Decades ago, professionally adrift, I visited the Chicago area offices of Robert Jackson & Associates to discuss a project for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. IDNL needed someone to research and write about local conditions before agriculture and industry encroached. Narrative and landscape, history and geography: What could suit me better?
The ensuing work introduced me to the magic of the duneland. I learned the dynamics of ecological succession, the difference between bogs and fens, and the satisfaction of reporting to scientists who demanded the facts exactly as we found them.
This past February, the former national lakeshore at the southern tip of Lake Michigan was re-designated a national park. With its miles of beaches and trails, houses dating from the French fur-trading era to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and endless diversity of wildflowers, the new IDNP is calling me for a fresh visit to old haunts.
Good novels and good movies draw the reader/viewer in. They generate emotion and make readers/viewers care. Writing conveys more unspoken thoughts and leaves more visuals to the imagination. Film does the opposite, while paring down complex story to fit within two hours.
Revising an overly introspective passage of fiction a few months ago, I wanted to make it read more like a movie. At the University of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute earlier this month, Tim Storm and Ann Garvin told why this doesn’t work. Stage business in a movie—turning the key in the ignition, taking a bite of salad—adds realism without forcing itself on your attention. On the printed page, by contrast, stage business interrupts the story. Tim and Ann advised novelists to convey only details the character would notice, leaving readers to fill in the background.
“Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride . . .”
Through the night of April 26, 1777, sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington rode forty miles in a thunderstorm to muster militiamen against the British. She roused the countryside after her father, a militia colonel, received the message that drunken Redcoats were burning Danbury, Connecticut.
The militiamen weren’t able to save Danbury, but they stopped the British advance. Soon afterward, energized by the incident, 3,000 Connecticut men joined the American army.
Statues, historical markers, and a 1975 postage stamp commemorate this hero of the American Revolution. She rode twice as far as Paul Revere, so why didn’t I learn about her in school? Perhaps because Longfellow never wrote a poem about her. Maybe he tried and gave up. Ludington is a lot harder to rhyme than Revere.
April is National Poetry Month. At the Monroe Street Library here in Madison, Wisconsin, Poet-in-Residence Susan Podebradsky writes and chats for an hour a week behind a sign that reads “The Poet Is In.”
“It gives people the opportunity to have a personal experience with poetry in real time, face to face,” she says. Adults and children suggest a word or topic, for which she writes them a poem on the spot. Others stop by to discuss their favorite poem, share one they’ve written, browse her stack of poetry books, or create a short poem from words on wooden blocks.
She’s part of a group called Spontaneous Writing Booth, which offers poetry at various community events. It doesn’t have an online presence yet. “That would take organization, and we’re spontaneous.” Her two remaining sessions at Monroe Street are Tuesday, April 16, and Wednesday, April 24, both days at four o'clock.
English is endlessly fascinating, at least to me. So are the brains that master a zillion linguistic rules without knowing they exist. Consider these words or phrases (for today’s purposes, let’s not quibble the hyphens):
We learn in school about rhyme and alliteration, but who teaches about word pairs where only the vowel changes? The vowels must follow a particular sequence:
i before a, or i before o. Can you think of any common such pairing in which the order is reversed?
Small wonder learning or teaching English as a second language is so challenging. Here’s an entertaining read about how this vowel-order rule bumps up against another linguistic sequencing rule you may not have known you knew.
The situation is perilous. My protagonist recalls how she got into this mess, imagines the worst that can happen, and feels her heart pound and her palms sweat.
Reader feedback: “I don’t feel her fear.”
It’s come up more than once, from different readers in response to different scenes. I’ve known fear; I’ve shivered over scary novels; I’ve read posts online about conveying character emotions. The problem persists.
Help wanted! What makes a portrayal of dread ring true to you? Does time speed up or slow down? Does the mind focus on details of danger or the fly buzzing in the corner? How do your favorite authors draw you into their characters’ fear?
Over the years I’ve often traveled alone for work, conferences, or events, or to join friends or family. My recent San Diego week was different, a medicinal dose of outdoor rambles free from fear of falling on ice.
Much as I enjoy shared vacations, solo travel turns out to have benefits. Two restaurants seated me immediately while couples waited for larger tables to clear. One friend told me she’d love to move, rest, or eat as the spirit moved, without the need to consult a companion. Another said, “I think we, as women, take it on ourselves to try to make sure things go well for everyone. Traveling alone, when something goes wrong we can just relax and deal with it. We haven’t let anyone down.”
Fake Flamenco blogger Rebecca Cuningham writes of gaining life confidence as a solo traveler at twenty. While this may be a coming-of-age phenomenon, it can recur any time resilience starts to flag. Now I’m glad to be home revived, spring has melted the ice, and the writing that stalled amid February’s winter blues has finally started to flow.
My boyfriend at high school summer camp in Massachusetts turned out to have played with my brother when they were five-year-old neighbors in Kansas. Some years later, as I stood forlorn in Honolulu after my husband boarded his flight for Vietnam, a young man in Air Force uniform called my name; our families were shirttail relatives who visited in Pittsburgh when he and I were kids. In real life, coincidences happen.
Why not in fiction, then? Because fiction isn’t like life. Stories demand a logical progression of cause and effect, leading to climax and resolution. Real life is less shapely. A lot of life just happens, including the occasional odd happenstance we wouldn’t tolerate from an author.
This guideline comes from Emma Coates in Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling: “Coincidences that get characters into trouble are great. Coincidences that get them out of it are cheating.”
Maps have fascinated me since childhood. Globes, aerial photographs, choreographic floor plans, house blueprints, graphic organizers, apps that show you the driver approaching your house—lay it out for me spatially and you have me hooked.
So my first question after checking into my San Diego hotel last week, on respite from the polar vortex, was, “Which way is north?” The answer, together with the maps I’d pored over in advance, let me roam with confidence by foot, bus, and trolley.
Two-dimensional maps didn’t prepare me for the wonders of Balboa Park. A walkway in the Japanese Friendship Garden descends by switchbacks to the pond in this photo, far below the entrance. The Palm Garden nestles in another canyon across the road. A visit to the panda began with a long outdoor elevator ride into the depths of the zoo. To relish the third dimension, sometimes you have to be there.
Lately I’ve been working on an Afghanistan chapter for the next volume of Rotary and the Gift of a Polio-Free World. It’s sobering stuff. Afghanistan led the world in children paralyzed by polio last year, in part because of threats against workers who tried to deliver vaccine. Across the border in Pakistan, more than a hundred vaccinators and their guards have been murdered over the past five years. Immunizing children can be dangerous work.
The dangers are different in the United States. Measles infected more than a hundred people here in the past two months, mostly in places where a critical mass of parents fear vaccination. Measles vaccine can’t be given to those the vaccine most endangers: infants below age one, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems. Unprotected, they’re at high risk of infection in any public space where someone with measles coughed or sneezed in the last hour or two. They're safest in a community where the children around them are vaccinated.
For historical perspective, measles caused 450 to 500 deaths a year in the United States before the introduction of vaccine. Globally, measles and its complications still kill more than 100,000 people a year, mostly children below age five. Unwitting travelers—eighty-one of them in 2018 alone—bring the virus back to the United States.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.