Friday, December 20, 2013

Last Post of the Year

I feel compelled to reflect on this year, but it's been a really bad one. 

I think the only good things I have to say about this year are:
  • I finally took the step to start graduate school, something I wish I had done twenty years ago.  I love it, and I'm getting more out of it than I had expected. 
  • I got closer to my sister, but under the absolute worst of circumstances.
  • My leg and foot are definitely getting better.  If you don't know me, I have had nerve damage and incredible pain for more than four years.  The benefit of this is other things like shingles and mammograms and needle biopsies don't hurt so much in comparison. 
  • I figured out how to execute the research I need to do for my historical novels and did a huge amount of the research.
I end the year with shingles on my head and face.  It's not getting better.  My doctor said it won't until I boost up my immune system....with lots of sleep and pampering and rest and relaxation...the things I don't have and don't know how to get.  Crap.

My one regret this year is I didn't write every day.  I took huge lapses in time when I did research but didn't write.  For me, the writing is therapeutic in the same way going on a vacation is.  It's my happy place because I can go anywhere without the hassle of a long car trip or the TSA or having to breathe in other people's air on an airplane, which is just terrifying. 

In 2014 I am going to do these things, not to push myself but because I think it will make me happy and/or less stressed:
  1. Give up coffee and switch to green tea because it makes me less spazzy.
  2. Strive to write every day for at least 20 minutes. 
  3. Strive to exercise every day for 20 minutes - apparently this is the key to sleeping normally.
  4. Meditate every day (just before writing).
  5. Participate in Write1Sub1 and actually do it instead of just thinking about what a good idea it is.  See my little list on the right for the link.
  6. Write a collection of creepy short stories during my Poe class (January-April).
  7. Finish edits to One Small Betrayal (which is also creepy in a Poe kind of way).
  8. Carry on with my historical fiction.
  9. Interview my great aunt with my mom.
My great aunt is my maternal grandmother's sister and my grandfather's sister-in law.  Her husband was my maternal grandfather's brother.  That apparently happened a lot in tiny little coal towns before people had cars.  The more I talk to her, the more ideas I get for stories.  She's the last one with the history (a very dramatic history) of my mother's side of the family.  She's in bad health.  And she agreed to be interviewed, not for my novels especially, but so I can write up the actual family stories for my cousins and their kids so it's not lost.

My mom and I have had a complex relationship. This year, she has been amazing about helping me with research, talking to people about questions I have, collecting family stories for me, and simply looking at pictures of coal towns to help me figure out to lay out my fictional town. 

This is my last post of the year.  I hope you all have a relaxing and joyful Christmas and New Year.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Shingles on my Face

My plan for my new blog (this one) is to keep my personal stuff out of it. 

I will let this be an exception.  I have shingles.  On my face.  My right eyelid specifically.

My eyelid is so swollen and covered with lesions that I'm pretty sure I'm going to have a scar.  And it's incredibly itchy if I don't touch it, incredibly painful if I do.

The weird thing about shingles is (and I'm no doctor here so don't take this as medical advice) it's activated by stress, and the pain is worse when I feel stressed.  I'm very light sensitive as well (even more than normal).  It hurts when I blink.  The pain in my eyelid feels like it's in my eye, but my eyeball checked out okay by the eye doctor.  They think I will be in this misery for two weeks.  The doctor recommend taking Benadryl for the swelling and to sleep it off as much as possible.

I'm supposed to relax and de-stress in a permanent, long-term kind of way.

* long pause *

I'm not sure exactly how to do that.  I have a lot of stuff to do.  My house is a mess.  My impulse is to do something, anything.  I could probably relax if I could read, but my eye hurts.

Writing is the one thing that gives me peace, lets me escape to another world, and gives me the satisfaction of having created something even when I'm done writing.  So I will write. I will write a lot.  First I need a nap because the Benadryl is working....

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Poe and Friends

If you know me, you know I enrolled in graduate school about a year ago.  The first class was fabulous - I learned how to do the research for my historical novels, which is exactly what I needed.  As an added bonus, I actually did a lot of research and rewrote the first chapter of one of my novels to make it historically accurate and just plain better. 

My summer creative writing class was cancelled, and I decided not to take a fall class because of some health issues and the general state of chaos of my life.   

Just this morning, I registered for a 19th century American literature class that's intended for undergraduate seniors.  They created a graduate section of the class just for me.  The deal is that I have to do more work than the undergraduates.  The cool part is I have a lot of say in what that extra work will be. 

The super awesome thing I found out this morning is it's not just a 19th century American literature class (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, and other authors I absolutely adore and haven't read in quite a while).  It's specifically a class on Poe.  16 weeks of Poe and friends.

I love Poe.  One of my favorite childhood movies was The Pit and the Pendulum (yeah, I realize that's a little odd).  My favorite genre to write in besides the impossibly challenging genre of historical fiction is dark comedy.  While I realize Poe maybe wasn't going for comedy, for me it always will be. 

Now that I know the class centers around Poe, I'm even more excited about it.  I think I will take the opportunity to rewrite one of my dark comedies while I'm in Poe mode.  The cool thing is I probably can use my rewrite as my final project for the class. 

The recurrent theme that I keep finding in my work is the complex relationship between hopelessness and mental illness. There's a lot of that in the literature of this time period - like "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892), which echoes Poe's "Ligeia" (1838).  I'm curious to see how authors in this time period write about mental breakdowns of men compared to women. 

Today I'm reading Washington Irving's The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon (1819-1820).  Apparently Irving was the first American author to earn a living entirely from writing.  He is considered an inventor of the short story genre.  Apparently he was a hell of a salesman and a master of self-promotion because what I'm reading so far is not that great.  "Rip Van Winkle" is amazing, but the other "stories" I've read so far are just reflections, like the sort of thing we write here on our blogs.  I can't believe he got paid for them. 

I'm going to trudge through as many of Irving's reflections as I can.  And then I'm going to jump into Last of the Mohicans.  I've seen the movie but haven't read the entire book.  I remember the little sister going a little bit nuts toward the end of the movie.  I'm very interested to see how Cooper handled that in the text or if it's there at all. 

Happy Thanksgiving.  I'm going to spend my week reading - and hopefully will do a little bit of writing too before I pop in my The Pit and the Pendulum DVD.

Friday, November 22, 2013

On Being Stuck and Unsticking Myself

I'm definitely stuck.

Writer's block is an understatement.  I feel as though my Muse has been starved, bludgeoned, and then repeatedly knifed in the stomach before being chopped into little pieces.  She's not coming back. 

My instinct tells me to read, read a lot, read a lot of short stories that will inspire my creativity and will coax a new Muse out of hiding.

I've done that the last few days - that and an almost normal amount of sleep.  It seems to be working.  I signed up for a literature class at my college.  It's 19th century literature.  The fabulous thing about graduate level classes is you get to make it your own.  I'm making this class a study of hopelessness and mental illness. 

Yesterday I bought the complete collection of Poe after being dissatisfied with the free kindle version - the formatting is bothersome.  Today, I am going to make a bowl of popcorn or maybe something healthier and pop in the DVDs of the Vincent Price movies and readings of several of these stories.  I'm pretty sure that while I'm enjoying the movies and stop fixating on my stuckness a new Muse will sit down next to me and whisper some great ideas into my ear (hopefully in a creepy Vincent Price voice).

I also decided to re-join Write 1 Sub 1 - the monthly version - and commit myself to writing a series of short stories, mostly in the historical period of the novels I'm writing.  Nothing bad can come of it.   I know it's a little late in the year to start, but whatever, right?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

IWSG - November

I'm not sure it's an insecurity exactly, but the amount of work it's going to take to finish my historical fiction novel is starting to feel more than a little overwhelming. 

Giving up on it and moving on to an easier project isn't quite my style, so I decided to break the revisions into parts and focus on one part at a time in chunks of about 9 or 10 chapters.  It will take me as long as it takes me to finish this first section, but when it's done it will be done and then I'll move to the next section.

How do you manage writing projects when they start to feel overwhelming?

Go to Insecure Writer's Support Group hosted by Alex J Cavanaugh to read the other posts or join us.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Historical Research: The Harlan County War

The Harlan County War was the series of violent labor disputes between coal operators and coal miners between 1931 and 1939 in Harlan County, Kentucky. Based on what I've read so far, the violence got so bad that the National Guard was called in to control the miners, although it sounds like maybe the mine operators needed to be controlled.  Either way, it was a hot mess there in the 1930's.

My novel is set in the same time period on the other side of the Black Mountain Range in southwest Virginia, which places it just a smidge northeast of Harlan County.  What happens in Harlan serves as a backdrop for my story - it fuels the paranoia of the mine operator about the potential for miners to unionize or strike.  The potential for violence makes the miners and their families even more uncomfortable at a time when safety in coal mines was a low priority.

The problem I'm running into is getting straight-forward details about what happened and when.  My story opens on April 16, 1931.  But the stuff going down in Harlan happens in what most of the sources describe as "early 1931."  I have a book with the detailed information, but it's full of a million other details that aren't as relevant.  The Battle of Evarts happens on May 5, 1931.  I'm debating whether to move the start of my story to May or to go with it as is.

My tasks for this week are to finish the research on the Battle of Evarts to pin down the events and dates that my miners will learn about and to finish revisions to the first section of my novel.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Pride in My Ancestry

Earlier this week, my middle child's school announced they are having a cultural fair.  They asked parents to volunteer to present their family's heritage.  I got kind of excited and went right to the online sign-up form . . . and then I wasn't so excited. 

If you know me, you know I've been working on several historical novels, the first of which is set in southwest Virginia in the 1930's.  While sharing some of the research I did with my mother, I found out that my parents were raised in a coal camp, a really unique one compared to the others in the same time period. 

How did I live this long without ever knowing my parents lived in a company town?  My parents don't talk about the place they came from.  My dad has retained his sense of who he is, but doesn't talk much in general and never with much detail, so it's difficult to get any information out of him.  My mom has some sort of shame from being a "hillbilly."  She has done her best to wash off her accent and pretend like she's from Cincinnati.  I think this is not uncommon among the masses that moved to Cincinnati from Appalachia.

I'm proud of my heritage and embrace the qualities I love about my grandparents - inner strength, the thing where they saw the good in things when there really wasn't any good to be seen, the depth of their love for their family, and their kindness. 

I love the idea of being self-sustaining and living as simply as possible. 

I can see the look on my grandma's face now, the smile she would have - not laughing at me and not putting me down, just a smile that would say with no words at all that she senses the hypocrisy of that line.  She would want me to see the hypocrisy so I can make my life better.  I am in no way living the self-sustaining, simple life I admire so much.  I am surrounded by electronics.  I live in the middle of suburbia.  I have purchased enough processed foods to buy my kids' school a new playground from those 10 cent boxtop coupons we collect.  Two of my kids go to private school.  Much of the time I am more sarcastic than loving (sorry, honey).

When I read through the sign-up form for the cultural fair, I saw my disconnect with my heritage very clearly.  They want us to present items like this:  music or musical instruments, food specific to our culture, artifacts like toys, art, games, or clothing.  It made me sad that I didn't have any of that.  I don't have my grandmother's recipes.  My mother tried so hard to disconnect from her past that she didn't save anything like that.  The fact is they were so poor, they simply played in the creek for fun (yes, the creek that was polluted from the coal mines).  All I have are memories, stories I've written,  and research I've done.

At least three of my grandparents were part Cherokee.  Their ancestors escaped the Trail of Tears.   No one in my family has any information about how they hid or what their lives were like except for my mother's grandmother who was half-Cherokee.  But no one remembers her parents' names.  My great aunt told me about her life, the parts she remembered.   She told me she was a "throw-away," a child no one wanted.  I am amazingly proud to be an ancestor of this woman that survived despite all odds - even though I didn't meet her, and a lot of what I see in my mind when I think of her is actually the character I created. 

I wonder if my kids would be proud to have me present our Appalachian heritage.  Or would they be ashamed of it the way my mother is?

I think the best I can do for the cultural fair is to skip this one, do my best to finish my novel so I can present it at the next one, and make sure my kids know where they come from and how strong their grandparents were.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

IWSG - October 2013

When this group started a little more than two years ago, I was definitely insecure about my writing.  Insecurity was quite likely the one recurring theme in my otherwise random blog posts. 

Now I don't think of myself as being insecure about my writing - and that is because of you. 

All of the kind comments, good advice, great posts about writing challenges and successes, and general support have added up over time to make me feel secure about my writing.  I hope you feel that way too. 

To those of you that have followed me here from my other blog, thank you so much. :)

* * * * *

Check out Alex J Cavanaugh's site for the list of other Insecure Writer's Support Group members.  We post on the first Wednesday of the month.  Please join us.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Of all the changes happening in my life, this new blog is probably the easiest.  I'm closing Tonja's Musings and starting this new blog.

I accidentally clicked on the first template, which gave the cleanest, most simplistic black-and-white style, and I kind of like it.  I may just add a followers gadget and be done with it for now.

When I started my previous blog, I was just beginning my writing journey.  I had an injury that kept me off my feet, so I wrote a children's story about a bunny and a snake living together under a front porch.  And then I wrote a short novel about a mother's anxiety over just being a mother, just getting by from one day to the next.  Next I wrote a darker comedy about a troubled mother and her dysfunctional relationship with her mother.  Somewhere in there I wrote two half novels, both dark comedies. 

Then something happened and my mind became fixated on my grandparents' generation, the unanswered questions about little things they said that never made sense.  The more research I did, the more the stories developed in my mind.  I feel like I can spend a lifetime writing about Appalachian coalminers and their ancestors including the Cherokee that were removed from the area (except for my ancestors who apparently hid well). 

I intend to devote this blog to posts about historical research and writing in this genre.

Thank you for finding me here.