Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Name Fits

Someone once remarked to me that the name “John Simons” doesn’t sound very Victorian.

As part of my continuing research for Bryony’s prequel, I read something the other day that completely refutes it that comment.

According to “Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England,” by Judith Flanders, London’s first medical officer (circa 1848) was named Sir John Simon.

‘Nuf said.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Page Breaks

Despite incessant, over-the-shoulder nagging from my sixteen year old daughter that I was way past my bedtime, I grimly reset all the mesed-up page breaks for the first few chapters. I just HAD to make a dent in repairing those flaws before I could sleep.

For the next ten days, I ruthlessly reset those breaks page by awful page, printed each one to check margins and copy errors, and reset and retyped when necessary. I held my breath when I finally e-mailed my manuscript to Cindy Grady, WriteLife’s managing editor. I'd never make a living as a copy editor.

I spent the next two months catching up on homework, features, press releases, and Staked!, the third novel in the Bryony series. My inbox was often full of cover drafts and interior images from Kathleen. The book was coming alive!

In the meantime, my children caught a mild form of the writing bug. Daniel, 14, started a werewolf story, and Rebekah, 16, worked on her historical romance. Timothy, 19, began a story detailing the adventures of a pedantic old man whose is world is turned topsy-turvy. My twelve year old niece sent me chapters of her novel as she completed them. At the end of April, round two drafts arrived, along with a two-page letter from the editor that worked on it. I was pleasantly surprised.

Happily, I made the adjustments, added the requested scene, and sent back the manuscript within three weeks. I devoted the next couple of weeks, including all of Memorial Day weekend, to finishing a draft of Staked!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

New Life From Ashes

For years, despite a daily midnight (or earlier) rising time, we actively belonged to a church nearly 50 miles away from home. Often, we imported two vans full of people. Parish life and newspaper delivery consumed us on Sundays.

Once deliveries were completed, we made the rounds of picking up people. Most were members of the church youth group we oversaw. No two kids lived in the same town. Eastern Orthodox services last ninety minutes, minimum. Following that was additional services, Sunday School, and fellowship. By the time we returned each child to his front porch, it was close to bedtime.

Last year, for many reasons, that Sunday routine fell apart. Church attendance was sporadic at best. Running a caravan became impossible. We muddled through a spiritual wilderness that seemed to have no end.

Then, in the middle of the flu crisis in our household, the former assistant pastor unexpectedly stopped to see us. It wasn’t a social visit; he had an announcement. He wanted to begin a mission church at our house, even if it only served his family and ours. We couldn’t believe it. Church, with all its amenities was coming to us. Hoo! Hoo!

Through the winter, we met twice a month. We wrote a business plan. We planned. We encouraged one another. We conducted a few, small services, then scheduled them with more frequency. We held a Lenten workshop, a round robin of house blessings, and two agape meals. We cheered the day we became "official" and received donations of the items required to celebrate Divine Liturgy.

The first official Divine Liturgy was on Pentecost, outside where growing, green things abounded. It was less than perfect. I was sick and lost my voice after the first round of litanies; my kids struggled to chant the entire service. An occasional motorcycle blasted through the neighborhood. Our priest occasionally lost his place in the service book. Yet, we felt exultant at the liturgy's conclusion. We had begun. We were on our way. It was a glorious feeling.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Twenty Questions with Ed Calkins Part Four

16) How did the idea for Ed Calkins day parade originate?

“I discovered that my birthday and Valentines Day had a little conflict when I started dating my wife. During that first year, we had gone out and celebrated my February 13th birthday. Guess what happened on the fourteenth? I didn’t have Valentine for her. That offended her at the time. My defense was, ‘Come on, it was my birthday.’ I guess that’s where started. Then I started joking with other people that my birthday should be a national holiday. When you couple that with Lincoln’s birthday and the stars aligned in the sky, you can see it was meant to be.”

17) You’re famous for cookouts, Queen of Christmas contests, candy canes and Santa hat distribution and palette jack races. Why host these things?

“Have fun, of course. Distribution centers can be so dreary. If every day is like the one before it, no one wants to get up.

18) Do you own a kilt?

“I used to, but I gave it away to my brother. It no longer fit at the waistline. So, currently, I do not have a kilt. They’re not cheap. They can cost a couple hundred dollars.”

19) For what occasions did you wear it?

“Initially I wore it St. Paddy’s day. I wore it the whole day. I was in newspapers and, yeah, I went to work with it. My wife wouldn’t let me do it after I married her. It happened this way. I have a way of not taking care of garments. When I was starting to date her, most of my jeans had holes in them, so she started taking care of them. I knew we were serious when she started washing my clothes. But when a woman starts washing your clothes, she decides what gets discarded and what gets kept. You know my striped shirts? Those were her idea. My wife now dresses me. I used to dress differently.

20) What are your plans for this blog?

“I’d like make some myths of my own, but that won’t start until the book comes out. I’m thinking it might be fun to add different side stories of the characters into the blog, but maybe, too, I might be able to introduce some of the traditional Irish myths. I’ve been wanting write something about the interplay of state fairs in Ireland. There were laws concerning them, such as you couldn’t arrest anyone during a fair and you could not engage in war. All combat had to be resolved before a fair was scheduled to start. I’d also like to write about the Knights of the Red Branch and maybe some adventure that happens to some of the knights. That’s the neat thing about a blog. Speaking from the character, if something doesn’t fit, or if there is something else I want to say, I can always come back with, ‘I was just joking. Here’s what really happened.’ I’m very excited about this. I feel I’m getting closer to that three-day holiday.”

Friday, August 27, 2010

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

What if someone offered you all the longed-for possessions you could grab in a day? What would you choose?

Leo Tolstoy examines this concept in his short story, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" An uncontented landowner is offered as much choice property as he can stake in a day. The man is ecstatic, but the result isn't quite what he expected.

Intersting ending. Several sites feature it online.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Peek Inside the Bryony Cookbook

The Bryony cookbook will feature a collection of recipes from the Victorian era, the 1970s and modern recipes that suggest those time periods. We are still accepting some submissions.

Instead of the customary layout of soups and salads, main dishes, desserts, etc., the Bryony cookbook is topical, by event, rather than by dish. Features include items on Bryony’s breakfast tray, the special menu items on Munsonville’s Sue’s Diner, Steve and Brian’s complete Thanksgiving dinner, and foods served during John and Bryony Simons’ Christmas Eve wedding reception.

The food listings for both Bryony books—the novel and the cookbook—has been fluid. During the novel’s editing stages, I’ve even changed certain menus to reflect the recipes I’ve received. Some period foods, like boiled calves head, was always a mainstay.

Any profits from the Bryony cookbook benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Will and Grundy Counties. Although the official submission cut-off date is long past, as long as the novel’s final editing phase isn’t past, and we’re still compiling the cookbook, we will take recipe submissions. Please send them to seansarah@aol.com.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Woods, Water & Michigan, Part 3

I finally learned to swim when I was eleven years old, at Camp Pokanoka, the Trailways Girl Scout Camp in Ottawa, IL. I was home for a week then our family took off for Chalet on the Lake in Stevensville, Michigan.

Chalet on the Lake is a beautiful, family-friendly resort with A-frame, duplex lodgings on Lake Michigan. The resort offered two pools of varying depths. The shallow one had a slide; the deeper one, a diving board, where I happily practiced my newly acquired swimming and diving skills. The following year, we rented a Minnesota cabin and enjoyed boating and fishing along with lake swimming and spectacular, lake-front sunsets. To this day, I can’t conjure a sunset without also seeing a lake.

Through the years, my family twice returned to Chalet on the Lake, the last time with my husband and four-month old son. I had thought it heralded the beginning of water-filled summers with my new family. Instead, it marked the end of them. My husband is deathly afraid of water. I assumed it was a passing phase and that, in time, he would get over it, but stark reality was much crueler. Fortunately, I didn’t know about the dry future that magical summer when I finally learned to swim.

Once we moved to New Lenox in the fall of 1974, our beach days ended, for the new home contained a five-foot pool in the backyard. Swimming now became a daily occurrence. Eighteen months later and one week before our New York cousins came to visit, we awoke to find that the back wall of the pool had collapsed in the night and spilled its water into the neighbors’ yard behind us. We replaced it, but our enjoyment of it ebbed, for it took weeks for the water to lose its "straight from the hose" chill.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Leeches 101

During Melissa’s first day at Munsonville School, Ann Dalton compares their biology teacher, a former scientist, to H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau. That’s because Mr. Walczak, through his retained laboratory connections, brought all manner of interesting specimens to class, including a two-headed fish and a vampire bat.

So when Mr. Walczak collects a jar of leeches from Lake Munson, Melissa is fascinated at the close-up view at the grotesque creatures, although Jack Cooper, who grew up in a fishing boat with his father, is bored.

Perhaps Mr. Walczak’s connections included Biopharm (http://www.biopharm-leeches.com/), an international company, established in 1812 and based in South Wales, UK. His knowledge of leeches certainly suggests it.

According to the company website, Biopharm is the first leech farm of its kind. It produces, in a sterile environment, the majority of leeches used in modern medicine worldwide. Thank you, Biopharm, for sharing your interesting collection of leech facts.

· There are 650 known species of leeches.
· The largest leech discovered measured eighteen inches.
· About one fifth of leech species live in the sea where they feed on fish.
· The leech has thirty-two brains, thirty-one more than a human.
· The Hirudo Medicinalis is the leech mostly used in plastic and reconstructive surgery.
· The Hirudo leech lays its babies within a cocoon; whereas the Amazon leech carries its babies—sometimes as many as three hundred--on its stomach.
· Not all leeches are bloodsuckers. Many are predators, which eat earthworms. Ironically the nearest relatives of leeches are earthworms.
· The Hirudo leech has three jaws with one hundred teeth on each jaw, making three hundred teeth in all.
· The Amazon leech uses a different method of sucking blood. They insert a long proboscis into the victim, as opposed to biting.
· The bite of a leech is painless due to its own anesthetic.
· The Hirudo injects an anti-coagulant serum into the victim to prevent blood clotting.
· The leech will gorge itself until full, sometimes up to five times its body weight, and then just fall away from its victim.
· After the Hirudo leech drops off, the wound it leaves will bleed, on average, for ten hours.
· The first leech was used in medicine about 1000 B.C, probably in ancient India.
· Wales was once one of the major leech collecting areas of Europe. People would stand in lakes and pools and, when the leech attached to their legs, they would put them in their baskets and sell them.
· The original surgeons were barbers that used leeches to cure anything from headaches to gout. The red and white stripe traditionally seen on a barber pole began when surgeons hung their bandages on a pole outside their shops.
· Biopharm leeches have helped save the limbs of patients in twenty-nine different countries.
· By extracting the anti-clotting serum for the leech, researchers are isolating new pharmaceutical compounds for eventual treatment of heart diseases.
· The nervous system of the leech is very similar to the human nervous system and is of enormous benefit to researchers in their quest for the answers to human problems.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The First Cut is the Hardest

I’m not certain when the first round of edits arrived, since we don’t use the front door much in the winter. One of the kids had opened it on a Saturday afternoon in January and there was my manuscript, packaged and propped against the door.

A list of suggestions accompanied the copyediting. To my relief, those suggestions did not include deletions or plot changes, nothing that drastic. I focused on the mistakes. My husband Ron saw only the positive comments, especially, “A series would sell.” I couldn’t wait to get to work.

The editor wanted to deeper character development in two supporting characters. I was also instructed to deepen scene descriptions (I had focused more on action), use longer sentences, and to eliminate “wordiness” (a general, persistent fault of mine).

Then, an interesting thing happened. I had spent months learning to tell a story in novel form and even more months perfecting it. When I sat down to make my first, official change, I felt like a surgeon operating for the first time, except that I was also the patient. That first slice into my manuscript was the most painful. The rest were substantially easier.

The biggest error I made throughout the manuscript was style confusion (AP vs. MLA) and it was HUGE. The second, not as pervasive, but very embarrassing, was that some of my carefully set page breaks had moved.

It took eight weeks of daily work before Bryony was ready for its second send-off. I set it aside for several days and scrolled through it. I found copy errors and straying page breaks. I cracked.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

No Kindness Too Small

A dozen years ago, when I became a single parent, my children’s newspaper routes morphed into morning delivery with adult drivers. This was not the type of job I desired, but with six children to raise, teen down to the non-verbal little guy still in diapers, I needed anything family-friendly and home-based. The route couldn’t have been cushier: my own neighborhood in walking distance from the newspaper distribution center.

One day, a carrier was grumbling about the terrible hours and low-pay. During the course of the rant he said, "This is a job, not a vocation." His words hovered around me. I delivered with my children in tow. I wanted to be a good example. Here was an opportunity to serve hundreds of people a day during a tumultuous time when we could barely serve ourselves. Could we make it both a job and a ministry?

On the way to the route, seven days a week, we pray for our fellow carriers, the newsroom staff, the truck drivers, and our customers. We’ve offered porch delivery to the elderly who are too humble to ask for it. The kids know to greet any customer they see with a smile and a "Good morning, sir," or "Good morning, ma’am," for they are the visible representation of the newspaper that pays our bills. It’s unrealistic to assume we’ve pleased everybody, but we always try.

We hope it has made a difference for even one person. It has to us.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Twenty Questions with Ed Calkins Part Three

11) What have you written?

"I actually wrote a historical fiction novel when I was in high school. I had a fascination for Hannibal, so I put myself on the other side facing Hannibal’s army. I didn’t really know how to handle it, but I did write it."
12) How had you shared your writings in the past?

"I posted them. When I was working on my trilogy, someone would send me an e-mail that said, ‘Send me your story,’ and I’d send them a few chapters. Then I’d get another email saying, ‘That was great. Send me some more.’ So, a lot of it was praise-driven. The problem is that twenty years have passed. The protagonist has become darker and the eroticism is no longer interesting, I hate to admit. In my mind, I’ve reduced the second book to a single, short story. Also, every novel I’ve written was also an idea for a game. I had done a really good job of writing the games, again not finished. The smallest details completely derail a project for me."

13) How do you overcome writer’s block?

"The truth is I don’t. My writing block is fear. By the time I do write, it’s only because the ideas have been spilling out over and over and over again through my mind, to where it’s enough already. The details have become an irritant, so I just sit down and write."
14) What motivates you to compose a limerick?

"I get ticked off, and my mind starts putting lines together. It’s different with limericks because I don’t have to actually write them. A limerick is not fine art. Because of its structure, a kindergartener is just as good as composing limericks as an adult."
15) Why is legacy important to you?

"I think it’s fascinating to me in the same way history is. Think of Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, which lived approximately 25 million years ago and compare that to the 6,000 years of civilization. In the eyes of God, dinosaurs must be a statement of survivability. Humanity is still an experiment in its infancy. When all is said and done, the history of humans is going to be a lot more significant than the bones of a creature, but we’re not there yet. We’re gong to have to start with many things, including being a lot older than 6,000 years. Maybe there won’t be an Ed Calkins parade that is 6,000 years old, but maybe there will be a 1,000 years old Ed Calkins Day parade, which will create the much larger tradition of there still being parades."

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Last Leaf

In the early twentieth century, two single women artists decide to share a studio apartment in Greenwich Village. One elderly artist who also lives in the village, boasts of the masterpiece he will one day paint, yet he has created nothing substantial for decades. Then, in November, one of the women contracts a deadly pneumonia and decides she will die when the last leaf drops from the ivy she sees from the window. The ending is wonderfully typical of O. Henry. Check out the story online.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Will and Grundy Counties

In the past forty years, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Will and Grundy Counties, a donor-funded, volunteer organization, has matched 15,000 low-income or at risk youth with adult mentors. Research shows children who receive such postive mentoring are less likely to skip school and abuse drugs and alcohol and more likely to get along with family and friends.

Any profits from the Bryony cookbook will be donated to this organization. We are still accepting recipe submissions. The cookbook will mostly feature recipes that have a Victorian and 1970s theme, but we are open to other recipes, too.

To submit a recipe or for more information contact Sarah Stegall at seansarah@aol.com. Informtation about the project is also available on the Bryony Facebook page. A link to the page is posted on our website at http://www.bryonyseries.com/.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Woods, Water & Michigan, Part 2

Summer, to me, is synonymous with water.

Our Joliet backyard always had a wading pool. The first was a round and inflatable. I close my eyes and I'm sitting in it with my little sister and nine month old cousin, who maddeningly splashes water on us, despite our shrieks.

The second pool felt like a “real” pool, shallow and rectangular with corner plastic seats, but wide enough to glide across the bottom. Weekend fun meant the Joliet Beach Club. I wasn't allowed to splash past the rope because I didn’t know how to swim, so I jealously monitored the lucky kids who jumped off dock into the deep water, far more fun than the waves that barely tickled my chin. So instead, I contented myself with leaping off my father’s shoulders and delighting in his mock Woody Woodpecker laugh.

One of our neighbors was the manager at the Joliet Beach Club, and he would periodically call fifteen minute “time-outs.” During those times, the sun beat on the wet suit that clung like plastic wrap to my body. I scooped wet sand onto drooping sand castles and annoyed my mother, who never swam, but sat on a lawn chair in her suit and sun glasses, with frequent checks on the time.

Occasionally, that manager would also summon a swimmer, by name, to the office. My father told me those were the bad children, the ones who shamelessly broke the rules. One day, to our horror, my sister and I heard our names booming over that loudspeaker. Instead of flying to the office, we sat quaking on a beach towel until our neighbor came out to us. In a solemn voice, he told us that since we had been so good, we could each take home a bucket of sand and a bucket of water. I glanced sharply at him to see if he was serious, then saw my father trying not to laugh.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Some Traditional Vampire Lore

Despite the current craze for urban and contemporary vampires, my favorite vampire stories were written before the earliest part of the twentieth century. So, for Bryony, I drew heavily on traditional vampire lore. Then, I compiled it into one “book” that Melissa reads after she encounters her first vampire, since, other than movies, she doesn’t know much about them.

Some of the “facts” I’ve learned through the years and woven into the story include:

· Vampires are former humans who need fresh blood to survive.
· Vampires most commonly, although not exclusively, target a victim’s neck.
· Vampires often pursue one person, especially if that person is a young girl.
· Vampires must rest in their original burial ground by day.
· Vampires may create new vampires, who become their slaves.
· Those destined to become vampires include the seventh son of a seventh son, illegitimate children, those born with a caul, teeth, fur, or extra digit, and those that die from suicide or murder.
· Vampire bodies show little decay. They have sharp teeth, foul breath, and pale faces.
· Vampires can change shapes, even mimicking ghosts.
· Vampires possess keen senses, formidable strength, and fantastic speed.
· Vampires are resistant to disease. They possess wisdom, hypnotic skills and sexual charm. They control animals and elements. They read minds.
· Direct sunlight, prolonged blood deprivation, driving a wooden stake through its heart, and decapitation by a silver blade are the best methods for killing vampires.

Next week, Sharon Peterson of Incredible Bats (http://www.incrediblebats.com/) will share the real truth about the much-misunderstood vampire bat.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why WriteLife LLC

WriteLife LLC defined itself as a cooperative publisher, so that made me nervous. I had already visited several cooperative publishing sites and those companies work like this. The author goes through the traditional submission process. Upon acceptance, the publisher pays a portion and the author pays a portion. However, various writers’ forums warned against cooperative publishing. Those sites felt the publisher should always pay the costs.

Yet, this one seemed different. There were no upfront costs and no exhortations to sell, as I had found with some vanity presses. Royalties were 50 percent of the net. Then I
read warnings about print on demand, net royalties, and even e-books.

As I read and researched, I watched the industry change. Print-on-demand was losing its stigma. Several self-published writers did well with their books. Traditional publishing houses laid off employees. Bookstores closed. E-book readers hit the market and initial e-book sales did better than originally predicted. Several major publishers were now offering net royalties on e-books.

In general, I like cooperatives. I have belonged to food cooperatives and home school cooperatives, and my family tends to collaborate on projects. One draw for me was that David Martin published his Fine Lines literary journal with WriteLife. What I liked about Martin was that, as a high school English teacher, he encouraged troubled young adults to write.

I had previously taught creative writing and two levels of feature writing at a homeschool cooperative and founded and operated a rather eclectic, church youth group, so Martin’s story, and his trust in WriteLife inspired me. I ceased submitting for several months and prayed for guidance on finding a home for Bryony. WriteLife kept coming back as the answer. So, I submitted. I learned in early December that Bryony was on it was to WriteLife’s lead editor. It was a Merry Christmas, indeed.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Old Folders

It’s not just birdhouses I move out of my way. Actually, today they are sitting on top of a stack of folders, another gift from another friend. This former church pastor spent a lifetime promoting the value of positive thinking. Each time he gave a presentation or led a seminar of some kind, he created a folder full of corresponding material. While cleaning out his office, he came across a stack of these folders and gave them to me. I still have three children living at home, one is in college and the other two are homeschooled, not to mention all the hard copies of notes I'm saving regarding Bryony, so I go through folders like mad. I figure I’ll just toss the information and save the folders.

However, the content in each of these packets catches my eye. The one open on my lap features a graveyard cartoon. The tombstone says, “Here lies someone who was going to be happy tomorrow.” There is also a page of stress busters, A Creed for the Discouraged, a plan for becoming more encouraging, and an entire page of suggestions for praise. I’m uplifted just sifting through them.

The kids can buy more folders. These are going downstairs in a place I will see them. When someone passes through my door in need of encouragement, assertiveness training, a self-esteem boost, or a hug, I’m going to hand them one of these folders, compliments of my friend. That way, in spirit, he continues to pass along the blessing.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Twenty Questions with Ed Calkins Part Two

One minor vampire featured in Bryony has a real-life counterpart. Years ago, Ed Calkins created a "ruthless dictator" alter ego that I futher fictionlized for my novel, with Ed's permission, of course. Recently, I asked Ed to answer a few questions about his role in Bryony, which he was happy to do. Here is part two of that interview.

6) What if fans expect the real Ed Calkins to be similar to the fictional Ed Calkins?

“He is like him. There’s just that side of him. He’s significant in an offbeat way, enough to where he can claim the stewardship of Tara without blushing.”

7) The Irish have no solid vampire legends. How do you feel about being the first, real Irish vampire?

“I think other people will make more of that than I will. Being known as the Steward of Tara is more of a crowing achievement in my mind.”

8) Where did your love of Irish lore and history begin?

“It started with my love of history. Then I looked into mythology, and I used to tell my son a lot of tales and legends. When he reached high school and heard the same thing, my credibility rose in his eyes. One thing I had told him that wasn’t really true is that Ireland was always a backwash of European history, unless your interest is war. Then, it is probably true. There were many Irish warriors. It’s just they tended to be fodder; they were never fighting for Ireland. Ireland is probably the only place where you get a sense of what pre-Christianity was about, so if you want to know Ireland, just study its myth. Even before I was really into being Irish, I had a disdain for the Roman Empire, which, I think, gave me a bias toward the Irish. In all honesty, I’m American, but my heritage is Irish. It only takes going to Ireland to know that.”

9) How did you research your Irish heritage?

“I’ve read a lot of books. Also, as a college freshman, I got put into an Irish literature course, which I wasn’t very interested in it at the time. I’m not one of those people who have forgotten much of what they learned in college. So it stayed with all these years in a recessive way. The problem is that I’m very bad with names. The proper study of Irish mythology involves heroes, kings, and saints, in that order. They are alive today through the last names. I just don’t know who these people are.”

10) When did you begin writing?

“I started with poetry. In the eighth grade I wrote poem that resonated a little bit. So, throughout high school, I wrote poetry. I was an editor of the literary magazine and the editor in chief the last year. Something bizarre about me is that I can’t finish anything. I have these really organized fantasies, but I’m not a wordsmith. I just lost my hard drive, which means I lost everything I’ve written for the last twenty years. I should be beside myself, but I’m not, because none of the pieces were really finished.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Open Window

This weekend, if you have time, check out, "The Open Window," an intense, short, short story by Saki (H.H. Monro), available for instant reading on several, online sites.

It's about a man with a nervous condition who retreats to the country armed, courtesy of his sister who fears him becoming a recluse, with several letters of introduction to his neighbors.

The man is greeted at one home by the woman's fifteen-year-old niece, who impassively informs him the real reason for her aunt's open window, despite the fact that it is October. You'll love the surprise ending!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why A Bryony Cookbook

Well, why not?

Even before I began submitting Bryony to agents and small presses, my kids and I talked about all the fun, additional products the novel might inspire.

Although I’ll probably never see bendable dolls with their own line of clothing (too bad, since we could make a fortune on all those lost, little shoes) or a Simons Mansion dollhouse (I REALLY want one), the cookbook idea took root inside me and flourished.

A cookbook was a common fundraiser for many organizations—just look at what Kathy Carey did for March of Dimes-- and Bryony was full of food references: balls, formal dinner parties, and 1970s-style family dinners. So, why NOT a cookbook? Surely, there was a group out there who wouldn’t mind being the recipient of anything we made from it, even if only enough to purchase a book of stamps.

Soon after WriteLife accepted Bryony, I scrolled through the manuscript and jotted down all the food references I could find. I organized them into topics. I researched publishing options. I made a list of possible organizations to contact. The first was Big Brothers Big Sisters of Will and Grundy Counties. I contacted its chief operations officer and, once she approved of the project, the recipe collection began.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Woods, Water & Michigan, Part 1

The pull of childhood impressions must be very strong within me, because, even today, woods and water mark the epitome of serenity and romance. Perhaps that’s why Simons Woods and Lake Munson were two of Bryony’s earliest settings.

I grew up in Joliet in a brand-new subdivision that was still underdeveloped enough to contain fields of prairie grasses and tiny, raspberry-sized wild strawberries that my sister and I picked on June mornings until they disappeared with the July heat. We could spend an entire morning crawling on the ground, the weeds scratching our bare legs, moving aside green thatches to find the reddest berries. When our plastic, old butter tub containers were full, we ran home to remove the green tops and toss them into a colander to rinse them clean. They topped our Cheerios the next morning, just like a cereal’s box’s cover photo.

Our three-bedroom ranch house backed up into Highland Park, so before my father installed a six-foot, wooden, privacy fence, you could see the within walking-distance athletic club pavilion. However, the strawberries grew less abundantly there than behind my friend’s house across the street.

Beyond Highland Park was Pilcher Park, with its winding roads, famous flowing well, nature museum and walking trails, and a creek that featured paddle boats in summer and ice skating in winter. I remember being pulled away from an afternoon showing of “Munster Go Home,” on the little rabbit-eared, black and white television in the basement to instead go ice skating. I had outgrown my ice skates and wobbled on a pair, two sizes too large, that had once belonged to my mother. I detested ice skating from that day forward.

We moved to New Lenox in 1974, again to a wooded area near a much smaller creek. That body of water was the perfect spot to watch dragonflies and entertain random musings. I took woods for granted, until I had children of my own and lived in an area that had none.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What Is "Bryony?"

How and when I decided to give John Simons' wife the name of a poisnous vine and then encase his mansion in it is lost in obscurity. I only remember. rejecting "ivy" and recalling the name, "Briony," from Ruth M. Arthur's "A Candle in her Room." Coincidentally, and not on purpose (Honest!), Briony's older sister in that book is named, "Melissa."

At the time, I thought Briony's meaning had something to do with briars. When I researched the name, I discovered it was actually an obnoxious, toxic weed, with predator-type qualities, so perfect for a vampire novel.

Below are a few facts about Bryony, complements of the Montana State University and its July 28, 2009 press release, "Fast-growing, noxious weed, white bryony, found in Bozeman." (http://www.montana.edu/). First, its description:

* Bryony can grow up to 6 inches a day and quickly cover the sides and tops of trees.
* Its rooting system can be up to 18 inches in length and resembles a white turnip.
* White bryony has dark green, palmately lobed leaves, each with an associated tendril.
* The flowers are small, yellow-green or yellow-white, and are located in the leaf axils.
* The fruit is a round berry, which turns black as it ripens.
* Birds eat and spread these fruits. The fruits are highly toxic to humans and animals.

White bryony first appeared in United States during the 1970s. Its nickname is "Kudzu of the Northwest." Here's why:

* Bryony's rapid growth can block all light to the host plant.
* Heavy winter snow can accumulate on bryony and break the branches of the host plant.
* Following breakage, disease and insects may invade the host plant.
* The spread of white bryony can reduce wind protection for people and livestock.
* It can also lead to loss of wildlife habitat.

One must exercise caution when removing bryony:

* Wear protective gear (gloves, long sleeves), as bryony can irritate skin.
* Certain, effective herbicides can be hazardous to the host species.
* To apply, Pull the bryony vine away from the plant before applying.
* Several applications may be necessary.
* White bryony regenerates from the root, so severing the vines is not as effective.
* Root damage is the most effective control method. Cut roots several inches below the soil.
* This must be done in autumn, after the leaves have died.
* Watch for new plants and repeat.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Submitting Bryony

Although I had been a journalism major and had freelanced a dozen years for a newspaper, I had scant knowledge of the book industry. I thought authors simply packaged their manuscripts, sent them to publishing houses, and waited for the ensuing rejection or acceptance.

To my credit, before I sent that first query, I researched the submission process, including how to properly format a manuscript. Being technologically impaired, I only knew how to do certain things by hand. It took an entire weekend to change my single-spaced manuscript into a double-spaced one and to manually set each page break.

Feeling like a guppy out to sea, I bravely sent my first Bryony query and, four weeks later, happily accepted my first rejection. I had officially joined the ranks of other hopeful authors. I was on my way.

After two months and several more queries passed I decided I wasn't doing too badly. I had two more agent rejections, one agent request for a full manuscript, and small press request for a partial. Both happened near my birthday, so that was pretty cool, at least until my manuscript returned, rejected, from the agent. The small press remained quiet, so I researched some more and sent out a another batch of queries, which I promptly regretted.

Why did I regret it? There was something about the process that seemed inconsistent with my goals. I only wanted to share an entertaining story with others who wanted to read it, and I wanted to encourage other people's writing efforts. I wasn't against marketing my work, but I wasn't trying to break into high-profile, commercial fiction, either.

I also wanted Kathleen R. Van Pelt's illustrations, but that's another post.

Self-publishing seemed the preferable alternative, but I hesitated for two reasons: I couldn't afford it, and I feared unprofessional editing. Then, I interviewed an author who used WriteLife LLC.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Annoying Birdhouses

Yesterday I was cleaning my office and sighing in exasperation at a pair of birdfeeders blocking my progress. They're homemade birdfeeders, unpainted and not particularly well-constructed. However, a dear friend gave them to me, from the trunk of his car, while he was searching for something else. An acquaintance of his, 91 years old, makes and distributes them, which is how my friend received them in the first place. I have five cats, but I accepted them anyway, certain I can find a home for them.

So, months later, here they are, still occupying my teeny tiny office. When I trip over them, I stick them on top of the garbage can. When I need to empty the can, I place them in front of the filing cabinet. When I open the bottom drawer, I set them on the window seat. Yet, I never throw them away.

Why do I keep them? They tangibly remind me that, even at 91, we still have gifts to share and purposes and destinies to fulfill. When I write, I don't, unfortunately, always hit the mark, but I'm encouraged to know that somewhere, a 91 year old is making birdhouses because he must, to the happy delight of a bird or two.

If he can do it, I can. And so, I pour another cup of coffee, click "new document" and begin typing.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Twenty Questions with Ed Calkins: Part One

Ed Calkins is a real, fifty-something, proud of his Irish heritage computer programmer and amateur writer who has also worked his entire life in newspaper circulation.

Years ago, Calkins invented a "ruthless dictator" alter ego, known as "The Steward of Tara." With Calkins' permission, I furthered altered his persona into a minor character for "Bryony," making Calkins the first, significant Irish vampire.

Of course, Calkins claims "Bryony" is really all about him, so he is planning his own book signings, which he is calling, "The Ed Calkins Tour." After all, Calkins claims, it's the minor characters in books that become cult favorites. There must be some truth in his sentiment, because Calkins' plot importance and visibility does grow with each novel.

Calkins will eventually guest post on Saturdays. Recently, the steward set aside his caretaking duties so readers can get to know him. Today, and for the next three Saturdays, I will post five questions and answers from that interview.

1) What inspired your conception of a ruthless dictator?

"My son was doing a lot of role-playing games, and he was trying to creat a bard and give him magical powers. I told him there was no need coming up with magical items, because bards are already too powerful, providing they are not trying to seek notoriety for themselves. Ruthless dictators are not afraid to die. They're just afraid how they will be remembered. It's not effective to compose a song or a limerick or an epic poem glorifying yourself. You've got to have other people doing it for you. I always thought we should cut the military in half, invent some really good limericks, and insult people into submission."

2) Why did you invent this fictional part of your personality?

"I was bullied as a boy, so it came from the way I would get back at bullies. I would think something negative about them, because verbalizing it wouldn't go well. In my mind, I called it even. The ruthless dictator really started after I got a ticket running a stop sign when I was delivering newspapers on a really snowy day. If I would have stopped, I never would have gotten going again, so I really thought the ticket was unfair. As revenge, I picked ten people from the phone book and thought bad things about them. My wife thought that was pretty corny. Later, in my mind, I took over the entire town. I didn't have to conquer a nation. It just had to be a place, at least metaphorically, as long as it had its own identity."

3) What was your reaction when you received the invitation to become part of a vampire novel?

"I was nervous about revealing my ignorance about vampires. I didn't know a lot about them. I worked quickly to remedy it."

4) Why did you accept?

"Immortality, of course. I can't think about myself. I have to think about a thousand years from now, and if there's going to be a three-day holiday in my name or not. There's a side of me that thinks this is goofy enough to actually happen."

5) Weren't you afraid of how you might be portrayed in Bryony?

"No, and a lot of that comes from my survival mechanism as a kid. I learned to play along with the bullies rather than fight them. Part of my comedic outreach is self-depracating anyway, so it didn't seem that anything negative could really hurt me. The ruthless dictator would say, 'Look, there's no such thing as bad publicity.' King Midas is much better off than King Midas the Second, even though King Midas was portrayed in a bad light. Nobody remembers King Midas the Second."

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Room in the Tower

This is one of my favorite short vampire stories, which one can read for free on several different online sites. Written by E.F. Benson and first published in 1912, "The Room in the Tower" tells the tale of one man's recurring dream that ages with him and leads to a surprising end.

If you get the chance, check it out. Happy reading and pleasant dreams!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Please Send Food

Well, not really. However, I am seeking food recipes, if you have something you'd like to share for a Bryony fundraising cookbook.

The idea was a simple one, really. Bryony has many food references, both from the Victorian period and 1975, the present day for the novel's main character. In addition, the sluggish economy has frozen my donations to worthy causes. Yet, I didn't consider a fundraising cookbook until I met Kathy Carey.

For two decades, this remarkable woman participated in Grundy County's March of Dimes walk. In 2000, after a friend gave birth to a premture baby, Carey increased her efforts. She assisted the district coordinator. She contacted companies for sponsorships. She solicted food donations for the annual walk. She re-routed the local walk to increase its visibility.

Three years ago, Carey read an advertisement for fundraising cookbooks. Although she owned no computer and had no previous cookbook experience, Carey sent for the information. She studied it closely and decided she could do it. She set a fundraising goal of $7,000 and calculated that she needed to sell 1,000 cookbooks to reach it. Carey peddled the books at local stores and craft shows and festicvals. She only has about 200 cookbooks left.

Inspired by Carey's story, I decided to create a Bryony themed cookbook and donate any proceeds it might make. Its recipient is Big Brothers Big Sisters of Will and Grundy Counties. In its 40-year history, the organization has matched over 15,000 at risk children from single-parent homes. Because Bryony's main character, Melissa, spends part of her childhood in a single parent home, the group was a good match for the cookbook. I am humbled that Big Brothers Big Sisters of Will and Grundy Counties agreed.

Visit Bryony's Facebook page (link is posted at http://www.bryonyseries.com/) to learn more about the project. Send recipes to seansarah@aol.com. Although I am seeking specific recipes for certain types of foods, be assured any recipe you send will find a home in this cookbook. For more information about the March of Dimes cookbook, contact Carey at kathyj.carey@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Blank Minds and Blank Pages

Have you ever had a million thoughts running through your head you just had to write, but once you sat down, nothing came at all?

I once thought only novice or burned-out writers experienced it. However, with a dozen years of published writing credits behind me, I guess I've moved beyond the novice state. I still love writing, so I'm probably not burned out either. Yet, nearly every time I face my computer, whether I'm writing for fun or on deadline, those initial words are slow to flow. It even happened when writing Bryony,

What fixes it? Solutions vary. Looming deadlines often get those words jumping onto the page. Re-reading my notes for inspiration helps, too. Scrubbing the kitchen floor or pairing socks might not seem like writing, but it is, for the motion allows ideas to seep into my mind. It reminds me of Alice, when she tried walking directly to the looking glass garden. The more determined she became to reach it, the more it eluded her.

So, I'm curious. What works for you?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Experimental Posts and Play Lists

Because the dates of posts one, two, and three don't match when I actually posted them, I am writing this post to check the date when I should be editing two other stories.

Maybe, it's my general lack of technical knowledge, but if I post a piece at midnight or even two a.m., I'm baffled why the date and time posts incorrectly. So much for organized, advanced planning!

On another note, writelifellc.wordpress.com had an interesting post this morning about play lists. Until I saw another author post her inspirational song titles, I thought I was the only one who found that certain music inspired scenes, moods, and even characters' personality traits.

However, my song/artist list for Bryony is rather disversifed and eclectic, so I doubt it will ever make a good movie soundtrack. While composing the three books that comprise the Bryony series thus far, I listened to classical piano music (no surprises there), Sanctus Real, Switchfoot, Seabird, Remedy Drive, Crystal Gayle, ELO, the Partridge Family, and tin whistle compositions on YouTube.

I have started the notes for Bryony's prequel, Before the Blood, and I finding myself drawn to Queensryche, Guns and Roses, and Al Stewart. Hmmm.....

The Research into Bryony

Many moons ago, someone presented me with a three-volume book set that explained, through a series of questions and answers, the origins or mechanisms of various things. Often, one of those books found its way into my bed at night, when then lights were supposed to be off. Yet, to this day, I love researching the hows and whys and whats and whos and wheres, all made simpler due to the internet.

To give "Bryony" an authentic feel, I delved into various aspects of Victorian life--customs, culture, cuisine and clothing--and drew upon my previously acquired knowledge of vampire lore. I also studied such things as vampire bats, plants, castles, plumbing, parasites, croquet, dandies, ballrom etiquette, plays, writers, animal breeds, diseases, fishing, and boat safety.

Little by little, I'll share some of what I learned with you, as well as the inspiration behind the characers: their names, their personalities, and how they came to be part of "Bryony." I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

Monday, August 2, 2010

That Lightening Bolt Moment

Okay, maybe it was not that dramatic.

On one of the first days of 1985, I laid on the couch trying to combat pregnancy nausea with a book of classic vampire stories. My two year old and eight month old were napping at the same time, a highly unusual occurance. I laid the book upside donw on my chest and decided to write a gothicy-style vampire novel.

Now, I had never written a novel, only short stories and one novella. Nor had I even written much fiction since my junior high school days, thanks to a series of illnesses in high school and a killer schedule in college. Since becoming a parent, I had not even read much fiction. I preferred the Bible, as well as books on pregnancy, childbirth, Cesarean sections (I've had six total), home birth (I've had none), breastfeeding (infants, toddlers, through pregnancy, and tandem), Christian parenting, and homeschooling.

Yet, by the time the kiddies had awakened, and I was soaping washclothes for diaper changes (Yes, I used cloth diapers, by choice), I had the rudiments of s story--a teenage girl falls in love with a vampire she meets by a remote lake--flowing through my mind.

Of course, the main character would be Melissa. That had been my name of choice for numerous childhood stories. Finally, Melissa would star in her "official" story. I decided to set her story in 1972 (I later changed it to 1975 simply because I wanted Halloween on a Friday) to give expansion room to the story. It was a slow growth.

The raising of six, lively, breastfed, homeschooled children left little time for writing. Drafts attempted in locked, toddler-proofed rooms offered little concentration. Those adorable little people who shared the space were more interested in tapping typewriting keys than playing with all the lovely, educational toys strewn on the floor. Many, many deleted scenes found their home in some landfill.

Yet, while other stories ideas have come and gone, this particular one would not go away. Finally, in 2007, I decided to write it as a novella for the seventeenth birthday of one of my sons. I figured it could write it in a weekend. I was wrong.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Welcome to the Bryony Series Blog by Denise M. Baran-Unland

I love stories, and my entire life has revolved around that love.

An asthmatic childhood provided long, happy hours curled up with either a book or a pen and notebook. Doll play with my sister (and we had many dolls) consisted of layered characters and complicated storylines that occupied us for days. I composed when riding my bike. I mentally added "he said" or "she said" when people spoke to me. My fifth and sixth grade English teacher created themed, people-centered bulletin boards from magazine clippings, and I wrote short stories from those clippings. I write for a living. I write for fun.

The BryonySeries blog reflects that fun.

Whether you are curious about the Bryony book(s) or simply enjoy reading and/or writing, you will find the genesis of and the research behind the story, publication updates, writing ramblings, information on the Bryony fundraising cookbook, writing and publication experiences of other authors, bits of inspiration and links to my favorite stories.

You will also meet the real Ed Calkins, aka, the Steward of Tara. He is one of Bryony's minor characters and Ireland's first official vampire. This blog will also feature variety of guest experts, authors, readers and, perhaps, a surprise or two.

Google my byline to read published feature stories or visit www.suburbanchicagonews.com/heraldnews.

Mostly, enjoy!