Sunday, November 22, 2015

Learning to Tell the Difference

I’m appalled at what happened in Paris and Mali—and continues to happen in Syria.

My mother once described her reaction on December 7, 1941. She was sitting in a Redskins football game and said she and friends wondered why so many members of the military were getting paged. Later, she felt sad, but also guilty that she was enjoying herself when so many people were dying. My father and uncles were part of the Greatest Generation who fought in that war. We didn’t suffer through bombings and watch siblings get blown to bits as Europeans did, but we helped win that war against hate.

However, our reluctance to accept refugees meant far more people died in Hitler’s camps than might have otherwise. Look at history books. You’ll see references in diplomatic cables to the U.S. having its own “Jewish problem” and not wanting more. I admit, my initial exposure to the horrific rejections (that led directly to death camps in some cases) was largely through Leon Uris novels. And supplemented by Erik Larsen’s “In the Garden of the Beasts,” though it’s mostly about how we coddled Hitler before 1941 because we wanted war reparations from World War I. We KNEW what Hitler was doing in his camps.

I looked today for articles that cited the U.S. policies during WWII and found a new one in the “Times of Israel.” It notes how similar our reactions today are to those in the 1930s and 1940s.

“No historical parallel is perfect, obviously,” says Allan Lichtman, co-author of “FDR and the Jews” and a professor of history at American University. But U.S. limits on refugees during World War II, influenced by anti-Semitism, were fed by fears the Nazis “would plant agents, spies and saboteurs among the Jewish refugees and that they would pressure the Jews, particularly those whose families were still in Germany, to act as agents on behalf of the Third Reich,” Lichtman said.

So what about refugees today? It takes fully TWO YEARS to be vetted before you can become a refugee to the United States. Refugees stay in overseas camps or other dire circumstances while they go through the process. They meet with the FBI and other security officials.

You want to worry about terrorists (other than people like Oklahoma City bomber Terry McVeigh or the Connecticut man who shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School), worry about tourist visas. Worry about someone who walks across the border without one after overstaying a visa in Canada (where it would be easier to blend in than Mexico). Worry about the loner who’s stockpiling guns in the basement of the home where he lives with his mother because he has no social skills and can’t keep a job. Worry about the conspiracy theorists who say the Sandy Hook shooting never happened, it was made up by gun control advocates.

Should we be concerned about terrorists who say they act on behalf of Allah? Of course. They aren’t a large portion of the Muslim population and are despised by most Muslims. I know many people of that faith, have for decades. To say that all Muslims are terrorists is like saying that because some German Christians fought for Hitler it means all German Christians at that time were evil. (Hitler was not a Christian, but many who fought for him were. And the Catholic Church? Read about how often the church in Rome refused to help many Jews.)

What started this post was reading that Cedar Rapids, Iowa--home to Syrians for many decades, some of them refugees—may be less welcoming in the future. There are three mosques in Cedar Rapids. Christians helped the Muslims rebuild one after the 2008 floods. Muslims are part of the fabric of that city.

How can this hate be happening in our country? Why do good people stay silent while others profess that an entire religion is bad because of some horrible fanatics who act in its name? I’ve been to several countries with Muslim populations, most notably Morocco. It’s the only place (among about 30 countries I’ve been to) where someone invited me (a stranger) to their home for tea.

I get it. We're scared. Bravery takes many forms. Speaking up may be one of them.

I was at a prayer breakfast in my town in Illinois this week. A child from each faith gave a brief talk and prayer (Christian, Jews, Muslims, and more). I complimented several of them.

Here’s something to think about. We white folks often think ‘they’ all look alike, whatever the ‘they.’ While I waited to talk to the kids, I asked one woman if she was the mom of the girl of Hindi heritage who spoke. Nope. She was the aunt of the Muslim boy. Who, by the way, sat next to the Jewish boy. That’s America.

Refugees are not the enemy. The terrorists who create them are. We need to remember that.

I implore good people not to be still and let the discussion in our country be dominated by people who cannot tell the difference or want to use terrorism to score political points.

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Why is a discussion about U.S. fear of refugees on a blog that mostly deals about writing? Because I feel very strongly that not to speak up about this means letting the fear-mongerers take charge. That's scarier than letting in people who have been terrorized by ISIS.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

In Honor of Reviewers

Reviewers are high on my list of good people, but I review few of the books I read. I'm selfish, but trying to do better.

Largely it's a time issue, but I also blame my mother. (I mean, why not?) She stressed being uncritical in personal relationships, and what is more personal than the connections with the books we read?

Not that my opinions are negative--usually quite the opposite. I finish a book by Sue Grafton, Terence Faherty, or Anne Tyler and think, "Why am I bothering to write?" It's sort of like visiting an art museum. You realize you are a speck on the planet's pallet.

But, why be maudlin?

The biggest benefit of reviews is not for the writer. Reviews help readers decide what to pick up next. We all have authors whose books we grab as soon as they are out (Robert Harris, Erik Larson), but given we are busy people, we may want to know what others think about books they've read.

There are common places to look, such as sites that sell books (Amazon, BN, Kobo, itunes). If you want to read reviews and talk about books with other readers, there is Goodreads. Join a group. I belong to several that talk about cozy mysteries.

You can also look at the lists of paperback giveaways. Goodreads must approve every giveaway offer, so you know it's not a way for some rogue website to get your email address. I have one for Holidays in Ocean Alley, which ends December 15th.

Here are some good sites to check for book reviews. Some let you sign up to review books.

Complete Review  Links to reviews (in English) in major publication, not all in the U.S.
More Than Review Good rankings on violence or sex, in addition to a general review.
Best Book Review Sites  Links to major sites, such as Kirkus and NY Review of Books.
New York Times Book Review   Have to be a subscriber to see the full paper, but you can get an email with the link to reviews.
Self Publishing Reviews  Good site for looks at indie books.
Goodreads lists of reviewers  Many blog authors note they will review books, and you can link to the blogs.

If you want easy access to best seller lists, check out the online version of Publishers Weekly. (It's a fee-based site, but there is a lot you can see without subscribing.)  Some sites, such as Kirkus and Self Publishing Review require that authors pay for a review. They don't guarantee a good review.

Finally, where is the best place to learn about good books? Your local library. Most have librarian favorite lists, and they nearly all have subscriptions to the book review magazines.

Next step? Start a good book.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What the Age of Narcissism Means for Reading

Until recently, I've thought of the constant Facebook selfies and YouTube videos as occasionally amusing, more often simply posts to scroll through. Don't get me wrong. I think my nephew's puppy is maturing handsomely, and it goes without saying that any child of family or friends could be voted cutest kid on the Internet (especially my grandniece).

I don't understand posting about daily activities (why would someone care if it rained as you drove to work?), or sticking out your tongue for the camera. (Hello! Who wants their photo to bring to mind Miley Cyrus? Yuck.)

There are security advantages to all the cameras in society. Criminals are apprehended or abuses uncovered because people grab their mobile phone cameras. Criminal mischief aside, people are free to behave as they want. Go ahead, post photos of  yourself looking into a fish bowl. No doubt some of my Facebook friends are tired of seeing pictures of my book signings.

But what has been the impact, especially for children, of knowing a camera could lurk in any wing? Perhaps they become more conscious of their appearance, expect to look up with a smile when Uncle Godfrey comes into the room to sneak a photo. Smiling is good, especially when we're pleased or happy. Fake smiles, or the newer oval expression, don't convey much except you know there's a camera pointed in your direction. Still, no harm done.

However, it appears to me that the constant awareness of how we look to others and the need to present our everyday activities eight times is expanding the Age of Narcissism, which largely began with the dawn of television and ease of home photos. (Wait, some are saying. There used to not be television? What do you mean Granddad burned his fingers on a flash bulb?)

So, who cares? Why am I thinking about this?

I think narcissism inhibits imagination -- imagination beyond how we might look in a photo if staged a certain way. Why read a book to envision Middle Earth in The Hobbit when we can pull down an Internet photo and insert our picture in the Shire?

Children have always believed fiction to be real, placed themselves in it. I looked for the House at Pooh Corner in a nearby area of mature trees, and even expected to meet Nancy Drew to help her solve crimes. (I may have spent too much time in imaginary worlds.) But, it was more about the story than me.

I think children today are less likely to travel to places in their minds in part because they cannot be part of the action. There is no camera viewer to check to see how they looked in the shot.

Have I any proof? No. It's also hard to conduct research in a field with no possible control groups. Plus, the impact of the "look at me" environment goes beyond selfies.

Maybe the enhanced focus on self and looks doesn't affect reading, or maybe I'm too 'mature' to envision how taking and displaying hundreds of your own photos every month can draw you into reading paper or digital books.

Do your own research. Sit near a group of kids in a shopping mall or playground. You'll generally see them playing video games to see who can get the top score--and then crowing about it on Instagram. Nary a book in sight.

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Usually I post photos or other graphics with blog posts. Somehow, that didn't seem appropriate here.
Elaine L. Orr

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Writing Across Genres

Stories have been bubbling in my brain for decades. Like honey in a bee hive, they leak out, but not in consistent forms.

I began writing plays and screenplays, with the occasional short story. After a few years of doing this, with a demanding day job, I decided that screenplay production was a pipe dream. I liked my stories, but they probably weren't cutting edge enough to get Hollywood's attention. What was I thinking?

That left books, which had been friends since my Mother first read me Robert Louis Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses. True, these were poems, but they told stories will brilliant pictures.

After two years writing what could be classified as a calm thriller (not exactly a marketable genre), I learned that I liked problem resolution too much to write books with constant, severe threats to the main characters. (Or, write good ones.) That discovery led to writing mysteries that focused more on the characters. It took years to write the first two books, but I was comfortable with what are called traditional or cozy mysteries.

Guess what aspects of my books are often complimented? The dialogue. Hmm.

I think a lot, often looking for common denominators within complex problems. That's probably why my day jobs usually involved analytical reviews of programs. Now, I think about why people argue so much about differences when humans are mostly alike. I can't fix that other than to contribute to equinimity by trying to treat everyone alike. But, I can write about it.

Common Ground is a play in one act, with four scenes. Three very different couples sit in three kitchens discussing plans to relocate. Some people are pleased, others don't want change, and one wants to ignore a very big problem. The first three scenes lead to a picnic, which includes the couples' adult children, some of whom are puzzled at their parents' choices. And amused. Since I've been writing mysteries for years, there has to be a twist at the end. That makes the story hard to describe -- giving away the ending would cut down on reader enjoyment.

Readers? People watch plays. Yes, but potential theater groups read the scripts first. I love the script format. When I lived in the Washington DC area, I would go to a library in the Kennedy Center to read scripts of plays I'd seen. I wanted to figure out how the writers built the story.

The Common Ground ebook is formatted to be read, and the paperback (out in a few days) is in traditional script format. The play can be produced royalty-free, the only cost to schools or theater groups being that of the scripts, which are not expensive.

Perhaps I'll get emails saying to stick to books, but that idea doesn't bother me. Common Ground is a fun story with snappy dialogue. With an ending that will bring a smile, I hope to lessen our differences.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Why Write about Family History?

Some of us know a lot about where our families came from and what our great-grandparents did to keep food on the table during the Great Depression. Others have a Great Aunt Minnie wants to tell stories about what her parents did when the shoe factory in Massachusetts closed or the Ford plant in Detroit laid off one thousand people. But, we're busy, so we may nod politely or make sure the holiday eggnog is in a different room so we don't have to listen. Her stories would be a lot to miss.

Growing up, I heard about my father's family of nine siblings and his mother's indomitable spirit as a widow whose youngest was an infant. Spread across the country, the nine of them stayed in regular touch in the days of snail mail, and periodically even the far-flung families met at an aunt's farm in Mount Vernon, Missouri. I knew which uncle was in which branch of the service during World War II, and was happy that my mother went from Kansas to DC to work during the war. If not, she would not have roomed with my father's sister and met my dad.

Built on Orr land, Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church
I thought I knew a lot. I knew next to nothing. In the early 1990s, business trips took me to the Midwest, so I (who, with my sister, stayed home with our mom who had MS rather than take trips to Missouri in our teens) spent time with elderly aunts and uncles in Mount Vernon. The stories about how my dad refused to go to school at age six, beating his mother home three days in a row, were funny. Even better was learning why my ancestors ended up in the state in the 1830s and what they did to build a church community and town.

A group of extended family has met annually since 1937, the 100th anniversary of the first arrival of Paul Orr and Isabelle Boyd's descendants in southwest Missouri. The initial families had gone to Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Missouri. Several forward-thinking ancestors (Lettie Hickman Wilkes, assisted by Jessie Stemmons and Harold Campbell) had compiled stories and a list of known descendants in 1954. That year marked the 100th anniversary of the church the Missouri family helped found, Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church.

Several of the family stalwarts were quite elderly, and within a short time of attending
Family tree roll-out. We add new births annually.
reunions, I was secretary-historian of the OrrReunion Association of Mount Vernon. With the job came a lot of articles, letters, and photos that predecessors, such as Eleanor Coffield of Carthage and Mary Frances (Orr) Schnake, had stored.

Since I knew nothing (and have more than an inclination toward OCD), it became important to sort and organize the materials and identify people in--literally--one hundred years of photos. It would not have been possible without the keen memory of Mary Isabel (Hill) Matteson and encouragement from a cousin's daughter, Kathy Seneker Fairchild, who had already written much about local Missouri history. Just this year, we received decades of files from the late Mary Beth (Hickman) Barger. In many families, a carload of photos and files would end up in the local landfill. Because of the Orr Reunion, her daughter, Barbara, had a place to take them. The sorting will take a while, but we'll all be enriched.

Why name all these people? Why not get to this article's purpose of why writing about family history is important? Because you can't write about it now unless earlier generations have collected the stories. Sure, you can look at Census data or find wills in county courthouses. You'll learn ancestors' occupations and assets, but not a lot more.

Family history is significant because you know how your family fits into a country's history. Why did so many Orrs go from Missouri to Oklahoma in the late 1800s? Because land was available -- largely to white people, at the expense of Native Americans. We also know that William J. Orr and wife Ella Cochran moved across the Oologah River at Sander's Ford. Ella was a teacher and taught the officers' children at Fort Gibson. She took her own children there to teach. Plus, several people married Native Americans, so now the Irish Orrs are kin to this nation's earliest settlers.

Writing about family history lets others link to their ancestors. While I've prepared (with much input, especially from Mary Ann Vincent, a Shirley descendant) a book on the Orr family of Aghadowey, Northern Ireland, and the U.S., it's the postings on that reach the most people. I look at who downloads the material and can often tell where they live -- they are all over the North American map, some are from Australia, a few are from Ireland. There have been many notes from people saying that a photo that made its way from reunion files to the Internet has given them the first image of ancestors. More important, relatives who never heard of the Orr Reunion of Mount Vernon have learned of us and attended.

At past reunions, I've given talks on the family's immigration patterns, the many who operated grist mills, and the extent to which members worked in coal mines in the east and strip mines in the Midwest. This year, the project is military history. Longtime secretary Grace Shepherd compiled an Honor Roll of the fifty-seven men who served during World War II in U.S. or U.K. branches of the military. Some ancestors served as early as the Civil War, others were in World War I, Korea, or Vietnam, and some still serve. We also have at least one who performed service during World War II as a conscientious objector.

We'll seek input from the hundreds of relatives we know, and perhaps find more to ask. We'll also look for the roles women played in the past. Some were in the Red Cross or worked at munitions plants. My own mother (H. Rita Rooney Orr) worked as a 'spotter' one night a week at Andrews AFB near DC. The women who did this were looking for enemy planes that might attack Washington.

There is always more to write. It is getting harder to store the material. So we don't lose it, we're scanning a lot. Who knows, maybe a library will find us sufficiently interesting to keep some of it. It's probably time to look for one.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Text Neck and How Writers Can Avoid It

In retrospect, there were advantages to having my car rear-ended in the early 1990s. Really, you ask? Did you get a big financial settlement? No. I learned how to protect my neck, spine, and fingers from my writing career.

I'm sharing some of what I practice, with the caveat that I'm so far from being a medical professional they probably wouldn't let me in the door of a med school. In other words, if you are already hurting, talk to your health care professional.

In 1991, I didn't recognize until way too late that neck stiffness and headaches were the result of a car accident several weeks prior to the onset of pain. Whiplash! I was so far into the pain that I didn't even remember the accident when a doctor asked if I'd been in one!  A colleague reminded me of it.

After seeing many specialists, a neurologist did a simple series of tests. The one I remember best (which is ironic) was him explaining that he would name three objects, we'd talk for a minute about other things, then he'd ask me to remember the items he named earlier. Didn't get one of them. Made him redo the test. Nada.

His diagnosis of "muscle tension headaches emanating from the neck" set me on the road to recovery. The journey started with three weeks of muscle relaxers three times a day before I could even do therapy. Trust me, these make you so blotto you can barely write your name, much less fiction. Your goal is to never get to that point. Unless a blotto fiction genre develops.

The good techniques taught to me by a mix of physical therapists and rolfers came to mind when a spate of articles appeared about "text neck" -- neck pain from holding your head in a rigid, downward position while studying a tablet or phone. Look throughout the subway car or even at other shoppers in the grocery store. We all look down at our electronic devices, sometimes for hours every day.

The most important things I learned were to: look straight ahead when keyboarding, keep my feet flat on the floor, don't raise my shoulders, and vary my position often. This led to some teasing. I'm so short, I couldn't keep my feet flat without putting them on a box. Then I'd put the computer monitor (in the days before I ditched a PC for laptops) on another box so I could look straight ahead. Finally, the keyboard would be on my lap, so my shoulders were not tense as I typed. I looked like a physical therapy reject. But it worked, and I still use all of these principles.
Example of a really bad book cover.

Laptops are great, but used alone they do not lend themselves to a relaxed neck. I position mine so I look straight into it, and plug in a keyboard and a mouse. The keyboard sits on my knees (or lap if I'm in the recliner) and the mouse is placed so that I don't have to raise my shoulders to reach it. What a pain, you say? The opposite.

Remember that fifth-grade joke about the best way to lose ten pounds of ugly fat? The response (yelled across the playground) was to cut off your head. A very good physical therapist explained neck stress like this. "Think of your head as a bowling ball resting on a chopstick. If you don't keep the chopstick in good shape, the weight of the bowling ball will crush it."

A key way to relax the neck is to keep your shoulders down. Make a shrugging motion and relax. You'll feel the tension in your neck in the shrug pose. When a keyboard is straight across from you , or higher, your neck is tense all the time.

There are lots of gentle stretching exercises for a neck, but you won't read about them here. Too much like medical advice. Ask a therapist. I do regularly massage the back of my head (just above where it joins the neck). The first time you do it you'll be surprised how much it hurts, a sign of how tense the muscles are. I use my fingers or little wooden massage balls -- not battery operated ones, you can't control what they do. Better yet, trade gentle massage with a friend. Or pay a masseuse.

You can ignore your stiff neck or thumb joints (another big wear-and-tear injury from electronic gadgets), but you can never get rid of the resulting arthritis. It's so much easier to take short breaks -- and look ahead rather than down.

Getting back to 1991. For those three weeks of blotto-land, I wrote on a yellow legal pad and paid a neighbor a small fee to type the material into my computer. A year later I had the first draft of what became a 100,000 word book that was essentially a learning tool. It's terrible, but proof that a few minutes a day, even under duress, can lead to a book.

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Here's a better cover for my book, Words to Write by: Putting Your Thoughts on Paper.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Harry Potter Entertains and Teaches

I walked into the Chatham Public Library a few days ago and was thrilled to see not only a display of the Harry Potter books, CDs, and movies, but also a terrific set of banners about the books. It was part of the library's many programs to encourage children to
read. School had just let out for the summer, so there were kids everywhere.

Seeing the continuing enthusiasm reminded me of how much I learned from reading J.K. Rowling's masterpieces. Probably the best insight was seeing how she planted characters and pieces of information in early books and groomed them to be important in future books. I can't say succeeding, because that implies the next one.

In book one (Sorcerer's Stone), Hagrid delivered newly orphaned Harry to Dumbledore by riding a motorbike he got from young Sirius Black. Sirius is not mentioned again until book three (Prisoner of Azkaban), and he then becomes one of the series' most important (adult) characters. And that motorbike? It helped save Harry's life in book seven (Deathly Hallows).

As Harry, Ron, and Hermione aged, so did the intricacy of the books' plots, vocabulary, and depth of evil. There was the predominant battle of good and evil -- Harry versus Lord Voldemort. I found the most malevolent character to be fifth-year Dark Arts teacher Delores Umbridge. Petite, kitten-loving Delores was sadism personified, disguised in a bow and cardigan. A reminder that evil takes many forms.

And there are the names of people and places. Mort means death in French, perfect for Voldemort. When Umbridge wanted a group of students to oversee others, with ill intent in mind, what better term than the Inquisitorial Squad? And where was Dubledore's nemesis imprisoned? Nuremgard. There are fun names, too. Ron's brother marries  Fleur Delacour, Flower of the Heart. And some names just make you laugh -- Dedalus Diggle, Filius Flitwick.

A recent article said that Rowling later wished she had paired Hermione with Harry, rather than with Ron. There was such wonderful teenage angst (and typical hormones) as the Ron and Hermione relationship grew. Harry and Hermione were both so focused -- Harry on saving the magical world and Hermione on her studies. They would have made (to me) a boring pair. I'm glad Rowling wrote as she did.

I read each book twice, and listened to them as I regularly drove the thousand miles from Iowa to Maryland. If I can't fall asleep, I pop in a CD. Each exposure is like taking a writing class. An enjoyable class, one that reminds a writer that masters still live.