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Blogging By the Sea
Tuesday, February 28 2017

It’s human nature to become comfortable with what we know and what we surround ourselves with. My mom, bless her, never wanted anything to change. As a kid growing up that used to frustrate me. I was eager to explore new places and do new things. I’ve never really outgrown that, but I’ve begun to appreciate where my mother was coming from, too. I especially feel that way about technology. I was born long before computers were even created, never mind becoming an important part of all our lives. So, technology is a challenge for me. My husband bought our first Apple computer. At work I learned to use MS DOS – God help me, if I had to go back to that blank blue screen and remember all the commands I’d need to make something appear now, I’d be lost. So, maybe Windows was a good thing for all the complaining folk did. And, since I operate on a Mac, I love OS X and the endless menus. We no longer have to memorize the commands. We can just fish around reading menus until what we are looking for appears. But I still find myself groaning when an app on my phone gets updated and something I knew how to do disappears. Then I have to learn all over again.

But just as the constant changes in technology bring good things along with the challenges, so does the world around us. When Eisenhower’s new Interstate Highway system got underway there was a lot of grumbling about the land the government had to take back, and then there was learning how to use it. My grandfather never did absorb the need to get up to speed on the entrance ramp and scared the bejeezus out of me when he stopped before entering the highway. But once we altered our behavior, and our expectations, the system became a part of our environment we now take for granted. All 47,000 plus miles of it. We like our little town just the way it’s always been, why do we need a parking garage? But once it’s built we wonder how we ever coped with hunting for illusive curbside spots.

I moved into my little bungalow by the sea here in St Augustine just a month after back to back nor’easters pummeled the dunes on our beach. The waves breached the dunes and pushed into the Summerhaven river. Once breached more sand was pushed into the river on every high tide, eventually clogging the river. Wading birds and fish went elsewhere. Kayaking and oyster harvesting ceased. That change was not welcomed by those who’d lived here for years and they spent the next several years lobbying to have the river rehabilitated and the dunes rebuilt. They were up against the crew that felt Mother Nature should be left alone to do what she wants. No matter who won that argument, someone was not going to be happy. In the meantime, new to the area, I just enjoyed being able to walk onto the beach every day. Well, the restore-the-river folk won in the end and now it’s changing all over again.

The dunes are growing again and every day it’s a new challenge to figure out how to get onto the beach. I have no idea what it will look like when they’re done. Maybe that access to the beach will disappear. Scrambling down over high dunes is pretty easy, but climbing back up might be impossible. A man I only ever knew as John used to ride his bike down to the little cove and perch on the rocks above the beach to read. I’m not sure where he’d sit today as that beach is now ten feet under the new dune. I’m sure the ocean itself will have a lot to say about the final disposition of all those tons of sand, but like it or not, change is happening.

But I’ve decided to welcome the change. Not that I can stop it, but let’s be positive. At the moment, some enterprising folks salvaged some of the flotsam from Hurricane Matthew and built a new stairway with a railing at the other end of my road. I can always visit the beach there – at least until the next big storm moves those rocks and destroys the stairway. So, just like being willing to try out a smart phone and discovering it’s the best little gadget I’ve ever owned, perhaps the new access to the beach over the dunes will turn out to be awesome, too. 

I had grown comfortable with the way it was before, but I just might love the changes even better. So, unlike my mom, I’m going to welcome changes in my life and rise to the challenge. After all, don’t they claim that challenging yourself is a way to keep your brain young?  

Posted by: Skye Taylor AT 03:08 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Saturday, February 18 2017

The Round Robin topic for February: Description. What is your saturation point? What is not enough? How do you decide what to include and when to hold back to allow the reader to fill in the blanks? Do you ever skim description when reading a book? If so, what description are you most likely to skip? 

Wow! This is an interesting topic and I can’t wait to read all these other authors’ take on the subject. It’s a hard question to answer, not just here for this Round Robin Blog, but every time I write a book.

Just the right amount of description puts you right there in the scene, feeling the soft breeze of a moonlit night on the beach or the damp chill of a winter rain, hearing the rattle of keys dropped on a glass topped table, or the startling rustle of something unexpected moving behind you, smelling the choking pall of heavy smoke, or the enticing whiff of man’s cologne. Details are important for setting the scene and the mood. They also give the reader their first mental image of a character. Well used, they tell more than a character’s physical appearance or beauty. A man might have the physique of someone who worked and played hard. Or a woman might be the kind that turns a man’s head, but demands a no-nonsense attitude. I like that kind of description because it tells me more about the character than the details of their physical appearance and allows me to flesh them out to suit my vision of how they should look. A good story needs descriptive narrative otherwise it would come across like a police report. Consider the difference between ‘He picked up the phone and called her.’ With ‘His hand hovered over the receiver. He really didn’t want to talk to her just now. He sighed and picked up the phone.’ Obviously a lot more words, but also a lot more information than just the simple action of calling someone on the phone. Description can be packed into dialog as well. As in “get your clammy hands off me.” or “What’s not to like? She’s soft in all the right places and very willing.” And in action: If he scrambled down the embankment and into the culvert soaking his shoes, you know he wasn’t walking casually and there was water in the culvert without it actually being said. But description can be overdone, as well.

Once upon a time, I read a lot of Regency Romance, but as much as I loved the era, I got tired of reading detailed descriptions of how the heroine was dressed. I had no need to know if the dress had three flounces around the hem, or an apron of creamy satin or what kind of lace graced the neckline. Nor did I want a detailed outline of the hero’s smallclothes and that he was a master at tying a waterfall cravat. Perhaps that’s a key component of that genre – if so, that’s probably why I’ve stopped reading them.  And I confess to skipping descriptive narrative that’s either too much or seems irrelevant. Years ago, when Outlander first came out, I devoured the book, read it several times, including all the descriptive stuff. But with each succeeding book, Diana Gabaldon has gone into more elaborate detail about things that have no impact on the plot or the characters. By book three I was skipping whole sections of her endless detail. By book five I stopped reading them at all, and that’s saying something for a reader who fell completely in love with Jamie Fraser and couldn’t get enough at the start.

I still enjoy romance – who doesn’t love a good love story! But today I read a far wider variety of genres, including action, adventure and stories with a patriotic or military theme. But even here, my eyes begin to glaze over when the author, either because they are in love with the paraphernalia, or because they’ve done a ton of research and just can’t bear to leave out any of the details they’ve so carefully researched. I want the story – the action – the characters either doing or surviving. I’d like to know they are adequately armed and have the latest in technology, that they are savvy about using the internet, or not, if they are well trained and physically fit, but I don’t need the minutiae. Consider Randy Wayne Wright’s Doc Ford series. We all know Ford was once a covert operator and now he’s a marine biologist, but Wright doesn’t bore me with detailed descriptions of the things Ford does in his lab or in endless backstory about his shadowy past. He just fills the pages with colorful characters, a setting that makes me want to go to Sanibel and tells an engaging story that draws the reader in.

I think there are some details the reader does need to know. It might be important that a man is wearing cargo shorts rather than a suit or a uniform. Adding that they are faded and frayed might say something else about the character or the situation. If a character is wearing all black, including a balaclava that also tells you something about what he might be up to. And a heroine with 4 inch heels and a briefcase paints a definite picture. If the hero is in a gunfight, knowing he’s only got a handgun with an 8 round magazine and the villain is armed with an AK-47 that definitely sets the scene and puts the reader on the edge of their seat. But do we have to read the sales brochure or the military procurement description of the gun to get that picture? Or know where the heroine shops? Likewise, if a detective is entering a building that might have clues, a hostage, or a bad guy, details like suspicious noises, loss of electric power, too many places to hide, or shadows sets a compelling scene, but you don’t have to be offered a detailed floor plan or a lengthy discussion on the reason for the power outage. So, like I said, it’s a balancing act. How much to include, how much to leave out?

As an author, I sometimes leave out important details. I might assume a general knowledge of things that the average person perhaps does not have. Or I know my character’s backstory so well and in my eagerness to get to the action, I forget there are details of that backstory the reader needs to know to understand the character’s motivation. My upcoming release, Iain’s Plaid, is set during the months leading up to the start of the Revolutionary War. I admit it’s one of my favorite periods in American History, and I know a lot more about it than most people do, but I’m still surprised to discover that the only thing from that moment in history that most people are aware of is the Boston Tea Party, or the vague notion that it was all about taxes. My editor, God bless her, pointed out to me all the places her lack of knowledge left her wondering why my hero was doing what he was doing. Or what was going on historically. I had to find ways to weave that knowledge into the story without it sounding like a history lesson.

Sometimes leaving out detailed description allows the reader to imagine the world in their own mind. Whatever things an individual reader might feel is heroic or compelling can be attributed to the hero or heroine of the story if they aren’t described in intimate detail, and the reader will be naturally partial to him or her just because of that very personal bias. There are some characteristics that are critical to the story, or the motivations behind the hero or heroine’s actions, but a lot of other stuff can be left to the readers’ imaginations. The same goes for the worlds they live in. Include the details that drive the story or impact the outcome, leave out the stuff that doesn’t influence the story or the characters in any meaningful way. Often those details are things the author likes but the story doesn’t really need.

It also depends on what effect the author is going for. Leonard B. Scott wrote a book called The Hill. Set during the Vietnam War, his hero was a native American who had grown up loving the hills of his birth and Scott lets you into that love and respect before he drops the hero into the chaos of war and puts him on a hill that the US Army is determined to take regardless of the cost. But the added drama for that story was the Vietnamese general who loved the hill of his birthland. The very hill the Americans were determined to take. A hill the Viet Cong had riddled with tunnels and defenses. Seeing that battle from both points of view added a whole other layer of suspense and tragedy. The way that story was told let the reader into the hearts and souls of men from both sides of that bitter struggle and had a very different impact than had one only seen it from the American’s point of view. Sometimes an author wants the reader to be as surprised by the actions of the antagonist as the protagonist is, so you won’t know those details from the other side of the story. Personally, I think it adds to the suspense if you know something the protagonist doesn’t know, but the Perry Mason stories and the Sherlock Holmes mysteries are classic examples of the reader being as much in the dark as everyone else in the story other than Mason and Holmes until the final reveal. And those stories are classics.

I guess the bottom line for authors is to understand the impact you want your story to have, then find skillful ways of including the details that must be there to create that effect, while avoiding info dump and long narrative passages of back story that the reader doesn’t need to know and might get bored with. One axiom of writing I’ve heard a lot regarding whose point of view to be in is, “who has the most to lose?” That’s because being inside the head of the character with the most to lose gives the reader a chance to know more details about the stakes. An author needs to keep that in mind when deciding what descriptive information to include and what to leave out. What are the stakes? If the reader doesn’t know this detail, will it change his expectations? Conversely, if this detail makes no difference to the outcome, why is it there in the first place? If Diana Gabaldon had asked herself that question and realized it was just her fascination with all that deep research that compelled her to include way too much detail and kept her books to 300 or 400 pages instead of a thousand, I might still be reading her books.

Which leads to my last observation for authors. KNOW YOUR READERS. Obviously given Gabaldon’s over the top success, most of her readers either love that kind of detail or are willing to bear with her. W.E.B. Griffin’s readers are similarly enthralled with his endless recital about arms, procedure, backstory and places. On the other side of the road are those who prefer the straight-forward Jack Reacher. It doesn’t get much simpler than carrying a toothbrush in his pocket and having no home or cell phone. Lee Child includes just enough detail about Jack so I knew the caliber of the man, his stature and military background, but the rest was up to my imagination as the plots unfolded, and when Tom Cruise was cast as Reacher for the movies, I was appalled. Arrogant, short and self-centered, Cruise couldn’t possibly live up to the larger-than-life man I had imbedded in my psyche. I probably would have been equally appalled if John Wayne had been cast as James Bond, but then, Ian Flemming had already endowed Bond with a fairly well fleshed out description.

So, now that you’ve borne with my ramblings on the topic, hop on over and check out what these authors have to say on the subject.

Marci Baun
Beverley Bateman
Anne Stenhouse
Dr. Bob Rich 
A.J. Maguire
Rachael Kosinski
Diane Bator 
Rhobin Courtright

Posted by: Skye Taylor AT 12:01 am   |  Permalink   |  7 Comments  |  Email
Wednesday, February 08 2017

Have Americans always been this uncivil to each other over the subject of politics?

In 2016 as the candidates began jockeying for supremacy within their own parties and laying the foundation for future attacks on the other party, Washington Post pundit, Dana Milbank, attributed the ugliness to the growing polarization of both parties. But then he added that the Republican Party had gone bonkers, throwing yet more fuel on the flames of partisan politics. When was the last time any of us had a civil conversation about how our government works or doesn’t with someone whose views are different than our own?

History seems refute the idea that today’s incivility is anything new or even that it has grown worse. In ancient Greece where democracy was born, politicians were rough, insulting and vulgar, including degrading sexual attacks. In the early days of our own democracy, as George Washington prepared to step down, opposing factions began their attacks in much the same manner. John Adams was referred to by opposing parties as “His Rotundity” mocking both his girth and his alleged aristocratic pretensions. The Federalists responded by calling the other party “a horrible sink of treason,” or an “odious conclave of tumult.” Surely more flowery language than we use today, but no less insulting and hateful. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was referred to as “the Missing Link.” But then the incivility became physical when Representative, Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor so severely with a cane that it took three years for Sumner to fully recover. While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump did not strike each other physically, the same cannot be said for their followers. Especially after the unexpected result of the election sent Clinton’s followers into the streets under the guise of protest to riot, beat and loot.

But those who stayed at home, dealing with either shock or elation continued to swamp social media with outrageous rants, facts blown all out of proportion and accusations that were not even facts to start with. And just when the angry rhetoric began to subside Donald Trump was inaugurated and it began all over again. Where, many of us begin to wonder, will this incivility end? And what is to become of our “melting pot” society? The Great American Ideal?

Perhaps we should take some solace that our forefathers would not have been as surprised at today’s discourse as we might think. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, “citizens are motivated not by the rational study of ideas, empirical evidence, and cool debate over the issues, but by “interests and passions. Out of these arise the conflicting “factions” and “parties,” each seeking to protect and advance its interests, and all “inflamed . . . with mutual animosity, and rendered . . . much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good.”  So perhaps this is the nature of democratic politics and to be expected and allowed.

But then we turned our attention to sports, especially to the upcoming Super Bowl 51. For me, I have my favorite teams that I enjoy cheering for, but it’s still just a game. National security and peoples lives don’t hang in the balance so I try to just enjoy the game. Apparently there are those who take winning and losing more seriously. I am a fan of the New England Patriots – after all, I grew up in New England. And I am not a fan of Roger Goodell who seems to enjoy making power plays, fair or not, while overlooking some really bad behavior on the part of some in the sport and serious problems like head injuries. So I was looking forward to watching my team win and a man I disliked having to shake Brady’s hand and make nice. But the Falcons played a great game. A truly great game. Young but talented, they dominated the first 2/3s of the game and it wasn’t looking good for my team. I didn’t lose faith, though. It’s not wise to underestimate Tom Brady until the last minute of the game has ticked away and he came through. Against all predictions and the talking heads, he has made Super Bowl history in more ways than just how many rings he now wears.

The Patriots happen to be on top for now. The team is deep with talent and Tom Brady is the first to give credit for his success to the men he plays with and relies on. But their day will pass, just as the Dallas Cowboys supremacy did, just as The Bruins with Bobby Orr, or the Celtics with Larry Bird, and another team will shine. It might even be that young team from Atlanta. Imagine my dismay, on Monday morning. On pages dedicated to the Patriots for and by their fans, haters jumped in to spew their bitterness and spite. Are we supposed to bring this level of incivility to everything we do? Why can’t we applaud other’s successes and admire their talent instead of trying to destroy them? We all need a few heroes in our lives to inspire us. Knocking them down seems so unproductive and unnecessary. I turned off Facebook after the election, but I never thought I’d feel like doing so just because the Patriots won another Super Bowl.

Posted by: Skye Taylor AT 03:01 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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    Skye Taylor
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