Summer Reflections — TVA, Blue Ridge Parkway, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Pigeon Forge — Whew!

Day Four of our vacation was packed with science (U.S. Space and Rocket Center), heavy traffic (Chattanooga) and incredible natural beauty.

Day Five was a taste of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

1) I was not expecting such a gorgeous drive! Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina are spectacular. We even stopped serendipitously at the site of the 1996 Olympic kayaking river as well as several TVA spots;

IMG_3911   IMG_3913

2) The traffic in Chattanooga was 6 lanes of bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go on the Interstate. It took us a long time to get through. I didn’t know if this heavy traffic was normal or not. I still don’t know. From Chattanooga to our hotel in North Carolina, we went from six lanes of traffic to four, to two, to a shared one lane for about a mile along a river which had claimed half the road earlier in the season. That evening, at our hotel in NC, we learned of the horrid killings at the Chattanooga military recruitment centers, just 3 hours before we passed through. Perhaps there was that unusual reason for crowded roads that afternoon.

 The Blue Ridge Parkway!

I rode on a stretch of this highway once before when our family drove back from Florida. What I remember of it as a seven-year-old was my father cursing the entire time that there were so many curves and hills that he couldn’t go faster than 45 mph. He got off it at the first possible opportunity. Me? It is one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever been on.  Besides the spectacular mountain views, there were tunnels and a mile-high marker through the Indian reservation and history! We stopped at several of the overlooks where we both clicked away madly on our iPhones. At one stop, Jeff finally commented, “Oh, look. More shots of hazy mountains and lots of trees.” Yeah, but gorgeous hazy mountains and lots of trees!

IMG_3967 IMG_3980 IMG_3987 IMG_3995

 The Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

There is only one paved road through Smoky Mountains National Park. If you come at it from the west in Tennessee, like we were, then when you land at the eastern entrance (North Carolina), you must either do a U-turn or go around the outside of the park by secondary roads to head back north. However, with our southern side trip from Nashville to Huntsville (U.S. Space and Rocket Center), there are roads you can wiggle along to get to the eastern entrance. Gorgeous roads.

We spent the night in Sylva, NC, surrounded by hazy blue-green mountains. I had planned for one day to see the Smoky Mountains. I know. Right? Impossible. But knowing how long to drive down there from our home, and how many other things we wanted to see during this trip as well, one day was all I could reasonable schedule for a taste of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We were at the park at the height of tourist season. Hiking on one of the Quiet Walkways was not in the least quiet. Even though the trail moved perpendicular to the road, ho-boy: the traffic noise! It was also hot and humid, and loaded with mosquitoes. Only one day in mid- July was a good enough taste for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ll return someday where there are less people and less mosquitoes…oh, and less heat.

IMG_4051 IMG_4074 IMG_4094 IMG_4115 IMG_4145

Pigeon Forge, TN

To end our day, we drove through the western entrance and through the town of Pigeon Forge. Now, if you knew anything about this place, you’d know to either avoid it or stay for a few days. We knew nothing. It took us longer to get through that town than it did Chattanooga. There must be 10,000 dinner theatres along that strip. And to think (oh, horror), I almost got us a hotel in that town. So if you’re looking for a place with cars for kids to drive, water parks, or 10,000 different themed dinner parks to choose from, Pigeon Forge is your destination spot. If you just want to get through the town — find a way around it!

Summer Reflections — Western Wildfires

Wildfires are unpredictable and dangerous. I feel for all the people who have endured wildfires both this summer and previously. They are worrisome.

On our honeymoon, we decided to backpack in the High Uinta Mountains of Utah over the crowded 4th of July. When we came back down to what was an overflow campground three days earlier, there was only one RV way down near the van…and our lone car sitting where the youth CCC was who were supposed to be watching it. The RV folk said the Park Rangers chased everyone out. “Why?” we asked. The man merely pointed to across the dam. About a mile away was billowing white smoke. A forest fire. We dashed to our car, tossed in our backpacks, and raced down the mountain. We weren’t the only ones racing. Deer with saucer sized eyes ran side-by-side with us until our road turned towards the fire. We had no choice. We saw the flames. Luckily the road turned again and we were able to flee the flames.

We lived in the Black Hills of Western South Dakota for about ten years. Every single summer there were fires and fire threats. Some fires could be started from an arson or someone carelessly tossing a cigarette from the highway onto dried prairie grass. Once when we were there, hundreds of acres were burned from a spark from a bulldozer hitting a rock. There were signs at this one bit of acreage for sale NOT to drive in the fields for a hot muffler could cause a fire.

On one wilderness hike in “The Hills,” we noticed on an opposite hill what looked like several large targets: A large brown circle with a darker red-brown circle within it, with a black bull’s-eye in the center. It didn’t take us long to figure out those were lightning strikes. Trouble was, it was raining; we wore our rain coats; the low sky was dark and thick with clouds. We decided to hike back out. Lightning obviously doesn’t strike twice on the same Black Hill, but it strikes pretty close!

When it was hot (in the 80’s) and cinder smoke-filled the town from a nearby burning fire, we had to keep the house windows closed. It took us eight summers of going through steaming-hot summer-house time before we purchased one window air conditioner. Even so, during fires, the house smelled of constant smoke.

During a wildfire, the white ash littered the sky, but when it landed on your clothes or sidewalk, it turned black. We put special mats at our house entrances where we’d wipe the black ash off our shoes before stepping onto the beige living room carpet.

When I tried to describe the smell of burning pine, a friend wrote how she loved the smell of campfires. Agreed; when they are confined to a fire pit, but not when they’ve burned acres of land and threaten your house and all your possessions. When the fires came within ten miles of our house, there were always the thoughts of: “Which of our material possessions are so precious that we can toss them into to the van in a moment’s notice and flee?” Of course, our very lives is the utmost importance in any disaster. If there’s time, IDs and cash came next. Anything else was just material possessions. We could even live without the IDs and cash.

Here in soggy ole lower peninsula Michigan, there are not many wildfires. Tornadoes, yes. Flooding, yes. But not so much fires. But I haven’t forgotten. Whenever I hear of wildfires, my hearts go out to the people and animals it nears.

In fact, to get a personal grasp on both wildfires in western South Dakota and the Lakota culture, I wrote a fiction book about it: WILDFIRE by Sandy Carlson, available in both Kindle and paper (http://www.amazon.com/dp/1491236272).

Stay safe and be wise if you ever encounter a wildfire

Writing AND Marketing — It’s All About Relationships

In fiction writing, character-driven stories are quite popular. These stories are about characters relating to other characters (as well as nature and self). All around you are characters from which to draw, each individual. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock on an actual professor he had. When neighbors of Samuel Clemens read Mark Twain, they laughed as they identified which characters were based on people in their own town where the author had lived. “The Big Bang Theory” was created from real people the writer knew in grad school.

So you don’t have to do a lot of making up of individuals from your own imagination. There are unique characters all around you. And they make for very interesting characters. However, you may want to change the identity to protect yourself. For instance, that mean neighbor who terrorizes the willy-nillies out of you? My,  how he’d make a lovely troll. That boss who accuses you of things you never did? She’d make a great character who whines and screeches and threatens, “I’m gonna tell the teacher.” The ordinary boy who did a small kind act, like stopping in the hallway to help you pick up your books? Oh, yeah. He’ll make a nice YA love interest.

Relationships for writers is more than just our characters. How could I continue writing another word without the encouragement of my critique group or other writers I’ve met over the years?

And now that I’m published and involved in the crazy world of marketing, I’m finding relationships continue, but in an entirely new area. I have multiple contacts and relationships with school and library visits. What a joy it is to work with these people who want the best for their people and believe I am the best for them.

I have multiple contacts and relationships with booksellers which have developed over the years. Just last week, I met an indy bookseller who has regularly reordered my books since the first one was published in spring of 2013. Even though her store is in a delightful touristy town, it’s still ninety minutes away from my home. In the past, she was always gone when I was there. This last week, meeting Pam Haferman face-to-face was a delightful and emotional experience and I left her store bouncing from cloud to cloud — a feeling which stayed with me all the way home.

So whether you’re experiencing potential characters, writing about characters, or working with others to make an event be superior, it’s all about relationships.

Bkst owner Pam H 'n Sandy 4-2015

Pam Haferman of Black River Books, South Haven, MI, and Sandy Carlson, April, 2014

Dialogue Writing Techniques

When I was in high school and college, I was involved in theatre. I was never pretty enough to be one of the leads. Not ugly, mind you, but not pretty, either. Plus I was quite shy. I did a lot of stage work, which my busy hands loved, but often got a bit part in the plays as well. Perhaps because I spent so much time behind the scenes, my biggest dream in high school was to write a play — a grand play, a play to be remembered. That dream has not been realized yet. But plays have mostly to do with dialogue. (Oh, okay, the stage hands have a lot to do with “setting the stage,” if you will–providing appropriate props, costumes, and sets. But let’s stick to the actor dialogue for now.)

For me, writing dialogue has never been a problem. There were the plays. But also, as a kid lying in bed at the dark of night, I used to have dialogues with people who weren’t there. You know. Coming up with that better comeback than I had during the day. Or imagining a conversation between a boy I liked and me.

One of the techniques I use today for dialogue:

Picture the face of your character. This could be done in your mind, or with a photo or magazine (what are those?) picture or an actual small figure. Decades ago, we used to play D&D, so I have over one hundred metal characters to pick from. You could also use stuffed animals. Think of the distinct characters in Winnie the Pooh. I have also pictured my characters as different animal with their traits. The large and strong, but silent and loyal elephant. The sneaky, gang-like dingo. The sparrow who is many, and argue like crazy.

Picture your characters and then put them together at a party, or going on a quest, going to algebra class together when the fire alarm goes off, etc. Even if your own story doesn’t have a scene like this. You can get to know who they are better in other situations. What are their reactions to events, to each other? What do they say?

I’ve also been known to talk into my iPhone. I put a space between the dialogue lines to distinguish the different characters, or adding the person’s name who’s being spoken to. I later cut and paste it into my story and add all the other stuff, like grammar and punctuation, like tag lines, like emotional reactions, like a view of the setting to keep the characters grounded. I also have carried a notebook and pen as I walk the house, physically writing out the dialogue or scenes. It’s that eye-hand movement and charges up to the brain thing.

Whatever technique you use, make your characters distinct.

Off to play with some D&D figures.

Power Outage – End of World

Our electrical power went out two Sunday mornings ago at 12:30 and again at 5:30. It was 24 degrees out. My first thought was I hoped my hubby backed up his sermon. My second thought was to bring in a couple of gallons of water from the garage to warm up to our 62 degree house temp for cleaning up, since we’re on well water which requires electricity to get the liquid into the house. No electricity = No water.  Then, when I looked out of every window to see not a single light anywhere, my third thought was IT WAS THE END OF THE WORLD! Of course, with me revising one of my stories which is an apocalypse tale, it wasn’t hard for my mind to slip into what survival items I would need for a three-week walk to our grandchildren’s house three states away. Wait. We’d have to go around, not through, Chicago. After all, if it was the end of the world, we would have to avoid urban zombies, too. So make that a four-week walk.

I write historical fiction (a time of no electricity). I write fantasy (a place of no electricity). In reality, in my 20’s I did a lot of backpacking. Our seven week honeymoon was all tent camping except four nights in hotels. It’s not difficult for me to plan for and imagine an extended walk like this — until I remembered we had half a tank of gas in our car, which might well get us past Chicago, if the roads weren’t blocked with abandoned vans and semis…and zombies. So, that would amend the time to just two weeks of walking through an everyone-for-themselves crazy world. Oh, and my heart was nearly breaking for our son 3,000 miles away in Arizona whom we’d never-ever see again.

At 6:20 a.m., the power came back on and all was well-ish.

Just so you don’t think I’m normally this mental whack-o at something as simple as a power outage — I mean, some writers are mental wack-os, I’m told — I must assure you that I was sick and my head was, I was certain, twice its normal size with plugged ears, sore throat, deep cough, runny nose and eyes, and sickly marshmallow-brain thoughts. The world didn’t end. I got healthy again (physically and mentally) followed by another cold. And I get to see our extended family again. (Hurray.)

But I think I’d better hurry up and finish the revision on my apocalypse tale so that at the next power outage I can figure out how to successfully battle dragons in our backyard or stampede my family to safety with the unicorn herd. That is, I’d only imagine things like that during a power outage if I’m sick again. When I’m heathy and think up those very things, it’s okay because then it’s the writer’s creative imagination working.

Does anyone else have odd mental images or thoughts when you are sick? I think we can take those and work them into our stories. Seriously.

Identifying and Setting Priorities

When we were younger, my husband and I used to say two things stopped us from doing many things we wanted to do: time and money. As we’ve gotten older,  we’ve added a third thing: energy.

Identifying what you do

Make a percentage of your waking hours and mark off: 1) what you do which takes up your time in a day or week; 2) what you spend money on in a day or in a week (or month); and 3) what you feel enthused about doing in a day or week.

Analyzing what you do

Look at your percentages. What do you spend time and money and energy on which is necessary (e.g., shelter and food)? IIs your present square footage of living space what you need or what you want? Do you eat out because you appreciate the treat, because you don’t like to cook, or something else? And what do you spend time and money and energy on which refreshes and renews you? What do you really want to do to spend your time and money and energy?

Prioritizing what you do

The last question above should be your goal for how to spend your time and money and energy. Never forget your dreams. There may be times when you can’t do anything else (e.g., pay for school or medical expenses). But through it all, keep your sights on your vision. And keep on writing, which, if you’re reading this blog, I hope is a priority.

NaNoWriMo? More Like NaNoBooHoo

I was going full steam that first week in November — way back four weeks ago. I not only reached my daily word counts, but exceeded them. Then big-time disaster struck. I needed to sub something to one of my critique groups. I know. I know. I should have just passed and given them the week off of critiquing so I could continue on with my on-fire-hot-word-count-writing. What I subbed to my crit group was chapter 11 of a 26-chapter book which was “finished.” Revising it to send to them, turned my mind totally on that piece of writing, so I revised it to the end. Of course, I felt it was dynamically written, so I started looking into editors and agents. That done, like having postpartum blues, I crashed. I started writing “NaNoHaHa” in emails. About the same time I’d accepted a school storytelling assignment. I explained I only had 1800’s outfits and 1800’s stories. My contact said it wasn’t a problem. They were just kindergarteners. But in my former teaching brain, I thought, “Kindergarteners who know the 200 year difference between a Pilgrim’s outfit and a Civil War outfit. So I started making a Pilgrim outfit and researching the era. Yes, this was indeed a bit distracting. Then there was leaving the state for the weekend, and this last week, company in from out of state for the week.

So I decided not to cheat on the NaNoWriMo word count, except for adding four revised chapters from “that other novel.” I uploaded what I had, but I still didn’t win. This year. It felt more like NaNoBooHoo than anything to do with a month of writing.

I just need to say, that for anyone else who didn’t make the 50,000 word count this month, no worries. It’s only a challenge, so don’t beat yourself up. There’s always next year. Be sure not to give up on your novel, either. Keep working on this year’s NaNo project until it’s completed, so by November of 2015, you’ll be excited and fresh and rearing to go on your next novel.

Balancing Your Writer’s Life

Ah. Writing. There are so many ideas, so many characters, so much internal and external conflict to wrestle with. I love getting my thoughts down onto paper or up onto computer screen (and drives). It feels wonderful to accomplish such a feat with so many other non-writing-related activities pressing in all around.

Wouldn’t it just be grand if writing was all there was to a writer’s life?

But it’s not all there is.

Of course, there’s the mental struggling with plot and character, and the writing it all down (or typing it). Writing is a very romantic career, and I don’t limit that to genre. There’s so much more. There is research, and revisions, and critique groups, and more revisions, and more research. There’s setting the story aside to decide later it needs a full rewrite. And checking your story word for word for silly little errors. Then you must search what to do with your completed story — agent, editor, self-publish, alternate, or trash it.

When your story is published, of course, you go on to writing your next story. That’s a given. While that happens, you also must coddle your already published toddler.

What does this coddling entail? Updating your website, being “visible” on social media sites, printing business cards for live encounters. There are book signings, speaking engagements, and follow-up, including evaluations, to all. To each of these coddling suggestions, I could write chapters.

My mantra has always been that family comes first. That said, it’s often difficult to find time to write when you have babies to care for, toddlers, work which pays bills, school activities, church activities, social activities, house, yard, etc. Surely, there are at least 33 hours in any given day, right? And who needs sleep? Yet, somehow, the writing bug wiggles deeply into people who work and have families and family activities.

Family always comes first, which means sometimes writing must be put on hold.

Writing demands discipline. You can finish stories one sentence at a time, or as Anne Lamott puts it, bird by bird–writing during your children’s nap times, and then compartmentalize it while you focus on other aspects of life, like your kids.

Discipline is also required for all the published book coddling. Organization of sales for tax purposes, keeping track of  your PayPal account with their automatic withdrawals, remembering to update your domain name each year (or every third), contacting places to speak, putting together talks and PowerPoint presentations for the various requests, making your author name and book title visible both on social media and face-to-face, advertising, press releases, media kits, updating everything and often…

Is there no end to what an author today must do?

The short answer is no. So prioritize your time and what needs to be done. Focus. Be a disciplined person. Write. Market and promote. But most of all, hug and spend time with your loved ones.

But Cessation — The Case of Too Many Buts

So…when I started in on yet another revision of a manuscript, I noticed I’d started a sentence with the word “But.” I acknowledge occasionally I begin sentences with “but,” but it’s not necessarily intentional or even voice. It’s just how I speak. My voice. But still, I know I shouldn’t translate sloppy speech into my writing.

So, I did a Find and Replace to discover there were too many buts in the manuscript to even list them. I’m not sure how many, but it sure must be a lot. So I started at the beginning. An hour later, the Find and Replace let me know there were 92 buts left in the remaining five chapters. NINETY TWO! But I didn’t let the large number daunt my but cessation. I was on a but mission. I continued to the end of the manuscript, deleting nearly every one, of course, leaving in a handful of someone necessary ones, for everyone ought to be entitled to a few if, ands, and buts. To my relief, I discovered I’d tagged on a second manuscript in the same file. So, huge sigh.

So, if you find, too, are a but addict, my suggestion is to use the Find and Replace to tighten your writing. So go get rid of your buts!

(One revision mission accomplished. So now I think I’d better go to the beginning and do a search for all the times I use “so.”)

Michigan Signs (for the balance)

After my post about British Signs and Street Crossings, I started thinking how someone from another country coming to upper Michigan would react to some of our signs here. For example…

There is the infamous Michigan no-brainer: “Do Not Pass When Opposing Cars Present,” a sign I always go by too quickly to whip out my iPhone for a shot. It is for a two lane road opening to a three land road on a hill. The third central lane is for passing coming up the hill. But if no one’s in that lane, feel free to go into it to pass your slow downhill car in front of you.

IMGP9533

There’s the caution sign that the road ends…before you drive into Lake Michigan.

IMGP3745

 

There are the “Icy Bridge” or the newer “Bridge freezes before road” signs.

Hotels up north warn to be on the lookout for falling icicles (even in summer?) or instructing guests to not use hotel towels to wipe down sleds, or no snowmobiles allowed through the parking lot.

IMG_3612  IMG_0268
A central Michigan truck company placed this sign on the back of their truck:

IMG_9156  But you had to drive up real close in order to read it.

Is this sign for a zoo? Or to be on the lookout for mating wildlife (X-ing)? Or is it a misspelling and polite way of indicating a nudist camp crossing ahead?

Cadillac, MI

Other states have their own peculiarities. When we lived in South Dakota there were official signs like, “Next Rest Area 365 miles” or “Do not cross road when flooded” or my personal favorite, a series of old pickup tires hung on fence posts in the Black Hills with the white words painted on them: “No Hunt.”

In defense of signs in England, we’ve all got our own local signs which may bring a smile or questioning look to outsiders. Mostly they’re used to keep us safe, I suppose, or on the flip side, not get sued.

So when you are writing your real or make-believe worlds, be aware of your region’s culturally different signs intended to help or guide, not confuse people.

Samsung  IMG_5262