Toilets (American Translation for this British Word: Bathrooms)

First, have you noticed that although it is a daily human occurrence, most authors do not show their characters in the bathroom? Unless it’s to do something illegal, private, or escape, this little room is merely used as a setting.

Secondly, the terms. I’ve heard it called the ladies or gents, a public convenience, the necessity room, the out back, a privy, and an outhouse–the last three for little buildings separate from a main building, or used at camp grounds. A thousand years ago in Rome and other large cities across Europe, using these facilities could be large with fifty or seventy holes. Men and women used the same room.

Thirdly, on our recent trip to England, it was difficult at first for me to refer to bathrooms or restrooms as toilets. But there they are–all over Britain–signs saying “TOILETS.” In fact, when I saw large signs in windows for “Flat TO LET” my mind wanted to stick in the letter “I” in the space.

Of course, the Brits have other words for this room, like loo or bog or water closet or W.C. One tour bus trip we took had us meet back at Bog Island. I didn’t think much about it until I returned to the bus and realized there were steps going down under the street on this little triangle surrounded by road. It’s now closed off, but once upon a time those steps led to the bathrooms, or toilets, or bogs.

As an American, when I think of toilets, I think of the actual seat and bowl and tank. So when I saw a sign reading “Men working in women’s toilets,” I imagined tiny men inside a toilet bowl. (Must have been jet lag thinking.)

In many public places in London, like the Tube or train stations or near the Thames River, it costs to use the facilities. My friend Mary often goes to England for work. She’s usually around the Manchester area, up north. She warned us that it would cost 20p to use the toilets. So before we left, I made sure my husband and I each had 20p with us. I was delighted to find my first toilet in England free. That one was in the airport, near the custom’s line. But later when I came across pay toilets in London, they were for 30p or 50p. So much for being prepared with p to pee.

However, do not let a fear of finding a bathroom in England stop you. There are, indeed, plenty of free restrooms. Restaurants have them. Museums have them. Churches and cathedrals have them. So when you go to England, you may feel free to go.

Restaurants, Cafes, Pubs — Eating out in London

London is a crowded place. It’s been that way for over a thousand years. Consequently, the buildings are flush to each other on the block. The eateries also tend to be must smaller than the restaurants we in America are more familiar with. For instance, you could fit 3 restaurants into the space of one fast food chain restaurant here. Indoor seating is about for twenty people, max. There are often four or so small tables with chairs along the front of the restaurant or cafe on the sidewalk.

Screenless windows and doors are left opened during business hours. In a ten-day period, I only saw three bugs. They must come out at night or something in order to pollinate the plants.

Pubs are dark on the inside, but in summer, it’s light until 9:30, GMT. Again, the inside seating of pubs is quite limited, but crowds can stand outside. We had a pub about fifty yards from our hotel door. (We had a small room six floors above the front door.) We’d pass this corner pub each night to go to a small grocery story a couple blocks away for our next day’s picnic lunch. Along the windows outside the pub (and other pubs have this as well) and on the quieter side street is a narrow metal shelf wide, enough to place a drink upon. The sidewalk was shoulder-to-shoulder people, about six times more people could stand outside there and socialize than sit down inside.

Another thing I noticed besides outside seating (and standing) was that people in London sit on steps or on lawns. Going through Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon, we found thousands of people sitting on the grass, either eating or merely socializing. The pond area of the Victoria and Albert Museum was so crowded with people sitting on steps or grass that we had to slowly weave our way through them.

Although it’s no longer legal to sell food for pigeons, there are still many pigeons around, and they are there to snatch up any fallen (or intended) crumbs from the human eaters. We ate at the Raven Cafe in the Tower of London. There was only outdoor seating. Pigeons danced on our feet, begging for treats. Pigeons also apparently have the right of way in England. We had to duck more than once to avoid flying pigeon during our stay. The whoosh of wings brushing my hair is still vivid.

I must close by saying that the taste of the food in England is exceptional. I didn’t have a bad spoonful of anything during our entire time in this lovely little country.


Fashion in London

It was our first time to England, staying for ten days. What was the main thing I was concerned about? Fashion. Blame it on my Shaker upbringing when there were different clothing rules for every occasion. Oh, what to wear! I knew my American accent would make me stick out, and that I could control the volume of my voice, but would my clothes fit in? Would carrying a backpack make me look like I was a college student or a tourist?  People traveling to England recently told me that no one wears sneakers. Would my shoes be walkable and yet fashionable? People here in the States seem to make a big deal about shoes.

As it turned out, my worry was for naught.  Riding the Tube gave me plenty of time for fashion observation.

Many people wore backpacks — men, women, young and old, both in London and in Oxford. If women carried purses, the strap generally went over one shoulder and across the chest to the opposite hip. Men also carried “man bags” very similar to women’s purses and in the same across-the-chest way.

Women’s shoes? 80% were black flats with sometimes a bow or buckle on them; 15% were sneakers, leaving the other 5% in heels. Although once I saw a young woman in a short black skirt walking near Trafalgar Square wearing black net stockings and no shoes on her feet at all.

Shorts? About 1% of women (teens, mostly) wore short-shorts. And about 1% of men wore shorts — can you say tourist?

There were also Indians and muslims in long dresses.

We met a man from Canada who had lived in England for four weeks. Even though it was in the 70′s most of the time we were there, he complained about how he had to wear jeans and long-sleeved shirts every day in the summer there because it was so cold. Um…wait a minute. I’ve been to Canada many a time, mostly camping out. 70′s is not cold. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.

So, when going to London, no need to worry about fashion. Simply wear comfortable clothes (and don’t speak loudly).

Our European Hotel — in London

In February, I started to panic. We were going to England at the height of tourist season, end of June, beginning of July. We’d decided to only do public transportation (i.e., no car rental). We needed to secure a place to stay (or more) which were nearby to Tube stations (a.k.a., The Underground, or what we in America would call, subways; however, in England, a subway is the path down the steps and under busy roads). As I looked at maps of London, I panicked again. I don’t think there are any two streets parallel in the city. Just how did one find their way around?

When I began my search for hotels, I started stabbing, though not entirely, because I’d look up hotels only in the area we were spending the most of our time — South Kennsington — and hotels which had a room available for ten days. I contacted British writer friends for suggestions. One didn’t travel to London if she could help it, the other recommended chain motels like Super 8′s, but which needed a car (or taxi) to get to. Back to personal on-line research. Results: full; full; full; way too expensive; full. Then…BINGO! Although it was at the top end of our price range, more importantly it was in the area we wanted and available for ten days. We’d never been to England. We hope to go again, but who knows. I grabbed my credit card and booked it.

I actually thought it was a sweet European style place to stay. It was only nineteen rooms on four stories, and was above cafes and shops. They had no kitchen or lounge, so our continental breakfast was brought to our door each morning. How quaint. How European. All true. My husband said that thirty-eight years ago when he was a student abroad, there were some mighty skimpy places he’d stayed, so as long as the room had a bed and an en suite (in room) bathroom, it was all good.

Our hotel was half a block from the South Kennsington tube station. Yay! Perfect. Location. Location. Location.

When we arrived in the morning, our room was not available, but we were able to leave our two bags there at the desk and take a walk around our neighborhood, and even check out the Victoria and Albert Museum just a few blocks away. Oh. And the reception desk was on the first floor landing — the European first floor, which is our American second floor. We left our bags and returned after our neighborhood walking tour and eating Fish and Chips at a restaurant which held about sixteen chairs around tables (very typical arrangement for restaurants; some have fewer indoor eating spots with four or so tables just outside).

We took our room key, 417, and started up the posh red carpeted stairs. We discovered the 400 number did not mean fourth floor. The first room in the hotel was 401. So up we marched, and marched…and marched. We were on what Americans would call, the sixth floor — 86 steps from the street level. (pant-pant) I’d requested a quiet room in the back if possible, as a result of one of the reviews. We got one of the two rooms facing the street.

Most English buildings do not have central heat or air (heating or air-conditioning). A small circular fan sat on the desk. We put it in the open window, hinge broken so it could only open four inches. There was also no screen. In fact, in our entire ten days in England, I don’t recall seeing a single window screen. Besides the fan on the desk, there was a 12″ x 18″ tv screen atop the small (dorm room size) refrigerator, two twin beds, two night stands, and a chair, with walking room between the door and the window. But, yay, we had an en suite bathroom — tiny, but efficient, with an 18″ towel rack (no hooks on back of door, etc.).

Our continental breakfast was the same every day — and the same for other guests, I noticed. Two hard-boiled eggs in metal egg cups, 4 slices of white bread, two small glasses of orange juice, a small pot of tea (for me) and a small pot of coffee (for my husband), all on a small tray. There were two cups and two saucers. In one of the cups was two pads of wrapped butter and two jelly pads. The toast was atop two small plates — which were smaller than the toast itself.

My husband sat in the chair at the desk to eat. I sat on the edge of a bed. He’d dragged over one of the heavy nightstands for me to use at a table, but by the time I leaned over the plate to eat, my chin nearly touched the nightstand. From then on, I ate off my lap. Reaching across for my drinks set on the refrigerator. Yes, that was within arm reach, so I didn’t need to get up to get them.

Our “hosts” (behind the reception desk, and who brought us our breakfast trays) were two India-Indian men and one who was of perhaps Turkish heritage. My husband pointed out how it was difficult to understand them sometimes because they not only spoke with an English accent, but an English accent with their own native language accent twisted in. For some reason, I didn’t have any problem understanding what they said.

We ate supper usually around 7:30 or 8, which is considered late by American standards, but normal for English. We’d come back to our room after supper. Sunset was about 9:30, so we tried to be in bed by then. The signs on the pubs on the street below requested that the customers keep their voices down after 11:00 in respect to their neighbors. That was rarely the case. Also, being on the street-side, we heard the police and ambulance sirens, although we couldn’t see the street because the sidewalk in front of the hotel was only two people wide and the building went, well, straight upwards. Also, there was construction on either side of our hotel with scaffolding from the street all the way up to the sixth (American sixth) floor. You know…sometimes they do construction work in the night. Crash-bang.

Also, it was hot in our room. In the morning, I’d keep our door opened unless we were dressing. The difference in temperature was about 17 degrees. There were a few nights when I stood in the opened doorway at 1 or 3 a.m., just feeling the cooler hallway air in my nightgown. My husband suffered in silence, every night sweating through his sheets and pillow. This was also deceiving, because by the time we walked down the 86 steps to the street, some mornings it was sweater weather, and mine was left up on the sixth floor.

I must say that the first few days, I was rather grumbly about our room situation. But then, well, it was just all part of the experience. And by about day six, it was normal. Besides, walking up and down those stairs every day had to be some sort of good for my circulatory system. I’m glad for the hotel experience. I’m glad they’re memories. I’m sure I’ll be using most of this in some way in future stories. It’s all good.

Raphael’s Tapestry Cartoons, London, UK

My husband and I sat on one of the benches inside the Victoria and Albert Museum (more affectionately known as the V&A). My mind knew I was admiring rare works of art indeed. In front of me, hanging from the walls were several of the 13 feet by 17 feet designs Raphael used to make the tapestries for the Sistine Chapel in 1519. I wish I could attach a photo, but no photos were allowed in this particular room of the museum. The figures were life-sized. It was artistic and colorful. A wonder to behold.

However, I’m thinking that perhaps it was from being tired from visiting so many new places and experiencing so many new things that I kept grinning away in that room. I mean — cartoons? Well, yes, I understand that the word is an Italian word for “large sheets of paper,” but why did I keep trying to look to see something funny? Decades of hearing that word and thinking of an entirely different meaning. That and being exhausted. That’s why.

We sat and studied Raphael’s tapestry cartoons. They are amazing to be sure, but not really funny.

Jet Lag Writing — England

After a 10-day whirl-wind trip to England, we are now back in the USA. I went grocery shopping at 7 a.m., and have been working on sorting through some of my 3,000 digital photos I took on the trip. I was working for about three hours when suddenly I realized my fingers weren’t moving on the keyboard and I was merely staring at the screen. I think I’d fallen asleep, eyes opened. Hmm. So this is jet lag?

For my picture-taking to record our trip, I actually used up all the internal storage on my iPhone and had to use my “old” digital camera the last three or so days. Gone are the days when I’d limit my photo shots to 24 film pictures a day while on vacation. And I used to think that (24) was an outrageously huge number of travel shots in a day. Hello, technology. So far I have twelve file folders on my computer now, nice and sorted out. The trouble is, I haven’t used all the shots from my iPhone and haven’t even begun to look at the digital camera SD card.

Realizing I needed a change in what I was doing, I closed down all the photo stuff and started a new post for my blog, which I unfortunately, but happily neglected during our vacation.

This was our first trip to England. It will take a long time to process. We sincerely hope to return some day.

There are three typically London things for visitors to do which we didn’t do, or barely touched upon. They are: 1) theatre; 2) shopping; 3) and royalty. No theatre, play or ballet. We only did a little souvenir shopping. And we went on a Changing of the Guards walking tour for our royalty fix, not counting the castles and cathedrals, where royalty have walked in the past.

You see, my husband and I went to England for three reasons: 1) study-education; 2) spiritual pilgrimage; and 3) literary pilgrimage. Next time we go, it will be all of that PLUS to visit some of our ancestral locations in the southwest, and hopefully make it to the Lake District, and Wales, and maybe even Scotland and Ireland. There is just so much to see and do…

Okay. I faded out again — caught myself staring at the screen without fingers moving and who knows what thoughts I was dreaming. I mean, thinking. Must wait eight hours till bedtime…Must wait eight hours…Must wait…

Who Are Your Inklings?

Part of my husband’s Study Leave revolves around two of my favorite authors: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. In preparation, he purchased the book, The Inklings of Oxford, text by H.L. Poe and photography by J.R. Veneman. It’s a five-star recommendation from me. The research and words in the book are great, but the photos have prepared my brain for what I will see.

Both Lewis and Tolkien were professors at Oxford for many years. They didn’t particularly like each other at first, but their interest in Norse mythology and then weekly sharing of what they’d written couldn’t help but draw them together through the years. Several others were also part of this group which they dubbed The Inklings.

Three things struck me (this time around) about these intellectual geniuses:

1) It was a men’s group;

2) They were all academics and university connected; and

3) Because they were tenacious with and about their weekly readings of their creative works, they finished their projects and had their manuscripts published.

I’m not a man. I’m not a college professor (although I did teach one college summer course). But I do have a weekly critique group where we share our writings and offer each other suggestions, clarifications, encouragement, and laughter. I’ve been in many critique groups in the past twenty years, some face-to-face in groups or as individual swaps, or sending manuscripts through the postal system, or chapters via email. Critiquers have come and gone, like with the Inklings. Some have held on since nearly the beginning, like with the Inklings. And within my 12-year-pld critique group, we have slowly published our works over time, just like with the Inklings.

The Inklings (and more than just Lewis and Tolkien) are an inspiration to me. I look forward to walking the paths and roads the Inklings strode. I look forward to drinking in the pubs they drank and ate in, and where they read to each other from their latest WIPs, encouraging one another as writers.

Who encourages your writing? Who are your Inklings?


Serendipity in Your Plot Writing

This past week the fields and neighborhood lawns have been blossoming with white clover. I ended up making a garland of it along with a daisy “gem” and posted it on FaceBook. I wanted to make lots and lots more flowered jewelry, but adult stuff prevented me. However, that evening, as I picked up a book I read now and then, Working IX to V by Vicky Leon, what was the very next Roman occupation I read about? The Garland Maker. Seriously. I turned the page from the last job entry I’d read several days ago and there it was: Garland Maker. How serendipitous is that?

The earliest garlands-wreaths-diadems-chaplets-or-crowns were made for winners of races. Then for the dead during funeral. Then for weddings. Then for people who believed it kept them from getting “too” drunk. Then for kids-turned adults who still like to play at making jewelry.

Last night my husband and I were watching a new-to-us mystery on Netflix (“Longmire”) where the guest actor, Peter Weller, was the producer of the show. DH commented that it was Peter Weller who played “Robocop.” When the show was over and we turned off the Netfix connection, and there on the TV channel the system was tuned to, was “Robocop,” with Peter Weller in full silvery gear.

These two examples to point out that in real life there are serendipitous moments. But as authors, we have the tougher job to come up with ways which might give our characters moments which don’t seem so corny or planned, even though we do plan them. How do we pull off a smooth serendipitous moment for our characters without our readers rolling their eyes and saying, “Oh, sure”?

It can come in a dream (but mind your clichés), or a “chance” encounter with human, animal or nature. It might come in a comment another character says which pulls the main character’s thoughts back to a related incident or his book’s goal.

Try writing a scene where your main character has a serendipitous moment.

What is Writing – Publishing Success?

A writing friend recently called me successful. Her comment gave me pause. What is writing and/or publishing success?

I see author success in steps.

Step one: Write a good book. This involves taking classes, reading books on craft, attending conferences, webinars, workshops, joining critique groups – all to improve your writing. Every year you should be a better writer than the year before. If you’ve got a well-written story, you are successful.

Step two: Submit to and have agents and editors give you positive feedback about your work, even if they reject you as client or for a manuscript. When your story makes it through the initial reader, through the editor, through the editorial group, and to the acquisitions group, this all indicates that people in the publishing industry verify that you have been successful with step one. If traditionally accepted, follow that route, and I’d strongly recommend it.

If wanting to pursue self-pub, follow the next steps.

Step three: Partner with an awesome cover illustrator. Sales rank has proven that fresh covers make a difference even when there is no text change. You can judge a book by its cover. Traditional presses can pay $1,000 – $5,000 for a single cover illustration. That’s out of my price range. But if you know an illustrator whose work you admire, negotiate for a reasonable fee. Never accept an offer for a free cover. There could be legal and relational repercussions in the future. Finding a good illustrator match is success.

Step four: Learn how to self-publish. There are entire books on this subject. I could list a few hundred tips here, but it would be like a flood gate opening. Read as much as you can about how to self-publish. If this is the route for you, then do it. Having an ebook, or holding a physical copy of your book in your hands with your name on the cover, this, too is success.

Step five: Book sales indicate success. If only friends and relatives are buying your books, your success is limited to who you know. To me, when one stranger buys my book or does a review, this is success. To sell books, learn about marketing and promotion. Again, many books on this subject. Read. Read. Read. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Repeat what works and embrace your failures. I spent $92 on gas alone for a far-away book signing and sold a mere three copies of my book during the signing. I didn’t get paid for those books, not until, according to their contract, all their inventory of my books had sold, which they never did because they went out of business and donated my other 17 copies someplace. I can only hope that “someplace” wasn’t the dump. What is marketing success to me? Marketing success is when I sell books.

Step six: Write another book. If you make millions of dollars from your first and only book, good for you, but that’s not truly literary success. Being able to be creative enough to write more and more good stories – this is success.

Step seven: Having the strength and endurance to repeat these steps with each book, and to convince your friends and family that you really do have a job which takes up your time – this is success.


(Success to the successful thistle sifter.)

Three Years After the Storm — Reflections

It was three years ago today, Memorial Day afternoon 2011, when 110 mph winds over mere seconds knocked two circa 100-year-old oaks through our house and changed our neighborhood from a woodland to a prairie. It changed a lot more than just our neighborhood. It changed lives. There were no deaths attributed to the storm, but there were many deaths which resulted from it. Three neighbors within a few houses of us died within the next three months. My guess is the stress of hundreds of chain saws going from dawn to dusk around the longest daylight time of the year. The geese and swans moved their chicks to the south end of the lake, a mile away. Snakes, raccoons, deer, woodland birds — all left or were killed. Dogs in the neighborhood developed emotional/behavioral and physical problems resulting in hundreds of dollars in medication for one family alone a few doors down. A volunteer tree-cutter died in the yard next door when he fell about fifty feet. One woman in her 60′s fell down her basement steps in the week-long power outage. Many people went to the hospital from injuries resulting in repairs. One nearby family couldn’t stand…many things about our neighborhood and situation, so left, foreclosing on their house , dropping future potential house prices. They moved to an unaffected neighborhood. Only three sections of the town were affected — but not my husband’s workplace — so he was required to go in to work every day as usual.

It took us four months after the Memorial Day storm to be able to move out of the short twin beds in the guest bedroom, which were undamaged, back into the master bedroom. We saw, experienced and heard of scoundrels, liars and thieves who flocked into our disaster-struck neighborhood. We saw, experienced and felt helpers and givers and neighbors I never met pre-storm who flocked together.

It took 11.5 months of one neighbor saying he was going to take care of the line of trees which uprooted our backyard fence, and doing nothing about it, until we decided to do something about it ourselves. We contacted a fence company and personally cut and dug back the tree balls two feet onto his property so sections of our fence could be replaced. The fence company woman said in her twenty years in the business that only one other time had they experienced someone who so abandoned his neighbor (like he did with us). Whenever I worked at the roots, said neighbor would yell at me, screaming that he said he would take care of it and to get off his property. One of the tree holes started five feet into our small backyard.

It took a year for the foreclosed house to sell and a lovely young couple moved in. Summer of 2012 I spent cleaning, filling, seeding and repairing our yard. Summer of 2013 brought a drought. I am happy to report summer (late spring, anyway) of 2014 is looking quite lovely. We have had rain and lots of sunshine.

Ten years ago, when we moved into this neighborhood, our yard had 10% sky with thousands of oaks and pines and other kinds of trees sheltering our homes with our yard one-third moss. Inch worms, ticks and acorns plopped on each adventure outside. Today there is 90% sky, grass easily and quickly growing everywhere, and I can walk in my yard barefoot — not stepping on ten acorns at each step. Instead of hearing the “foooph” of hot air balloons during our city’s annual races and running into the street and down the road to find a clear spot to maybe see the low-flying balloons, we can now sit in our livingroom and watch the high-flying balloons from inside our house.

It wasn’t like our house was stripped to its foundation as in many natural disasters. Even so, it’s taken three years to start to feel our new normal, and that things are okay… Except. Except whenever we receive thunderstorm or tornado watches or warnings. Or even if it starts to overcast with grey-black clouds. There were no forewarnings three years ago, until about three minutes of sirens before trees slammed through our house. Since then, from April through October I keep a Tornado Bag in the spare bedroom, ready to grab (if I am near enough) and hear a siren. Our battery weather radio and flashlight and other emergency items are tucked away in our basement.

I don’t know when I’ll recover from my fear of storms. (It’s not just about wind. A young friend survived a car accident two years ago and is still scared whenever she rides in cars.)

I’ve realized because of the storm how quickly lives and neighborhoods can change over just a few moments. And that it takes years to fix things/buildings/yards after the event to look normal.

I’ve been recipient of selfish (putting it nicely) people and of kind people. It’s the kind people who give despairing people hope. They make me want to be one of them, to freely and quickly give real aid with words and ears and deeds, to stand by a stranger offering help, expecting nothing in return.

The Memorial Day Storm twisted my world upside-down, but I’m bobbing rightside-up again…with my eyes ever on the sky.