Friday, December 31, 2010

A List and a Challenge

I did something this year I've never done before, kept a list of all the books I read, fiction and nonfiction. Since it doesn't look like I'll be finishing any of the five or so books I'm currently reading by the end of this last day of 2010, here's Da List, the titles in each section listed according to the order in which I read them.

Books I read in 2010

Fiction (54 books)

A Parchment of Leaves, by Silas House
No Graves As Yet, by Anne Perry (audio)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Follow The River, by James Alexander Thom
Eclipse, by Stephanie Meyer (audio)
Walks The Fire, by Stephanie Grace Whitson
Children of the Longhouse, by Joseph Bruchac
The Red Heart, by James Alexander Thom
Arrow Over The Door, by Joseph Bruchac
Lost Mission, by Athol Dickson
Like a Watered Garden, by Patti Hill
The Shadowy Horses, by Susanna Kearsley
Here Burns My Candle, by Liz Curtis Higgs
Her Mother's Hope, by Francine Rivers
The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley
Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, by Alexander McCall Smith (audio)
Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons, by Ann Rinaldi
Mariana, by Susanna Kearsley
The Winter People, by Joseph Bruchac (audio)
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (audio)
All The Tea in China, by Jane Orcutt
Mutiny's Daughter, by Ann Rinaldi
A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon (audio)
The Family Greene, by Ann Rinaldi
Named of the Dragon, by Susanna Kearsley
Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger (audio)
Royal Escape, by Georgette Heyer (audio)
Courting Morrow Little, by Laura Frantz
Sweetsmoke, by David Fuller (audio)
Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins (audio)
She Walks in Beauty, by Siri Mitchell
Ransome's Crossing, by Kaye Dacus
A Room of My Own, by Ann Tatlock (audio)
Every Secret Thing, by Emma Cole
Home Another Way, by Christa Parrish
Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant (audio)
Touching the Clouds, by Bonnie Leon
The Mountain Between Us, by Charles Martin
An Echo In The Bone, by Diana Gabaldon (audio)
Rainwater, by Sandra Brown (audio)
When Crickets Cry, by Charles Martin
The Education of Mary, A Little Miss of Color, 1832, by Ann Rinaldi
Chasing Fireflies, by Charles Martin
Wrapped in Rain, by Charles Martin
Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
The Letter Writer, by Ann Rinaldi
Summer of the Danes, by Ellis Peters (audio)
A Vision of Light, by Judith Merkle Riley
In Pursuit of the Green Lion, by Judith Merkle Riley
Where the River Ends, by Charles Martin
In The Company of Others, by Jan Karon
The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom
Last of the Breed, by Louis L'Amour (audio)
Panther in the Sky, by James Alexander Thom

Nonfiction (41 books)

Madeleine L'Engle [Herself], compiled by Carole F. Chase
Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains, by Charles Eastman (audio)
Becoming a Vessel God Can Use, by Donna Partow
Writing the Other, A Practical Approach, by Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward
The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed (audio)
The Art of War for Writers, by James Scott Bell
Horatio's Drive, by Dayton Duncan (audio)
Mohawk Blood, A Native American Quest, by Michael Baughman
A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, by Donald Miller
The Invisible Wall, by Harry Bernstein
Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose (audio)
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell (audio)
Shouts And Whispers: Twenty-one Writers Speak About Their Writing And Their Faith 
Spunk & Bite, A writer's guide to punchier, more engaging language & style, by Arthur Plotnik
The Scene Book, by Sandra Scofield
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
The Forest for the Trees, an Editor's Advice to Writers, by Betsy Lerner 
The Wilderness War by Allan W. Eckert
Forgotten Allies by Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin
Mohawk, The Life of Joseph Brant, by John Jakes
Indians, by Edwin Tunis
The Natures of John and William Bartram, by Thomas P. Slaughter
Ark of Empire, The American Frontier, 1784-1803, by Dale Van Every
Mohawk, The Life of Joseph Brant, by John Jakes
Frontier Living, by Edwin Tunis
A Company of Heroes, The American Frontier, 1775-1783, by Dale Van Every
The Bloody Mohawk, by T. Wood Clarke
The Realm of the Iroquois, Time-Life Books
Christopher Columbus and His Legacy, Opposing Viewpoints, by Mary Ellen Jones
Martha Washington, An American Life, by Patricia Brady
The Adirondacks, A History of America's First Wilderness, by Paul Schneider
The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed (audio)
Sifters, Native American Women's Lives, edited by Theda Perdue
Patriot Doctor, the story of Benjamin Rush, by Esther M. Douty
Doctors on Horseback, Pioneers of American Medicine, by James Thomas Flexner
The Lost State of Franklin, by Kevin T. Barksdale
The Story of Medicine in America, by Geoffrey Marks and William K. Beatty
From Ulster to Carolina, the Migration of the Scotch-Irish to Southwestern North Carolina, by H. Tyler Blethen & Curtis W. Wood Jr.
First Frontier, by Rebecca Stefoff
Born Fighting, How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, by James Webb

Total: 95 books! Goodness, who knew? If I had to choose a favorite title from each section, the one book that impacted me the most, or that has stayed with me the longest... this is hard... so many engaging novels, so many intriguing research titles and nonfiction books....

For Nonfiction, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. Please everybody, read this book!

For Fiction... I know this is lame, but it's a three-way tie between The Mountain Between Us, by Charles Martin, The Red Heart, by James Alexander Thom, and The Shadowy Horses, by Susanna Kearsley. I choose these titles for the same reason, they were my introduction to Martin, Thom, and Kearsley, each of whom shot like rockets to the top of my favorite authors list. I can't choose between them.

A new list starts Jan 1, 2011, when I'll also begin taking part in a Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, hosted by the Historical Tapestry blog.
 __________

Each month, a new post dedicated to the HF Challenge will be created (at Historical Tapestry blog). To participate, you only have to follow the rules:
  • everyone can participate, even those who don't have a blog (you can add your book title and thoughts in the comment section if you wish)
  •  add the link(s) of your review(s) including your name and book title to the Mister Linky we’ll be adding to our monthly post (please, do not add your blog link, but the correct address that will guide us directly to your review)
  • any kind of historical fiction is accepted (HF fantasy, HF young adult,...)
  • you can overlap this challenge with others kind of challenges
  • During these following 12 months you can choose one of the different reading levels:
  1. Severe Bookaholism: 20 books
  2. Undoubtedly Obsessed: 15 books
  3. Struggling the Addiction: 10 books
  4. Daring & Curious: 5 books
  5. Out of My Comfort Zone: 2 books
The challenge will run from 1 January 2011 to 31 December 2011.
________

I plan to do a review once a month, so I'm committing to Struggling the Addiction: 10 books (though I'll actually review 12). Judging from my reading list, doesn't look like reading at least one historical fiction title per month will be a stretch.

Monday, December 27, 2010

You know that feeling?

You know that feeling when you start a novel by a new-to-you author, one you stumbled upon at Amazon or a used book store or the library, that no one told you about or recommended, but it's your favorite historical genre, favorite setting, favorite time period exactly, and you open the book thinking I'll just check out the first page for now because I've got stuff to do and no time to sit and read.... and 7 or 8 pages later realize you're already under the book's spell?

Got that feeling today with The Land Breakers, by John Ehle. And it doesn't even matter if the book continues to engross me or not. I hope it does. I expect it will. But just to have had this moment of exhilaration and hopefulness about it, this sense of a new and exciting world opening before me, makes for a rare and lovely belated Christmas gift.

It's a feeling that never, ever gets old.

photo by takomabibelot, Flickr

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

O, For the Love of Audio Book Readers!

There are so many books I want to read, and need to read, that there will never be enough time to sit down with a hard copy of each one and do nothing but read. That's partly why I'm a great fan of audio books. I almost always have one on hand to play while I'm fixing dinner, baking a cake, working out, or doing anything around the house that doesn't require concentrated thought. Audio books are a must for road trips, long and short. And besides enabling me to multitask, audio books, when well narrated, are high quality entertainment.

As the year winds down (or spins up in its final frenzy of activity and celebration), I've taken a look at my reading list from 2010, and thought I'd give a shout out to my favorite audio book readers, sending out a huge thank you for their time and talent and work. Being a writer who reads her own work aloud as part of the editing process, I know how utterly draining it can be to spend hours at it, and I'm not even trying to entertain anyone (except maybe myself... I do try on an accent or two, where applicable).

My favorite audio book readers are, in no particular order (click on their names to hear clips):

John McDonnough, reader of Jan Karon's Mitford Series, for Recorded Books. "When you hear John McDonough’s deep, growly voice, it seems immediately familiar. Listeners are drawn to the rich, warm tones of this veteran actor and singer." ~Recorded Books

Patrick Tull, reader of Ellis Peters' The Brother Cadfael mysteries, Recorded Books. "Just as he became the voices for the O’Brian seafarers.... In the Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, Patrick Tull became a medieval herbalist and monk whose retirement was interrupted by perplexing mysteries." ~ Recorded Books

Stephen Thorne, another reader of The Brother Cadfael mysteries, for Mystery Masters. Thorne also voiced Treebeard in the BBC radio drama of The Lord of the Rings.

Barbara Rosenblat, reader of far too many books to list, but at the top of my list: "Ms. Rosenblat has put her unique stamp on several popular series for Recorded Books. Among these are the Mrs. Pollifax books by Dorothy Gillman and the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters." ~ Recorded Books

Davina Porter, reader of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, and Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series. She is the mistress of Scottish accents.

Lisette Lacat, reader of Alexander McCall Smith's The #1 Ladies Detective Agency books. Her voicing of Mma Ramotswe will live forever in my head. I couldn't read one of these books in any other voice.

George Guidall, my introduction to audio books long ago, reader of the Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn Navajo Tribal Police mysteries by Tony Hillerman, and countless other titles. "His narrations of everything from classics like Crime and Punishment and The Iliad to best sellers like Snow Falling on Cedars and Lilian Jackson Brauns Cat Who ... series have set a standard for excellence recognized throughout the audiobook industry." ~ Recorded Books

Erik Singer, reader of Jan Karon's Father Tim books (sequels to the Mitford series). There are no audio clips available for Singer at the link, but I can attest the man does wonderfully. Love his Irish accents in "In The Company of Others," Karon's latest. ~ Recorded Books

A shout out to the whole reading cast of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society:, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Random House Audio. "With a small cast of gifted narrators including Paul Boehmer, Susan Duerdan, John Lee, Rosalyn Landor and the enjoyable Juliet Mills, this production is first-class from top to bottom. The narrators' British dialects, each quite regional and equally as different as they are ear-pleasing, serve the story well and allow Shaffer's words to leap from the page into the hearts and minds of her listeners. The final result is an almost theatrical experience with a plethora of enthusiastic performances." ~ Publisher's Weekly

And last but not least, a shout out to the reading cast of The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (Penguin Audio). Read by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell. "Four peerless actors render an array of sharply defined black and white characters in the nascent years of the civil rights movement.... The actors handle the narration and dialogue so well that no character is ever stereotyped, the humor is always delightful, and the listener is led through the multilayered stories of maids and mistresses." ~ Publisher's Weekly 

Okay, I've shown you mine. Now it's your turn. Who are your favorite audio books readers? I'm all for expanding my list, so please leave a comment!

Merry Christmas, Love and Blessings to you! 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

An Unexpected Gift

Zachary Levi is the actor who currently plays Chuck on NBC's Chuck, and voices Flynn Rider in Disney's Tangled. Zac is also the "real world" template for Neil MacGregor, one of the main characters in my novel The Quiet in the Land, which I'm still busy editing.

It had probably been twenty years or more since I wrote to an actor whose work I admired. I think I should do this more often; I've written to  many writers whose work has inspired me, why not more actors whose storytelling talents have entertained, inspired, or blessed me? Is it because it seems like such a fan girl thing to do? Well then, call me a fan girl, because late last summer I  wrote to Zac Levi.

I wanted to let Zac know how much I appreciate his work on Chuck, and also the person he is off screen (a committed Christian who isn't shy about sharing his faith), as revealed in places like this interview in Relevant Magazine.

Then one day last week I opened my mailbox, and this was inside:

I hadn't asked for a photo, so this was a fun surprise, and also quite lovely that he looks particularly like my character, Neil, in this photo. The only difference is, Neil has blue eyes.

This is Neil from the point of view of Willa, the other main character from TQITL:

In the shadows across the cabin Neil MacGregor turned, retracing his steps toward her.

The face emerging into the fire’s light was as different from her husband’s as one man’s face could be from another, yet still it was a pleasing one. He had a good jaw on him, and no one could say his eyes were anything but beautiful, rimmed in black lashes below brows strongly marked. His hair always seemed in need of a comb, as if he had run his hands through it, forgetting it was tailed, but the shorter wisps that curled over his scarred brow were pretty enough for a woman to envy. His nose was perhaps a bit long, but he had a kind mouth, with full lips shaped for smiling. Only they were not smiling now, nor pressed together in thought.

A prickle raced over the roots of Willa’s hair. Neil MacGregor had stopped his pacing and spoken at last, only she had not heard a word of it, and now he was looking at her in the way she had just been looking at him. At her hair, her eyes, her mouth. She was caught in his gaze, unable to move.
~ from The Quiet in the Land
Copyright 2010 Lori Benton
Thank you, Zac!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Re-vis-ION


I hear that word in Tevye's best "Tra-dish-UNN" voice.



I've been neck deep in revision for the past couple of weeks, working on the story structure of The Quiet in the Land (aka Willa). During the process I compiled a list of questions to ask myself and a couple of beta readers who have graciously agreed to read for me. Thought I'd share those questions here, in case they may be of interest or help to others in this post-first-draft editing process. I'll end with a list of writing craft books I've found helpful on the subject of self-editing.

I broke the list into categories of General, Characters, Spiritual Thread, Theme, and Setting

General

Was there a point where the story “hooked” your interest? Where was it? What was it? Of course writers all try to make that opening line or paragraph a hook, but often there comes a point when I’m reading a novel where something happens in the plot, or character development, and after that there’s no turning back for me; I must find out what happens to the characters. This point of no return isn’t always in the first chapter. I've had it happen several chapters in. I’d be interested to know if there is some point in The Quiet in the Land, either in regards to story, setting, character, conflict, the writing, voice, whatever, that hooked you like that.

Did you have a sense of the conflict established early on escalating as the story unfolded? Or were their times when that tension grew thin, or the story seemed to be wandering? Did parts of the story lag, or feel too slow-paced?

Did anything jar you out of the story? Were there any passages that were confusing, or that you had to reread to make sense of? I’ll want to make them clearer (I do tend to write overlong sentences. Much of my editing is breaking them up, simplifying and clarifying what I’m trying to say).

Was there anything about the plot that seemed implausible? Were there any plot holes? Things that should have been explained that weren’t?

How predictable was the ending? Were there any surprises? Anything you expected to happen that didn’t? How early on did you know how the story would end?


Characters

Did the main point of view characters (Willa, Neil, and Joseph), have believable motivations to reach their goals? Were those motivations strong enough to keep you wanting to know if they succeeded? Were their story goals clear?

Did you sympathize with the main characters? Did you care about Willa and Neil?

What about the main antagonist? Did he feel like a fleshed out person, with believable motivations for what he did?

Were there any characters that weren’t believable, or who you couldn’t get a grasp on? Or who felt clich├ęd? Did you (male readers) ever feel that my male point of view characters didn't think or act like a man would? Did any character ever seem to speak or act "out of character"?


Were some characters not given enough stage time to make them believable or feel like real people? Were some characters given too much stage time for the parts they played in the story?

If I hadn’t used proper names to give context, would you have known which character’s point of view you were in based solely on their narrative voice? Were they distinct from each other?


Spiritual thread

Were the main characters' spiritual journeys satisfying and believable? Did at any time you feel I was skimming the surface of spiritual or emotional issues in the novel, when I could have gone deeper?

Did the spiritual elements grow organically out of character and/or plot?

Did the spiritual aspects ever feel too preachy?


Theme


Did you discern any themes in the story? What were they? Might they have been deepened? Did you ever feel hit over the head with them?


Setting

Was the setting and time period portrayed believably? I try to make my story settings as vivid and crucial to the plot as one of the characters, but having never been to upstate NY, this was tricky. Let me know if you think I got it, or if not, what I might be missing.

Did anything (a word, a character’s attitude, a description) feel anachronistic to you?

The following titles are books I've found helpful over the years when it comes to revising and self-editing my work. Not the easiest thing for most writers to do, since it's hard to see the story for the words.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Browne & King
Revision & Self Editing, by James Bell
The Fire in Fiction, by Donald Maass
Writing the Break-Out Novel, by Donald Maass

I hope you've found these questions I've applied to my current manuscript helpful. Do you have other self-editing questions I missed? I'm still in the process of editing (and am pleased to say the word count is a respectable 125,000, and I hope to drop a few more thousand with this next editing pass I'm beginning today), so please leave a comment and share your wisdom with the class. :-)

Monday, December 06, 2010

We Find A Winter Wonderland

A winter wonderland on a small scale anyway.

On the day I usually don't write, Sunday, we go to church in the morning, and afterward we often go for a hike, since it does me good to do something totally physical and out-of-doors after the mostly mental work of writing 5-6 days a week that keeps me tethered to my desk (I'm not able to tote a laptop out of the house and work in places like Starbucks, as some writers do. I need as few distractions as possible).

This time of year the snow level is creeping down the mountains and we're more limited in our options for places to take a day hike. Oftener than not, we wind up at our favorite reservoir about 45 minutes drive from our home.

Trails wind around this big lake created in a mountain valley, providing several easy to moderate hikes. One of those trails leads to Blue Grotto, about 2.5 miles in from the parking area. Blue Grotto is a narrow draw tucked between the foothills on the lakeshore, with a climbing trail that leads along a tumbling stream to a rocky basin where, in the winter/rainy season, a delicate waterfall spills.

We recently hiked to Blue Grotto on a day that was cold enough for the spray from the falls to freeze on the surrounding rocks and trees, and form a beautiful ice sculpture. What a surprise it was to come over the rise of the trail to see this. We couldn't resist climbing down the wet, slippery rocks for some not-so-easy-to-get shots.








Friday, December 03, 2010

Christmas "Receipt": Mincemeat Cookies

December is here, can you believe it? Christmas is coming! This is a recipe (called a "receipt" in the 18th century) that I blogged about last holiday season. I still love it. Have to share it again. 

Holiday baking is one of my favorite aspects of this season. Is that any surprise? If there's anything I enjoy half as much as writing, it's baking (and photographing what I bake).

Here's a Christmas cookie recipe that's been a favorite since my Aunt Judy shared it with me several years ago. It's been a popular holiday recipe in their family for years, something I missed out on growing up 3000 miles away. But now we're on the same coast, and I'm slowly learning her baking secrets. I'd never tasted mincemeat before, and honestly wasn't sure what it was until I went looking to make this recipe. Meat? In a cookie? Come to find out there's types of mincemeat made with apples. Pippins, to be exact. 

Christmas Mincemeat Bars

1.5 cups brown sugar (packed)
2 eggs
2 tbsp. molasses
1 tbsp. soft butter
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp each cinnamon and cloves
3 tbsp hot water
1/4 cup almonds, slivered or sliced
1/4 cup seedless raisins
1 pkg (9 oz.) mincemeant* broken up with fork
1.5 cups sifted confectioners sugar
2 or 3 tbsp hot milk
1/2 tsp each vanilla and almond flavoring

* If using mincemeat in a jar (as I do), rather than a package, eliminate use of hot water. Sufficient moisture in mincemeat in jar.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease one jelly roll pan (1 x 11 x 15). Mix brown sugar, eggs, molasses, butter and vanilla. Measure flour by dip-level-pour method or by sifting. Blend flour, salt, soda and spices; stir into sugar/egg mixture. Mix in hot water (unless using mincemeat from a jar). Stir in almonds, raisins and mincemeat.

Spread thin in greased pan. Dough puffs and fills in any holes as it bakes. Bake 12-15 minutes. Spread immediately with mixture of confectioners sugar, milk and flavorings. Cut into squares or diamonds (shown).

Makes 6 dozen 2 x 1.5 bars. Cool 10 minutes before cutting.
As this treatise is calculated for the improvement of the rising generation of Females in America, the Lady of fashion and fortune will not be displeased, if many hints are suggested for the more general and universal knowledge of those females in this country, who by loss of their parents, or other unfortunate circumstances, are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics, or taking refuge with their friends or relations, and doing those things which are really essential to the perfecting of them as good wives, and useful members of society.
~ Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, 1796