Monday, March 15, 2010

English as a Second Language

I wasn't born a writer. In fact, English-wise, I was a B average. Oh, I could slap together a fairly coherent report in whatever subject. If you asked me now--now that I've been a teacher and seen incredibly incoherent writing from students--I guess maybe, even then, I could have been called a writer. But I didn't feel like one. Writing was a tool I used to get through school, and to concoct silly poems and stories during study hall. Now it's a tool to express myself. What do I do with it? I write silly poems and stories. And silly blogs.

Music is different. I remember, when I was in maybe third grade, my mom asked me why I sang all the time. I hadn't realized I did. By the time I was old enough for grade school chorus, I was already harmonizing with every song on the radio, every hymn in church, and with Muzak in department stores. Even if I never heard the song before. Music, I believe, was my first language. I have no idea why. My closest musical ancestor was an uncle who played accordion. Still, I have a brother who composes and two cousins who are singers, so it's in our DNA somewhere.

I put the kind of musicians I know in my novels--people like me who do other things to make a living. In HANG MY HEAD AND CRY, Theo is an aspiring anthropologist, but on the side he does church singing--services, weddings, funerals. POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY's main historical character is a fiddler and part-time music master. Series character Beth Ann plays clarinet in her school band. Actually, every science geek I know played in a school band or sang in choir. Not a coincidence. Early school music education feeds the brain in all kinds of ways.

A friend asked me this week if I'd ever do a mystery novel set in the music world. The short answer is, probably not. Musicians, when making music, don't have a murderous bone in them. Music is all about dialogue and communication, and something more--like a genuine meeting of souls. This is why the Arab/Jewish Orchestra can exist, and the Omagh Community Youth Choir of Northern Ireland, which includes kids from all different backgrounds with the aim of promoting peace.

If you'd like to hear some of the great music of these groups, and others from around the world, check out

Peace, and harmony,

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

One Day at A Time

This past week I've had a heater man here fixing a leaky steam pipe and an electrician doing a much needed upgrade on my old house. I'll miss the dungeon-like ambiance my cellar used to have, but now I can actually see what I'm doing while I sort laundry. No more white blouses turned splotchy pink.

This sort of household activity doesn't lend itself to getting writing done, especially when most of my free time was spent moving furniture and stuff around so all my old two-prong outlets could be evicted.

By coincidence, though, on my World War II blog, I've began to post my Uncle Joe's diary entries from 1945. I've read the journal a few times before, but I was once again struck by how quickly a story can take shape. Just 2 or 3 sentences a day and in a little over a week, I've traveled from California to Hawaii with him, hearing about the sailors who jumped ship in port, about those who were seasick and the rough weather that caused it, about shipboard routine like painting and early morning watch, and about renting bikes for liberty at Pearl Harbor. My uncle wasn't a trained or skilled writer--he was never terribly academic, he even had to repeat a grade in school. Yet, his story is easier to read than all the novels I've started and not finished in the last five years.

So, instead of writing this week, I've been mulling over his style of storytelling and why it seems to work so well.

My uncle had the uncanny knack for evoking images and empathy in one sentence. I could picture him watching the lights of Long Beach fade in the distance as their ship sailed west, not knowing what the next battles would bring or if he'd come home again. He didn't say any of that--he didn't need to. He only said that he could see the lights for a long time. The less he says, the more the reader participates. The reader becomes a fellow traveler instead of a mere listener.

I've read other diaries, some good, some bad. The bad ones were too wordy and too self-focused. The good ones shared the same elements as Uncle Joe's writing: honest observations and an occasional opinion, almost always born of emotion rather than intellect, but not melodramatic either.

One of the best diaries I ever read and that I highly recommend is that of Elizabeth Drinker, a Philadelphia Quaker whose husband, along with other Quakers in 1777, was sent to our country's first internment camp. Her telling of that incident, and her travels to Valley Forge to plead with General Washington for her husband's release, was fascinating, but I admit becoming completely drawn into her typical family problems, too. I cried when she wrote of her daughter's death.

If anyone reading this is thinking of doing some writing but isn't sure where to begin, try keeping a journal. A paragraph a day, that's all. One day at a time. Write about things that strike you as interesting or important. Don't go off on tirades. Don't lecture. Just relate.

History is, after all, only a collection of people's stories. Add yours.



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