News from Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Friday, December 11, 2015

How To Write Good Dialogue

                                                    
I'm a dialogue junkie. The first thing I look for when I read a novel is quotation marks.
 If I don't see any by page 2, I'm out of there. I like to be inside my characters in a scene and see, the way it looks and smells to them. You learn this by constantly describing people and scenes in your mind all day, wherever you go. When you meet someone with a characteristic you can use, describe them in your journal. When you write dialogue, you are the character, playing out the scene.
Most people use clich├ęs when they speak, according to their culture. I live in the South, and one of my favorites is, “He’s a hard dog to keep under the porch.” “Back in the day” is used too much. I save it for people I don’t like. When teenagers are relating a conversation, they often start with, “He goes…” and then, “I go…” I like to give pet expressions to my characters. The sheriff’s wife in my book, Maddie’s Choice, is a loud, buxom woman who ends a lot of her sentences with “So to speak,” and has Maddie doing it sometimes.
 Since I write women’s lit with romance, I create, first, a female and a male main protagonist, and I’ll probably write in each one’s point of view, which means I have to know the character intimately before they speak—be in tune with the emotions governing their speech, as well as their background and culture. How do they feel at that moment? Okay, here’s a for instance from my romance, Maddie’s Choice, set present day, at an Arkansas cattle ranch.
Maddie Taylor is from New York, a successful writer of romances and has inherited half of the ranch.  She’s just driven in and is greeted by a very unfriendly crowd of cowboys. Clearly she’s not welcome. We’ve already met her in New York so we know how she’s looked forward to living on a ranch, yearning for real friends. Disappointed almost to tears at their attitude she loses her temper and explodes into a rant. Feisty Maddie has a smart mouth. Her speech will reflect her background as a successful writer, educated, with a large vocabulary at her command.  She’s just been told Uncle Gid said she’s some Bimbo who just wants to take the money and leave.
Fueled by anger, she planted her bright red boots solidly, put her fists on her hips, and raged, “Whoever implied that is a sexist, judgmental, bigoted ignoramus who doesn’t have a clue, and has no business giving opinions on subjects about which he knows nothing. Where might I find this paragon of Western wisdom so that I might enlighten him?”
“Right here, ma’am. You have somethin’ to say to me?”
The deep voice came from right behind her, full of challenge, loaded with sarcasm, and entirely too close. She turned and looked into the eyes of Mister Sex, himself.
“I’m here to stay. Now, deal with it.”
“Well, hell.”
This is Gideon, the other half-owner, who has decided not to like her, although she excites him. He’s street-smart and his speech reflects his gender. When he’s at a loss for words, he often says, “Well, hell.”
The following are snippets from a conversation Gid has with Pete, the grizzled senior citizen, foreman of the ranch for years and surrogate dad to young, orphaned Gideon. By now we know that Gideon is a damaged war veteran with PTSD and although yearning for love, is afraid to get close for fear he’ll hurt someone. In this scene, Gid is sitting alone in the barn, depressed after another argument with Maddie, nearly drunk from a bottle of wine. Pete enters.
“Gid, what are you doing here? I thought you were with Maddie?”
Gideon gestured with the bottle. “Here, it’s some wine I found I the kitchen.”
Pete accepted the offer and took a drink. “Jesus,” he gasped, coughing, “what is this stuff?”
“Chardonnay. Maddie bought it for the party. She says New Yorkers drink it.”
Pete grimaced. “It wouldn’t be my poison of choice. Hell, I don’t like grapes on a bunch, why would I like ‘em in a bottle? Guess it gets the job done, though.”
Gid got to the point. “I don’t know a damned thing about women.”
“Women are different ‘n men,” Pete agreed with a nod.
“Ain’t that the damned honest truth?”
Gideon goes on to explain his latest dust-up with Maddie, his confusion, and despair. Pete tells him his problem.  Hell, boy. You’re already half in love with that woman.”
“I don’t believe in love. People don’t have it in them to give. This man-woman thing is all about sex. There’s no such thing as love. How would you know, anyway?” He raised the bottle to his lips “You’ve been married to Bea for more’n fifty years. Do you love Bea?” It took a lot of wine for him to find the nerve to ask that. A man his age shouldn’t be ignorant of such things.
Pete thought a bit. “In the morning I wake up, in this warm place that Bea and me made, with her curled up against me, holdin’ on to me like I was the most important thing in her world. No matter how my day goes, I know she’ll be there when I come home. The thought makes the day worth living. That’s how I know.”
I could have left the tags off all Pete’s speech because his words were so different from Gideon, but they serve to pace the scene, so I left some on. 
Don’t be afraid of making your men human. There is a film I watch every time it is on TV that does this to perfection. As Good As It Gets, with Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and Greg Kinnear. The men bare their souls to each other in a heartfelt way that makes them no less men. The realization that men speak differently when they are among their own was pioneered by Paddy Chayefsky, a brilliant playwright of the 1950’s and his breakthrough play Marty (1955). His style was termed “kitchen realism.”
In this book Gideon’s army buddy shows up with the DEA when Maddie is kidnapped, right before a gun battle with the local drug-smuggling motorcycle gang. Gideon’s army friend is Australian. That needed a lot of research into Australian slang. At the end of the last scene, after the gun battle, when Maddie’s life has been saved by an Angus bull, he remarks, “If the bikey comes good, he’ll need a new set of knackers. That bull made a mess of him.”

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Night Virginia Stole The Baby Jesus

     If you saw  the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, aired July 29, you know Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is a cantankerous town that ignores what the rest of the world thinks, goes its own way, and considers most laws merely suggestive guidelines. The dispute reported on the Daily Show was about a non-discrimination ordinance we passed defying a state law that sanctioned, even encouraged, the persecution of gays. No way was that going to happen here. We welcome everyone, as long as you behave, don’t intend harm, and don’t try to tell us how to live…which brings me to the subject of this blog.

It is that time of year when a lot of us celebrate the holiday season known as Christmas with a nativity scene in Basin Park. Predictably, anti-religious groups protest, claiming we're promoting religion. We could set aside space for groups to celebrate traditional events, holidays that happen around the same time…like the Jewish Hanukkah. We could do that, but these zealots don’t want compromise…they want no evidence of Christmas anywhere. They even object to Holiday Lights and money being spent for any decoration, even  decidedly unreligious Christmas trees.
Eureka Springs survives on tourism. Christmas decorations and events translate into out-of-town visitors and retail sales, so we ignore these haters, as we do anyone who tries to tell us what to think, but understand our display is unique. It means a lot more to us than the celebration of a birth. It is the commemoration of an event dear to all our hearts; an event that is part of our history, a tale repeated endlessly, making us laugh and remember. We're celebrating “The Night Virginia Stole The Baby Jesus.” 
Before you hear the story, you have to know that Virginia Voiers is a very gracious and elegant lady, proper in all ways, and highly regarded by the community. Just about every committee in town seeks her gentle presence, and she's served on a lot of them, always arriving dressed to perfection. We are in awe of Virginia.
For many years, during the Christmas Season, it was the custom of a local sorority to create a nativity display in the band shell at Basin Park, in the center of town. It was also the custom of the juvenile element in town to steal the Baby Jesus and have it turn up somewhere else. One night, some thirty years ago, as her husband, Bill, remembers, Virginia, her grown daughter, and her son were having dinner downtown, during the holidays. They passed the display while walking home, and Virginia’s daughter noticed the baby was still in the manger. 
Her daughter said, “C’mon, Mom, let’s steal the baby.” Well, Virginia enjoys a good joke, so she did. Unfortunately, the local carriage driver, passing by, witnessed the deed and called the police, who came and arrested Virginia, and took her to the station where the local sorority head, apparently not amused, preferred charges. 
What? Virginia? The town was agog. Sides were chosen. Tempers flared. For weeks, it was the main subject over evening libations at The High Hat Lounge.
Stan Adams, the local Methodist minister, stayed by her side the whole time in court as she was convicted of thievery, malicious mischief, and damage to private property. The sorority (which, you understand, must remain nameless) claimed the baby was damaged. Virginia was given probation and told to apologize. She wrote a check.  Didn’t apologize. Not our Virginia!
But that isn’t the end of the story! About a year later, as Bill tells it, Judge McBeth remembered the missing apology and cited her for contempt of court. Police came to the door, took our Virginia away in handcuffs. If there had been cell phones, it would have gone viral, and she spent about half a day in jail, the Methodist minister by her side, until her lawyer came.
So, if, some Christmas, you are visiting and, hanging out by the nativity in Basin Park, and you  hear someone say, “You remember the time Virginia stole the Baby Jesus?” you will now become one of us, because you know the story.  Remember to smile.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Loyalty Pledge? What's that all about?

What’s all this about a Loyalty Pledge the Republican Chairman has come up with? Support the “Party” choice no matter who wins the Primary Election? Campaign not going to plan? Not going to happen.
It is time to accept that a massive social change is on the way and the political bosses are losing control. The old ways are dead. In a last ditch effort to change the primary process because some maverick candidates have somehow seized the lead, the old guard party bosses are trying to gain back some control by making delegates promise to support the “party” choice.
So the “interloper,” Donald Trump signed. He pledged to support the Republican Party goals and ideals, (didn’t mention candidate) and gained the promise of all the rest of the contenders to support him if he won. A clever move.
The worst nightmare of a career politician has happened. The nation’s voters are out for blood. The constituency has become aroused. The revolution has begun. Say what?
We, the people, are fed up with politicians who talk a good game, promise change, and after  elected turn into self-serving hacks wanting only to share the celebrity, the perks and the wealth, and to hell with what the people want. 
My state, Arkansas, saw the truth in action when a bought and paid for legislature ignored the U.S. Constitution and voted to force public water systems to add fluoride laced with lead and arsenic to our water without our permission. They voted to forbid us to declare our town free of discrimination, punishment yet to be determined. 
 What happened? The constituency  became aroused. The revolution began. Say what?
When I was young, just getting into politics, I met an old old, hard line Chicago Democrat at a meeting. He was feeling generous to this enthusiastic but dumb neophyte and decided to give me advice.
“Little lady,” he said,  (it was 1954) “One thing ya gotta remember. Never arouse the constituency. Once that happens, and they get mad, it’s all over. There’s no tellin’ what they’ll do.” He went on to relate a harrowing story. Seems the son of a Ward Heeler (they’re now called block organizers) had a son who was an over sized bully in school. The kids were afraid  of him because his powerful politician father, who doted on him, protected him. Well, the parents finally had had enough and they hired a bigger bully from the South Side of Chicago to do justice. The kid ended up with various broken bones and when his politician father visited him, in the hospital, he said, “Son, you learned a good lesson today. Never arouse the constituency.”
Well, we’re aroused. No more seemingly sincere candidates who don’t care about us, or what we want; they just want to get rich and get all them perks. Election to even state office is a guaranteed million by the end of the term. On a national level, it gets worse. Never mind the Constitution. What do voters know? They’re trained to vote the party, no matter who’s running.
All that stuff political organizers learned in college on how to get elected to office has been trashed. Confusion reigns. The rules no longer apply with mavericks like Donald Trump, or Ben Carson, or Carly Fiorina running. We’re done. We’ve had it. It’s our turn.

The problem with change is that you have to elect a strong, determined warrior to get it done…somebody with fire in the belly, who knows how to swim with the sharks and drain the swamp to get rid of the alligators. We have the warrior, as long as he has a wise partner who can help clean up the mess. Let’s get out there and vote.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

You Have To Believe To Write About The Supernatural

A sense of place is all important in writing fiction. Readers can sense the credibility in your writing if you’ve been there. To be able to write about the supernatural you have to believe ghosts and paranormal events exist. How can a writer describe how it feels to encounter a spirit unless they’ve experienced terror when confronted with a mist that is slowly taking human form? Paul, Samantha, and Andy Barlowe, the principal characters in my new novel, The Haunting of Aaron House, to be published by Rogue Press in September 2015, have never seen a ghost, although Sam declares she can “feel” the previous owners of the antiques she finds. Writing this book, about ghostly possession and hauntings was easy for me because spirits have always been a part of my life, taken for granted.  I grew up believing in ghosts, spells, and the supernatural in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the setting for the book. Today I live in Eureka Springs, Arkansas where all things metaphysical are accepted as real.
 My paternal grandmother was a faith healer who cast spells. They were called PowWow Women. In the novel, I use a spell given to my mother when she was a young girl to rid her of a persistent boyfriend, although for a different reason in the story.
     In Aaron House, Paul Barlowe, and his company, Barlowe Films, are shooting a documentary history of the region. He’s brought Sam and Andy to help on the film, so they are all staying in a rented farmhouse, by chance furnished with the antiques Sam loves.
They don’t know that for the last 170 years it has been haunted by two ghosts, Amalie and Phineas Peale, waiting for a human couple, because each needs human energy to gain enough power to destroy the other. Since the Civil War only men have lived there, the Aaron Brothers being the last.
The plot follows Paul, Sam and Andy during the making of the film at various historical sites while Sam, who has been told of the ghosts, tries to unravel the mystery of what has kept them from moving on. Soon, Amalie, who by now inhabits Sam's body, causes her to flashback to the 1860s, and gradually revealing the sinister secret that has kept these two ghosts at war. Paul knows there is something wrong, but cannot believe in ghosts, no matter what Sam tries to explain. One day, when he is alone in the house, he encounters the evil personage of Phineas and realizes they need help to get free. Even worse, Phineas later possesses him during an intimate moment with Sam, which terrifies him.
 The book has a roaring climax, but I won't tell you more, except, to relieve the tension of the ghost scenes and add some humor, I've added a very tender love story between Paul's wealthy playboy partner, Lloyd, also working on the film, and Penny, the terribly repressed and shy assistant working as a script girl. Penny is confused. She's never had a boyfriend, especially a millionaire hunk like Lloyd. He is totally smitten and pursues her. There is also a stray dog who is not exactly what he seems.

 The book will be available on Amazon, as are all my books, in both e-book and paperback, sometime in late September.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

We Don't Have Crime in Eureka Springs

We don't have crime in Eureka Springs. When I read about what goes on in Chicago, Boston, and other big cities I wonder what it must be like living with all that fear. We like our police. We know their first names. The police department and the fire department have Facebook pages that tell us what is going on. Oh sure, we have some drug possession, and residents and tourists alike are fond of alcohol. We have two breweries and a vineyard, but things are pretty peaceful. Maybe it is because we are so old. 
      The picture is a shot of our downtown.  The large building far left, the Basin Park Hotel, was built in 1907, a "new" addition. Basin Spring, which started the town, is in the trees next to the building. The entire area was rebuilt after a fire in 1886 destroyed the entire downtown, and all the gingerbread cottages further up the hill.  What you see here was rebuilt with limestone. Living surrounded by all this history lends a sense of security and peace. Our visitors declare they feel the healing energy of the town the minute they enter. You can be safe here, and accepted for who you are, as long as you don't intend harm.  We welcome everybody and by law are discrimination free. Everybody is accepted here. Otherwise, let me remind you that Arkansas is an open carry state, so behave.
     We don't worry about car jacking, murders, or police brutality.  You can walk the streets at midnight in complete safety. We don't worry about burglars.
     Once, in 1922, some crazies from Oklahoma tried to rob our bank. I tell the story in my book, The Hidden History of Eureka Springs.  The word got out--we had a phone or two by then. The entire town responded with outrage, and stormed the bank, guns blazing. The robbers were killed. Hundreds of shots were fired. The coroner remarked later that most of the bullet wounds were post mortem. Everybody wanted to be able to brag they shot a bank robber, dead or alive. We celebrate the event every year during Folk Festival with a re-inaction.
     Even though we don't have much crime, a big favorite of the tourists is the local police report, carried by both weekly newspapers. You'll read more about it in my new book, coming out in October. It's titled, Love in a Small Town, and is a romance set in Eureka Springs. I have bits and pieces of Eureka in all my books, but this one tells what it is like to live here, from the point of view of a teenage girl and her stepfather, newly arrived from Chicago and undergoing cultural shock.
   The report might read:
                  3:09 a.m. - An alarmed citizen discovered an individual sleeping on her porch. 
                                       Official arrested the visitor for public intoxication.
                   4:30 a.m. - Resident reported large bird making noise in a tree outside her 
                                        window. When the officer arrived, the rooster was gone.
                  10:00 a.m. - A domestic dispute at a local motel. Officer arrived to help
                                          settle the issue.
You can buy a copy of The Hidden History of Eureka Springs from the museum by visiting http://www.eurekaspringshistoricalmuseum.org or visit my website for more pictures at:
http://joycezellercom.weebly.com