worry about) and began my little jokey introduction, channeling Justin Timberlake.When I sang the first line of "I'm bringing sexy back" there was one beat where no one laughed and I died a million deaths in that interstice. People were just not expecting something funny as previous readings that night had been intense, romantic, sexy, hot...everything but silly. And then, thank God, laughter came and I launched into the scene.

To be honest, I was surprised by how much people laughed (I've consulted with experts and we all conclude: alcohol), but it made me feel great.When I finished, one person sprang to his feet and gave me a standing ovation. It was C.W. Gortner, a writer I absolutely admire and look up to, and to get his endorsement meant everything. I'm thinking about engraving him clapping on my tombstone when that sad piece of rock is eventually required. Whatever ills may befall me in the coming years, you can't take that away from me.

I went back to my table where congratulations happened, so I didn't hear what Diana said in response. It was only after I got a copy of this tape that I realized she said, "Well, I hope that book's on Kindle so I can read it on my way home tomorrow."

Oddly enough, the book was not on Kindle. It had been published by a small press in Berkeley and the subsidiary rights still belonged to me, so I thought, wow, maybe I should release this as an ebook. And maybeeee that wonderful Diana Gabaldon would be willing to blurb it?

She was!

I sent her a copy, and she read it in the midst of all the hurricane of the Starz casting and filming. I can't to this day believe her generosity in taking the time to read my book and to give such an extravagantly kind blurb. I'm going to need a second gravestone to engrave her on, or maybe I should install some Scottish standing stones, some dolmens, maybe a variation on Stonehenge to thank her. (Yes, I'm morbid; this is the way I roll.)

Diana, if you read this long-ass post, thank you a million ways to Sunday for your hand extended to me. You are a rock-star author and you act like you're in the slushpile: humble, kind, giving, warm, real.

So, the last thing I have to address is, why did I not release the video until literally a year later? One might think I waited to time this with the Outlander Starz release, which would have been smart of me, but the reality is far sadder. The conference was in June 2013, and it took me a while to figure out there was a tape, order it, and then get working to have someone edit it down from literal hours to a brief clip (thank you, Jai Jai Noire!). I'm a natural procrastinator. And so by the time things were underway, I had learned about Jennifer Kranz's diagnosis with DIPG, a fatal brain tumor, in October. Jennifer was a six year old, the daughter of a friend. And suddenly promoting my video seemed endlessly vapid and stupid, so I put it aside and grieved along with everyone who followed Jennifer's rapid decline. She died Feb. 12, 2014. I hope you will watch my video, but I hope even more strongly that you'll visit www.unravelpediatriccancer.org to learn how you can help combat this vicious, despicable disease.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014


The Kranz Family in 2013. Jennifer is in yellow.

The other day, I met up with Libby Kranz during a trip we took to Gilroy. Libby is the mom of Jennifer, a six-year-old who died of DIPG February 12 this year. We met at a park. At one point, during respective kid tussling, she started talking to a woman a short distance away. I concluded it was a friend she had run into.

It wasn't. Libby came back, bristling with energy. The woman was a stranger, and Libby had just approached her--a cold call of sorts--to tell her about Jennifer.

She was being brave.

No one wants to walk up to strangers and tell them about a cancer that gives a 9 month life expectancy from diagnosis (Libby's daughter got a third of that time), tell them how only one cent of every dollar donated to the American Cancer Society goes to pediatric cancer, and tell them how the federal government funded pediatric research back in 2008 but then somehow the money has been held up ...

Nothing is going to help Libby's daughter. But something fierce, powerful and brave is going to save other people's daughters and sons. It's Libby, and the awareness she is raising for this devastating monster cancer that steals children. She was talking that day about business cards being printed up, so when she went to talk to people, she'd have a card to hand them. She is focused. She is committed. She is brave.

It's hard to talk about, and hard to think about. Libby admitted on her blog that before her daughter was diagnosed, she too would change the channel when the St. Jude's commercials came on. But the fact is, cancer is only easy to ignore if you don't know someone affected by it--and these days, that sliver of the population is getting smaller and smaller.

What can you do? Read and share Libby's blog. Contribute to the fund at Stanford University where Jennifer's cells are being studied--she had a very aggressive form of DIPG and thus her cells may contain valuable information to unlock this disease. If you feel proactive and want to physically get out there to help the world's children, consider "fluttering" . . . a genius plan of Libby's to both bring awareness to the cause and raise funds.

Being brave isn't just about doing things that scare you. Sometimes it's about stepping up the plate and helping when you can.

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Friday, July 04, 2014

The Paul Mailman Ten Miler

Dad on the left, adjusting his watch. A newspaper clipping.

Last month, I put myself and my family on a plane, flew from California to New Hampshire, all for the sake of running a ten mile race. Crazy? Yes! Of course! But this wasn't just any old race. It is named for my father, who was instrumental in getting running going in the 1970s in Montpelier, Vermont, where the race was held. We didn't always run for exercise, you know. That was a craze that developed just, well about 40 years ago, and this edition of the race was its 40th anniversary. I couldn't resist the chance to cross something off my bucket list.*

Here I am, approaching the finish line. The slowboats all came in singly.

My father is alive and well and wonderful. He wasn't able to run the race, but throughout my life he has a been a model of dedication to running. My older sisters tell me he would run 10 miles daily after working an eight hour day. I asked him if he ran with a canteen, because my running partner is very firm about bringing water, and "bottled water" as such didn't exist back then, nor the flasks that velcro to your hand so you're not even aware you're holding it.. He said no. See, Denise?!

It was an honor to run this race under his name, to get the race t-shirt with his name all over it (a delightful play on his name, with an envelope theme and a cancelled postmark), and most of all....drum roll....to get my entire extended family (minus one nephew, unfortunately, who couldn't make it) back to our hometown. We hadn't been there together for 19 years.

19 years! We ate the steakhouse, the Wayside, walked the streets I love, saw the Trombleys, saw the Quelches, saw Kellogg-Hubbard Library and Mrs. Downey and Scott Lovelette. I toured the capitol and it was a fascinating tour--I guess when I last lived here I wasn't quite so historical. In the capitol, I ran into Mr. Brooks, my old chem teacher and now Sergeant at Arms. I missed a few things: going out to get a creemie (I am kicking myself), my old scoop shop was missing (is it possible Ben & Jerry's couldn't make a go of it financially in the state capital??) and it would have been nice to go to a service at Bethany, esp. given that the race day was my sister's 30th anniversary of being married there! Can I just say, Montpelier, Vermont, is an extraordinary city. I'm so glad I got to grow up here.

My nuclear family. There was also a handful of the next generation running around. I'm in purple.

There's much more to say about this race and my (inadequate! ha!) training, but I leave that for another day. Suffice it to say, my nephews finished the race in good time, my sister and her husband walked four miles of it and heard an amazing tale from a concentration camp survivor who walked with them, and I completed the race with a time I was fine with (11:37 min.miles). I didn't blister the pavement, but as my dad said when I undertook training, "you're not a spring chicken anymore." No! This "winter hen" did the best she could. :)

Paul Mailman (Dad) and me in the parking lot afterwards

It turned out that keeping my maiden name did finally pay off--I got the #1 race bib!

*I don't know where this phrase originates from, or truly what it means. I think it came from a novel that then became a Paul Newman movie, neither of which I've read or seen. I may be using the term wrong, but I think the bucket list is things you want to accomplish before you kick the bucket. Accurate assessment?

P.S. This blog is supposed to be about writing and history--but a lot of great plotting and story resolution comes while running. That's my loose connection: live with it! :)

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book cover design for HAUNTED

This week I received the cover design for HAUNTED, Book One of the Arnaud Legacy trilogy coming out from Kensington Books this coming March. It's always a thrilling moment for a writer to see someone's interpretation of their book. It's been getting great reactions from people I've shared it with, and I love the moody somberness of the scene, and the great fonts. (I'm a font person!). I think this jacket really effectively conveys the idea of a ghost story/haunted mansion tale.

I have to thank old writers group friend Michelle Gagnon for the excellent cover blurb: she is a wonderful Y.A. writer whose novel Don't Turn Around blew my socks off.

If anyone is interested in preordering the book now, here's the link.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Introducing Lynn Carthage

The pseudonymous Lynn Carthage

Today Publisher's Marketplace officially announced (I had "soft announced" a few months ago here) the sale of my young adult trilogy to Kensington Books. For my foray into young adult fiction, I'm going to use a pen name, Lynn Carthage, to keep my adult and YA writing separate. The first book in the trilogy hits bookstores next March. As the time comes closer, I'll launch a Lynn Carthage website, FB presence and Twitter handle. I'm really excited to join this new genre, to see a book I love hit the marketplace, and to see cover art. I love covers. And now...I have to sculpt and create the next two books in the series. It's fun to be writing on deadline rather than on spec. :)

From Publisher's Marketplace
Children's: Young Adult

Bram Stoker finalist and author of Witch's Trinity Erika Mailman 
writing as Lynn Carthage's ARNAUD LEGACY: HAUNTED, 
about a teen moving with her family in the run-down ancestral 
mansion in England which appears to still be inhabited, to 
Michaela Hamilton at Kensington Children's, in a three-book 
deal, by Marly Rusoff at Marly Rusoff & Associates (world).
. . . .  

Raiders of the Lost Ark

4: my favorite number. Coincidence? I think not.

**NOTE: there are plot spoilers, but I am unapologetic. This movie is 33 years old!

This week I had the incredible pleasure of seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen again, for the first time since 1981. Of course, I've viewed it multiple times since on TV and with rentals, but it had been a really, really long time since I'd seen it, and thus I watched it with very fresh eyes.

When my Dad took us to see this movie in 1981, I thought based on the title that it was going to be a movie about football. I can still recall my excitement when it dawned on me that it was a movie about archeology. I purchased the novelization and am kicking myself I don't have it today. I pored over that book like nobody's business. In the scene in the movie when Indy draws the sunbeam coming through the headpiece of the staff of Ra, and his chalk pulls so decisively on the flimsy portable chalkboard, I felt a visceral memory: that sound.

This movie holds up.

It's not dated. It feels like something wonderful the studios released last week.

I'm in awe of the storytelling. It's so well-plotted. For instance, the very first thing we learn about Marion Ravenwood is that she can drink large men under the table. That comes into play later when she tries to use that skill to extract herself from Belloq. (It's always bothered me that she doesn't wait until he's completely nodded out; he could so easily raise an alarm even as drunk as he is--but then Toht shows up so it's all moot anyway.) We learn right away that Indy doesn't like snakes...and so of course his climactic moment from which escape seems absolutely impossible also involves snakes. They are the hot fudge on the trouble sundae. We learn in an offhand reference that Indy and Marion like to eat dates. The dates later cause a mild panic in us, as we watch Indy carry a poisoned one around, thinking aloud as he delays eating it.

I wanted to be Marion Ravenwood. Perhaps this is why I'm so fond of Ravenswood wine. :) I could go on at length about Marion and how she shaped my ideas of what a strong woman is, but that's a post for another day.

I'd like to talk briefly about what it's like as a writer to watch a story on the big screen and try to dissect it on the fly for why/how the plot works. This movie has a wonderful ongoing motif: briefly having something and losing it. Besides the obvious triad of Belloq consistently grabbing things Indiana has procured at great trouble and danger to himself, there's the man at the very beginning, about to land a big fish by the way his line is bending ... but he must throw the entire reel into the river to start up the plane for Indiana. There's the fact that Toht temporarily has the headpiece, and that his hand bears its emblem albeit inadequately (I love that detail the most, I think, of any plot device in the movie. How brilliant is that??!! "And then deduct one for Allah"....oh my God: organic, credible, and game-changing.) I watched the movie most definitely as someone enjoying being entertained, but I also mentally kept track of how the scenes keep fortifying the story, each one moving the plot forward in demonstrable ways. There's nothing wasted in this movie. (well, maybe some of the kissing--but that added immeasurably to my enjoyment!) Then there's the idea that Indy and Marion once had each other.

I could go on and on for a long time, but wanted to keep this short. I so much appreciate this movie, and I thank Cinemark for including it in their summer classic movies queue.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Gold Rush Writers Conference in Mokolumne Hill

View from my window at the Hotel Leger

Earlier this month, I attended the Gold Rush Writers Conference, founded nine years ago by Antoinette May, author of Pilate's Wife and The Sacred Well. I was there to teach a workshop on how to outline your novel and to moderate a historical fiction panel.

The conference was incredible--I told Antoinette afterwards that she had built an event that had a wonderful vibe of supportiveness and mutual interest. It involved an interesting collection of people presenting and attending.

Main Street. Hotel Leger on the left.

I do have to take a few moments to talk about Mokolumne Hill itself. I'm still not sure of its pronunciation; I believe I've heard Mok-a-LUM-knee and Ma-KOL-um-nee...perhaps best to use the abbreviation: Mok Hill.

This is a Gold Rush town that still exudes history. It's not tourism-driven, just a small town with many original facades and structures. The walking-tour brochures lists dozens of extant structures. As I first drove down the main street, my breath was taken away. Checking into the Hotel Leger, built in 1871 on the footprint of the original 1851 structure that burned, I was so excited I was literally giggling as I keyed into my room on the second floor. Decorated in the style of the day with antique furnishings, the rooms (I popped my head into as many as I could as the cleaning staff vacated them on the day we all left) look as they would have to miners and their families. Some rooms do have their own bathrooms and fireplaces, but others require you to step down the hallway to a shared bath. I appreciated the historical accuracy; I found myself wishing there was a basin and pitcher in my room to wash my face.

Rocking chair reflected in simple mirror. I'm in the 1800s!

I took a run one morning and explored more of Mok Hill. Built into otherwise undisturbed hillsides, the homes have incredible vistas with nary a sign of civilization in sight. I'd always wondered if there were still areas of California that hadn't been touched by citification: this is one. I strongly considered telling my husband we should relocate here. I even had a bit of a race uphill with two chortling turkeys; they were faster.

Yes, two swans were making out on my bed when I arrived. The nerve.

Back to the conference. The whole weekend began with a lovely picnic in Antoinette's back garden with wine and a chance to meet everyone. It set the tone for the conference.

The keynote speaker was Christian Kiefer, who gave a wonderful, funny speech, delayed by his rapturous consumption of sherbert. He also gave a great seminar on setting in novels, referencing several classic novels and teasing out a great description of a barometer's pride of place in a Flaubert scene. The brunch headliner Lucy Sanna gave a great account of path to publication: like most of us, it wasn't an immediate slam-dunk but took a lot of work and persistence (congratulations!)

Christian Kiefer's sherbet-fueled keynote

The historical fiction panelists were Antoinette May, Bob Yeager (best.shoes.ever) and Brent Barker. We had a good session looking at some of the joys and challenges of our particular genre. I attended a poetry open mic and liked a lot of the poetry I heard; I didn't catch all the names but remember Kevin Arnold, Sally Ashton, and Kathie Isaac-Luke. I had some great conversations with people and don't want to start naming names in case I forget someone, but I thank Ann for the G&T, Kathy B-F for the birdseed giveaway with a book purchase, Pam for a great workshop and handout, and of course Ms. Luce for the fortifications.

Boarded-up IOOF and yes that does say Blacksmith Shop!

I didn't write at this conference, which is always one of my anticipated sidebars: being so inspired by being around other artists and hearing all the craft talk ordinarily sends me to my hotel room at some point to write. Ah well. Can't have it all!

Thank you, Antoinette and Charles, for a wonderful experience.

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Monday, April 21, 2014


This photo is from last weekend. We didn't get to Donner Lake, but I thought this image from the shores of Lake Tahoe gives the same dramatic impression: that the mountains can be snow-filled and dangerous while just down in the valley it's a beach day. A beach day with sweaters, but definitely a day we knelt in the sand and made castles.

My sister was here visiting and we watched the Ric Burns documentary on the Donner Party she had given me for Christmas. That documentary mentioned one thing I hadn't heard before (which I want to run by Kristin Johnson)--the idea that everyone else would've happily climbed the pass the day before snow fell, except they were waiting for the George Donners et al. to catch up.

Regardless of whether that's true or not, it kills me every time (reading or watching) that they missed it by one day. If the snowstorm had been delayed, they would have summited and been on the descent by the time snow flew. It's extraordinary to travel for months and months: and then miss your chance by one day.

I have an article coming out in Oakland Magazine about the aftermath of the Donner Party, when J. Ross Browne visited the Breens at their San Juan Bautista hotel after the disaster and couldn't sleep thinking that Mrs. Breen had the fearsome face of a cannibal. His imagination got the best of him. I'm hoping my article stresses enough that I pity the Donners. They have been the subjects of gruesome speculation, but truly they suffered almost unbearable agonies.

I can't imagine how much cold, low dread they felt as they saw the fast snow flying and realized they'd have to winter at the lake...when their food supply was already so low they'd sent others ahead to bring something back. A nightmare. Especially considering how many of the party were just children, including nursing babies.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

3rd annual Nat'l Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers

The geese believe in you!

I may be the only one observing the National Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers, but I'm delighted it is now Year Three.

This day is meant to bolster and fortify anyone who is feeling in the doldrums about the process of writing and publishing. There is joy in writing, but not much joy in writing query letters, trying to attract an agent's attention and stacking up the list of rejections. All writers go through this. We all despair...we all wonder if we are talented or just fooling ourselves. We can receive that one rejection that feels like a blow to the gut because we were sure that editor or agent was the one: they were artistically and aesthetically aligned and we knew they were going to love our work. Except they didn't.

I reiterate: we all go through it. We all self-question and face the glowing computer screen at 3 a.m. thinking, "What am I doing?"

But if we are steadfast and believe in ourselves, we will listen to that little voice that says, "I can do this. I'm a voracious reader. I know how to craft a story because I've read a million stories. I am an astute observer of human nature, and I know dialogue, and I can put together a lovely, visual scene and say something interesting about the world I inhabit."

That's all it is.

Writing is a celebration of being human, so we have to find the celebration in it. We love people. We love their stories, their quirks, their secret shames. We love their dazzling, unlikely triumphs. We like their new haircut and hearing them sing in the shower and we like seeing them at the end of the day, tired and ready to shut off the stimulus, to start the whole thing all over again tomorrow. So we write. We tell everyone else about those people, because they're important. Our characters are significant; they help us understand the world.

I've been teaching a literature survey at our local community college, and as a class we've come to realize most of literature is...well, sad. It's rare to find the poem that exults (which is why I love Walt Whitman so dearly). Most poems acknowledge the brevity of our lives and the rarity of finding someone to share them meaningfully. Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss! I think that's true, but it's only one side of the story.

I challenge anyone who comes to this post today in the doldrums, to write a scene or a poem that uplifts. Craft an interaction that leaves the participants exhilarated. You may discard it; it may never see screentime in your novel or your collection of poems--but give it a try. You may find that your own mood also lifts.

And keep in mind that it only takes one to say yes: one agent will represent your work someday, and one editor will acquire it. Keep the faith.

Keep your chin up.

If you'd like to read the previous years' posts on Keep Your Chin Up Day:
Last year
First year

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Posting guard

A number of years ago, I found my husband lying on the floor next to our child's bed in his blue scrubs. He hadn't bothered to get a pillow or a blanket. He was in a fetal position, a sky-colored shrimp. When he awoke, I asked him if she had had a nightmare, since I hadn't heard her calling out, and he said no. There had been a child at the hospital where he worked who hadn't made it. Coming home from a late shift, he had gone in to make sure his child was all right. He stayed all night, watching her, grateful for her careless, graceful, magnificent ability to breathe.

When I started reading the Love4JLK blog, written by Libby about her daughter Jennifer's cancer diagnosis, I felt that same compulsion. What was once a nightly ritual--the checking of the children, that most exalted and beautiful of parental rights, our reward for whatever struggles we endured during the day, or whatever struggles we endured to bring the children to the earth--became more. I slept on the floor. I brought them into our bed. I clung to them. And I wished in a sense that I could do the same for Libby, post a guard for her and keep breath in the lungs. Now that her daughter has died, I continue the metaphorical desire to be the watch dog, to snarl at the dark. But metaphors don't mean much when children have died.

So I am turning my back on that and looking for pragmatic answers. Real things, that can be done in real life. Nothing will bring Jennifer back, but in a very real sense, some of these may keep another child, a child of the future whose diagnosis is written in her cells, with us, safe in her bed.

1. Read Libby's blog and share it widely in social media. You never know what may arise, when some powerful person reads her blog. It may be a Congressman or Congresswoman who rises up out of ire and grief to help fund pediatric cancer research. It may be a wealthy person who can, with one click of the mouse, completely fulfill the goal of the Jennifer Kranz Research Fund. Speaking of which....

2. Consider a donation to the Jennifer Kranz Research Fund. $30,000 of the $100,000 goal has been met thus far. What is the fund? It's research at Lucile Packard (Stanford University) where researchers are studying the literal tumors from Jennifer's body. She had a particularly aggressive form of DIPG, and her tumors may yield valuable information about this cancer.

3. Share widely this short youtube video in which Libby requests that the already-allotted cancer funding in the U.S. be more fairly distributed. It is shocking to learn that only 4 percent of cancer funding goes to pediatric cancer--and kids are more than 4% of the population.

4. Tweet the video to your representative. Almost all of them have Twitter accounts.

5. Write your representative. I hope to soon post a sample letter you can cut and paste, print out, put in an envelope and mail out. Five minutes and 40 cents.

6. Be gentle. Our time here is too short, even when not cut short.

. . . . .

Monday, February 17, 2014

A place of escape: My winter book recommendations

My friend’s daughter died last Wednesday, Feb. 12. She was only six years old. She died of an incredibly-aggressive brain tumor called DIPG. I have been awash in feelings –actually, I’ve been awash since October of 2013 when Jennifer Lynn Kranz was first diagnosed and given the life expectancy of six to nine months, and her mom first began blogging.

Jennifer only got three and a half months after diagnosis.

At one point, her mom Libby linked to the blog of a mom who had already lost her child. That woman wrote about how she couldn’t read novels anymore, that they required her to mentally leave her world, and she couldn’t bear to leave the world in which her child had once lived.

That made me worry that that was true of all parents who lost children—because Libby loves to read. She is a member of the Book Club I loved dearly until I had to move out of town. I loved hearing Libby’s take on the books we read and always learned something from her perspective. And it turns out she is an incredible author, from her stripped-raw words on the blog about her deep love for Jennifer and her bewilderment at the situation they had been placed in.

In the last three and a half months, I have taken solace in reading. I have traveled, as I always do when I read, to stalk other landscapes, eat in other people’s homes, sleep on their pillows, fight their fights, kiss their lips. I’m fervently grateful for books. They have been my escape route.

I typically do a seasonal book recommendation, but this time I’d like to recommend books that truly transported me. These weren’t all the books I read recently; they’re all the books I loved recently.

In no particular order:

1. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.
In this book that probes how we interact with animals and feel about our own animal selves, the main character reflects back on a life in which she was raised alongside a chimpanzee. Ostensibly a scientific experiment to see if/how the chimp could learn language and communicate with humans, the concept also involves how the human learned from the chimp and what unexpected effects arose. I’m not doing the plot justice, but I also want to avoid plot spoilers. I found this absolutely graceful, kind and thought-provoking.

2. Don’t Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon.
Disclosure: Michelle and I were in the same writers group eons ago, but that connection is not why she shows up on this list. I absolutely loved her young adult novel about a girl who wakes up in the middle of some sort of malevolent experiment being done on her, and she must escape, figure out what she has become entangled in, and assist others. It’s fast-paced and plotted so well. The character is really likeable and you ache for her disrupted childhood.

3. The Archived by Victoria Schwab.
I picked this out for its incredible cover, but fell in love with what was inside. In this young adult novel, a girl helps usher confused, newly-dead to their next destination, the Archives. I will say that although the Archives are essentially libraries (some of my favorite places in the world), they are bleak –and this may not be a comforting book for anyone thinking concretely about life after death. But the story is touching and incredibly well-told nonetheless.

4. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips.
I loved this novel so much I assigned it to my community college English students. Its conceit is that Arthur (Phillips) has come into possession of a lost Shakespearean quarto and the novel is really his introduction to Random House’s publication of this play. He tries to--at length-- convince the reader that the work is a forgery, and the book culminates in the play itself. I’m surprised this book didn’t get more buzz/acclaim (it’s already in paperback): I really consider it Pulitzer material.

I feel like there’s a fifth book I’m forgetting.

Forgetting is a good thing. We read to forget.

Jennifer’s mom asked us—the community of the web, as well as those she knows personally—to share, tweet and link to the following video. It’s only one minute long and although she addresses President Obama directly, it isn’t a political video. It’s a video in which she asks that the funding for cancer be more fairly distributed—not that more funding be allocated, but that children get more than four percent of the already-allocated funding.

Were you aware that pediatric cancer only gets four percent of cancer funding in this country? I’m not sure what precise percentage of the population children actually represent, but it’s around 24 percent. And pediatric cancer is so dramatically unfair: these kids haven’t had a chance to live their lives.

We know as much about DIPG as we did 30 years ago. If research had been tunneling along for the last three decades, Jennifer might be alive today.

Libby filmed this video Feb. 1—less than two weeks later, her daughter had died. Please share, tweet and link to it. Let’s get the money and the advocacy rolling, so the next child with DIPG may survive.

Twitter: #love4jlk
Facebook: Love4JLK
Web: www.love4jlk.org

And if you would like to donate directly to the Jennifer Kranz Research Fund, click here.

. . . . .
Next day:
I remembered the fifth--and I feel awful for forgetting it because it honestly was my favorite of the bunch. In fact, I had just finished the book at night and had been intending to email the author a long, glorious, happy, praise-filled message in the morning, but the next day was  the day Jennifer died.

The book was Illuminations by Mary Sharratt. I previously ran a Q&A with Mary in November, but I hadn't had a chance to read the book. When I did read it, I found that every page brought beauty. The novel tells the story of Hildegard von Bingen, a young medieval woman who was walled up into a cell of the church as an Anchoress--actually, she was a girl at the time, and it was not her choice. She went into the Anchorage with Jutta, an older girl who felt called by God to remove herself (and Hildegard) from the secular world. As Illuminations progresses, we learn the reason for Jutta's life-changing choice, and we see how Hildegard makes the most of her life in seclusion. She fights and advocates, both for herself and for other girls destined for the Anchorage, such that she becomes a world-renowned visionary and author/composer whose work endures to this day.

Sharratt's writing is so drenched with beauty, and she makes something .... well, illumined out of the stark life Hildegard lived. I felt that I lived Hildegard's life with her, and can so very visually see the confines of the cell, the small courtyard they were allowed, the slitted window through which they could see the monks at prayer in the monastery. I felt the book was actually quite cinematic, which is quite the feat for a book whose "footprint" is so small. I'd love to see this on the big screen in the hands of someone like Cary Fukunaga.

I sincerely loved this book and felt something I rarely feel...pending sadness as I approached the end. I didn't want it to end, and that's an emotion I don't feel usually while reading. I like to read to the end, find out, and move on. With this book, I wanted to linger. I saw from the old Q&A linked to above, that Mary had to delete 40,000 words of the originally much-longer manuscript. How I wish we could have a "director's cut" and see those deleted but doubtlessly valuable scenes.

A gorgeous book, and my most recommended.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

After Great Pain

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

By Emily Dickinson
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

. . . .


. . . . . .

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Kranz Family Plea

Pediatric cancer...such a horrible combination of words. It's easy enough to shudder and then turn your attention elsewhere, until you know the child involved. And then you can't stop thinking about it and being angry and in despair and knowing lives are being inextricably changed somewhere in the world. You may be lucky and be unscathed, but you can support those who are facing the hardest reality there is.

Jennifer Kranz is six years old, fighting a DIPG tumor, and things are progressing quickly. Wildly quickly. Her dad is going to stop working so he can spend the last time possible with her. Can you please help in two ways?

1. If it is possibly financially for you--even for a very small token amount--think about how tip jars slowly fill and make employees happy at the end of the shift--it doesn't have to be a huge donation--please give something to this family to help the dad stay home with his family for these last precious moments together. www.love4jlk.org.

2. Use social media and share the JONES out of this video. It of Jennifer's mom Libby asking President Obama to change the division of funds for cancer research. She's not asking for more funding--she's just asking for the pie to be more fairly divided. Because--can you believe this? Pediatric cancer only gets four percent of cancer research funds in this country. Four percent. Four percent goes to the most devastating kind of cancer there is. Share the video on Facebook, put it on your blog, tweet it and retweet it and make it go viral. The Kranz Family knows their fight is ending soon, but they want other families to have a better outcome.

. . . .

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb

The last time I saw Napoleon, he was hanging out in a circular tomb with a viewing deck above. My French teacher told me it was his plan that for time immemorial, anyone who visited his grave would be obliged to bow their head to him. Imagine what it would be like to be married to such a guy?

That's the task Heather Webb takes on in her debut historical novel Becoming Josephine.

She's gotten great reviews already (it came out New Year's Eve--an auspicious date for starting a new writing life, and it has already paid off. Heather just got a second book deal for a novel about Camille Claudel, Rodin's lover!) and has been enjoying a great launch for her wonderful book.

Here's the tantalizing description of Becoming Josephine:

Rose Tascher sails from her Martinique plantation to Paris to 
trade her Creole black magic culture for love and adventure. 
She arrives exultant to follow her dreams of attending Court 
with Alexandre, her elegant aristocrat and soldier husband. 
But Alexandre dashes her hopes and abandons her amid the 
tumult of the French Revolution.

Through her savoir faire, Rose secures her footing in high 
society, reveling in handsome men and glitzy balls—until 
the heads of her friends begin to roll.

After narrowly escaping death in the blood-drenched cells 
of Les Carmes prison, she reinvents herself as Josephine, 
a socialite of status and power. Yet her youth is 
fading, and Josephine must choose between a precarious 
independence and the love of an awkward suitor. Little 
does she know, he would become the most powerful man of 
his century- Napoleon Bonaparte.

BECOMING JOSEPHINE is a novel of one woman’s journey to 
find eternal love and stability, and ultimately to 
find herself.

Heather Webb

I've been enjoying the book very much. I think one strength so far has been its unflinching look at the truly violent world of the French Revolution. It was not called the Terror for nothing--and Webb really shows us Paris upended and dangerous. A scene where Josephine watches a nun running for her life (the revolutionaries despised Catholicism and ordered a death-on-sight law for priests in 1793) was memorable and harrowing.

I also appreciated learning that Josephine was not a Parisienne by birth--she was a Creole born in Martinique. Scenes from her childhood on that tropical island fortify her character as a woman who endures much suffering to land on top...temporarily.

Josephine's life was rich, colorful, tragic--and although I haven't finished the book yet, I can see Webb has perfectly told her tale. Heartily recommended!

. . . . .

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Underwater Mormon Island dwellings now visible

Remaining stone wall of a structure, with Folsom Lake in background
Here in Gold Country (heart of the Gold Rush), there was an 1848 settlement named Mormon Island for its Mormon immigrant settlers who had found gold there. At one point, the population was 2,500, but by 1856 it was all a dream, ruined by fire--and then by water. Fifty years ago, the community was sunk underwater by the creation of the Folsom Dam.

Right now, we're experiencing a drought in California. It's so severe that these dwellings have been again exposed to the air, for the first time in half a century. It's shocking, really: in the past we've gone several times to Browns Ravine to walk around and swim. Where we swam mere months ago, it is now completely dust-dry.

A tree stump that was previously underwater

A collection of elixir bottles and other artifacts left by others on a stump

Metal remains: including a square-tipped nail

The re-emergence of Mormon Island has made international news (thank you, Oakland History Room historian Kathleen DiGiovanni for bringing this backyard news to my attention!). So, as any history buff would do, I set out with my family to see the ruins.

We were surprised how very many people were out to see Mormon Island. My husband estimate there were a thousand people walking the trails from the parking lot to the walls and foundations of the town's saloon, dairy and other buildings. Of course, as was typical for the Gold Rush, many of the original "buildings" were tents which would not have survived. Here's a great, colorful anecdote I found from Theodore Henry Hittell's History of California, Vol. III (an 1898 volume digitized online):

In October 1849 at Mormon Island an altercation took in a tent used as a liquor saloon between an unruly customer and the bar keeper. The former insisted upon getting over the counter while the latter threatened to shoot unless he desisted. At this the former became very abusive and advanced with demonstrations of violence when the latter fired his pistol and shot his adversary down. A crowd soon collected which took the barkeeper into custody and in the evening a judge and twelve jurymen were appointed to investigate the facts and administer justice. On the trial it appeared that the man shot had been intoxicated and very abusive and at the moment of being shot was in the act of climbing over the counter to attack the barkeeper but it also appeared that the shot which was through the shoulder, though painful, was not likely to be fatal.

Interestingly, the courthouse was also lodged in a tent.

Browns Ravine: cars parked where previously there was a lake

On the path to see the ruins

Wall remnants show where a row of buildings once was

We very much enjoyed seeing the stone walls and cellar holes. As this is a state park and no one is allowed to take artifacts from it, people had thoughtfully placed collections of items on tree stumps and rocks to be perused by other visitors.

Looks like this was the remains of a bridge over the river

Crumbled walls in foreground and background

Sorry, building!

If you're local, go to Brown's Ravine in El Dorado Hills (purchase a state park pass and parking is free for a year at any of these wonderful parks: otherwise, $10) and drive all the way to the very end--basically until you can see the water in a semicircle around you. Many people park halfway down and then have a very long walk to the ruins. After you park, head left and you'll see the ruins after ten minutes or so. There are muddy areas, but you can also ford them by being strategic and using stepping stones to get across.

I was delighted to see so many people out, interested in history. For the first time ever, there was a long line of cars driving into the park and a feeling of celebratory interest in the area's past. My husband said it looked like people on pilgrimage. The local historical society should put a table out and sign people up! Well, I'll do it here online. That would be the Clarksville Historical Society: Clarksville was the original name for El Dorado Hills.

. . . . .