I have waxed poetic about my garden in previous posts, making it sound much more enchanting than it probably is. Our southern climate makes gardening a year-round activity. when I bought my house and my yard was a blank slate I spent hours pouring over gardening books and drawing out ideas attempting to design a garden to rival the gardens featured on the pages of Southern Living. I imagined wearing simple sundresses, a floppy straw hat and gloves as I would putter around the yard, with just slight perspiration and a flush to my cheek. The epitome of a graceful southern lady in her charming garden. Well, the reality is far from the fantasy. I do love working in the yard, it is much more satisfying than housework. However, I don’t perspire, I sweat, what seems like buckets, and it stings as it runs into my eyes. I have learned to wear old paint and dirt stained clothes, as the picture above attests I get coated with dirt from head to toe. My flush is more like beet red as I overheat in the ninety degree weather. About the only part of my gardening fantasy that meets the reality is a floppy straw hat I wear and the gloves that keep some of the dirt out of my fingernails. As I think about it, my dirty gardening is a great metaphor for life. Life is not clean and neat and everything in it’s place (Can I use this as an excuse to avoid housework?) it is unpredictable, messy and hard work, but isn’t that what makes it interesting? My character Addie, the heroine of my trilogy is about to become a first time home owner and I plan to have her dabble in gardening, I am pretty sure she will be a gardener like me. I have visions of some comedic scenes for Addie involving nature, tools and soil. I hope Addie will learn to love it as much as I do. After all, gardening and life are little more fun on the dirty side.
I’ve been going through old photographs searching for a particular one, but soon found myself on a bird walk down memory lane. Due to the haphazard condition of my photo storage, I came across this photo that at first glance I thought I had no connection to. On closer inspection I realized the woman on the right was my own grandmother. According to the note in her fancy script on the back, the woman on the left is her friend Sadie. Unfortunately she had not thought to add the date, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say late fifties to late-sixties? It is obvious they are sitting in the stern of a boat, somewhere off the coast of Maine, if you look very closely you can see a lighthouse in the background. The setting seems out of sync with their ensembles and formal poses. The crossing of arms and the clutching of purses paired with their expressions seems to suggest a dissatisfaction with their current circumstances. Perhaps, they are disapproving of whatever or whomever is in their line of site, young people in scanty bathing suits? Both women are sporting hats that must be heavily pinned to their heads, from experience I know the wind would make it close to impossible to retain the hats otherwise. The next thing I noticed are the oversized pearls, a bit overdressed for boating. Knowing my grandmother and her impish spirit that lurked just under her prim and proper exterior, I find my initial assessment of the photograph a bit surprising. In my memory which doesn’t really kick in until the seventies, she wore slacks and actual canvas tennis shoes when we went boating. She would be coordinated but appropriate to the activity. In this photo she looks ready for lunch at the church tea room. Another thing that was certainly true was that she did not like to have her picture taken, so that could account for the facial expression. I guess I will never know the true story behind the photograph. My grandmother joined the angels back in 2005. This was just one moment among countless moments in a hundred year old life. But this one moment could be a marvelous springboard for a novel with many possible plots. I would like to think of Sadie and my grandmother as two proper matrons coaxed out on a boat outing on a beautiful Memorial Day weekend. At first a bit uncomfortable perched on the stern bench trying to avoid the wind. Then as the boat picks up speed the two women begin to loosen up, the hats and purses are tossed below deck, They make their way to the bow, giggling like schoolgirls as the wind tousles their hair and lifts their skirts. Two no-nonsense matrons, letting loose and showing there is more to them than what their everyday world sees. Just two matrons at play escaping from the lives they left behind on shore. Where would you take their tale?
Mothers are a common denominator among all humankind. After all, we all required one to come into existence. However after birth the experiences we have with that person called Mother are widely varied and extremely personal. I was blessed beyond measure, born to a mother who not only wanted me, she has continued to love me unconditionally just a few years shy of a half century. I must admit, I probably have not always made that easy. We certainly have had many topics on which we have not seen eye to eye, but we respect each other enough to accept our differences. Another blessing is the fact she is here with me, three quarters of a century old and if our family history is any indication I fully expect at least a quarter of a century more. I know many have had quite different experiences, losing a mother too young, struggling with a complicated relationship, and some don’t even have the opportunity to know their mother. I find writing mother characters fascinating. The character of a mother is complex. She has the role of mother and those relationships to explore, but she also is a person separate from the role of mother. She has a past prior to motherhood, complete with aspirations that she may have put aside to take on the role of mother. She may struggle with the balance of wife, friend, career woman, mother etc. This makes for a character with ample opportunity for conflict, growth and complex interactions with a variety of other characters. She can be the antagonist or protagonist. My mama, after reviewing my book Pearls of Wisdom, asked me if she was the mother, Miss Eleanor. I assured her that was not the case. They may be both considered prim and proper ladies, but beyond that Miss Eleanor is a figment of fiction. Miss Eleanor does not love unconditionally, at least not on the surface. She is not content to accept Addie for who she is. She constantly trying to mold her as she sees fit. My mama has never tried to change me. She has always accepted me for who I am and for that I am forever grateful. Thank you mama for giving me a life full of love. Thank you for always cheering me on and always being a safe haven for me in life’s storms. Happy Mother’s Day!
I recently spent time in a local park and took in the natural beauty. A panoramic view of my surroundings was lush and green. I suspect that most writers are like me, they take in the surface and then move on to look deeper, always looking for the story behind what is seen. In the case of this coastal forest, as I studied deeper, I noticed the myriad of leaf shapes and shades of green. The textures of the bark, the draping Spanish moss and the dappling of the sunlight filtering through added layers of interest. I contemplated:
was the beauty of the scene based more on the composition of the parts read as a whole (the forest from the trees) or was the beauty derived from the ability of individual trees to stand out amongst the other trees (the trees from the forest)? I came to the conclusion the beauty was revealed to me from both perspectives and neither view had a strong advantage over the other. This was a good lesson for my writing. I focus a lot on my characters (the trees) I tend to dream them first and then build stories (the forest) around them so I can share them with the world. Fantastic characters are not enough to carry a novel without a strong story and a story with underdeveloped characters falls flat. Attention must be paid to the development of both. The story like the forest is the big picture that draws you in and carries you through to the end. The characters, and with that I would include setting, give the depth and interest that lingers with you after you read the last page in a book. I am currently working on a trilogy and I envisioned the characters first. I knew the ending even though I have not officially written yet, I have written the beginning. Currently I am working on all that needs to come between. Story has surged to the forefront of my attention. However I want my characters to grow and change from the beginning to the end, just as we all do on our life journey. So trees and forest, characters and story, the beauty comes from the strength and contributions of both.
Part of the fun in creating characters is imagining their backstory. Just like real people are influenced and shaped by the people and experiences they have from birth to the current time, characters need a backstory to give them depth. Sometimes the backstory is revealed throughout the tale being spun. Sometimes only the author knows it, but uses it to direct how that character behaves and interacts with other characters in the story. I have three particular characters I have developed to live in the pages of three books. The stories in these books are not the stories of their lives, none would be considered the leading role, if ever the books were turned into a screen play, but they are integral to the tale and I can imagine them as scene stealers(think Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine in Steel Magnolias). These women are in their seventies and eighties and are mentors and friends to Addie Lewis, a self-confident modern southern woman whose life becomes enriched when these women come into her life. I purposefully developed them to be widely different from each other, yet somehow complimentary. I wanted them to be individuals but also a package deal. I thought about their childhoods, their loves, their successes and losses that would have happened to them over the course of seven or eight decades. They would have wisdom to offer from all of that living, but lessons to still learn. I imagined their physical features, their style and dress, even the style of monogram each woman would select. None of them are more important in my mind than the other so I will introduce them in the order they appeared in my mind. Miss Virginia Rivers is always polished, mannerly and calm. She wears a signature strand of pearls and dispenses wisdom like someone dispensing breath mints. She grew up privileged, including a private boarding school for girls, but she has had her share of losses. She never flaunts her wealth and treats everyone from the garbage collector to the mayor as if they are the most valuable person. Ms. Dale Parsons, grew up in a large rambunctious family where books and learning were valued over fashion or social experiences. She grew up to become a college professor and is known for her bumbling but endearing ways. She is book smart but even in her late seventies is working on her street smarts. She prefers her sensible shoes and baggy clothes and often has one pair of glasses perched on her head while another pair dangles from a chain around her neck. Ms. Lydia Silver (born Silverstein) is a retired soap opera star and she is as flamboyant as her former role. She would never be seen out and about without full make-up and flashy jewelry. She commands the attention of men of all ages just by walking into a room. She had a less than happy childhood and a series of marriages, but she takes it all as it comes and forges ahead enjoying life at full tilt. These women maybe in their later years but they have so much to offer each other and the other characters. I certainly have been inspired by them and fully admit I adore them. I hope my readers will too, once they become published. I chose to represent these lovely ladies with three rings from my jewelry box ( I guess I bit of me is in each of them). Can you guess which ring belongs to which lovely lady?
It is the dead of winter, the grass is brown, many trees are bare, but scattered around my yard and throughout the south are jewels of white, and various shades of pink amidst the deep evergreen leaves. The elegant Camellia is in bloom. Despite the incursions of the polar vortex, and the short days the Camellia is doing just fine. The moniker of Steel Magnolia has become synonymous with southern women and we should be flattered by the term. The Magnolia is also an elegant blossom, it’s fragrance enchants and it has been around since the time of the dinosaurs. That is one hardy plant. However I would like to point out it blooms in the spring and summer as a rule with a few varieties blooming in the fall as well hardly a challenging time for flowering plants. Whereas the Camellia blooms at a time of year when most flowering plants are dormant. The Camellia once established can even thrive without supplemental moisture. The delicate blossom of the Camellia gives us beauty in the bleak days of winter, a reminder that spring will be just around the corner, we can hold on. So I would propose cast-iron Camellia to be just as appropriate as Steel Magnolia to describe a southern woman. I have always been drawn to strong women characters. Nancy Drew was one of the first and there have been countless others from the classic Jane Austen characters to the hilarious but independent strong willed women created by Janet Evanovich. I am surrounded by examples of cast-iron camellias in my daily life. Friends who have battled cancer, One whose husband tried to have her murdered, another who lost her spouse unexpectedly and yet another who holds her family together as her husband battles a debilitating disease. All of them face their adversities with grace and faith, they are cast-iron Camellias who with humor, strength and perseverance face the bleak days of personal winter like the beautiful Camellias that brighten our landscape. Some of them are sassy, some are quiet and reserved, mush like the various flower forms from single to formal double the Camellia varieties can offer. I am inspired by them and aspire to face adversity with such grace. The characters I write tend to be cast-iron Camellias as well. They range from sassy bourbon drinking matriarchs to prim and proper ladies. Some cleave to old-fashioned notions and others blaze a modern trail, redefining what it means to be a southern woman. Almost all of them are cast-iron strong and Camellia delicate, complex and inspirational. Now what southern woman would not want to be described like that!
I am currently working on the revisions of my book Pearls of Wisdom and I have been reflecting on the paths my characters have travelled and how the decisions they made shaped those paths. Having planned two, possibly three more books to tell their tales I have also been contemplating where their paths should take them next. I’ll admit as master of their fates I know the end game. I find I write best when I begin with the end in mind. The fun is crafting the twists and turns, the bumps and detours that will happen to them on the way to their destiny. Recently one of the cable channels has been running the movie Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow and having never seen it, I took in one of the showings. I am sure most of you have seen it (I am always way behind the pop culture curve) and if you haven’t, the movie explores the idea of what would happen if you missed a train, thus setting you on a different path. The gist was that despite the details being different in each scenario (the one catching the train, the one missing it) the big ideas, the important people still happened to that one person. So what if fiction is not the only place where the ultimate outcome, the things we are destined for, end up on our paths regardless of the paths we choose or are chosen for us? Have you ever had that feeling you are on the right path, or somehow the universe is in perfect alignment with you? I find it comforting to think despite the detours and bumps along the paths in our lives we will somehow end up at all the right destinations. I also offer the thought that the bumps and detours enrich the journey and make those destinations all the more to savor. The fun in writing is creating the twists and turns, after all, what fun would it be to read a book where all is easy or the characters go from Alpha to Omega in a straight and quick line? So here is to the journey of 2015! I know there will be bumps along the way and a few detours, bring it on! I take solace I will end up where I am meant to be.
I think it began as a small child at my grandmother’s table. I noticed the handles on the silver had scrolly letters and I wanted to know why. Then I was highly influenced by the preppy craze in my late childhood. Here in the south it is customary to monogram almost anything that can’t move on its own accord. Towels, linens, key chains, clothing, purses, flasks, cars , , , the list can go on and on. I am enamored by it all. You can go the formal route and use all three letters: first, middle and last. or you can be more modern and use just one letter, either your first or last name. I will have internal arguments with myself when choosing which way to go, thank goodness no one can hear them, they might think I was a bit peculiar putting so much effort into such a decision. My love of monograms goes beyond the letters that come with my name, I now possess the lovely box of jumbled silver that once lived at my grandmother’s house. She was a Sawyer, so it is filled with lots of S’s but there are some other letters in there as well from those that came before her and I treasure and use all of it. I have yet to have a guest at my table that questions the fact that there are no A’s on the silver. In my second book, which I finished the rough draft of this past Monday at 1:45 in the morning, had to get up at five to go teach twenty first graders (I am bird-walking) I have imagined the monogram choices of my characters. For example, Lydia the retired soap opera star, I envision a curly baroque style. For Miss Virginia, a southern graceful lady, a classic style and for Addie my heroine and young southern modern woman a clean graphic style. I prefer a classic or clean style myself. So you can imagine the joy I felt when my dear friend Gregg (That’s her middle name) gave me this beautiful A for Christmas this year. Now my dilemma is where to display it, I have so many possibilities I plan to move it around for awhile. The beauty of monograms is what they convey, I mean beyond the obvious of your name. They say, this is special and matters (I know it doesn’t quite make sense with monogrammed paper napkins) this item should be treated with care. Monograms are also legacies. That old silver and linen you see in antique shops tells the story of someone’s life, I often wonder about the people it came from and will spin stories of their lives in my mind. The monogrammed items that come from your ancestors are part of your story. When I set a table with grandma Sawyer’s S silver I imagine our hands touching through time, her hand and mine setting tables for loved ones years apart. That is the magic of the monogram, I hope you will celebrate yours and those of your family. Whether you are Southern or not monograms are a beautiful way to leave your stamp on this world.
Each Christmas season I get giddy as I unpack my decorations and ornaments. I greet them like they are old and treasured friends. Some of my holiday treasures are Southern Living worthy and I have a fabulous collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art angels for my tree that my mother has gifted me with over the years, but there are two items in my collection that lack high style and would never be featured in a museum collection yet they are my most treasured. One is a photo of my mother cradling me in her arms on my first Christmas. Now I admit I do not remember the event, I was barely over a month old, but when I look at that picture I know I was and am loved and treasured. The second item is a plastic snow globe circa 1970? (I am guessing this, but I can not remember a Christmas without this snow globe) when I was very little I was in awe of the magical snow that swirled around inside. These two items are also the only Christmas items I have in my home from my childhood, the rest of the treasured items are thankfully still in my parent’s decorations and I get to see them on the years we gather at their house. So why am I waxing sentimental about holiday things? As I was decorating and reflecting on years past I came to the conclusion that women in general and southern women in particular are raised to treasure things passed down in families, things that have a story or stories attached to them. We treasure our grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s silver and linens. We display pieces of willowware, crystal and works of art and we can tell you the provenance that goes with each piece. I smile when I set the table with my grandmother’s silver and I think about her hands doing the same thing as mine, if I close my eyes I can imagine our hands are touching in that brief moment. Now I can not claim to be born in the south or raised from childhood. We were a military family that lived all over and my mother was raised in New England by a mother who was raised in Down East Maine, a special place on the upper coast of Maine, which when you take away winter, is very similar to the South Carolina Lowcountry where I call home. I have spent all of my teen years in the south, first in Virginia and then here in my beloved South Carolina and I think one of the reasons this place, Charleston, has felt like home since that hot and humid August 1986 is that similarity. I suspect this sentimentality to objects holiday or otherwise is born out of the practicality of using passed down items whether Down East on in the Lowcountry. That practicality has morphed into lovely traditions. My characters are primarily southern women and it is important for me that this sentimentality is evident in their personalities. I also find the stories behind items are a treasure trove for writing ideas. If you are ever stuck for an idea, take a stroll through an antique market and imagine the stories and lives from where all those objects come from and you will get what I mean.
So while I believe southern women are sentimental throughout all seasons, the Christmas season gives us license to be sentimental over plastic snow globes and faded photographs from 1968. No matter what holiday you might celebrate I hope you hold treasures that take you back in time and touch your heart.
We all have people in our lives we see as strong, wise, unflappable in the face of adversity. Often these people are our parents or grandparents or someone who has served as a mentor. We hold these people to a standard many superheroes would have difficulty maintaining. We tend to gloss over their weaknesses. We don’t examine their frailties or how they process adversity, lest we find out they are just humans like the rest of us. There is something comforting about knowing there are people who will be strong, dispense wisdom, hold us up when we aren’t strong enough to stand on our own two feet. In my book The Eyes Have It my main character Lizzie has always seen the aunt who raised her like this until an event in their lives shakes the foundation on which the pillar of strength, Aunt Dorothy stands. I published an excerpt of this book on Bublish.com with a bit of author’s insight explaining my thought process behind my scene and character development. I will never forget the first time I realized my parents were mere mortals, subject to the ups and downs of living on this earth and not somehow above it. As a writer the idea that even a strong unflappable character can have a breaking point, or that they can have a strong façade while crumbling on the inside is intriguing. When reading I find the characters that stay with me are the ones with multiple facets. Truth be told, the people in our lives we perceive as pillars of strength are human with all that entails, we just can’t or choose not to see it. While it can be disconcerting to realize these sources of wisdom and support may have limits, it can be a lesson that we could possibly be pillars of strength ourselves. If you have children in your life, you are perceived that way even if you don’t feel it. Writing such characters is exciting. If you have a character who is inherently a pillar, strong, wise and gracious you can explore what lies beneath or what would it take to challenge that pillar to keep standing tall. If you have a character with a multitude of flaws and issues you can have them interact with these pillar characters or transform them into pillars through their journey. Take a moment and give thanks for those who have served as pillars in your life and give them a break when they fall short of their superhero status. Then think who you might be a pillar for, be conscious that not only are you strong and wise, as a member of the human race you are paying it forward when you become the pillar in someone else’s life. I would thank my parents Mary and Jon, my Grandma Sawyer, and a handful of friends (You know who you are) who graciously support me and encourage me in my writing and in life. I hope I can be the pillar for anyone in my life that needs my support. I will continue to develop characters to explore these pillars and build new ones. After all their is beauty in strength and strength is built from adversity. Keep your pillars standing tall.