Category Archives: story and writing

goodbye

index-002To three who caught my inner eye in Mom’s world this past year at an Alzheimer’s unit. [I moved my mother a few days ago to skilled nursing.]

Goodbye, Ruth, silver hair pulled back in a ponytail, pacing the circle the halls make, eternally looking for your husband. He’s late, darn him. I’ll give him a piece of my mind when I see him, you bet ya. Have you seen my husband? Where is that stinker? From somewhere up north in the center of the U.S., a schoolteacher I think I remember her saying. Quiet. Dogged. Determined.

Goodbye, Peggy, once an interior designer, mannered and southern to your core, kind and thin and nervous as a whippet, dressed beautifully, but more and more showing the ravage, dark lipstick spilling over outlines of lip, roots showing in dyed hair. Talking full sentences which make absolutely no sense. Well, the beans didn’t come in. They were red, you know. We tried. Did you see him? I told him it wouldn’t work. Lovely. Loquacious. Flailing.

Goodbye, Kay, whom I think of as my ghost. Vampire pale, clothes always mussed, a limp, standing in place marching or out everywhere endlessly walking with that uneven pace, latching onto people with your hand, following me, taking my arm and bumpily gliding along with me, in silence, never, ever speaking. Sometimes a fleeting smile. Eerie. Odd. Lost.

The last sight of my three is Kay draped as she is when she isn’t walking, foot forever shaking, across a couch and beyond her, Ruth and Peggy, hand in hand, tentatively heading to the lunchroom, Peggy pushing at any opening that resembles a door.

My ghost, my whippet, my schoolteacher from the extraordinary madhouse that is Alzheimer’s.

index-002

trust

DSC_0132I love it when a historian echoes one of my hunches. I read a lot of history: biographies, memoir, overviews, always have since I was a girl and became intrigued with the Plantagenets and Elizabeth I. I think I’m looking for tone, the shading I’ll paint under the story I write. I really don’t know; I just absorb and let the vapor appear filtered through whatever it is that makes up me.

So, I’ve read dozens of biographies about Louis XIV, and only this one—by a woman—and just read this week said what my gut told me as I wrote a piece of Louis’s personal story in Before Versailles. “The young King, entranced by the sincerity and intensity of Louise’s feelings towards him, loved her as he had never loved before, and was never to love again.” (Therese Louis Latour 1924) As I read other biographies, in which Louise de la Valliere is a footnote, glanced at and abandoned by the writers, I always felt there was a unique tenderness in the love affair. And that’s what I wrote.

DSC_0132It’s nice to have my hunch validated, even if the writer isn’t current or well known. I think much of what I do has to do with subtlety. And I must trust subtlety.

Grace notes: Saw a dove sitting in her nest in one of my trees. Nests used to mean much to me; they were a symbol of my own task in this younger life I was living.

buzz

640px-Carpenter_bee copyThe garden is keeping me sane right now while I struggle with the middle of this book. What I’m really struggling with is not knowing. I have a vague plot, but nothing precise because the way I write, character has to lead to the next action. So I have to feel right in the character before I feel right in the action. Whine. Whine. Wine. Please.

640px-Carpenter_bee copyI feel like the carpenter bees that love the cedar of my garage. They drill precise holes and burrow in and out to forage. But the return is never easy. They hover clumsily before the hole they’ve made, can float for hours before they enter. They remind me of landing craft whose pilot can’t make a decision.

So I can’t get in my hole of a story again easily once I leave it. To distract myself from the fear that this time I may not pull a novel together, I garden. I’m in the clean up, prune, unglamorous stage. Sweating. Hauling. But I have focus and a plan. I can see what needs to be done, and I do it. Done. Finished. Finito. New task. Next, please. Straightforward. Right there in front of me. Unmistakeable.

640px-Carpenter_bee copyIf I look back over this blog, I see my whines about my last novel, Before Versailles. As the Duchess always says, Nothing changes and everything does.

Sigh.

old soldier

flOne of my first posts on this blog, begun several years ago…….

I called an old soldier for Memorial Day. Elgin, I said, how are you? Karleen, he replied, it’s so good to hear from you.

Tell me about the war, I said. Oh, baby, he answered, I don’t like to talk about that. War is ugly, you know. And so we talked about his vegetables. In his mid-80s, hale and hearty, he’d just come in from the garden, which is full of squash and zucchini and tomatoes and onions and bell peppers.

He was stationed in the Philippines for two years in World War II. Old sepia-colored photographs show a lean, slouching, hawk-faced young man standing with a rifle slung over a shoulder near a pile of dead Japanese. A recent PBS documentary reminded that the battle for the Philippines was hard fought, often hand to hand, against a formidable and determined enemy who almost beat us.

I asked about Edward, his brother-in-law, whose old high school, senior year portrait, gently watercolored as was the style in those days, I have on my altar. Edward is handsome and young and smiling, seventeen, I think, in the portrait. He wears a suit and tie. His hair is neatly parted on one side. He too had been in the Philippines, but he was part of the three-month Battle of Bataan, which was lost. And he walked the long, hard, harsh, killing miles of the Bataan Death March, prosecuted as a war crime after the war ended. He survived and was on a prison ship on its way to Japan, when it was bombed by American forces. So he survived combat and a death march to die at sea. I think he was nineteen when he died. The baby of the family.

flThe news came to a little town in East Texas called Troupe. His mother lost her sanity for a time when the news came, and when she recovered she was never the same. That’s family legend anyway. Edward was my son’s great uncle. And Elgin is his grandfather.

draft/other

indexThis summer, I’ll run a class at the Writers League of Texas’s Summer Writing Retreat, August. Here are some questions they asked me about the rough draft of a novel, my topic for the class.

-What is it about the rough draft that’s so difficult? It’s a longer process than a short story/poem/magazine piece. So you stay longer in not knowing. To know the story, you have to write it, messily, badly, imperfectly. Later you may perfect it, but to stay in the uncertainty a long time is trying for most. Including me.

-For you, what’s the most challenging part of the writing process? The most rewarding? The most challenging is the rough drafts, the only place I can begin to know characters and what they’re doing. My first rough draft is always so amazingly bad that it’s hard for me to see what I’ve accomplished, which is usually a plotting piece, what happens when or what should happen but isn’t there yet. Characters emerge (shakily, not fully formed) in the first draft, too. I love editing, when I have enough rough draft to shape, enough rough draft under me like a rock to hold me up as I really craft the story.

index-When is a novel “finished”? I’m tired of it and cannot do another thing to it. This is after several drafts and polishes. Just can’t. Put a fork in me, I’m done. But I also have a really good sense of story, the pace of it, the waves of it. So I know when I’ve got that wave up to the climax of the story and then the falling back to end.

-As a sneak peek into your upcoming class, what’s one invaluable tip for those working through a rough draft? Realize what a draft is and what you’re searching for in one.

-Are you currently “in the rough”? You better believe it, although I’m on a second draft. Bad enough to discourage me, but solid enough to give me wing space to fly into the story at times and “to know.” That’s when I know I have the story, a certain “knowing” of the characters. They no longer feel like cartoon strangers with balloon dialog above their mouths. They are real in some place in me that writes. I know the story will happen–not when it will happen to be finished–just that it will happen and be a story when I have the feeling of knowing the characters, which I am relieved to say has happened in this fifth book.

indexAnd more, writing life this week:

I saw a vivid image of the word “stricken” at a funeral this weekend. It was the pale face of a 14-year-old whose father had died. The expression on his face transfixed me, and I’ve thought about it on and off all week. Yesterday, the word “stricken” floated up, and I knew that’s what I’d seen……

Carpenter bees are in a tizzy at the garage, whose cedar lures them every year to drill nest holes. They hover a dozen at a time, like clumsy landing craft, near the holes. It takes them a long time to find their particular hole, a perfect circle on the outside. They drone. They’re large. This only happens for a few months, and I love it. It helps comfort me as I think about the stricken boy I saw.

sister

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I think I’ll plant daffodils around their headstone. I was in Arkansas this weekend at the small country cemetery where my mother and father’s ashes will one day be buried. Dad was born around here; a sister of mine lived down the road. Daffodils were blooming everywhere, covering yards in thick clusters, and that sister, now gone, was much on my mind. We all planted dozens of bulbs in her yard for her during her last autumn, a few months before she left us forever. Days before she was taken to the hospital—a place from which we all knew she would not return alive—I walked with my daughter to look at the green daffodil stalks in my sister’s yard. They represented love for her. In those months before her dying, we would have done anything for her, bought her anything she wanted, taken her anywhere she wanted to go. There were parts of her that were the best of us.

daffcrop

My daughter was in her 20s; my sister’s daughters were 11 and 5. I remember realizing that she would never do this simple thing I was doing—walking with a grown daughter. The pain around that was sharp like a honed blade and achy dull at the same time.

daffcrop

She didn’t live to see her daffodils or her daughters bloom. When I see those flowers in this place near where she had her home and family, she lives again in me; her final, bittersweet leaving is daffodil fragrant inside.  Mom and Dad will like having them nodding their yellow heads around their grave, I think. I think my sister will like it, too.

daffcrop

strange

siege_image6What a strange life I lead. I am researching details to write a war scene. I’m reading about demi-lunes and covered ways and bastions and ricochet fire. I’ve already researched it, but I’m going over and over it in my mind before I write it. A character will die in this war scene. If I see the siege in my mind, I’ll be able to make a reader see it. I’m in 1673 internally. In 2014, I’m at my computer looking at old drawings and making notes and diagrams. As the wicked witch told Dorothy, what a world, what a world.

return to

I have old faithfuls, books I return to, books I read the way a baby sucks a pacifier. One of my pacifiers is almost any regency by Georgette Heyer. I have paperbacks of hers so old that the pages have to be rubber-banded in a heap. I love her plucky heroines, the sometimes truly witty banter between characters, the very sweet romances. There is a lot of subtle humor in character interactions, which amuses me even more each time I read it. I also reread John le Carre’s Little Drummer Girl about once a year. I love the heroine he’s created in this book, the way he describes and builds character, and the truly gripping plot. He is a master of plotting and character. I reread To Kill a Mockingbird pretty often; the underlying tenderness of the story takes me, though I find the African American characters a bit stereotyped, but what do I know. Maybe for 1930s Southern America, they are not stereotyped at all. It’s just that they’re shaded all one tone, and the others aren’t. I love Winston Graham’s Poldark Saga, the first six books. He’s a fine, fine historical novelist, and Ross Poldark has my heart, as does Demelza. I adore Dr. Naomi Ramen‘s Kitchen Table Wisdom. Again, the scope of heart in her collections of stories about people gravely ill and those who serve them is huge. It’s a wise book, too, nuggets about leading a deeper life scattered like bread crumbs. I love Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek, though having read it so many times, I now see plot flaws, but I just never mind them because I like the character of Dona and her story so much, and the marvelous dreamy quality of du Maurier’s prose. Anything I like ( I’m almost always reading), I now put up on my shelf in Goodreads. But the ones listed here are my tried and true go-back- tos for a needed mental rest. My husband doesn’t understand it, and I can’t explain it, except that they never fail to comfort me, I never fail to not like them, I never fail to be amused again or touched again…..and that’s special…….

It occurs to me that I learn a little more about writing each time I read these favorites; I learn on a level I’m not aware of…..

Do you reread? What? And why? Or why not?

black and white

I must go to various groups and talk about Louis XIV and Before Versailles again. It’s a little like reopening a closed book. I have shut the lid on my last book. For me, it’s over. Yet I have the opportunity to present it to the public again, and if I want to do that well–my presentation opens people to becoming readers, my readers–I have to do a little diving in the depths that were Before Versailles. Why did I write about what I did? What excited me?  I have to let Louis charm me again, as he did as he began to take over a story that I thought belonged to either Henriette or Louise. I really liked the place Louis was in his life in the moments I chose to portray, and I geniunely liked the person I envisioned in those moments. He truly was a hero. I’m going to watch Le Roi Danse again or pieces of it anyway. Benoit Magimel, the actor who protrays Louis in this French film, captures the ardor, the innocence, the incipient and polite and steely determination, the attractiveness, the creativity that were all Louis XIV in 1661, that ensnared me as I worked to create a novel in which he was going to be a part but not the whole. And I have to dust off rusty social skills. I’m an oddball, and I am mostly at peace with that, but I do need to protect that part of me when I present to strangers.

How do you prepare yourself when you make presentations? Isn’t it strange, the life of a writer, so solitary and yet these public presentations (if we’re lucky)? How do you resolve the black and white of the  differences?

Wish me luck……

story

Last time I wrote about what was not true in my latest novel (or in other words, the fiction in the fiction), so here’s what is true in Before Versailles……when Louis XIV* was 22 years old, his mentor died, and he was brought face to face with the fact that someone else in the kingdom was quite powerful, perhaps more powerful than Louis himself. What he did with that fact is interesting even to this day. During that same time period, Louis had been married for one year to a Spanish princess, and for that year, he’d been faithful. But he began a friendship with his new sister-in-law, an English princess who had always lived in France, that quickly turned to flirtation, and maybe more. History becomes quite unclear on this point.

To me,  all of the above, from powerful men to painful decisions to powerful flirtation, is the stuff of drama, the stuff of story. And Louis’s only brother and heir was gay. And that brother’s best friend was also in love with the English princess. More drama. And Louis himself fell in love as he grappled with power and how much was truly his…..all of this in a period of four months in the summer air of the summer palace of Fontainebleau. And so I tried to make a story of that, of young people in extraordinary positions who were unfurling in all manner of ways. They were the Hollywood of their time, a real historical reality show. I thought for a long time the story belonged to the two key women in the excitement, but it didn’t; it belonged to Louis. And once I realized that, I had so much, passion, fear, ambition, treachery, love, betrayal, competition, tenderness; those emotions and qualities were really there, and it was my job to make them discernable again, to polish the tarnished silver of another century and show everyone its gleam……..

For me, it’s always about the people in the story….what do you think? What pleases you in fiction?

*A marvelous snippet from YouTube from Le Roi Danse that shows a young Louis XIV…enjoy…..