Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Past

Well, there we are, me and my siblings, minus my youngest brother, who was not yet born. I'm second from right and I think I'm 10 years old in this photo. I remember that brown, gold and cream flannel bathrobe; these are not colors I favor now.

When we were all grown, my mother papered the wall behind us in a beautiful grass-cloth fabric. Two weeks later, my toddler son scribbled all over it with a magic marker.

Mom didn't bat an eye.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Merry

My friend Louise sent me this angel last Christmas, the year of The Unfinished Angel.  It's just under four inches high and sits on my windowsill year round now. She reminds me of the unfinished angel in my book, and her quirkiness reminds me of my friend and of a younger me. I like that the angel is always looking up and that her wings, though crackled, are still intact.

In thinking about what holiday images I wanted to post to wish you all a merry, merry, I first chose the angel.  Next, a wreath with snow on it:

A tree in the house, a wreath on the door, and snow on the wreath: that's all I need to slip into the season. That snowman by the door lights up and is my husband's addition to the front entrance. Ahem. The grandchildren LOVE it.

The final image I chose is not a conventional holiday one, but rather a reminder that our grandchildren left behind after a summer visit:

You've got to smell those roses, right?  Animals, children, flowers: bliss.

Happy holidays, everyone! May your 2011 be healthy and sweet.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Winter's late afternoon light streams in all the windows and makes the rooms glow.  I'm always trying to capture that light.  After I'm long gone, someone will come across dozens of photos of light-on-walls and perhaps wonder why on earth I'd take all those 'empty' shots.  Empty? Maybe I'll be the shadow in the room.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Stopping in the Snow

It's a stop-and-gawk-at-the-snow kind of day.  Mm-mm.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Turning Points

Two weeks ago, on the day I finished the last draft (of this round) of the new book, a few dozen white birds landed on the lake. Swans? Snow geese? Perhaps one of you can tell us what they are.  Beautiful they were, but short stay visitors. Off they went to the south, and off my manuscript went to the east, to editor and agent.

Then it was limbo time: catching up on delayed obligations while awaiting word on the ms.

The snows came, gently at first and then blizzardy all around, and now there is a still, frozen, white beauty outside:

When the snows stopped, the agent and the editor weighed in: ta da! All is well. The book survives. There will be more to fix and polish, but these first viewings are key.

Outside, I look back in and see the inside and outside reflected back and forth:

And it somehow reflects the book: I am in it and out of it, in every word and every image.

Maybe you will see my tracks:

The next stage includes discussions with editor and further polishing and revision. That will take anywhere from weeks to months. But right now, I'm relieved and content.

'Night everyone; stay warm if you are in snow country.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Snow at the Lake

We left home a week ago at the start of a blizzard and we returned home last night to find several feet of fresh, white snow decorating the house, the trees, the newly-frozen lake. It's a pure, white vista from my office window.

We have been waiting for this first big snowfall of the season and are grateful we can stay put and enjoy it. By March, people will be cursing this snow that now seems miraculous.

My husband won't mind shoveling today, but it's the tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow that might wear him down. Yes, I will help. Probably.

Stay warm, all of you in snow country. . .

Friday, November 26, 2010

Stocking Up

Last year we had a billion (or so) walnuts and hickory nuts; this year very few.  Slim pickings for the squirrels and chipmunks.  First snow is forecast for today, so this guy is doing some late scrounging.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Stones and Story

November brings stillness to the lake: tourists are gone and boat traffic is down to the occasional fishing boat. It's a good time to work, and sometimes 'work' entails loosening or emptying the mind, or, what Grace Paley once referred to as 'sitting like a dope in a chair time.'

If it's possible to be outside, that's where I'd rather be. I could sit here:

But I am unable to sit for very long in a chair and do nothing, so my empty-the-head time is down by the water's edge, poking through the rocks, walking the shore.

No matter how many times I walk the same stretch, I always find something new:

That something 'new' might be something very old and much like the 'new' stones uncovered in writing a story. There is this one, that one, and ah, look what's under here.  And in that one stone are dozens of new pieces to explore. Sometimes the most challenging part of writing a book is not what to include, but what to leave out. There is so much world out there.

Back up the hill now, mind refreshed.  Pause here at the swing:

And now: ready to get on with the story . . .

Monday, November 15, 2010

More Distractions

I'm working at desk. Molto diligent. And then, glance out window. Is that a squirrel poking head out of hole?

Is that squirrel going to come out of that hole?

All right. I'm hooked.  It runs down the tree and onto deck and selects five or six leaves and crams them into mouth:

And then it runs back up the tree, taking the leaves into the hole/nest:

A couple minutes later, it repeats the process: down the tree, gather the leaves, return to hole.  After three or four of these treks, it emerges from hole and stretches:

First right side up, then upside down:

Then time for a pause and some sun:

Then a snack on its front porch:

And then some rest, perhaps a nap:

And then the squirrel starts all over again. . .

Its schedule is rather like my own: run around, gather things together, stretch, snack, nap, and repeat . . .

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pleasant Distractions

Sometimes an idea is peck, peck, pecking at you, and you have to get it down while you can, and then you look up and there, outside the window, such a pleasant red-headed distraction. . .

Thursday, November 11, 2010


What does it all mean??

Sunday, November 7, 2010


My parents. Look at them. The photo says it all.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Reader Suggestions

I'm pausing today, having spent long days polishing a fourth draft of the next book. For a change of pace, I turned to some reader mail.  There's always at least one letter that makes my day.

This reader has already read these two books, Love That Dog and Hate That Cat. Both are novels-in-verse and are as much about a boy and a dog and a cat as they are about poetry and teachers and finding a voice:

This is what the young reader suggests: ". . . you should make a new one called HATE THE NEXT DOOR SNAKE. I can already read it in my head."

I just love that.

And now, to close with something completely unrelated (except that it is also yum), I've just made, for the first time, skillet cornbread and it is molto, molto good.  (Recipe from The Pioneer Woman Cooks, by Ree Drummond, William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2009):

Go on. Have some.  Mmm, mm.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book Design

One of my passions is book design. I'm not an expert, though. I appreciate books-as-art-objects, especially novels whose design and illustration enhance the story, where form and content mesh seamlessly.

David Diaz's design and illustration of my book The Wanderer (Joanna Cotler Books, HarperCollins, 2000, 305 pages) is (admitting bias) one of my favorites. (Examples above.)  Diaz designed a different icon for each of the 78 chapters, plus additional full-page sectional dividers. His artwork bears repeated close study for the way that repeated visual elements (swirls of the sea, for example) echo the story's repeated thematic elements. Some day I would like to frame each of his chapter openings!

The first chapter book in which I remember noticing the visual elements was The Timbertoes by Aldredge and McKee (Beckley-Cardy, 1932, 1943). It was also the first book I read in which I was completely and totally 'in the book.'  I remember staring at the illustrations that complemented the text, unable to leave the world of the story:


That color illustration still draws me in; the caption still makes me laugh.

David Diaz also "illuminated" my book, The Castle Corona (Joanna Cotler Books, HarperCollins, 2007, 320 pages.) I was stunned at the way his full-color illuminations perfectly captured the tone and milieu of the story. I may have slobbered over the artwork:

Each chapter opens with half-page full-color art.

The paper is rich, the edges are deckled. I love what Diaz and the publisher did with this book.

Three recent books I also greatly admire include:

Kate DiCamillo's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, with illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline (Candlewick Press, 2006, 200 pages). I would have loved, as a child, to find this book in my hands. I would have pored over every sepia illustration and every full-color one:


Another recent book whose design I especially admire is Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, written and illustrated by Grace Lin (Little Brown, 2009, 282 pages).  The meshing of form and content is brilliant:

And a third, recent book with elegant design is Pam Munoz Ryan's The Dreamer, illustrated by Peter Sis (Scholastic Press, 2010, 372 pages). Everything about the design of this book–from the paper quality to the font style and size, to the illustrations, to the selection of green ink–embellishes the artistic awakening of the boy who is its subject.

Do you have favorites, especially among illustrated novels, to recommend?

I have more, so I'll need to revisit the topic later.  Meanwhile, please remember that all artwork above is copyrighted by the illustrators.

Ciao, bellas, and good night. . .

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Writer's Notebooks

Readers often ask if I keep a journal, and my answer is 'not exactly.'  Some writers use journaling to expand their thinking, to sketch and explore a character or a place or a plot in words.  Since I am working on a story nearly every day, that kind of exploration goes right into the rough draft, not into a journal.

What I keep are notebooks. The difference between these and journals are that most of my notebooks contain random fragments.  The notebooks on the above shelf, some of which go back twenty years, contain names and titles I might use one day; titles of books I wanted to read and books I liked; paragraphs from articles; cartoons; quotes--all sorts of random bits that felt worth noting.

What might seem odd is that I rarely open these once they are full.  They feel, instead, like 'insurance,' in case I ever run out of ideas!

I choose notebooks with nice paper, usually small:

The one ongoing 'big' notebook (like the 3-ring pink one above) is for the book in progress. I start a new one for each new book; it holds lists of characters, chapter summaries, ongoing questions to myself ("What does this MEAN??"), title possibilities, etc.  A few photos are tucked into that binder; these are from a place that appears in the story.

In the 'current' smaller notebooks go stray words, phrases, and titles that don't fit the current book but are probably zinging around for the next one.  Also in the current books are bits from dreams, random doodles, cartoons, travel notes.

I might save a favorite cartoon (usually by Harry Bliss) or a note about a camera someone has mentioned:

The drawings usually emerge when I'm on the phone but my mind is still 'in the book,' so maybe I am doodling a scene from it, or just letting colors realign my thoughts:

On the right-hand page above, I was in Switzerland, looking out the window, thinking of the angel in The Unfinished Angel, and what that angel might see from her/his tower. I am not an illustrator, obviously; I am a doodler.

If you were to trawl through all my notebooks, I think you would be puzzled. You might wonder how all those random thoughts and drawings could possibly represent the mind of a writer.  But here is how I think of them:  they show some of the flotsam that floats in and out of my head, but the books I write are my attempt to shape something meaningful from all of that 'stuff.'

Do you keep a notebook? A journal?