Archive | July, 2011

A rose by any other name….

23 Jul

I honestly think I had an easier time naming my children than I do the characters in my books, which is crazy. Characters are merely fictional extensions of my imagination. The only thoughts and emotions they possess are the ones that I give them. My kids have to live in the real world where there are real life consequences to naming them Zeb and Moxie.  
Oh, relax! No matter how incredibly awesome I think the name Zeb is, it was never in contention as a name for one of my boys. I wouldn’t do that to them. As moms, we are a bold, creative bunch, but only a handful of us are brave (or is it bizarre?) enough to actually name our kids Zeb, or Carswell, or Grazia. We want our kids to be liked. We want them to fit it. We want to take them back-to-school shopping at Walmart and watch them get excited with they find pencils with their name on them. So we name our little girls Hannah and our little boys Jacob, and so do all of our friends and neighbors.
Colby was on my short list of names for my oldest son. It was popular at the time and I loved that it was cute and fun and playful. I imagined a cherub-faced little boy with blue eyes and a joyful giggle running around the playground. But that was the problem. No matter how much I adored the name for a toddler, I just couldn’t picture ‘Colby’ as an old man. 
Grandpa Colby? Umm… no. Grandpas are ‘William’s and ‘Richard’s and ‘Elmer’s. 
Even though I couldn’t imagine it, I know in seventy years my son wouldn’t have been the odd man out in the nursing home with the name Colby. All those cherub-faced toddlers running around right now will eventually grow up and grow old. There will be hordes of grey-haired Grandpa Colbys telling war stories in gas stations all over the country. The name will be old-fashioned, antiquated, no longer used. What was once common will become uncommon and then common once more. Grandpa Colby will more than likely have a great-grandson named Elmer. Weird, but true.
Fiction is make-believe, but it’s based on reality, and in real life most people have the same boring common names as everyone else in their age group. As a child growing up in the eighties, pretty much all of the girls in my class were named Jennifer, Stephanie, or Michelle. Our mothers were named Susan, Linda, and Mary. Our grandmothers were either Betty or Ruth. We all babysat little girls named Tiffany, Brittany, and Ashley. When we grew up, we gave birth to Emma, Ava, and Sophia. 
Believable make-believe worlds reflect these changing trends in their cast of characters.Nothing irritates me more than reading a book set in modern time where there is not one single, solitary character with a common name for their generation.
That’s not to say that you can’t use a few unique names. Every town has at least one Zeb in it. And it should! Zeb is an awesome name. I love it like crazy. But other people? Not so much. That’s the problem. I haven’t written about Zeb yet, but I once gave the name ‘Shep’ to a bit character in a story idea that went nowhere. It wasn’t Shep’s fault the story died. It was weak and dreadful to begin with. But using the name ‘Shep’ didn’t help matters any, that’s for sure. I sent a rough chapter to a friend to critique it for me, and in reference to Shep she replied back something along the lines of “toothless hillbilly.” Poor Shep. He had teeth! I swear he did. 
As authors, we do ourselves a grave disservice of we don’t keep these stereotypes in mind.
Since my Shep disaster, I’ve decided that unless I want the unique name to be one of the character’s traits, I’m not going to use it. It’s easier to stick with more popular names that millions of people have. When a name is popular, the base for the stereotype is broader and therefore leans toward the positive, making characters are more easily likable from the get-go. If I have my choice between ‘Horace’ and ‘John’ for the name of a hero firefighter, I’m going to make it easy on myself and go with ‘John’ every time.
I actually love the name John. Its long-standing popularity has diluted it to a completely blank slate. John could be anyone—young, old, fat, thin, rich, poor. He could be an old, weathered ranch hand with a penchant for whiskey, a punk-ass kid smashing car windows in the suburbs, a priest, or a power broker on Wall Street. The mind can paint ‘John’ into any of those roles with hardly any effort at all. 
Now name him Vinnie. 
Whether we like it or not, all names have stereotypes associated with them. ‘Brad’s are hot, ‘Ursula’s are not, and ‘Emily’s are downright adorable. I’m not saying we should play into the stereotypes and make all Vinnie’s Italian, but keep in mind if you want your old, weathered ranch hand to be named Vinnie, you’re going to have to use a lot more descriptive words than you would have if you’d named him Harlan instead.
After a few restless nights, lots of Google surfing, and one last-minute change, I found the identities of all of my characters in Millie’s Rose. I used stereotyping to my advantage for one of my characters, the one I wanted readers to immediately dislike, and I selected a few unique ones for the more unique characters, but, for the most part, I chose names that are common, derived from the trends of the generation in which they were born, intentionally non-intrusive so the reader can freely paint their own picture as they read. 
Unlike my struggle with first names, surnames come easy. To keep as true to real life as possible, I chose surnames that are reflective of the demographics of the geographical location in which the characters live. I write small-town, rural Nebraska, which is known for its rich and vibrant Czech heritage, kolaches, and tongue-twister surnames comprised of letters that seemingly have absolutely no business being next to each other. They are beautiful when spoken, but can be difficult to read. Out of courtesy for those who may not be familiar with the language, I mainly use watered-down, generic variations and save the true Czech surnames for those who have the strength of character to be Czech.
There’s only one character with a Czech surname in Millie’s Rose—Stacy Ruzicka. One-half Czech, one-half Polish, she is my powerhouse, the heart and the soul of the story. There is no Millie’s Rose without her. Her name perfectly and beautifully represents everything she is to Dan. She is the resurrection of his heart, his life, his love. She is his beautiful rose. 
Her name says it all.

State Fair Potato Salad

2 Jul

Hamburgers and hotdogs, corn on the cob dripping of butter, sweet and savory baked beans that melt in your mouth, massive watermelon wedges chilling on ice – no matter what you serve at your backyard BBQ this 4th of July weekend, the meal will not be complete without a huge helping of Mom’s homemade potato salad.

Sweet, creamy, and packed with crunch, I came across this recipe at my local library back when I was newly married and desperate to acquire a repertoire of recipes my family would rave about for generations to come. I poured over shelf after shelf, selecting armloads of cookbooks at a time, searching out the very best of the best in every category. Every time I found one I thought was perfect, I scribbled it out on whatever scrap of paper was handy at the time and stuffed it into an old school folder with a cartoon picture of the M&M guys on the front. 

My intention was to sit down one day and transfer the tried-and-true recipes onto pretty cards that I would store in a special box on the kitchen counter, perfect for sharing and passing along to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the years to come. Life got away from me and I have yet to find time to do so.

Sixteen years and hundreds of recipes later, my folder is now bulging at the seams. The recipes are a little tattered and torn, spattered in mystery food remnants, and decorated in notes about long-past doctor appointments or phone numbers that mean nothing to me. But every recipe in the folder is a time-tested, family favorite that my kids ask for again and again.

At least I got the important part right.

State Fair Potato Salad
(origin of recipe unknown)

Clean and chop 3 1/2 pounds red-skinned potatoes into 3/4″ pieces. Cook in large pot of salted, boiling water until tender. Drain. Transfer to large bowl and drizzle with 1/4 cup juice of sweet pickles. Cool to room temperature, and then add 1/2 cup chopped red onion, 1/2 cup chopped celery, and 1/2 cup chopped sweet pickles. For dressing, combine 3/4 cup mayonnaise, 1/3 cup buttermilk, 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Pour over vegetables and mix to coat. Fold in 3 hard boiled eggs, chopped. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Dear Diary,

1 Jul

When I was a little girl, I kept a diary. It held my deepest, darkest, most intimate secret…  
I John Schneider. 
That was it.
I don’t know why I had that declaration hidden away in a pocket-sized book with a complicated lock on it. It wasn’t even a secret. Not in the true sense of the word anyway. I was pretty obvious about my infatuation. I stared in rapture at the television whenever The Dukes of Hazard came on. ‘Quiet Man’ spun eternal on my Fisher Price record player. I had John Schneider’s face on my pajamas, for goodness sake. My love for him was not a secret, but it was intense.
Over the years I have fallen head over heels for the likes of Michael J. Fox, Kirk Cameron, and Tommy Puett. To this day, I’m still actively crushing on a handful of celebrities. I mean, seriously… Ryan Reynolds? The man is crazy-fine. Who doesn’t fantasize about playing ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’ up and down his magnificent abs? But as incredibly beautiful in his perfection as he may be, if I had a diary today, ‘Ryan Reynolds’ would not be the name scribed behind the ‘I’ and the ‘‘ on the petal-pink paper… Eminems would.
Rest assured, I don’t want to marry the man (though I do have this crazy urge to bake him a cake, and I have absolutely no idea why), and you can say what you want about his vile subject matter, but there is no denying the fact that the man has mad skills. Not only is he a lyrical savant of unmatched superiority, he also exudes a feral, fiery passion that is explosive in its execution. I would kill to be able to harness even a touch of that raw power and wrap it into a character that is so intense, so assiduously alive, that he literally leaps off the page and possesses your soul as you’re reading.
The novel I have out on submission right now was born from my desire to capture that essence, though you’d never guess it by reading it. It didn’t quite end up being the story I first imagined it would be, and I only have myself to blame. I had Eminem in my mind and his rage in my heart when I sat down to write, my fingers poised over the keyboard, destined to annihilate all lingering doubts of my literary genius with my prolific prose. However, alongside Eminem’s curse-laden, hate-filled rants, Michael Franti’s happy sunshine was playing in heavy rotation on my iPod as I composed. My main character is their bastard love child.
Scary, I know. But she’s adorable.
The novel ended up being a romantic-comedy, quite the polar opposite of what I’d imagined, but it is, by far, my personal favorite. It might get published, and it might not. Only time will tell. But even if my little ditty is destined to spend eternity gathering dust in my hard drive, it will hold a sweet spot in my heart forever. Illogical? Irrational? Downright, utterly ridiculous? Absolutely! That’s why I love it so.
I think every writer has a story like that, one that they adore above all others for reasons that make absolutely no sense at all. They may not contain your best writing. They may ramble and wander and deviate from the path, but that’s what makes them great. Whether born from an ill-advised celebrity crush or inspired by the erotic dance of a tumble-weed on a deserted highway, a story written from the heart reveals your truth. Cherish the discovery.