Friday, July 26, 2013

Nearly-out-of-Provisions Stew

Keeping enough food in the larder on remote lighthouses was a problem before powerboats and helicopters came into being. Lightkeepers at places like Boon Island, pictured below, could run out of food if bad weather prolonged the wait for a quarterly visit from the lighthouse tender, the ship responsible for delivering supplies to the keepers. Book Island Light stands on a pile of rocks nine miles off the New Hampshire coast. Nine miles may not seem a long distance (the mainland is in view in the background of the picture), but in the days before modern means of travel, it may as well have been 900 miles from shore. Entries in the Boon Island logbook in the nineteenth century sometimes mentioned dwindling food supplies or a meal made from a duck that slammed into the lantern.

Below is a tongue-in-cheek recipe given to me years ago by a lighthouse keeper stationed on an offshore lighthouse on the North Sea, England. It illustrates the problem of an empty pantry and no supply ship in sight, and also the attention given to fairness. Note the two keepers get equal shares, as do the lighthouse dog and cat--

Into a big pot of boiling water, drop:
  • the last potato, diced neatly
  • the last onion, chopped fine
  • parsley flakes from the bottom of the spice jar
  • 1 of the 3 turnips that washed ashore form last week's shipwreck, whole
  • enough salt to fill a thimble
  • dumplings made from the last cup of flour and last dab of lard
  • 1 seagull egg found in the beach grass; hard-boil it in the stew
  • 1 dead duck that slammed into the light tower last night, picked and cleaned
  • duck giblets--heart, gizzard, liver
Boil everything for several hours. Scoop out the duck and clean the meat off its carcass. Divide meat into two bowls. Remove the turnip and cut it in half, one piece for yourself and the other for the assistant lightkeeper, and place the halves in the bowls. Do the same with the hardboiled seagull egg. Remove the duck giblets and divide in half between the bowls. Ladle stew into the bowls, being careful to give equal onion, potato, and dumpling to each bowl. If any soda crackers remain in the cracker can, place one alongside each bowl. Finally, divide the duck carcass and entrails in half and place in bowls on the floor. Yell to the assistant keeper, the dog, and the cat: "Dinner is served!"

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Sweet Story

In October 2001, Jon and I attended the Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival in Alpena, Michigan. This annual event was in its infancy back then. Over the years, it has grown quite large. Great Lakers love their lighthouses!

I was asked to speak at the event in 2001 and had a book table to sell and sign my books. It was beautiful autumn weather that Columbus Day week as we drove from Connecticut to Michigan in our motorhome. We arrived early and had a few days to do some sightseeing, so we headed off to find lighthouses.

First, we went north to the Mackinac area, then turned south along the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. As we approached Grand Haven, I peeled my eyes for the pierhead lighthouses at the mouth of the Grand River, about 40 miles north of Kalamzoo. There are two of them that create a "range" for vessels to stay in the channel as they head into the river.

"I see them!" I shouted.

Jon looked for a place to pull over--not easy task in a motorhome. He was busy scanning at the roadside while I kept the lighthouses in view.

"There's a park of some sort over there," Jon said. "I'll pull in there long enough for us to get some photos."

We drove into the park and eased our motorhome into a parking space. There were people everywhere, picnicking in the sunshine and walking the beach along the pierhead. Some were on the pierhead itself walking out to the lighthouses. The parking area was full of cars. There were quite a few motorhomes too. In fact, we had managed to park alongside several of the RVs, all lined up in a row. Jon shut down the motor, cracked the windows, and said:

"How about we have a quick snack before we walk out to the lighthouses?"

Good idea. I went to the back of the motorhome to our small kitchen to fetch peanut butter and crackers and iced tea. The big window in the kitchen overlooked the beach and the lighthouses. What a view! While I made the snack, Jon went outside to look around and do his usual check on the RV. Moments later he was back inside with a big smile on his face.

"You won't believe this, but we've backed into an RV space with hookups for water and electricity. This isn't just a park, it's a little RV park--right here looking out over the lighthouses!"

Sure enough, there were hookups behind our RV. Earlier in the day, we thought we might stay at a state park father down the shore, but this was perfect. Jon paid for our space, hooked up the water and electricity, and we had our snack. Afterward, we walked out to the beach and then to the pierhead to visit the lighthouses.

That night as I prepared dinner, the sun dropped low and made a shimmering path of light across the lake. The beacons in the lighthouses clicked on and made for some amazing photos. I couldn't stop looking out the kitchen window. How lucky that we found this spot, and by accident! When dinner was ready, we sat outside in our lawn chairs facing the lighthouses and the lake as we ate, still amazed that we had unknowingly backed into an RV space with such a fabulous view.

A few days later we arrived back in Alpena in time for the lighthouse festival. I had a book table for sales and signings and gave my presentation each day of the event. It was based on my title Guardians of the Lights, which sold well after each presentation.The festival was wonderful, with lots of tables and spaces filled with lighthouse goodies and many excellent speakers.

A few spaces away from my table was a young woman with her paintings of Great Lakes lighthouses. I admired her work, especially her watercolor of the Grand Haven Pierhead Lighthouses. I told her the story of how Jon and I ended up with the best view possible by accidentally backing into an RV hookup space near the lighthouses. A few hours later I passed by her display again and saw that the Grand Haven painting was gone. No surprise. It was pretty and would look nice on someone's wall.

At the end of the festival on Sunday afternoon, we packed up my books and slide show and fired up our motorhome to head back home to Connecticut. But first, we did a little more touring. We drove up to Mackinac Point, visited the lighthouse there and then crossed the bridge to the Upper Peninsula before finding an RV park for the night. It was dark when we pulled into our space and hooked up, and we were tired. Dinner was sandwiches and soup. While I took a shower, Jon made up the beds.

As I emerged from the bathroom in my RV pajamas, Jon handed me a cup of tea and gave me a hug.

"I got my favorite author a little souvenir from the festival," he said, motioning to my bed. On my pillow lay the framed watercolor of the Grand Haven Pierhead Lights....

Monday, July 8, 2013

Musings about Successful Writers

People often ask: “What makes a person likely to become a successful writer?”

A friend of mine wondered about this a few years ago, reminding me that her elementary school-age son loved to write and approached every classroom writing assignment with relish. She sometimes sent me his writings, perhaps hoping I possessed some form of occupational ESP and could tell her she was raising a great novelist or a future Pulitzer Prize winner. Students in my college classes know I'm a writer "in my other career" and seem to feel a need to tell me about their writing acumen or lack thereof, though I don't teach writing. They will say they love to keep journals and diaries, and I tell them I did too, as a child and still as an adult. Journaling and writing in diaries are good habits. But there's more to being a professional writer, I remind them, than writing every day. They’ll offer confessions of sorts: “I’m not a good English student, so a writing career is not for me.” Or, "English is my favorite subject, so I'll probably become a novelist." Or worse, "I love to write and want to become a full-time writer, but I hate writing on topics teachers require. I'm at my writing best when doing my own topics the way I want to write them, not constrained by a teacher's demands." (Editors are laughing at this admission!)

Doing well in an English class certainly isn’t a guarantee. I aced almost all of my “English” classes in high school and college and even received a small college scholarship "For Excellence in English," but I feel sure I did not become a writer because of these achievements. What's the explanation/answer/reason then? Musing onward....

In a writing class I taught in the late 1990s, a student told me she was driven to write. “I have stories to tell,” she said, “and I have to get them down on paper.” Another added, “I read everything I can get my hands on and am always thinking of how I can turn ideas into stories.” I like both of these statements, because I think they hint at what it is to be a writer—an avid reader, an obsessive word-weaver, and a story hunter. Here I am this morning pounding the keyboard when I could be doing something else—messing about in my flowerbeds, reading a novel, watching an old movie, sewing or crafting (I've re-discovered macrame!), or taking a long walk—all activities I enjoy. Instead, I’m looking at the monitor as my fingers weave ideas. I realized long ago the computer monitor is really the public, my audience. I know good writers are adept at many skills, but most important I think is identifying audiences and imagining conversations with them. When my students get stuck on their writing assignments, I tell them that writing is, at its simplest, a conversation on paper. Who are you talking with? Why? What is it you feel the need to tell them? Pretend they’re interested in what you have to say and are asking questions and adding their comments. Believe that what you have to say is important and detail it without a hammer. (Nobody likes being hit in the head with a hammer.)

Those high school and college papers I wrote so long ago, marked up with corrections and comments by teachers, all had something in common. A positive comment I frequently received was: “You target your audience well.” Long before I became a professional writer (meaning I'm paid for my work), I understood the importance of knowing who I was talking with and how to speak with them. There are other skills necessary beyond ID of audience, of course, but the listeners are critical to successful writing.

How do we learn to ID audiences and speak directly to them? I think an appetite for reading is part of the process, along with a great desire to talk about the ideas discovered in a reading, either on paper or with others, and glean the message. Translating that message into something new and useful, even if just for entertainment's sake, is satisfying. Reading generates ideas, but it also brings familiarity with good writing. It's instructive if you're willing to think about how the author presents it. The old adage about imitation being a form of flattery is true, but imitation is an excellent tool for developing writing skills, including audience sensitivity.

I read voraciously as a youngster and still do. I loved (and still love) characters that carried messages, mostly implied (no hammers, please). The guy pictured below is a good example, a guide I followed early in life. He now hangs in a maple tree outside my office window, a sort of inspiration on days I need a boost. I made him from a bucket and cans in honor or my favorite childhood character from Frank L. Baum’s "Wizard of Oz" tales. The scarecrow had so many wonderful things to say about choice, confidence, and brain power, not to mention the fact that goofy and clumsy is okay. For years after I first met this character in the classic Judy Garland movie and an entire summer in about 1962 spent reading Baum's Oz books on the glider on our front porch, I sought out characters who weren’t human in the physical sense but had important things to say to flesh and blood characters. Often, they were sci-fi and fantasy characters.

These days, my husband will hear me complain that all my reading seems to be targeted at specific research for a book or article or for my classes, leaving me little time for leisure reading. I still relax on porch funriture to read, in fact, but I know I don’t leisure read. I can't. I realized this long ago. Reading is an obsession for me. I do enjoy it, but every book I choose for entertainment fills me with new writing ideas and IDs new audiences. A good example is Peter Fitzsimons Batavia, a sprawling piece of historical fiction I read about a month ago that’s more fact than fiction and details the 1629 wreck of a Dutch ship on its way to Indonesia during the spice trade. The history therein sparked my interest, again, in the Dutch East India Company, in the issues with navigation before the chronometer, in the marking of Indonesian shores with navigational aids, and in the horrendous eruption of Krakatoa in August 1883, resulting in the loss of several lighthouses on Java and Sumatra. After a few weeks of research, I went to work on an article roughly titled "Krakatoa and the Loss of Light in the Sunda Strait" for my favorite audience—readers of the U.S. Lighthouse Society journal, The Keepers Log.

I like lighthouses for much the same reason I like the Oz scarecrow, robots like Gort (shown below from The Day the Earth Stood Still), talking animals like Garfield, and other anthropomorphized characters. Lighthouses speak; it’s fun giving them a voice. And...they're not so different from the Tinman and Gort.

Those characters made us think about ourselves; they had a message of welcome, warning, strength, and salvation. (Note: The modern version of The Day the Earth Stood Still spun Gort as a destructive character rather than the instructive one he truly was.)

Like the student in my writing class years ago, my antennae are always up looking for new ideas and new audiences, or looking for new ideas to entertain and educate a proven, reliable audience. It’s audience I crave. That's what drives me to write....even if that audience is myself. I think most successful writers agree.