Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cover Story: How My Book Got Its Face

I'm a sucker for pretty book covers. I always have been. As a kid in libraries, I’d scan the shelves for anything that caught my eye. I picked up Twilight in a bookstore knowing nothing about it other than it was a vampire story—I fell in love with vampires in 6th grade—and that the cover was beautiful. The striking red of the apple against the stark white of the cupped hands and angled forearms, the black background and silver title sold me in about two seconds. I didn’t love the book and didn’t read any of the sequels, but every time I pull Twilight out to get rid of it, I end up admiring the cover like a work of art and put it back on my shelf. 

My bookcases are filled with pretty books. I mean, all books are beautiful, but those with pretty faces as well as words are likely to go far in our visual culture. It may not be fair, but it’s true: people judge books by their covers all the time. So we authors cross our fingers that we’ll get a good one, because the thing is, we don’t have much control over the cover.

When I sold my novel, it was a Word document on my computer; a manuscript I hadn’t printed out in its entirety for years. It wasn’t yet a physical object, or rather its physicality was blank. When I pictured my book as a thing, it looked like a pile of papers, a faceless body of words.

Then one day, an image magically appeared in my email inbox. No one had told me exactly when I’d see my cover, or what it might look like. No one had asked me for any ideas or input, though I suppose, if I’d had strong opinions about my vision, I would have said so. I know other authors who sent photos or drawings, or other covers they loved. I did none of that and yet there it was as an attachment from my editor. I held my breath as I waited for it to load. Suddenly, my book was looking back at me.

I didn’t immediately fall in love. At first, I didn’t know what I thought. How do you react to finally seeing the face of a being you know so intimately? My book and I were like one of those couples who meet online or through the paper and write to each other and talk on the phone for months, revealing every detail about themselves without having seen any photos, the internal so familiar and the external only imagined. A face-to-face encounter changes the whole relationship in a second.

Generally, an author is shown a cover from the designer. She then has three options: reject, accept, or request changes. Of course, there are always those horror stories of authors who had no say at all and hated their covers, but I have also heard of authors going through three or five versions to find one that’s exactly right. For good reason—a book’s cover is how it presents itself to the world. It’s important. Like you’d choose an outfit based on your activity, your cover should fit your audience, should give a sense of the book’s mood, should make people want to pick it up and hold it in their hands.

It’s a partnership, working with a publisher, so you may not get exactly what you envisioned all those years as you built a relationship with your book. And some authors have told me that was a good thing: that the design their publisher presented was so much better that what they’d asked for; better than they’d imagined. The designers are, after all, designers. Try to be open-minded.

When you do see her face for the first time, it’s less complicated than meeting your internet boyfriend in person because, unlike his, the book's face isn't permanent. You can change it. If you hate your cover or you really feel that something isn’t working, speak up! Be polite and respectful, but say something. Your cover is what everyone will see, what your book will wear out in the world, her shining face. It should be something that feels right for her, and for you.

Isn't she pretty?
I know I was lucky with my cover. After the initial shock wore off, I decided I liked it. I really liked it. I asked for a few changes—small adjustments to colors, lightening the girls’ hair which was originally black and my characters are blond—and now I’m head over heels in love with it. I love the colors and the font and the ragged edges. I love the interesting composition, eye-catching photo, the feeling of protectiveness between the two girls, and their vulnerability. It captures the "tough and tender" tone of Hand Me Down perfectly. Now, I can’t imagine my book without this beautiful face.

Find out more about Hand Me Down at

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Next One

photo credit: woodsboard's Flickr photostream
By Julie Kibler

It's been a little over eight months since I sold Calling Me Home to St. Martin's Press, and it's about eight months until publication. (And in fact, it's only THREE months until publication in Germany!) Some days I find it hard to believe how quickly this time passed, yet I expect the next eight months will really race by.

And still, life goes on.

Things I found to be true before I sold the book, I still find to be true in all the months since. The kids still fight. The house still doesn't clean itself. My husband and I still get cranky with each other. The dogs … well, they're still stinky, ornery dogs.

And I still find myself terrified I'll never write a novel.

Wait, you say. You just sold a novel. You obviously wrote one.

It's true. I wrote well over 100,000 words on Calling Me Home to eventually cull it down to the 103K or so submitted first to agents, then editors. And now, after months of official edits and copy edits, the current incarnation is slowly making its way through the production process toward official publication.

In fact, I wrote another full manuscript before Calling Me Home. And most of one and parts of a few others before that.

But here I am again, back in the driver's seat. You'd think I'd be able to jump right in, take one of the ideas that has been floating around in the brain and pin it down, choose the right point of view character or characters, the perfect setting, the appropriate tense, and get right on it. That I would, to borrow an overused phrase, just do it.

But guess what? It isn't easy yet. If most of the authors I know are correct, it may never be easy. I feel a bit like I'm wandering in the wilderness and I'm trying to embrace it.

I suspect each and every novel I write will take on a life of its own, which is a good thing, but also means the process won't ever look exactly the same. What worked last time may be worthless this time. Or parts of the process may work just fine, but I may look at others and think, How on earth did I ever think it was a good idea to do it like that?

I suspect that the voices of self-doubt always waiting, right below the surface, will pop their silly heads up again and again, to say with smirks that there's no way I can write a whole book, there's no way anyone will be interested in what I have to say, there's no way I can get away with this idea … there's no way … there's no way …

I suspect there will be a few false starts, a few dead ends.

And I suspect that the new novel waiting to be told will reveal itself in new and surprising ways I never expected.

And so I listen and wait and dream and think …

I think I hear it. I think I see it. I think I smell it and taste it and feel it. I think it could work.

And I pray that the idea occupying most of the creative space in my mind today is the one. 


This post appeared originally May 16, 2012, on Julie's group blog, What Women Write

Friday, May 25, 2012

Edits, Edits, and More Edits!

By Erin Cashman

After six years and three manuscripts, I finally found an agent and an editor and sold my novel, The Exceptionals. I thought I’d polish the manuscript a bit, and it would soon be in stores.

Boy, was I wrong! Now came the editing. I edited, and edited, and then I edited some more. I cut words, scenes and whole characters! My editor did love my dialogue, which was funny to me, because I used to have a terrible time crafting dialogue. I want all my characters to speak beautiful, proper English. Unfortunately, people do not speak like that. To fix that problem, I always read my dialogue out loud several times before I’m satisfied with it. Now I’m told dialogue is one of my strengths. 

As I poured over my editor's notes, I saw that she scribbled in several places: your writing is so fresh -- you can do better than this, or too cliché.  Fixing that problem was much harder than I thought it would be.

Since much of my book takes place in the woods, I went outside with my pen and notebook, and like my protagonist, Claire, sat down on a rock and observed what I saw, heard and smelled. The colors and sounds were different than what I had thought.  In the morning I jotted down what the sunrise looked like (my children get up much too early for school!). I was surprised to discover that in winter months I often saw vibrant bands of violet at the horizon - rarely did I see the pinks and oranges I saw in my mind’s eye.  I paid attention to storms and the way the clouds moved. Every observation went in my notebook.

And then I worked on avoiding the same old tired expressions. Once I did that, I started to notice how other authors described things.  Now, whenever I read a book, I have my green 3 ring binder handy. As I come across a phrase or description that is beautiful or interesting, I stop and try to come up with my own unique way to express it – which I scribble down. When I’m writing – and I use it even more often during re-writes -- I have my notebook with me, and I reference it often.  

This system also works for descriptive words -- I jot down adjectives and verbs I like. In the back of the notebook I have a few pages devoted just to action verbs. How many times can I write ran, darted, bolted. . . ? But now I can quickly look and find thundered, side-stepped, squeezed, pranced, trundled along . . .

Through the long process from manuscript to the birth of the book, I realized that most authors have strengths and weaknesses. I’m so thankful that my editor showed me some of my weaknesses, because as I worked on correcting them, I became a much better writer.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Writing the Reader's Guide

by Priscille Sibley

I’m still in the pre-publication phase of this amazing endeavor. My substantive edits are done and accepted. As I write this, my copy edits are due to arrive within the next week. And I’m doing all the little last doodads: writing the dedication, acknowledgements, author picture – and my wonderful editor asked if I wanted to include a Reader’s Guide.

Yes, I said immediately because everyone is saying my novel is book club fiction. It stands to reason that a reader’s guide should accompany it to foster discussion.

My book has a few divisive issues floating around in it. (Isn’t there supposed to be conflict?) So I want  readers to question what is the right thing to do. I want them to wonder what they would do if they were in my protagonist’s situation.

And frankly, although my protagonist has a definite position, he struggles with his choice. And honestly I don’t know if he makes the “right” one.  Hardly any of his friends or family agree with him. I do hope though that he will make a solid enough case that a reader will go along with him on the ride.

So yes, I wanted to write a reader’s guide.

What to include? Let me preface this answer by saying it is not yet done. 
  • Questions. Right now I have fourteen. One of my questions is: Elle says women are stronger because they can discuss their sadness and men have to mask their pain and insecurities. Do you think that’s true?
  •  A paragraph or two about what prompted me to write about this topic.
  • Supplemental material. There’s the adage about writing what you know. But there is also research. I had to learn things about law, medicine, the Perseid meteor showers, gardening, etc. As of now, I have included a few internet links if anyone wanted to learn more.
  • Photographs from archives. I did not do this but I just picked up The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen. It is a historical novel based on the true story of a Civil War era woman who was born into slavery freed. She worked as a spy in the Confederate White House. Leveen includes pictures of some of the real people and places.
  • Recipes. In some novels, food takes a place in the story and what the characters eat whet the appetites of readers. After all, we’re supposed to put all the senses on the page, right? How about putting some of those into the reader’s guide?
  • Someone this weekend was telling me the version of The Da Vinci Code she read included photographs of the artwork mentioned.  
  • Maps.
  • Diagrams.
  • Timelines. 
  • Bibliographies. Yes, this is fiction but there may be a reader who wants to learn more.

I don’t know exactly what will end up in my reader’s guide.

What else have you seen that worked in a reader’s guide? 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Pregnant Meet-Up in North Carolina

Whenever possible, our group members like to meet up and support each other's events, so we can put not only faces to the names but strange facial ticks, an odd choice of shoe style, or a silver minivan to the names as well. Those of us over here on the East Coast have been moaning and groaning about how we never have a chance to meet up, and shaking our little fists at the sky in envy of the West Coast people, who have had so many meet-ups, they're practically a political party.

Then our group's newly annointed NYT best selling member Wiley Cash came to North Carolina on his tour, and all members in southern Virginia and northeast North Carolina converged on Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh, NC for an all-night jamboree and hootenanny. Or a book signing. One of those things.

I coerced my favorite book blogger, Andrea Kinnear of Faulkner 2 Fibonacci, to drive along with me, for a pre-event planning session with Barbara Claypole White, Brenda Bevan Remmes, and Anne Clinard Barnhill, over vegan chili and tofu sprouts at the Whole Foods next to the bookstore. Our task was to plan a panel we're going to be presenting at an upcoming conference, but when we were done my notes featured the phrase "Telling people not to use paper is like telling people not to eat potatoes." We still have work to do on that panel presentation! Here we are:

Next door at the book event, Wiley killed on stage.

Brenda and I made sure to document everything for the internet. 

Here we are waiting for Wiley to get done signing.

Brenda and Barbara getting books signed by himself. 

Wiley and our book blogger Andrea. She doesn't have to review us positively. We just pinch her if she doesn't. 

Brenda, Wiley, me (Lydia), and Barbara, who's standing in front of a huge pile of preorders waiting to be signed.

It was a delightful evening, a great reading from A Land More Kind Than Home, which is grooving its way into literary history, and a nice break from real life to hang out with girlfriends real and virtual. 

Our "Book Pregnant" group has been an experiment in collaborative marketing, a social outlet to vent and brag, a place to learn from others' triumphs and mistakes, a way to share information and insider news, and a way to make friends in the business. I marvel that these people who I barely even know in real life are so solidly on my tribe (and I on theirs) as we all try to successfully bring our books to market in this changing industry and evolving internet landscape. I'm grateful we had the chance to meet, online and in North Carolina! 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Importance of Literacy in My Life, and Yours

by Wiley Cash

I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood called Forest Brook in Gastonia, North Carolina. Forest Brook was everything a kid could want in a neighborhood; it was full of both forests and brooks, and even now when I whisper the name, I feel just as much mystery and excitement as I did when I was ten years old. My younger brother and I spent our childhoods riding our bikes on dirt paths, wading through creeks, climbing up trees, and performing all the dangerous feats boys attempt when they grow up in a neighborhood like ours. Even though we spent a lot of time playing outside, we spent just as much time reading and being read to by our mom.

My parents’ second story bedroom windows looked out over an expanse of field behind our house. Dense woods bordered the field on either side. At that time, if you would’ve walked through the field for about two miles you would’ve eventually found yourself in a nice, upper-class neighborhood with a country club where my brother and I would eventually work as lifeguards. Just past the golf course that ringed the club was a tiny municipal airport with a beacon light that could be seen from my parents’ bedroom windows.

At night, after we’d taken our baths and before we’d said our prayers, my brother and I would sit in our mom’s lap in an old wicker rocking chair while she read to us. This ritual probably started when I was around three years old, and I would guess that I climbed down out of that rocking chair for the last time when I was six – only because I was too big to be rocked without my feet touching the floor, not because I no longer wanted my mom to read to me. After that I’d sit on my parents’ bed and listen while my mom read out loud and rocked my brother, who would climb down from that chair for the final time just a few years after me and join me on the bed, our mom still in the rocker, reading to us.

Those are very comforting memories: the sound of my mother’s voice close to my ear while she rocked me when I was small or drifting across the room to where I sat on the bed once I was older; the smell of Dial soap on my clean skin and the scent of the summer-warmed window panes as they cooled against the night air; the sound of chirping crickets lifting from the field behind our house. I remember these things as if they still take place each night; in my mind, maybe they do. I also have a clear memory of staring out the window and watching the beacon light at the airport as it revolved atop the tower, its beam strafing the field behind our house with a faint glow before disappearing, only to reappear seconds later. The beacon light was hypnotic; it lulled me to sleep more than the crickets or the rocking or the sound of my mom’s voice as it grew quieter and quieter while our eyelids grew heavier.

When I was twenty, my parents left our home in Gastonia and moved to the beach at Oak Island, North Carolina, roughly five hours east of where I’d grown up. A bridge connects Oak Island to the mainland, and from the bridge you can see the Caswell Beach lighthouse at the eastern end of the island. Not long after they’d moved, I was crossing the bridge with my mom at dusk; the lighthouse’s beam was just barely visible against the darkening sky. My mom looked at the lighthouse, and then she turned and looked at me.

“Just think,” she said, “whenever you see the lighthouse, you’ll know you’re almost home.”

I knew what she meant, and I appreciated the sentiment, but I knew that I’d never think of Oak Island as home, regardless of its beauty or the beauty of its landmarks. I still think of home as being farther west in North Carolina, at the edge of a little field in a neighborhood dotted with forests and brooks where a beacon light shines through the bedroom window while my mother reads stories to my brother and me.

Whenever I read, I may not always recall the sound of my mother’s voice or the sensation of being rocked, but I always feel the same safety and comfort I felt as a young boy watching the night creep across the field toward our house while the warm breeze rolled through the window screens. I can’t imagine a life that doesn’t include reading.

Even with that said, it’s amazing how often I take my literacy for granted, especially in my day-to-day life at the grocery store where I read labels on products, at the pharmacy where I read warnings on medicine, and at the doctor’s office where I read pamphlets and information about what may or may not be ailing me. I tend to think of my reading life as something I nurture in private, something I use to escape. But I’d be wrong to think of it this way; reading is something I use to survive, and if you’re reading this now, then you use reading to survive as well.

As an author who’s just published my first novel, I’m aware that reading has given me a job. But as an adult who uses my literacy each and every day, I’m aware that reading has given me the ability to thrive in a very complicated world. A 2003 federal study found that one in seven adults don’t possess the literacy skills to read beyond the level required of a children’s picture book. I can’t fathom the fact that so many people have never had the pleasure of opening a novel and escaping their everyday lives. Even more daunting and sobering is the reality that these people’s everyday lives are complicated by illiteracy; tasks that we take for granted – going to the grocery store, buying a plane ticket, writing a letter of complaint – are endlessly and unnecessarily complicated.

My wife and I spent the past few months searching for a way to give back to a reading community that has allowed my dream of being a published author to come true. The answer became clear one day after I opened UNCA Today, the alumni magazine of the University of North Carolina at Asheville. The magazine had profiled Amanda Edwards, a woman who’d been a good friend of mine while we were students at UNCA. Amanda is the Executive Director of the Literacy Council of Buncombe County in Asheville, North Carolina. I read the profile on Amanda, and then I called her about ways my wife and I could contribute to the amazing work the council is doing in Buncombe County. I began researching literacy programs throughout North and South Carolina, and I was shocked by what I discovered. According to the 2003 study, in North Carolina 14% of adults struggle with basic reading skills; the rate climbs slightly to 15% in South Carolina. On the bright side, I discovered that in many cities it costs as little as $25 to buy the materials that will teach an adult how to read. I can’t imagine a better investment in the future of an individual, a community, or a city. Think about what $50 or $100 could do for men and women in your community; then think about what $1,000 could do. With that in mind, my wife and I have decided that we want to raise thousands of dollars for literacy projects and public libraries throughout North and South Carolina, but we need your help.

Beginning on May 14, my publisher, William Morrow, is sending me on a fifteen-city tour throughout North and South Carolina where I’ll be holding events at some of the finest independent bookstores in the country. At almost all of these events, my wife and I will be donating a portion of the proceeds from book sales to local literacy projects and public libraries, and we’ll be encouraging booksellers and the public to give what they can as well. I’m proud that we’ll be partnering with the Literacy Council of Buncombe County, the group that inspired this idea, and I’m especially proud that we’ll be partnering with the Gaston County Public Library in Gastonia, North Carolina, where I received my first library card on the day I turned six.

I can never repay the gift the reading community has given me – for the memories of those nights in my parents’ bedroom when my mom read to us, for the times in my life that were so hectic or horrible that reading was the only thing I could do to escape – but this is a start.

If you’re interested in stopping by one of our events or learning more about the organizations we’re working with, please check out the tour schedule here. If you can’t come to an event, but you’d like to make a donation, please feel free to contact any of these organizations listed here or the literacy council or public library in your community.

In the meantime, read to your kids, read to other people’s kids, and, if you don’t think you’re too old to enjoy it, have someone read to you. It’s up to them whether or not they want to rock you to sleep while they do it.

Friday, May 4, 2012

And Now the Book Store Reading (Stop Quivering, Voice!)

By Nancy Bilyeau

Among the assumptions made about the life of a debut novelist is that right around publication day you will be swept up in a glamorous book tour. When you’re not dancing on tables at the Algonquin or having two-hour-long lunches with Important Journalists, you will read from your own novel in a bookstore before audiences hanging on your every word.

The first thing that’s incorrect about this scenario is the role of the Algonquin. The hotel, scene of Dorothy Parker’s 1920s round-table carousing, has been closed for renovations since December 2011.

As for the grand tours, they, too, seem closed for renovations, particularly for debut novelists who do not yet have followings. In the age of social media, author time is more productively spent blogging, guest-posting and tweeting, most publishers seem to feel.

But book-store readings survive. They may not be as plentiful as in bygone days but they do happen and they are important. Last summer, when I met the publicity team from Touchstone Books, I was happy to learn that, soon after my book dropped on Jan. 10th, 2012, I was scheduled to do a reading from The Crown in a Barnes and Noble on Broadway, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I once lived in a rental apartment on West 84th Street, quote close to that BN, in a time well before book writing—and marriage and motherhood, for that matter. It was a period when I managed a bit of carousing myself, so I was doubly delighted with the choice of locale.  Some fine memories.

But then something happened as the January 12th Barnes and Noble date approached. I felt not just the customary jitters that every newbie experiences about a book coming out. The reading, scheduled from 7 pm to 8 pm on a Thursday, scared me. A lot. I confessed my fears to Jessica Roth, the super-capable publicist for Touchstone, and she said not to worry, there was someone she knew who could help.

If you expect me to here confess that I am a withdrawn writer who can’t put two words together in front of others, if only it were that simple. 

As a magazine editor I’ve been called upon to appear on television. I once went on Fox News—live—to talk about my interview of Laura Bush in Good Housekeeping

Sometimes I’m fine. But sometimes I’m not. 

This unpredictability began early. When I was 14 and trying out for the Pom-Pom team, I froze and mechanically thrust my white pom-poms in all directions, the routine forgotten, while the TV theme of “Hawaii 5-0” blared. But this same teenager scored a leading role in the spring play, L’il Abner: I was Mamie Yokum, chewing on a (fake) corncob pipe and bellowing songs onstage. And I loved every minute of it.

Much more recently, I volunteered to be the class mom at my son’s school, and at the end-of-the-year party I tried to give a speech for the teacher. But then I could not stop my voice from quivering, and I barely made it through a few words of tribute. (Well, it had been a rough year.) But then, when I left my job at InStyle magazine to focus on writing fiction, I held forth at my going-away party—I gave a full speech, I read an ode to the production editor, I even did imitations.

A friend says it’s because I’m a Gemini. Which is all well and good, but which one of my dual selves was going to show up at Barnes and Noble on Jan. 12th?

Touchstone’s Jessica truly came to my rescue by hooking me up with Kim the media trainer from L.A. I spoke with her on the phone a few weeks before the BN reading. Kim has one of those Great Telephone Voices: warm and confident. She gave me a few pointers that reduced the panic, ones I have permission to share:

Set the table for the event. Kim told me that after thanking my hosts, it would be a great idea to let the audience know what to expect. And so I did. “First I’m going to read a bit from The Crown and I’ll talk about how I came to write it.  I’m happy to answer any questions you have, and then at the end I’ll sign some books.” Just as Kim predicted, I glimpsed a flicker of relief in the eyes of both friends and strangers who’d turned out for my event. There is a plan—yay!

Don’t read from your book for an hour.  Most writers read five minutes’ worth of their work (though according to my research others have been known to go on and on).  Kim told me that a successful reading can mean no actual words spoken from the book at all. She knew one author who entertained the audience through imaginative means, not least of which was songs. No, my Mammy Yokum days were far behind me. But again I took her advice to heart, and read three snippets of my novel, interspersed with background. Text reading time: five minutes. Discussion of process: about fifteen minutes, followed by Q&A.

Share your passion. “Make sure that people know how much you loved writing your book,” Kim said. This was the easiest part, because of how much I did love researching and writing my historical thriller. I told the audience what it was like to wake up at 5 am and drink Earl Gray tea while I tapped away at my computer at the kitchen table. I told them about workshopping a first novel. I shared the research thrills, such as how excited I was when a Tower of London curatorial intern emailed me a scanned 16th century diet sheet of a prisoner held there before execution–finally, I knew what they ate in their cells!

So was I fearless that Thursday evening? No. While waiting to walk to the lectern, I swear I felt as frightened as Colin Firth before he takes the microphone in The King’s Speech. But I took a deep breath, looked down at my notes and my marked book, and I began. I do believe my voice quivered in the beginning. But afterward my friends told me they didn’t notice. And to my joy, it did go away.

To learn more about Nancy Bilyeau’s The Crown, go to

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What Inspires?

by Brenda Remmes
                   Old poker table  from early 1900s still resides in the back room of the small town pharmacy.

Repeatedly, other writers tell me “get to know your character, put them in the proper place and your story will emerge.  I don’t think I appreciated this fully until I was working on about the fifth draft of my novel and while there were multiple chapters I had written and discarded, it was in these discarded pages that we became friends.  There was too much background material to include in the novel, but enough for me to get a clear picture of the people I had created and where they lived.  They become real in my mind as I began to place them with their everyday families and jobs.  I have to remind myself that, like Lake Wobegon, they are all fictional.

In developing a character and the place, there is usually something that starts my juices flowing…someone who always wears pink, or a particular meeting place where the locals all go.  Once you notice a quirk, it’s a lot easier to embellish and move forward. How did that quirk evolve?  How do other people respond to it?  It’s kind of fun watching people and places shape up.  I spend a lot of time doing research, although I pale next to the likes of Anne Clinard Barnhill, Nancy Bilyeau, and Sophie Perinot who have taken on topics in foreign countries centuries ago. The extent of their research is impressive. My research has been focused on more mundane things like flying an airplane, sitting around a fire house discussing fires(if there had been an alarm, they would have taken me with them), learning how to shoot a Colt 45, or going to a free range turkey farm to watch them slaughter turkeys.  My research is focused on a small town in Eastern North Carolina eighty years ago, and the most fun I’ve had is talking to older folks about the way it was when they were kids.

I’ve lived in small towns most of my life, so I’m familiar with the rhythm.  They’ve changed a lot, just in the past twenty years.  The economy has taken its toll on once thriving little businesses.  Every town had a handful of stores you could depend on. One of those stores used to be a pharmacy.  Another was a local restaurant.  Both of these places are where much of the action occurs in my novel.  While the local mom and pop diners haven’t yet become extinct, the small town pharmacies are getting hit pretty hard.  When you take into account the chain-drug outlets and recognize anyone can get their prescriptions filled at most grocery stores and then add the online Medcos and Express Scripts  there’s not much room left for Shuckers Local Pharmacy on the corner.  Pharmacists now stand behind mega counters shuffling pills and plugging in insurance codes while supervising a half dozen pharm techs.

When I started writing about a small town pharmacy operating in 1992, I remembered a place where people helped themselves to a cup of coffee out of the pot that sat on the counter and you spent the first ten minutes catching up on the family before the pharmacist got up to fill your prescription.  Twenty years isn’t that long ago.  Seems like yesterday to me, and yet when I realize how much has changed since then, I am astonished at what no longer is.  When I wanted to find out how it was in 1932, I talked to Billy.

Billy walked me through the years he worked as a soda jerk when he was in high school. The soda counter sat at the front of the pharmacy. Ice cream and milk shakes were the order for the after-school crowd.  Seltzer water with a spurt of cola syrup or lemonade made from a jug of sugar water and two or three squirts of hand squeezed lemon juice were other favorites. In the morning there was a checker game going in the front room.   Billy was responsible for having all the orders off the table in the back by 3 pm in preparation for the daily poker game.  The poker table (pictured above) had ash trays set in each corner of the table for the cigarettes which kept the back room in a smoky haze that wafted into the front area of the store. A lot of those cigarettes didn’t make it into the ash trays as the game got hot, as evidenced by the circles of wood burns.

Certain customers were known to have their favorite drinks waiting.  A teaspoon of bromine in a coke could settle-your-nerves, and a squirt of ammonia in a coke was used for a pick-me-up.  The first sales of Coca-Cola began in a pharmacy, Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta, on May 8, 1886, with an estimated nine milligrams of cocaine per glass.  It was claimed to cure everything from headaches, heartburn, and depression to impotence.  The cocaine was removed in 1903 when the Stephan Company in Maywood, NJ, started using a cocaine-free coca leaf extract.  To this day it remains the only manufacturing company authorized by the Federal Government to import and process the coca plant.  

The particular pharmacy I knew in 1992 isn’t there anymore.  The owner died.  People either mail order their prescriptions or pick them up at a Wal-Mart thirty miles away.  A couple of independent pharmacies still hang-on in adjacent towns, and yet Americans are buying more drugs than ever before in our history.  Still, I write about how things were, (not so very long ago, really) not so much because I want to return to those days, but because some things are worth remembering.  The local pharmacy “where everyone knew your name,” is one of them.  As one grandchild asked, “Grandma, how did you get on the internet before computers?”  Come sit down, child, and let me read you a book.  Let the book tell the story.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

If all goes well, someday you will hate your first born.

This week I wrapped up a draft of the sequel to The Midwife’s Tale, and have been doing a bit of reading. (I just finished The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death and I listened to The Janissary Tree during a long drive. I recommend both very highly.) This combination of reading and writing has gotten me thinking about the arc of my career, from first book to last, and among my realizations was a simple but odd little fact:

If all goes well, The Midwife’s Tale – my first born! – will be among the worst books I write.

Keep in mind, I’m not saying the book is bad (though it might be), and please don’t forward this to my editor for a blurb, but I nevertheless hope that this is true. Let me explain.

I’ve only been writing fiction for a couple of years, so – in theory at least – I should get better with each book I write. I’m gaining important experience, I have a better sense of how to craft a story, I recognize (and excise) useless characters earlier, etc. So far, so good, right. Who doesn’t want to get better? And if I get better, won’t that mean my first book is worse? It seems to.

If that weren’t enough to convince me that my first book ought to be my worst, I reminded myself that this is better than the other extreme: What if The Midwife’s Tale is as good as it gets and from here on out I will get worse as a writer? With all due respect to J.D. Salinger, peaking with your first book doesn’t seem like much fun.

So I made my peace with the fact that I will someday look back on The Midwife’s Tale and think, “I wish it were better.” It’s not quite the same as knowing that you won’t love your first child as much as your second, but it’s an odd feeling all the same.

Then I ran in to Laura Lippman. Not literally, of course, though I would love to do so, but I read a review of Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere, and suddenly the question of getting better as a writer began to shape how I thought about my career trajectory. What do I want my sixth, seventh and eighth books to be like?

(And rather than bore you with that here, I’ll jump over to another blog, Bloody Good Read. If you’re interested, have a look!)