Archive for July, 2012

Don’t Assume…Research

If you write historical fiction, you don’t need to be told this.  I’m certain you’re already spending more time researching than actually writing.

What if you’re simply writing a novel?  What then?  Is it necessary to research anything?  The easy and simple answer is “Yes.”  Your credibility depends on it, and if you have no credibility, you will have no readers.  Something you might gloss over in your manuscript, will, if it is not completely accurate, jump off the page at readers.  It is even critical to research background props which set the scene for your characters.  For instance, the family drama in my first book takes place in 1951.  I needed to find out that transistor radios did not exist until 1953 or I would have erroneously included one in my text.  I needed to find out when the Seeburg jukebox entered the lexicon and our lives.  I needed to know what music was popular that year.  I also obsessed over just when during the year The African Queen was released in theatres as it was playing at the local theater in June.  There are several guns mentioned in the book, and I discovered I did not have exactly the right descriptions.   Once in print, these things are difficult if not impossible to correct, depending on the type of publisher you are working with.  A few errors like these and you will be crucified by the people you want to read your book – and, most importantly, future books.

This was not historical fiction, but was 1951, however, even in current day novels, it is critical to be sure you’ve set the scene properly.  If you went to a play, and the props on stage were of a different time or place, it would be disconcerting, and you’d probably be wondering throughout each act just what exactly was going on.  We are lucky to have google and other search engines which have made the writer’s job much easier but, in some ways, also more difficult.  The onus is on us, more than ever, to be accurate.  Verify everything.

I did a great deal of research for my book, and I’ll share a web site I stumbled upon one night.  If you are looking for real products to inject into your writing to create authenticity, this is a goldmine and also just a fun site to view.   Check out www.vintageadbrowser.com   They have actual ads dating back to the early 1800’s, organized by type of product and also by decades.


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My mother was once kind enough to give me her old refrigerator.  Old is not exactly the right word because it was large, modern, pretty and worked great.  In other words I thought it was perfectly fabulous.  My mother had simply opted for a newer model.  I coveted it, as it put my decades-old apartment frig to shame.  I was still living in that little apartment over a garage.  That meant hauling it up a narrow set of wooden stairs, making a turn onto the landing and, most importantly getting it through the door.  Careful measuring was required.  To this day, no one owns up to being the one with the tape measure.

My friend Judy showed up for moral support, and our significant others picked up the rental van and dolly.  The frig was uneventfully picked up at my mother’s home and soon they were backing into my drive.  For some reason, my cousin Ron was also on hand to help.  Judy hadn’t met my cousin before and she exclaimed to me, “Oh my God, he has the most beautiful blue eyes I’ve ever seen.”  I’m sure I looked dumbfounded.  I barely knew he had blue eyes.  She continued to expound about his beautiful blue eyes non-stop – in a voice that sounded like she was about to experience the big O at any second.  I’ve never seen her like this before or since, and Ron was spoken for so she had to repress her animal impulses and concentrate on my new refrigerator.

The three guys were struggling to even budge the heavy appliance up the first few steps.  They decided Judy and I should get under it, and the three of them would pull from above.  This was a poor plan as there really wasn’t room for the three of them on top, and the refrigerator weighed a ton – literally, I’m sure it did.  We girls thought we were going to be casualties in what we were now all thinking was an ill-planned task.  There was an extreme amount of cursing.  Vulgar epithets were flying everywhere…at the fridge, the steps, each other.  It took about an hour (seriously) until the turn was made and my beautiful frig was on the landing.  Horror!  It wouldn’t fit through the door.  I have never seen three more red, sweaty, angry men in one place in my life.  I was very happy at that moment to be out of reach.

It was turned this way and that, but the effort was futile.  I was told, “You are not getting a new refrigerator.”  It came back down the stairs so much easier than how it went up.  They loaded it back in the truck and we all drove off to my mother’s house.  I had called so she was expecting us and met us out front.  The guys pulled the truck up behind me on the street.  I said, “Don’t you want to pull in the driveway?”  My answer was simply a really dirty look that I correctly ascertained meant, “Hell No.”  Judy and my mother and I watched silently (the best course of action at that moment) as they opened the rear door and moved my nice refrigerator to the ramp.  My mother lived on a hill.  The frig came out of that truck like it had a life of its own.  Their loss of control was, let’s say, immediate.  I could have won big money for this if I had had a video camera.  My refrigerator remained upright and at just the perfect angle to go running off down the hill for quite a distance, canted exactly to facilitate its escape.  They went running after it, but it gained momentum.  Finally they tackled it, it fell on its back on the road and slide just a little further before stopping at last.

My mother, completely unfazed, simply called out to them at this point, “Remind me to never hire you guys to move me.”

With considerable effort, they heaved it upright again and drug it back up the hill and into the garage.  We plugged it in – expecting nothing.  It worked!  It worked for years in my mom’s garage and kept lots of soda and beer cold.  I had to move from my apartment before I was able to get a new frig.

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I’m From Three Mile Island.  That’s what I say when people ask.  If I simply say Middletown, everyone assumes I mean Middletown, MD because of our proximity to the Mason Dixon line.  If I say Middletown, PA, I always get blank stares – like, you mean there is another Middletown in this country?  Yes, the Three Mile Island answer always suffices and locates me pretty specifically in their minds.

I spent my formative years running wild on the Susquehanna River and the islands there.  Snobby folks called us river rats which used to really offend me but the fun I had there more than compensated.  Besides Three Mile Island, which was used only for farming and hunting then, there were several others in the immediate area.  Friends of ours owned Beech Island which was awesome for swimming as it was sandy for as far out as you dared to go.  Fall Island was a non-inhabited narrow strip which was pretty much underwater during early spring floods.  In the summer it was a fun place for parties and swimming.   Hill Island was large and the most populated, with cottages dotting the entire shoreline on the eastern side.

We had a cabin on Hill, and I had friends there.  After chores each day, we left to meet up, returned again in time for supper and left again afterward, returning at bedtime.  No one knew where any of us were at any given hour.  It was my idea of heaven.  There were countless activities to keep us occupied…swimming, sunbathing, fishing, hunting for snakes, visiting with folks we knew, checking out docks and hammocks with a good book or just conversation and exploring – my favorite.  Hill Island was densely wooded and overgrown behind the cabins.  My favorite thing to do was traverse this wild land that was our domain in the summer.  Adults never felt the need to venture there.  Their imaginations no longer thrilled to the prospect of such adventures.  Hill Island was occupied by the Shelley family in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Their old homestead was back there, dilapidated, overgrown and mysterious to us.  The family’s cemetery was nearby with stones dating from the 1700’s.  We would sit back there and our youthful minds dreamed fanciful notions.

I miss those days.  By the time they built the reactors on Three Mile Island, I had moved away.  I was back well before March of 1979 – back and three months pregnant with my daughter when human error turned the entire town into an international news story.  I later worried if she would be born healthy.  For a few years we were part of a medical study run by Harrisburg Hospital.  They actually came to my house once to review our medical histories.  Let’s just say this did freak me out.  I worried for years that one or both of us would get cancer.  I finally decided I couldn’t live like that and successfully put it out of my mind.  That’s when I was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma.  I’m well now, and once in a while I think about going back to Hill Island.  My memories there are all happy ones.  How often and about how many places can a person say that?  My brother still fishes off Three Mile Island, but he never eats his catch.

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Katie and Max


Katie woke up from her nap and padded into the kitchen for a snack.  Max was there, staring out the patio door.  He yawned and turned as she joined him.

Katie asked, “Where’s Mom?”


“Out where?”

He barked at her, “How should I know.  She just said she’d be back soon.”

Katie considered this as Max threw himself down and began enthusiastically washing.

“Must you do that right now,” she asked?   “You know I hate it.”

“You don’t have to watch.”

“You’re disgusting.”

Max stopped for a moment and considered her remark.  “Where did you learn that word?”

Katie gave him a haughty look and answered, “I was watching TV and figured it out.”

Curious, Max wondered, “What does it mean?”

“It means vile, nauseating.”

He stared at her blankly.

She helpfully added, “It means you.”

He resumed his manic washing.

Katie loudly pronounced something that sounded like “Meeuuccckkk!”

Barely stopping, Max told her, “I don’t know why you’re so prissy (a word Mommy often called Katie).  You do it too.”

“I don’t do it in public, you moron.”

Max didn’t bother asking what moron meant.

As she continued to huff and puff at him, he gave up on his nether parts.  Looking around, he stood and said, “Fine, I’ll go check out the garbage.”

“You’ll get in trouble,” Katie told him in an irksome, sing-song little voice.

“Do I look like I care?  What’s she going to do?  Yell at me again?”

A moment later, the garbage only slightly disturbed, a key turned in the front door.  Katie and Max raced each other to arrive first.

Mom was home.  She greeted them as always, “There are my babies.  What have you guys been up to?  Have you been good?  Have you been good babies?”

“Wooof, woof, woof.  Meoowww, mew, meow,” they answered raucously.

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Written in the wee small hours of this morning…

I’m plagued by insomnia again.  It’s 2:30 am and I’m sitting here eating a banana and thinking of ghosts.  There are just so many of them.  They apparently wander all over town after dark.  (My personal apparitions all choose to visit in the daylight hours.)  Getting back to the nightly wayfarers, years ago someone thought it would be a lucrative idea to begin taking tourists on ghost tours through town.  Apparently they hit on a stellar idea, because now we have so many tours, I’ve lost count.  All through the warmer months, Civil War Ghost Guides in period dress take up their old-timey lanterns and lead groups up and down the streets of Gettysburg at night, regaling them with tales of soldiering ghosts who apparently have an aversion to going toward the light and choose to remain walking among us.

Wednesday night I learned that, in addition to ghost tours, we now have a ghost hunt.  I ran into a lovely mother and daughter at the Garyowen Pub and discovered they were booked for a hunt that very same night from eleven until two in the morning.  I asked, “How exactly are you supposed to find these ghosts?”  They said, “Oh we are all going to be given equipment.”  Whatever that entails I couldn’t begin to tell you, but they seemed to think it involved the electronic equipment you see in use by professional ghost hunters on television.  They were heading back to Ohio the next day, and I’m very sorry we didn’t exchange email addresses because I would really love to know if they found any diaphanous souls.

Yes, I do believe in ghosts.  I have seen them, smelled them (that’s a great story for another dark and strange night), heard them and sensed them.  You may think me crazy, but when you hear everything, you will be convinced (that there are ghosts, not that I’m crazy).  I have sold a pre-Civil War house that was haunted and also one that had a psychic experience.  I also grew up with a spirit who spent an inordinate amount of time climbing the stairs.  Don’t doubt me.

I think maybe I can sleep now…

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If you don’t know this already, it isn’t all about the rate.  There are other important considerations.  For instance, all lenders charge ancillary fees associated with your loan and they can vary tremendously.  The fees of a reputable lender can be as low as $1,000 and I once saw one bank charge in excess of $6,000 in fees.  Even the attorney handling settlement remarked on the usurious amount and asked the buyers if they had investigated this.  Strangely, they were okay with it.  The point is, don’t be surprised when you get your HUD-1 (the settlement sheet) just before closing and discover the lender has thrown everything but the kitchen sink on it.  When you first become pre-qualified or pre-approved for a mortgage, the lender is required to provide you with an estimate of closing costs, including their fees.  Request it.  Many buyers don’t and it isn’t always voluntarily provided at the outset.  Your Realtor will also provide you with an estimate, but we usually don’t have all the lender’s fees available to us and your Realtor should tell you this.

Also important is finding out the requirements of your new loan.  I just acquired buyers for one of my listings because the house they had originally written on had more than ten acres, and they found out far along in the buying process, their approved loan banned the financing of properties with an excess of ten acres.  My listing has five acres so they are fine now.  This is a bit unusual, but can happen.  There are, I swear, hundreds of different types of loans.  I may be exaggerating a little, but it is difficult for you or even your Realtor to know all conditions of every single one…and they can vary from lender to lender.  You need to ask questions, but even this is not always foolproof.  Usually you find out you have a problem a week or two before settlement when the lender’s underwriter begins going over the entire transaction with a fine tooth comb.  Underwriting is the last step in the process and the most important to you.   If you weren’t dealing with a super experienced loan officer at the outset, they may not even be aware that an underwriter is going to stop you in your tracks.

An important word on REVERSE MORTGAGES:

I spent a full day in a financing class recently for required continuing education.  You would think that would be boring, but it actually wasn’t – mostly a credit to the instructor.  I was prepared to down copious amounts of caffeine to keep myself awake.  The class was made worthwhile when we discussed how a senior can actually utilize a reverse mortgage.  It was an epiphany, and I faulted myself for not thinking of it on my own.

If you are 62 or older, you are eligible for a reverse mortgage on your current home.  Now you may not be ready for the rest home yet, but would like to relocate.  Maybe you’d like to be closer to your kids and grandkids or maybe you want to move away from them (had that happen once).  Anyway, to avoid the risk of losing a house you’ve fallen in love with because your current one hasn’t sold yet, you can take out a reverse mortgage, buy the new home and then, at your leisure, proceed with finding a buyer for the old house.  This is probably going to be preferrable to taking out a home equity loan.  You need to find a loan officer that specializes in reverse mortgages, and there are more and more of them around.  However, as with anything, ask for their credentials and how many reverse mortgages they’ve handled.

Happy House Hunting!

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I grew up reading the classics where the authors meandered for page after page or even chapters before any significant action took place.  Beloved authors, whose names are household words, got around to major events in their own good time.   This is not the school of thought today.   Over the past few decades writers have opted to begin in the middle of the action, sometimes smack in the middle of some horrific scene.  Some readers have told me they like to have a book start this way; they like not knowing what is going on.  I’m not one of these readers, but I can appreciate their point of view.  This is why we all have different favorite authors.

Whether you want to begin by having the villan thrusting the knife into the chest of a hapless, dispensable victim, that is your prerogative.  It apparently appeals to some folks – but not all.  I don’t mind a little set-up before the blood starts flowing in rivers.*  I do, however, mind pages and pages of pointless narrative.  I don’t need to know everything immediately.  I prefer an author who allows the reader to absorb details bit by bit, over time.  Let the reader use their imagination.

I attended a writer’s conference last summer.  All participants had submitted twenty-five pages of fiction we wished to “workshop”.  The first morning, the group’s instructor asked us to do something.  He asked us to read one paragraph from our submission – any paragraph we wished.   We all took a few minutes to choose and began, going around the table until all had read their selections.  He then asked us what page we had read from.  None of us had chosen page one or even two or three.  I myself had read a paragraph from page eleven of my work, and I was not alone.  One person had read from the next to last page.   Our instructor then declared that if that particular paragraph was the most appealing to us (and it obviously was), that should be the beginning of the book or story.  Let’s say it was eye-opening and we were all a little shocked by the suggestion.  Upon reflection, most of us agreed with him.

You can try the above exercise on your own work and see if you then consider altering your beginning.  I did, and my book is better for it.  That alone was worth the price of the conference, but I learned much more.  It was my first writer’s conference and I would highly recommend the experience if you’ve never done it.  There are scores of them held all around the country, and many in some pretty amazing and exotic locales which I sadly can’t afford…maybe some day.

*My example was simply a metaphor.  I’m perfectly happy to read novels where no blood-letting is involved.

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