Summer Reflections — Nice and Spooky Michigan Minnows

When I was a kid, we’d spend a week or two each summer at my grandmother’s cottage. There were always minnows hanging about in the shallow waters near the shore. Sometimes we would make them scatter with the wave of a shadow hand. Other times we would feed them end pieces of bread. They were fun to play with.

One day, I got this brilliant idea which involved changing into my swimsuit and grabbing a third a loaf of bread to feed them from the water. When I first walked in, the little minnows, of course, fled. But then I knelt chest-deep into the water and waited patiently until some of the little fishies ventured near. I sprinkled crumbs in front of me. More minnows arrived. I proceeded to spread bread crumbs in a circle around me. Lo and behold, more came. Lots more — brothers and sisters and cousins and friends and a hundred distant fish relatives. I couldn’t get the bread crumbled fast enough for them all. Soon they started nibbling on not just the bread crumbs, but on me! As in, with nearly my entire body underwater with skin exposed, I became the fish food. I jumped up, threw down my remaining bread slices and splashed back to dry land.

Flash forward a few decades.

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My husband and I took a motorcycle ride and stopped at a lake to walk out on the public boat dock near the entrance ramp. It was a gorgeous Michigan summer day with a few billowing white clouds against the blue sky and a light breeze waving the plants growing along the shore, and the sounds of kids laughing and splashing a few houses down. When I looked down from the dock, I saw minnows in the water, fairly large ones, two or more inches long. As they waited silently, facing us, my husband pointed out that someone must be feeding them. My first reaction was warm and good, remembering all those times my brother and sister and I fed minnows at my grandmother’s cottage. Then I noticed they weren’t moving, like most fish do. It was like they were speaking to me in minnow-talk, “We’ve heard stories about you, Sandy Carlson, passed down through the generations. Come. Come back into the water.” Pretty sky, pretty clouds, pretty waving plants. We climbed on our motorcycle and put our backs to those zombie minnows. I don’t know for sure, but maybe if you go to that lake, you might see them, too, and you just might be able to hear them calling. But don’t you listen to them. Feed them from the land, if you wish, but not while in the water.

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Summer Reflections — All In An August Day — Library, Hobbit Tree, and more

Last Friday — my husband’s day off for the week — we headed out in 88° weather with threats of thunderstorms overhead, to a state park, or as many are called here in Michigan, a Recreation Area. Yankee Springs Recreation Area is about an hour north of us.

On the way we passed through the town of Dowling, which has about five buildings at an intersection, including a library just one building over. There was a sale going on that day. We serendipitously decided to stop to support tiny Dowling Library. What fun! The basement was full of old books. I didn’t see any children’s, so asked. The woman’s eyes lit up and said, “Oh, sure,” and took me to a back room nearly the size of the first. It was loaded with old children’s books. Many of them were from an elementary school a few miles away which had closed in the past few years. I wish I’d taken a picture of this delightful little library for you.

We moved on. I was delighted with my bag of fifteen books and a new Dowling Library T-shirt, and grinned all the way to the park.

We’d packed a picnic lunch and picnicked in a secluded spot of Yankee Springs on one of two picnic tables near the lake, far away from the beach goers and campers. Just as we started eating, a black, dark-windowed pickup truck pulled slowly into the little lot and parked, not in any of the other five spots, but off to the side, immediately next to our van. It took about ten minutes before the person inside finally climbed out, during which time Jeff and I speculated about what sort might be in the truck and what he might be doing. When he climbed out, he had a metal detector, which I know are illegal in other Michigan state parks, but didn’t know if it was illegal in all Michigan state parks. We didn’t want to call him out on it because he had a military-grade serrated  knife, about 8″ long, which he used to dig with about every four feet. He told us his father used to pull in to this spot thirty years ago with his boat. Jeff speculated later that perhaps his pirate father had buried his treasure there and his son was now searching for it. As he walked around us, he asked if he was disturbing us. Neither of us responded for a moment, but eying that knife in his hand, we both nearly shouted at him, “No! Of course, not!”

The Creepy Metal Detector Guy

We swallowed the remainder of our lunch in two bites and packed up. We drove to the end of the peninsula, as far away as we could in that lake area from the detector guy. We were still shaking when we got out of the van, but nature laid her magic on us. About a hundred yards away, a group of seven deer ran and leapt into the woods. It’s a tiny peninsula, so we were surprised to see the deer there. We decided to take a slow walk down a path near where they’d entered the forest, but didn’t spot them again. When we exited the woods on the other side of the path, we found ourselves in Monarch Butterfly Realm — a wide field of milkweeds. I spotted two young caterpillars and six monarch butterflies. Very cool.

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After that short hike, we wanted just a little more before going home, and more secluded, as in away from other people who may or may not creep us out. We stopped at the Hall Lake Trailhead. No one was there. No cars were parked in the tiny lot. Perfect. We’d hiked the full trail several times in the past. We walked only the twenty minutes along the poison-ivy lined trail to reach the lake instead of doing the entire trail before the mosquitoes at last turned us back to our van.

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After I returned home, I downloaded the shots taken that day and noticed something odd about one of the forest photos. It looked like a small Hobbit tree in the background, screaming and running off to the right, while the adolescent trees marched onward to the left. It was as if they heard our quiet footsteps and froze so we wouldn’t notice them. Of course, if it were a Hobbit tree, it was probably running towards the battle, not away. Looking at the photo, I’m sure you’ll agree with my assesment. (And now you know part of my reasoning for believing I’ve seen mythical creatures in the woods. I just may have. You can decide for yourself on this one, but I know what I saw!)

Runaway Hobbit Tree

At the end of the day, back home safe and sound, Jeff barbecued some chicken while I cooked one of our yard-grown acorn squash along with some sweet Michigan corn-on-the-cob. Our diets were rather blown that evening, but it was Jeff’s day off, after all. He commented afterwards: “It was a sublime meal, worth it especially after a day of travel and hiking.” I couldn’t agree more.

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;

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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!

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 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.

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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.