The Joys of Small Town Living

Wendy Hornsby

I grew up in a small town. Any trip to the grocery, the post office, or the bank was a social occasion because one knew most of the people working there and the other customers. It seemed to me that my parents knew everybody, and everybody seemed to know which family I belonged to, even if they didn’t know which of Bob and Fern’s kids I happened to be. Because of that, I also knew that my friends and I would never get away with a damn thing.

Over time, the orange and avocado groves that had been the economic core of the community were yanked out and replaced by new tract house developments filled with new families. A supermarket came in, then second and third branch of the bank.  New church congregations split off from the old. Two new freeways pushed through, and two more high schools were built. By the time I was in middle school, that little agricultural town had merged with the general earth-tone-stucco suburban sprawl that characterizes Greater Los Angeles. We still ran into people we knew, and my parents still heard about any my mischief I got into before I got home, but the easy, familiar conviviality of the place seemed to have been lost.

Two years ago, when I retired, my husband and I moved out of the LA Megalopolis to a small town. It took us a little while to adjust, or re-adjust, to the pace of ordinary daily transactions. Bank tellers and market clerks think nothing of finishing a conversation with a customer after a transaction is finished, even when there are people waiting in line. As often as not, the people in line will join the discussion. Rarely does anyone get huffy about how long all this chit-chat takes because it is an important element in the quality of life here.

Case in Point: Recently, we went to the post office to mail a copy of the manuscript for my next mystery, Disturbing the Dark, to a blurber. There were maybe four people in line and several others filling out address labels or selecting shipping boxes. The general conversation among the group was about the freak rain we’d had the day before, and speculation about El Niño mounting to anything. A man walked in, leaned against the end of the counter and, addressing the room, asked, “What’s the best way to get rats out of the garage?” He didn’t stand in line or have any postal business to transact, he just seemed to come in for a consultation among the locals. So, D-Con, though effective, was ruled out as too stinky and too dangerous for buzzards and cats who might find the corpse. Instead, “Put peanut butter in a trap and put the trap next to the wall where you saw the rat.” “Go over to Scott’s hardware and get on of those sticky traps, and put that next to the wall. They always go to the wall.” That one brought a comment, “Then close the garage door, because after they get stuck it still takes a while for them to die.” The man with a problem nodded a sort of thanks to the assembled, and left.

A woman walked in and took her place in line. Seeing her, the counter agent called over her shoulder, “Sue, Marva’s here.” A second postal clerk walked up from the back room and set a box with ventilation holes on the counter. She said, “Marva, your peepers came in this morning. They’re making so much noise they probably need water.” The woman at the end of the line, obviously Marva, stepped forward to claim her shipment of baby chickens, and no one in line complained that she was cutting in. Some transactions take priority.

In the meantime, the customer at the counter wanted to know how she could rent a postal box without using her legal name or home address. The USPS requires both, she was told. My husband suggested that she rent a box from the private mailbox place across the road. She said that was too expensive. Hell, she was a self-published author and earned little enough as it was.  She’d held an online give-away contest and now she needed to send copies of the book to the winners, but the last thing she wanted was for any of her readers to find out her legal name and where she could be found. Clutching my manuscript to my chest, I asked her what she wrote. Erotica was the answer.

Though there was a general silence as people gave this fresh-faced young woman a new looking over, Paul laughed. And then he explained why. One of my books had a scene involving handcuffs. I thought the bit was funnier than it was sexy, but it seemed to touch a particular chord with some readers. I started getting handcuffs in the mail: fuzzy leopard-print covered toys, miniatures dangling from earrings, and so on. Fortunately, all of it was sent originally to my publisher, who forwarded it to me, so no one knocked on my door.  But we understood why the woman wanted a buffer between herself and her readers. The postal clerk suggested that she could just leave off the return address altogether. Risking that a book might go astray was better than having some drooling horndog come climbing over the back fence in the middle of the night.  The assembled agreed.

All problems thus addressed, we went on to the diner down the road for lunch.

Sharing My Life

Lea Wait, here.

One of the occupational hazards of being a writer is that readers assume you are your character(s.) In my case, it’s easy to see why they think Maggie Summer, the protagonist of my Shadows Antique Print mystery series, is me. After all, Maggie lives in New Jersey (I used to,)  she  has a doctorate (check), she’s an antique print dealer (yup,) she loves Maine (well, yes) and she’s trying to adopt as a single parent. (Been there; done that.) Of course — Maggie is also younger and braver than I am. She’s a college professor, which I have never been. She drinks diet soda; I drink tea.  But, yes; there are similarities between us. (I’ve had readers write to Maggie to ask about the value of their prints …)

The first Shadows book (Shadows at the Fair) was the first book I wrote (not the first published) and I followed the “write what you know” rule. You’d have to look pretty far to find traces of me in my historical novels or my new Mainely Needlepoint series, although they do all share my love of Maine, and my strong sense of place. But Maggie and I? We share a lot.

But admitting that isn’t enough for some readers. Perhaps starting with the “confessional” poets in the 1950s (e.g. Anne Sexton; Sylvia Plath), and continuing today, readers expected — sometimes demanded — to know more about their favorite authors. Those authors who chose to keep their private lives private (J.D. Salinger; Harper Lee) became the subject of all sorts of speculation. What were they hiding?Lea_Wait.jpg

Today authors are expected to be on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads  … the list goes on. And, as I’m doing today, they blog, often not about their writing, but about their lives, their backgrounds, and their personal beliefs. Perhaps not every reader wants to see a picture of their favorite author’s cat on Facebook, or know what he or she had for dinner — but, yes, some do.

4_1I’ve been blogging regularly – on this site, on Mainecrimewriters.com, and as a guest on other blogs – for about five years. That’s a lot of blogs.

Recently, a number of my readers have suggested that I publish a book based on those blogs. My basic story, they tell me, is one they want to hear. I raised four daughters (adopted as older children from Asia) as a single parent; after 30 years laboring in corporate management  I moved to an historic Maine house in the fall of 1998, where I started writing full time, and cared for my mother. After her death I married a man I’d loved since 1968. Our goals hadn’t been aligned then. They are now. So I’m living my dream: married to the man I love, living in the state I love, and writing fiction, which I’d always dreamed of doing. My 15th book will be published late this summer.

I thought about it, and decided maybe those readers were right. So I read through all those blogs, and selected those that reflected the topics most people were interested in: my decades long love story, what it is like to live (all year round) in Maine, and what the life of an author is really like. Earlier this month those collected (and edited) blogs, or essays, were published. If I haven’t revealed any X-rated secrets, I have shared a lot of my backstory and journey.

I’m pleased with the result. I hope my readers will be, too. Living and Writing on the Coast of Maine is available as either a paperback or e-book.

Fasten your seatbelts

I think of the 20th century as my birth century.

It moved along logically, even in its most bizarre times. The outcome of centuries of entitlement for some and slavery or virtual slavery for others. The growth of science. Great literature—how is it possible that the novel came so late in human history? It’s only existed for a few hundred years.

What would I have done if nobody had come up with the idea until, say 1999?

But I digress. The 20th century. Tsar Nicholas II. Hitler. Stalin. The KKK. Skinheads. Right wing religious bigotry. And at the same time, a new recognition that things didn’t have to be that way. Most of our parents shrugged—you can’t change the world. Just keep your head down.

But midway through that astonishing century, heads starting popping up like a giant game of whack-a-mole. The civil rights movement. The student movement. The women’s movement. The gay movement. My head was spinning.

Bad stuff just kept on happening, though. Women sometimes got decent jobs but it was hard to take the crap that came with them. Lower pay, less respect, fewer promotions. Gays were still sneaking around, creating organizations but sending everything in a plain brown wrapper. African-Americans faced a wall of smarmy hate.

Good things happened, too. Slowly. Half-assedly.

And it built. And then came the 21st century. If my head was spinning in the 20th, it almost unscrewed itself in the 21st.

We have terrible and impossible-seeming battles to fight now. Enemies who creep around our cities planning mass murder. As always, the worst of us have many excuses. Reasons.

But the best of us no longer do. We can just stick our heads up through those mole-holes proclaiming our causes, no excuse not to. The idiots are still around, sneering in unison, but we have so much now that we didn’t have before. If the world makes it through the 21st century with clean water, breathable air, and something better than feudal-style income inequality, it’s going to be a great ride.

 

Grandma’s House Isn’t The Same

Grandma’s house is the second one from the corner. It’s on Adams Street, which is paved with bricks, located in a small Oklahoma town called Purcell. The town dates to 1887, the year after my grandmother was born. It sits on a bluff overlooking the South Canadian River. Oklahoma was still Indian Territory then.

Grandma was born in Kentucky. She came to Oklahoma before it became a state. I was born in Purcell. The clinic where that event occurred is now the McClain County Historical Museum.

Though I call the one-story house on Adams Street Grandma’s house, it’s not the same.

Grandma died nearly 50 years ago. I haven’t seen the interior of the house since then, but the exterior looks very different. The detached garage is gone and the mimosa trees that graced the yard have disappeared as well.

The water tower gone, too. That landmark was across the alley from Grandma’s house. It loomed over town, visible from the highways that led into Purcell. In the years I visited this house, it was a source of temptation to several older male cousins determined to climb the structure.

I used to climb the trees in Grandma’s yard, scrambling into the higher branches, or all the way to the roof of the garage. The front porch, which had a swing, was another temptation. We used to jump off it. That’s how my brother broke his leg.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time at Grandma’s house. I remember Sunday dinners around the big table in the dining room. After dinner, my cousins and I would walk downtown. On Main Street, also paved with bricks, was the movie theater owned by my aunt and uncle. It was quite a treat for us to help out, taking tickets and selling popcorn.

Purcell has seen many changes since Grandma died. The swimming pool at the top of Red Hill is gone and there’s a new pool somewhere else in town. The house two doors down from Grandma, where a woman known as Miss Bessie raised chickens, no longer has a coop in the backyard.

The Canadian Theater, where I saw lots of movies as a youngster, closed after my uncle and aunt retired. It was an antique mall for a time. Now it’s empty and for sale. The Sky Vue Drive-In, where my uncle hoisted huge reels onto the projector, is completely gone, another business built on the land that was once covered with speakers.

When I visit Purcell, which isn’t often these days, I drive around town looking at various houses once occupied by aunts and uncles, and Grandma’s house, of course. I stop at a florist shop and buy a rose to put on her grave in the family plot in a hillside cemetery.

My recent visit was an informal family reunion, a gathering of relatives at a cousin’s house north of town. A potluck, flavored with lots of conversation, and plenty of food, including homemade ice cream. As we ate, we talked about those summers in Grandma’s backyard, with the uncles cranking the handle on the ice cream freezer.

And Grandma’s blackberry cobbler. Nothing in the world tasted like Grandma’s blackberry cobbler, and probably never will again, even if I roll out a crust and fill it with blackberries myself. I plan to do that sometime this summer.

Grandma’s house isn’t the same. She’s gone, visible now only in photographs.

But the memories remain. Oh, what memories they are.

A WRITER REACHES FOR THE STARS

My fellow Vermonter, Alison Bechdel, was writing what she knew in her 2008 tragi-comical graphic memoir, Fun Home, a sort of expose of family secrets that her closeted gay and emotionally distant father didn’t want people to know. Alison’s own coming out in a letter to her parents that she’d ‘imagined as an emancipation” only intensified his anxieties. He was enraged, for example, when she refused to wear “frilly girl” clothes or no barrette. “Next time I see you without it, I’ll wale you,” he shouts in her book as he jams it back into her hair. At age 44, just two weeks after his unhappy wife asked for a divorce, Bruce Bechdel was hit by a Sunbeam bread truck in what Alison believes to be a suicide.

The book, as many of you know, was an immediate bestseller. Modest about her success, Alison told a local reporter: “I think many people identify with the idea of a family with a secret.” (We mystery writers would surely concur.) The book ultimately earned her a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant and a windfall of $625,000 to work on her art. All she wanted to do now, she said, was to stay home in Vermont and “draw cartoons.” In her early fifties, she was quietly working on a new graphic memoir about physical fitness and the aging body–a book I was looking forward to!

But Alison’s family secrets flew quickly out into the open, and with it came an offer to turn Fun Home (a nickname for her father’s Pennsylvania funeral home) into a New York City musical. For a time she didn’t know what she was getting into–she felt “like a paratrooper” about to leap out of a plane. “I was anxious about it,” she said of this new (to her) mix of story and song. “Is this going to be terrible, or what?”

But the musical opened off-Broadway in late 2013, garnered great reviews and won Obie awards–far more than she’d dreamed of. Yet she knew she had earned the praise after spending seven years writing the book to get the tone just right and the illustrations detailed into full three-D dimension. Those of us who’ve read the book might recall, for one, the loaf of Sunbeam bread often seen sitting quietly on a shelf, to remind the reader of her conflicted father and his tragic death.

The play was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which helped propel it up into the bright lights of Broadway–in the Circle Theatre in the Round, where it received twelve Tony nominations and has just won Best Musical. Critics call it “dense and poignant and funny–a probing of artistic and sexual identity.” Sitting in the audience, Alison thought: “Oh, I wanna live in this play! But then I have to remind myself: Wait! I kind of did.”

And she brought a bit of Vermont along with her. There are nine characters in the play–three of them portraying herself at various ages. The youngest child, playing her little brother, is Vermonter Oscar Williams, who had just last February starred in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in my son Donald’s Vermont-based Very Merry Theatre, where the lad had his acting start as a 7-year-old. Now, at the grand old age of 11, the eldest of five brothers, with large luminous eyes and a head of longish dark hair, he’s on Broadway.  “I just know I’m doing my dream,” he exalts as he makes plans to go to the Tony award party for the cast and crew, “and it feels awesome.”

His stardom hasn’t been easy, though, for his family. His father has mostly remained at home in Vermont with two of his brothers, age 9 and 6, while his dedicated mom, along with a 3-year-old, 3 dogs, and a 7-month old baby, stays in a New York City studio apartment. His dad drives down weekends, though, and Oscar somehow juggles his school work with the hoopala on stage. “He’s a really great, creative kid,” says my son, who has directed the boy in umpteen plays, and is proud of his success. But Donald has “subtly” warned the parents that Broadway life can be really hard on a young actor–not to mention his family. Don’s mission for his own Very Merry Theatre is that every kid is his own star. “They don’t have to be on Broadway,” he insists, “to shine.”

The Manuscript Returneth

Wendy Hornsby

Amazon offered a book for free on Kindle. I didn’t recognize the author, but the accompanying blurb promised something interesting. And free’s free, right? So I downloaded the book. The story premise was, indeed, intriguing. The author had a strong voice, and the writing was generally quite good. But overall, the book was a mess. The meandering plot lot was full of holes, the POV shifted randomly, and the protagonist was vaguely drawn. I soon wondered, where was the editor? Need I say that the book was self-published?

Yes, there are some amazing self-published books out there. Quite a few successful, traditionally published authors, like Tim Hallinan and Sue Ann Jaffarian for example, also self-publish some titles, but these are pros who would never make a book available unless it had been carefully edited. By edited, I don’t mean that your mom or your best friend read it, added some commas, and told you it was really, really great. Good editing requires skill, experience, a sharp pencil, and a ruthless, dispassionate eye. Without it, a book is unfinished.

In May, after the usual marathon sessions at the keyboard, I typed The End at the bottom of the last page of Disturbing the Dark, my twelfth book, and handed the manuscript to Meredith, my editor at Perseverance Press. Then I went off to visit family, plant a garden, run the vacuum cleaner, and wait for the copy-edited manuscript to come back so that I could finish my part of the work on the book to make it ready for publication.

Now, with the 4th of July approaching, the copy-edited manuscript has come back, liberally festooned with red pencil and pithy notes that need to be addressed. I always look forward to this part of the process. I haven’t looked at the book since I printed it and sent it on its way. As I read it again after a little time to give me some distance from it, some perspective, I can see where there need to be adjustments, some additions, certainly some cuts. I never met a comma I didn’t like. Or a semi-colon. The book is set in France and liberally salted with French expressions that make it clear that I have forgotten more of my college French than I thought I had. I have confused accents ague and grave to a faretheewell, and Meredith has fixed them. She has also showed me where story needs tightening, where pacing lags, and characters need definition.

I’ll finish my work on the copy-edited work, and it will go back to Meredith for another read through, and perhaps more changes. And then, and only then, will it be a finished, publishable book.

Climbing mountains and sliding down the other side

I’ve reached the tipping point in the book I’m working on now

I don’t outline before I start, I make some notes and start writing. Sometimes random scenes, sometimes the first few chapters in order. When I get to around a hundred pages, I may have an idea of where the book is going, but I don’t know how it’s going to get there and I’ve run out of scenes or chapters. Not much left in my head. So I start finding excuses not to write. Too many students, too many classes, too much demand from my private life.

That’s when I know I have to go into phase two: go through those hundred pages and write a paragraph for each scene or chapter. Voila! An outline of sorts. Followed by more excuses and even less in my head.

This book is the sequel to the novel formerly known as Blackjack—book two of what is to be the Blackjack trilogy. The first book is now called Torch Song. I think this one is called Envoy. Don’t ask what the third one’s named. I have no idea.

When I run out of excuses, I read this initial outline and begin to see what’s missing. Besides a middle and an end, that is. Chunks of information and transition, foreshadowing. Clues and cogitation. That’s when a couple more chapters appear, and more holes to fill begin to chatter at me.

This is, as I said, the tipping point. Because this is where the book begins to take shape. It climbs mountains and slides down the other side. The characters discover new problems or new solutions. New loves and new reasons for vengeance.

I‘m at the stage where it’s chunks of information. Wish me luck.

 

 

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