It’s the perfect sort of day to explore a place hollow and forgotten, one where ghosts maybe, just maybe, linger in our world. That place is The Alexian Brothers Novitiate.
I learned of this peculiar estate while reading Wisconsin’s Most Haunted Volume II. What started as a loving father’s home for his wife and disabled daughter turned into a home of sadness: both the father and daughter died before the home was completed in the 1930s. The widow donated the home to the Alexian Brothers in the late 1940s, since her late husband had befriended them in Chicago years before. Novices and monks lived there for only a few decades when, without warning, the Menominee Warrior Society took the Brothers hostage and demanded the estate be turned over to the Menominee tribe. It took two months, but the Brothers and Tribe finally reached an agreement for the tribe to purchase the land from them. A few months later, a fire ran through the estate, and the tribe could not finance rebuilding any of the structures. The Menominee returned the estate to the Brothers, but they no longer had use for it either, so….here it sits.
I had hoped Bo and I could road-trip it up to the small town of Gresham, the closest community to the Novitiate, and see if we could take a look around. But finding time and an all-day sitter were impossible during Bo’s hellish work schedule this past summer, so we managed a visit to the House on the Rock instead. (Considering I didn’t know if we’d have even access to the grounds, I think we came out ahead. x)
Ghost hunters still visit the site sometimes, but I’m not sure what they’ll find. The history of the Novitiate isn’t bloody, like these creepy locations in the Dairy State. It’s tragic, not bloody.
But one doesn’t need a bloody past to imagine a magical future, one perhaps where shapeshifters make their home, where teens foolish to run where angels fear to tread discover a race mankind has all but forgotten…
Oh yes, you bet your boots I’m bainstorming a story about this place! And this isn’t even the novella I’m working on for NaNoWriMo.
Do I think I can write 50,000 words in 30 days? Heeeeeeell no, I’m not delusional. But I DO need to step up and start writing every day. My family needs me to be a working mom, so my hours for writing are now in tatters. That’s not going to change any time soon.
I need those tatters to make something for the sake of my own sanity.
If I can just do 500 words a day, I’d be ECSTATIC. So that’s what I’m going to do, and you’re going to have to watch!
Yup, I’m going to make myself post my draft here on WordPress. That means it’ll be rough’n’raw, probably not coherent. But it’ll be me writing, dammit, and that’s what counts. I’ll be happy to read your comments, or just know you’re reading. That, to me, is more of a “winner” badge than anything NaNoWriMo can give me. 🙂
I’m not the only one burning the creative oil around here, either. Biff, Bash, and Blondie are all digging their own unique storytelling grooves here, from nonfiction to comics and back again. I had them talk about their stories with you…so I could share their Halloween costumes, too. They’re all homemade this year, which I just LOVE!
My three Bs had a blast roaming my mother’s neighborhood for Tricks or Treats. Some towns are content with a few ghosts or pumpkins out in the yards, but not my mom’s neighborhood. Not by a LONG shot.
Some houses filled their front yard with beach balls and balloons for kids to play in. Homeowners handed out candy and popcorn to kids while parents got adult “treats” like chili and beer. One owner we talked to had been working on his decorations since July.
A few houses freaked the kiddos out, and I couldn’t blame them. One man was dressed in a bloody doctor’s outfit running around his yard with a chainsaw–not a fake one, a REAL one, revved and ready. Dude, simmer down! Others showed just as much love for the day without, you know, potential loss of limb.
We had a magical evening together, banding about in the misty rain while the Monster Mash echoed up and down the streets. Eventually Robot Biff was ready to go back–“Beep boop, too many people!”–and helped his grandma hand out candy while Bash, Blondie, and I continued on until twilight’s end. From my little wonders to yours…
…may you have a safe and happy Halloween, and a most fantastical National Novel Writing Month!
We drive, kid-free, through the silent Wisconsin countryside. Clouds hang silver and heavy over the corn and soy fields. The occasional tractor turns earth, the sporadic cow chews cud, the episodic cyclist scowls.
Yeah, sorry about my use of the thesaurus here, but I couldn’t help myself, not when I saw “odd” is a synonym for “occasional.” For amongst the normal, humdrum sights in rural Wisconsin, Bo and I are going to a truly odd place. One of the oddest in all the States, in fact.
Bo finds just the right music for our mission.
“What I want to know,” Bo ponders as we park, “is why no Bond villain ever stationed himself here.”
I nod. Christopher Lee’s funhouse set-up in The Man with the Golden Gun has nothing on this house.
Like Dylan Thuras (in the above video), I also grew up hearing the tale that world-famous architect–and Wisconsin’s own!–Frank Lloyd Wrighthad spurned Alex Jordan’s own architectural designs, motivating son Alex Jordan Jr. to build The House atop a natural tower called Deer Shelter Rock…an area less than ten miles away from Taliesin. The tale is likely a crock, and yet…you know, why else would you build so flippin’ close to each other?
I’d only visited The House on the Rock once in my teen years. It’s the sort of place that sticks with you no matter who you are or where you’re from; one visit affected Neil Gaiman so deeply he set a piece of American Godsat The House on the Rock–and yes, they even filmed an episode of the television series there.
Sadly, my phone’s camera cannot do this place justice at ALL, but I do have a few snaps I can share mixed among the far better photos on the Internet.
One of the major architectural highlights is the Infinity Room.
It ain’t exactly a place you want to walk in when lots of people are there–it heats quickly, and, um, wobbles a bit. Still, I managed to get a shot with Bo while the natural light was good.
Once you exit the Original House and Gate House, things start to get really weird.
Ah, the vicious Lake Superior Squid duals with the tempestuous Duluth Whale of Doom.
(Them’s the jokes, folks. For legit humor writing, talk to Bo.)
Would it surprise you to know that tiny children sobbed as their parents dragged them by the whale’s teeth? I sure couldn’t blame’em–I was freaked out when I first saw all this, and I was old enough to drive a car. Bo, bless him, humors me as I grip his arm tight enough to leave a mark as we descend…yes, we not only have to climb up and around this mouth–we have to do it aaaaall again to get out.
Anyway, here we transition with a big ol’ organ into room, after room, after room, of these giant orchestral mechanics.
You get me.
This place just goes on….and on…and on…you move from room to room, warehouse to warehouse. You walk on yet another street of yesterday dedicated to cars, hot air balloons, airplanes. You pass hundreds of trinkets and trunkets of store displays, guns, circuses, dollhouses, DOOOOOOLLS, pipes, ivory carvings, costume jewelry, armor. Battle scenes complete with armored elephants and dogs.
Did I mention the dolls? Like the giant carousel FILLED with dolls?
And then there’s the room with the world’s largest indoor carousel.
In case you’re wondering what’s hanging from the ceiling, those are mannequin angels. Dozens, upon dozens, of mannequin angels.
Probably to fend off Satan from eating people.
I walked down Satan’s gullet, stumped.
“What’s wrong?” Bo asks as we step out onto Inspiration point.
The sudden exit from hours among electric candelabras and mannequins makes my head hurt a little, but the foliage and peace of the forest around us more than make up for it. We’re at Inspiration Point, or Deer Shelter Rock. You can just see the Infinity Room behind the trees.
We must have missed something, I say, staring at a lone red barn on the far hillside (that I failed to get a picture of–sorry!). Wonder what that farmer thought, watching AJ Jr. haul materials and build his crazy concocted collection year after year after year. Did that farmer pay to take a tour like so many others in the 60s? Or did he just wave it off as so many ol’ Wisconsinites do and get back to the plow?
“How?” Bo takes a swig of apple juice as we sit on a bench. It’s our first break in three hours of walking, as our bodies are quick to tell us. “There’s only one way through this whole thing. The staff haven’t let us go off-course. What could we have missed?”
I grimace at the glass wall behind us. “We didn’t see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
Bo rolls his eyes. He doesn’t remember the Horsemen from his childhood visits, and has been skeptical of their existence. “Well we’re not done yet.”
But how much left can there be? I ask for my curiosity…and my legs.
“We gotta double-back for another level and…yeah, the map here shows we’ve got a whole ‘nother room yet.”
But I promptly told my leg cramps to shut up once we got there.
This is, by far, my favoritist place at The House on the Rock.
Pillars–no, trees of drums and lights with delicate, narrow stairwells that wound and wound like vines. It was an other-worldly realm, a land of machine and music bathed in softly lit scarlet. It was a sort of room where you knew, you knew, magic awakens when the right song is played.
But alas, we had to move on. There was but one more pathway to the exit out, a pathway that went around the top of the carousel…
…and there they were.
Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah that walkway is so close to these guys Bo could literally reach out and touched Death–
–not that he does, thank goodness.
At last, we find ourselves back by the Japanese Garden and the exit from this one-of-a-kind place.
If Life’s Road ever brings you into Wisconsin, you must find a detour, any kind of detour to bring you to this place. It’s a day you’ll not soon forget, I promise you.
Fangirl Quest and Web Urbanisthave amazing photo collections on The House on the Rock I only partly pillaged for this post. Check them out!
I think every land’s got to have a place like this–not something like The House on the Rock per say, but that unique oddity, that portal where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are frayed, and you can feel magic hum in the air you breathe. What would you say is your land’s portal to an Other-Where? Let’s chat in the comments below!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
The House on the Rock isn’t the onlyplace to inspire a story. I utilized a bit of history from the Mississippi River Valley to help me write my upcoming release, the novella Night’s Tooth. You can read about it here, and pre-order it for just 99 cents here!The novella officially launches next Thursday the 29th, when I share my study of Charlaine Harris’ own fantasy western, An Easy Death. Don’t miss it!
My apologies for a super-brief post yesterday. I must be too old for writing on the mobile phone, which was all I had in the few minutes wandering one of my hometowns while waiting for a friend. Perhaps someday I’ll stay in the historic bed and breakfast here, the one my elementary classmates always insisted was haunted.
But that’s for another day. Last night was a lovely evening of laughter and griping about books, work, lives, and so on. I could feel a load of tension drop from my shoulders for the first time all week.
Of course, that tension grabbed right back on this morning.
Bo and I were supposed to drive across Wisconsin and Minnesota to attend a family function.
How the hell will I get work done? What if I don’t connect with the other people there? Can my mother handle all three kids by herself for TWO nights? Did they survive the sledding trip? What if we get stuck on the road? What if we get into an accident? What if–
You know how it goes.
We set off before dawn. Rain slid along the pavement, down our coats and along the car’s hood.
Oh, the ice set in quick. The road was nothing better than a skating rink. We could see the trailers of semis slowly wing one way, then another. It didn’t take long for Bo to say, “No way. Rain’s one thing. Snow’s one thing. But this is all ice, dear. We can’t swing this.”
How could I not agree? Not just for my selfish “I need to work” reasons, but for our own safety, our kids’ welfare. Yeah, I felt bad about disappointing the MN relations, but kids’ needs first, period. Paragraph. Page. Book.
The return home was tense, but at least we only had a forty-some minute journey as opposed to the five-hour trek just to reach the Minnesota destination. I shook with my coffee carafe by the fireplace while Bo made the greatest breakfast food one could possibly hope for on a cold, ice-addled day:
S.J. Higbee made such a great comment to me last week after my anxiety attack about the importance of comfort. While the Whole30 diet has been important for Bo and me, the lack of comfort food has made recovering from anxiety all the harder. The new teas have helped, yes, and Bo found some essential oils I can use while driving.
But dammit, I miss peanut butter!
Bacon’s a good runner-up, though, and Whole30 compliant if you find the right brand. That first bite took aaaall the tension knotted between my shoulder blades. We split the whole package of bacon between the two of us, and neither of us regret a single bite. After a month of remembering lost loved ones and fretting over future changes, the dangerous trek on the ice was the last straw for both of us.
Finding that moment of sensory comfort made all the difference.
So, now that I’m calm and safe, it’s almost time to head back out on the road to pick the kids up from Grandma’s!
Don’t worry. The rain’s finally let up and the ice is melting. My tummy’s got comfort food, I have comfy smells to smell, comfy music to listen to.
And a comfy Bo to hold my hand. x
So while we’re off grabbing children between the raindrops, feel free to check out my stories which are free here, here, and on sale here. Don’t forget to leave a word or two of a review when you’re done, because we writers LOVE hearing readers think!
Once again, my writing time is limited. My grading time is limited. How am I supposed to get any work done when the kids are bickering over Lego and the library books about Ripley’s Believe it or Not? Even Bo has off due to bad roads. What about me? ME?
I sound like the Me-Monster comedian Brian Regancreates for one of his stand-up routines.
Stop complaining, Jean. At least with Bo home you were able to tackle a chunk of school stuff this morning. You got a little writing done–not a ton, but at least you know where you want to go next tomorrow.
You had help shoveling outside. Heck, you all went outside to shovel the several inches of heavy white stuff.
You got to have a snowball fight with your family.
Biff and Bash defended their mountain…
Bo and Blondie whitewashed each other’s faces repeatedly…
The little Bs actually stood together long enough for you to take a picture…
Bash evaded stepping in the neighbor’s dog poop…
It wasn’t such a bad snow day after all, really.
All it needed was a little love. x
Don’t forget that my novel’son sale all month for just 99 cents! You’re more than welcome to my short stories too, available for free hereand here.
Let’s talk first about reading awesome stuff. What is your favorite childhood book? C’mon, say Voyage of the Dawn Treader, you know you want to!
Haha, is that your favorite Narnia book? If I was to go with something from C.S. Lewis I’d say Out of the Silent Planet. I’m a big fan of Roald Dahl, it’s hard to pick one, maybe James and the Giant Peach. Also, I’ve been reading Calvin & Hobbes to my kids at night, and I’m always impressed by how much insight Bill Waterson has into the fundamental nature of childhood. Do other people identify that much with Calvin or is it just me?
OH MY GOSH YES! We found all our old Calvin & Hobbes collections when the basement flooded. The kids LOVE reading them, which is awesome…until one starts using some of Calvin’s vocabulary at school and winds up seeing the principal as a result. That’s not so awesome.
Anyway, what authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I think that The Catcher in the Rye is one of those books where there’s a small window in your life where it really hits you like a punch in the face. I think high schools do it a disservice by teaching it in Sophomore years. I think you need to approach it a bit later. Sooner or later you’ll feel what Holden was feeling, and Catcher is magical if you pick it up at that moment. However, if you’re reading it against your will it becomes absolutely miserable…which is unfortunate.
I know just what you mean. I recall being forced to readThe Count of Monte Cristoin college and absolutely loathed it, but when I tried it again a few years ago, I was completely enraptured. It’s like there needs to be a shedding of expectations, an allowance to read for reading’s sake, and allow the story to dictate the pace rather than the reader.
I remember being pretty upset at the end of The Elfstones of Shannara. I also found the first 6 minutes of Transformers: The Movie completely devastating. I know it was just a big advertisement to get us to buy toy robots…but it meant something to me dang it!
Oh yeah, I made the mistake of showing this “kid’s movie” to my sons. Watch the opening if you dare, folks. This movie opens with an entire planet of living robots BEING EATEN. Kids love death on a planetary scale!
(Gotta say, though, that the theme song is totally metal.)
Bash sobbed for ages after it was done, and I don’t blame him–you’re watching beloved Robots in Disguise MELT TO DEATH throughout this movie! Biff thought it all amusing and wanted to watch it again. (Yes, we are watching him.)
I’m sure you get a lot of authors and/or stories recommended to you that you just don’t dig—a reader’s block, as it were. Do you fight your way through to finish the story, or do you shelve the story, never to be finished?
The main reason I don’t finish a book these days is just a lack of time. Endings don’t surprise me anymore so the main craft of a book is in the beginning I believe. If an astute reader hasn’t guessed the ending of a book then there are problems with the build up. It’s pretty rare to encounter a book so terrible I have to put it down. Whether a book is published by a small press, a major publisher, or independently, there is almost always a memorable line or scene. Everybody has a worthwhile story to tell.
Excellent point. In all my years I can’t think of more than a few books that I just couldn’t bring myself to finish. Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I like the onomatopoeic words that show interjections of simultaneous action during a dialogue, and the present tense portions create a sense of urgency. Janet Morris does something similar in her Beyondseries, although she slips out of it into a more traditional narrative voice. I might try doing a short story in your style just to see how it feels.
That’d be cool! It’s important to test different styles. Yeah, they might not work, but some other excellent character or plot idea may arise in that attempt, and that makes the experiment worth it.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I think you gain more confidence in the process as you go. Usually there’s a theme or an idea that I want to work through, and I come up with a lot of stories that surround that idea. Once you have a hundred pages of stories, you start to see how they connect in a storyline. I imagine that The Hobbit came as a result of Tolkien saying, “I’d like to daydream about a place called Middle-Earth for a while.” Writing a book is very much taking a journey. You take the journey because you’re curious what the scenery looks like.
You’re currently a member of the St. Croix Writers, a writing group based in the beautiful North Woods of Wisconsin. Can you share a bit about this group and its awesomeness?
I just met those folks as a result of a concerted effort I’m making in 2019 to be more active in writing groups. I found a web page that listed all the writing groups in the state of Wisconsin and I wrote all of them a message. Thomas Wayne King sent me his phone number and encouraged me to call for a chat which I thought was very nice. I plan on attending their next meeting. I think a lot of writing groups could come into the 20th century a little more. There are a lot of ways that writers can support each other and I think that needs to be encouraged.
Yes, indeed! Especially because it’s easy to feel a bit cut off where we are, the “backwaters” that “real writers” don’t live in.
So of course I have to ask about Wisconsin, too, being a “Cheesehead” myself (yet not a Packer fan. I know, I know, I’m lucky not to be banished to Illinois for that.) Do you feel there’s something about Wisconsin’s land, people, or culture that inspires your storytelling? How so?
I think a lot of stories from rural Wisconsin are overlooked or dismissed. There’s quite a bit of arrogance in the writing community, and an impulse to disregard certain stories, which is unfortunate. Everyone has a story to tell, and all of those stories are very important and deserve attention. Actually, if you want to read more about my thoughts on this matter, check out my article “Not Worthy of Study: The Catastrophic Arrogance of the Literary Community.” Go Packers!
Ugh, don’t even TALK to me about the Packers after this lousy excuse of a season!
It can be a huge struggle balancing the writing side of life with that of family. Does your family inspire your stories, or support you in your writing endeavors? In what way(s)?
I’ll often read my stories to my girls at night before they go to sleep. If they pay attention all the way to the end, I know I have something good. If they drift off, I know I have to rewrite. They’re very honest and that’s vital.
Aw, that’s so awesome! I haven’t dared share my writing with my kids. When I see them, the fear of disappointing them digs too deep.
You regularly travel between the United States and Peru to visit family. How amazing to be immersed in such different cultures! What kinds of inspiration do you draw from the Peruvian landscape, culture, and people?
I went to Peru when I was 26 and it was super helpful to me because it was so inexpensive to live there. As a writer, you need a lot of time, not just for writing, but for reflection. Also, you can go a lot time between pay days writing, so it’s nice not to have a lot of financial pressure. Being in a foreign country is great for anyone because it shows that whole societies are built on radically different ideas. This is useful to see in person if you’re one of those people who walks around thinking, “So many things in our society seem wrong to me.” People will tell you that you’re crazy if you point out an error. “That’s the way it’s always been,” they say. It’s a massive existential boost to see that, no, it HASN’T always been that way in other parts of the world.
As much as I love my kids, they can be my writing Kryptonite: nothing zaps the creative drive like a call from the principal or a kid waking waaaay too early for his own good. What is your writing Kryptonite?
I’m the first to admit I “Google as I go” as far as researching is concerned. How long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I think research is more important to a tech type writer, somebody like Tom Clancy where historical items are far more important to the plot. I’m a character type writer, so research doesn’t play that big a role. However, my most recent release, Paperclip, required some research. We did it on the fly, and we found exactly what we were looking for. It turns out there were some documents that were supposed to be shredded by the government but got misfiled instead—you can’t make stuff like that up!
Oh, what a lucky find!
You and I are both published via small presses, which are different than self-publishing programs or the “traditional” publishing houses, so we see things a bit differently in the publishing industry. What do you think is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and what can be done to change it?
There are a lot of things I’d like to change in the publishing industry. One of the things I really dislike is that people seem to be afraid to express their own opinions. A narrative gets created about a book, and people fall in step with what the narrative states. I’ve been fortunate where I’ve felt the tidal effect of a positive narrative, but it still is a disquieting feeling. I used to get in trouble in college classes a lot because I like to offer nuanced opinions, but the mass of people want to reassign you to a larger, dumbed down narrative. “Well it sounds like you’re saying this…” they say, when you aren’t saying anything of the sort.
Oh yes, I’ve noticed that, these “narratives.” There’s hype that will lump the book into a certain group, and if you disagree than you’re an awful person. There’s no nuance anymore, no “I liked Element A in the book but not B, and here’s why.” It’s all or nothing.
Mostly, I’d like to see new authors get more of a fair shake, but part of advertising is to take customers away from the competition. The thing I’m doing to change it is to read and engage with as many new authors as I can. I’ve become pretty bored with major Hollywood releases, there are some fascinating works out there in small-press and independent publishing.
Kudos to you, Sir! There’s such a wealth of amazing tales out there that the mainstream media never touches. It’s up to us to dig them up!
Lastly, what are common traps for aspiring writers, and how can they avoid them?
A lot of the general beliefs about what it means to be a writer are just flat out wrong, and there are a lot of people giving bad advice. The big thing to remember is that the money is supposed to flow TO the writer, not FROM the writer. Even if it’s not a lot of money, it needs to be going TO you. The other thing to keep in mind is that your work will often be rejected without being read. There are some agents and publishers who send out really snooty form letters, and you’ll get these even from an email query that doesn’t even include an attachment of your work. It’s pretty much a rigged game with no chance of success, but play it anyway. Maybe we should all be thankful for that because I think too much attention is just as destructive to your ability to do important work as too little. Every story is important, and every story has an audience. Thanks for having me!
And thank you for taking the time to chat! Lord willing I can drive up to Chippewa Falls sometime for a chat. 🙂
If you’re in northern Midwest, Rhein and co-author Dan Woll are having a talk about writing and marketing thrillers.
My ineptitude in the kitchen is legendary. I’ve started no less than three fires in my oven. I’ve burned food to the bottom of pots so badly we had to throw the pots out. Even the most basic of cookbooks goes all twisty-turny in my brain so that I switch ingredients, switch steps around, mix up cooking times, etc.
But field research isn’t about doing what’s easy, or doing what we already know well. It’s time to step outside those comfort zones and experience something new, dammit!
Now granted, there’s only so much one can spend in the name of field research. It’s not like my family’s budget allowed for me to take a hot air balloon ride solely for “experience” to write “No More Pretty Rooms.”I simply drew on the experience of parasailing with an improperly buckled harness. Puh-lenty of excitement and terror in that memory from the teen years.
So to begin this adventure into canning, I get some books from the library with emphasis on making small batches with natural ingredients.
(Yes, I was won over by Marisa McClellan’sinclusion of many pictures so I had a clue what the finished product should look like.)
I poured through the recipes with focus on canned fruit. Something with a realistic fruit for Wisconsin, and with minimal ingredients to befit an impoverished pantry in the wilderness. (That, and fewer ingredients means a smaller dent on the food budget.) Gimme something with five ingredients or less, you books!
Look at that: four ingredients. Peaches are…okay, they’re a bit of a stretch, but doable, as peaches supposedly came to the American colonies in the 1600s. Since Wisconsin became a state in the 1840s, it’s reasonable to expect peaches are in the state by the early 1900s, which is when “Preserved” takes place. The only other items I need are a lemon, some sugar, and bourbon.
Welp, the kids weren’t gonna touch the stuff anyway.
That be a lot of peaches.
Okay. I gotta just hack them up to get the pits out, boil the jars, boil the fruit and then plunge them into ice, skin them, cook sugar water, pack peaches, pour some cooked sugar on them, add the bourbon, then cook the lot. Sounds straightforward enough.
So, first: a pot and a round cooling rack.
You know, the round cooling rack YOU DON’T HAVE.
NO! I WILL do this! I just need to utilize that beloved resource most assuredly available one hundred years ago: The Internet.
Aha! I can build one of my own with aluminum foil! That’s…not entirely appropriate, but at this point, I don’t care. I didn’t buy 6 pounds of peaches for nuthin’. I need the sensory experience of canning, not the…you know, technical whozamawtzits.
With foil grid thingey in place, I can start boiling the jars. I’m only making four pints’ worth, so I can get these jars done in one go.
Eeeeexcept they don’t fit in our pot.
Well…whatever, I gotta slice the peaches up.
“Eeeew, peach brains!” says Bash, all too eager to poke’em around. Blondie makes puking noises. “I’m never eating peaches again.” Biff just shoves a peanut butter sandwich in his mouth and continues reading his Calvin and Hobbes,devoid of interest.
“Scoot you, Mommy’s workin’.” I go over the book’s directions again to see what else I can do while the jars are heated. Hmm, I gotta simmer the lids, okay, and then cook sugar water into syrup, and boil the peaches for one minute at a time to be tossed into the ice-water for peeling.
Well I can’t wait to see you swing that, Jean, since you only have TWO WORKING BURNERS on that stove.
Bo comes in from work to find the kids munching supper and me staring at the stove, utterly flummoxed. “Well?”
“This is going to be an epic failure,” I say, and lob another peanut butter sandwich over the kitchen counter to Biff. “We don’t have a stock pot or the right cooling rack. And we don’t have four burners.” I tip a tablespoon’s worth of hot water from our electric kettle onto a small bowl with the lids.
“Waaaaaaaaaait, wait wait.” Bo puts his lunch cooler down and looks at the directions. “You did read this before you got started, right?”
“Yes!” I’m all indignant about it, but how well did I read it, really? I was so fixed on finding a recipe with minimal ingredients, let alone fixed on canning in general, that I didn’t once stop to study the logistics of it all. I just assumed one needed a pot, some, jars, and some fruit. Wasn’t that how it used to be?
If field research is to be helpful, we can’t treat it as some slipshod affair. One can’t try ice fishing without the right gear. One can’t learn to sew without certain materials. So one sure as hell ain’t gonna can fruit unless she’s got some basic tools like four working burners on a stove. Had I bothered studying the recipe’s logistics, I’d have seen the futility of this field research and saved myself a lot of time…not to mention six pounds of peaches.
“Honey. Schmoopie. Darling.” Bo takes me by the shoulders and kisses my forehead. “I love you. I love how smart and creative you are. You’re beautiful. You’re amazing. You’re not afraid to try new things outside your comfort zone. But with all that research and prep, you’ve been foiled by boiling water?” He turns off the burners, pulls down the Halloween Oreo cookies for the kids.
“No. I’ve been foiled by that flippity flappin’ stove.” I harrumph and try to peel the peach skins, despite the peaches not even being ripe enough for this exercise, or cooked long enough, or cooled long enough.
Of course, it doesn’t work.
Hmm. Maybe I can utilize my frustration into the narrator. Maybe he doesn’t get the canning done the way he normally does because he’s being distracted by taunts over transformers and peach brains and grilled cheese and…maybe not that last part, but still, there’s an emotional bit of field research done here.
And a wise lesson learned, too:
GET A NEW STOVE.
No, no…well yes, there’s that.
Always have a chest freezer in case you end up with two baking trays filled with peaches that will hopefully keep for a winter’s worth of peach cobbler.
Yes, okay, I GET IT. My point, patient writers and readers both, is this: never let ambition lure you into the field before your creativity–and your common sense–are ready.
October is almost here! That means a new installment of my monthly newsletter will be hitting your inboxes on the 1st. I like giving kudos to kindred creative spirits in my newsletter, as well as sharing updates about my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus and other writing endeavors. If you haven’t subscribed yet you can do sohere.
When there’s deadlines for two novels and six short stories, it can be pretty easy to forget about little things like family time or relaxation.
It’s bloody hard to write when the kids are home, but sometimes they manage to occupy themselves creatively while I work. Blondie works on her comic book starring Ruff Ruff and Stormfly…
…while Bash draws picture after picture of Star Wars droids. “Is that R2-D2?” I’ll ask. “No, that’s Q3-5A,” I’m corrected. Okie dokie!
Biff loves to read, but he’s not much for writing or drawing like his siblings. He gets his creativity on with Legos, which suits me find for this little engineer.
We’ve taken the kids to the North Woods a few times, and hope to do so once more before the school year starts. Princeton’s not far from the family cabin, and it hosts a weekly flea market throughout the summer. Bo has many treasured childhood memories of this market, so we always take care to visit it at least once a summer. He gets to dig through old comic tubs, and I get to take a gander at all the people.
The booths are filled with everything from liquidation buyouts, bottomless tubs of toys from the last fifty years, handmade doll clothes, or antler home decor. Who wouldn’t want a fireplace poker made of deer antler?
Plus there’s always a few tables laden with books–hooray! I didn’t know I needed a cookbook by the Dixie Diamond Baton Corps, but come on–you know there’s got to be good stuff in there.
I don’t know what qualifies as “antique” outside the US, but I just cannot consider ’90s nonsense as “antique.” (I went to elementary school with people who wore those buttons, for cryin’ out loud.)
Now I do not know how this guy does it. Poetry on demand? Brilliant! And he always had someone waiting for a poem. Either he’s that good a writer, or Wisconsinites are just that tired of all the booths selling crocheted Green Bay Packer hand towels and beer cozies.
Speaking of writing on demand, let’s see what could make for some awesome reading for August. I’ve added these to my TBR list–I hope you will, too!
George has been an amazing support over the years in the blogosphere, so when he announced he put a book together, I had to give it a shout-out! He shares pieces of life and inspiration that help him create his lyrics for his three published albums. Do check this out!
Zoolon, the alter ego of George Blamey-Steeden, is a musician & sound artist living in Dover. He has a number of albums to his name, ‘Liquid Truth’ (2012), a concept album themed around Plato’s ‘Allegory of The Cave’; ‘Cosa Nostra’ (2014) a sound art creation based upon ‘Romeo & Juliet’, plus his two latest albums displaying his songwriting skills, presently on sale via Bandcamp, namely ‘Dream Rescuer’ (2017) & ‘Rainbows End’ (2017). http://www./zoolon.bandcamp.com An accomplished musician, he has a BA (Hons) Creative Music Technology (1st Class Degree) and his passion for composing is only matched by his love of wildlife and his support of The Arsenal football club. http://www.zoolonhub.com
I saw this at the bookstore under “Local Authors” and became intrigued. There’s a supernatural element here, but a family drama at the heart. The allure of such a mix can’t be denied!
If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?
It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.
The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.
A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.
I am so stoked about Novik’s latest! Uprooted was a joy, reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones’ quests and battles with quirky yet complete characters, so when I heard Novik’s got another fairy tale in bookstores, I had add it to my list.
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.
But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.
While it’s great getting perspective on strictly characters or strictly world-building, I want to study the art that is storytelling. Writing beautiful prose always a sweet endeavor, but to keep readers gripped, to keep them from putting down the book because they need to know what’s happening to characters they care about–now thatmakes me writer-proud. I’m looking forward to this one!
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho‘okipa Beach have in common?
Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Using a mix of personal stories, pop fiction examples, and traditional storytelling terms, New York Times best-selling author Chuck Wendig will help you internalize the feel of powerful storytelling.
And of course, because I’m a writer…
If you’d like a little breather from your typical summer reading fare, try my serialized novel Middler’s Prideon Channillo or Fallen Princeborn: Stolen,FREE on KindleUnlimited! 2019 Update: Due to recent changes in the publishing relationship between Aionios Books and myself, Tales of the River Vine has been pulled from the market to be repackaged and distributed in fresh editions.
Winter’s a curious time in Wisconsin. As I mentioned in my post “War Against Writer’s Butt,” we can go from fifty degrees and mud to twenty below and ice-roads in a couple of days.
Capturing this transition is all the more difficult. Fortunately, good friend and professional photographer Emily Ebeling gave me permission to share some of her photos from a trip to Cedarburg Bridge.
Winter trees have such a sadness about them. Once I referred to them as “gravestones over their summer-selves.” The way their fingers bleed into the ice below turns the river into a portal, an other-world that I so often sense on solitary walks in my homeland.
The way they huddle together as if caught, and freeze, waiting for you to turn away.
The way a river calls to you, promising safe passage through nature’s spectral giants and their clawing bones.
The way a bridge impresses safety, dominance over nature. Sure, walk on water, I won’t let anything happen to you, for I was made by man.
As far as you know.
The way you stand at water’s edge, and peer down. Rocks both tall and flat, a mix of mashed teeth. Nothing stirs at the water’s surface, nothing peeks from the depths. Do you dare kneel, and cross the boundary?
Some winters will barricade you in your home, forcing you to find new worlds in “the solar system of the mind,” as Blondie once put it. Of course this isn’t a bad thing, but look at what curiosities await out there, like this covered bridge.
Where will this bridge take you at the break of dawn? At the dead of night? If you’re the tenth daughter walking on the tenth day of the tenth month in the tenth year?
Moments like this make me both envious and thankful for a friend like Emily; one who’s able to get out and document such beautiful portals, and does so with both the skill and equipment necessary to do these portals justice.
This is why I’ve always been a sucker for photography that captures both the intimate and epic scopes of landscape. I may never get back to Ireland. I may never return to the Dakotas, let alone travel farther west. Heck, I may never find this covered bridge right here in my state. We each of us live surrounded by beautiful portals to other worlds, many of which we may never get to find. But someone, like Emily, may stumble upon the portal before winter breathes the portal shut. She may steal it away in her camera, and share her findings with you. Then, when you are alone with your jumbled words and these borrowed photos, the magics may spark all on their own. Those sparks may burn open a new portal, and that portal may beckon to you, and you alone.
Four weeks of rewrites and hours locked away in the basement to the screams of “I want my MUMMY!” Four weeks of barely saying more to the kids than, “Good morning,” “Eat,” “Get dressed we’re late,” “Stop sitting on each other,” and “Goodnight, I love you.”
Three weeks of that had the additional fun of writing to eighty new students, grading their work, and answering those who don’t get why they can’t just write about how obesity is bad and wonder why I don’t hand out my phone number so they can call when they need me.
Damn, I cried. Hard. And often.
I wasn’t being a mom. A wife. I was just glued to the stupid screen to grade yet another round of papers, tackling another dozen pages of rewrites and DAMMIT, I lost three days’ worth of work, and–
Bo played with the kids. He kept them upstairs with books, video games, food–anything he could. He sat with me as I cried, and reminded me, time and again:
When the term started, my mother offered to watch the kids for a day so Bo and I could get out.
Bo offered to go off on his own. “You should use that time to work.”
My immediate thought: Yes, I should. Several hours of peace. No “Where’s Mom?” No forced interaction with my family…that just want a little time with me. Any time.
Bo looked so tired. He fell asleep in the chair next to me yesterday, exhausted from his new double-shift life of ten hours at the postal service every day and Prime Caregiver every evening and weekend.
I set my screen aside. “Yeah, I should. But I need some time with you, too.”
Since neither of us were keen on the current films, we decided to visit the Milwaukee Art Museum–this time, for art we kinda actually knew.
I partially kid. A traveling exhibit of early Modern works was in town. Photography wasn’t allowed inside, I’m afraid, so I can’t show you how unique the exhibit was. Much of the work consisted of early sketches and practice drawings; for instance, one Toulouse Lautrec sketch of a horse was bordered by various drawings of hooves, just hooves, because he was trying to capture them just so.
Seems a familiar practice between writer and artist, that constant running of the pen to find the perfect strength in chosen lines.
The other big theme in those sketches? Women coming out of the bath. Not bathing, but coming out and drying themselves. Always drying the legs, too. Well, I suppose armpits aren’t exactly a sexy location to sketch.
When I was a kid, the museum building consisted of a 50s rectangle made of gravel that is actually a War Memorial (I still can’t tell how), but since 2001 we’ve had the very fancy-pants edition of the Quadracci Pavilion.The outside is built in the shape of a bird, complete with wings that open and close.
The inside of the Pavilion is pretty swanky, too.
The art contained within is something of a quirky hodge podge. And I say this as a Philistine who never took a lick of art history in school, so feel free to turn up your noses at my ignorance on the subject. All I know is that if your chosen first impression on visitors is a giant trowel in dirt, “classics” are not going to come to one’s mind.
Take this creature, for instance.
Yes, that is a machine projecting a man’s face onto a balloon. He says things like, “Life is but a tunnel of darkness. Are we truly alive, or are we toys?” And yes, it’s all with a drowsy monotone.
Is this normal, to have captions of guesswork?
This Garden of Eden painting creeps me out. An attendant noticed me with my camera and mentioned that the dog had originally been covered by a bush, but in restoration they discovered him there in the corner. Just look at that thing. No one else is looking out at the viewer. Why that dog? And those eyes follow you everywhere in the room.
Creepy demon dog.
And some pieces…look, I don’t get super-modern stuff. I just don’t. When an empty acrylic case can be put on display as art, and labeled as such and donated as such, and things like big pieces of blue plastic are leaned against the wall and declared art, I just…
I like words.
Not that all pieces are like this, to be clear. There’s this beautiful creation by artist Dave Chihulyin the Quad Pavilion:
Some other pieces that are just plain neat, such as the powder-wig boys up for some badminton. (Yes, the maintenance fellow is a sculpture. He’s been around for decades.)
In our sojourning through the exhibits we came across a suitcase.
I got super excited. I was determined to take a picture to show you all the inside: a pond swimming with life. A statue of a father’s feet can be seen, with part of a baby’s body, its toes just above the water.
I hulked over, on my knees, on my toes, shoving my camera in. Bo gave up on me and looked at another piece in the room.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP
Outside of my head, I slid backwards and whirled around the corner, poking at my phone under the guise of sending a text. A security guard walked briskly by as I approached Bo with my phone and said, “Did you see this? This is very interesting.”
Inside my head: “OH SHIT! They’re gonna fine me and ban me from art! Run for the post-moderns, RUN! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”
Bo, of course, found this to be hiLARiuos. “You know, I can’t take you anywhere. You bonk your head into display glass at the public museum. You walked into a glass wall when we came here last year. Now you’ve got The Man after you.” He proceeds to then make “BEEP” sounds any time I try to take a picture.
A little later we came upon a strange room of pottery without captions. There’s a little model room display behind some glass.
Next to this little room is a bellrope marked “Pull.”
Bo laughed. And despite the annoyed security guards, I laughed, too. Because it’s moments like these make breaks from writing so very necessary.
We can’t create life in stories if we don’t live a little. And sometimes that living does seem little–I’m not trying to rescue refugees from Mexico. I’m just going to the art museum with my husband.
But it’s in these everyday moments that we remember what it’s like to be around other people, listen to other people, roll our eyes at other people, skee-daddle from other people. It’s in such moments that we remember what it means to hold another’s hand, share a smile, tell a joke that sets the other groaning. And through these everyday moments we find new imagination to channel into our worlds.
So don’t forget to take a break, writers. That giant green ceramic chicken ain’t gonna rock itself.
An Indian Summer gripped Wisconsin for far too long this September. Mosquitos rejoiced, trees clutched their green leaves. It was even hot enough to go to the beach for my mother’s birthday. But no heat wave would thwart me this year. I would have my fall foliage pictures no matter what Mother Nature said, dammit!
So when Bo suggested getting one more weekend at the family cabin up north, I gave an emphatic “YES!” Trees galore, beautiful lake, a well-timed cold-snap. Awesome, right?
Just look at that gorgeous blue water. Surrounded by green leaves. Grumble grumble.
But there was no denying the joy of a lakeshore littered by wee rocks. Bo and Blondie worked on skipping stones. Biff and Bash enjoyed their “fireworks”–aka, throwing clumps of sand into the air over the water.
Bo knew I was disappointed. “Did you want take pictures of the fish hatchery for your blog?”
(Insert irritated glare here.) “No.”
The weekend over, we stopped at a nearby town for gas, coffee, and a playground before heading home. We passed something we pass so often when visiting this town, and an idea hit me:
“Can you handle the kids at the park for a little while?”
“I guess. What’s up?”
“I want to take some pictures.”
Many immigrants of German descent came to Wisconsin, which is why this state had such a large number of breweries for a while. Unlike the others, however, the Tiger Brewery has never been torn down, even though it’s been out of use since the 1930s.
It’s not for public entry. It’s not a museum. It’s just…a monument? That requires power lines, and blinds in the windows?
I take care with my camera when I near the occupied house next to the brewery. Perhaps they’re the caretakers, or neighbors who loathe snoopers.
But I can’t help but wonder about this place. It’s not falling apart, it’s not technically in use. In this town, it doesn’t seem to be anything. Why leave it alone? Why not enter it, and invite others to do the same? What’s in there people can’t look at? What’s hiding in there? What is this town protecting? Even the apples hang forgotten, rotten, from its trees.
One window board upon the tower flaps open. Bet there’s a stairwell in there to the top, and even to the underground. Deep, deep into the earth, beneath the river running behind this ignored place, deeper still where another forgotten world awaits, where eyes blink in darkness and long nails dig through stone, hunting…
Perhaps your own town has a similar street, where life hums at sunrise and sunset, but is otherwise left to a breezy quiet. What hides among the normal? What is the price this world pays to ignore its presence? What…where…when…who…why, why, why….These questions fly by us as leaves caught up in the wind.
A collection of book reviews by Patricia Skalka — A Chicago native, life-long reader and author of "Death Stalks Door County," "Death at Gills Rock," "Death in Cold Water," and "Death on a Ferry," the first four volumes in the Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series.