Monday, August 30, 2010

Almost like Fall

It's a rainy, cool Monday morning here, and I'm snuggled in a hoodie and warm socks for the first time since our long cool spring finally gave way to summer heat. I'm thinking about fall, my favorite season, and the ACFW conference which starts in less than three weeks now.

Summer will be back by the end of the week, but since it feels like fall today, and I love fall, here's a brief but appropriate snippet from the WIP written a few days ago.
The heat had broken at sunset with a rain that thundered through with brief intensity, then passed on east across the foothills as twilight fell. A freshening breeze still blew in its wake, and while it kept away the mosquitoes, it raised gooseflesh down Willa’s bare arms and calves. She had come out in her shift, and the temperature was fallen to something nigh chill. Crossing the yard barefoot under a moon so bright she could see her shadow moving ahead of her, she had no real aim in mind, but when she spotted a stray branch, strewn by the storm, she picked it up. A few paces on she found another.

Making a slow circuit of the clearing, she gathered windblown limbs to break into kindling, come morning.

The heavy stickiness of the previous day had vanished. The air felt scrubbed clean, and still smelled of rain. The stars were brilliant and many, adding their light to the moon’s. She stopped to feel the breeze on her skin, sensing in it a distant hint of autumn.

Would she be there still once autumn passed?

She had no more than caught that worry from the corner of her mind’s eye before a memory slipped in to distract her, turning her thoughts back to weeks ago.

Your hair… ’tis the color o’ winter oak leaves.

She had left the cabin to stop thinking of Neil MacGregor. Better to fix her mind on the land auction… and the letter that still had not come. Her hope in it ever coming was frayed now. No longer hope, but desperation.

Oh that I had the wings of a dove,” she whispered into the wind. Then she would fly to Albany herself and find Tilda Fruehauf… or her grave marker, if she too was dead.

Hugging the bundle of storm-cast limbs to her chest, she moved on, her feet and the hem of her shift swishing through the wet, seeding grasses that grew along the stock-pen fence, while the wind rattled the trees at the clearing’s edge and ran cool fingers through her unbraided hair. 
Crickets sang in the grass. Somewhere nearby a night bird called and she thought, he would be able to name it…. 
With a frustrated hiss through her teeth, she turned back toward the cabin, following the fence line Neil MacGregor had mended. As she reached the empty stall-shed, having circled around to the rear of the log structure, the breeze kicked up. Its soughing and leaf-rattling covered her footsteps. It covered as well the small sounds that might have warned her before the horse blew practically in her ear, from the other side of the shed wall. 
Flinging aside all but the stoutest limb, she rounded the shed as a figure stepped out, towering between her and the horse’s rump. Richard, she thought, an instant before she smelled the bear grease. An instant too late. With a fierce, half-choked cry, she had already swung.
~ from The Quiet In The Land (working title Willa)
Copyright 2010 Lori Benton

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Thoughts on: The Mountain Between Us, by Charles Martin

I'm in love with another writer. At least with his writing. Or maybe it's his character, Ben Payne. I haven't sorted it out yet, much like I haven't sorted out the tears I cried when I finished reading Charles Martin's The Mountain Between Us, about 48 hours ago. Let me share what the jacket blurb has to say:

On a stormy winter night, two strangers wait for a flight at the Salt Lake City airport. Ashley Knox is an attractive, successful writer who is flying east for her much anticipated wedding. Dr. Ben Payne has just wrapped up a medical conference and is also eager to get back east for a slate of surgeries he has scheduled for the following day. When the last outgoing flight is canceled due to a broken deicer and a forthcoming storm, Ben finds a charter plane that can take him around the storm and drop him in Denver to catch a connection. And when the pilot says the single-engine prop plane can fit one more, if barely, Ben offers the seat to Ashley, knowing that she needs to get back just as urgently. And then the unthinkable happens. The pilot has a heart attack mid-flight, and the plane crashes into the High Uintas Wilderness--one of the largest stretches of harsh and remote land in the United States. 

Ben has broken ribs, and Ashley suffers a terrible leg fracture. Along with the pilot's dog, they are faced with an incredibly harrowing battle to survive. Fortunately, Ben is a medical professional and avid climber (and luckily, has his gear from a climb he made earlier in the week). With little hope for rescue, he must nurse Ashley back to health and figure out how they are going to get off the mountain, where the temperature hovers in the teens. Meanwhile, Ashley soon realizes that the very private Ben has some serious emotional wounds to heal. He explains to Ashley that he is separated from his beloved wife, but in a long-standing tradition, he faithfully records messages for her on his voice recorder, reflecting on their love affair. As Ashley eavesdrops on Ben's tender words to his estranged wife, she begins to fear that when it comes to her own love story, she's just settling. And what's more, she begins to realize that the man she is really attracted to, the man she may love, is Ben.

As the days on the mountains become weeks, their survival becomes increasingly perilous. How will they make it out of the wilderness, and if they do, how will this experience change them forever?

Mountain is my first Charles Martin book, and I feel a little like I was set down in an unexpected place and changed forever as well. Not since I read Louis L'Amour's Last of the Breed have I been swept up in such a thrilling and visceral wilderness survival tale, yet Mountain is so much more than that. It's also a love story, and the story of a marriage, a portrait of transforming love, hope, and faith. It's a story of healing, and of a somewhat jaded soul being open to the conviction that there is more to loving another human being than she thought was possible.

More than just a story of a marriage, it is a story of marriage. What does a marriage look like? What could it grow to be? Can it get better with time? As someone who just celebrated her 23rd wedding anniversary, I found the answers to those questions utterly satisfying. And encouraging. Even a bit convicting.

The story kept me guessing and surprised me until the very end, engaging me completely to root for Ben and Ashley (two people I'd love to have as friends in my real life, for their courage, their humor, their strength, and their loyalty) not only to survive their harrowing journey out of the wilderness, but to break through the barriers keeping one of them in a place of brokenness and guilt, the other in a place of hope deferred, willing to settle for second-best. As Martin says on his website:

"Most, if not all, of my stories, follow the arc of a character from a real bad place of being broken to a place of not broken. If you ask me ‘what fires me up as a writer,’ it’s that. That arc. From messed up to maybe not so messed up. Why? Because at the other end is hope."

Hope is an essential quality for a novel if I'm going to enjoy it, or recommend it. Mountain has it in spades. Charles Martin's insight into the human heart, as well as his prose, are breathtakingly beautiful. I'd have read Mountain for the clean, spare, yet lyrical strength of the writing alone, which is evident from the first page of the Prelude, but to have that, and such a gripping tale, and characters that are as vibrant and living as the folk I know (maybe even more so), is a literary gift. Thank you, Charles Martin.

I can't stop thinking about the characters and their story arcs, even though I've already started another of Martin's books, When Crickets Cry, which has me hooked just as firmly--a hook set gently before the first hard tug on the line came. I'm so happy to still have all his other books to read.

Charles Martin's website:

Read the Prelude and first chapter of The Mountain Between Us:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

In the Footsteps of Lewis & Clark

Okay, not really in their footsteps. Actually we jumped ahead and met them at the end of their 4000-mile trek across the Louisiana Territory, what would become the states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon

My husband and I took a four-day road trip north from southern Oregon, winding up where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and the rest of the Corp of Discovery--31 in all--wintered from December 1805 to March 1806 after their trek to the Pacific Ocean, on the Netul River (now the Lewis and Clark River). Here they built Fort Clatsop, named in honor of the local Native American tribe. There's a reconstruction of the fort, fully furnished, with living history programs and rangers on hand to answer questions.

The front door

Inside this room (above & below photos), the Captains' quarters, we had an enjoyable conversation with a park interpreter, a woman who shares our love for late 18th and early 19th century history, particularly (of course) Lewis & Clark and the Corp of Discovery.

It was also a lovely break from our southern Oregon high desert heat, under the cloudy canopy that so often blankets the northwest corner of the state, with the cool ocean breeze coming off Youngs Bay, at the mouth of the Columbia River. It wasn't so pleasant for the Corp of Discovery, who complained that out of the 106 days they spent there, it rained all but twelve. Clothing rotted. Colds and flues abounded. Fleas were bad. I was not inclined to complain about the intrusive noise of the stairwell and elevator right outside our hotel room that night.

I poured over all the period artifacts in the interpretive museum on site, happy to see some of the equipment my 18th century naturalist, Neil MacGregor, would have used as well, or things that Willa would have in her cabin, like the bullet mold I have her using in a recent scene, to replenish her store of musket balls after another character uses her musket for target practice, and practically empties her shot pouch.

We enjoyed watching a short film narrated by a Clatsop woman, whose direct ancestor was one of the tribe who lived nearby the fort during the winter the Corp of Discovery stayed there. If you get the chance, I highly recommend a visit to the reconstructed fort. I've visited various points along the L&C route, most memorably the Lolo Pass area in the Bitterroots of Montana, but I dream of one day retracing the entire route.

On the trip there and back, we listened to an audio version of Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage. This is a must read for anyone interested in learning more about Lewis and Clark. It's inspired me to read their journals, so those are next on my list of research material. Listening to this book inspired my husband, a Boy Scout troop master, to have his troop members keep a journal on their next week-long outing into the mountains, in the style of Lewis & Clark.

A few more photos from our long weekend:

 The Octopus Tree, Tillamook, OR. 
Sitka Spruce normally have a single straight trunk. I'd probably look like this too if I lived on that windy headland.

We had some awesome sunsets!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Time to Celebrate

I'll be away from the blog until next week, celebrating my anniversary with a handsome, funny, godly guy I met when I was seventeen. 23 years later, I still think he's handsome, funny, and godly. And he still calls me his younger woman. I'll always have that, at least!

And I'm getting more and more excited about the ACFW conference approaching in Sept. It's been a year and a half since my last conference (she confesses), and I can't wait for this one!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Q&A with Kaye

Author Kaye Dacus has a fun Q&A with me on her blog today. You can find it HERE. Kaye has an awesome blog. Come on over and explore some.

Just coming back to add, since I just read it, today's post at Novel Matters, by Sharon Souza, continues a couple of weeks' worth of thought-provoking posts on the topic of fiction writing, Christian fiction in particular. This is another favorite blog of mine. I love these ladies for the way they stretch my mind and make me think with laser beam focus, instead of my usual scattered buckshot.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Writing the One Sentence Pitch

For those writers working on one sheets and quick elevator pitches for their novels, here's a must read blog post on the topic from agent Nathan Bransford....

.... wherein he distills this somewhat daunting process into four basic elements that should be included in the pitch:


Take a look at his post for how he recommends putting those elements together. This is the clearest formula for writing a one sentence pitch I've ever found. And I've done me a lot of looking.

PS: that "complete quest" part could also be stated "reach goal."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Scene Book

"Sometimes writing is exploring in the dark, the gathering of evidence of a story yet unseen, the story that is in you where you can't yet touch it."

~ Sandra Scofield, The Scene Book

I'm still gleaning nuggets of writing craft gold from The Scene Book, A Primer for the Fiction Writer, by Sandra Scofield. If you're a writer of fiction and haven't read it yet....

Consider this a nudge.

Monday, August 09, 2010

One Sheets

The ACFW conference is approaching quickly. Well, it feels like that anyway, even though it's still five weeks before I leave. Much to do! Part of getting ready for a conference for me is creating one sheets for my works in progress. And since I had them ready, this time around my agent sent them along with the proposals for Kindred and The Quiet in the Land (Willa) to several editors this past weekend. I'm now in a place of prayer and anticipation for what doors God might choose to open in the coming weeks and months.

My one sheets are based on a design I found on Dineen Millers' website. I created them as a Word document, although the author bio side bar (on the left) collage was created using PhotoImpressions 6, before it was pasted into Word.

I'm no computer graphic expert, that's for sure. Likely there are far better ways to go about creating a one sheet than trying to do it in Word! But there you go.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Resistance is futile... if we make it so

I'm not channeling my inner Star Trek geek with that post title (well... maybe just a little). I've been reading The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. Have you read it? I wish I had done so a long time ago, back when it was published in 2002... which was smack in the middle of a dark time for me as a writer. Or as a writer who wasn't writing.

The War of Art is a book about the thing that keeps us from being the creative people we know we're meant to be, from living the life we wish we could if only. Pressfield identifies this "thing" that can keep a person from writing, or painting, or pursuing any creative activity as Resistance:

"Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating form a work-in-potential. It's a repelling force. It's negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work."

As I delved into this book I realized that what he was describing is something I face down every day I come to the computer to put in my hours, or knock out a scene, or polish a synopsis or (as I'm about to do in a few minutes), work on the Market Comparison section of my proposal for my work-in-progress, Willa. It's the Resistance to sit down and do my work. Instead I'll want to check my email one more time, or watch that interesting You Tube video, or check to see if anyone has responded to my latest post on Facebook. I'll fix another cup of tea. I'll do some stretches. I might, if it's really bad, go ride the bike for an extra twenty minutes while watching an episode of a favorite TV show. But wait--only half an episode. I'll save the other half for lunch. That's self-control, right? That's discipline.

No, that's me letting Resistance win.

It's funny though. My memories before cancer don't include experiencing this resistance so much. Some of my earliest memories are of me as a three or four-year-old, sitting at a table absorbed in drawing characters from my favorite TV shows at the time. And when I finally got the bright idea that I could write a story like the ones I enjoyed reading, I didn't put it off, or wish I could get around to it, or find a dozen other meaningless things to do, I sat down and wrote it. And then I did it again. And when I wanted to create art, I created it. If it wasn't as good as I'd hoped it would be, I tried again.

As I became an adult I found it hard to understand those who would say things like, "I'd like to write a book someday," or, "I wish I was more creative but I guess I was always afraid it wouldn't turn out perfect if I tried." If you want to write a book, I'd think, just sit down and start it. How else is it going to get done? If you want to draw or paint, of course you're going to have to put in hours and hours (and years) of practice before you see the results you'd like to see. It's like any other skilled job.

Perhaps as a child the joy of creating was stronger than whatever Resistance I experienced, and since I got in the habit of facing it early, it was never a noticeable part of the creative process. I don't know.

But then I got cancer. I've written about the job chemotherapy did on my brain here, and here, so for the sake of this post I'll leave at saying that after chemotherapy was done with me, I learned what Resistance meant. I've fought it every day I've sat down to write since. Some days I'm stronger than others and beat it down in five minutes instead of thirty, but it never stops coming back. There's no way to avoid it. The only way to go forward is through it.

I've learned something through this process, and it's something Pressfield's book makes clear as well: there's no point in putting off the battle. It's only by showing up every day and facing down Resistance that I get stronger. I get used to the battle. I find I have more weapons and strategies than I knew I had. One of them is patience. I know that if I sit here and keep working through it, even though my brain feels like concrete or at best congealed oatmeal, there will come a breakthrough. Inspiration will show up. The scene will take an unexpected turn and I'll be carried along for the ride. The character will say or do something I didn't put in my plot outline and I'm swept up in the delight of this crazy writing process.

But such inspired moments rarely occur before the battle begins. The key is to start engaging in the battle, whether it's a book you want to write, a painting you want to paint, or a morning devotional time with the Lord you want to embark upon. Carpe Diem. Start today. It won't be any easier tomorrow. 

That's what I learned, but it wasn't until I read The War of Art that I could articulate it. So this post is going to serve as a bookmark for older me, whenever I need reminding. I hope you'll be encouraged to read Pressfield's book too.

The War of Art, Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Scottish History

Or: I just had to share!

My novels are set in the 18th century in the brand spankin' new United States, but I have an abiding love for Scottish history as well, and have peopled my novels with Scottish immigrants. There are the Camerons and Lindseys in Kindred, and Neil MacGregor in Willa (The Quiet in the Land). So, when I was poking about on the Books & Writers Community a few days ago and found that someone had kindly posted a link to a program called The History of Scotland, I had to check it out.

The History of Scotland consists of five episodes, posted on Youtube in 10 minute increments. I've watched the first episode, The Last of the Free, and part of the second episode, and now I want to share. This is one of the most beautifully visual portraits of Scotland I've ever seen, worth watching for the scenery alone, not to mention the yummy accent of the host, archaeologist Neil Oliver. Oh, and there's a ton of Scottish history I'd never heard before.

Here's the link to the first ten minute segment of the first episode, The Last of the Free, about the birth of Scotland. You'll find it in six segments on Youtube, along with the other episodes. Enjoy!