Thursday, April 28, 2011

How Writing is Like Coon Hunting

Have you ever been coon hunting?

I grew to adulthood in the Ozark Mountains, in the NW corner of Arkansas. The country folk used to coon hunt in the woods up there and probably still do.

Coon hunting happens at night. During the day, they hole up somewhere, so there's no use hunting before the sun goes down.

The guys all met for the hunt in pickup trucks, the beds loaded with leashed dogs crowded against coolers full of ice and beer. Just good ol' boys out for some fun with guns. Greeting and heckling each other, they put beer on the tailgates as one of the most important preparations for the hunt.

"Hey Harry, nice to see you and your tomboy!" they greeted my dad. He waved. I said nothing, only hefted my rifle, knowing I could outshoot most of these men even when they were sober.

After they gulped a few alcoholic beverages, the guys unleashed their hounds. Gathering up our guns, we ambled after the mob of canines disappearing into the night-dark forest.

The men reminisced about good dogs that'd died, naming them with gruff reverence. Jake. Molly. Tri-Sally who'd gotten run over by a tractor, too tough to die, running almost as fast as her pups on her remaining three legs. Good dogs. Their memories lived on in their descendents running for us that night.

"Do you remember Old Blue?" asked a gray haired man, his worn shotgun an extension of his wiry arm. "He never let a coon get an even break." I was unsure if he was talking about hunting. The edge of meanness in his words made me uneasy. A couple of men beside him laughed like they did when whispering dirty jokes.

The hounds' chorus signaled they'd found a coon trail and gave chase with tones so pure they sounded like church bells pealing in God's woods. Their voices rang of life and death and the saving or escaping of it. We quickened our pace.

When the dogs treed the coon, their voices changed. Their barking became angry. We know you are up there, and our people will blast you into Heaven. Some of the hounds summoned their masters, Come-come. We have him.

Everyone hurried to where the dogs had the coon treed, guns clutched in their arms, flashlights and lanterns swinging, splashing light on the trees. Despite their lights, several men trip over roots and leaves anyway. Me, I was a twelve year old girl. I didn't have a flashlight to light my path and didn't need one. My .22 rifle cradled in my arms was all I needed. I ghosted over the ground like a deer.

We arrived at the oak where the dogs leapt and thrashed the trunk with their paws, tearing the bark. A Bluetick and a Redbone tried to climb like cats. The Bluetick made it up as high as I was tall, only to fall back to the ground amidst the milling pack.

Men and boys circled the tree with their flashlights; the beams lights riffled the branches, searched for the eerie green-reflected light of coon eyes above our heads, but no eyes were seen.

I waited on the outskirts of all the flailing lights and stomping boots. I didn't want any beer drinking idiots to step on me and knock me down in their hunting frenzy. I wondered, if they sighted the coon, would one person shoot it? Or would the poor coon end up with more holes than hair?

Even as a young girl I knew you needed a good, seasoned hound to guide the younger dogs. Coons are clever creatures who probably studied with foxes some time in their distant ancestry and taught those red guys their tricks.

Coons who have been hunted before know all kinds of tricks to use against dogs. One of their favorite tricks is to urinate or defecate on the tree they first climbed, and then jump from the wispy branches of one tree to another, until they come to a spot where the branches are too far away. They are forced to ground again, and this is where the dogs could pick up his scent. If there are seasoned old coon hounds on the hunt, wise to this trick, the ruse doesn't work for long. But because I was out with a bunch of red necks whose main intentions were drinking beer away from their wives and swapping stories, we didn't have one experienced tracker in the bunch. We had a pack of adolescent pups barking up the wrong tree and no wise old hounds to show them the correct way of doing things.

The men encouraged the hounds to cast about the tree and showed them how to work in circles. Bob grabbed his black and tan by her leather collar and dragged the gyp away from the decoy spot to areas several yards away, shoving her nose at the ground to show her where coon scent might be found. After several false starts, a dog found the trail where the prey had returned to the ground. Rallying the pack, she launched into the dark woods.

Now this is how writing is like coon hunting. A seasoned writer knows when she is barking up the wrong tree. Experienced writers start casting about in overlapping circles from where they got lost to where they might pick up the story trail again. But a less experienced writer--like me--gets confused. I leap at that tree--my chapter--and try to climb it, but I can't seem to keep going. I've completely fallen for that decoy shit. Around and around, I circle the spot where I got lost, positive this is the writing path I'm supposed to continue. If only I could glimpse my story staring down at me with glowing eyes for just one moment…but the reality is, the story has moved on and I need to find where it came to ground. Sometimes I have to drag my writing self away from the decoy by the collar until I start questing for the new scent on more than mere instinct. Or my critique partners see I'm on a false trail and help to redirect me. Eventually I find the scent trail and take off again.

Beer doesn't help in hunting for coons. However, I do find a Mike's Hard Lemonade helpful while I ponder the best way to solve my writing problem. I'm drinking a Mike's black cherry right now. Yum!

Oh, and I never DID shoot a coon. Those guys were the best beer drinkers and the worst hunters I've ever seen.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Value of Shipping Out! Write At Sea

Alliteration? Possibly…
Amplification? Probably.
Asyndeton? What?
Anaphora? Excuse me?
Epizeuxis? Holy s**t!
Polysyndenton? You lost me at asy…!
We call ourselves writers, dare we say authors, and yet the intricacies of our own language often escape us. And their titles? Well, that dog just don’t hunt (cliché – an idiomatic saying that means something other than what it actually states).
So why, you ask yourself, should a writer know what a litotes is? Or an eponym? Or, for heaven’s sake, onomatopoeia? Diversity I say! With my authoresk thick skin turned to the naysayer. If our goal as writers is to produce the best possible marketable manuscript then editing is critical. When we edit we must be able to communicate our edits and discuss the craftsmanship of our product. How does one do that efficiently without being able to pin down the problem with appropriate terms and label the issue at hand?
I recently had the opportunity to join “Write At Sea: Deep Editing Power Master Class” with the indomitable Margie Lawson and, I have to admit my eyes were opened to a whole new way of editing and diagnosing my manuscripts. Yes, DIAGNOSING. I learned to do the same thing a doctor does when faced with a heart wrenching disease in a young child – evaluate all of the symptoms, disregard the mitigating factors and pinpoint the problem, label the issues and prescribe a course of treatment. The process takes good observational skills, a certain amount of research and competency in the field.
Competency? That is an interesting word to use in reference to writers. Anyone can write a book, right? Right (conduplicatio- starting a sentence with a key word from the last sentence)! Yes and no. Anyone can put pencil to paper but it takes learning the craft of writing to become a good author.
We’ve all read it; the book with the golden cover that offers a handsome hunk rescuing a gorgeous damsel in distress (another cliché) on the cover. Your expectation drips from your chin as you salivate over the possibilities, like biting into a juicy apple (a wet metaphor – comparing two different things by asserting one is like the other). You reverently open the cover and read the jacket critiques. They twist your heart so beautifully (possibly an oxymoron- an ironic contrast using paradox). You do the Michael Phelps thing and dive right in (eponym – referring to a famous person who is recognized for an attribute). You can’t even breathe, think, move (asyndeton – omitting conjunctions between three or more words). The opening chapter is right there before you but still a million miles away (hyperbole – a deliberate exaggeration). Your eyes devour the first chapter and everything you have ever associated with Fabio seems not to be the least bit true (litotes – an understatement where the words deny the opposite of the word expected to be used)! You casually remind yourself you are reading Rogue. Suddenly it all comes back; the muscle fame, the Italian model fame, the hero worship- book cover-yummy fame (epistrophe – repeating the last word or phrase in three or more subsequent phrases or sentences)! And you are so sorry. So sorry. So very sorry (epizeuxis – the repetition of a word for emphasis). Left hanging and disappointed. Disappointed because the man and the myth do not correlate (anandiplosis – repeating the last word of one sentence at the beginning of the next). The cover and the text do not relate. The title of author and the actual book do not share a bond.
How many more rhetorical devices can I slide into this blog without becoming world-weary? Worn-out? Word-unwise (alliteration – repeating initial consonant sounds)? We still have allusion, amplification, anaphora, parallelism, personification, polysyndenton, simile, symploce and my personal favorite, ZEUGMA. But in the interest of giving my poor keyboard a break to recover (personification – attributing an inanimate object with human characteristics), I will simply state that knowledge of linguistic concepts are to our craftsmanship what bread is to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (simile – comparing two different things that resemble each other or demonstrate a relationship). But you know I have to get one zeugma in, so fancy this: as authors we strive to provide our readers with exciting entertainment. However without the technical structure, superb editing and rich imagination of the author rolled together in one package we may have, excitement, entertainment… and crap!
Zeugma – use of a word in a list of two more words where the last word is not a logical progression. Zeugma. Remember it. Love it. Beat all you friends at Scrabble with it. Use it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The DUH of Reading

WARNING: This post may contain ridiculously obvious statements causing head-banging and eye-rolling among some writers. If you are reading fiction in as much quantity as you desire, you can safely skip this column.

The DUH of Reading
The other day I went to lunch with some non-writing friends—smart, professional women who understand I’m prone to fits of uncontrollable talking and also know I write in isolation so have a few other mortifying-to-be-around behaviors such as correcting the grammar on chalkboard menu-special signs. What they didn’t know is that I squeal over books. I admit, the books they found me squealing over this day were Little Golden Books. Even so, I was wounded—and astonished—by their reactions.
We were in a gift shop filled with classy, adult-oriented items like napkins that read, “Margueritas: They’re not just for breakfast anymore,” and what did I home in on? A rack of the above-mentioned Little Golden Books. Please understand, these were nothing less than classics. I’m not even lying. I found the original Color Kittens (my copy lost its cover years ago), and several other LGBs I read ragged at my grandmother’s house when I was a kid like, Doctor Dan the Bandage Man, and The Happy Man and His Dump Truck.
“I used to read one called, Nurse Nancy,” I said. “I wish I could find ...” I spun the rack and … there it was!
That’s when I squealed.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” one friend said, and I assured her I was not, this was the coolest thing I’d seen in a long time and I was going to buy four of the treasures.
“Oooookay,” said the other friend, and with complete seriousness added, “You are very strange.” (I want it on the record that SHE bought the marguerita napkins, so what was SHE talking about?)
I love my Little Golden Books. I’ve read them several times since bringing them home and putting them on my Keeper Shelf. In fact, I have more kids’ books than I can count in my house, and I still collect them. Why? Because these are the books that taught me to love reading. To love a story that made me feel happy or excited. Children’s books are, in my opinion, the most important books on the planet.
Fast forward from my Nurse Nancy days to when the Little Golden Books were replaced by The Black Stallion books, then Harlequin Romances by the gross, then LaVyrle Spencer, then, then … THEN, I knew I wanted to be a writer. So, I screwed up my courage and started to write.
You know what happened? Slowly, so slowly I barely noticed, I stopped reading very many books just for sheer joy. (Even procrastinating from my own writing I didn’t read—I cleaned the bathroom.) My reading material was reduced to books by Donald Maas or Debra Dixon. I did get to read wonderful stories by critique partners, but the point wasn’t to savor them, the point was to hand out opinions so I could get opinions on my work handed back to me. It was a very rare Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Lisa Kleypas that crossed my eyes. (Crossed my eyes??)
Excuses? I had a million of ‘em:
1) I don’t have time to waste reading, I need to write.
2) I can only read when I go to bed at night and I fall asleep so fast it isn’t worth it.
3) I can’t read other writers or it a) depresses me because they’re so good or b) depresses me because they’re so bad and they’re published anyway
4) I can’t read because I’m always in edit mode and I find all the mistakes and it’s no fun.

Etcetera. I was reading only three or four books a year and not seeing how much I missed the ones I wasn’t reading. Until, one day, I realized how envious I was of the question: “Who is your favorite romance hero—the one permanently on your keeper shelf?” and I had no answer except Mike Mulligan (who had a steam shovel named MaryAnn). And, thank the Lord for him, but I needed to get with the program.
The point of this is that I’ve learned there IS no excuse to stop reading if you’re a writer. I’ve recently started love affairs with every writer I can find in my genre and am working hard to learn what my (I hope) future fans love. I’m also reading any other genre that looks interesting. It’s very empowering. And it’s FUN! (Note: here’s where the head-banging, eye-rolling thing happens.) And, wait for it…it’s not just fun, it’s necessary.
You can’t write if you don’t know what’s out there. You have to read in your genre—no arguments. You will improve, you’ll be reassured, you’ll be more creative.
Even more important: you can’t write well, if you don’t read widely. Romance, like all genre fiction, has its tropes, it’s clichés if you will. Think steely blue eyes, chiseled jaws, and rock hard pecs. Other genres—sci fi, literary, women’s fiction, Little Golden Books —have their vocabularies too. Read them all, learn from them all. Be the writer who “brings it all” to your work.
And that’s the ‘duh.’ I don’t know how I came to the conclusion that I didn’t have time for fun reading. I’ve learned more in the past six months by reading for pleasure than from fifteen chapters of Writing the Breakout Novel.
So, if you aren’t taking time to read very much anymore, consider this an invitation to re-start. If you are, you’re well ahead of me and more power to you—I’m on my way to catching up.

Right after I finish The Color Kittens.

Liz Selvig

Friday, April 15, 2011

My First RT Conference

Imagine traveling to a faraway land where the ladies dance in fairy wings. Men with chiseled cheekbones and rock-hard abs roam the hallways. Romance authors are treated like superstars. Everyone in this magical place shares your passion for the written word. Your idols are delighted to share naughty beverages with you until dawn. Everyone – well, a few people here and there – knows your name and is happy to see you.
Where is this paradise? Well, this year it was in Los Angeles, next year in Chicago, and it’s known throughout the land as the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention.
I’d never been before, and boy, did I get my little introverted mind blown.
I never thought RT would be… So. Much. Fun. It was like one long slumber party punctuated by costume balls and Catherine Coulter sightings. I’ll put romance fans up against any other type of fan as the most fun, most passionate, and all-around loveliest. How about the mother and daughter who flew in from England and filled their journals with author autographs? Or the fan who made corset-tutu vampire zombie costumes for her friends?

In case you’ve never been to RT, it’s all about the parties and the hotel bar. This year the themes were Bollywood, Steampunk, Vampire Zombies and the Venetian Masquerade Fairy Ball. Drink of choice: chocolate martini. The four-day conference is a bit of a blur, so I’ll just pick out some favorite moments.
Cutest moment: a tiny dog in fairy wings winning a prize at the costume ball.

Most scandalous moment: the Samhain author party getting shut down by hotel security (too much loud talking) and everyone getting escorted to the elevator.
Most touching moment. Harlequin author Olivia Gates thanking everyone who helped promote her new release while she was trapped in Egypt during the upheaval.
Most thrilling moment: Signing “Juniper Bell” for the first time, for a fan who’s read all my books and can’t wait for the next one.
Biggest fangirl moment: This one’s tough! There were so many amazing authors there. But meeting Sabrina Jeffries is up there. And breakfast with the astonishingly talented and unbelievably down-to-earth Darynda Jones.
And oh, the books … two huge boxes are in the mail on their way to Homer. I might have overdone it. Then again, when it comes to romance, can you ever really get enough?
Juniper Bell

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Gold Rush Dreams and Jaded Ladies

Lottie went to the diggings.
With Lottie we must be just.
If she didn’t shovel tailings,
Where’d she get her dust?

Chilkoot Pass
On August 6, 1898 the rumored arrival of a ship loaded with over two tons of gold and sixty-eight newly wealthy miners spread like fire through the Seattle area. Within hours sensible men had quit their jobs, dedicated men had left their families, and fortune hunters had spent their last dime on supplies, all with the intention of journeying into the harsh beauty of the Yukon to grab their piece of the pot.

But men were not the only adventurous souls to set their sights on the golden dream. Women of every social station shed their mundane routines and joined the swarm of men on the treacherous trip up north and the deadly thirty-three mile trek over the Chilkoot Pass and into Dawson City.

Restricted by Victorian morality, the Klondike Gold Rush was just the excuse these daring and sometimes desperate women needed to leave a life of security or poverty, and embrace an unknown and exciting future. Any hardships they would face were well worth the trouble when the possibility of wealth and independence was the payoff.

But as so often happens, the glimmering promise of gold dimmed once the women realized there were no respectable jobs to be found. Though it was legal to file a claim under a woman’s name, it was still considered improper. Mining was backbreaking work and unless paired with a man, the chore often proved too difficult.

If lucky, a woman might find a job as a laundress for $5 a day plus room and board, or a housekeeper for $12 a week plus room an board. But with the skyrocketing cost of supplies and rent, it became impossible for these hardy females to buy a simple meal.

What’s a girl to do? Go home? Many had spent their last dollar on their arduous journey and arrived in Dawson City broke and hungry. Suicide? Sadly, this was too often the path chosen by the desperate. With the gender rate reaching ten-thousand men to eight-hundred women, the choice became obvious. Like the devil holding the answer to their survival, the brothels, dancehalls, and saloons became a haven for the girls and women who were so far from home.

With companionship in short supply and gold dust overflowing, many of these working girls embraced their life and learned how to work the system. Dance hall or commission girls earned approximately $40 a week plus, 25% commission on any drinks sold, 50% on dances, and $7.50 on a pint of champagne. One commission girl reported that on her best night she earned $750 simply by talking to a lonely miner.

“The poor ginks just gotta spend it. They’re scared they’ll die before they get it out of the ground.”
                                                                                                                                          Diamond Tooth Gertie Lovejoy

Prostitutes earned $3 to every dollar earned by the dancehall girls. The clever strumpet used her own scale to weigh the gold dust she received in trade for her companionship. The standard four ounces of gold, or $64, for fifteen minutes often measured out more to the tune of eight ounce by the time she finished weighing the miner’s payment.

“A Dawson City girl did not need good looks. She needed stamina, a cold, calculating eye, and utter ruthlessness.”
Cy Martin

Not everybody like the bawdy women and their practices, but most accepted them as a necessary evil. Several of the showgirls in Dawson garnered quite a name for themselves and lived the life of their dreams

Klondike Kate, or Kathleen Rockwell as friends and family in Spokane, Washington knew her, grew up as a rebellious teenager, preferring an independent spirit over social rules and learning.
Klondike Kate

It’s rumored when Kate was denied entrance into Canada on her way to Alaska, she donned boys clothing and hopped onboard a boat heading to the Yukon. Once in Dawson City, Kate found her niche’ and became a local celebrity by performing her famed Flame Dance. With elegant and graceful moves, Kate managed to keep two-hundred yards of chiffon airborne for the duration of her dance. In her first year in the Klondike, Kate earned thirty-thousand dollars and secured a place for herself among the citizens of Dawson City.

Diamond Tooth Gertie Lovejoy headlined at the Palace Grand Theater during her stint in Dawson. Though she ended up marrying a respectable lawyer who had been her client, polite society never accepted Gertie as one of them. Perhaps the diamond jammed between her front teeth had something to do with the social snub.

Not far behind the sinner travels the saint. Church-going women soon arrived on the scene, rolled up their sleeves, and tried to help out or cast out the soiled doves. But the roots of prostitution and the need of the miners had burrowed too deep to eradicate the practice completely. The Reformists were somewhat successful in relocating the red-light district to the edge of town and building a tall green fence around the area. However, their efforts could never fully purge the city of sin.

“Of all the predatory, gold digging, disease-eaten, crooked female devils this side of Hell, the worst were in the Klondike in the early days.”
                                                                                                        E.C. Trewlawney-Ansell
Six Prositutes
As the discovery of gold in Fairbanks drew more miners, the prostitutes followed, as did the Reformists. Thomas Marquam, a brilliant criminal attorney quickly made a name for himself by defending the prostitutes, gamblers, and bar owners in the area. He also became the editor of the Fairbanks Times and was later elected as the mayor.

After the death of his wife, Marquam sought solace in the red-light district and namely in the arms of Ray Alderman. His affair with the prostitute was well known throughout Fairbanks but didn’t cause him problems until Fairbanks became the focus of a visit from the president of the United States, Warren G. Harding.

A delegation of irate matrons confronted Marquam and demanded he end the tawdry relationship with that woman. They argued his association with her would make the citizens of Fairbanks a laughing stock. Taking their dispute to heart, Marquam asked Ray Alderman to be his wife and she accepted. Much to the meddling harpies’ consternation, Ms. Alderman not only became the first lady of Fairbanks, but also the first lady in the reception party for President Warren G. Hardy. One must wonder if Thomas Marquam thought, “Take that you old battleaxes.”

Though landing a husband was like shooting fish in a barrel, many of the women decided they liked the independent life prostitution afforded them. Gussie Lamore, a nineteen year old prostitute, turned down a miner by the name of Bill Gates who offered to pay her her weight in gold if she married him.

She replied, “Independence is a good deal too.”

Miss Violet Raymond was the undisputed belle of the camp. Once the reining queen of burlesque in Juneau, the owner of The Gold Hill Hotel paid an enormous amount for her to move to Dawson City and perform.

“Her admirers numbered by the score,” reported gold king, Antone Stander, Violet’s future husband. To woo her away from the limelight, Stander bought every diamond in the camp and presented them to Miss Violet in a necklace that hung nearly to her knees. He also gifted her with $20,000 in gold dust, a lard bucket full of odd-shaped gold nuggets, and offered her $1000 a month allowance if she married him.

I make good money—but not that good,” replied Violet.

They were married a short time later.

Klondike Kate is the only good-time girl to receive any recognition for her part in the Yukon Gold Rush. In 1931, wearing the $1500 Parisian dress she wore during her glory days in Dawson City, Kate was honored by over a thousand aging pioneers.

Top of Chilkoot Pass
Many of the Gold Rush sirens and wealthy prospectors found joy in each others arms for short span of time, but few were able to keep the flames of passion burning once they left the wild atmosphere of the mining camps. Greed and suspicion replaced all-consuming passion and the very gold that brought the lovers together, soon tore them apart. Divorce, swindles, gambling, and even murder litter the pages of history for these unfortunate gold rush marriages.

Praying the north still held the key to happiness, many penniless Gold Rush veterans traveled back to Alaska in hopes of regaining their fortune. Few ever achieved the measure of success they’d previously experienced, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Like the thousands of men who journeyed into the unknown to find their fortunes, these spirited females of the Klondike fought and slaved for their part of the dream. Gold Rush history would not be nearly so colorful or interesting without these jaded ladies.

Friday, April 1, 2011


We have a tradition in our family in which the birthday boy or girl gets to choose anything they want me to make for a birthday dinner. My son almost always wants king crab, which isn’t too much of a problem since we live in Alaska and those sweet spiders (yes, they are arthropods, just like spiders!) are relatively inexpensive compared to, say, lobster. Of course, this year, my son decided he wanted to try lobster. So with a groan, I forked out the money for lobster tails.

I’ve never cooked lobster before, so I got online to find instructions. Ruining them by cooking them improperly would be unacceptable. Apparently, you can cook lobster a lot of different ways, so I opted for baking, since the tails would curl if I steamed them. I also discovered that with live lobsters, to keep them from curling you can submerse them in beer to get them to “relax” before you cook them! That experiment might have almost been worth the extra money for live lobsters.

As I was preparing the baking sheet, my daughter remarked, “Mom, I thought lobsters were red.” And I realized these weren’t. Why not? Was there something wrong with them?

Again, a trip to the computer. (What did we do in the days before the Internet?) After a bit of searching, and a side trek where I learned why fish smell “fishy” and how lemon juice works to chemically reduce the odor, I learned that heat denatures all the color proteins in the lobster shell except for the red one. So after cooking, all that is left is the stable, red pigment that was there all along. Interesting topic while we ate dinner.

A guest commented on how she had learned more science at that dinner than she had in a long time, and I realized – well, I realized maybe I’m weird. But I’ve always had an inquisitive mind. It’s why I write science fiction. My mind is always asking these kinds of questions. No matter what else I am doing. I love to know why things work the way they do, particularly biological systems. Writing sci-fi is a joy for me, because I get to research “why,” and I get to hypothesize “what if.”

I wonder if I could find a way to put lobster people in my next manuscript …

Tam Linsey

In the future, survival carries a steep price ...