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Annie Kelly – A character sketch

The Western Maryland countryside is a pretty scape of rolling hills and farms. Annie Kelly has a big farm there with silos and lots of out-buildings. She lives in a house, sturdy but unimproved, that dates to about 1890. Driving up, you don’t know what to expect. The Valley Craft Network Studio Tours weekend map showed a yarn store, Kiparoo Farm Studio, Bussard Road, Middletown, Maryland. Some in our party wanted to see it.

Annie’s Kiparoo Farm sits in the valley between the Catoctin Mountains and South Mountain, west of Frederick. The big town is Middletown, population about 4,000. Pennsylvania Dutch people settled the valley in the 1700s and a lot of German names survive on the streets, headstones, and among the farmers.

We parked and had trouble opening the car doors in a gale blowing at exactly the wrong angle. Annie Kelly met us on the farmhouse porch, helping us wrestle her front door against the gale. In a second, she made us welcome, cracking jokes about the wind and saying “come on in!”

Annie has large, symmetrical curls in her chestnut-colored hair, worn in a throwback, 50s, even 40s style, medium length, practical, but still some care taken, time in curlers at home, or even at a salon. And as we got a sense of her, it grew more remarkable that she had time to curl her hair.

Annie runs the farm and a yarn business. If she has a partner, that person made themselves scarce during the craft weekend open houses. This was her nightmare. For all the evidence I could see, Annie runs cattle, raises sheep, gets them shorn, spins yarn, makes dyes and dyes the wool, knits, and sells yarn and patterns. Sidelines, as if she needed more, include making soap and ice cream.

“What time do you even get up in the morning?”

“Oh, I’m a 4:15 girl,” she says. “Girl” somehow fits only because she uses it.

She points out, not 4:15 to milk the cows, they aren’t ready that early.

Annie is at least 60 and about 5’ 6”. But I’ll bet she’s as strong as anyone with that frame. Small as she is, it’s like Annie’s made of steel and leather straps. You know she can milk dozens of cows and then get all the other work started, even before she mentions milking. Annie ricocheted around the three-room shop and studio, answering questions, specifying knitting needle gauges, and commenting on patterns.

And Annie is heart and head strong too. You wonder at her years of working her way along, a woman who was not going to do what women in her society are supposed to do. A woman who set out to do, and does, man’s work in addition to women’s.

That Annie is not all steel showed through. She picked up a skein of royal purple yarn and looked at it, and then held it to her chest and closed her eyes.

“Oh, did you see it? The speech? She wore this.”

She about teared up remembering. It was a few weeks after Hilary Clinton’s concession speech. Annie, living deep in Trump territory, was with Her, and not afraid to tell anyone that.

These days it seems like some kind of hell is going to hit us, superstorm or politics-inspired violence. Or economic meltdown. If those things happen, I’ll want the steel, the guts, the know-how: raise food, make what you need, hold off threats of every kind, and do it cheerful. If those things hit us, I’m with Annie.

30 days, 30 flash stories — how it turned out

This is an update on the post: “NaFFWriMo–A flash fiction story, every day of November” from mid-November

Well, I managed to write 30 stories during November 2016, one each day. My goal was to see what it would mean to let raw creation dominate my writing efforts, rather than thinking, researching, overthinking, over-researching.

I enjoyed it. Most days, I was up early and spent about 40 minutes creating a rough germ of a story. Of the 30, maybe 5 excite me. Another 10 or 12 at least have potential. Perhaps 7 or 8 have a beginning, middle, and end. As many as ten proved to go nowhere, and I don’t expect them to turn into something.

My effort had for fuel a list of over 100 story ideas. But stories often just emerged from my head, somehow, or ricocheted off the original idea and went in a new direction. I still value the time I spent making, and the existence of that list, and it has about 70 unused story ideas, some with potential.

Shut up and write

NaFFWriMo–A flash fiction story, every day of November

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” —Ray Bradbury

I read Ray Bradbury’s advice on writing, and remembered it wrong, but I got the spirit, if not the letter of it, right. I took the wisdom as, write a short story every day. It’s likely I was remembering his advice to read a short story every day.

For three previous years November has meant my participation in the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) program. This year, I decided to give the same sort of effort, but instead writing short fiction.

I committed to myself to write one flash fiction story each day for the month of November. You might call it, “NaFFWriMo.” Flash stories are as short as a few hundred and up to 1000 words. That means a piece of flash fiction is shorter than the daily average words needed to complete NaNoWriMo, 1,667. Four or eight hundred words is enough for my “NaFFWriMo” effort.

I have now reached 11 days–11 stories, despite a day when I felt horribly sick, and a day when I felt angry and sad and wholly distracted because of the U.S. election.

What have I learned so far?

I expected and it has been true that most of the stories, for which I can only give about 40 good pre-dawn minutes, are rough, raw, and may not pan out. Some have a premise and a start, but don’t arrive somewhere. Some are wooden and uninteresting, even to me. But two or three show great promise, and several others may pan out with more work.

Thirty or 40 minutes is not much time for writing, but with a bit of inspiration, it’s enough for a burst of creative work, and a good raw start.

I had built and banked and continue to tinker with a list of 100 ideas for stories, which I rated on a 0, 1, 2, 3 scale of most to least appealing to me to write, generally based on the degree to which I know what the point of the story would be.

That list has proved useful, but, in fact, the stories still seem most often to just arrive at the tips of my fingers as I sit down to write. That bit of magic that happens is a mystery to me. But I think the act of list building is part of the juice that goes into it, even if I don’t always pluck a theme from the list and set to writing the list.

Is it good for my writing to do this?

Yes! Like NaNoWriMo, the “get it written” pace means you just create, you don’t fuss, double back, edit, tinker, slave over structure, etc. This, like NaNoWriMo, prevents my worst habits as a writer from being allowed: researching junkets, restructuring while writing, losing the spark in some side journey in the process.

What will happen to all this work?

I will develop the stories that appeal to me, and work on them along with others I have written prior. I’ll find critical eyes to share them with, and I hope to learn how to submit them for publication.

And I will report further here about the effort. The next test is Thanksgiving, which has its own distractions and delights. But the family doesn’t get up as early as I do.

Here is the update: “30 days, 30 flash stories — how it turned out

Remembering Gabriel Garcia Márquez

Gabriel_Garcia_MarquezGabo, Gabriel García Márquez died today. I remember on my visit to Caracas, Venezuela in 1986, being in a tree-lined square full of book merchants selling from carts. And several of them were calling out “lo último de García Márquez!” Theirs were excited voices with something hot to sell, books! But not just any books.

Gabo belonged to all of Latin America and really all of the world. So it was no surprise that booksellers not in his home country of Colombia, or in his adopted country Mexico, were hawking his books to an avid public.

García Márquez’s work taught me that a story is very nearly anything. And the truth is not what we think it is. And that greater truths can come from the fantastic, the exaggerated, the impossible. And that words can create and make you believe in magic.

He gets credit for taking me away from the wrong-headed idea that some objective concrete truth should be the basis for anything that we write. Or better, he taught me that there’s a different kind of truth  that you can discover with fiction.

His was probably the strongest narrator’s voice that lodged in my head, and I read his books long ago. Surely Gabo would give some credit for that to his gifted translator Edith Grossman whom he greatly admired. But most of all it was his thoughts, his original prose, and the way his mind worked the gave the strength of his writing which spoke right through from the Spanish into the English and into my forming literary ear.

I am a slow reader I don’t re-read books often, but those of Gabrielle Garcia Marquez I will read again and perhaps again and again.

Thanks Gabo.

Image: Wikipedia

Every word crystalline: My favorite writers

My most admired English language novels, in no particular order:

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
William Golding, Lord of the Flies
Phillip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Jack London, The Call of the Wild
Jack London, White Fang
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes are Watching God
Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt
Salmon Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Annie Proulx, Close Range: Wyoming Stories
Edward P. Jones, The Known World

And must read writers (for their style), in parens some great short story examples:

Hemingway (The Snows of Kilimanjaro or The Old Man and the Sea)
Annie Proulx (any story)
Salinger (Franny and Zooey, any story)
London (To Build a Fire)
Fitzgerald (The Diamond as Big as the Ritz)
Mark Twain (The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County)
Raymond Carver (Cathedral)
Eudora Welty (Powerhouse)
Edward P. Jones, (many, if not all)
Raymond Chandler
John Steinbeck
Kurt Vonnegut
Ray Bradbury
John Kennedy Toole
Dave Eggers

Insights from the National Book Festival, 2013

Here are the insights of some great writers I heard at the September, 2013 National Book Festival, in Washington DC. Where I use quote marks, I’ve taken a verbatim, or nearly-verbatim quote. Otherwise, you are seeing my paraphrase of a point the author made.

Don DeLillo

A questioner told DeLillo about sitting with his girlfriend as she read the final chapter of Underworld. On finishing, she said, “What the Hell was that?” DeLillo’s response: “That’s what I said!”

Amity Gaige

“Literature doesn’t have to resolve anything. Raise or open the question, or the contradiction, don’t try to answer them.”

In literature, there aren’t any bad guys or good guys. Let any character be more complex than that.

The unreliable narrator has much to offer in carrying a story.

“The writer is writing a love letter to the reader” a “message in a bottle.”

“You can’t be a writer with a closed heart or a closed mind.”

“I’m always writing, always looking.”

Brad Meltzer

A tiny detail, an observation, a fact from history, yields a “what if” and gives you a story.

“Governments don’t lie, people lie. Figure out why they lie and you’ll get a good story.”

Ayana Mathis

“Transcend the borders of ourselves” via literature

Writing creates a bond with the reader, puts demands on us, gives us certain responsibilities.

“Radical empathy” will fuel the writer’s work.

In writing fiction “you find your way into another human being and it is astounding what happens.”

Khaled Hosseini

“Memory can be a cruel dictator”

“Books have a function and roles beyond what the author intended.”

“We all see different things in a piece of writing.”

The symbols and metaphors in his writing are most of the time happy accidents, not really planned. His writing is an act of discovery. “My books always surprise me.”

Writing is “discovering each character at that moment when they are discovering what they are capable of doing and are not capable of doing.”

On work on his next novel, he’s “flinging stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.”



Names matter: the terminal “s” in a name

In the novel I am crafting, I created a character who is close to my protagonist, and who is in a couple of dozen scenes. His last name, Ross, only gave me a little trouble on his introduction, and in some of the early scenes. The young man is called Ross by his friends, as men often call each other by their last names. I wrote along.

But after the first half or so of the story, my central character spends the weekend at Ross’ house with the Ross family, meeting the Rosses.

This is when the final “s” in his name began to create all sorts of trivial problems for me. When to add the ‘s or just the ‘ ? How to pluralize a name ending is “s”? Trying to write around this has created all sorts of awkwardness and I am going to have to change his name. I will likely forget his name, confuse myself, and add errors along the way. Names matter, and this guy is already Ross to me. It’ll take some getting used to the change.

Names matter. This was a rookie mistake I am rather sure.

Squirrel huntin’, or, doing research for fiction writing

Croft & Allen Chocolate Works, 33rd and Market, Philadelphia. Undated, from collection published 1900

One recent morning, I spent a couple of hours doing research for my novel-in-process. The story is set in the 1910s and I am intent on getting the historical details right, though the work is not the kind of historical fiction that includes great historical figures or events. I just want the historical setting, the look, the feel, the details, the places, and so on to be as historically-accurate as possible.

To do that, I often have narrow and specific questions to answer. That recent morning, I was working to get right the immediate environs of the West Philadelphia Station of the Pennsylvania Rail Road in September of 1916. I had assembled maps and descriptions of the rail system, and had charted the route my character could have taken leaving the station and walking to the University of Pennsylvania a few blocks away.

But I wanted to know a little more, and was intent on understanding what kind of neighborhood he passed through, what it was like, what he saw, heard, and smelled as he walked through there. So my need for accuracy included details that would inform me, the writer, but that would barely be in the book at all. In particular, what did the neighborhood smell like? It was at least semi-industrial at the time.

This “squirrel hunt” involved research triggering other research and yet more research. And I was able to find out what small and large industries dotted the route he took. A notable one was the Croft and Allen Chocolate Works–he would have smelled chocolate, probably as soon as he got of his train.

Ultimately, what several hours’ research yielded that is actually in my manuscript will pass in a rush for the reader, but it will be accurate. My reader will know that the smells of chocolate and manure, and paint, and coal gas mingled before Johnny’s nose as he walked south on 34th Street. No more than a few words will be the yield of three hours’ research. That is the reality as it has emerged for me in this work. I am entirely satisfied that that is what several hours of research led to. It’s as it should be.


In 10th grade, my English teacher, Mr. Simmons, put anachronism on our vocabulary test, and gave us the definition to memorize: “Something out of place or time”. Anachronisms are at issue in my professional work as a futurist and in my fiction writing. My futures work involves remembering that the future isn’t mostly the same as today, with a few changes (e.g. using only brainwaves to drive an internal combustion engine, gasoline-powered, four-door sedan).

My fiction writing has to involve intent focus on what would and would not be present in my stories, and since I’ve focused mainly on writing fiction set in the past, the potential for anachronisms is high.

Mr. Simmons used a broader definition of anachronism than most people do, most often, people use it to mean something in the present from the past, which no longer belongs. That’s the least of my worries. A story set in 2013 could have a butter churn standing in the corner, since such things can still exist as antiques (though the thing ought to be explained) but a story set in 1916 cannot have a mobile phone or a woman fighter pilot in it.

The arts of fiction and foresight involve thinking intently about these things. Everything matters. All the details count, and wrong details count multiply, and do only harm. It’s probably harder in futures, because we really don’t know what will change and how much. But in historical fiction, we can at least rule a lot of things out.

The biggest problem is not in material things, but in values and attitudes. It’s too easy to shine a current-day light on the past or the future which supposes that people back then or in that future will have the same values as today. They won’t or didn’t. I’ve learned to be humble about all this, it’s hard to get it right and you need to keep a watchful eye on yourself, and work at it.

Image: Mike Licht, via Flickr, creative commons attribution license

Six things studying the future has taught me about fiction writing

On my foresight blog, I posted the reverse of this: “Six things fiction writing taught me about foresight” [LINK

Since the late 1980s, I’ve worked in the field of futures studies, also known as foresight. I am a consultant to any organization that will hire me to explore how the world is changing and where they might see challenges and find opportunities in that change. That work prepared me in certain ways for writing fiction. In fact, a big part of the work of a futurist is like writing fiction. Nothing is wholly known or provable about the future, so, in essence, you make it up. But like a novelist, you make up something based on logic, truth, and facts. My fiction work is based in history, and I stick to contextual setting truths about history, even as I have my way with my human characters within that reality.

Here are some key things I’ve carried from my work as a futurist to my efforts as a novelist:

1. Technology changes, but it’s the human changes that spring from that which matter most. I don’t write science fiction, but even Sci-Fi, in my limited experience with it, is really about the human things that technology does.

2. Placement in time of a story is a critical step and in that setting you have to get the conjecture right; avoiding anachronisms  and being as true as anyone can be to the times you are writing about. Whether a story is set in the future or the past, it’s important work to avoid putting too much of today’s values into the minds of people of another time. This is unavoidable, but we still have to try.

3. The world is a complex of systems connected to systems. Nothing is simple, and nothing has just one cause.

4. Conjecture is essential, and I’ve had the chance to build a habit of, and comfort with conjecture over years of working to suppose things about the future.

5. Storytelling has proven essential to getting across ideas about change in my work as a futurist. The stories meet what’s already in people’s heads, what George Lakoff calls “frames”. In fiction, your story doesn’t have much success unless it does that. So though we strive for originality, our characters may fit archetypes and other known qualities that the reader brings.

6. Exaggeration, or sharp contrasts, may make the difference in storytelling, as they do in getting ideas about the future across to people. So, even if we don’t think it will ever happen, we may spend time talking or writing as futurists about “what ifs” such as “zero waste” or “free energy.” In fiction, the lives of our characters cannot just be ordinary lives, at least not without something big happening too. We exaggerate, you could say, or at least draw sharp contrasts.

Image: rahego, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution License