A Bookworm’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in the United States

I’m sure most of you would agree that preserving things of “historical significance” is important, but as a personal pack rat, my definition is probably a bit broader than most. If I had my way, there would probably be historical plaques on very nearly everything, toting the minute importance of this building and that object. I frequent museums, National Parks, and am particularly fond of historically preserved house tours, like the Downton Abbey-esque Biltmore House and the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace. One brand of house tours I wish I frequented more often is writer’s homes. Reading the biographies of your favorite authors is one thing, but visiting their homes, seeing where they worked, wrote, and were inspired provides a bit of information that you can never extract from author bios. With so much obsession over popular author’s writing rooms (I’m particularly fond of Roald Dahl’s grumpy-old-men writer’s room and writing habits) and bookshelf organization, it’s not hard to understand the draw. Though I haven’t visited most of the 15 Most Beautiful Estates of Famous Authors, I have visited a few.

The Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT

The Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin) house, also in Hartford, CT. It's actually right next door to the Mark Twain house. The museums share a parking lot.

The Emily Dickinson house, Amherst, MA. Her grave is just around the block, and I couldn't resist visiting that either. It's on local tourist maps, but nearly impossible to find!

Added Later: Also, though not technically a writer’s home, when I studied abroad in Egypt in the summer of 2010 (before the protests) I was overly-thrilled when I stumbled upon El Fishawi Café, the famous café in Cairo’s historic marketplace, Khan El-Khalili, where Nobel Prize Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (author of Midaq Alley) frequented and was known to write at upon occasion. While everyone else sipped their delicious fruit drinks and compared souvenir purchases, I stared at my surroundings, slack-jawed.

Next stop? The Edgar Allan Poe house in Philadelphia, a free museum and National Historic Site, and the alleged possible site where the first draft of The Raven was written.

To some, the over-priced admission, high realty listing prices, and general enthusiasm to visit these homes might seem silly, but “there are about fifty-seven writers with houses in their honor open to the public. Several have more than one house museum, bringing the total number of writers’ houses to seventy-three open to the public in the United States.” These houses can’t stay in business–or manage upkeep–if readers didn’t really love them. Which writer’s homes have you visited? Do you have any on your bucket list?

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The Moral of the Story: What I Learned from NaNoWriMo

Even though there was a rehearsal dinner, a wedding, a weekend spent upstate visiting my beloved roommate, Thanksgiving, and, at the very end, a very nasty head cold, I survived and WON NaNoWriMo this year!  Hurray!

I now have a very crappy, embarrassingly awful, but decently plotted 56,000+ word novel (I only wrote 50,000 words this month, but I had 6,000 words previously written for this story).

No Plot?  No Problem!, which I actually found to be quite good company throughout the month of literary abandon, recommended that I celebrate with champagne.  Being that I looked (according to my mother) and felt a bit like death warmed over, I settled for some very delicious and throat-soothing chocolate ice cream instead.  And then I rewarded myself again and had some for breakfast this morning.

NaNoWriMo was quite the experience and I learned a lot about myself and my abilities as a writer.  I went to regional library write-ins and met some great people; some of whom have done NaNo before and actually self-published their previous manuscripts and were working on the sequels this month.  I feel successful and accomplished on one hand, and completely terrified about how much I might hate the whole book when I go to edit it in a few weeks on the other.  But nevertheless, even if I have to rewrite the whole book and realize that my writing skill itself hasn’t improved, I think I’m a better writer and now have better writing habits because of NaNo.

Most Important Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo 2011:

  1. Writing out of order is perfectly acceptable.  I got really stuck half-way through Week Two because I was writing under the unconscious assumption that I needed to write each scene, as much as I dreaded it or could not think of what exactly happened next, as they occurred in chronological order.  So when one of the pep talks encouraged us to write out of order, it was completely liberating.  Being allowed to hop around my manuscript and dump a scene or one thousand words wherever the mood struck me was much more effective and fun.
  2. It’s not that hard to write a whole novel in a month.  Yes, I had to give up blogging, tweeting (for the most part), exercising (which was not ideal considering the fact that it was Thanksgiving), and generally reduce the amount of television I watched.  But I was shocked by how much extra time I had after finishing my daily quota.  I had plenty of time to bake, see my family, read (though, admittedly, most of my reading was reduced to audiobooks during my never-ending commute and while waiting in doctors’ offices), and sleep.  Now that I know I can do it, pushing myself to write a book in two months seems completely reasonable.
  3. Accept that the first draft will be awful and write the whole crappy thing so that there’s a beginning, middle, and end before editing.  I normally do this with short stories, but with past book attempts I kept editing individual chapters before moving onto writing the next chapter.  With my NaNoWriMo manuscript, I figured out that you don’t really know where the plot will end up going; with all the twists and turns, you’re going to have to end up rewriting and reorganizing the first chapters anyway—something that was originally a red herring is not critical, and needs to be fleshed out, for example—so don’t waste your time or use those first three chapters as an excuse of why you haven’t written the rest of the book.\

How was everyone else’s November?  Did you do NaNoWriMo?  Did you write something less lengthy, less messy, but equally fabulous?  Did you get any awesome writing accepted for publication somewhere?

What 1,100 Words Looks Like: Gearing Up for NaNoWriMo 2011

I’m currently plowing through the book No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, the creator of NaNoWriMo, as I prepare for the incredibly unplanned month of writing ahead of me.  (Being that I’ve gotten SNOWED IN  the weekend before Halloween–strange and unacceptable–I have time to start and finish an entire book.)

Four inches of snow before Halloween; Pennsylvania, 2011

Reading it is actually calming down my nerves quite a bit . . . and leading me to call everyone I know and begging them to be a “NaNoWriMo Nazi and/or slave driver” for the next month.  (Baty recommends that NaNoWriMo participants brag about our aspirational, completed-novel intentions beforehand so that we’re guilted into actually finishing.)

One of the main things the book stresses is pre-planning our writing time by recording what we do on a daily basis, color-coding the essential, important, and non-important activities and committing to replacing the non-important and occasional important activities with writing time.

My average day as it stands now looks a lot like this:

6:30 am:  Wake up, make sure younger sister hasn’t overslept her alarm and is heading out for school; fall back asleep.

7:00 am:  Wake up again.

7:00 am-7:30 am: Shower, dress, eat, pack lunch.

7:30 am-9:00 am: Drive to work while listening to a lovely audiobook.

9:00 am-1:00 pm: Official editing day job.

1:00 pm-2:00 pm: Lunch break.  Sometimes blog, sometimes read, sometimes take a walk in the local park.

2:00 pm-5:00 pm: Official editing day job continued.

5:00 pm-6:15 pm: Drive back home while listening to more of the lovely audiobook.

7:00 pm-8:00 pm: Physical therapy.

8:15 pm-11 pm: Hang out with family and/or boyfriend.  Sometimes this involves writing/blogging while boyfriend is doing homework.  Sometimes this involves watching unnecessary amounts of television.

I’m thinking that if I forfeit that extra half hour of sleep every morning (even as I say this I know it’s unlikely), make my lunch break a power-hour (higher likelihood), write some more in the parking lot before physical therapy (similarly high potential, as long as traffic doesn’t steal away the time), and commit to being in the same room with those I love but generally ignoring their presence (possible, especially on nights when the boyfriend is ignoring me because of his own heavy homework load) while I write should make NaNoWriMo physically possible for the first time ever, for me at least.

If you were reading between the lines, you noticed that I cut out my blogging time for the next month.  Sad, but true.  Unfortunately, I’m going to have to take a working vacation and neglect the blog for awhile (I’m sorry!!).  I’ll still be on Twitter–mostly for the daily bragging (or shamefully pathetic) tweet of my word count–and apparently we can have friends on the NaNoWriMo website this year, so don’t miss me if you don’t want to; be my writing buddy and we can cheer each to the finishing line!  (I’m listed as HannahKarena.)

I tried NaNoWriMo once before, my sophomore year of college, and promised myself I would never put myself through it again until after I graduated.  You don’t have free time in college; you just have time where you can multitask homework with something more social and pleasant.  Like doing homework in a group at Dunkin Donuts at 11:00 pm.  Or watching reruns of Will & Grace on the couch with your roommate while you read your textbooks during the commercials.  There was simply no room to fit more homework-like activity.  Kudo’s to Amanda, a freshman who’s making a go of it despite the odds.  Also kudo’s to Katy and Sammy, who are not freshman but lead busy lives and deserve ample amounts of credit for their pledge.

I did write my first book in college, though.  I invented a “How to Write a Children’s Book” independent study where I wrote my book for credit, so my class schedule actually built-in writing time.  Every two weeks I had 2,000 words due.  As I face NaNoWriMo–where I’m expected to write 1,667 words a day–that deadline of long ago seems laughable, but it was really good practice for me.  By the end of the semester I had a roughly 18,000-word manuscript with a beginning, middle, end, and break-neck-speed pacing.  (That summer I rewrote/edited it and it slowed down into its expanded current size of about 35,000).  The reasons for this less intense productivity were:

  1. I was carefully editing my pages as I went so that my adviser (shout out to Professor Lawrence!) could actually enjoy and potentially be mildly impressed by my prose.  NaNoWriMo, on the other hand, results in 50,000 words of garbled crap worthy of nobody’s eyes but mine own; instead of being born naturally–complete with all ten fingers, plot devises, and toes–NaNoWriMo projects are like a really horrifying Frankenstein experiment.  It’s going to take months of rewriting and hardcore editing before this new book is even reasonably presentable to the general public; and,
  2. It was historical fiction and I was spending hours every week doing extensive research.

To help myself along this time, I’m doing a completely fictional book.  No research.  Everything will be pieced together from my own imagination.  Also, to help I’ve already gotten 6,000 words written.

Now stop right there.  I heard all of you start hissing “cheater.”  I promise, I’m not cheating.  I solemnly promise that I will not include these first 6,000 words toward my 50,000-word goal.  Instead, in the end I shall have a 56,000-word manuscript.  But the benefit of already having a head start is that I have a grasp of my characters, the narrative voice, and a general idea of what I want to happen along the way.  I went into my first NaNoWriMo experience completely blind and started writing a random novel.  When it died after 6,000 words or so, I started a new one.  And when that one died, I gave up.

This year, I’m dedicated to actually finishing.  My motivation?  The 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.  They have two categories–general fiction and YA fiction–and the winner of each gets a $15,000 royalty advance and a publishing contract with Penguin.  What’s not to be hopeful about?

Hope to see a bunch of you in the NaNoWriMo chat rooms, lots of you at the finishing line, and everybody else in a month!

Just keep writin’ writin’ writin’ and don’t forget to submit, submit, submit.

*For gauging purposes, this post is an example of 1,100 words.  Can you write that plus a smidgen more every day?

What To Do When Your Book Idea is Stolen and Made into a Bestseller

  1. Monday (9:00am):  Denial.  Denial, denial, denial.  When they clog up your email, each electronic bad news arriving one after another, providing a summary paragraph that’s startlingly similar to the plot of your own manuscript, refuse to read the:
  1. Monday (9:15am):  As bitter revenge, consider unsubscribing from all of these newsletters.  Try reading the unsubscribing small print; then, confused, give up.
  2. Monday (9:16am) through Tuesday (midnight): Glower and hate the publishing world for not seeing the genius potential of your book.  Specifically, resent yourself for failing to query the correct agent first, before this other author got to him/her.
  3. Wednesday (all day event):  Lament loudly to anyone who will listen—your boss, your physical therapist, your mom, strangers who upon questioning admit that they subscribe to one of the above newsletters—about how tragic the situation is.
  4. Thursday (all day event):  Stalk the new book.  Go back to the newsletters and read everything.  Go to amazon.com and read every review you can find.  Read a few pages on the online page preview.
  5. Thursday (10:10pm):  Feel comforted by the handful of 1-star reviews, assuring yourself that every flaw in the bestseller is non-existent in your own manuscript.  Comfort yourself that the bestseller is intended for an adult audience and yours is for a middle-grade audience.
  6. Friday (7:00pm):  Over dinner, try to assure your mother that the past two years dedicated to this manuscript have not been a waste and that the books are in fact very different and that you still have a good chance of becoming a successful published author.
  7. Friday (7:22pm):  Half-believe her comment that your book is even more attractive to the publishing world, now, because of how popular the topic is.  Ignore the nagging thought that nobody will want to purchase and read the same book twice.
  8. Friday (7:45pm):  After dinner, ignore your significant other’s suggestion that you “give up” on this book and write a different one.  Convey your distaste for this suggestion with long, meaningful glares.
  9. Friday (8:00pm):  Burrow under the covers for a minimum of twelve hours, protesting the injustice.
  10. Saturday (11:00am):  Sign up for NaNoWriMo to write your next book.

 

*Insert wailing wherever it seems appropriate and necessary.

The Cure to Writer’s Block: Tell the Story Behind PostSecrets

Two weeks ago I attended the PostSecret event at Rutgers University, Camden campus with my younger sister.  For those of you who don’t know, PostSecret is a community art project started by Frank Warren a handful of years ago where people send in anonymous postcards inscribed with a secret they’ve never shared before and Frank posts a collection of them on the Postsecret blog every Sunday; some of you might remember its initial launch to fame with the All American Reject’s popular music video.

 

Since then, Frank has compiled five PostSecret books–the newest one being Confessions on Life, Death, and God

and has done hundreds of presentations on the lecture circuit.  Two weeks ago, people revealed secrets varying from embarrassing public peeing experiences, to admitting considering suicide, to getting down on one knee and proposing to a girlfriend left completely out of the loop until that moment (this kind of made my sister and mine’s lives).

Wedding Proposal Rutgers University, Camden 2011

Wedding Proposal at PostSecret Event

All it took was a single sentence; a single honest, trembling-voice sentence and the entire room felt like they knew the speaker.  Secrets are like an introduction to a person; their hopes, fears, and driving motivations.   As I sat there listening to people’s secrets, I felt like I was surrounded by characters.  When writing fiction, sometimes I have a hard time identifying what the main character’s driving motivations are; I have a hard time rationalizing what they should/would say or do because I don’t know what makes them tick.

Secrets are what make people tick.  I’ve talked about this recently concerning  family ancestors and the need to dig up those secrets to write good memoir.  When writing fiction, as the author, you need to know your characters secrets; if you know their inner-most secret, then you’ll know how they’ll react to every scene you put them in.  The audience doesn’t have to know that secret until the end of the book.  Theory: this is a good writer’s dirty little secret.

Here’s my favorite writing prompt: go to the PostSecret blog, or pick up one of the books and read until you connect with a particular secret.  Use it as the first sentence to a new story; it can be your story–one thing Frank mentioned during the event was that a lot of people have the same secret–or a fictional character’s story.  It can be a story about what lead them to admit that secret; the emotional struggle that led them to physically mail it in.

What’s your character’s secret?

Get Writing Inspiration from Your Family’s Dirty Secrets

From left to right, row by row: My great-great-grandmother (nameless), great-grandfather William Guest Hechinger, great-grandmother Theresa, grandfather Theodore and his siblings Viola, William "Dizzy," and Russel.

Secret:  I am totally obsessed with family research on ancestry.com.  I love picking family members’ brains for memories, dates, and the vaguely remembered names of cousins.  I love sifting through the scanned census records, copying out tiny details–like that my great-grandfather (a different branch, not in this photograph) worked at a cigar factory in Berks County, Pa–and patchwork piecing together generations of lives.  (The two most exciting moments for me are when I either figure out how a certain couple met and fell in love–job, church, or family friend–or when I dig back far enough to figure out which generation immigrated and from where.)   When I don’t have much information to go on, I love visiting the graveyards where my relatives are buried.  Gravestones, in my opinion, are the greatest short stories, and I love imagining what happened in-between that birth and death date.

My great-Uncle Dick remembers where everyone is buried and took us on a little field trip to Edgewood Cemetery and Temple Road Cemetery in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, this past weekend and I was able to trace back three generations in one row of gravestones.

My maternal grandparent's gravestone, at Temple Road. Mildred Bedulia (awful name, right!?) and Theodore Peter Hechinger (shown as a boy, above).

To me, researching family history is like learning the back story to a cast of characters; you dig and read until you understand their motivations, the turning-points, the red and black letter days in their lives.  You learn their occupation, their hobbies, who they lived with, and–ofttimes a surprise–how many times they might have secretly divorced and remarried.  For writers who have a difficult time fully developing their fictional characters, I think plucking someone from your own family tree is a great writing exercise.  Even if you don’t think your ancestors lead terribly important or interesting lives–or perhaps they took all their secrets to the grave–thereby denying you enough materials to write an entire book (such as the super fabulous memoir, Glass Castle, and the historical-fiction-memoir-blend Half-Broke Horses, by Jeanette Walls and the less fabulous, but wonderfully titled conversation-style memoir Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness), I’m sure that there’s a family story that has been told so many times that the details are burned into your memory.  It might be small–as small as the fact that my father was a lefty, but got hit by the principal of his public elementary school so many times that he became ambidextrous–but I’m sure it’s enough to inspire you to write a historical short story.  When you have writer’s block, try to integrate a family story.  You don’t have to imagine or think-up something believable, because it’s already done for you.  You probably know your relatives better than you know your fictional characters, so use that to your advantage!

For example, there’s some mystery surrounding my maternal grandfather (see above).  In the top photograph you can see him, his siblings, his father, mother, and maternal grandmother.  The story goes that the mother, Theresa, ran off with another man, leaving William with four children to raise.  Financially, he couldn’t do it.  So he put his daughter, Viola, on a farm and put the boys in the Home for Friendless Children.  It was basically an orphanage, but the Hechinger boys got treated better because their father would visit them once a week and give a little money to the Home.  He didn’t like talking about it so we don’t know what daily life was like.  All we know is that at one point, the three brothers ran away and never returned to the Home.  We don’t know if they made it on their own, or if they moved back in with their Dad.  Isn’t that story just ripe for the writing?

P.S. If you’re particularly interested in family stories, what they mean, and considering writing down all of yours, I’d highly recommend Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins, a book I’m halfway through reading and loving.


Dig into the Clapboard House Archive and Submit Your Stories!

Staying with the theme of our budget writing, Clapboard House Literary Journal offers a wide selection of excerpts from past issues on their website archive.  So before submitting by their deadline–NOVEMBER 1st–get a taste of what they like.What They Want: short fiction sub-3,000 words or 3 poems.

When They Want It:  November 1st

How They Want It:  Via email.  See further submission guidelines here.

Submission Fee?  Nope.

Accept Simultaneous Submissions?  Yes.

Response Time:  Unknown.