Monday, November 30, 2009

Sounds of the Season

As the Christmas season approaches, there are myriad visual cues, including a rather large display with many, many lights, across from my house, but as a former band member and choir singer, music means Christmas as well. My church used to do an annual program at Christmas called "From the Cradle to the Cross" and the choir marched in singing, Hail to the Lord's Annointed from memory. I remember a satisfying feeling of accomplishment when I finally memorized it completely. During the program, we sang standard carols, for the most part, and I do enjoy most of them. At one of those programs, my cousin was recruited to be The Little Drummer Boy and play his snare drum as we sang, and that, too is a favorite song.

Having decided to write about music of the season, I asked one of my sisters for her favorite holiday song, and she mentioned two— The Carol of the Bells, which she says makes her remember church programs in her youth, and Amy Grant's Breath of Heaven. Hubby's response was rather basic, Jingle Bells. Daughter likes Rock Around the Christmas Tree which is on a CD of Billboard's top Christmas songs that we often played when they were small. Son picked, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, but he is seldom serious, and I rather doubt that choice. Still, that is another title on that Billboard Christmas CD, and everyone I asked mentioned musical memories from childhood.

When I was in the high school band, we were only allowed to play Sleigh Ride every four years, and I only got to do so once— my sophomore year. Why we were so restricted, I am not sure, but I loved the instrumental version that we performed; therefore, my own choice of favorite seasonal song is Sleigh Ride. I didn't know the words until I was older, and I've always enjoyed the rendition with lyrics done by The Carpenters.

I hope readers of Pam's Pages have reasons to be thankful and joyful as 2009 comes to a close. If remembering songs of years past doesn't make you feel any older yet, just look at the fashions in the video.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

And, The Lawyers Win!

They usually do. Even when the verdict is for $100,000.00, a sum that was once a princely annual salary. Those six figures are the amount awarded to Vicki Stewart by a jury in the State Court of Hall County, Georgia. Instead of the usual auto accident, business fraud, or divorce case, the award was made in a defamation of character suit, wherein a “friend” sought legal damages against another friend, who just happened to be a best-selling author.

The plaintiff (Stewart) claimed that the former friend/author, Haywood Smith, based a character, Su Su, on her life. Indeed, the plaintiff claimed some 30 similarities between her life, and the “fictional slut” in Smith’s novel, The Red Hat Club. Apparently, the jury agreed, hence the award to Stewart.

A professor of English testified in Smith’s defense, telling the jury that it is common for authors to base characters on real people, citing great writers from the past, including Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor. While writers should be a bit careful, it is not only common to base fiction on real life, it is impossible to write without it. If a character is a young woman with dark hair and eyes, then any dark haired, dark eyed female reader might identify with that character. (I did, when reading The Last of the Mohicans, but I did not sue James Fennimore Cooper for killing her off. Of course, he was long dead when I read it.)

To build a character, an author must choose characteristics, and the palette of character traits comes from the author’s own experiences with fellow humans. The strong, yet self-sacrificial Venice Dylenski, the main character in Trinity on Tylos, owes some of her stamina to a certain Irene Blackstock Dodd, who had more grace under pressure than most folks. I know, because she was also my mother. When I was writing The Gift Horse, I gave Angie a mane of beautiful auburn hair, and one of my former students, a tall, rather athletic high school junior, had such a mane of hair. Angie's captor, Billie, is former military and ridiculously loyal; so was an authority figure from my own early life, when I was a student at Piedmont College. Now Angie and Billie have other characteristics, drawn from other images in my brain, but these very human characteristics are based upon people, and I do not see how to write fiction without so doing.

One fellow local author, who writes fictional mystery and nonfiction true crime, tells a rather funny story about having written a book, another in her true crime portfolio, but explains that she is waiting for the main player to die before she publishes it. Even though this person is serving life in prison, for the very crimes that are recounted in the manuscript and is presumably guilty of them, this author is so concerned about possible legal action that she has decided to just wait it out.

Sometimes folks have urged me to tackle nonfiction, but thus far I have resisted. Knowing the vindictive nature of folks in northeastern Georgia, coupled with the fact that anyone can sue anyone else over just about anything, has kept me a fiction writer. There is plenty of “inspiration” available, for fiction and for nonfiction, but wth the current crop of lawyers and juries, being any sort of writer is frought with danger. Sadly, the case of The Red Hat Club is one of losers. Stewart and Smith lost their friendship. Smith lost both the award and her own attorney’s fees. There is little doubt that Ms. Stewart, who did not win attorney's fees, will take the six figures she “won” in Hall County and pay off her legal bills, which are estimated to be more than the entire award.

Sometimes a book takes off and garners good royalties, and sometimes it doesn’t. But, lawyers charge by the hour, so they always win.

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Sunday, November 08, 2009

Biblical Inspiration

When I parked at church, someone said to me, "What is the meaning of that HOMERS on your car?" This is question I hear from time to time, because my license plate reads HOMERS, so I explained why it is a bit of an English teacher joke to drive Homer's Odyssey. Sometimes people chuckle at the explanation, but more often, they are baffled. Perhaps that is because in modern society, even in the south, folks no longer know the old stories.

During our discussion at the Maysville Library, Caine Campbell brought up the subject of the Bible as an influence on southern literature. Georgia's most famous writer of short stories, Flannery O'Connor, is purported to have said that any southern writer has two great disadvantages— a knowledge of the Bible, and a sense of history. As for the Bible, Miss O’ Connor asserts that it is still a great power in the South and that it continues to influence the Southern writers. "For one thing, it conditions him to think in concrete terms, 'we don’t discuss problems, we tell stories'." William Faulkner's title, Absalom, Absalom, is an obvious nod to Biblical themes and names in southern fiction.

The Bible is indeed a great source of inspiration, and by that, I do not necessarily refer to religion. One of my favorite writers, science fiction grand master Robert A. Heinlein, used Biblical phrases or characters for many titles, including Methuselah's Children, I Will Fear No Evil, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Number of the Beast, and Job, A Comedy of Justice. Although most of his work, whether short fiction or novels, stands alone; he did write series fiction, including yarns which feature the character Lazarus Long. A study of Heinlein's work yields many themes, and readers swiftly discern his thorough knowledge of the Bible, yet his work clearly shows that he examined the stories and themes of the Bible without being religious.

Like other writers, especially southern ones, I turned to the Bible for inspiration when I wrote Trinity on Tylos. Apart from the word trinity in the title, I chose an obscure character from the Old Testament, Azareel, as an exotic, yet forceful name for my villain. The key to writing a fascinating story is not creating an engaging protagonist, but in writing a well-motivated villain. In the Bible, Azareel appears in 1 Chronicles 12, as one of the foreign kings who is in diplomatic discussions with the Hebrew king, David. In my novel, he is Captain Azareel aboard his ship, and he is Lord Azareel on the fourth planet in the Tylos star system. Like the namesake character in the Bible, he travels from afar to negotiate for what he needs. My villain is thoughtful and bold leader, unafraid to make hard choices. My knowledge of history, at least the history of story telling, also came into play when I was searching for an appropriate ending for Trinity on Tylos. The last fourth of the novel owes quite a lot to Homer's Odyssey, a favorite tale written almost 3000 years ago.

Inspiration comes from a variety of sources, but as O'Connor stated, the southern writer always has history and the Bible.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Weekend Road Trip

My education began in the northeast Georgia mountains, in Demorest, which is on the old U.S. Highway 441. Mom went there for a couple of years on a basketball scholarship, some sixty years ago, and I followed her to Piedmont College. Each of my undergraduate years began in September, as the temperatures began to cool down, and before long, Mother Nature put on a heck of a good show. When I lived at Piedmont, my 64 Chevy took me to Clarkesville, to shop at Reeves' Hardware and Batson's supermarket, and I loved an occasional treat at the Dairy Queen. Helen is an easy drive from Demorest, as is Tallulah Falls, so I know many of the local roads in northern Habersham and southern Rabun counties.

On Sunday, hubby and I rode up the new 441, a wide four lane with a median, which takes away the curves and grades of the old road, but does provide some panoramic views of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the trees were displaying a few remaining red leaves, along with yellow and golden brown. Leaf watchers would probably describe it as "just past peak" but it was still a good show. When we reached our destination, Tallulah Gorge, we turned right off the main road, onto a section of old 441, which goes past the old entrance to the private school at Tallulah Falls, where I began my teaching career, to view one of the largest canyons in the eastern United States, two miles long and a thousand feet deep, a magnificent combination of foliage, sheer rock faces, and water moving over falls and rapids. There was only one tourist filled shop open on Sunday, but there were four of them when I taught English at Tallulah Falls School. When we left the Gorge, we rejoined the old road, which is now called "Historic 441," and I remembered the road well because I drove along it daily, from my rental home in Demorest to Tallulah Falls School, some thirty years ago. We passed some businesses, now wrapped in weeds and kudzo vines, which did not survive the loss of tourists after the new road was built, but many of the landmarks I remember are still in place. We came through Clarkesville, with its quaint square, by the Charm House, and while the Adam's Rib Restaurant has a new name, the old DQ is in the same spot. U.S. 441 is now three lanes wide in front of Piedmont College, taking away some of the grassy area I remember, and an elevated crosswalk now links the main campus with buildings and parking across 441. We rejoined the new road just south of Demorest, but once we reached Baldwin, we were able to get back on the old road just south of there, where it is called the "Historic Homer Highway" and it goes right through the county seat of Banks County. Before the old road rejoins the newer one, we turned right to travel to Maysville, noting a big crowd at Sarah's restaurant, and from there, back to our home in Jefferson.

The day turned cloudy as the afternoon waned, but the leaves were still vivid, signaling the change of seasons once more. While the entire road trip only lasted an afternoon, I enjoyed seeing the foothills of mountains once again.

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