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QUESTION OF THE MONTH

How do I connect with my reader?
Recently I connected with an author through the eons back to a prehistoric time. The ancient story, written an estimated 10,000 years ago, was etched onto a group of boulders by an Indian or Indians known as Pahranagats (one of several Southern Paiute groups). These petroglyphs were in an archaeological park located about 5 miles south of the intersection of U.S. Highway 93, Nevada State Highway 375 and Hwy. 318, on the east side of Hwy. 93 at mile 45.5 in Ash Springs, Nevada.
Whether the prehistoric writer was trying to immortalize a kill, invite potential game to a future hunt or record everyday life in his village, the subject matter was unmistakable. Although I do not speak the same language as those ancient people, the alphabet/writing system is different and a lot of time has passed since the writer pecked those symbols onto rocks — that author communicated the idea of snakes, four legged animals, birds, insects and humans to me. He gave me a glimpse into and an impression of his life in that location. I was temporarily transported to his time and village. I visualized his kinsmen, friends, neighbors and family laughing, joking and going about their daily life on a warm January afternoon in what would eventually become southern Nevada. I could see hunters returning with game over their shoulders, women grinding grain on their matates and children fighting around their mother’s feet. It was a magical moment — that ancient author had connected with this reader.
How wonderful would it be to have some person read my words 10,000 years in the future? Even if my name, like his, was lost in time — some of my message, life and impressions would be remembered. I would make a long term connection. Wow! Isn’t that what we writers are after?
If you want to see more petroglyphs go to my blog.

-Dixie Thomas Reale

2011 Here we are

It’s a new year, so it’s time for what you would expect.

Resolutions.

Of course, we all want to lose weight and exercise more in the coming months of 2011. But as writers, we need to add to that list.

One of my writing friends is fond of saying, “It’s time to put the butt in the chair.” Hopefully you’re not offended by the term used to describe our backside, but the course is clear for our No. 1 resolution of the year.

And that is to sit in the chair and write.

During the coming months, we will have many excuses why we won’t be sitting, from housework to day jobs to family issues to self-doubt about our writing. This will be the test of whether we are writers or just someone who just wants to be a writer.

Writing is damn hard. It takes discipline and sacrifice. We may work years on a book or screenplay and it may not sell to publishers or producers. We may be tempted to take our computer and dump it into the street. We may wonder if we are any good at writing, or whether we do have anything to say.

What can we do?

Put the butt in the chair.

There, we can build up the discipline we need to finish a project. We can learn what we are willing to sacrifice to tell our stories. If our book doesn’t sell, we can self-publish and get it out there. If our screenplay doesn’t wow Hollywood, we can shoot our own movies. We can improve our writing craft with instruction.

Writers do have something to say, which is why we write.

So in 2011, eat a few less calories, walk more steps, and put the butt in the chair.

Patricia Santos Marcantonio

QUESTION OF THE MONTH – WHAT MAKES A GOOD STORY?

I am often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”  My answer is simple. “Everywhere.” Let me explain. Story ideas can come from a number of places such as newspaper and magazine articles, movies, plays, paintings, conversations, and landscapes to name only a few.

Take for instance the trip Pat and I took to Stricker Ranch that I wrote about in an earlier post. On one hand this outing was simply a review of local history. On the other hand, it provided a wealth of information we hope to turn into interesting stories. Why is a ghost hovering at the top of the stairs? How many ghosts haunt the dry cellar?

I read once that by the time a person reaches age 30, he/she has enough life experiences to have something to write about for a lifetime. The trick is to know how to turn those life experiences into good stories.

So the question then, is, what makes an idea a good story?

1) The idea must be interesting.

What if Shakespeare really was a woman?

2) The idea should appeal to a large number of people.

Shakespeare is a well-known playwright. Everyone has been subjected to him at least once before finishing high school.

3) The idea is specific.

Who really was this mysterious man? Did one person really write all of those brilliant plays?

A lot of people would like to know more about the person who wrote so many entertaining plays and sonnets. Virginia Woolf, in fact, speculates on that very thing in A Room of One’s Own. Thus, a story exploring Shakespeare’s gender is an idea that has universal appeal. It would make a good story.

Conversely, let’s say I want to write a story about my dog. I love my dog. My dog is cute. But she isn’t extraordinary. She can’t speak English. She can’t even sit up and beg for food without falling over. A story about my dog would be zzzzzzzzzzboring. It wouldn’t appeal to a large number of people, and there is nothing specific that sets my dog apart from any other dog, except, of course, that she belongs to me.

That’s a simplistic example, but you get my point. As a writer, everyday I am surrounded by possible story ideas. Some of them are interesting. Some of them are not.  My job as a writer is to find a way to turn those ideas into great stories that have universal appeal.

What if I told you my dog could catch mice with a butterfly net? Then you might be interested in reading about my dog. Most likely not, but you get the picture.

The best stories come from taking an ordinary situation/idea and applying the “What if” factor. What if Shakespeare really was a woman? What if my dog could catch mice with a butterfly net?

Using the “what if” factor, look around you, and at the things that have happened to you, your life experiences. Then give the ordinary idea a little twist, and you’ll be on your way to writing some great stories.

-Bonnie Dodge

Grabbing story ideas at Stricker Ranch

As a writer, I look for story ideas everywhere I go. Recently, Patricia Santos Marcantonio and I took in Fright Nights in Old Towne Twin as a way to increase our cache of stories. For two hours we heard about the history of Twin Falls County and some of the colorful people who lived there. Not only did we come away with a better understanding of the area, we also came home with several new story ideas.

What if a ghost really haunts the public library?
What if Lyda Trueblood isn’t really buried in the Twin Falls Cemetery?
What if Stricker Ranch really is haunted?

As The Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz declared, “I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks, I do, I do, I doooo.”, I do believe there are good story ideas all around us. All you have to do is reach out and grab one.
-Bonnie Dodge

Question of the Month

The phrase “show me don’t tell me” has confounded beginning writers for years. What does it mean?

Remember in English Composition 101 the professor admonished the class to avoid loaded words at all costs. Then in Creative Writing 101 the instruction was “show don’t tell”.
I think it is impossible to do both so I ignore those warnings. Avoiding loaded words is a good idea when writing “how to” instructions but otherwise the writer needs to be aware of and use loaded words to his/her advantage. As you recall loaded words like “mother” and “love” carry emotional connotations.

When writing fiction, poetry or creative non fiction, emotionally loaded words are desired, even necessary. As an author you need to be free to pick among the variations and nuances of meaning that words carry.

Imagine — you are writing a story. The main character is alone in the house when the doorbell rings. You need to get her to the door. If you say Mary went to the door it gets her there. However, if Mary stormed to the door, we understand more. If Mary wandered aimlessly to the door, we understand something else. And if Mary strutted to the door it presents another vision of Mary. We don’t have to tell the reader that Mary is mad, preoccupied, stoned or proud — we show it.

I always keep my thesaurus close by when I write so I can sort through the infinite variation of connotations and nuances of meaning of words that basically do the same thing in widely different manners.

Dixie Thomas Reale

Philosophizing on writing

During dinner one evening, my friend and I talked about family, what’s happening in the world and our backyard, but ultimately the discussion turned to writing. Our usual chat over sushi.

We each had stories that we were working on, so we brainstormed ideas, ironed out character bumps, filled in plot holes.

But that night, the talk turned deeper, to the basics of why we sit in front of the computer and produce thoughts, characters, words, stories, essays and poems. The question was what do we want to get out of writing.

It was a damn good question.

My friend said that while having her work published would be great, she strived for perfection. To make each word and sentence count, to make each meaningful and to make the story go forward. That was what was keeping her writing.

“And you’re writing for the money,” she said.

“No,” I answered. I wrote so that I could get to a place where I would have the freedom to write full-time.

I think we both said aloud something we had probably been thinking for a long time — What we wanted to get out of the writing.

That is a good question for all to ask.

Do we want recognition? Or to see our name in print? Do we want the joy of expressing those thoughts and feelings that seem out of place if we speak them?

I have friends who are freelance writers who must write to pay bills, while others want to tell the stories within them as only they can and want satisfaction from that process.

Others may want an outlet for creativity, as music and painting is for others.

My friend reminded me of what Joanne Pence, a best-selling author, said at the workshop sponsored by The Other Bunch in April. Joanne said that writing and publishing are two separate things.

That makes total sense because the discussion was not what we wanted out of publishing, but what we wanted out of writing. That indeed makes them two different things with two different directions and sometimes, the twain will never meet.

What do we want out of writing?

Our answers may change over time, or not. But there is no wrong answer.

There is just the writing.

– Patricia Marcantonio

“Voices from the Snake River Plain” at Indy bookstores

Dixie, Pat and I had a productive weekend. Before our reading at The Cabin, we stopped by Rediscovered Bookshop and A Novel Adventure, independent book stores in Boise, Idaho. We hope you will support these bookstores whenever you are in Boise.


You can find Voices from the Snake River Plain in the Idaho/Northwest section at Rediscovered Bookshop.

New Year’s writing resolutions

OK, so we’ve all made the usual New Year’s resolutions about dieting, exercising more, and all that. But as a writer, we should make a whole other list of resolutions to keep in the New Year.

  • Write five times a week — This is a hard one and so easy to break, but so important to work at. What we really are doing is setting goals for ourselves. Even if you just write a sentence or two, you’ll feel good. (Notice I didn’t say the weekend, because those are my times to relax. As I’ve written ad nauseam, if you don’t live life, what have you got to write about?)
  • Write expanded life sketches for the characters in your books and stories. I find that when I don’t do the most comprehensive job of character sketches, their motivations become a bit hazy. That is not to say they won’t change as you go, but a good character sketch will help you create a living, breathing person.
  • Don’t beat yourself up so much. We know that we are our worst enemies when it comes to self-doubt about our writing. Don’t do it. There is enough negativity in the writing world, what with rejections and the state of publishing. Instead, say to yourself, “I love my job as a writer. I’m doing the best that I can and will write more to hone my craft.”
  • Take a writing class or attend a writing seminar. Spend the time and money to learn and it will re-energize you, I promise.
  • Network, network. Writers need to get out there and find out what is happening in the writing world. If you live in a tiny tiny town, join national writing groups.
  • Join a critique group. It may take a bit to find the right people, but they will help you immensely.

Those are a few resolutions to start. E-mail the Other Bunch if you have more to share and we can post them.
And don’t forget to diet and exercise more.

Patricia Santos Marcantonio

Thank you, Magic Valley

On November 6, Pat, Dixie and I enjoyed reading excerpts from Voices from the Snake River Plain to a standing-room-only crowd in Twin Falls, Idaho. A heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who helped celebrate the launch of our new book. If you missed the event, copies are still available at the Magic Valley Arts Council, 132 Main Avenue South, Twin Falls, Idaho. They are also available at the Log Cabin Literary Center, 801 S. Capitol Boulevard in Boise, Idaho.

Three writers with stories to tell

Check out this review by Judi Baxter.  Article reprinted courtesy of the Times-News, www.magicvalley.com

BOOKCHAT: Three ‘writers with stories to tell’

It is always thrilling to hold a treasured book in my hands – rediscovering a childhood favorite, inhaling the scent of an old, leather-bound tome, perusing glorious pictures from a beloved illustrator or gently opening a much-anticipated title for the first time.

The thrill was certainly there when I received a copy of “Voices From The Snake River Plain,” the collection of essays, short stories and poetry from three talented local writers, Bonnie Dodge, Dixie Thomas Reale and Patricia Santos Marcantonio.

The lawn mowing, leaf raking and sidewalk sweeping went by the wayside as I sat on my deck and immersed myself in their worlds. I laughed, sighed, held my breath for a few moments and even cried while reading of families and friends, journeys and jealousies.

Marcantonio’s “The Hitch,” an engaging short story about a camping trip gone bad, left me giggling and nodding my head in agreement: Been there, done that! Forget the spectacular Stanley Basin scenery, mountain air and sparkling Salmon River; a lost trailer hitch leads to pointed fingers, heated words and thoughts of divorce. But her wise old character, Earl, quickly snaps everything back into focus: “Earl pulled up his welding mask. ‘You folks should have a good time once this is fixed. You can hike the trails, cook over a campfire, fish a bit. See the stars together. That’s the only way to see the stars, with someone you love so you know you aren’t dreaming.'” Beautiful!

In the chapter “Remembrances,” Reale captured my heart with “Mush.” Anyone who grew up having to eat oatmeal-the-texture-of-wallpaper-paste for breakfast every morning will immediately identify with the feisty, stubborn little girl. Her mother said she would eat it. Period. She was determined not to. Period. It became a royal battle of wills and more than a little ingenuity on young Dixie’s part: feeding it to the dog, tossing it out the window, dribbling large spoonfuls around her bowl. Since she didn’t have to eat the slopped part, that maneuver became her answer:

“I decorated the room. The entire bowl was drizzled and splattered one spoonful at a time across the mahogany tabletop, the wall, the bench and onto the floor. There was so much of it that gray puddles ran into one another making small lakes. Once Mama saw the mess she scraped it back into the dish and slung it in front of me. Now it was cold and slimy, had a faint flavor of English wood oil, and smelled a bit like floor polish. ‘You will eat this,’ she said.”

At this point, I was chuckling, but it was nothing compared with the laugher that erupted when I came to her final solution. What a creative little girl!

After reading Dodge’s “Surviving the Storm,” set a few days after the attack on the World Trade Center, I barely moved for many long minutes, reflecting on her words, recalling the overwhelming feelings of those haunting days as our nation sat in stultified silence and pain.

The women debate their plans to attend a bookfest in Boise and a trip to Idaho City for their annual mini-retreat, struggling with their own fears and doubts about leaving home and families so soon. “It’s what they want,” writes Dodge. “They want to terrorize us into inaction. I think we should go.” And so they do.

They spend hours exploring the former mining town, picking wildflowers, spontaneously attending a Catholic Mass, sharing homemade peach cobbler at Trudy’s Diner.

Dodge writes: “Heading for the car, we stop when we see an area of the cemetery marked with weathered boards, each etched with only one word: Unknown. Like rubber bands, we’re snapped back into reality as we think of the many new graves in New York City, some of which will soon be marked: Unknown. We exchange glances and, unembarrassed by our tears, embrace, holding onto each other longer than usual.

“We pass tissues like candy. Our hearts hurt. We have no words, no stories to define our nation’s massive devastation. As we travel the road that will take us back to our families, smiles chase away sadness and the desperate need to be home … Even in this troubled time, when our nation is stunned and nothing much is moving, we are. Because we’re still writers with stories to tell.”

And our lives are richer because these three writers have gathered and shared those stories with us.

Judi Baxter owned and operated Judi’s Bookstore in downtown Twin Falls from 1978 to 1992. From 2000 to 2004 she wrote a twice-weekly column for Publisher’s Weekly’s online edition called “Reviews in the News.”

Posted in Books-and-literature, Entertainment on Friday, October 23, 2009 1:00 am Updated: 6:30 pm.