Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Good, The Bad, and the Quirky

It’s all about the characters. Think about the best stories you ever read. The setting can be beautiful, the plot thrilling or tame, but what draws the reader in, what keeps the reader turning the page is the depth of characters in a story. Consider Goldilocks and the Three bears…it’s not the breaking and entering that makes us wonder how the story will end, it is the confrontation between the gentle baby bear and the oblivious child who breaks chairs and pilfers pantries. Think about Sherlock Holmes. Not a traditional hero type; he’s bossy, occasionally rude, overtly conceited, an addict, and he is missing that romance gene altogether. Yet he is such a richly drawn character—so complex and layered, we simply must stick with him and with Dr. Watson to find out how he will save the day. And the importance of a well-drawn character is not limited to protagonists. Supporting characters can often be curiously intriguing, themselves. What would Dracula be without Renfield? That minor character mirrors the “everyman” who constantly questions his own existence and his relationship with a higher power. Granted, Ren’s behavior and outlook is a bit gloomy bordering on ghastly, but every thought he speaks, every fear he expresses, echoes in our minds and draws into the story like a moth to a flame. Why, even in Romeo and Juliette, while the main characters face the tragedy of youthful love, we find Tybalt, Mercutio, and even the friar to be magnificently engaging characters. We care about what they have to say, and so we continue to read the story even though we know that two feuding families will never break bread over a happy marriage. MacBeth would be nothing without the Weird Sisters! And in The Wizard of Oz, we all are spellbound by the Wicked Witch, and the man behind the curtain. We want to know what their personal stories are. Whenever somebody complains that they want to portray the main character, I wonder why? Often the best parts are the ones in the shadows, on the edge, or the ones who don’t even know they matter so much. In the musical 1776, the most poignant character is the messenger who recalls seeing his friends die on the battlefield. That young man’s moment in the spotlight is quiet, reverent, and heart-wrenching. In two minutes, he reveals what is at stake, not just for the Continental Congress, but for every man, woman, and child, on both sides of the fight. And we weep for him and for his pals. Character is how one sees the world, and how one is seen by it…the good guys, bad guys, and all the ones in between…

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Old Loves...a passion for historical fiction

Be still my heart! Forty years have passed since Robyn Ellis graced the television screens on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, portraying the dashing Captain Ross Poldark, returned from war with the Colonials. That was the beginning of a long standing love affair with historical fiction. A serious addiction, I must admit. And now, four decades later, BBC and PBS have resurrected the classic tale into another heart-stoppingly-beautiful series. And Aiden Turner is absolutely up to the task! I know, I know. For some people, history is boring. That’s because, they’ve never known the joys of a good story woven with rich characters, complex plot twists, and phenomenal cinematic backdrops. And costumes! Why, in the first episode alone, we see the urgency of battle, the loneliness of death and transition, and the cold truth about life in rural Cornwall in the late 18th century. We also are privy to the passion, the perseverance, and the promise of a life well lived. Aiden Turner (of BBC’s Being Human, and The Hobbit), is both roguish, and heroic as the man who inherits a ramshackle house and mine, and all the trials included in being a landowner at the close of the Revolutionary war. It would be so easy to be bought off, and escape to the gaming tables of London, but Ross decides that the higher road is to do something with the land, and with the people he feels connected to (not necessarily his own family). When he realizes the young person he has saved from a rowdy mob, has suffered beatings by her own family, he meets her reluctance to return home with a pragmatic job offer...and invites her dog, too. Now, truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have read Winston Graham’s novels at age eleven, if not for that original show, so long ago. And had I not read those books, I might not have flirted with Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, The Brontes, Mary Stewart, Theodore Dreiser, etc (my little black book of titles is full). To this day, I relish curling up in bed, next to a thick, leather-bound book, with a remote control in my hand. I can live in the pages until the words blur, then take a break to watch any episode which has costumes, horses, or stories that include a bit of the past with a hope for a future. Face it, I was and am a historical-fiction harlot.

Monday, April 6, 2015

With a song in my heart, and a word on my pen...

Remember A Chorus Line? The song, “I Hope I Get It”? The broadway musical profiled the lives and stories of those dancers who made it into the chorus line, the ensemble performers for a grand stage production. All longed, ultimately, for stardom; but for that short time in front of the footlights, they all had a story to tell, of how they had found the the theatre; of why the stage was the life for them. And while their goal was the same, each performer had a story that was unique. Writers are the same. Whether novelists, screenwriters, playwrights, poets, we each have a tale (or several) that forges the path we choose. Some stumble to the right door, straight out of college. Others wander through the dark forest for what seems like a century searching for a happy ending. Regardless of the road we take, we all work and dream for the same happy ending. We want to be published. Each time we send a story to an editor, an agent, a contest, a blog site, we want our work to be validated. We want our stories to be read, to be appreciated. We want readers to well with emotion when they read our work. Some stories will elicit righteous support and inspire action. Others will make our hearts break with compassion for the characters’ pain. A few might incite raucous laughter. We long for that connection to our readers. Writers look at the world and see plot, character, dialogue, and a dozen different endings to everyday occurrences. A trip to the grocery store could end with a walk down the aisle. A line at the post office could end with a line-up at the police station. A discarded note on the sidewalk could be a clue to a crime, or a hidden treasure. In a world where so often, words are used to hurt, to offend, to render speechless, it is comforting to know that there are people who wish only to create mesmerizing, transcending tales that will take us, even briefly, into that world where everyone has a story? On any given day, all a writer ever needs to hear, or think is, “I Wish--” [Into the Woods] ~and soon a story begins...

Sunday, January 11, 2015

If a picture's worth a thousand words...

A picture is worth a thousand words, but words can be the essence of our lives, our experience, and our emotions. Words can change history, or record it; they can start wars, or end them. Recently, I heard Joseph Stroud read aloud some of his works. Mr. Stroud is a prolific American poet. His words linger in the air, settling on the listeners shoulders after the words have left his lips, or have leapt from the page. Poetry in our modern society seems an arcane~a mysterious genre that seems to have faded from the fast pace of our busy lives. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Poetry, like so much about our cyber lives, economizes words to their utmost efficacy. A few words, carefully woven, convey an entire scene with only a few characters. Consider Stroud’s Night in Day: “The night never wants to end, to give itself over 
to light. So it traps itself in things: obsidian, crows. 
 Even on summer solstice, the day of light's great 
triumph, where fields of sunflowers guzzle in the sun— 
we break open the watermelon and spit out 
black seeds, bits of night glistening on the grass.” Fifty five words create a myriad of images and emotions and evoke a dozen questions in the reader’s mind. Similarly, Emily Dickenson, used words efficiently to tell tales, and make a point. Faith offers a simple argument: “Faith is a fine invention 
When Gentlemen can see— 
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.” Songs offer the pop-culture version of poetry to the masses. With a background of drums, sythesized syncopation, guitar, or orchestral background, lyricists string words together to tell stories of love, of woe, of misunderstanding, or revolution. Instead of texting about fashion, or rumors, or traffic, perhaps we should encourage people to text poetry. Imagine what a beautiful world me might create. I smiled as I listened to the poet on the radio. Reading is a magnificent escape, but to hear the bard speak those precious few words--those metaphors and similes--to paint pictures transported me, momentarily. Like a time traveler, I sifted to the poet’s world, and was mesmerized by its magic.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Into the unknown...

2014 plowed past me and left me standing at the platform of 2015 feeling a bit flustered and perhaps a bit excited by the possibilities before me. It is fitting, then that in the moments of the waning year, I picked up Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere(1999) only to be whisked away to both the familiar and tantalizingly unfamiliar London underground. I slipped into a wonderfully haunting (and terrifying) world of the faces people to live below in the underground world. What happens when people fall through the cracks? They fade away and become part of the unseen society which exists...neverwhere. Protagonist Richard Mayhew does something nice, and (since no good deed goes unpunished in literature), he finds himself abandoned in a world where people exist between the normal world that most of us know, and a disturbingly distopian subterranean world of subway stations, abandoned tunnels, sewers, and fog. All those things that go bump in the night live in this world, and rear their ugly heads frequently to threaten Richard and company as he tries to save a young woman from the evil that pursues her. And of course there is a secret society (isn’t there always?) I’ve been to London a few times. I’ve ridden on the “tube” and am aware of some of the history of the subway system. Gaiman’s mix of historical elements, fantastical characters, suspense, and that wonderful bit of humanity had me hooked from the first pub scene when Richard says goodbye to his hometown to the end of the story (no spoilers here, folks). The romp thrilled me and filled me with a desire to investigate the London underground stations with my new awareness of Gaiman’s mythological underground. I’m sure there must be a such a tour offering such a rousing romp somewhere in Londinium. Conventional time and space, and relative dimension, are all challenged by Neverwhere; I kept wondering just how this might play into an episode of Dr Who (Neil has also penned a few episodes for that sci-fi phenomenon). Describe it in twenty five words or less? Alice-in-Wonderland meets Dr. Who, sprinkled with a touch of Twilight Zone, and Life on Mars, all with a film noir feel. Quite a wild ride and well worth the price of a ticket.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A fond farewell

The Belle of the Ball... She was the stuff of stories, made not merely of timber and nails, but of magic, too. And like so many magical things, she has faded, forgotten, into nothingness. Known as the White queen of the gulf, for her exterior design, the Belleview Biltmore, near Clearwater, is to be torn down. Her frame adorned with more than a dozen gables, and nearly twice as many corridors, has withered beyond repair and will soon be put out of her misery. And yet, our memories of her will live on. The hotel was not merely a resort, it was grand adventure, like something out of a movie. Similar to the Grand Hotel at Mackinac, the Belleview stretched for what seemed like a mile from one end to the other. Built by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant the resort accommodated wealthy travelers who spent long holidays escaping from the harsh northern winters. Long hallways, offered glimpses of pristine lawns primed for lawn bowling or badminton. At the far edge of the grounds were tennis courts; a golf course paralleled the opposite edge. Two swimming pools offered guests a choice of lounging in the sun, or swimming laps in a glass ceilinged pool-house adorned with french doors that opened to admit a balmy breeze on warm days. Late at night, wandering the long quiet corridors, one could even envision the spirits of former residents sashaying through the building, dancing and drinking champagne, and being completely scandalous. Originally, the train tracks would deliver people directly to the hotel’s front door, and guests could step from locomotive car to lobby into the hotel’s lavish world of fine woolen carpets, and chandeliers, and grand pianos. Verandas decorated the property for a bit of fresh air in winter, and a respite from the heat during summer (pre-air conditioning). I stayed at the hotel many times. The most magnificent room was a suite that had not only a decadent king-sized bed with a sitting area, and a lavish bathroom, but also a dressing room. Imagine a room dedicated just to changing clothes and preparing one’s appearance, from an era when people lived for weeks or months at the hotel and so, entertained guests in the sitting room. I spent hours gliding back and forth in the indoor heated pool (prominent in the movie Cocoon), and strolling the grounds. There was an oak tree that was so large, one could sit on the lowest bowed branch, as it nearly kissed the porch. Six piano decorated the halls; no one ever complained if someone decided to plunk out a tune. Stairways zigged and zagged, and seemingly led to nowhere, and delighted children of all ages who had an indoor maze to meander. Did I mention the best coffee I ever had anywhere, was in that dining room? Grand ballrooms, elegant dining halls, afternoon tea, and cocktails in the piano bar were the offerings when I visited the Belleview. Small salons in the main hallway offered books, souvenirs, ice cream, and jewelry. Holidays brought families from all around the bay area to magnificent brunches that stretched through three of those ballrooms, accommodating hundreds of diners. Like the Plant Museum, the Belleview entertained the wealthy and famous once upon a time. In more recent times she entertained families and golfing enthusiasts. The hotel was the site for weddings, anniversaries, reunions, proms, and getaways. It never advertised because it never had to...until the time came when flash and deals won out over the old world wonder. However, it’s hard to keep up a building that suffers sun and wind and rain damage, and nearly a century of age. Several corporations and preservation committees attempted to save, protect, resurrect her, unsuccessfully. Sometimes money just is not enough. The Belleview will be put to rest. With her, goes a grand bit of Florida history and an age of golden revelry. Goodbye to Cocoon, to verandas,to vintage New Year’s Eve soirees, and to the best cup of coffee, ever.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Apathy abounds!

It is time for a rant. Apathy is an infection that has swept the continent; it’s victims range from adults who can’t be bothered to drive their kids to a track meet, to nine year olds who can’t be bothered to participate in class “because”. Just because. My father long held that I didn’t have to agree with his perspectives on life, religion, or politics as long as I had an opinion and could support my opinion. “ Just ‘cause...” was never an answer for anything. My father was right. Every single day I encounter people who have no opinion on anything other than the latest sale at the mall. Even that isn’t so much opinion as excitement over the stimuli of color and bright yellow and red on sale signs (sort of the cartoon network for adults). The worst thing is that parents and adults allowing children to be mindless sheep baa-ing their way through life sets the kids up for failure. But then again, so many of these same adults will eventually blame a teacher for their kids’ apathy. Trust me, I have yet to meet a teacher who is apathetic or who promotes apathy in the classroom. Apathy is learned at home, and in the community. The “I don’t care” attitude might begin as a defensive device against disappointment, turning quickly to a “whatever” approach (a word I do not allow in my house, stage, or classroom, by the way). That’s how the infection begins, and then the plague erupts when an entire room of kids (or adults) shrug over everything from the importance of of writing a thank you note, to the ebola crisis, or civic responsibility of voting and jury duty. I sat in jury duty last month and listened to people whine for eight hours about sitting in an air conditioned room with a television and with access to all their electronic devices. They whined about how unfair it was that they had to sit there, and that they were being expected to wait to be questioned as potential jurors for our county. These are the same people who threaten to sue over scuffed tennis shoes and a delay at the doctor’s office. Heaven forbid they should step up and do something to make a difference in their community. That might be seen as being proactive. And of course, these people all have someone in their lives who emulates their behavior-- a niece, a nephew, or children of their own. Once upon a time (stop me if you’ve heard this one), there was a man who wanted to be a leader. As he bullied his way through the countryside, the villagers decided better him than them, and so they let him do whatever he wanted. Their apathy allowed the Third Reich to emerge. Yeah, it’s a bit melodramatic, but at least you have an opinion about it, now. Don’t you?