Nancy Springer's Blog: Last Seen Wandering Vaguely

September 29, 2017

Does a person need to be sexy in order to write good fiction? That’s debatable. But it’s definitely a great advantage to be a sensual writer – attentive and attuned to the senses.

Just thinking this, I remember my mother’s voice: “Nancy, listen to the spring peepers!” “Nancy, smell the honeysuckle!” “Nancy, come here and look at the praying mantis!” Mostly it was look, look, look, at least a dozen times a day throughout my childhood. Look at the garter snake, the Jack-in-the-pulpit, the muskrat nest . Mom once got me up out of a sound sleep to look at a rare appearance of aurora borealis in New Jersey. Yes, she would awaken a sleeping child to show her something worth seeing. And it wasn’t just that once. She also woke me to show me a Luna moth or a harvest moon, or to have me listen to the shiversome sounds of screech owls or foxes in the night.

Mom was an artist who painted pet portraits (in oils) for a living and flowers that lived and breathed (in watercolors) for pleasure. We would go for walks and bring home wildflowers to identify and display. I got quite an education from Mom, but I don’t think she was trying to teach. She was a happy person, and her perpetual “Look, look, look!” sprang from an irrepressible sense of wonder. With her and because of her I looked at cattails, listened to the bobolink, smelled the lilacs, tasted wild strawberries, felt the dark magenta bark of the cherry tree. As the twig is bent; so does the tree incline; to this day I don’t miss much, and my nearly eidetic memory serves me well as a writer by providing me with images. The root word of “imagination” is “image.” It is my job as a writer to envision images and, by putting merest words on paper, convey similar images to the mind of a reader.

When I was a child, I pretended there was a camera behind my eyes that snapped permanent pictures of everything I saw. Would this have been the case if my mother hadn’t been an artist, all about looking? I don’t know, but somehow I’ve spent a lot of time around artists in my adult life too. An artist friend and I used to play at realism in color names: school-bus yellow, swimming-pool green, Pepto-Bismol pink, raisin brown. The challenge was never to write a cliché such as “white as snow.” White as a penguin’s tummy might be better, depending on context.

Other artists continue to keep me on my toes when it comes to really seeing: no, horses’ hooves are not black, and neither is night, especially not in the city, where it is more nearly puce, defined as the color of a tick engorged with blood. Then there are my musically inclined friends, who help me to hear how the refrigerator drones in one key and the ceiling fan in another, but they do not harmonize; it’s no wonder people go crazy. And then there are the good cooks, who coach me on taste and smell. My husband is The Nose of Noses. It was from him that I learned puppy breath smells like coffee. He hates the smell of doorknobs on his hands, or the smell of money. He once told me that angels smelled good, like lightning and gunpowder. I believe him. And the smell of geraniums reminds him of his childhood. Of all the senses – vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and whatever sense it is that informs a person about angels – of all these, smell is the one that resonates most strongly with readers. Yet it is the one most difficult to evoke without being commonplace, e.g. the smell of bread baking.

My childhood was so not about the smell of baking bread. It was more about the smells of oil paint, and bare feet, and feathers from the dusty chickens eating bugs in the back yard. Those sensual details among many others enriched my life then, and going “Look, look, look!” continues to enrich my life today. As do listening, smelling, tasting and touching. I sometimes think that the details I need for my work help keep me more alive than most people. And I know I am very lucky to be a sensuous writer.

As for being a sexy writer: to paraphrase Piet Hein, everything is either concave or convex, so everything has something to do with sex. The opportunities for symbolism are unlimited! Look, look, look.
6 likes ·   •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on September 29, 2017 08:49 • 257 views • Tags: fiction-writing, imagery, realism, sensual-details

August 15, 2016

I receive a reasonable amount of fanmail, but only once in a while do I get a letter as challenging as this one. In those cases, I motivate myself to answer by writing a blog at the same time: So here we go! Q is the letter and A is dear me.

Dear Mrs Springer, I love the Enola Holmes series. I also like the first book of the Rowan Hood series (couldn't get my hands on the rest). I read it after Enola Holmes, though, and it made me wonder,

Q: since Rowan pretends to be a boy, when you came up with the idea of a girl not disguising herself as a boy?

A: Enola Holmes herself, with my fullest approval, came up with the idea as she was planning her escape. She knew that, because runaway girls traditionally cut their hair and dressed as boys, and also because she had been in the habit of wearing knickerbockers, her brothers Sherlock and Mycroft would almost certainly search for a “male” runaway. Therefore she would outwit them by being female, and she conceived the rather brilliant idea of dressing as a widow concealed head to toe in black, thereby adding years to her age.

Q: It's a wonderful idea, very novel and interesting,

(A: Thank you!)

and I haven't been able to find any other books working with the same premise. How do you write clues in?

A: I was just about to squall that I don’t, I don’t, I never plant clues, when I realized that I do. Writing the Enola Holmes stories, I included clues such as the bizarre bouquet, things that Sherlock would overlook but Enola would figure out. I did an unspeakable amount of research to understand the feminine subculture of late Victorian England and its subversive means of communications. The languages of fans, of flowers, of postage stamps, of sealing wax, calling cards and on and on.... But unlike many mystery writers, I do not stick in “red herrings,” ever, and I do not work out the whole plot beforehand. Mostly, I let the characters react. (Red herrings, by the way, were smoked fish dragged on the ground to lay a strong trail to lead the hounds astray, thus ruining the fox hunt.)

Q: Do you write the story first, with the characters not knowing what's happening, or do you write what really happened first?

A: Neither of the above. When I start to write, I don’t know what’s going on, or perhaps I have only the faintest inkling more than the characters do. I know, for instance, that Enola must rescue Mrs. Tupper or Dr. Watson or whoever my chosen victim is, but I don’t know how she will do it. She will show me.
However, it is critically important that I must have a fully conceived opening scene with the right tone and tension to get the book rolling.

Q. How do you come up with new codes and secrets? How do you find old ones?

A: Aaak, the codes, the codes, the codes! How foolish of me to include secret code in the first book when, like Enola, I didn’t particularly enjoy codes! I should have known that my editors would want codes in every book thereafter!
I was fortunate to acquire a lightweight, straightforward book, Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing by Martin Gardner from Dover Publications, which helped me a great deal. Beyond that, I combined standard codes with the language of flowers to form Enola’s very own codes.
As for secrets, such as how to conceal a dagger in a corset, that was a matter of research, research and more research, plus imagination. (A poison-tipped parasol?)

Q: When did you first decide to write a book? Why do you write?

A: Age 22 was when I began to write my first book. After graduating from college, age 21, I had time and all the boredom in the world, but it took me a year to get through a lack of self-confidence, a mental blockade saying that I had no authority, no right, just the damn nerve thinking I could be a novelist. Keep in mind that, back when I was raised, girls were not expected to do exceptional things, and I had never in my life met an author. I thought they were all came from England and were anointed by the queen or something.
Why do I write? Because if I didn’t, I would probably need to be institutionalized.

Q: Did you ever have any other plans for your career?

A: All through college I played guitar and bluegrass fiddle, sang in coffeehouses and dreamed of being a folk music star. I love traditional ballads. But folk music was just a blip, an anomaly, in popular music history, and my dreams vanished when trends changed. Still, I hope you can hear music in my prose.

Q: How long do your books take you? Are you faster now than you used to be?

A: I’ve never kept track of my time spent writing lest I get discouraged. The first book took uncounted years and innumerable drafts. But after some experience I was routinely writing one fantasy novel and one children’s book per year in order to support my family, my horse and one-third of my mother. In 1995, I think it was, five different books of mine were published! I was writing so much I was competing against myself. But now, years later, I would no longer be able to do that; age has slowed me down. I used to write a minimum of six pages a day, but now five or six paragraphs will wear me out.

Q: How do you pick one idea to write out of all the ones you come up with? How much research do you do for your books? Do your ideas pop in your head fully formed, or are they based on news articles and other random stuff? (Or do you even know?)

A: I’ll tell you a secret: most of my book ideas are insanely bad, and I’m not very good at choosing among them. I’ve written at least as many unpublishable books as I have published ones – books about a pregnant man, an angel with butterfly wings, a feral cat’s quest for Tyger Tyger Burning Bright, a bird that laid cubical eggs and cried constantly in self-pity, and many more I’ve mercifully forgotten. Some of my best ideas have come as requests from editors. Some others, thank goodness, are my own. But there’s no way anything ever pops into my head fully formed, and news articles aren’t much help. I avoid research when I can. Random stuff from friends, conversations, and wacky things I’ve observed are much more likely to make their way into my fiction, and y’know, I don’t really know, y’know?

Q: Do you ever get tired of answering the same questions over and over again?

A: Yup. But luckily, yours are not exactly the same questions.

B: What was your favorite thing to do as a kid?

A: First I think singing, then reading, then being outside exploring all the way from the swamp to the hilltop, but all boiled together I think it comes down to learning and living in an oddly passive but intense way. Everything was extraordinarily important and deeply felt to me. I pretended I had a camera behind my eyes documenting for all time everything I saw.

Q: Why do you write for kids?

A: When I write for kids, I’m writing for everybody. An adult is not a child who died; an adult should be a child who lived and who has the good sense to continue to read kids’ books. I don’t have the patience to write merely for adults who have become too sophisticated for me.

Q: What kinds of things (besides writing) do you like to do now?

A: Horseback riding, fishing (catch and release), crafts, good conversations, telling subversive jokes, singing (but never karaoke) volunteering, being the one who’s willing to take in a stray cat or five or seven.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A contemporary fantasy/mystery about a crotchety old woman haunted by the spirit of an abused child; she must discover the kid’s story in order to bring about justice and peace.

Q: Thank you very much for your time.

A: You’re welcome!
8 likes ·   •  8 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on August 15, 2016 08:37 • 518 views

September 9, 2015

[Gentle reader, I beg your forgiveness for indulging in a retread. This essay first appeared many years ago in The Writer magazine.]

"How long does it take you to write a novel?" an aspiring writer asks, and without pausing to wait for an answer, "How do you find the time?"

These are two of the Three Inane Questions most frequently asked of novelists (the third one is,"Where do you get your ideas?") and like most "stupid" questions, they are so brilliant that I don't know how to answer. How can I explain how long it takes to write a novel? Your whole life, that's how long. Your childhood, your dreams, your waking time and sleeping time and loving and hurting time all go in. The young woman who wants to write already knows this in her heart, so she has rushed on to the next question: How do you find the time? There has to be a secret. There has to be a way to "find" or "make" time, more time than there is in a lifetime.

"Writers have a different sense of time than most people," I venture, which is sheer chutzpah on my part, because people have widely divergent views of time. To some, time is a thin stream of moments flowing away. To others, an ever-repeating cycle of seasons and reincarnation. Or perhaps it is nothing more than entropy, a slow decay. But many would rather believe it is a stairway to climb. Widely divergent religions are based on these views, yet all seem to have the same goal: to escape time and achieve timelessness. The stream flows to the ocean of eternity. The soul escapes from the cycle and achieves nirvana. Entropy ends in stasis. The stairway ends in heaven.

"I don't know how long it takes me to write a novel." I say. "I don't count the days or the hours."

"Why? Because it might get too discouraging?"

I shake my head. "No, not at all. It's just. . .I lose track of time."

Lose track? I wish I hadn't said that. When I'm writing, I don't lose anything; I find something.

The young woman seems to project her own feelings onto me. "But don't you get discouraged when you have to change something it took you hours to write?"

"I've thrown away things it took me years to write. It doesn't matter. It's the process that's important. The writing itself."

"Do you write every day?"


"How many pages?"

"I don't know. It doesn't matter. Sometimes I just sit around and think."

She looks at me as if she wants to cry. "But how do you find the time?"

My life as a writer, I belatedly realize, may be incomprehensible to her, because it is a life of impossible rebellion against the one unconquerable tyrant: time. As a writer, I eschew time. I seldom plan for the future; where are my retirement fund, my benefit package? Nonexistent. My clock to punch, my commute, my schedule? Nonexistent also. My routine, my religion? Nil. Yet I hope to live after my time is up.

Chutzpah again: I hope to create books that will remain when I am gone.

"I don't find time," I respond. "I kill time. I assassinate it."

The aspiring writer gives up on me, smiles stiffly and moves away. Rightly so, because what she wants to know I can't explain. If she ever "finds time," it will be by losing what most people would regard as her sanity. It will be by stepping off the stairway and listening to that bustling in her hedgerow. It will be by leaving the thin tick-tock stream and leaping into the vast sea of once-upon-a-time. It will be by just doing it. It will happen the morning she gets up and, without checking her schedule, starts writing her novel.
8 likes ·   •  2 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on September 09, 2015 08:15 • 680 views

July 13, 2015

So this morning I was arranging flowers, and enjoying the process as I hope most people do, and promising myself I’d arrange flowers more frequently from now on, when I had one of those wonky little insights: the Zen of flower arranging is a lot like that of writing a novel. Sure, writing a novel takes a whole lot longer, but the giss is the same.

Now I’m mixing metaphors and venturing into birdwatching. Experienced birders can tell what species a bird is even if they only glimpse it from a distance and cannot possibly see any detail of its markings. They just know it the way we know our friends in a crowd, by some holistic mix of size, shape and gesture. They identify the bird by its giss.

I am not one of those expert birdwatchers. Most of the time I can identify what I see only as an LBJ (Little Brown Job). Nor am I an expert flower arranger. But once I have the material, the blossoms and greens, in hand, I get a notion of what I want. I sense a giss, and that’s pretty much the way I approach my writing too.

What makes flower arranging or writing different from birdwatching is that the giss (I just love the word, but no, I can’t it in any dictionary, and I hope I’m correct in figuring it has a hard g)—the giss doesn’t have to exist in nature outside your mind, and doesn’t have to be one that you were taught. Arranging flowers, I tend to make bouquets dangle over the vase at the bottom and rise to an accent at the top, but if the blossoms take on personalities (become characters?) and if they insist on a top-heavy spread or a lollipop vibe, I’ll go with it. If I want to stuff all available flora into a vase, so be it. Or if I want to take a single blossom and arrange it with a fern and a piece of driftwood, I’ll do that.

Similarly, fiction writing can be rich and full, with deep texture, multiple characters, subplots – or it can be sparse, economical, and stylized, like haiku or a Japanese flower arrangement. And novels don’t always have to form that same old triangle of action rising to a climax then resolving to a conclusion. They can start as a wide spiral and home in on an ending. They can circle There And Back Again (the Hero Journey of Joseph Campbell fame). They can fill in gradually to form a mosaic or patchwork quilt or, okay, a fluffy bouquet of varicolored blossoms not entirely visible to the reader until the end.

I generally doodle my books before I write them, or at least before I revise them. One YA book of mine, THE BOY ON A BLACK HORSE, shaped up to be a long horizontal triangle diminishing to its point (Gray’s story) overlapping another triangle flaring out (Chav’s story). It would be a lot easier if I could draw a sketch of what I mean right here, but think of one plot opening from a bud to a blossom while the other plot-blossom closes for the night.

My fantasy novels MADBOND, MINDBOND and GODBOND I conceptualized as three separate heroic characters trying and failing and finally succeeding in saving their edenic world by achieving balance and symmetry – radial symmetry. I think of them as three big, bright morning glory blossoms overlapping, triply overlapping at the center, and kind of forming an equilateral triangle, like the three rings joined in the old Ballantine beer logo.

And I didn’t realize it at the time, but in my early fantasies -- THE WHITE HART, THE SILVER SUN, THE SABLE MOON, all with two heroes, one magical, moody and shadowed, the other brave and bright – in all of them, the plot to save a kingdom was driven by struggle for a symmetry to come together, for acceptance of what was opposite yet the same. For the embrace of yang and yin. Surely somewhere there has to be an orchid with a blossom shaped that way.

The six volumes of my Enola Holmes mystery series are full of floral references referring to the Victorian Language of Flowers – but heck, let’s not stop there. All of the books have three plots intertwining like vines -- in fact, at times I called Enola Ivy, and at times I thought of Sherlock as poison ivy! One of the plots was always for Enola to elude and outwit Sherlock. The other two were Enola trying to make contact with her mother, and Enola in search of a missing person. (Not her mother. Another missing person.) These books were devilishly difficult to write, and for that reason if no other I do not recommend too much ivy in your next flower arrangement. It has a mind of its own. Not that you don’t want that in a character, but enough is enough.

Enough is enough? Okay, I admit I am putting an awful lot of strain on a poor, innocent floral metaphor that may or may not work for you. But I think it’s tremendously important for writers to conceptualize what they are doing as closely related to any other form of art – carving, painting, sculpting, poetry, music, poetry, dance on and on and on – and to appreciate how much freedom we can enjoy by regarding our stories differently. Character arc, for instance, doesn’t always have to arch, all meek and graceful like lily-of-the-valley; it can aspire like larkspur, or climb like clematis, or run wild like – like me, dammit; I’m doing it again.

Apologies. In the language of flowers, peonies are for apologies.

And smiles. Did you know that peonies can’t open by themselves? They need ants to chew their petals apart.

Which reminds me, again, of the writing process....
5 likes ·   •  2 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on July 13, 2015 08:09 • 481 views • Tags: character-arc, flower-arranging, language-of-flowers, story-structure

April 23, 2015

Years ago I was roped into judging a poetry contest that shall remain placeless and nameless in order to protect the guilty. On the appointed day at some time mid-afternoon I showed up to find myself in company with one other judge, a dedicated poet whose work I knew and respected. He and I were faced with several towering piles of poetry submissions and were told to select our winners by early that evening. We had, as I recall, three or four hours, sans supper. I became a wee bit tad upset, if only because I hate to miss a meal. I considered that we had been stuck with an impossible task, comparable to that of spinning a massive pile of straw into gold.

“Not to worry,” said my Rumpelstiltskin poet friend. “We can eliminate most of this quickly, because if the first few lines suck, it’s not going to get any better, right?”

Immediately I felt truth resonate like a carillon of bells. “Right!”

So grabbing a poetry submission, he scanned the first stanza, stuck a finger deep into his mouth, made a gagging noise and tossed the sheet of paper aside. I did likewise, minus the gesture and the noise. We both settled down to our task, and within an hour we had eliminated all of the poems except a few dozen that did not suck.

Relieved by our progress so far, but still feeling a bit daunted by our responsibility, I asked, “Now what?”

“Now we read the whole poem, and when we get to the end, we ask, ‘So what?’”

“Ah!” Again truth resonated through me. I sat back in my chair and read the remaining poems in full and with pleasure, because they were well written. My Rumpelstiltskin poet friend and I passed them back and forth, making sure that we each got to read them all.

Then we considered them one at a time by asking, “So what?”

For most of them the answer was, “Nothing.” So nature is beautiful, so what? So life passes too fast, so what? So you’re feeling sad and blue, so what? Tell me something I don’t already know. Like a long-legged fly upon a stream my mind moves upon silence. . .

That last bit is the opposite of “So what?” I borrowed it from William Butler Yeats, as an example of poetry that might have made me sit up straight.

My Rumpelstiltskin friend slumped in his chair the same way I did in mine. “In most writing contests,” he said morosely, “the entry that wins is the one that just didn’t lose.”

“The least bad?”


But we were lucky. We actually found a few real winners, well written and with significant content – although not so significant that I remember any of the poems anymore.

Why, decades later, do I so vividly remember this experience? What, as the teachers would say, did I “take away” from it? Or, more succinctly, so what?

Here’s what.

I’m well-published among fiction writers. I’d like to think that at least some of my books are winners, not just the manuscripts that didn’t lose. But I still have manuscripts out there circulating, more often than not being “declined” (the slightly less brutal euphemism for “rejected”). Are Rumpelstiltskin editors, faced with an overwhelming mountain of manuscripts, handling mine much the way my poet friend did: finger deep in mouth, gagging? Dreadful thought. But even more humbling: are editors applying the “so what?” test to my stories? Are mine tales told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

I’m sure you recognized that as a quote from Shakespeare. From "Macbeth," to be exact.

So what?

So every thought is a double-edged sword, cutting both ways. Yes, okay, most of us published writers are the ones who just didn’t lose, and we will be forgotten. But we don’t know for sure. I mean, realistically, do you suppose Shakespeare ever dreamed he would still be quoted in the twenty-first century?
8 likes ·   •  2 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on April 23, 2015 12:54 • 418 views

February 25, 2015

As a writer looking back on a long career – forty years, fifty-some books and counting – I have, as might be expected, hindsights. There are things I wish somebody had told me. So I’m telling you.

Back when I was first trying to get started, I wish I’d known I had the right to write. I was paralyzed until I decided to write fantasy so nobody could call me out. Maybe things are better now that female authors are studied in schools, girls have opportunities, etc. But I bet there are still young people out there who want to write but feel they lack any authority because they haven’t been abused or slept under bridges or lived with wolves or whatever. Hear ye, everyday persons: Just being human is enough. Just experiencing life in this world is enough. Let your eyes see, let your mind roam free, and write.

Another thing I wish I’d known: Form needs to come before technique. I learned this at an art show with a knowledgeable friend. We were looking at somebody’s pen-and-ink rendition of a very faulty nude, lovingly shaded. “Nice stippling,” she remarked, “but form needs to come before technique.” The artist had not mastered the structure of the human body before oozing technique all over it. Same here. Writing my first novel, I tried to imitate T.H. White’s use of anachronism. I would have done better to structure my story. To this day, I love experimenting with unusual viewpoints like, say, second person plural. I love to texture my prose by changing fonts. I love all the gimmicks: epistolary novel, or novel told in journal, or as e-mail, or by the dog. But before indulging in any such shenanigans, I must make sure I have a story structure: character, conflict, crisis, conclusion.

The next thing is milk it, and one of my early editors taught me that, though not in those words. He chose certain portions of the book (it was THE WHITE HART) and instructed me to lengthen them. The idea was to make the emotional high points of the book last longer for the reader, he told me. In brief, milk it. On another occasion he complimented me on my good pacing. What is pacing, I wanted to know? After a speechless moment of surprise that I had no idea what I was doing, he told me it was a matter of sensing how long to linger with a scene – say, dialogue -- before moving on to a different, maybe action scene. In other words, how long to milk it.

Yet another thing I wish I’d understood is the importance of a good idea. Somehow, maybe from being an English Literature major in college, I had glommed onto the notion that ideas were no big deal, that I could make any idea sparkle by the brilliance of my writing. Wrong. Those people who ask where you get your ideas are not clueless; it’s a legitimate question. A writer should know where s/he gets ideas; should know, for instance, how to turn a vague premise into a valid story idea. How two or more premises have to combine; if you have the metaphor, you have the story. (Ray Bradbury.) How to tell the difference between a good idea and a brain burp: one comes from the heart, the other from the head. Heartfelt ideas are usually winners, brain burps usually losers. Where do you get your ideas?

It took me a long time to find out the thing I’m going to tell you next: Editors and agents are very likely as confused as you are. They, like the writers you look up to, are floundering just as you are floundering, only at a slightly higher level. More often than not, revision letters give bad advice, but they do serve to tell the author where the problem areas are. I have encountered very few editors who are truly stupid, but also very few who really understand the writing process. So fix the manuscript your own way. Just make sure not to violate the integrity of the book. As for agents – overall, my agents have done tremendously well for me, but sometimes they drop the ball. So writers need to pay attention, because no agent or editor, however well intentioned, is as interested in the writer’s career as the writer is. Plus, these people are not one size fits all. Editors and agents have different ideas of good writing. For one editor, I include lots of “sense of place,” meaning description. For another, I pare the story to the bone. Both editors acquire books that sell sometimes, or not. Both are probably totally confused about the marketplace right now, and so, I dare say, is my very good agent, and so am I.

The last thing I’m going to tell you falls under the category of life conditions of which people say, “It is what it is.” Here’s the clincher: in my experience, sometime along the way, after you master the fundamentals of being a fiction writer, and after you achieve publication, you will reach a point where you find that you are on your own. You’re asking questions for which you can’t find the answers. You speak your needs but people do not understand them. At least that’s been my experience. About the same time I discovered I couldn’t always listen to editors or agents, I realized that other writers couldn’t necessarily give me good advice either. I wanted a group of writing chums like the Inklings, but I found I was on my own. Yet there’s a rather lovely paradox here: because my advice to you would be “Don’t necessarily take anybody’s advice, including mine,” then what I’ve just said may not be true for you. And if “it is what it is” isn’t, wow! Just wow.

Maybe that’s the last thing I should tell you: that “it is what it is” isn’t always.
5 likes ·   •  11 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on February 25, 2015 08:22 • 864 views

February 4, 2015

Back then, when I was a kid, there were rules so important they went unspoken; I learned them just by living. And watching. Once Mom tried a shortcut; she spent some summer evenings creeping around the back yard with a flashlight, catching nightcrawlers to keep on hand for fishing bait. She put them in an old washtub with some dirt. Daytimes she fed them potato peels (Dad was Irish, so we ate lots of potatoes) and coffee grounds. But she left them outside, and the first time it rained, they all drowned.

This made a disgusting mess, and Mom did not try to raise nightcrawlers anymore.

Rule Of Fishing #1: Dig Your Own Worms

Other people bought worms at bait shops, but our family did not spend good money on nonsense. Dad knew where to find proper worms: at the edge of the woods, under the dead leaves. He handled the shovel and I handled the worms. He turned up a big clump of dark earth as I crouched beside it, watching for that glint of worm, that moist squirm. Then, after a tussle, I held in my dirt-caked palm the worm smelling richly of loam and its own secretions. Coiling, in spasms, its tubular flesh flashed dusky, pale, long, short, rigid, slack. It was horrifying and lovely. I was glad to drop it into the Maxwell House coffee can but just as eager to grab the next worm. I could have kept pouncing on worms for hours, but soon Dad said we had enough.

So then I packed the can of worms along with the dented aluminum tackle box and the fishing rods in the back of the station wagon, Mom put the picnic basket in there too, and we all headed for the lake.

First I had to help gather wood. But then, while Dad built the fire and Mom started lunch, I could go fishing. Running down to the boat dock with a rod in one hand and a can of worms in the other, I selected a spot, then crouched to poke at the contents of Maxwell House with one forefinger.

Rule of Fishing #2: Bait Your Own Hook

When I was little my mother or brother would do it for me, but not anymore. I had to bait my hook myself.

Fumbling one worm free of the others, I lifted it, clenched my teeth, closed my eyes, and pinched it in half with my grimy fingernails. Then I had to open my eyes to drop half of it, writhing, back into Maxwell House. The other half writhed, too, and oozed rust-colored fluid, wriggling all over my hands as I struggled to thread it onto my fishhook.

This was not my favorite part, but I did it.

Then I could toss my hook into the lake.

I fished, not in the clear, sunlit water, but in the shadow of the dock. Mystery water I couldn’t see into.

Dad knew where the worms lived, but I knew where the fish lived.

Rule of Fishing #3: Wait

I waited.

I stood very still with my end of the fishing line, just beyond the reel, pinched between my worm-slimed thumb and forefinger. Most people used a bobber on their fishing lines so they could just relax and watch, but my mother did not approve of bobbers. She considered them a form of cheating.

I stood on the dock, and I never thought about whether I was happy or not happy; I just was where I was. Sunshine warmed my skinny shoulders. Across the water came the creak of a rowboat’s rusty oar-locks. At the lake’s edge a swallowtail butterfly sipped moisture from the mud, fanning its yellow-zebra wings. I heard the rowboat, saw the butterfly, smelled wood smoke from Dad’s fire.

And sometime, maybe as I watched a heron stalking along the far shore, sooner or later between my thumb and forefinger I felt a tiny tug, a hint, barely a quiver. Only because I kept hold of my line did I know that, hidden in watery shadows, a fish of some sort was nibbling at my bait.

It could have been anything. A sunfish, a bluegill, a green-and-yellow perch with scarlet belly fins, even an appaloosa-spotted rock bass. But I mustn’t make my move too soon.

Rule of Fishing #4: Wait Some More

I waited.

From the other end of the lake I heard the heron’s choking cry.

I felt another hint of a nibble, then another, then an ever-so-slightly harder tug.

I tugged back.

Peace exploded into excitement. Stretched tight, my line zoomed off at an angle to disappear under the dock. I fought back, because if the fish got to a piling, I’d be left with nothing but a snagged line. Yet I remembered not to pull too hard, or the line would break. I fought the fish the way Mom and Dad sometimes fought, carefully, not wanting to lose but not wanting to hurt anything either. Out from under the dock at last, my line cut the surface of the lake in wild circles, and in the sunlit water I glimpsed my catch -- some sort of sunfish or bluegill, I couldn’t tell exactly which.

I loved not knowing. I played the fish a while longer before I raised my rod to lift it from the water.

Swinging and spiraling at the end of the line, it was a “pumpkinseed” sunny so perfect that the dandelion yellow of its belly brightened its fins too, and wormlines of sky blue ran through the peachy pearl pink greeny orange sunset of its sides.

But now that I had taken the fish was out of the water, there was only a fleeting moment of bliss before responsibility loomed again.

Rule of Fishing #5: Take Care of What You Catch

I had to get that fish off the hook.

By myself.

I was afraid, because the sunfish had raised its back fin into a palisade of spines. But there was no time to be afraid, because there is nothing blissfully lovely about a dead fish. So as my pumpkinseed sunny dangled, I held the fishing line with one hand while I dipped my other hand in the lake water so as not to do harm, then slipped it over the fish from the nose down. I smelled its odor and I felt its slime. I felt its spines flatten under my fingers. I felt the rubbery pop as I muscled the hook out of its lip.

For just another moment I looked at it.

Glassy-black eyes ringed with gold. Silver gill covers pumping. The tiny fingernail-fingernail-fingernail scalloping of its scales. Cinnamon-and-cream colored spots from which it took its name. Yellow yellow yellow on its belly and fins. No butterfly was ever so beautiful as the pumpkinseed sunny I held alive and wet and shining in my hand.

I bent to place it gently back into the water.


Soon we moved away from the lake, and then I was too old to go fishing. My parents followed all the rules: after I turned fifteen, I was supposed to buy the state’s permission to fish, and my family did not spend money on nonsense. While not one of the important, unspoken, and unwritten rules, there it was: No Fishing Without a License.

I began to write.

Same thing, really.

I had to dig up my own worms. I had to capture the squirmy stuff beneath my surface: kindness, meanness, promises, regrets, hopes, grudges, dreams. In my mind I turned over the dark earth of myself to find story bait.

Slippery things are hard to hold. There was always a struggle that took some time.

But then I could toss my line into the mystery.

And this is the line: “Once upon a time in a hidden world strange creatures lurked, foul in a way and sometimes dangerous -- but oh, so beautiful.”
4 likes ·   •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on February 04, 2015 07:15 • 539 views

January 3, 2015

Oyez, oyez, a bunch of novels of mine are back digitally! Open Road Media recently went live with them, half YA, half mass market fantasy. And regarding the YA novels, they requested the usual information: describe the book, the characters, how you got the idea, any backstory behind the title of the book or why it was written – aaaaak, for so many books? As the task was so daunting, I cheated. I tried to group the books. At first I just wrote about the horse books. But then this came up:

When my kids were in high school, one of their classmates was riding a four-wheeler along a trail when he hit a cable strung at neck height; it crushed his windpipe and killed him instantly. The cruel person who hung the cable was never caught. This incident traumatized me to my core and haunted me so much that it took two books, years apart, to exorcise it.

One was SKY RIDER, in which the dead boy reappears as an angry ghost to care for a horse that is about to be euthanized. Dusty, the girl who owns the horse,can no longer ride because of a painful back injury she sustained when her alcoholic father was driving drunk. She, her father, and the boy Skye all require healing.

The other book is TOUGHING IT. In the first draft, Tuff and his brother Dillon are riding their dirt bike up a mountain trail; Dillon is killed by the cable. For plot reasons, I later changed the cable to a gun trap. This book, again, is about grief and the healing process. And a river. The river goes on flowing.

So I ended up grouping by trauma. Another mystery book of mine, BLOOD TRAIL, is based on a truly horrific murder that stunned my community. A teen boy killed his brother with a knife, as was made all too evident by the blood trail throughout the house. I needed to exorcise the crime from my mind, and also to address the small-town reactions of denial, disbelief and incomprehension. The story is told from the point of view of Jeremy, the murdered teen’s best friend. The mystery is not who did it, but why, and it is a question without any satisfactory answer. Again, there is a river, and it goes on flowing.

And yet another trauma: SEPARATE SISTERS was written as my way of dealing with the problems of a messed up family I knew. One girl lived with her father and was a total rebel. I met her through horseback riding. She wore black skinny jeans, black paddock boots, a black Desperado hat and an austere long-sleeved shirt, sometimes with a tie, all year long, no matter how hot the weather got. I would give her rides home when she ran away from school, and she became just about the only groupie I’ve ever had. Her father would bring her to my book signings, and she would sit with me behind the table to keep me company. For hours. Her sister and mother I met at musical events at the high school; the other sister took singing lessons, wore dresses, was popular and lived with her mom. My groupie, the rebel girl who lived with her father, despised both her sister and her mother. I liked everyone in the divided family, and I wanted so badly for this family to heal that I wrote a book about an artistic sister and a brainy sister, similarly divided, who finally bridge the gap.

But the most influential trauma started way back when I was an intelligent, obedient kid who was bullied. Ever since then I have been daydreaming about a dark hero who is a poet, a musician, a visionary, and who is terribly wronged. This figure appears repeatedly in my fantasy novels for adults, but also he is Nico, the rock star betrayed by his fellow lead singer and best friend, in THE FRIENDSHIP SONG, a contemporary fantasy novel for middle-grade children. And he is Kamo in SECRET STAR, a YA novel I can’t quite call realistic because there’s so much mysticism, music and heart in it. SECRET STAR is told from the viewpoint of Tess, a teen girl who live in rural poverty, wears old jeans and Red Wing work boots, and is such a misfit she is physically endangered. This is a gritty, tough, yet lyrical book. THE FRIENDSHIP SONG's protagonist is Harper, a girl whose dad is about to marry a weird woman named Gus, who does folk art and plays a twelve-string guitar with magical qualities. Harper and her friend Rawnie worship the group Neon Shadow, and when dark, handsome Nico falls ill to the point of death, the girls venture down a twelve-string tunnel to rock&roll hades in order to save him.


I discovered that, out of all the YA books just published, there were only a few that didn’t evolve out of some sort of personal trauma in my life. Those few include DUSSSIE, my pubescent-Medusa fantasy, and POSSESSING JESSIE, horror, and LOOKING FOR JAMIE BRIDGER, Edgar-winning mystery.

Open Road Media also released about an equal number of my fantasy titles for adults. I wonder: might they, also, sort themselves into groups by trauma? Stay tuned.
5 likes ·   •  6 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on January 03, 2015 08:17 • 568 views • Tags: bullying, fantasy, horse-books, mystery, open-road-media, rock-roll, young-adult

December 5, 2014

I shouldn’t speak for writers in general, even though I have a gut feeling that many others are as uncool as I am. But it’s only fair that I should speak just for myself.

That said, how uncool can I be?

Well, I don’t care about fashion or home decorating or entertaining. Or not in the same way many other people do. So when they’re talking about the upcoming holidays, party ideas for Thanksgiving or Christmas, maybe an Ugly Sweater fest, recipes to try, maybe a Polynesian style tree, I’m likely to say something like, “This year I really want to do a Fishmas tree, you know, with those red-and white plastic bobbers instead of balls, and bass lures for ornaments. They’re very colorful, and you can just hang them up by the hooks that are already on them, or string them into chains. But I wonder what I should put on top?”

Blank silence. No helpful suggestions. Maybe this thought should have been saved for a book, but I can’t tell, because being a writer isn’t just what I do; it’s who I am = uncool. Lately I’ve been studying one of those circle diagrams (I love circles! I collect circular objects like bottle caps, Slinkies, Hoberman balls – oops, sorry, I’ll shut up now.) Ahem. I’ve been studying one of those overlapping circle diagrams representing set theory, the Venn Nerd diagram, to try to figure out whether I am more of a dork, a dweeb, or a geek, Nerd being the given. I think I have more social ineptitude and intelligence than obsession, indicating that I qualify as a dweeb, but I personally have always felt more like some kind of cognitive alien tending to hide under sofas with antennae prodruding, not a cockroach but perhaps a dwerk? I think I will stick with that. Dwerk.

And what I do as a writer = dwerk is become interested in the wrong, uncool things, or at least in things that are inimical to a normal conversation or social eptitude in any form. Right now I’m fascinated by chickens, every aspect of them from their freakishy strong horny scaly feet to their fluffy backsides to their soft, fleshy combs and wattles just begging for lipstick – I mean wattlestick, because chickens don’t have lips. I marvel at how accurately full-grown hens can look, and sound, and indeed sing, like Victorian ladies in the era of massive bustles. I listen with fascination to the full-bosomed paean that announces the daily egg. I have recently learn that chickens poop their eggs, so I muse about old-fashioned values including regularity. I ponder what can possibly be the purpose of double-yolkers, those stretch limos of eggdom? I see a hen jump straight up in the air two chickens high to snag an insect on the wing. I realize that hens can do amazing things. They can run really fast on their yellow scaly legs. They are related to reptiles. They poop eggs; did I mention that? That’s one of my favorite words, “egg,’’ ovoid and compact and very old English. . .okay, I’ll stop babbling.

How does being a writer make me uncool; let me count the ways. I explore tree trunks for cicada husks, even in the city, where I also mine the gutters for circular treasure and gawk up at buildings with gargoyles or carvings of naked persons. Social gatherings wear me out, so I have been known to hide under tables and nap on the floor. When awake, I will abruptly cease talking to you in order to jot something on my hand if I don’t have paper, some important thought such as, “Who names colors? Why ‘mauve’?”

Also, what I am wearing to the social gathering will be what people euphemistically call “comfortable.” I’m still wearing some of my daughter’s hand-me-down clothes from her high school days. (She’s in her thirties now.) Aside from mom jeans and a twenty-year-old top, I’m likely to be wearing sensible shoes along with socks depicting horsies or kitties or duckies. If ducks, they will have colorful umbrellas.

I know there are plenty of women besides me who don’t give a rat’s sphincter about fashion trends, so how does this apply to my being a writer? Well, it’s part of the larger pattern, which is that, in order to be effective=original as a writer, I have to think differently than most other people. So if being cool is being “with it,” meaning in step with popular culture, I so am not. Most news events are not events to me. My kind of event is, “Hey, I saw four lizards in the kitchen window this morning!”

Blank silence.

“Hey, have you ever heard of Fibonacci numbers? Look, you gotta do this on graph paper. See, it’s a square plus a rectangle makes another rectangle plus a square makes another rectangle and it just keeps growing and if you graph it the whole thing makes a perfect expanding spiral like a nautilus shell or a hurricane or a galaxy and I can’t believe I never realized before but it’s the same thing as the Golden Ratio over and over like in a hall of mirrors or in one of those paintings like Steven Colbert has, you know?”

How cool is it to be uncool?

6 likes ·   •  3 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on December 05, 2014 07:25 • 440 views • Tags: bass-lures, fibonacci-numbers, golden-ratio, steven-colbert, writers

October 26, 2014


When I was thirteen, my mother gave up her studio and her art career to help my father make a new start. We moved to a rural area south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to run a small motel. This kept everybody busy.

A few years later, though, Mom set up her easel and a large canvas at the back window and undertook an oil painting of the fields and hills. She told me that she had always liked green too much and depended on it, so she wanted to do a landscape without using any.

As a young writer, I consciously tried new ways to use point of view. Later, I thought I depended too much on dialogue, so I gave myself an assignment to write a short story without it. I made my main character mute. The result was “The Boy Who Plaited Manes,” the most honored and anthologized of all my short stories. Later, I challenged myself to write a novel for kids who did not like to read. I ended up with TOUGHING IT, an Edgar winner.

As it was autumn, with russet and gold tones dominating the landscape, Mom’s no-green challange was not too difficult. She focused on the corn shocks just beyond the barbed wire fence. Yes, back then there really were corn shocks, those teepee-like symbols of harvest that have since gone the way of haystacks. Mom loved them. She also loved the round-topped (Gettysburg!) hills in the distance. But in the middle distance, between corn shocks and hills, what Mom painted, while evocative of rural Pennsylvania, was not the same as what she saw out the window. Instead, she selected aspects of it to form a pleasing composition.

The yin and yang of writing are detail and structure. All day every day we experience, observe, and remember details upon details to use in our writing. But when it comes to actually writing, we must select from our stash of memories for the sake of a pleasing composition, a book structure that works. In the words of a Bob Seger song, “what to put in, what to put out?” Should Mom have painted the electric lines running alongside the farm lane? No. It’s best to focus and build on the details we love (the corn shocks!) and leave out anything that doesn’t “go with.” Sometimes we writers must even leave out details we love, saving them for another book.

Mom included some cedar trees in her composition, and very nicely she did them, too, with sunbeams lancing between them – but hey, aren’t cedar trees green? Yes, but obeying her self-imposed no-green rule, in order to give the impression of green she mixed ochre and navy blue on her brush as she painted the cedar trees.

Your editor wants you to include more description in a scene. Your concept of good writing does not tolerate dollops of description, but you know that you must do something with the scene, because if the editor senses a problem, there IS a problem. So you figure out what it really is and how to deal with it. You don’t add description, but you focus on sense of place and you speed up the pacing. Your editor is delighted. You have mixed ochre and navy blue, but your editor sees what s/he wanted: green.

As I recall, there were some interestingly scraggly, wind-beaten, lopsided trees in the field beyond the corn shocks, but to my disappointment, Mom chose to paint her own trees, well-behaved trees, lollipop trees as simple and upright as her worldview.

I find it interesting to study graphology, both handwriting and pictures. When asked to draw a tree, I draw a thick, knotty, scarred and convoluted bole with bulging, grasping roots but only a suggestion of the existence leaves up above, somewhere off the picture. This way of drawing a tree, I am told, means I am all about emotions. Surely this is a good thing for a writer. My mother was just the opposite; she was all about “nice.” She wanted to paint nice trees, not twisty trees. Quite rightly so; rampaging trees would have detracted from her focal point. Her painting is about the corn shocks and the view, not eccentric, individualistic trees. Also, her tree trunks resonate with the nicely detailed posts of the barbed wire fence in the foreground.

A few days after she said she was finished, Mom changed her mind and decided the painting needed a rustic red building along the lane, so she put one in. I thought (to myself only) that it ruined the painting. It looked like a shed, but if it was a shed, then the lollipop trees were the size of rose bushes; the proportions were all out of whack. I think Mom saw this and tried to make her shed into a barn by putting an impossibly huge and heavy door on it, although there was no room for hay inside. Besides, the barns in our area were bank barns, with their big double door on the uphill side. No proper barn looked like Mom’s painted effigy. So what was that red thing, a sharn? I wished Mom had let her painting alone.

Mom always told me that the test of a true artist is knowing when to stop. I thought in this case she failed, but now I see the problem was just that she was in a hurry and didn’t think. She knew what a real barn looked like, or a shed.

Recently I was writing about a character crossing the British Channel on a ferry. I researched to find out exactly what such a ferry looked like, even though my time and effort contributed only one line to the book. I’ve concluded that Mom’s shed would have been an excellent red accent if she’d taken a her time to get it right.

My first editor told me that the worst failures in creative writing were not failures of technique; they were failures of imagination. In the haste of afterthought, Mom failed to completely imagine her red building.

Mom took weeks to do this oil painting. It’s an impressive accomplishment and a very attractive work of art. I’m probably the only person in the world who ever found fault with the commonplace trees and the red shed/barn. And now, the justice of the universe being what it is, I am turning into nearly a clone of my mother. Criticizing her, I criticized my future self.

Take comfort in this: unless you happen to have a daughter like me, just about no one, anywhere, is as critical of your writing as you yourself are.
4 likes ·   •  2 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on October 26, 2014 10:04 • 409 views • Tags: creativie-writing, helen-w-connor, oil-painting

Last Seen Wandering Vaguely

Nancy Springer
Befuddlements of a professional fiction writer
Follow Nancy Springer's blog with rss.