Retreating to Reconnect

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

April and May are reflective times of year for me. I often dwell on goals and achievements still unreached so I can set new goals, prioritize, and move forward. Interestingly, it has become a time to reconnect with past publishers. Not quite a week ago, I received an email from an educational publisher I worked with regularly for many years. The same happened with another publisher about a year ago. It’s even more interesting (and amazing) that this happened just before I left for a retreat and—perhaps due to the events/activities at the retreat—I received a

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

new assignment from this company two days after I returned home.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Feeling pulled in many directions and needing a moment (or many) of clarity, I made last-minute plans to car pool with a small group of friends also headed to Our Lady of Florida Retreat Center on the east coast. It was the best weekend I’ve had in five

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like "monks" holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like “monks” holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

years. (That’s about the time my father became so ill and much of my time centered around writing, teaching, and getting meals to him, or simply spending time with him.) I needed the break. I needed the peace, the fellowship, the downtime (no WiFi and I chose to limit phone use). I had time to think through life (and writing) puzzles and returned home restored and ready to reconnect—on a fresh frequency.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

Those who follow my writing and workshop info know that I am drawn to nature to recharge. The grounds of this retreat center were beautiful. So was the architecture and art throughout the retreat house, dormitories, and grounds. I came away fed–physically, mentally, and spiritually. I cannot wait to go back!

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Notes of Spring in the Air

IMG_0184This morning I woke from a restless dream but once I inhaled the fresh and dewy air and heard the birdsong, I felt renewed. Memories of the dream evaporated on the wind. It’s no wonder I push my writing students to incorporate sensory detail into their stories and memoir—it is something I notice in my everyday life. Scent and sound are especially important to me and these are two of the little used senses in prose. Too often writing focuses on the visual. Sure, it paints a picture, but to give a sense of a situation, the reader needs more—and sound, scent, or taste can provide it.

I especially love spring mornings. This is the time of year in Florida when the greens are varied shades and vibrant from morning dew. The air is fresh and clean, and the winds are gentle, warm, and dry. A nest of squirrels live in the pine tree near my lanai screen and as they scurry from the branches to the trunk, the bark crackles.

IMG_0183This morning, though, the scent is less pleasant than usual. We had heavy rain showers most of the day yesterday and so my first few breaths smelled like worms. This is not entirely bad; it reminds me of where I grew up in Michigan. The wormy scent soon subsided but a lingering fishy odor wafted up from the huge pond along the golf course. Thankfully, after only a short time, the wind replaced this with the scent of rich loam, wet earth, which again reminds me of home.

Somewhere nearby, a spring-break visitor is either playing music or has his or her cellphone on speaker. The sound is faint, like murmuring, but I know it’s not a neighbor’s TV because it wavers as if this person is walking (likely around the pond).

IMG_0277I’ve lived here long enough to tell when the clink of a golf club from the 3rd tee is a solid stroke. If not, I’ll hear a clunk, thwup, or ping. If the palms and pine trees didn’t hide the tee, I might be able to connect those sounds with where the club struck the ball.

But these observations, noted as I drink a cup of dark French roast, do not merely help me wake. They prime the creative pumps. Whether I record these sounds and scents in my journal or not, they WILL make their way into my stories and personal experience pieces. Because they provide more than just the visual, they will enrich the scene. Sound and scent and taste (when that can be woven in) add depth to a scene and sometimes clues and hints about a character’s personality.

So listen to the world around you and note the details. Inhale deeply and note the scents and odors. Now draw on these details when you’re writing. Your readers will thank you.

Of Earth and Trees

Pine and cypress on golf courseThis morning is unusually quiet. Even golfers avoid the dull overcast from last night’s steady rain. Trunks of trees glisten with moisture and drip tears from their leaves as I take my morning walk. Ah, here at the clubhouse something is going on, perhaps to celebrate Earth Day. (On Saturday the place was overrun with children in various activities.)

As I walk and wonder, I recall a similar celebration when I was 7 or 8 years old. I’m playing hopscotch with my friends on a sunny early spring day in Michigan. In the middle of my turn I remember, I was supposed to be up at school today! The teacher has talked about the celebration for Earth Day or Arbor Day or something. I think of green and plants and trees and saving the earth from pollution. We’ll do activities, make crafts, play games, and have prizes. I signed up and each day this week our teacher has reminded us.

I rush through my turn, stepping on my stone then jumping off the chalked-in game board. I run home but cannot find my mom. “Dad took her grocery shopping,” my older sister tells me.

Now I’m in a panic. My teacher reminded us, reminded me, endlessly about this. Will I get into trouble?

pine and cypress against blue skyMy eldest brother overhears and offers to take me. He is in his last year of high school  (or maybe just home from his first year of college) and I feel so grown up sitting in the passenger seat of his car. He can drive, though our other brother can’t. Not yet, not for several years.

The school is not far at all, but to walk there I’d need to cut through an abandoned nursery plus an orchard and riding my bike would take me along too many busy roads (some without sidewalks).

We arrive and no one is around. Oh, no, I think, I’ve missed it!

But the school is not surrounded by fences or gates as they are today so we head to the playground in the back. I lead my brother around the building, guiding him through the enclosed Kindergarten playground, and now I can hear all the people and kids on the main playground behind the school.

My brother checks in with one of the grown ups and I run off to find my friends. They’re planting something and I get to help. But I’m disappointed when I reach them. They’re watering sticks in the ground.

“Where were you?” my friend demands. “You weren’t here to check in. We already ate lunch.”

I don’t know what to say. I shrug, because I already ate lunch. At home.

The man smiles. “It’s okay that you’re late. You’re here now.” He’s not a teacher at our school, I don’t think. He shows me how to gently separate the sticks from the pile, make a hole and place a stick in so it will grow. “I know it looks weird,” he says, “but each stick really will turn into a tree. Just wait.”

My brother is next to me now. “Lisa, I’ll be at work when this ends. Dave will come up to take you home. Okay?” I look up at him, nodding.

Then, it turns out, the man knows my brother. They laugh and talk. By the time I realize my brother is gone, our little group has planted a crooked row of sticks at the edge of the playground where it backs up to a row of houses.

Each group rotates through planting stick trees or flowers. (Now that is what I expected. Just like when I help my mom with the plants at home.) We have relay races with prizes, tiny ice cream cups like when someone at school has a birthday. And I learn about trees and plants.

The man says to me, “Your name’s Lisa, isn’t it?” I nod. “That boy is calling you.”

I turn to see my other brother at the far corner of the playground, back by a giant oak tree my friends and I like to play tag around. He’s waving to me. “Come on! Gotta go!”

My friend turns to me. “But it’s not done yet. We get a badge and award at the end.”

I shrug, then turn and run to my brother. We walk the way I am not allowed to go and he swears me to secrecy. I trust him. He leads through a gap in a fence, across a wide plank like a balance beam over gravel pits. Then we cut through the abandoned nursery and the old orchard to enter our backyard.

At school on Monday a hand-printed certificate sits on my desk. So does a thin plaster “badge” shaped like a clover. It reminds me of the cut-out cookies my mom makes, but with a hole at the top with red yarn strung through it. Except, instead of colored sugar, this is painted green with my name lettered in black. This is my reward for planting sticks? I wonder.

k5454-17 Potato PlantThe sticks do grow into trees. When I’m on the playground, I feel proud, especially by the time I’m in grade 4 and the pine trees cause me to marvel that they were ever shorter than a Popsicle stick.

TwoEgretsI like to believe that during this event I participated in the first Earth Day, but I have long since lost the “award” and it could have been Arbor Day (which is celebrated this year on Friday, April 24). Whatever the event, I do know it had a lasting impression on me. I love the outdoors, plants, trees, birds, wildlife. I grew up to write books for children about these topics. I’ve written about the environment, nature, recycling, and sustainability. I’d like to believe the roots of these interests were planted on that spring day long ago when I was still in elementary school.8771543_orig

The Longest Night

“A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.” –Steve Martin

winterwoods-MimiLuikIf you’re in the northern hemisphere, tonight (Sunday, 21 December 2104) is Winter Solstice. Winter officially arrives at 23:03 p.m. EST (that’s 6 o’clock in the evening on the east coast of the United States). The days now begin to lengthen. For those who love the snow and cold of winter, it’s time for rejoicing. Winter is here. For those who dread the frigid conditions and wild weather of winter, this is still good news since each days draws us closer to the warmer temps of springtime. (But, our coldest days are still ahead of us since the earth continues to lose more heat than it gains during “daytime” for several weeks yet. So just hang in there.)

Equinox-orbitsThis year, I’m intrigued by Winter Solstice for several reasons, one of which (no surprise) relates to research for a few of my fiction projects. (You know I love my research.) For one project, my characters need to know Latin (which means I need to learn some phrases) and while surfing the information highway, I discovered something I did not know: the origin of solstice is from the Latin solstitium meaning “sun (sol) stoppage (-stitium). During the winter solstice, the sun’s path reaches its lowest point in the sky. At noontime, the sun is directly overhead on Winter Solstice. But for a few days before and after the solstice, the sun appears to be in the same place each place. It looks “stalled” and this is how the name came to be.

sun treeThe other reason Winter Solstice has intrigued me is because of its history and celebrations surrounding it. Again, I have another fiction project that is fantasy based and so I’ve been creating holiday celebrations for these characters. Learning about Yule and Winter Solstice traditions led to exploring how Christmas is celebrated in different cultures. This led to other winter holidays and they all made me see connections–the springboard to creativity–for fictional winter celebrations in books, games, and other entertainment. For example, the Feast of Winter Veil and Greatfather Winter in World of Warcraft and Hogswatch from Discworld.

In addition to enjoying the preparations for this year’s Christmas (and New Year’s) celebrations, I’m having fun weaving traditions, customs, and repurposed details into the beliefs and festivities my characters will take part in. Even if your stories are set in the present world, note your own traditions (and those you’ve heard friends share) and select a few customs for your characters. Holidays and traditions (and a character’s reaction to them) are great ways to reveal a life-like character to readers.

Happy holidays, and have fun writing!

Distracted by Mother Nature

Creek in the woods, northern Michigan (lower peninsula)

Creek in the woods, northern Michigan (lower peninsula)

Nature inspires me. It has since I was a child playing on dirt mounds surrounding the newly dug basements in my subdivision playground and exploring the fields and woods down the road. Last night I was inspired by the lunar eclipse.

They’re calling it the Blood Moon because this eclipse makes the moon appear reddish orange. (It’s also part of a tetrad–4 such events this year and next.) Reading about this phenomenon in the past few days has caused me to think about a YA fantasy WIP rather than complete revisions on an MG historical novel. (Again, Mother Nature distracting me.)

I’m glad I got to see this lunar eclipse though it wasn’t as “blood read” as I

Blood Moon April 15, 2014 via RT.com http://on.rt.com/el2l6s

Blood Moon April 15, 2014 via RT.com http://on.rt.com/el2l6s

expected. To me it looked more blush colored. But, I was fascinated by the up-wattage of the surrounding stars. I usually have a hard time seeing most of the constellations in the city, but not at 3:15 a.m. this morning. Good thing I got up to take a peek at Mother Nature’s nocturnal display.

That didn’t work out the way I’d planned, either. I originally set my alarm, based on a report I’d seen that this phenomena would be visible around 3:30 and 4:30 a.m. Then I fell asleep watching TV and woke around 3 a.m. Still half asleep, I noted that it seemed rather dark outside and that it was best to wait for the alarm to wake me — if I would even hear it. I powered off the TV and stumbled to bed but couldn’t settle. A nagging thought told me to get up and look out the picture window. I tried to ignore it, telling myself I still had 30 minutes to sleep.

I’m glad I listened. It was amazing and I fell asleep thinking, this is what Kaelyne sees one night on her quest — and this is how she knows she is close to a hidden magic only she can uncover.  I woke again around 4:20 a.m. and again that inner voice nagged at me until I got up to look again. The bright white moon was a crescent along the bottom of the eclipse but still the surrounding constellations where extra bright. They, along with the edge of visible moon, seemed to glow more intensely than ever.

This time I went back to bed thinking of a different project–Kaia on her SF world–and lapsed into vivid dreams about both settings. I’m glad I experienced this event, though it will frustrate my critique group. (They wish I’d stick to just one project at a time.) What can I say? “Please excuse the inconvenience. This round of revisions has been interrupted by a message from Mother Nature.” Based on what I’ve drafted, the distraction was worth it!

May you each find and draw inspiration from whatever source spurs on progress. Happy writing!

Subtle Seasons

It’s been more than a decade since I swapped peninsulas to move from Michigan to Florida. When I did, everyone told me, “You’ll miss the seasons. Florida only has two: hot and rainy or warm and dry.” They were right – and wrong.

They were right because I loved autumn with the crisp nights and sunny days, the bonfires and hay rides at the orchards, and the fresh apple cider from the local mills. I also loved the vivid colors of fall foliage; a weekend pastime was to drive Edward Hines from end to end to soak in the beauty. I missed autumn. I also missed winter–more accurately, the beauty of winter. It was the endless dirty piles of snow and ice from plowed parking and roads that I disliked. It was clearing the car in frigid temperatures that caused me to move away. And because spring stopped making all that bearable. I used to love spring and seeing the fresh light green of budding trees and tender grass sprinkled with the white and yellow and pink and purple of new spring flowers.

But they were wrong, too. When I settled in Florida, I felt the joy I felt for northern summers with their deepening and varied shades of green and their bursts of vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows. Day lilies and tiger lilies were a staple around my patio in Michigan. Though I couldn’t get them to grow here, I have fallen in love with the creamy white flowers and glossy green-black leaves of the Frangipani trees and the sprinkles of white, star-shaped fragrant jasmine flowers on hedge-like bushes. These plants herald summer and the coming rains. Our season to “suffer through,” just like the winters of Michigan.

Autumn emerges with vivid greens after all the summer rains. It is a subtle transition, one likely to be overlooked except by the very observant. Another herald is the noise of congested beaches and numerous cars, including more honking (something about southern drivers limits their use of horns, even in near-accident situations or car horns are usually northerners). The arrival of the Snow Birds is a true indicator of autumn when overnight travel time will double no matter how sort the distance.

The coming of winter is marked by the dropping of humidity and cool, zephyr-like breezes. Tension in the air also drops as locals give thanks for “paradise weather.” Leaves of the Ficus trees fall and walkways crunch with the hard brown leaves. For about three weeks we experience cool nights when sweaters are needed and sometimes frost advisories cause citrus grove owners to scramble to protect their delicate crops.

Spring arrives around March with the orange blossoms delivering their heady, sweet scent for miles on the breeze. The scent is citrus-y in the dewy mornings, but the sun-warmed fragrance in the afternoons reminds me of the lilacs I miss from my northern home.

So the seasons here are subtle just as the seasons of our lives creep up on us, yet they exist all the same. Someone tuned into her surroundings will notice the patterns emerge that transition one season to the next. And just as when I lived in the north, I look forward to the next season, the next stage in the progressing year, and my heart is content.

What transitions suggest season’s change where you live? Note those details for your next story or essay draft. Happy observing–and writing!

The Nature of Characters

Another season and semester of writing workshops is drawing to  a close. It’s been especially hectic during the past five months and my body is demanding a real break this summer. I’ve structured my schedule for more writing time and more time to wander and generate ideas.  I decided I need more time outside, enjoying nature, because that recharges my creativity. Of course,  I can’t wait to get started.

So, yesterday I wandered. I visited a local park to take a break from my writing and workshops. Today I’m wondering about what I saw when I wandered. It will filter into two stories I’m working on. I’ve come to accept that this is my writer’s brain at work.

Here’s what I saw. This park I visited has a fantastic nature center and fabulous pathways to wander. Few people realize that it’s a natural filtration system in the middle of a city. I wandered off the walkway to the nature trail that meanders through trees and other vegetation. Eventually I came upon a grouping of Ficus trees with I thought were incredible. Some looked like carved and woven “figures” but these were actually formed by the Strangler Figs wrapping the trees. Like cloud gazing, I let my imagination go and saw lizards, a tree nymph, alligators and other figures.

Fingers grasping trunk, or a giant insect climbing the tree.

Fingers grasping trunk, or a giant insect climbing the tree. This is what I see when the vine “strangles” the Ficus.

As my friend and I walked on, my relaxed mind began weaving what I’d just seen into a fantasy story I’m working on. This W-I-P is actually a book but I’m still in the planning stages. A scene came to me in which my main character (MC) will need to find magically dormant creatures that everyone assumes are somewhere in the Forbidden Forest (or some such place) and awaken them. No one realizes that these creatures are “hidden” in plain sight on the very paths they walk daily. But my MC will eventually figure this out.

Later, on another path we wandered, I was startled when a breeze caused a patch of plants and fish tale palms to move. I thought it was a giant preying mantas! It sort of looked like one. It was green with palm fronds moving up and down as the insect moves its pinchers. While my friend laughed, I realized I’d let my imagination soar. We did spend a little time looking at the patch and imagining shapes as we’d done with the strangler figs. Now ideas are forming for a plant-based species in my SF story I’m working on.

So, today I am wondering what it would be like to be a walking plant. How would I eat? What would I eat? How would I move? I’ve already figured out how my MC in that story will meet her first plant-based creature. It will be meditating (praying?) in a garden and my MC will try to pick a “flower” from its head thinking the poor creature is actually a flowering plant. A nice subplot to show my MC’s lack of experience and ineptitude in her multi-species environment. (She’s had a lot of mishaps that show how naive she is so this could build on it.)

I’m eager to put my wonderings to the test at the computer. First, I’m wondering where my wanderings will take me next. It’s going to be an inspiring summer!