Monday, December 15, 2014

Local Flavor--How to Spice Up Your Stories (without including recipes!)

There is a benefit to becoming an avid reader at a young age... you get to travel the world and experience many cultures and customs before you're old enough to drive.

This is especially good when your family vacations were always at nearby relatives' homes.

I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, and my only "travels" were to visit Dad's family in Roswell, New Mexico and the surrounding area or Mom's family in Chihuahua, Mexico. Disneyland vacations were not something most people in my neighborhood did. Since holidays and vacations were always spent in the same geographical area, we never experienced anything but what we'd always grown up with... and that included holiday traditions that I'd never read about in a book.

From the time I was old enough to read, I was always engrossed in a book my dad had ordered from Reader's Digest called "The Book of Christmas". In it were several condensed versions of Christmas classics, including "A Christmas Carol". To me, reading about the way that the Cratchit family celebrated Christmas was akin to reading science fiction: They had goose for Christmas? What in the world is plum pudding?  We always had turkey and ham... and why didn't they have tamales, like we did?

Other stories introduced foreign customs, like caroling. We didn't go caroling; we had posadas for nine days before Christmas, reenacting Joseph and Mary's search for lodging. We didn't have gingerbread cookies; we had bizcochitos, cinnamon and anise flavored cookies that were only made for special occasions like Christmas or weddings. A neighbor whose mother-in-law came from England for the holidays brought Christmas crackers; to us, they were a bit like hand-held piƱatas! And while eggnog wasn't unheard of--we called it rompope--most of the time, instead of hot chocolate, we had champurrado, a hot drink made with corn flour, milk, chocolate, and anise (trust me, it's an acquired taste!)

As I got older, it occurred to me that the world-view I was acquiring from books very rarely included the world in which I had grown up and still inhabited. So when I decided to become a writer, I took to heart the old oft-repeated advice to "write what you know". While I might not know much about murder (trust me!), I do know a lot about the area where my Black Horse Campground characters live... it's where I grew up and where I still live. And readers will get a glimpse--and a taste--of life in Bonney County, which is probably very different from where many of them live.

Have a blessed and merry Christmas... wherever you are!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Simple Things

It's that time of year when simplicity and extravagance seem to be fighting each other in every facet of our lives. At a time when we would love to keep things simple because there are so many "things" fighting for our attention that we can't possibly do them all extravagantly, we oftentimes wear ourselves out trying to do the impossible.

In the last few years, we've tried to keep Christmas simple. No mountains of gifts for every single person we know; no over-the-top 18-course gourmet dinner parties; no decorating every room in the house, even the bathroom, down to the holiday-themed toilet paper. We have learned that one simple gift that reflects what the recipient really likes can mean so much more than overwhelming them with a lot of expensive gifts that mean little to them. A simple pot of soup dinner can be just as enjoyable as a party with twelve different appetizers (even more enjoyable, since the hostess is probably more relaxed and in a more "party" frame of mind.) And while it's fun to tour a home decorated to the rafters for the holidays, staying in such a home, even for just an evening, can be uncomfortable ("I wasn't sure if I was supposed to use the candy-cane striped paper in the bathroom... or the Christmas cookie shaped hand soaps.")

The same goes for reading and writing. I remember a scene from one of my favorite books, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith. In it, Francie Nolan, a poor girl in Brooklyn, wants to be a writer, but her teacher continually gives low grades to her essays about her father (who, though a gentle and loving man, is an alcoholic and rarely supports his family) and her life in a tenement (where she and her brother pick through trash for junk to sell and her mother pays the rent by keeping the tenement clean.) So Francie decides to write a novel about a wealthy girl who lives a fabulously wealthy life and eats a dinner of exotic desserts because her usual gourmet dinner seems to be very dull to her. Before too long, Francie realizes that she doesn't believe a thing she's writing and that it's no different than what she wants to write, but she's doing it all wrong.

I think writers have a responsibility to their readers to keep it as simple as possible. Yes, there are certain writers who have made their name by writing about the rich and famous and fabulously glamorous, but most of us can't relate to those kinds of characters or stories. In the Black Horse Campground mystery series, Corrie lives a simple life of working day to day and trying to keep up with her bills. She loves her work and doesn't dream of a glamorous life. I recently finished a romance series by the late, great Aimee Thurlo. While some romances hint of glamour and exotic locales, hers are set near the Navajo reservation with characters who are hard-working people who value loyalty, family, love, and honor above anything material.

Many writers are given the advice to write what they know, but the best advice I've been given is to write the kind of book I want to read. It's extremely gratifying to see that the kind of books I write are also the kind of books others want to read as well.