Funerary Urns and Bats

Last week, I was reminded of some truths about research.

  • What you need is not always in the most obvious place.
  • Going back to a place/person can turn up more.
  • Your intuition may be right.
  • Nothing is as inspirational as feet on the ground.

I have fallen in love with the plot in which my main character is inspired to tell his story when he finds an Etruscan coffin (actually they were called funerary urns and held ashes) on which were carved images from the deceased Etruscan man’s life. I want my character to say:

This unknown man who preserved the events of his life through carvings of himself and a woman, children, a horse, a ship, continues to call to me, and even in the night I sometimes come out and study it. It raises more questions than it gives answers: who was the man, why did the child die, what is the meaning of the horse, the ship?

I know that I will never know the answers to these questions. And yet, at some place deep within me, I know the man. He is no longer just one of that mysterious race we call Etruscan. He is saved from oblivion by his story, vague and incomplete as it is.

But, unfortunately, when I visited all the great Etruscan sites near Rome, I learned that these funerary pieces depicted religious symbols—gods and sacrifices, etc.

Well, bummer. I decided maybe I would just invent a funerary urn with a personal story—there might have been one, right?

But then, in San Gimignano, the town that I can see in the distance when I look out my bedroom window, I found funerary urns that were much smaller and cruder than the ones in Rome. With family events carved around the base. Apparently the Tuscan Etruscans valued their personal stories.

Sometimes, what you need is not in the Library of Congress but in your own little corner—in your local library or in the mind of your elderly neighbor. Sometimes it’s better not to settle for the “best,” but to keep looking.

This family’s story included a horse.

My other ah-ha moment of last week occurred when I revisited the underground rooms beneath the hotel in my little village of Certaldo, where this novel is set. I only went back to take an American friend. The owner had shown it all to me before, relating how the ceiling collapsed sometime in the past, but no one knows when, effectively sealing off a whole area of rooms. He basically gave us the same tour, but this time, he happened to mention the bats.

“I don’t know where they get in,” he said. “They don’t come through the hotel, so obviously, somehow there is an opening from the sealed rooms to the outside.” Then he shone his light into the small opening above the mound of debris that blocked a flight of stairs going down to somewhere and, sure enough, there was a bat.

One of the hotel’s underground rooms with a mysterious double wall.

These stairs once led down to a lower level, but a cave-in has sealed those rooms. What’s in them? No one knows, and the architect says it’s too dangerous to find out. But the bats know.

Why this matters is that my characters, who are trapped down there, can now see a bat and realize that the legends about a tunnel leading out could be true. And that will be a big moment in my plot.

If you went back to a site in your story—perhaps at a different time of year, perhaps accompanied by someone with fresh eyes, perhaps understanding better now what you are looking for, would you find something that you hadn’t seen before? Maybe. If you revisited someone you interviewed previously, might they say something new? Probably.

Research is like peeling back the layers of an onion. You can go deeper by looking at smaller, less well-known sources. You can go deeper by revisiting sources that you think you’ve already mined.

And if you have a feeling, such as my instinct that some people would have wanted their own stories on their funerary urns, don’t ignore it. That research intuition comes from the same place inspiration comes from–that mysterious source of our story in the first place.
– Alison

Make 2018 the Year of Your Story

Last week I announced the wrong date for my webinar titled “Make 2018 the Year of Your Story.” The correct date is this Wednesday, December 13, at noon Central Time.

On the call, I’ll be talking about the THREE essential things for making long-term progress with your writing—actually, with anything. If you want, you can write a book in 2018. No, really, you can.

This will be set up as a webinar, so you will just call in and listen and text in the chat room. Register HERE. We are asking for a $5 donation to the Village Writing School.

This week, my mom went through a crabby few days. No, she said, she didn’t want to walk around and look at Christmas lights. No, she didn’t want to get dressed. No, she didn’t want to eat the meal I fixed that she requested thirty minutes earlier.

Finally my halo slipped, and I said, “What the heck is wrong with you?”

“I’m old and deaf and blind. Sometimes I realize it and it’s depressing.”

Well, yeah. And I can’t fix any of that.

“There’s only one solution,” she said. “I just have to think about what I have. It could be worse.”

While I think “It could be worse” is a little back-handed way of celebrating, I know what she means.

2017 has been a year of disappointment for some of us. A year of pain and confusion and massive adjustment, which we may not yet be through. In addition to the most ridiculous divorce in history, in addition to giving up the house I build and lovingly living in for decades, I had a major disappointment in my writing. The New York editor whom I thought was going to trim a little history came back with the decree that “this needs to be written as a thriller.” Thrillerizing it was going to require a massive rewrite that I opted not to do.

But that in no way lessened the pain of feeling rejected and misunderstood. I truly thought that manuscript would be my debut novel. Someone should write a country song for writers and make sure there is lots of whining and wailing.

But . . . following my mom’s philosophy, it could be worse.

We’re in Italy, which is fascinating, and the people are wonderful to us, and every day is an adventure of one kind or another. But honestly, I’d rather have had my book published. Or gotten the right agent.

So, we have these dialogues with ourselves. I lost this, but there’s still this. My mom would say, “I can’t see or hear, but at least I’m not alone. I’m never bored because my daughter is unpredictable and my dog just went by carrying the fly swatter.”

We try to muster up some excitement for the new year even though some of us may find 2018 just a little hard to get excited about. Our country is reeling from a string of disasters of unprecedented severity. Floods and fires, storms and shooters. And politics has never looked so… political.  We’re worried and sad. We’re growing tired and jaded.

Maybe, we’re growing tired and jaded about our writing. Maybe we are worn out with thinking about this story that we want to write but still haven’t started after all these years. Maybe we have multiple manuscripts in boxes in our closet and we wonder: what’s it all for? Maybe we are burned out with trying to figure out how to sell these books or build a platform that truly connects with readers in a meaningful way. Maybe we’ve edited and edited and we don’t know how to know if we’re done. Maybe we’re beginning to wonder if it’s worth it.

My friend calls this “inner weather.”  I love that. Because what’s the one thing we know about the weather? It will change. If it’s stormy, or dark and dismal, we just hunker down and get through it.

2018 stands before us bright and shining and full of potential. If last year was not our year, that in no way means that this year won’t be. 2018 may surprise us. In fact, it will, if we surprise ourselves. If we do something different that we haven’t done before. Something to get us thinking creatively, something to keep us motivated, something that gives us enough satisfaction as we go along to keep us in it for the long haul.

It’s not 2018’s fault that we have failed in past years to be true to our dreams. It’s not 2018’s fault if 2017 has left us disappointed and exhausted.

2018 is standing here in his diaper saying, “Let’s GO! I’ll go down in history as your year. The year you made real progress, the year you finished, the year you published, the year YOUR writing dream (or whatever dream) came true.”

I think we should give 2018 the benefit of the doubt. I think, as you bake your cookies or hang your ornaments, you should think about what you really want to accomplish with your writing in the coming year. I think we should talk about it on Wednesday, and you can find out more about that call HERE.

Let’s stand together to make 2018 our year.
– Alison

P.S. You can share this post on social media via my blog. Also, please connect with me on Twitter and Facebook!

A Writer Gives Thanks

The winter holidays are both about giving thanks and making plans for the new year, about looking back in gratitude and ahead with resolve. Here’s a partial list of what we writers can be grateful for as we look ahead to making the new year our most creative ever.

I am thankful for the power of story to heal us and connect us and empower us.

I am thankful to stand on the shoulders of giants. That Boccaccio discovered “ordinary” people were complex and conflicted and quirky. That Shakespeare taught us to turn a word. That Chekov showed us the short story. That Atwood and Le Guin, O’Connor and Steinbeck, and all the rest in their varying greatness lead us into the labyrinths within us and sometimes show us a little light on the other side.

I am thankful that writing is a cheap endeavor. That we don’t need equipment or supplies. That a story can be written on a paper bag or a prison wall. That I’ll never fail to convey my vision simply because I’ve run out of burnt umber.

On the other hand, I am thankful for computers and the internet that serve up the whole world and all the ages of history right to my desk so that I can write books I could never have written without them.

I am thankful that so many people realize the importance of story and are so willing to give their time to us writers to show us places, tell us stories, discuss their research. I am thankful for scientists of all fields and scholars of all fields and experts of all fields who probe and publish their findings, for all information is fodder for a story.

I am thankful for other writers around the world who are willing to write about their ideas of craft or their sources of inspiration or the mystical, magical process of creation to help me understand what the heck I’m doing. I am thankful for the writers I know who think two hours discussing our plots is just the best way to spend an afternoon and who pray for me and ask me hard questions about my characters and hold my feet to the fire when I don’t produce.

I am thankful for the vast numbers of readers who buy books because they long to experience life through other lens and who appreciate a well-written story and who make us feel that what we do is important.

I am thankful that at this stage of my life I have let go of some the perfectionism in other areas that was consuming my time and energy and holding back my writing.

We are  carried on the shoulders of a vast crowd: the writers who have gone before, the people who daily contribute to the total collection of world knowledge, the people who share with us in interviews and otherwise support our research, and especially, the readers who believe that stories matter. Writers are a winning team, lifted to the skies by fans of a good story, buoyed up by support and appreciation of our efforts.

We are the storytellers, honored since the first ones told around the fire what they saw across the far mountain or how they escaped that sabertooth tiger or how that star is a god and that one is a dog.

We are the storytellers, and I am thankful to be one.

— Alison

Find Your Readers, Even If You Are Not Yet Published

For years, I lived in a “holler” in the Ozark mountains, rarely saw anyone except at Wal-Mart, and had no social life beyond my Sunday appearance at church. I come from generations of women whose default setting is suspicion. I was insecure myself and never knew what to say/do in social situations. Every party gave me a migraine. I also had a disdain for chatty women who seized innocent bystanders—often me—and drove us to the point of murder by twittering about whatever topic seemed to pop at random into their heads.

With all that in play, there was no way I would ever strike up a conversation with a stranger.

However, through the years I have discovered that when I tell people I am writing a book, their eyes light up. Maybe they love to read. Maybe they would love to write themselves. Maybe they can’t imagine how anyone does it.

I have learned that you can begin to find readers even if you are not yet published, don’t have a “platform,” are not on every social media channel, have a blog/newsletter, or any of the other things we are constantly told are essential. You don’t have to be a world traveler, a marketing expert, or a media maven.

There are people around us all the time, and we are all waiting. Waiting for the line to move, waiting for the game to begin, waiting for our name to be called at the dentist. Just before I left Rogers, I was in a restaurant with a writer friend who struck up a conversation with the lady whose booth backed up to hers. They both were waiting for their food and had turned sideways to stretch out their legs. Then they began chatting about the peanuts on the floor. Next thing I knew, the writer was talking about her book and the woman was sharing her own related experiences.

I am not suggesting that you “sell.” I am giving you permission to talk about something that is very close to your heart. How real is that?

You need three things:

#1 A Filtered Opening Conversation
Open with a friendly comment. If the whole thing falls flat, no worries. You haven’t lost a thing. If the person responds and you kick off a conversation, don’t launch into a long story. Lob the conversation ball back rather than grabbing it and running full speed away like Prose does. Use some judgment to talk about what might be of interest. Gauge how much time you have. A line at the post office won’t take as long as a flight to Chicago—hopefully.

Say you are a writer. If you haven’t started your book yet, own the dream. “I’m beginning a novel about ___.” “I’m about to start my memoir about ____.”

Figure out a way to describe your project in one or two sentences. DON’T TELL THE WHOLE STORY. You have to learn to be succinct. But let your passion show. Why do you want to write this story?

Listen. Maybe they have some thoughts on your topic. Maybe they used to live in your setting. Maybe they had a cousin who had a similar experience as yours or your character’s. Maybe they also dream of writing a story. BUT LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE. Even if you have all night on a plane to London, don’t go on and on. Leave a little mystery.

#2 A Vehicle to Keep the Dialogue Going
No, you don’t have to be on every social media channel. But you should have at least one online location out of which to connect.

This should be a curated channel. By that I mean a social medium, such as Facebook, or a blog or something online in which you speak to the themes of your book or your writing life. On this channel, you are the same interesting person speaking about your passion as the person they just met waiting for a table at Olive Garden. You do not suddenly become Ms. Political Rant or Mr. Off-Color Jokester unless that’s your book.

Ask directly. “Are you on Facebook? I post about my [research, story, journey].”

#3 Have Amazing Contact Cards.
I resisted having my picture on my cards until it was pointed out to me how this helps people remember who the heck you are. It doesn’t have to be a head shot. It can be you doing something related to your book or its setting. On the back, have your email and all your online links. You don’t have to have your phone number if that makes you uneasy, though I do. Don’t have your address or agree to meet a stranger in a dark alley. Do have a little byline if you can think of one that sums up your writing.

Finally, don’t work like a politician. It’s not about passing out your cards to everyone. It’s about finding those people—and they will be the minority—who are interested in your book and providing them a way to stay connected.

This is not only about selling a book. It’s about relating to people who are drawn to your story. You will know them when you meet them, but you have to open the door to your writing and invite them in. If you do, they will bring you assistance, connections, knowledge, insights, encouragement, and a sense that you are not alone on this very isolated journey. They will enrich your life in ways that you can’t imagine as you, and your ongoing story, enrich theirs.

Have you had an interaction with a stranger who impacted your writing? I’d love to hear about it. Reply and let me know.

– Alison

How to Acquire a Super Power

If you’re tired of hearing about my Italian adventure, you’re not alone. I’m tired of writing about it. At first, it was so difficult, it was funny. Now, it’s not so difficult and not so funny. Now, it feels like the long haul. Day after day of figuring stuff out, making mistakes, taking baby steps forward while sometimes losing ground.

A lot like writing a novel.

My biggest challenge right now is learning Italian. La lingua italiana has me thrown to the ground and is kicking me in the stomach. I have committed to myself to spend three hours a day on learning this language. Holy clocks, Batman, that’s a lot of time.

Certain wise friends mention gently that it’s really hard to learn a language when you’re older than—say—five. Or at least older than—say—twenty-five. But, I’m not listening to them. Why?

Because I’ve written a novel. A whole 100,000+-word novel all the way to the end. No, it’s not published, and yes, it probably needs some more polishing, but it is written to the end.

And that, gentle readers, changes you forever.

I am serious. If you’ve written a complete novel, then you have super powers. You are unafraid of the challenges that other people don’t even consider trying because they’ve heard that it can’t be done or it takes too much time or whatever. You scoff because you know the secret. A huge project, whether learning a language or writing a novel, happens day after day after day. And if you take a bite every day, you can eat a dinosaur. With sides and dessert.

My second novel went faster because I knew more about what I was doing. It got closer to finding a publisher. This Boccaccio novel is on track to be finished by spring. This could be the one. Or not.

But if I never get published, I am so much better for having written these books. They have taught me the power of process. They have taught me that success comes from a plan, a routine, and dogged perseverance.

Every day, I read Italian for an hour out loud, I spend an hour reviewing my text book, thirty minutes working with my tiny flash card app, thirty minutes working with a deck of 150 Italian verbs printed on 3 x 5 cards. I do this every day.

Yeah, I’d rather go to Florence and buy a purse. Or see wax models of plague victims—darn, that’s fun. But here I sit, conjugating verbs. Why? Because I had good reasons to learn Italian:

  • my research will benefit;
  • I’ll gain the ability to see better into another culture;
  • my brain will benefit from the exercise;
  • I won’t accidentally buy a can of octopus.

All seriously good reasons. And those reasons didn’t go away because the going got tough. Don’t ever forget your “why,” someone told me. If you keep your “why” in front of you, you’ll find your “how.”

So just keep plodding forward and finish your book or something equally huge. And for you, what is that huge thing? Name it! What have you wanted to do/learn that you thought was too big? Or maybe there is a big thing that you can name that would benefit your writing.

Once you finish one giant thing like a novel—once you see the (super)power of the process—nothing can stop you.

Piano, piano si va lontano.
Slowly, slowly, one goes far.


Let’s Find YOUR Best Writing Routine

To be writers, we must write. The old a– in chair dictum is still true, though a lot of us now like standing desks. Despite the fact that most of us write into an electronic device, writing still takes place in real time and physical space.

When I turned my life upside down and shook it like an Etch-a-Sketch, I lost the writing spaces that I had so carefully crafted. I said good-bye to my Christine de Pizan desk at the school, my standing desk at my mom’s apartment, my bilateral workspace built from Elfa components in the tiny house. I also said good-bye to my routine, my writing circle that kept me on task, and my lovely drawer of colorful paperclips and post-it pads. Even the weeks in my calendar now begin on the wrong day.

I exchanged a host of distractions and time-swallowers for another set. It no longer takes me thirty minutes to run an errand in traffic, but it takes me that long to walk to the grocery store. People no longer phone me out of the blue to ask a question about their story or get my advice on local print shops. Now, I’m writing it all in an email. Now, I’m cooking (if you can call it that) for my mom instead of shipping her down to the dining room in The Home.

All this has me thinking about essentials. What does it really take to write? And I think this question is as individual, as intimate, as our inner personhoods. When we write, we go deep into our own psychologies, our own special longings and emotional baggages and inherited quirks. Some of us crave order. Some of us thrive in creative messiness. But along that spectrum, there are a thousand variations. I want to be able to get my desk orderly, but I love a messy bulletin board. I totally mistrust a narcissistic bulletin board where the notes, cartoons, and inspirational bookmarks are all lined up.

Some people want to curl up in a cozy chair with a pen and paper. Some of us have to have a long work space. I am one of these. I say it’s because of all my research books, but I think it also has to do with my inner need to see the big picture, to feel that I’m in control of the whole situation.

Then there’s time. The Italian is tempo, which in English speaks of rhythm and repetition and pace. I like that because that, too, is what we must have. Not only time to write but time that is predictable, that we can anticipate, and that, for goodness sake, returns again and again. Too many people get a flash of inspiration and write furiously for half a day and then not again for months.

We must be able to control time, at least to a certain extent. For that we have devised schedules, calendars, to-do lists. Which ones we like—which ones work—depends, once again, on our personalities and our core needs. Actually, all these time management systems are like diets. They all work if you use them consistently and for long enough. They don’t work when they don’t address our inner, psychological needs.

As writers, we have a host of options to approach both time and space. So since I’m in the throes of “rewriting” my writing routine, I thought it would be fun to have a call-in session where we explore various ways that writers have found to nest and to control time.

I hope this will be the forerunner of a series of these type calls on topics of interest to writers. This first one is free. Later, we will charge an affordable fee to raise money for the Village Writing School.

We are taking the first ten who sign up here. The date is Thursday November 2nd from Noon – 1pm CT. After you sign up, we will send you simple instructions to call in for free with either your phone or computer.

I’ll be throwing out a lot of options which you might not have considered but which might be just what you’re looking for. Cool writing spaces in tiny places. Time management at the level of the month or the minute. Many ways to carve writing out of both space and time.

Write On!