Monday, February 25, 2013

Literary Sightseeing: Sherlock Holmes

"A thick, black cloud swirled before my eyes, and my mind told me that in this cloud, unseen as yet, but about to spring out upon my appalled senses, lurked all that was vaguely horrible, all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe. Vague shapes swirled and swam amid the dark cloud-bank, each a menace and a warning of something coming, the advent of some unspeakable dweller upon the threshold, whose very shadow would blast my soul." ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot"


Though Benedict Cumberbatch is running a close second, and Martin Freeman is by far my Watson, Jeremy Brett is my Sherlock just as David Tennant is my Doctor.

Whoever plays the role on screen, it's the wit and oddness of Holmes that I find highly entertaining, which led me to visit the somewhat cheesy but charming Sherlock Holmes Museum on a trip to London last year. The first floor is set up like Holmes and Watson are living there and have just gone out on a case. The rest of the rooms are set up to depict key scenes from some of the adventures. When I was there, the tour was self-guided, but people in period dress were around to guard the stuff and answer any questions. On the ground floor next to the museum entrance is a gift shop with everything a good tourist could want.

So though I was jet lagged and, unbeknownst to me, on the verge of serious illness, I put on my boots, forced myself out into the gray cold of a March morning, and made my way to Baker Street. Here are some of the resulting pictures.

An obvious clue you're on the right track outside the Baker Street tube stop

Door to the museum

Entrance to the shop

Official English Heritage blue plaque

A warm study on the first floor filled with Holmes and Watson memorabilia

Holmes' chemistry stuff

A memorable image from "The Musgrave Ritual"

Holmes' the fire is probably not the best place...

From "The Hound of the Baskervilles"

Should have the official title: Mrs Hudson the Long-suffering

The bad guy getting it in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band"

From "A Scandal in Bohemia"

The man himself

A man copying the encyclopedia, from "The Red-Headed League"

Professor Moriarty

Fan mail

Gift shop goods

My souvenir


"To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name." ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia"

"Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another." ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band"

"And now, Doctor, we've done our work, so it's time we had some play. A sandwich and a cup of coffee, and then off to violin-land, where all is sweetness and delicacy and harmony, and there are no red-headed clients to vex us with their conundrums." ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Red-Headed League"

"'Yes,' said I, 'I have taken to living by my wits.'" Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Musgrave Ritual"

"I think that I may go so far as to say, Watson, that I have not lived wholly in vain," he remarked. "If my record were closed to-night I could still survey it with equanimity. The air of London is the sweeter for my presence." Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Final Problem"

"Now is the dramatic moment of fate, Watson, when you hear a step upon the stair which is walking into your life, and you know not whether for good or ill."Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Hound of the Baskervilles"

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Switching gears

It's the longest, coldest night of 1982, and Rose has just been born without a scream or a whimper. She's the protagonist of my latest writing project, a fictional novel intended for grown-ups. By that, I simply mean children will, for the most part, find it difficult to connect with. Though it could never be as beautiful, clever, or poignant, the project is inspired by some of my favorite stories, like Kenneth Grahame's The Golden Age and Dream Days and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

This recent change of audience is due to my getting into a writing rut, something surely every writer does once in a while. So far, the project is progressing smoothly. The outline is complete with notes and chapter titles. Character sketches are piling up. The first scenes are written. The ever important first line is on the page. All this in a couple days, and I guess I'm not surprised. After all, I write blogs for you all year long, and you're adults. Writing for grown-ups comes naturally; it's where I began before trying kid lit. I went with children's literature in the end because of this, and I'll continue to try for the very same reasons. But truth be told, writing for children is much harder work for me. It's time I took a break. The hope is that this new path, even if temporary, will rebuild some artistic confidence I've lost in trying so long to do something that's difficult for me and will end in a piece that will be seen by more than me, my hubby, my cats, and my beagle.

The new novel is to be complete in time for a short course on fiction I'll be taking in the fall. I've chosen this particular course partly to revitalize my storytelling and partly to satisfy my wanderlust. So's not to go in empty-handed, I'm writing this new tale to take along and hopefully hone. That gives me right at six months to complete at least a second draft, which is plenty of time. So wish me luck and lots of strong days of writing and endless brilliant insights, or at least blow some creative pixie dust my way as I step back into the known and away, for a moment, from the hoped for.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Burns Night 2013

On the night before our Burns Supper this year, we started the vegetarian cock-a-leekie soup so the seasonings could merge for a day and get really yummy.

The next day was particularly beautiful, so we decided to take a bike ride before the big meal. I'd finally gotten brave enough to go along on the scary busy roads to a quiet neighborhood Jonathan likes to ride in, and all was going well till we went down a multi-use path to go home. I was simply going too fast when I tried to get around a grizzly bear sized jogger who stepped into my path just as I reached him. Crash-bang-boom, we were in the road but thankfully not beneath the tires of any oncoming traffic. He was addled but fine, as any bear would be, but my arm was bent in ways arms shouldn't bend.

The rest of the day was a cloud of pain, mostly spent in the emergency room. After strange and unusual treatments there...

...I was sent home with an ill-fitting splint, lots of drugs, and an order to call the surgeon on Monday.

Waiting till Monday was not very fun. My fingers started to look like sausages.

And I was forced to stay very still or else puke up my orange juice. I quickly learned what I can and cannot do with one hand, which resulted in my hair-growing-out project getting cut short and my learning that I can put on a bra, if needed, with one good arm.

Monday finally came, and the surgeon was very nice and gave me a fresh cast in a pretty baby blue. I went through an entire childhood waiting for a cast to draw on. Now I had one!

Unfortunately, I also had four breaks in my arm right where it met the wrist. Surgery was imminent.

The next several days were spent feeling not bad at all. The pain was suppressed by ibuprofen alone, I was able to take a walk and stay awake most of the day, and I was even making elaborate lesson plans (typing one-handed takes a while) for a substitute teacher to take my class during surgery week. That's when we decided we should do our Burns Supper, a week late, while I was feeling pretty good, since it might be a while till that happened again.

Jonathan did almost everything. The meal takes hours to prepare, even without a traditional haggis, though let it be said we had the most traditional haggis we've had yet. There was the vegetarian cock-a-leekie soup to prepare (again), there were the neeps and tatties, and a meat haggis, and a vegetarian haggis, and most important of all, sticky toffee pudding. My main job was to model my new kilt and do dessert the best I could.

Though it doesn't look like much, the vegetarian haggis was delicious. Here's the recipe. Don't snub it till you've tried it! It's basically a really involved Thanksgiving-style stuffing.

And Jonathan says the meaty haggis wasn't bad either, a bit like liver.

The Bowmore didn't disappoint.

And dessert was as good as ever.

A good time was had by all.

That gave me positive feelings going into surgery two days later. But I still cried when they put in the IV.

The operation ended up involving more metal than expected plus bone matter from two donors and a cast (plain old white) that'll stay on for six weeks. For the first few days after, I looked like this...

...and dreamt I was a forgetful ghost. But as you can see, all the pets were rooting for me.

Surgery was only five days ago, and time has gone by surprisingly quickly. I've cut way back on the pain medication (I hate taking those pills), and I just took a walk with Jonathan and Harvey and had hardly any pain at all. Tomorrow I see the doctor, and hopefully Tuesday get back to the classroom where I belong.

It could have been much worse, this whole thing. But it wasn't. And I've had a good nurse who took off nearly a week from work to keep me from stumbling about too much whilst medicated. In the end, I'm thankful. Why shouldn't I be? But I do hope the events surrounding Burns Night next year are a bit less dramatic :)


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Britt on playwriting

I met Britt Kauffman at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville, North Carolina, September 2010. Aside from the festival being in a quaint town center surrounded by mountains and the author talks taking place in lovely quirky shops, what was really great about the event was the promotion of local writers with the kind of respect they were due.

I haven't been able to go to the festival since, but Britt and I have kept in touch. I knew her originally as a poet, but have since learned to see her as a playwright, a mother, a wife, a strong mountain woman, and a deeply convicted artist. Thanks, Britt, for your willingness to be a One Question Interview interviewee.

My one question for Britt was this: How is the process of writing for the stage different from (and the same as) your other creative writing pursuits? Here's her answer.


When first posed with the question of how do I approach writing poetry differently than writing a play, I struggled not to elaborate on the obvious. Well, one is short and it takes less time and far less sustained thought. Honestly, though, that’s how it bore out in my life. (Pun intended. You’ll see.) I had three kids in two years (a singleton, then twins) and while they were young, I could only think as long as a poem. It was the year my twins started kindergarten that I finally had the gumption to tackle something as long as a play. But again--obvious, and I so desperately wanted to say something worthwhile in this blog post. After much mulling, I finally hit upon two major differences that might possibly be interesting to other writers: voice and research.

One of the elements of being a poet is finding “your voice.” As nebulous as that sounds, there is a constant probing to discover that subject matter or style, that perspective a poet brings to seeing and interpreting the life they experience. Maybe it’s a particular lexicon, a way of using words in unexpected ways, bizarre line breaks and indentations… whatever it is, a poet works and hones that essence of poetic voice. Just like a contestant on Project Runway, a poet strives for innovation, meeting the challenge, but still with an aesthetic that is distinctly their own. Each poem is a flash of insight, filtered through his lens on this world, transcribed through his voice for the rest of the world—that they might now understand the world in a new way, see a connection they might otherwise have missed. Compiling a chapbook then becomes the task not of expanding the voice, but focusing it by writing or assembling poems to intensify that personal voice.

Not so for playwriting.

One of the biggest signs of a new (or poor) playwright is that all the characters sound the same – have the same voice. Each character must have her own distinct voice, lexicon, way of expressing herself, verbal tics and they must be recognizably different. For example, Martha (in my first play) was a gossip, so every time she spoke, she went on and on. Louisa Mae only spoke in questions. Loretta spoke in one sentence dry declarations. My voice, as a writer, could really only be present in one character in order to make the play convincing. Further, have you ever sat and listened to a poetry reading? Listening to poetry is a taxing task—the language is loaded, dense, and there are so many potential meanings. Yes, poetry is meant to be heard aloud, but it resonates with us so much more if we can take the time to ponder it. If I wrote a 2 hour play like that, I would be asking a lot of my audience—and forget taking my kids. Also, people just don’t speak that way, and if I used my poetic voice in playwriting, the character interactions would hardly be believable.

Here, in your heads, you bring up Shakespeare as a counter argument… and well, good for him that he could write so well. I’m no Shakespeare.
The other major difference for me is research. When I write poems, they come from a moment of insight, or an indelible image. The books and articles I read influence my poetry yes, but rarely do I set out to do research to write a poem. (I know several poets who have done this – Pat Riviere Seel for her chapbook The Serial Killer’s Daughter and Holly Iglesias for her chapbook Souvenirs of a Shrunken World.) Obviously it can be done, but it’s not a part of my process. For my plays, however, I do research. For the first, I dug into history books to learn more about the Battle of Burnsville and the women’s raid on the Confederate storehouse during the Civil War. For the second, I spent a lot of time scribbling down on a legal pad the inane things my husband (and other men) yelled at the TV during NFL games. And now, for the play I should be plotting currently, I realize I need to study neurology, singularity and how self-perception is formed. Ooof. Clearly my playwright voice is not one that favors a particular subject matter.
In writing this blog post, I have come to ponder where my “voice” is in my plays (especially because they’ve been comedies and I’m not a particularly funny person). Does one character in each play embody my voice? or Do I dismiss my voice entirely? If anything, I suppose I’ve put my voice in the subtext of the plays and that, somehow, seems fitting for a poet.

from An Uncivil Union:  The Battle of Burnsville

from Between the Tackles