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Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

It is perhaps ironic that after writing a novel set in the desert of northern India, I now liken the research process to learning to swim. But here it is: moving through the ocean of information with mastery is like being a scuba diver, aware of your depth and your air supply and the location of the shore, accepting the power of the water and the currents, but having the confidence to immerse yourself in observation, to follow an intriguing trail of bubbles to an unexpected coral head. There, in that fine balance of mastery and deference, of the planned and the unexpected, lies the pure joy of researching your setting. But from standing safely on the shore contemplating the allure of the water to reaching this almost magical moment of gliding with control involves many stages, some of them very difficult, all of them necessary.

After taking the plunge, you realize the power of the water, the immensity of the ocean, and your own insignificance. You flail, assailed with doubts. Even once you manage to tread water and keep your head clear you realize you are expending a lot of energy and going nowhere. This is the crucial moment. You can give up, holler for someone to haul you out, or you can give it your all. Once you manage an inelegant doggy paddle, propelling yourself with purpose, hope and self-confidence emerge and you can look forward to refining your stroke and, eventually, diving for details with the knowledge that you can and will resurface, perhaps not exactly where or when you expected, but always enriched by the experience.

Here are the stages, and recognizing them each can be helpful.

Contemplating the allure of the water from the safety of land: Little bits of a story idea, of a different world, have landed on you, like droplets of water, on a summer day, leaving you wanting more. The water shimmers, entices. It is hot out, prickly hot, and the surface calls to you. The clouds are reflected in it, undulating slightly; it doesn’t look that deep. How refreshing it would be to take a dip, to immerse yourself in this other world. You’ve heard there is a whole universe under there: coral and colorful fish and strange anemones with scarlet tentacles. A pelican dives in, head first, and emerges with a fish. Other people make it look so easy, gliding through, cutting the surface with their arms. And fun! Splashing around, laughing. Standing on their heads, their feet waving, and then toppling. Some of them wear snorkel masks, and you wonder what they see. You want to see it, too.

Realizing the power of the water: You take the plunge. You launch yourself into, say, nineteenth century India. Immediately, you are overwhelmed. There is such a vast immensity of information available. Gasping, coughing, you gulp some of it down. You reach out and try to grab at anything you can hold onto. You read everything, or try to. You jot down a lot of facts, many of which you know you’ll never use, but you don’t yet know which ones those are, and you suspect the ones you don’t bother to record are the ones that will be critical to your story. History, politics, journals and diaries, newspaper articles, novels, academic papers, books on daily life, architecture, food and customs, sweeping summaries and minute details alike. They all swirl around you. You enter search terms willy-nilly into Google and Google Books, Amazon, Wikipedia, local library catalogs. You feel hopeless, yet determined. You flail. The more you read, the less you feel you are qualified, authorized, to write this story. But you have to fight the pull of the current. This is a test. Will you give up, be knocked about by the waves, and emerge bruised and dejected, or will you find a foothold and prevail, strengthened by the understanding that you are not in full control?

Treading water: After a while, you get the hang of keeping your head above water. You maintain the shoreline in sight, remember what this is all about. You manage to control your arm and leg movements. Vague story elements start to form. Not just India, but the city of Lucknow. The courtesan and merchant quarters. Not just the nineteenth century, but the years just before and just after the Great Rebellion. You manage to look down into the water and catch sight of identifiable shapes: a clump of rock, a tuft of sea grass. Some of your characters start to come into focus, and this helps dictate the specific settings for your story. You don’t yet see the details, but you begin to imagine them. You go from “he’s an artist” to “he’s a musician” to “he’s a sarangi player.” You are able to eliminate some of the sources for being irrelevant, and to replace them with others, which you now know will be highly relevant. You organize the resources and the research and you make lists. Many lists.

Doggy paddle: Now you are actually making forward progress. The plot starts to form. Getting from Point A to Point B. This is the exciting part, where you realize you are not only staying afloat, but you are swimming! It may be a basic form of locomotion, low on the totem pole of swim strokes, with a silly name, but it is a bona fide style. And now the development of the story feeds the research, and vice versa. You have direction. Instead of researching all festivals and religious celebrations of the time and place, you zero in on the specific one that will feature in your story, the one during which the betrayal, or the discovery, or the moment of forgiveness will happen. Instead of researching all forms of architecture and buildings, you picture and describe the specific ones your characters inhabit. You study maps, learn the layout of the setting. Now you know that it would take a good thirty minutes to walk from your main character’s home to La Martinière, the boys’ school across the river. Now you know that the shore is not that far away, and that you can keep up this doggy paddle thing for quite a while.

Front crawl: You hit your stride. You control when you come up for air. You cut through the water with purpose. You outline your scenes, and start writing some. Now you get into serious specifics. Someone is growing flowers on the roof. You look up exactly the types of flowers likely to be growing there, and the birds that will peck at the seeds. You imagine a specific meal, the food on the dishes, how it smells. You picture what your characters are wearing, feel the fabric, choose the colors. You go from “some European shopkeepers in Lucknow took orders for frivolous objects for their customers” to “Monsieur Carnonge insisted that a cucumber slicer be acquired for him from the latest shipment of European goods that had arrived that morning from Cawnpore by hackery.”

Scuba diving: This is it. You have your tank of air strapped onto your back, and you immerse yourself in this new world. You are no longer overwhelmed by its vast immensity, by the multitudes of lives teeming below you. You know how to navigate it. Now you can take your time, float a while, seek out nuggets of fact or possibility that others unfamiliar with the terrain would miss. There, in that clump of rocks, there is a crevice that you now know is likely to hide an octopus. (What? An octopus in Lucknow?!) You dive down and hover, peering in, slowing your fins, controlling your bubbles, watching, and you are rewarded by a pulpy display of tentative tentacles. Hello, you say in your head, and you smile—insofar as you can do so with your lips stretched around the regulator—delighted with your discovery. Momentary euphoria.

Until you have your first draft critiqued.

Yours truly diving off Harbour Island, Bahamas

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Chateau de Chenonceau Kitchen Stove

Not my kitchen. Chateau de Chenonceau, France. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It wasn’t that hard, as it turns out. And the child gave me the entry point herself.

It usually occurs to 8-year old K to ask, as she somewhat grudgingly sets the table, what we are having for dinner. A few weeks ago, when she insufficiently masked her dismay, I put down the pot in my hand and looked squarely at her.

Me: I have an idea.
Her, rolling her eyes: Oh no.
Me: No, no. It’s a good one. I promise.
Her, scrunching her eyebrows: Yeeesss?
Me: How about, when you are nine, you can be in charge of dinner once a week. You pick the menu, you be the chef.
Her: Yes! (Jumps up and down.) Do we have to wait until I am nine? That’s still two months away!
Me: No. You can start now if you want. Next week. What are you going to make?

Thus was born a new experiment. I have to confess that I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while now. Last year, Leslie Kaufman wrote a piece in the New York Times on this subject. Her sons were 10 and 14 at the time. I read it and started dreaming (it’s ok, I know it’s a dream, I don’t expect it to come true) of sitting on the couch with a book and a glass of wine while K makes us a simple but healthy and appetizing meal. The reality, of course, is much different. Especially with a child who is still quite young, and with her three-year old sister in the mix. Quite literally. The scene is a bit more like the one Sean Wilsey describes in his hilarious piece, also in the New York Times, in 2011. We might even end up with more items, and people, to wash at the end. In my case, I’m also trying to relinquish responsibility and transfer it to the mature and responsible 8-year old, while attempting to tame a wild toddler we refer to as “the creature.”

We’ve set a few ground rules:

  1. Each menu must include at least one form of protein, one starch, and one vegetable. (Later on we may include dessert. We are all big fans of dessert here.)
  2. She is responsible for making sure we have the necessary ingredients in the house in time. For the moment, this means reminding me in advance to pick up the items we need, and when possible, accompanying me to buy them.
  3. I must be present (for the moment) in the kitchen, and I must be watching when she does anything involving the stove/oven or knives.

She has crossed that invisible barrier, the one that stands between “help” that is in fact totally counter-productive (involving more of my time and patience, creating more work for me, and making a greater mess) and help that is truly helpful in advancing the cause of the meal. Her sister, however, is squarely on the first side, capable of creating a mess of unfathomable proportions in the time it takes me to turn on a pot to boil. When I nearly slipped and broke my back due to a fine layer of flour on the hardwood floor the other day, my husband reminded me: this is a long term investment. Meanwhile, he is steering clear of the whole situation, although wise enough to praise the results with vigor and engage K in a discussion of her techniques and the finer points of being Head Chef. Plus he’s also cultivated her interest in barbecue to the point that she looks forward to watching BBQ Pitmasters competitions and talks about the time when the two of them will enter as competitors.

I’m trying not to place too much weight on this experiment. Sure, it might end up being a wonderful mother-daughter(s) bonding moment (like when we’re both bonded to the floor by the honey her sister spilled), but for the moment K is talkative enough, and I am available enough to her, that there are other opportunities for such bonding. It might end up fostering in her a greater interest in nutrition and health and the environment and such, but she’s already fairly attuned to these. Mostly, I view it from a practical perspective: it’s good to be independent, to know how to manage, to go forth in the world as prepared as one can be. The French have a good word for this: to be “débrouillarde.”

The first menu consisted of spaghetti with “meat sauce” (i.e. a simplified bolognese) accompanied by broccoli sautéed with garlic and olive oil. A relatively involved project to begin with, as we made the sauce from scratch. But K was game. She had a friend over that afternoon, and at 4:00 pm I called them both down to the kitchen.

K: Let’s go! I have to make dinner.
Me: You’re welcome to hang out and help.
Friend: Why are you starting now? It’s only 4.
Me (thinking Aha! Teachable moment. Lesson 1.) Well, it’s one thing to make dinner, it’s another to get it all done by dinner time. One has to plan. For example, the sauce takes a while to simmer, and we have the added variable of S. A 3-year old can be very disruptive in the kitchen. We have to allow extra time. You can’t just wait until you are hungry to start thinking about dinner.
Friend: Oh? That’s what my mom does.

That first afternoon, there were many introductory lessons: how to turn a burner on and off, and to control the flame. (K already knew, apparently, to keep the handle of the pot or pan turned away from the edge.) The importance of keeping track of what utensils and surfaces have been in contact with raw meat. How to delegate tasks whose outcomes are irrelevant to the progress of the prep to the little sister while still making her think she’s being helpful. That type of thing.

There came a time when every utensil and container in the kitchen was dirty, when the sauce was burbling up out of the pot in explosive spurts, when K was sprawled on the floor moaning, and when S was rummaging untended in the fridge like a bear cub. But the experiment was a success for these three simple reasons:

  1. Dinner was on the table at something that approximated dinner time, and was quite tasty to boot.
  2. We’d had a few good laughs.
  3. Most importantly, K wanted to cook again.

Which she did last night: steaks (rib eye, broiled, first rubbed with garlic and fresh herbs), corn on the cob, and sesame semolina bread with an array of French cheeses. This time, our commune neighbor 8 year old L joined in, eager to help out. Lots of small fingers to pull the leaves off the thyme stems. He suggested they keep track of the recipes, create a book, and publish it. My kind of boy! I don’t see that really happening, but so far I’m quite pleased with this experiment.

 

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#Muse2013 poster

This coming weekend is one of my favorites of the year: the weekend of the Muse and the Marketplace writing conference in Boston. Among the best in the country in caliber and professionalism, it attracts writers, editors, agents, PR specialists and many others connected to the craft and business of writing. (#Muse2013 for those of you active in social media.) After six years of attending this conference religiously–holding the weekend sacred and putting aside all other responsibilities of parenthood, teaching and freelancing–I have a few tips for anyone attending this, or any other, writing conference.

Wear something interesting. The dress code is casual but professional. No jeans, cut-offs, etc. But within that, be creative! You want to stand out, be noticed in a positive way. Everyone will be meeting hundreds of people. Don’t you want to be easily remembered? Keep your clothing appropriate, of course, but don’t be afraid to accessorize, or wear something that helps spark conversation. Even better if it relates to the type of writing you do. My historical novel is set in India, and I own some salwar kameez, the loose pants and tunic outfits that many women in India wear. Aside from the fact that they are remarkably comfortable, these colorful outfits invariably stand out from the sea of slacks and jackets, and often attract comments, which then naturally segue into a conversation about my writing.

Dress in layers. Writing conferences, like many types of conferences, often take place in large hotels. There are invariably fluctuations in the HVAC system that are beyond the control of conference organizers. One year, there was an Arctic gale blowing through some of the session rooms. Another year, some floors of the hotel were sweltering and oppressive. Dress in layers that can be removed or added as necessary.

Bring plenty of business cards. Like 30 or so for each day of the conference. These can be your “regular” business card that relates to your other, non-writerly (gasp!) life, if you have one, or cards made specifically for your writer avatar. (I use Zazzle.com for the latter.) Either way, have plenty on hand, and make sure that the information is up to date, and contains the URL of your web site or blog if you have one. Then, don’t be shy about handing out your card, although always do so in a respectful and understated manner.

Keep a pen on hand. Even if you are planning to take notes on a laptop or other electronic device, keep a pen handy, if only to jot down, on the back of each business card you receive, a few key words about the person whose card it is. After 2-3 days of conference-going, you will be glad for the reminder of who was who.

Follow up with the people you meet. Wait a day or two for people to travel back home and unwind from the conference, and then drop them a note to tell them how you enjoyed meeting them. Include some kind of reminder of who you are–a reference to your conversation, or something that will jog their memory.

Engage with fellow writers, not just editors and agents. Even if you are on a quest to snag an agent or land a book deal, do not neglect the vast and supportive and resource-full community of writers around you. Other writers are your allies, your support network, your source of encouragement, your creative sounding boards. I met every member of my writing group through Grub Street, and have made many additional friendships through the Muse.

When engaging with editors or agents, be mindful of their schedules. At these conferences, agents and editors have responsibilities beyond simply being at the conference. They may be leading sessions, or participating in manuscript consultations, and their free-to-mill-about time might not always coincide with that of writers. If you spot your dream agent at the bathroom sink two minutes before the start of a session, that is not the time to launch into your pitch, even if you’ve honed it down to a dazzling 30 seconds. Smile, perhaps make some remark that is appropriate or might make the agent laugh, and wait for another chance, when he or she will then notice and remember you for being someone likeable.

Do plenty of research in advance. Look up the bios and web sites of presenters and others before the conference (and bear in mind that this takes a good bit of time). I use an old-fashioned method of index cards, jotting down some key facts about the people I would like to speak with if I get a chance, and keeping the cards on me at the conference.

Begin conversations with topics other than your book. If you are in the lunch line behind an editor you’d like to connect with, begin a conversation about something from that person’s bio, or something relating to the conference, or even relating to the food. If you are engaging and pleasant, conversation will naturally lead to your writing. And if it doesn’t, you can then actively steer it that way, in an artful manner, of course.

If you have a web site or blog, make sure it is updated. People you meet with invariably look you up online. Everyone can be forgiven, of course, for having a somewhat outdated site, but it definitely makes you look more interesting and on top of things if your last post is not three months old.

Sit toward the front. I have never understood why people will shell out hundreds of dollars to attend writing conferences and get the chance to learn from and speak with accomplished authors, editors and agents, and then sit in the way back of the room. Go ahead and sit up front. I tend to favor the second row. The first can be a bit awkward, and there is nothing in front of you to hide your feet if you need to slip off your uncomfortable shoe for a minute (although–why are you wearing uncomfortable shoes?) or hide your phone if you need to check it to make sure there is not word from your sitter about a crisis at home. But in the second row, you are close enough to be seen by the speaker and make eye contact, and you can be among the first to go up to him or her to speak in person.

Reach out to people who look lost or shy. Attending a conference with 700 other people can be overwhelming, especially for some writers who are used to their solitary pursuit and may be singularly introverted. You can make a big difference in someone’s experience, and create a lasting impression, just by inviting him or her to join your lunch table, or simply smiling and being approachable. And you may end up making a connection that is meaningful for you as well.

Practice your elevator pitch. It is essential that you be able to summarize your writing, especially book-length writing, in a succinct and engaging 2-3 sentences. You will be asked many, many times a variation on “So, tell me about your writing” and you need to be ready with a 30 second reply. Memorize it, and then practice how to say it without it sounding memorized. Perhaps have a couple of different versions, so you have multiple ideas in your mind, and you will be less likely to freeze if you forget a specific word. I worked on a book for ten years and still worry that I’ll sound like a bumbling idiot and won’t be able to tell an editor what it is about.

Did I miss anything crucial? Please chime in!

 

 

 

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I’ve previously bemoaned the existence of reading logs in elementary school. Seven year old K complains bitterly about her 20 minutes of required reading per day, even though she can choose to read whatever she wants, and has only to then write down the author, the title and the number of pages read. (Far better than last year’s onerous process of having to use a “strategy” from a list—noticing, picturing, guessing, figuring out, connecting and wondering—and writing a few lines about what she’d read, using this “strategy.”) I used to love reading at that age, and it saddens me to think that the well-intentioned initiative of requiring a certain amount of reading—and some kind of proof of it—every day has turned a joyful activity into a chore.

I’m not going to try to fight the established system, at least not this one, not right now. It seems reading logs are a nation-wide phenomenon. Instead, I am trying to stock K’s shelves full of good books, in the hopes that she’ll one day get so immersed in one that she will forget to ask me repeatedly how long it’s been, and when is it 20 minutes, and how can it not be twenty minutes yet, and can I just stop now?

In my quest for copies of some of the books I loved as a child, I naively entered “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” into the Amazon search field. What I found was a list of dozens of options, including the “Movie Tie-in Edition,” a “Guide for Using The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the Classroom,” a “Read-Aloud” Edition, (what happened to just, you know, reading aloud from a regular book?), a “Family Guide” to the book, a graphic novel version, a “Teacher’s Guide,” the “Official Illustrated Movie Companion,” a “Full-Length New Dramatization,” a “Devotional Quest Into the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and a “Movie Storybook,” all in just the first two pages of results.

Whoah. All I want is just the regular book. But even once I managed to whittle down the results to what I thought was the original text, I was confronted with the next major decision: which edition to get. Because it turns out there is a vast array of cover designs, each one of which seeming to promise a completely different experience, and as children most definitely do judge a book by its cover (or at least mine does—don’t they all?), it is a matter of extreme relevance what the cover looks like. (Side anecdote: when I was about 10 or so, I had a hardcover book on my shelves called “Illustrated Minute Biographies.” That was the extent of the title visible on the spine. Because there was also a small image of Abraham Lincoln as well as a battleground scene, and because one side of my family hails from the Boston area, I always read the word “minute” here as the interval of time as opposed to a synonym for very small. How does this make sense, I hear you ask? Well, I assumed it had to do with Minutemen. You know, from the American Revolutionary War. And since at that age I had no interest in that aspect of history, I immediately dismissed the entire book. Years later I encountered it, read the full title, and realized that it was in fact a collection of 150 minute—as in very short—biographies of famous people. I read most of it, and learned a lot. )

Anyway, Back to the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Here are the first four editions I considered. (And I’ll preface this by saying that I mean no disrespect to the cover designers. I simply tried to approach this from what I imagined would be the viewpoint of my child.) First I give you my impression, and my prediction of K’s reaction. Then follows her actual reaction, which I solicited later:

The 2005 HarperFestival edition:

My take: In this one, apparently, Aslan has accidentally meandered into Hogwarts. I suspect my girly daughter will be completely put off by the armor-sporting, blade-wielding boy and the archer. She is NOT a Harry Potter fan. That said, since most kids her age are, I give kudos to this one, and the 719 reviews attest to its popularity. If it gets children to read the book, then it’s a fantastic cover. Just not the right one for my kid.

K’s take: “Looks a little weird, the scary face and fighty guys. Maybe when I’m in middle school I’ll like that kind of thing, but not now.”

The 2004 Harper Collins edition (which, on closer inspection of the description, is only 48 pages long. Hmm. Ah yes, now I see, it is “based on the text…”):

 

My take: Here a cold and miserable boy has apparently lost his way in Sweden and ended up among a cast of soulless, mean and/or spooky creatures. K will not go for this, either. At least the previous edition had a beautiful lion’s face on the cover.

K’s take: “I don’t really know what the experience of the book is. I might want to read it, but I might not. I would look through the pages first, though, and then decide.”

The 2009 Harper Collins Deluxe Edition:

My take: The lion running with two children on his back holds some promise, but the bleak, mushroom-colored background and the twin pair of strange, semi-naked horned creatures clutching waving stems of beet greens will be a turn-off.

K’s take: “No, because it looks a little crazy. I don’t like the two people swinging from branches. I don’t think I’d like this book based on this cover.”

 

 

 

Then there’s the Harper Collins Childs 1998 edition…

… in which the wardrobe in question appears to have been constructed by Pa and placed in the Little House on the Prairie. This conjures up entirely the wrong images for me, but as K has not yet read that series (hmm, I should look that one up, too), this is irrelevant. Still, I don’t think she’ll be keen on this one.

K’s take: “This looks like it would be in the Amazon. Why is there a lion in the Amazon? That doesn’t make sense. I don’t think I’d be interested in this.”

So there you have it. A wonderful, magical, classic, transportive text, and I don’t know how to entice my child to read it. My own copy, a few decades ago, was a plain-ish one, but I remember a combination of intriguing looking magical characters along with normal-looking children, and a pleasing blue-ishness. But perhaps what mattered most was that it had been my older brother’s copy, and therefore I felt honored to be in possession of it. So there’s hope for K’s little sister, at least!

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