Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Day at the Beach

"She has cataracts, you know." This from my vet after peering into my fourteen-year-old dog's eyes. I knew her eyes had become cloudy recently, but no one had diagnosed cataracts. She's also deaf, arthritic, and has numerous cancerous lumps that I keep having removed and that keep growing back.

Last week Maggie and I made our semi-annual pilgrimage to Ogunquit, Maine to walk the wide beach there. We've been doing this for fourteen years. There was a time when Maggie could go with me the entire length of the beach and back, some 1.5 hrs with stops and detours down to the water's edge and up to the cottages lining the beach, and then walk with me along the Marginal Way to Perkins Cove and back, another hour, with stops.

Not so any more. I wasn't sure she could walk, really, any distance on the beach, but thought she deserved to get back to see and smell it one more time. I'd already decided not to attempt the Marginal Way. Maggie rose to the occasion, seeming to sense my fear that this trip might be our last. She frolicked a bit, chased a seagull, waded into the surf, lounged in a tidal pool, sniffed at clam shells and seaweed, and then we shared a nice picnic on the rocks.

I hate this "getting old" thing. The immediate response to that is always, "It's better than the alternative." I'm not so sure. My mother-in-law had Alzheimer's and we watched her slowly disappear before our eyes, each day becoming a little less the person she once was. No one should die well before their time, but must we die in such a protracted way either?

My wish for Maggie is both that she live forever and that she live not one minute longer than she is comfortable and happy. I hope that she will find a way to tell me when that time arrives, or that the need for me to take action will be taken out of my hands. Today, she ate with enthusiasm and enjoyed a short walk: happy, although perhaps not comfortable. Who knows, we might just be heading back to Ogunquit next March for another day at the beach.Her Sister's Shadow
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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sisters and Writing What You Know

(I wrote this for a guest spot on Teresasreadingcorner blog.) 

Readers often assume that novels are, at least in part, autobiographical, perhaps because writing instructors through the ages have compelled writers to “write what they know,” i.e., their own lives. I once wrote a short story about a hairdresser. My professor asked me if I’d ever been one. I have not. “Write about something else,” he snapped. While I’ve never been a hairdresser, I’ve certainly been to a hairdresser⎯on more than one occasion. I decided that qualified and wrote the story. I thought it came out pretty well. Now I have written a novel about sisters. Ask me if I have sisters. I do not. Not even one. 

So why did I choose to write about sisters when I don’t have one? Because the subject interests me. I am a sister (I have a brother) and I know lots of women who have them. My mother had three (and two brothers). It was her relationship with her youngest sister (younger by sixteen years) that served as the basis for the main characters in my novel. At times my mother and aunt seemed like the most intimate of friends, at other times, because of the age difference, almost like mother and daughter. There were also times when they seemed like rivals, although I wasn’t clear what the rivalry was about. Watching them, I began to wonder what it might take to drive sisters apart (my characters have been estranged for forty years) and what it might take to bring them back together. 

Sisters have a shared childhood history, even when their childhoods (as was the case for my aunt and mother) aren’t shared. This shared history forges a bond stronger than even the closest friendship. As one friend (who has a sister) told me, “your sister knows about your childhood traumas better than anyone.” But, I argued, you can say that about all siblings. She thought a moment and said, “With sisters there’s more competition.” 

Ah, competition. This had the ring of truth to it. This is what I saw between my mother and aunt. I felt a certain amount of competition with my brother, but he was bigger, older and, well, a boy; we were on different journeys. Same sex siblings are on the same journey. I think my aunt chose to give up rather than compete with my mother, but I think the challenge was always there, and I’m not sure she was always happy with her decision. 

Writers don’t have to stick to “what they know,” because writers draw their material, not only from observation, but also from imagination and investigation. I got to observe, investigate, and imagine what it’s like to have a sister. If you read HER SISTER’S SHADOW, please leave a comment below, or email me at and let me know if I got it right. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011


I've spent this summer marketing my new novel, Her Sister's Shadow, doing readings and signings at various venues around New England. (Actually, the driving to the various venues has consumed much more of my summer than the readings themselves.)

For years I've listened eagerly to my favorite authors read and discuss their work in independent bookstores and town halls. This summer it was finally my turn to read. Armed with an annotated copy of my book: what to say before I read, what to read, and what to say about what I've just read; a page of "For Katy" stickers (my publisher left the dedication off my book, so I apply one of these stickers to each book I sign); the clothes I'll wear, encased in plastic to prevent wrinkling; a granola bar in case I can't find a restaurant or don't have time to eat; and my poster.

My publisher sent me a poster to take with me to readings. It was a large (about 2'x3') gorgeous and glossy rendering of my beautiful book cover.  It came surrounded by bubble-wrap and embraced by a sturdy cardboard box. I carried it proudly into bookstores before my readings--usually very shortly before my readings--and the bookstore owners (somewhat surprised to see an author come in clutching a poster) would put it in the window, or near the book display, and then return it to me after the reading, neatly re-wrapped and entombed.

One week I had a reading some distance away, and a friend offered to deliver it to the bookstore a few days before the reading. This could only be a good thing, I thought, and dropped it off at her house. One thing led to another: that friend deputized another friend to make the actual delivery, the instructions got garbled, and the bookstore recycled my poster's packaging, assuming that I had given the poster to them. Given them my beloved poster! What were they thinking?

After the reading, I tucked the naked poster under my arm and headed home.

The next bookstore I visited kindly fabricated another case for my poster, using brown boxboard and masking tape. I was very grateful, as I'd planned to mail the poster to the next bookstore on my route, so they'd have it a full week before my reading. I left it in my back hall so I would remember to take it to the Post Office.

Perhaps some of you noticed the past tense in the second paragraph? On Saturday of that week, my diligent husband, whose purview in our household includes solid waste management, took my lovely poster, in its new housing, to the dump. To be fair, it did look like collapsed cardboard intended for the recycling bin.

No one but me misses that poster. In truth, very few probably saw it, but I'd become very attached, and grieved its loss. The poster represented success: it was so shiny and bright and full of promise. It was bigger than life. It was, in short, what marketing is all about. Now I must rely on myself to create that shiny, bright, bigger-than-life aura for my book without visual aids. I have to do it, I suppose, with language.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Choosing the Shore

Given a choice on where to travel (or where to set my novels) I will always pick the shore. I’m not particular about which shore, but Maine’s close by, and so I get there at least once every summer. I love the way firs grow right out of the rock, down close to the water’s edge; the way seaweed drifts listlessly in the cold, green water; and how fog slides in and, even though it has no real substance, can alter an entire landscape. 

Cape Cod was another favorite summer destination of mine. Every August, when I was a child, we rented a tiny cabin, one of a dozen clustered around a small marina on the banks of a saltwater river that ran into Waquoit Bay. The cabin was rustic and had an outdoor shower, not because they were trendy (I don’t think we had trends back then, certainly nothing we considered trendy) but because there wasn’t room for one inside. I loved it. We spent all day in-and-out of the water, riding our bikes, catching minnows and crabs, and messing about in boats. There was no television, so we played cards in the evening, or went to the drive-in. I long for simple summer days on the Cape. We don’t get there very often now, because the traffic is bad and the beaches crowded. Perhaps it’s not Cape Cod that I long for, but the simple, summer days of my childhood. 

Every winter my husband and I now flee the Vermont cold for Sanibel Island, located off the coast of Southwest Florida. What I love about this little gem, besides the climate, is that two-thirds of the island is conserved for wildlife. The speed limit on most of the roads is 25mph, and drivers are required by law to stop for gopher tortoises. This just seems right to me. I haven’t heard anyone else complain, either. When I can rouse myself early, I go out on the beach and watch the sunrise. Sometimes the moon is still up, and that is quite a sight. Not many folks are up at that hour, and the few who are recognize that it’s not a time to socialize. We stand and stare in awe at the wonder of nature. Eleven hours later, up and down the beach, noisy groups gather to toast the sun as it drops back into the Gulf and to congratulate ourselves for having been lucky enough to spend another day in paradise. 

Writing is often a solitary undertaking, as is reading, but stories are meant to be shared so, please, leave a comment below. Where do you like to travel and why? (And, if you read my new novel, Her Sister’s Shadow, please get in touch and let me know what you think. Thanks!)

Places and People

I’m fascinated by the effect that places have on people. Landscape, culture, traditions… are all equally important to fictional characters. This place/character relationship is one of the things I enjoy most about reading southern novels, (maybe because I’m from New England). To Kill a Mockingbird gets top honors, but I also love the novels of Eudora Welty and, more recently The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. The sweet, heavy air, the drooping Spanish moss, the language, and the history… provide a uniquely southern setting that shapes these uniquely southern tales. The atmosphere that Harper Lee creates in To Kill a Mockingbird is so vivid I can easily picture myself sitting in a rocker on Atticus Finch’s front porch on a hot summer day, a tall glass of iced tea by my side, as Scout’s story unspools before me. 

One can sit in a rocker on a porch in New England (where my novel, Her Sister’s Shadow, is set) and read in the summer just as easily, but one is very likely to be wearing fleece and sipping hot tea. The weather here is challenging and unpredictable. Scrub oaks and bittersweet have learned to adapt to coastal New England’s thin, salty soil, harsh winters, and constant breeze. So have its people. But it takes effort to put down roots in rock, and that effort sometimes shows. It’s not that New Englanders are unfriendly, we’re just self-sufficient and expect others to be the same. (It has been said of the residents of certain New England towns, “they will not ask why you’ve come, nor will they ask you back.”) Her Sister’s Shadow is a story of two sisters in late mid-life, estranged for forty years who reunite in their childhood home. Like the scrub oak and bittersweet, these two women, and this story, belong in New England. Were I to move them to Charleston or Atlanta, it would become a very different story. The social mores, the architecture, and the climate would all insist. 

Places are important to people. So tell me, where is your story set? Where are your favorite novels set, and why? Writing is often a solitary endeavor, as is reading, but stories are meant to be shared, so please leave a comment below, if you’re so inclined. (And, if you read Her Sister’s Shadow, please get in touch and let me know what you think.) Thank you!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Unexpected Story

Stories come to writers in unexpected ways. We spend a lot of time observing our surroundings, jotting down snippets of conversations, and noting unusual people and situations, and then we write a scene taken partially from these observations and dredged partially from our imaginations. We don’t know what we’ve written until we read the scene. When we read it, we sometimes (often) find that the words don’t express precisely what we’d intended to say. So we change one word, and then another, and, slowly, the scene takes shape. But, what’s this? The scene now leads the story in a whole new direction! The story we thought we were writing is not the one we’re now writing. 

Sometimes a writer will adjust a setting to fit a new plot element, and this can also lead to wholly unexpected outcomes. Say we need our character to make a quilt to auction at the county fair. We add a sewing room onto the house. Quietly, a character suggests that the sewing room might once have been a nursery. “Is this true?” the writer asks (somewhat shocked, somewhat annoyed). “Yes,” the character says. “I can’t believe you didn’t know that.” The writer, then, must dutifully supply the character with a present and a future to address that hidden past. Our characters will let us know if we get it wrong. The stubborn ones remain silent for days, making us guess at the error. The outspoken ones talk so fast we have to race to keep up. Again, the story we thought we were writing is not the one we’re now writing. 

The events in my novel, HER SISTER'S SHADOW, are fictional, presented to me, in part, by the characters, as I sat them in a room together and let them talk, and, in part, from my imagination, as I wandered the hallways of their childhood home, where my characters reunite after a forty-year estrangement. I invented doorways and opened them to see what lay behind; pictured a dressing table and started sifting through the clutter, surprised at what lay hidden. 

I hope you enjoy reading HER SISTER'S SHADOW as much as I enjoyed writing it. And, please, let me hear from you! 

(Adapted from my guest post on the blog, Pudgy Penguin Perusals.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Disposable Straws and Such

I read an article in the Boston Globe on Sunday about disposable straws. I have three glass straws, remnants of my childhood. Impractical but so lovely; each one has a different shell worked into the bottom, which made them the perfect tool for stirring Bosco into milk. When I was sick, my mother would bring me ginger ale in a special glass with one of these straws. I would have neither memory nor memento if all we'd had were disposable straws. 

I regret our current attitude of impermanence. We buy goods with the full knowledge that we will use them a short while, and then cast them aside. Goods made with the understanding that they will soon be soon discarded and replaced surely must be made with less care. 

There were, of course also disposable straws when I was a child. They were made of paper, so they were biodegradable (not only in landfill but, eventually, in your drink). Today's straws are made of polypropylene and, according to the young man being profiled in the Boston Globe article, fourth-grader Milo Cress (which would make a great name for a character in a novel) 500,000,000 (that's five-hundred million) disposable straws go into landfill every day. Where they will remain forever. Ironically, although not designed to keep, they, like all the other disposable items, will last indefinitely. Milo thinks, and I agree, that this accretion in landfills is thoughtless and unnecessary. 

Why do we even have straws? They have nothing to do with hygiene. You wouldn't consider ordering a straw with your martini at a restaurant, or with a beer. The very earliest straws, according to Wikipedia (so you might want to verify this) were actually made of straw, hardly hygienic. Ironically, those ancient straw straws were designed to reduce the amount of solids you consumed while drinking your glass of home-brew. If straws have nothing to do with hygiene and we don't need them to filter out the solids in our beer, why do we need straws for our iced tea, iced coffee, seltzer, sodas, or water? 

Apparently, (according to Wikipedia again) the one real advantage that straws can claim is helping to reduce cavities. When one sips a sugary beverage through a straw, the contact between the drink and your teeth is reduced. Given the obesity epidemic in this country, why not order a glass of water and decline the offer of a straw and solve two problems? 

Admittedly, straws are useful for youngster with undeveloped gross motor skills, unable to hold a glass, but, surely, these tots contribute only a small percentage of the 500,000,000 straws going into landfill. 

Milo Cress makes a good point, I think, when he says that restaurants need to start offering customers straws only if they request one. And customers, we need to remember that those little plastic tubes we think we need, will get discarded, but they will not go away.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Transitions and Transformations

Today I am thinking about transformation as all around me the Vermont landscape moves from brown to green-gold to emerald. The goldfinches at my feeder are now bright yellow. (Can one use the adjective "canary" to describe the color of a goldfinch?) Just a week ago they were dun colored. Transformation suggests complete alteration, rather than simple rearranging or updating. Winter into spring is a transformation. Spring into summer is a transition. When someone updates our computer system or rearranges the products on the shelves at our grocery store, we experience a transition. When the caterpillar unfurls itself into a butterfly, we experience a transformation. I have a sense of awe and wonder as I watch my surroundings become transformed, as though an unseen hand is at work.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Old Mills, Balance, and Ingenuity

Below my house is a stream. On this stream once stood a mill. What remains, some 100 years later, are the fieldstone walls, lichen-covered and serving as lairs for squirrels and chipmunks. The magnititude of this project inspires me, as I think about the individuals who collected each of these stones from the adjacent field, transported them by hand, or by wagon, to this site, and then stacked them. There is no mortar, just good Yankee ingenuity. 

The mill foundation inspires me also because of what it represents. A time when people harnessed what nature provided to produce the power they needed. Their needs were much lower than ours are now, and the whole system seemed more in balance. They lived within their means to support themselves. 

Would I be willing to go back to cutting ice from a pond and storing in an ice house all summer for my refrigeration? Probably not. Could I give up my dryer? Yes. My electric oven? Rather not. I've reduced my consumption of electricity significantly, but I could do more. Even so, I am dependent on someone else to supply me the juice. 

When I sit by the stream and look at those stacked stones, which once held a wheel, which spun when the stream flowed, I think about the time when people both took initiative and accepted responsibility. Initiative without responsibility results in anarchy. Responsibility without initiative results in stagnation. We seem to have a bit of both today. 

Some believe we depend too much on our government, and yet, we have proven time-and-again that we need external controls, or at least guidelines. Just look at our recent financial crisis. Others believe that our government should (and will) provide a solution for every problem that arises. That is simply unrealistic. What we need are balance and ingenuity. The kind of balance and ingenuity that allows fieldstone foundations to remain solid for over a hundred years.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Buyer's Remorse

Buyer's remorse, according to the website,, is "an emotional response on the part of a buyer in a sales transaction, which may involve feelings of regret, fear, depression or anxiety. The word "remorse" derives from the word "mordere," to bite, sting, or attack, and suggests deep regret or repentence for a sin committed. Last week, I bought a new computer. Immediately, I began to suffer buyer's remorse. It's a familiar feeling for me. I tend to over-think problems, and then second-guess my decisions.

It wasn't the money. It was the notion of venturing into unfamiliar territory. Alone. I've been using a PC, and I bought a Mac. I didn't buy it at an Apple store, perhaps sales personnel are more helpful there. Or, maybe because Mac offers Applecare, sales staff are instructed not to give much advice. I signed the receipt, the guy handed me my new computer and sent me on my way. Now what?

Regret, fear, depression, and anxiety, that's what. What was I thinking, changing operating systems at my age? Technology terrifies me. Far from wanting the latest, newest, most complicated device, I want known, familiar, simple, tried-and-true. Remorse settled like fog. Remorse whirred distantly, like a sound I couldn't quite identify coming from a direction I couldn't quite place.

But, wait. What if, instead of simply staring at the box in fear, bitterly regretting my decision, berating myself for this impulse purchase, and allowing remorse to slowly drive me insane, I were to take the computer out of its box and turn it on? What if I were to navigate to the support page and actually read the instructions? What if I were to start... playing around?

Well, then I would have to release my feelings of remorse, as familiar to me as my old computer, and replace them with what? Feelings of excitement, accomplishment, and even a little giddiness. Seems like a reasonable exchange.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


The occasional patch of snow still litters our April landscape, reminders, like the crumpled cocktail napkins beneath the couch from last night's party, of a time past.

I'm not a winter person. I list among my favorite activities, walking on the beach and gardening. But winter has one great attribute: it's a time of anticipation. I can spend the whole of it looking forward to spring and summer.

Sometimes anticipation can be sweeter than the event itself. Consider the difference, Red Sox fans, between anticipating this year's opening day of major league baseball and the game itself. Spring is here now, and we've welcomed back robins, rain, daylight, daffodils, green grass, and the smell of fresh earth. Still ahead are apple blossoms, lilac, iris, peonies, roses, and lilies, fresh peas, basil, tomatoes, and sweet corn.

I love seeing the snow melt from our yard and the buds swell on the branches, love hearing the birds singing to find mates and building nests in the hedges. And, yet, when I see those few remaining patches of snow, I can't help feeling a certain sweet nostalgia for the pure anticipation of spring.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Persistence and Ingenuity

Below my feeder today are two mourning doves and one robin. On the feeder is one persistent red squirrel. Ours is a "squirrel-proof feeder," information that, apparently, no one gave to the squirrel. The slender metal perches are designed to give way when anything heavier than a sparrow lands there. It works, but not well. Bluejays merely grip more tightly when the perch dips and continue shoveling down seed.

The squirrel has a tougher time. He shinnies up and reaches across the narrow divide (about squirrel-sized) between pole and feeder and grabs onto the rim of a feeding port. Occasionally he misses, and his paw finds one of the perches, which releases, sending the squirrel plummeting to the ground. Deterred? Not a bit. Up the pole he goes again, cantalevering himself across the space, aiming again for that opening and the prize within.

Sometimes he remains like this to eat, awkwardly balanced between feeder and pole. Other times he reliquishes the pole and hangs from the edge of the hole by his front legs, wrapping his hindquarters under the feeder. Neither position looks comfortable. Neither looks elegant. But he sticks with it and gets the job done. Every day he shows up and gets the job done. There's a lesson in this for me as a writer. Some of this work may be uncomfortable and inelegant, but persistence (and ingenuity) pays off.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


My terrier Maggie is almost fourteen, quite deaf, and becoming incontinent. My rugs bear witness.

Maggie arrived when she was just nine weeks old, all needle-teeth and skunk-breath, and I dutifully crate-trained her. She took to it well. As she got older, I weaned her from the crate, so she could snooze unrestrained. The time has now come to reinstate the crate.

I set it up in my office and lined it with a foam pad, her favorite bed, and plenty of stuffies. Maggie looked on with deep suspicion. Next, I filled her plush fish with treats and put it in the crate. She sniffed, reluctantly entered, eviscerated the fish,and hopped out. I repeated the fish experiment the next day. She dragged the fish out and ate the contents.

I hate that we have reached this stage. Or rather, that she has. Fourteen years ago, she arrived, and I stared into those wild-dog-from-Borneo eyes, wondering what I was going to do with the little dervish that had taken over my house and life, disrupting routines, chewing furniture and shoes. And I knew that, more than likely, she would die before me and thus, someday, break my heart. Years passed, she grew up, we both aged a bit, and then, suddenly, it seemed, she was old.

Today she came into the office, gave the crate a doleful sideward glance and curled up on her old bed. (Yes, I've left the legacy system in place.) Why does she view the wire crate, once a safe haven, with such disdain?

Maybe Maggie views the resurrection of the crate as an unwelcome symbol (like those ugly safety handles that we are compelled to install in the bathrooms of our elders) of this sunset phase of her life, a phase that she would like to ignore or deny as much as I would.

Then again, maybe, like most of us, she is simply resisting a change that is being externally imposed. Had she been able to order the crate herself, choose the timing of its arrival, she might have warmly welcomed it. When she's ready, the crate will be there.

Meanwhile, I have taken up all the rugs.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Most of our snow has finally melted. The lawn looks rumpled and unkempt, like someone just awakened, hair in disarray. A doe is nibbling my barberry bush. I sit and watch her prune, partly because it's a job I hate and partly because I know she must be very hungry; she has just survived a very long, hard winter. The problem with letting her continue her grazing is that the barberry is next to my garden, where peonies, iris, and lilies, now push through the wet, heavy soil in search of sun. How is she to know which plants she can and cannot eat?

I debate whether to shoo her away, as I sit at my kitchen table trying to summon a metaphor for a story I am writing. It's challenging to live side-by-side with something--or someone--whose values and needs are different from your own. Having empathy, I realize, requires more than understanding. Empathy may require sacrifice.

I contemplate this as she continues to graze and I continue to search for a suitable metaphor.