Month: November 2015

You Can Get More Than Mashed Potatoes at Thanksgiving

Ah, the holiday season. Time to kick back, relax and enjoy family time, right?

Only in fantasy land folks, as this recent Saturday Night Live episode with Adele illustrates. But there is a silver lining to Aunt Mabel’s fear of refugees, Cousin Dan’s loud condemnation of Republicans or your brother-in-law’s liquor-filled expositions on life. At least, if you’re a romance writer.

Romance writers are keen observers of the world around them. Although many of them dread interaction with other humans, relationships compose the core of their work.

Thanksgiving leftovers
When I began writing my first manuscript, I thought the developing characters were pure fantasy–whipped up from some hidden part of my psyche with no basis in reality. But a funny thing happened when I read the story in its entirety for the first time. The heroine, Grace’s personality was strangely like my own, complete with all my quirky insecurities and inner fears. Although exaggerated, Grace’s mother, Elaine’s anxieties mirrored my mother-in-law’s, who frets over her children and grandchildren. And certain aspects of the needy sister, Claire, in the story, are drawn straight from my relationship with my own dear sister (sorry sis). Even my father-in-law, who couldn’t imagine he would ever end up in a romance novel, pointed out that he wants royalties since I gave the hero, David, his crooked finger.

These authentic personality traits, although unintentional on my part, made the story come alive. Contest judges reviewing the entry remarked, “I understand Grace’s worries. I have felt the same way” and “The sister is believable.”

Once I understood the importance of real-life situations and personalities to literary character development, I became much more conscientious about my own powers of observation. Everything…and I mean everything…has become fertilizer for the next crop of words. Yes, family and friends, beware!

Stuffing for the brain

This year's Thanksgiving turkey.

This year’s Thanksgiving turkey.

Besides the obvious writing inspiration, there’s an emotional payoff as well. It’s easier to ignore your cousin Cheryl’s barbed comments when you are analyzing their cause and effect. Instead of taking the words to heart, your mind is occupied with the words unspoken. What are Cheryl’s goals, motivations and conflict? Has she just lost her job and the fact that you landed a brilliant, new position hard to stomach? Perhaps she doesn’t feel loved by her husband and her bitter words reveal her pain and disillusionment. Or maybe she has never shared the close relationship you have with your mother, with her own?

Art doesn’t just reflect life, it mirrors it back at you in exaggerated form. The core of character development has its roots in reality. When I take the time to listen and observe the dynamics of the conversations taking place around the dinner table, I gain in perspective. Not just a greater openness and sense of wonder to explore my own life’s journey, but a wealth of material for my next great masterpiece.

So, thank you dear Aunt Mabel. Now would you please pass the mashed potatoes?

How a Whispered Prayer Wrought An Umbrella and My Future Husband

I once prayed for a good man. I didn’t really believe the prayer would be answered. But I was a bit lonely my freshman year in college, so it felt good to tell someone who would listen and not ask a lot of questions.

The thing about prayer, though, is that God always answers. Sometimes his answers are immediate, but more often, at least for me, they take time to come to fruition.

The umbrella
Shortly after I said that prayer, I met my future husband in a theatre class. Of course, I didn’t know he was my future husband. I paid more attention to his umbrella.

“Excuse me,” I asked him. “Can you move your umbrella?” It was one of those long, skinny, masculine ones with a large, black handle, and it was in my way nearly every day as I tried to slip past him in the auditorium style classroom.

“Sorry. No problem.” He would reach out to nab the offending object and quickly pull it under his seat, allowing me to slide into my seat next to him. Once when I did this, I noticed an open notebook on his lap where he had scribbled some words. I tried to read what he had written but was unsuccessful.

Fundamentals of Theatre
“Are you a theatre major?” He spoke, his tone friendly.

“Yes, what about you?”

“Oh no. I’m a telecommunications major. I just took this class as an elective.”

I noticed his clothing; artsy for a guy. He looked like a theatre major. Later, I would learn that his mother, a hairdresser, bought all of his clothing, but in the moment, I just noticed it as a casual observation. I was not interested in talking, so I settled in, opening my book.

“Welcome to Fundamentals of Theatre I.” The professor began his monologue. “Attendance sheets are being passed along.”

As he spoke, the girl seated to my left handed me a white notebook. I scribbled my name and passed it along to the young man with the umbrella.

Years later, he would confess that he had memorized my name on the attendance sheet, writing it in his notebook. But he was too shy to ask me on a date. Good thing he didn’t, because I’m not sure I would have accepted. I didn’t handle attention from the opposite sex well, and I didn’t go on a lot of dates. Plus, I had just met another boy at a party, and I was a bit infatuated.

And truthfully? If God had whispered in my ear that day, saying, “I’m answering your prayer. See that boy? He’s the one,” I wouldn’t have believed it.

Just like I wouldn’t have believed if the voice said, “You will be struck by lightening. Or you will win the lottery.”

I never forgot the boy or his umbrella, though. Long after we completed the class, I would see him on campus. Each time we’d run into one another, I’d ask, “Are you taking any theatre classes?”

And he would answer, “No, Amanda, I’m not a theatre major.”

There were no umbrellas on our wedding day. Although it did rain that morning, the sun came out before we said "I do."

There were no umbrellas on our wedding day. 

First comes love
And then, one day, the stars aligned. We ran into each other on campus and as he tells it, “It was now or never.” He finally screwed up his courage to ask for my telephone number. (This was before the days of cell phones and texting.)

And I, who had sworn off dating, but wasn’t above going out as friends, gave him my number.

We went on a few dates, which led to a few more. My future husband, I learned, had a great sense of humor and was universally liked by everyone he came in contact with. We complemented each other well. He was outgoing; I was introverted. He taught me not to take everything so seriously. I taught him how to take everything more seriously.

A few weeks later, we had a major “Back to the Future” moment. You know, the one where Marty’s parents finally kiss and his future comes to be? Yeah, it was that kind of moment.

Then comes marriage

Our three beautiful children.

Our three beautiful children.

Some twenty-three anniversaries later, we have three kids, a dwindling mortgage, and a jet ski.

Times have not always been easy. There was a period, shortly after college when we both lost our jobs and couldn’t afford a wedding. We called ourselves “the trash couple,” because it seemed like we never slept or had money to buy anything nice.

There was another time, shortly after our second child was born, when I had a raging temperature for days, while our jaundice son lay in an incubator next to me.

We survived frequent job changes, loss of loved ones, health emergencies. When I lost my two front teeth in an accident, he took me to the dentist and held my hand. When my daughter lost hers after jumping and missing an obstacle course at school, he held my hand as we watched the dentist reinsert them.

Through all of lives’ joys and disappointments, we’ve held on tight and cherished one another.

I can’t imagine going through life without him by my side.

I can’t imagine a life without him.

To those who say God doesn’t exist, I say, try praying for something that really matters. You just might get what you asked for.

And be sure to look out for the umbrella.

Punderson Writer’s Retreat Scares Up Ghost Stories and Plot Lines

Looking spooky on a Friday evening in November.

Punderson Manor looking spooky on a Friday night.

When I signed up to go on my first ever writer’s retreat, I expected to do some writing. And I did. But what I ultimately got out of the experience was a whole lot more.

The retreat was held at Punderson Manor in Newbury, Ohio. I arrived in the pitch dark on a Friday night and drove around in what appeared to be an abandoned golf course. I might still be out there now if it weren’t

Our cute and rustic cabin.

Our cute cabin and plotting headquarters.

for a quick call to my roommate, Cathy, who kindly offered to drive out and show me the way. Five minutes later, I had pulled in front of the lodge, which is old and rumored to be haunted. I checked in and then drove to our clean and rustic cabin, where I met my other roommate, Joyce, who helped me get settled.

Ghostly tales
After a quick dinner, we joined the rest of our group back at the manor house for a ghost tour. While I’m happy to report we didn’t see any ghosts, Frank the bartender and sometimes tour guide, showed us the premises, and did his best to frighten us. We peered into corners, listened for the sounds of spirit children, and took pictures of the winding staircase where guests claim to see a ghostly cat.

My roomies Joyce (left) and Cathy.

My roomies Joyce and Cathy.

Eventually, we wandered back to our cabins and that’s when the real fun began. As a new fiction writer, I often feel alone on the challenging journey to becoming a published author. I agonize over story ideas and worry about boring my poor husband and friends who have to listen to endless character discussions and chapter readings. So just imagine the delight of being able to analyze plot lines for hours on end with other writers who are intimate with this particular struggle.

By the end of the weekend, we had dissected, analyzed, plotted and reinvented two of my stories. And let me tell you, these girls are good. Within minutes of me reading a short excerpt of the first chapter, they had fleshed out the goals, motivations and conflicts for all the main characters.

Also, I did manage to write 2,000 words of Cross Waves. So, all in all, a lovely and productive weekend. Now if only the ghost cat had turned up in one of my photos.

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