Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Zodiac Signs and Characters

As a professional astrologer, one thing I like to do in creating the back story for my characters is to give them a birthday, which of course, is their zodiac sign. It helps me tremendously to see the archetypes of the sign play out in the character's actions, decision making, thoughts, perspectives, and overall dialogue.

For example, in all of my time travel novels, the lead character, Andy Mackpeace, is a Gemini. His birthday is celebrated in Book I, In the Nick of Time. Andy is cerebral, (the Air sign), and thinks tremendously too much about his own flaws and foibles. Yet he is extremely intuitive and that is what not only gives him the doorway to time travel, but to connect with the bigger picture of the universe. He most likely has a Moon in Pisces.

His friends, Miranda Roberts and Roger Stanley are a different matter. I see Miranda as a strong Virgo: organized, level-headed, logical and prone to get upset over changes. Perhaps she has a strong Taurus influence as well. She must have a strong Mars or Jupiter in Gemini to give her her caustic wit.

Roger is a Leo. Ready for adventure, has the brawn to back it up, and has the deep rooted desire to be loved.

In THE PROMISE OF LIVING, Ryan is a Libra and Dave is a Pisces. Ryan has all the characteristics of a Libra with a little sadness thrown in for good measure. In this passage, he talks to his friend Nancy:
            “When’s your birthday again?” Nancy asked. “I forgot.”
            “October 8th."
              “That’s right. Libra.”
            “January 3rd. Capricorn.”
             “You do astrology?” Ryan winced at the bad grammar, the cheesy, awkward way he was feeling.
             “No, not really, just curious sometimes, about the way people act. Libra, hmmm, sensitive, good looking, artistic, vain. Yep, that’s you.”

In The Sculptured Rocks, Dan Buchanan is a Sagittarius. It makes sense: he's adventurous, ready to explore the ghost world that surrounds him as well as the loneliness that lies within him. He's gregarious enough to befriend a stranger and he sees the greater scheme of living in this life. Here is an excerpt from the novel:
            But the Sculptured Rocks was rarely crowded and today an older couple who lived around the corner from Corgie Street were sitting at the base of the third pool eating sandwiches. The woman looked up and yelled, “Hi, Dan!” and her voice echoed and bounced off the rock walls. I couldn’t remember her name so I just waved back.
The sun was hot and strong and I sat in the stillness and listened to the river flow by. The wind moved through the pine trees and their boughs bended and swayed, and I felt as if I had been alive for a million years. Sometimes I clambered down to the bottom and sat among the big boulders and dangled my feet in the water, like the couple were doing now, and sometimes I just laid down my towel and read a book until I fell asleep. When that happened, I was usually out for twenty minutes and I’d eventually open my eyes and sit up to a fresh new world, smelling the river water, the moss, the cool air as it swirled off the pools and I never felt more peaceful.

Monday, February 22, 2016

I love Ann Quinlan McCabe's first picture book Annie's Angel, a sweet bed-time story for toddlers.

Ann describes herself on her Amazon page: Ann Quinlan McCabe is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and lives in Cape May, New Jersey. Ann has worked with children and their families as a therapist specializing in foster care and adoption. This is Ann’s first children’s book, and she is excited about incorporating her experience and knowledge about the inner life of children into her writing.

Apparently, Ann is busy writing a second "Annie" book.. I look forward to reading it.


Friday, February 19, 2016

The Nature of Things

All my novels, save one, are for readers ages 10-13. Of course, adults, parents, teachers, tutors, love them, too. My other book is for YA: ages 14-???

I grew up in a rural setting. I had access to trees and woods and stars and flowers and mud and snow and ice. I played outside. I played in snowbanks and fields and explored the countryside.
Those are some of my strongest memories. The being alone in nature was a doorway to my own sense of self.

I wanted to preserve and invoke that special feeling in my writings. All my books are set in small towns and have moments where NATURE influences the protagonist. It has to. Nature and people are one.

I wish all kids, all my readers, could have that access to nature. If they did, I think the urge to preserve our environment would be more in the forefront. I know, many kids live in urban settings and suburban settings that are nothing but streetlights and sidewalks. All people can't simply jump in a car and zip out to the woods.

But, if they could....


Monday, February 15, 2016

On the Shoulders of Giants Part III

My tribute to those writers who influence my writing.

My third author is James Fenimore Cooper. I didn't pick up Cooper until I was in my early 20's and boy what a find! He is the master of the cliffhanger in so many ways and while that is only one component of his gifts, that is the one I tend to 'borrow' the most. His sense of timing keeps me moving from chapter to chapter, and when anyone says to me, "I read your book, J. Lee, and it was a page turner!", I smile and say a very quiet, "Thank you, James Fenimore Cooper."

Cooper also invokes the Divine in Nature, seeing all things as holy. He fords the Native American Culture and the main hero in a powerful relationship that transcends the historical fiction where it is set. I could go on and on.

But his cliffhangers are the best. Hands down.
In my Middle Grade novel The Sculptured Rocks, it is 1971 and my protagonist, Dan Buchanan, is starting his summer after 6th grade playing shortstop, enjoying his paper route and helping his financially strapped mom give fake ghost tours in their "haunted" house in a small New Hampshire beach town famous for its ghosts. In the summer, the town floods with tourists, and Dan usually can avoid a local townie bully named Krenshaw.
In Chapter 11, Dan is biking around town.

At 3:00, I biked through the streets seeing who was around and looked for some of the kids from my class. I biked downtown, passing people on the sidewalks, many strangers, red now from a sunburn that had surprised them. They were back in the stores buying Moisturizers or Aloe or whatever else was supposed to ease their pain. I burned easily too, but somehow, after one or two bouts, I was a brown tanned native who just got darker throughout the summer. I watched the people walking and laughing, some eating ice cream, many of them surprisingly not at the beach, and I wondered who they were and what their lives were like and more often than not, despite the smiles and the relaxed air, I saw that most of it was fake and that inside, they were really quite unhappy.
I wanted a hotdog. Cape McAllister had this famous silly hotdog stand called Sal’s that was on a side street, wedged between a Bed and Breakfast and a cheesy sundries shop that sold stale candy and tacky postcards. That shop always smelled of cigarette smoke and many tourists went there in the morning to buy a paper. Across the street were the dunes and the beach, so “Sal’s” was in a prime location. Most people went to the beach first, lay down their towels and when the mood struck them, wandered over in their bathing suits and bought a hotdog. “Sal’s” had no tables or chairs; it was literally a stand with one window for ordering food and another window for picking it up.
Sally, the owner, was close to sixty years old, but boy, she loved selling hotdogs and mostly, I suspected, she loved yakking to the tourists and the locals because she knew only one speed and that was slow. She’d stand there wearing this hat that was in the shape of a large hot dog in a bun and combined with her thick jowly face it was like an English bulldog was taking your order. Her smile could light up the sky, though, and she had the thick New England accent of someone who just stepped off Monhegan Island. Luckily, she hired two college students every year to work there as well. She took the orders and the other workers hustled around her. “Sal’s” menu was enormous in that she didn’t just sell a plain hotdog. There were Philadelphia Dogs, and Boston Dogs, and New Orleans Dogs, all variations on the same theme. She put the dog in a roll and then it got topped with all kinds of crazy combinations like hot peppers, or cream cheese, or baked beans or corn chips. The myriad of combinations she concocted would have bamboozled a mathematician. They were great hot dogs and as a result, there was always a line.
I was number six, and I was predicting how long it would take until I got to be number one when Curt Krenshaw biked right down the street not more than two feet away. I crunched down to hide behind a big man in front of me, but it didn’t work. He saw me. He braked to a screechy stop, saw an opportunity, threw his bike against a telephone pole and got in line right behind me.
“How ya doin’, cream puff?” he said just under my ear. His voice was all chummy and sweet which sent chills up my back. “Whaddya doin’ out here without your mommy?”
I ignored him. I stood straighter and never looked behind me. I stared at the man in front of me, right at his back, like he was my uncle and I was with some visiting relatives.
Krenshaw knew otherwise. His voice never rose above a slightly warm murmur, but I heard every word. “C’mon cream puff, talk to me. I haven’t seen you in awhile and I was getting worried. I thought maybe you might have left to go somewhere on vacation. I’m glad to see you haven’t gone anywhere, sissy boy, because I’m here to make your summer a living hell.”
Then I got mad. My fists clenched at my sides and my back stiffened. My breathing got heavier and I was seeing only one color.
“That’s it, muffin,” Krenshaw coached, “get mad. You want to deck me, I can see your little fists, well c’mon, you and me, right here.” His voice never rose in volume, it stayed that same, awful, chilling appeal that he delivered behind my right ear. It was almost demonic. “You scared? You scared to be seen fighting in public like this, cream pie?”
Meanwhile the line had moved forward, and I was number two. I didn’t know whether to step out of line and cause him to make the first swing, or stay in line and pretend everything was fine. I chose the latter thinking he might get tired of taunting me and just go away.
“Get lost,” I said, but my throat was dry and my voice was shaking so it came out sounding, ‘et ost’.
“What did you say, sweetness?” he crooned and I smelled his breath, foul with cigarette smoke and there was an odd smell coming from his clothes, a mixture of rampant sweat and garbage. “I didn’t hear you, do you mind repeating that, cupcake?”
“Hi, Danny!” Sal hollered out to me as the man in front of me moved on. “What’ll you have?”
“Hi, Sal,” I said, trying to keep from crying in anger or fear. I forced myself to smile and ordered a New England Dog which came with ketchup, mustard, tartar sauce, and fried clams sprinkled on top, with a small soda. My hands were shaking as I pulled out the cash from my right pocket and there was no way to hide that when I handed over the money. Sal looked at me with an odd expression, and if she could read my mind the way Tom could, I would have confessed everything.
“You okay there, bucko?” she asked, noticing my hands.
“Fine!” I said, a little too loudly, took the change and moved to the other window. The college kids were fast and in about forty-five seconds, I had the dog in one hand and my soda in another. I tried my best to look relaxed, eating half of the dog in one gulp, and slurping through a straw so I could swallow it and watched as Krenshaw bought a small drink and moved toward me. Jeez, this kid didn’t quit.
“No, I’m not kidding, Dan,” he smirked, “how’s your summer goin’? You like playing baseball again this year?”
I chewed and glared at him.
“Didn’t you hear me, cupcake?”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Call you what? Cupcake? Would you prefer Creampuff? You should tell me these things, Dan, or else, how are we ever going to be friends?”
His voice, that nauseating sweetness and that look of pure evil in his eyes and the knowledge that at any moment, with him standing so close to me, he could strike, like a scorpion, and not give a rip about who saw him.
“Shut up,” I said, “and leave me alone.”
“And who’s going to make me, sissy boy,” he smirked, “you?”
My stomach was in knots and I didn’t know how to get out of this situation. Tourists were passing around us, nobody noticed anything, nobody stopped mid-stride to ask, “Hey, is this kid bothering you?” To everyone else, we were two small-town, dirty locals, maybe even friends.
I had finished my hotdog and the drink and I tossed the cup into a nearby garbage can, trying as always to look casual, unaffected, but my knees were starting to shake and I didn’t know how long I could pull this off. I walked away.
I got about five feet when Krenshaw pulled up next to me and said, “Hey, now, not so fast, mama’s boy, that’s not polite!” I was heading away from the beach and walking past the elegant B&B with its beautiful white picket fence and the gardens full of roses and lupines and daisies. Five guests were sitting on the large wrap around porch, in the shade, feeling the sea breezes pass by and they were drinking lemonade. I looked at them for help, not so much because of Krenshaw but because I thought I was going to bust it in my pants. We made it past the picket fence and I stopped in the tiny B&B driveway where a discreet sign said “For Guests Only”. Something was brewing in me and I didn’t know how to control it.
“Next time I see you, sissy boy,” Krenshaw promised, “I’m going to beat the living crap out of you. You’re the kind of little creampuff I hate seeing around this town and you better believe-”

I grabbed Krenshaw hard around his left arm and threw him down on the gravel driveway. His reflex was strong and he clamped onto me like a dog. Together we hit the dirt and I fell on top of him and it was then, in front of the five astonished guests standing up and peering over the porch railing that I threw up all over his face.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On the Shoulders of Giants Part II

My new look.

Some have 'complained' that the Yellow on Black look was hard to read. Granted.

Another writer who influenced me tremendously is Willa Cather. She can describe the connection between the beauty of nature and the loneliness of her characters like no other. She interweaves nature and character so that their actions are interchangeable. I wish I could do that.

She uses nature as an intricate component to her story, her characters' behavior and disposition. Nature, environment, people, they are all one. They lived intertwined.

I tried, (God help me, I tried) very briefly, in spurts, to infuse that in all my novels, but especially in THE PROMISE OF LIVING, my YA novel.
Thank you Willa, for your gift.

Here, Ryan, who is receiving visions and premonitions, sees the murder of a girl, and cannot prevent it from happening in his tiny New Hampshire town.

There were no homes on this stretch of the road, and at the four corners, Ryan, instead of going straight, toward Wilson’s Ferry, headed right, up a steep hill that wound up a long stretch of road to the summit that gave a tremendous view of the hills. When he reached the top, Ryan parked the truck near a ditch and turned off the engine. The silence was calming. Sparrows flew from tree to tree, the hay in the pastures on both sides of the road had been long cut, and in the far distance the glint of sunshine bounced off the various silos. The sky was September blue.

“Okay,” Ryan said, “we’re here, what’s up?”

“Ryan, your premonition. That was her, wasn’t it,” Dave said pushing his body down sideways so the back of his head was leaning against the side door, “that was Donna.”

“Yes.” Ryan stared out the windshield. A car passed by but didn’t recognize the two boys or Ryan’s truck. There was a Maine license plate on the back of the car. “I killed her.”


“I saw it happen, and I didn’t do anything to stop it.”

“But you didn’t know who it was, you told me you never saw her face.”

“I should have. I should have been able to identify her and warn her. I should have been able to prevent this, Dave.” He punched the steering wheel. “What the hell is the point of having this ability to see things if there’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it?”

He punched the wheel again and again like some strange percussive instrumentation and yelled in his own frustration. He got out of the truck, slammed the door behind him and started walking. He crossed the road, jumped the ditch onto the field that covered the summit of the hill. The wind picked up here and his t-shirt blew against his frame. He crested the hill, and the splendor made him stop short. In front of him was a sea of hills, rolling off into the west, toward Vermont, a wide swatch of autumn fabric, large patches of gold and red and yellow of the majestic trees of New Hampshire, the oaks and maples that stood with indifference in their colors. Far beyond and below, there were glimpses of the Pennacook River, a shining blue band accented with sunshine marking it out from the colors of the trees.

Monday, February 8, 2016

On the shoulders of giants PART ONE

If you want to be an stage actor, read plays and attend performances. If you want to be a singer, listen to professionals. If you want to be a good writer, read. Read the classics, read, read, read and then write. 
Granted, the trouble arises when I read, for example, too much Delillo, I end up writing like him. But there are certain writers who have influenced me tremendously, and I salute them all. 

Sometimes people will ask this regarding my own writing. One giant whose shoulders I stand on is Thornton Wilder. Read his plays or books and his messages come through loud and clear. I've invoked Wilder many times in my novels, not to copy, but to honor. 

Thank you, Thornton, for all your work.

Here, in IN THE NICK OF TIME, Andy and his friends have time traveled back to antebellum Georgia and are hopelessly trapped. One night, he wakes up to contemplate the problem and 'talk' to his dead Grandma Geri. 

Chapter 17
The full moon awoke Andy at a quarter to one. The light streamed through his window and onto his face, much like the street lamp outside his home used to. The Main House was ghoulishly quiet. No hum of a refrigerator or microwave or a computer monitor. No dishwasher running or dryer tumbling. Electronic sounds that would sometimes jar him awake back home now were completely absent. He slid off the poster bed and walked in his bare feet toward the open window. The moon made the plantation look blue: as if it had snowed. The smells of the horses floated by, he heard the trickle of the stream and the sound of an owl. Cicadas. Other than that, there was nothing. There were a few stars on the farther side of the sky, but the moonlight reminded him of summer nights at home.
It’s the same moon, he thought. It shone on them as it shines on us.
It had been six days. Six days with no new discoveries. 
Andy figured that someone at home by now has got to have missed him. When he traveled back to Boston, his trip was brief and the present time hadn’t been affected.
But what about after six days?
Andy didn’t have an answer for that. How long does time stop before it starts to pick up again? He could picture his father coming into his bedroom and seeing the opened door and the little pile of matches and the incense stick. His father would think he’d been smoking dope or cigarettes, and he’d be walking around talking to his mom. “I didn’t think we’d have to worry about this with our Andy,” he could hear his father say.
            Worse yet! What if his father came into his room, saw the incense, and then lit one! He could end up here! Well, that would be fine as long as he had some extra in his pocket!
 Oh Grandma, Andy thought as he gazed out over the beautiful land and smelled the sweet, country air. How are we going to get out of here? What’s this all about?
            Sometimes, in the summer, or on a crisp, windless winter night, Andy and Grandma Geri went out into the back fields and stargazed. Grandma Geri had a small telescope, and she taught him the names of constellations and the brighter stars.
“See that one?” she said one time, pointing to a gorgeous red star in the Southern sky. It was the middle of August when Andy was about ten years old. “That’s Antares, one of my favorite. It’s in the constellation Scorpio; you can see that it looks like a Scorpion. With a flashlight, she traced in the sky, from star to star, a giant “J” swerving off to the left. There, about halfway down, was Antares. “Antares is six hundred light years away from Earth.”
            “It’d take six hundred years to get there?” Andy asked. How could he see that red star so clearly when it was so far away?
            “Well, sort of. First, you’d have to be traveling the speed of light, which is 186,300 miles per second. Per second, Andy! Can you imagine whirling through space that quickly?” She took the flashlight and swooshed it across the night sky like a meteor. “Then, if you’re really going that fast, it would take you six hundred years to get there. And who knows what planets would be waiting for you when you arrived?”
            “I can’t imagine that far,” said Andy.
            “I can’t either, honey,” she said, “but it’s a wonderful feeling trying. Oh, the things out there!” She put her arms around his shoulders and together they surveyed the heavens. The night was full of the sounds of crickets and frogs. “There are galaxies, and moons, and planets, and billions and billions of stars. We’re so tiny sitting here,” she breathed in the hay and the fresh air, “but how precious and magical that is.”
Andy sat on the windowsill in the moonlit, timeless, plantation house. The sounds of the night swirled around him, and the minutes of the hour traveled onward. He was Andy and he was Drew.
After a moment, he caught himself dozing off, and he jerked his head awake. A shooting star caught his eye. Andy felt completely connected to all that he saw. It was the most peaceful feeling he ever had, and as Andy breathed, the universe breathed.

He was now and he was then. The trees are planted and people are born; the trees are cut down and people die. It could be the 21st Century, it could be the 19th. “The time doesn’t matter, Andy,” he heard Grandma Geri say. “We’re in the rhythm of the stars and the tunes of the planets, and always shall be.”