Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The January Challenge: 10,000 in 31 days

My CP was maxing out on her 2nd trimester brain drain during NaNoWriMo. So, she decided to work for the January Challenge instead: 10,000 words in 31 days.

           by permission:
I'm all in! Let's go girl!

And just like NaNo, I'm "ramping up" in December. So, I'm starting a little early, but 31 days is 31 days right? The more words, the better.

October "ramp up":                9,444
November NaNo total:         10,983
December "ramp up":             5,044
January 1:                                1,347
January 3:                                2, 233
January 4:                                   635
January 5:                                   423
January 6:                                   405
January 7:    drum roll please,  4,343!!!   I love coffee and prayers from friends!!!
January 8:                                 1,130
January 14:                               1,252---January total: 11,768!!

Anyone else care to join the challenge, take up your keyboard and follow us! Post your totals for fun, and good luck. Let the races begin!
(the only sure thing to slow me down--are taxes and FAFSA forms!)

by permission:

Monday, December 26, 2011

WIPping Up Your Plot: First Draft

I'm stellar at character therapy (okay, maybe exaggerating there), but when it comes to plot weaving and pacing, I feel like I need a course for the galactically challenged.

I love to dream up a great premise for a new WIP (work in progress). I love to look at a picture like the old house above and wonder who lived there, what lives did they lead?

I love the "meet-cute"--remember in the movie the Holiday when Arthur Abbot is explaining to the main character, played by Kate Winslett, that the meet-cute is that first moment when the leading lady meets the leading gentleman, their eyes connect--and there's that first spark. Before that moment, she was just going about her life, trying to make sense of it. But in that moment, she becomes the leading lady in her own story. To me that's not being over-romantic, or ridiculously mushy. It's beautiful. God made everyone to be the leading lady or leading gentleman in their own story.

(I digress) Ok, so you get it, I love that part.

I love seeing how the leading lady and gentleman's everyday lives collide and connect, like attracting and opposing magnets, dancing around each other until they figure out how it works.

So, what's the issue with plotting?----I get STUCK somewhere soon after the meet-cute! Ugh.

What do you do when you get stuck?
So far, this is the recommended plan:
1) Cry on your crit partner's shoulder--and pray that God sends you a crit partner whose strengths build up your weaknesses. Your CP can see the holes in your plot, tell you if your twists and turns are too cliche, unbelievable, or too slow and lacking tension.

2) Get organized. Some writer's use a software writing program like Scrivner. Or you can use the old fashioned note card system and write out your plot points, and arrange them visually so you can see the overall picture. Keep a notebook or word documents and files of your story development and outline.

3) Know your skeleton. Nope, not the kind hidden in the closet. I mean, have a framework for your plot points. Do some craft reading from the experts. I like James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure, Michael Hauge & Christopher Vogler's DVD: The Hero's Two Journeys, and Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel.

4) Get inspired when you get stuck. Sit back and reread your WIP start to finish. Stop your writing mid scene and pick up there the next day. Read something old and favorite, or a favorite author sitting on your TBR pile. Watch a favorite movie. Do some research on the setting, occupations, fashion, or the history of the era you're writing.

5) Start asking yourself more questions about your MC's. Why? is the best way to find the motivation for your character's goals and actions. If you don't like the answer you get, feel like it's too flat, cliche, and unbelievable--switch it up, up the stakes, twist it further.

This all helps, but I'm still feeling like my WIP has whipped me.
It feels more like the time I thought I'd learn to quilt. I bought all the fabric with my grandma Emma. I traced and cut all the pieces and stacked them in neat piles, arranged by color. I pieced the first two or three blocks for the flowers of the Grandmother's Flower Garden, then stalled. The bigger it got, the harder it was to hold it all together. So, I shipped it off the Grandma Emma and she quilted the rest of it and returned it to me for our wedding--a beautiful finished product.

Donald Maass says in Writing the Breakout Novel, "It is tough to build surprises and hold readers in thrall when following a strict formula." He explains the best way to surprise readers is to embark on a plot that is "expandable, possibly long and certainly complex" leaving room  for the story to "go in unexpected directions, take detours, add layers, surprise us."

I feel excited yet overwhelmed by the great possibilities my WIP might have if I let my story evolve.
But then Donald Maass makes me feel normal in the next paragraph stating: "it can be a scary prospect, this buisness of writing large. In midmanuscript a breakout novelist can feel lost, ovewhelmed by possible scenes and the challenge of tying up every thread."

Then he said the words that iced the cake for me:
"breakout novels sprawl."

Yes! that's precisely it!  I'm about to go sprawling! Hurling and unfurling is more like it.
Uh-oh, trembling, I see this is all explained under the heading entitled Inventing Your Own Advanced Plot Structure. YIKES!  I'm not advanced yet. I want to shrink back. Outlines, conflict, layers--oh no! My shoulders slump. I sigh and inside ask myself why I am doing this at all. Doubts creep in closer---until I think of my MC's stuck in the middle of their untold story. Until I think of the greatness of story and how it holds the power to create meaning, to transform lives, to beckon souls, and send forth a beacon of light in the darkness.

I square my shoulders, its time to punt.

I hope this inspires you, and I'd love to hear from you:
What helps you plot when your WIP has whipped you?
What keeps you writing when doubts creep in?
How do you deal with the sprawl?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

19th Century Frocks & Frills: Researching Fashion

Where do you go to research historical fashion for your fiction?

Do you get swept up into the world of yesteryear when you start your research? or fantasize about what it would have been like to wear those long beautiful evening gowns of the 19th century?

Well, personally, I really don't like to wear dresses. But I am fascinated by the amount of artistic creative work that went into fashion a hundred years ago, and wouldn't refuse the chance to try on one of those gorgeous gowns. And like today, a hundred years ago the degree of high fashion or utility of a garment reflected so much about the person wearing it. And that's what draws me, the-not-so-fashionista-woman, into researching fashion for my current WIP.

by permission

In my new WIP, Lena has just lost her courage for the future, and Riley is just finding his--set in northern Wisconsin, 1894.

Alright, now onward to the fashion.

Lena first.

She likely took some, but not all of her clothing with her from Chicago. She was raised with wealth since her father was a Civil War surgeon. But after her father's death she lost her savings and the home she was raised in to fund her dream, I imagine that she has given away or stored most of her more elegant clothing and likely has a few very serviceable pieces she wears to travel north, and for day to day work. She is probably given a nurse's gown or has one made when she agrees to work for Dr. Reese. So, she may appear as an odd mixture of wealth, vocation, and very plain dress wear--and of coarse, she is a woman who looks beautiful in anything she wears!

For my research, I stumbled upon a great website from my Jane Austen blog link, Victoria & Albert Museum at:
I imagine that Lena might have worn a traveling suit like this one I downloaded from V & A:
used by permission: copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This is an 1895 day jacket and skirt used to travel. This one is made of cotton for light weight and warmer weather, so I assume Lena's travel suit would have had a similar cut and style, but would have been made of wool to travel to Wisconsin in January of 1894. This beige color, according to V & A's description, was a popular color for travel as it did not show the dust of the journey as much as other colors.

And for her day dress she might have worn something similar to this dress also found with a description on V & A's website:
used by permission: copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This day dress was made in 1889 and sports a waist length bodice. It is paneled with satin, edged in ribbon, and trimmed in back with a made up bow. The bodice is lined with the same green silk that makes up the skirt's petticoats. Both the bodice and skirt are boned and the collar and cuffs are faced with gold beaded tulle.

This dress was made in Paris, but I suspect Lena's dress is made in Chicago or New York, and is made from lower quality or warmer materials.

But for the nurse's uniform, I found a nice link to a medical museum in Youngston, OH:http: I think I'll have to stop and visit this medical museum on the way to Laurelville,PA this coming summer!

They have a nice display of an 1890's nurse's uniform Lena might have worn:

On the other hand, Riley looks to Lena as if he's stepped straight off the stagecoach still dressed in his black Stetson, cowboy boots, and oiled canvas slicker--a picture of masculinity and strength. Lena sees him as out of place and a generation behind in style--but his charisma and the fact that he embodies her dreams of a man, do little to make her want to change him.

Riley's aura and garments are a bit tougher to research. I did find a picture of Texan cowboys in 1891, some modern descriptions of oiled canvas, and a black frock coat he might have changed to for a nice evening out.
used by permission: copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This 1890 type of frock coat was likely worn by both the elderly doctor and by Riley when he took Lena to dinner. It is longer than some coats, double breasted, made of heavy wool with a sateen lining and a velvet collar.

Or he might have worn something like this western wear found at:

I'll have to keep looking for more cowboy clothing descriptions.

So, would you read on to find out more about Riley and Lena? Can you "see" them better now?
What helps you research for your historical writings?  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Turkey & Sweet Potato Pie

What's your favorite Holiday food?

Hands down it's turkey and sweet potato pie for me!
It's sort of like Mennonite Girl meets Southern boy--all in one meal!

I love this pic, my Dad is the boy beside my grandpa.

When I got married, I knew how to cook a ham and how to cut up a chicken, but I had no clue how to roast a turkey. Growing up, Thanksgiving was a holiday that was more full of deer hunting than turkey dinners. I was probably out in the garage watching them bring in the deer instead of in the kitchen helping with the food! (yep, I was a tomboy) Don't get me wrong, we ate turkey. But my memories are more of Dad cleaning his gun, laying out his hunting clothes, waiting for him to get home from the woods and then eating a nice meal.

So after I married Ted, he and his buddy, Duane, followed the same hunting ritual I was used to during the Thanksgiving holiday. It was Duane's wife who insisted we teach ourselves how to roast a turkey. It looked difficult, but we were pleasantly surprised and delighted that we could easily rival our mother's cooking skills with a little practice and the help of step by step instructions from Esther H. Shank's Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Kitchen Secrets. My copy of that cookbook, given at our wedding, is nearly falling apart!

My friend and I have taken turns cooking the bird ever since. That was twenty-one or so years ago, and I think we missed only a few holidays with them. So, last year I insisted my daughter not leave the house for college without having the excellent skills of turkey roasting! There's nothing like the smell in the house on the day the turkey roasts, no matter the occasion. It brings many warm memories to remembrance.

Sweet Potato Pie is a close second to turkey. And you have to pronounce it with a little Southern twang in your voice--it makes it taste better!

Ted's Aunt Pam made this sweet potato pie when we visited them in Florida at Christmas in 1997. I'd never tasted or even heard of this recipe before--it wasn't in the Mennonite cookbook for sure! (definitely Southern) Our sweet potatoes were always candied with marshmallows and I hated them. But Aunt Pam's recipe was divine!

Aunt Pam's Sweet Potato Pie
2--30 oz Sweet Potatoes drained and mashed
1 1/4 c. white sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
1 c. evaporated milk
1 t. vanilla
1 stick butter melted

Combine sweet potatoes, sugar, eggs, cinnamon, milk, vanilla, and butter. Mix well. Place in 9x13 in greased pan.

2 c. chopped pecans
2 c. brown sugar
6 T. butter (do not melt)
2/3 c. flour
Blend until crumbly with a pastry blender. Place over the potato mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 min until bubbly.

And like Julia Child says: "Everything is better with butter!"  It's true in this case. 
What's your favorite holiday food or food memory?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Stepping into Yesteryear: A Favorite Memory

Have you ever literally stepped into yesteryear? 

Ancestor, Hans Herr's House

I did when I was ten years old. It was quite unexpected, but I was delighted beyond words. Now, that memory holds a treasured spot in my heart forever.

My great grandmother, Annie Martin Newswanger, died at age 93. I'd never met her, but my mother decided I'd at least learn to know a bit about her when she took me along to the funeral in 1977. I was squished into a four door sedan with four adults, three of whom were old and one who smelled like moth balls and wore old lady coke bottle-thick glasses. And I had to wear dresses the whole week--ick! We drove straight through to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I was less than excited.

Great Grandma Annie Martin Newswanger Sensenig

I've mentioned before that I'm of Mennonite faith. Now, you'll have to understand that Mennonites come in a wide variety, and my particular variety is that I dress like the rest of the world--no bonnet, no plain dresses. However, my grandparents were more conservative. My mother and her mother would have driven cars, but worn plainer clothing, long hair, and coverings. But the previous generation, like Great Grandma Annie, had horse drawn buggies, no electricity, and they spoke Dutch. This wasn't foreign to me, as I've had Amish neighbors and friends.

After the twelve hour drive to Lancaster, we arrived on a dark cold night in November. I was sleepily pulled from the car, given my suitcase and followed my mother through the door of my great Aunt Mattie's house. She was a spinster, with a long narrow face that had smooth wrinkles, like the wrinkled skin of an apple that had sat past its prime--yet she was lovely. She wore a long black dress, a covering, and old fashioned wire-rimmed glasses. She carried an oil lamp and led us through the dark house past the cast iron stove, and to the stairway. The stairway was narrow, as were the steps that wound to the left where at the top and on the left was our room. She set the oil lamp on a plain bed stand for us and bid us good night. My eyes widened when I looked at the bed, covered in a handmade quilt softened by the cast of the yellow lamp light that lit the plain room. We slipped on our nightgowns and climbed beneath the quilt.

The quilt wasn't the novelty for me, as I'd grown up sleeping beneath the one my grandmother made for my mother's wedding. My delight swelled when was realized it was a straw tick bed--a mattress filled with straw--that was the novelty! It crunched beneath our weight, but was quite comfortable, especially when our feet touched the foot warmer under the sheets at our feet. Aunt Mattie had wrapped bricks with flannel and after warming them by the fire, slipped them to foot of our bed. Now I was certain I had nearly turned into "Half-pint" of the Little House on the Prairie.

The next morning, I followed my mother to the kitchen where Aunt Mattie had made us oatmeal. The kitchen was filled with warmth radiating from a monstrous black cast iron stove that must have been a hundred years old it seemed to me. I watched in wonder as she used a handle and hot pad, opened the door and put in some wood. Then she lifted a round cover and added water to the tank my mother explained was the reservoir that heated water next to the firebox. When she inquired what I'd like for breakfast, I asked for toast--my usual fare. She set a metal tower with wire guides over the burner that opened to the fire, sliced homemade wheat bread and set it on the "toaster".  It actually tasted different, a little odd to a young girl used to Nickel's white bread popped into the toaster every morning. Yet, it was worth the oddity to me.

That was only the first day of wonders on that visit. Perhaps I'll post my memories of the funeral next time.

I treasure those moments at my grandfather's sister's home. That was thirty some years ago, yet I remember it like yesterday--and as if it were a hundred years ago.

What memories inspire you? 
What memories are most treasured?
Have you ever stepped into yesteryear? 
Or a wardrobe of imagination?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Final NaNo Word Count

                                                          by permission from

My final word count for November's National Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) was 10,983.
I had "ramped up" in October with 9,444.
Though I didn't make the 50,000, it was more than I thought I could do.
The grand total, drum roll please---20,427!
WIP now has a whopping 32, 555 words.

                                               by permission from

Doesn't this picture look romantic? Current WIP is set in the north woods of Wisconsin in 1894. I think the sunsets must have looked like this timeless one.

What pictures fit the settings for your dreams and works in progress?