Thursday, December 27, 2012

In the Act of Being a Writer Again

I'm not complaining, I hope you know, but it is hard to market behave like a publisher, a marketer, a regular person, and get any writing done. September, October and November 2012 taught me that.

In December, I've somehow managed to work on incorporating an editor's comments and fixes into my next project, Time of Death, and get it almost ready to go. I spent a couple of hours on it today without the need to think about Christmas gifts, a trip to see my nephew graduate from college, the Gaskin family Christmas gathering, or a dandy little 24 hour stomach bug. All of which have also taken their turn lately. It was a good couple of hours, reminding me what I'm about.

Time of Death is an interesting piece for me. It is the true story of murder and miscarriage of justice in Chapel Hill in 1963-65. I celebrated my 13th and 14th birthdays while the story spun itself out, for me the perfect age to absorb all of its lessons. A tiny bit of it became the kernal of my novel, Until Proven. I hope it will be interesting for readers of one to read the other, to see how imagination remakes facts in the service of some other truth.

My remaining To Do list:
  • Get a cover designed
  • Proofread and proofread again
  • Format for various ebook sellers
Your To Do list:
  • Watch this space for a publication date!
  • If you haven't already done so, check and Lystra Books' Facebook page.
  • Have a great New Year's Eve and a grand 2013!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

In the Act of Borrowing from Myself

I posted this on my website,, and I like it enough to add it here. Think of giving this gift to your favorite writers, whoever they may be, this holiday season!

As a publisher and author,** I have read a lot about how books come to be bought and sold. There are detailed marketing plans and some clever ideas out there, but here is how it works: readers buy books that are recommended by a trusted person. Don't you?

Of course that trusted person could be a famous reviewer with a national following, but he or she is more likely to be a friend or family member. Sometimes he or she is a total and anonymous stranger. I've gone to Amazon just to read reviews, haven't you?

So if you've read a book that pleases you, make the author smile. Write a review for or for Tell five people. Buy it for a friend.

The author who has sold millions of copies and the one who has sold tens of copies have this in common. They were readers before they were writers. And when they put the hours, days, weeks, months and years into a book, all they want is for one reader to like it and to tell another reader about it.

I promise that's true. You may be thinking that Fame and Fortune must be involved, because why else would someone spend years on such an uncertain enterprise. I will promise you something else. F & F are rare in this crazy enterprise. Where they do exist, it is because way back in the misty past, one person liked a book and told another person about it.

So ultimately, if you love to read, it's worth your time to make a writer smile. It is what keeps him or her going.

**Until Proven: a Mystery in 2 Parts, written by Nora Gaskin, published by Lystra Books and Literary Services, LLC.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

When Do I Get to Write Again?

I'm beginning to come out of the publishing tunnel. I've learned so much, getting Until Proven: A Mystery in 2 Parts out for the world to read (and in time for Christmas, too!) but it has been all-consuming for months.

Now I know what to expect when I do it again. Now I know what none of the numerous guides to self-publishing bother to tell you. Hence the tunnel.

Two nights in a row, I dreamed that I was running around in public places without much in the way of clothing on. You know, a good old anxiety dream. And I developed a twitch in my upper lip. I had to fight off a head cold. Could these things be related to the last details of publishing? You think?

I worked on Until Proven for more than three years before I declared it "ready" and shipped it off to the book designer at the end of June 2012. I never doubted that I had a good story and I am confident that I told it well. So why the nerves? Because now the book is in the hands of the judges--my readers. You.

The responses have been gratifying. The cold didn't develop. The questionable dreams have stopped. The lip doesn't twitch when I smile.

And my imagination is bugging me. It won't take three years for the next piece of work into the light. I have two things, one short and one long, waiting for reworking, reimagining and polishing. All for you. Watch this space.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In the Act of Yikes! It's a Book! (Almost)

October 1 was my target date for publication. Yesterday, October 1, Kelly the book designer sent me the edited and reedited version of the text ready for uploading. Right on time.

My last task was to give her the information for the copyright page. Done this morning before 8:00. Okay, I was a day late.

Still need the final version of the book jacket. Then I get to learn how to shove a novel up the pipeline to become a printed book and up a different pipeline to become an ebook. I'm excited about doing those things. There may be a little cussing, but I promise not to throw any computers or scare the dogs.

I lay in bed this morning, just enjoying the sense of being so very, very close to this goal of a lifetime.

But I can't get too cozy with it. I have a non-fiction piece to get out into the world asap, two novels to rewrite and publish, and the characters from a story I don't know yet knocking around in my head wanting to get out. That's what really excites me.

So how many copies of Until Proven will you be buying for Christmas gifts? It'll be the hot new thing.

Friday, August 10, 2012

In the Act of Catching Up

For me, when Steve starts back to school, summer's over, and he'll be getting out of the house at 6:00 a.m. starting next Monday. I'll miss him, but I get in the back-to-school mode, too, and get a burst of energy for getting things done.

Often summers aren't especially productive for my writing but this one was a bit different. I found a copy editor and book designer who inhabit the same body. Yay! I sent her my "finished" manuscript (rewritten from January through mid-June, based on my wonderful writing group's edits and suggestions) by June 24. Then I took off for 10 days at the beach. Yay some more!

The copy editor persona sent the first half of the book back to me right around August 1; I made corrections and tinkered with the text and sent it back to her in less than a week. I'm awaiting the second half, and also awaiting the emergence of the book designer persona. I am eager to see what she comes up with for a cover design.

Did I mention, the target date for Until Proven, to be in the world is October 1?

You might think I'd be feeling the glow of accomplishment, the satisfaction of bringing all the characters into being, the wonderment that a story like this one could come out of my head. It's actually been a little difficult to find the glow etc. Perhaps because there is still so much to do. Perhaps because it's just one of those things that has to be anticlimactic. I kinda hope that moment is still out there for me. If not, no biggie.

Meanwhile, here's what I need to do:
  • Hours more research on how to market a book
  • Translate that research into a plan
  • Execute the plan so that everyone on the planet wants to buy and read Until Proven
That's where you come in. If each of you will tell 10 people and each of them will tell 10 people and each of them ... Heck, nothing to it. So now that we're caught up, will you please get busy?

Friday, May 18, 2012


I know, hearing about other people's dreams tends to be boring and yeah, whatever. Nonetheless, I have one to tell about. I dreamed up a character. I haven't been looking for a character. He has no business distracting me from working over the current manuscript, but there his is. A writer can't ignore this kind of thing. I was having lunch with a gentleman some twenty years old than I am, making his eighty-something. His face was that of someone I used to work with years ago but I don't identify the character with that person. We met at a restaurant and he said "well, you could give me a kiss" so I kissed him on the cheek. His skin was dry. Then he ordered a double martini and we sat down at a table. The restaurant staff hovered over him, anxious to please. He grumbled. I wanted a glass of water but nobody noticed. When the staff disappeared, he proceeded to talk. What I remember is he said, "in the old days, you could order a customized car so everybody got his own car. Now they're all gray." Okay, followers and readers, tell me about this guy's life. Let's write him a story.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Pay Attention!

I'm working on my manuscript a lot these days. And when I don't have it in front of me, I've got it going in some part of my brain. Good things come from that: the right title, the better word, the easy solution to a plot problem. I don't think I've discovered the true names of some important characters and I'm hoping that they will come to me in the shower, in Weaver Street, on a walk. Somewhere, anywhere. Layered with that, I'm thinking about "my" non-profit, EmPOWERment. I ran the Finance Committee meeting on Friday, must make the monthly Treasurer's Report next Thursday at the Board meeting. And I've just been elected to the Chatham County Affordable Housing Advisory Committee. I've been busy with email about that, trying to catch onto the ways and means. So I scraped the rear fender of my car against the garage door. Sheesh. No damage other than the streak of beige paint on gray metal. It's embarrassing. I'll get it fixed. And I'll do my best to declare the driveway a no-thinking, time out, live-in-the-moment zone. I've been warned.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In the Act of Being Led from One Thing to Another

I love storytelling. First, in books. Second, on a screen, small or large.

Last night, I watched a movie, Housewife 49. It's the story of a family in England during World War II. I could make one picky little negative comment (why bother with the people from the MO? They were a distraction) so I'll have to give a grade of A+ rather than A++. It's well-written, well-acted, and drew me deeply into its quiet sufferings and joys.

Nella Last is the main character and she was a real person. I had to look her up, of course. She was a housewife and at age 49 she began to keep a diary and send entries to the MO. The war was just beginning. She had two sons of age to fight. Her town was bombed by the Germans.

As portrayed in the movie, Nella found her voice when she began to write, and she continued to write all of her life. The war changed Nella--and I must think that writing changed her, too. The movie used quotes from her diaries and if the sampling is representative, I must now find a way to get hold of the her diaries. Lovely, lovely natural talent.

I mentioned the MO. That stands for Mass Observation. According to Wikipedia, the MO was a social research program in Britain. People were encourged to send in information about their lives and their day-to-day observations.

Can you say blog? Can you say Facebook? Can you say storytelling?

Must go. I need to be led to another thing now.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

In the Act of Overlapping

When we went to Somerset Place near Creswell, NC, I bought Dorothy Spruill Redford's book, Somerset Homecoming.

We went to Stagville Plantation in northern Durham County and I bought Piedmont Plantation by Jean Bradley Anderson.

I have a friend, Nancy Milio, and I bought her book, 9226 Kercheval: the Storefront That Did Not Burn.

Because she loved it and was rightly sure I would, my friend, Shirley Drechsel gave me Undaunted Heart, by Suzy Barile.

All four of these books tell narratives, stories, histories at a very personal level.

Dorothy Spruill Redford set out to trace the roots of her family on Somerset Place. Hers was one of the hundreds of enslaved families. The roots were torn from Africa, reknit in the New World, then spread like a web all over America. Dorothy pulled them "home" to Somerset again.

Jean Bradley Anderson tells the story of the largest plantation in antebellum North Carolina--largest in acreage and in slaveholding--a planation that once blended it's white family with the white family from Somerset by marriage--with all of usual official sources. Census records, bills of sale, contracts and such. What makes it personal, though, and wonderful to read, is her use of diaries and letters. She brings the Bennehans and Camerons very much to life. I feel sure she dreamed of them.

Nancy Milio was a young white nurse when she became involved in starting a storefront community and health center, Mom and Tots, in a black neighborhood in Detroit. She uses her own diaries as well as memories to recall those fraught days in 1968's when cities all over America burned, but that storefront did not.

Undaunted Heart is written by its subjects' great-granddaughter. Suzy Barile tells that she is descended from two North Carolina governors and her book--like Jean Anderson's--is full of families and names that are carved on buildings and printed on street signs all over North Carolina. I grew up in Chapel Hill so this was a story I know: David Swain was President of the University when his daughter, Ella, met and married a Union general. General Atkins oversaw the fairly brief Union presence in Chapel Hill at the end of the Civil War. Suzy Barile has family diaries and letters and passed-down oral history. She makes great use of them to give her ancestors' life. I've always suspected that Mrs. Spencer (another Chapel Hill name of the era) was a busy-body and now I know it's true. Of all the sympathetic people, I felt most deeply for Mrs. Swain who was widowed and saw all of her children die.

Is the overlapping obvious from what I've said so far?

War and riot--much the same in their destruction of property and trust, taking decades to repair.

Race, black and white, from slave days to the '60's and since we are now in the age of Trayvon Martin's murder, to today and tomorrow. Family, whether rich or poor, subject equally to grief and joy.

All the nuance that may be kindness, or may be cruelty, and is constantly in flow.

Willpower--this must happen--be it an unsuitable marriage or a place where the power of community can be flexed for its own survival.

All the tender complexities of human nature.

Humans together in their best and worst ways. Out of the overlapping, comes story-telling. That is our necessity.

Monday, March 19, 2012

In the Act of Learning

My first series of writing classes came to an end yesterday. I'll do it again for six weeks, beginning April 15.

I had four students in the session that just ended--not many but given the quality of their work and their participation in discussion, and most of all the generosity of spirit they brought to class, it was just swell.

It was interesting that of the four, or five including me, three learned English as a second (or fourth) language. I was the only native Southerner, hence the need to explain to all that bbq in North Carolina means pork and only pork.

As you might guess, the most challenging student taught me the most. Now, he was not a challenging person--quite the opposite, a very kind spirit--but he doesn't share all of the popular culture references that the rest of us had in common. I needed to comment on his work in greater depth and more clarity. No shortcuts. I had to stretch for an analogy that would make my point for me, rather than scribbling "It's a Seinfeld episode" or some such thing in the margin. I hope I can take that concentration forward with me.

I didn't just learn this because I already know it: there are a lot of good writers out there. I was blessed to meet four more of them, and I'm eager for more!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

In the Act of Doing Everything but Blogging

Since last I posted, I've been writing, teaching, reading students' work, editing...and thinking about blogging. That's the problem. Blogging is not for thinking, and vice versa. It may be for sampling ideas, doing a mashup of this and that and hoping to come up with a snappy ending, but for depth--not so much. I've had blogger's block and I need to get over it.

So let me just tell you about our weekend trip to Eastern NC. We left Raleigh at about 5:30 on a Friday night with friends Nancy and Chip in the back seat. We stopped in Rocky Mount and ate barbecue at Gardner's. Chip opted for the buffet. The rest of us ordered off the menue. We got to our B&B in Williamston at 8:30 or so, sipped a little something, laughed a lot, slept like babies. Innkeeper Lucia, who is the best friend you didn't know you had but you're so glad you do, fixed us a big breakfast. We set out for Hope Plantation in Windsor. It isn't opened in winter, but we could stroll the grounds. Beautiful place--we'll go back and get the tour.

Next: time to eat again. We went to an old fish house on the banks of the Roanoke River, the Cypress Grill. Jane and Michael Stern and other luminaries have been there but mostly it's for the locals. We marvelled at what keeps the Grill from being in the river and marvelled at fried herring, rock fish, oysters, shrimp, potato cakes, hushpuppies. The pies were not fried. Chocolate, pecan, cocoanut, lemon. We ate them all. But don't worry, there was cole slaw to make it healthy.

Then we set off for Somerset, an old plantation on Lake Phelps, now part of Pettigrew State Park, near Creswell. I know someone from Creswell and I'd never heard of it until I met him. I asked him, where is Creswell and we soon determined that it was 45 minutes from anything I'd ever heard of. "Look," Mike said, "East is big."

With that in mind, I suggested we use my GPS to get us to Somerset. I told Steve that Garmina might take us on back roads and there is almost nothing Steve loves more than a back road. But he does not believe in GPS. Too new-fangled. I could see the two sides of his mind arm wrestling over it and the back roads side won. We set Garmina and took off.

You should know that this part of North Carolina is not just low, it is the lowest of low land. The soil is rich but has to be drained to be farmed. The roads are bordered by deep ditches and canals. You can see for miles across wide, flat fields and see that the canals and farm roads form a grid. 'Twould be fun to fly over. There is a tulip farm nearby, established by Dutch immigrants. It is easy to see why the Dutch felt at home there.

Suddenly, Garmina pipes up. Turn right and take immediate left. Steve did it and upon making that left turn, we seemed to be in somebody's front yard. A little white dog and a big black goat came running out to see what we were doing there. Steve says, this can't be right. Yet we can see that a hardpacked dirt road runs through the yard and out across the fields. I say, it probably is right, but he feels (rightly) we're intruding so turns around and returns to the paved road we'd been on before Garmina spoke.

We go another mile or so and Garmina says again: Turn right and take immediate left. Steve does, and we're back on the the hardpacked dirt road, this time with no house, dog, or goat in sight. Now Steve's in the spirit, as are Nancy and Chip are who are good folks for an adventure. We take that road, crossing canals on makeshift bridges, admiring the fields, empty in February, wondering what grows there, sometimes seeing a county road marker that tells us the distance to Creswell off to the north, until we get to Somerset.

So far, so bloggable. This trip was intended primarily for eating, with the piece de resistance being oysters at the Sunnyside Oyster Bar back in Williamston. The trips to Hope and Somerset were my idea: lets get a little history as we pass the time between meals. GPS-directed discoveries are welcome, too. I was composing blog posts in my mind all along the way.

Until we got to Somerset.

Somerset Place was a plantation with tens of thousands of acres. The Collins family owned more than 300 slaves living at once. They bought and brought men directly from Africa to hand-dig canals so that the acreage could be farmed. Three hundred people produced great wealth for a dozen. Three hundred were kept back from the dozen by nothing more than a picket fence. And fear. And a sort of kindness that was really the most delicate and subtle form of domination.

The Collins family's history at Somerset lasted for less than a century and they were greatly reduced in fortune by the end of the Civil War. Theirs is one American story.

The descendents of the enslaved population are much more numerous than the descendents of the Collinses, and their American story is accordingly vaster and more complicated. Somerset is now a State historical site within a state park. Mostly because of one person, Dorothy Spruill Redford, it honors those people whose labor, sweat, illness, death, love of each other, development of community, talents and intelligence built and maintained Somerset.

My blogger brain came to a screeching halt. I stood on the steps of a slave cabin and looked out over the fields, the canals, the long straight paths, and I felt the spirits. I wanted more than anything to convey this but it isn't suited to smashup or sampling.

We went back to Williamston in great spirits, had time for napping or reading before cocktails and a long fun night at the Sunnyside.

That night, I dreamed Somerset.

Dorothy Spruill Redford, who is a descendent of the enslaved Somerset community, has written a book called Somerset Homecoming. Read it. And study the photo on page 85. It shows a path, still flat and clear years after the enslaved people were gone because of thousands or millions of their footstep. The path runs straight toward the mansion house. To the left, there is a row of slave houses. To the right, the lake, bordered by cypress trees.

You'll dream you walk that path, that edge between wilderness and community. You'll wake and hope you can find it, and not follow but cross it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In the Act of Truth-telling

A few days ago, my sister-in-law, Cynthia, called with a question. She wanted to write a memory piece to post on the Facebook page for Sunnyrock Farm in Walpole, MA. Cynthia, Steve and Keith grew up next door to the farm, playing and working there as if it was an natural extension of home, so there are many memories to write about. Buy Cyn had a problem. There was a specific story she wanted to tell and party-pooper Steve had convinced her that it didn't happen the way she remembered. Her question for me was, what to do?

Easy, I said, you say "This is what I remember" and tell your story. If you feel compelled to go another step in the direction of truthiness, you say, "others may remember it differently."

My wonderful boss, Lillian Lehman, used to say that if a story is worth telling, it's work improving upon.

That's why I write fiction, I suppose. But don't suggest to me that fiction isn't about truth. Reading and writing fiction are my avenues to the truth. That's why Cyn should write her story as she remembers it--with a tiny disclaimer. It's okay.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

In the Act of Snoozing

I posted the poem, below, several days ago. Sundays are the days I can and do indulge. I wake. I snooze. I wake and turn on NPR and snooze again. I wake. During the waking and snoozing, I think about my story. Not the writing, but the story itself. It would be nice to say I get my best ideas that way, but it isn't true. I get my best ideas by sitting down to do the work. Butt in chair, fingers on the keyboard. That's how it's done.

But sometimes, just once in a while, there is a little magic in those Sunday morning moments.

For some reason, a long time ago, I put a character, Colin, in a new suit. That suit just appeared. I liked it. I felt he should have it. But it had to have a purpose. To be able to keep it, I worked it out that his grown daughter cajoled him into buying it, because her mother--his late wife--liked to see him nicely dressed. I intended that the suit tell you something about him and his wife and his daughter.

Working out backstory is great fun. I get to write the biographies of my characters up to the moment that you, Dear Reader, meet them. Backstory is the part that doesn't actually show up in the book you're holding, but if it doesn't exist, the story will have no depth. The characters will be flat or predictable or so blah who will care?

My writing group, collectively, has let me know that they don't know how or why the young Colin and his wife ever got together in the first place. What did they see in each other? They don't seem like the inevitable couple that they absolutely have to be, to share their lives in this book.

This morning, as I moved from snooze to awake for the last time, that new suit of Colin's floated into my mind. Until then, I thought I had all the detailed backstory for this book I needed--but I didn't have the where and the how of the first meeting between Colin and the girl he would marry. Now I have it, and what they were wearing is all-important.

I like to believe that's why, forty-five years after that first meeting he got his new suit. It would be the clue I need when backstory ran out. And it's why I look forward to next Sunday's snooze.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why I Lie in Bed

I wait for that
Dream to recur.
The one in which
I hold the pieces
To the puzzle in
The flat of my hand.

Monday, January 16, 2012


The most in-the-act-of writing I know is Prompt Writing. You take a phrase, a photo, a random word, anything, and use it as a prompt. You set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, put pen to paper and write until the timer dings. You let the prompt literally prompt your writing but let the writing take over and take you wherever it wants to go. What comes out is sometimes dull, but more often surprising and vivid.

In Nancy Peacock's monthly workshop last Saturday, I was given two photos, one of an old farmstead with a house, a barn, another building or two, clothes on a line, and straight plowed furrows. The other photo was of bright and dainty china tea cups and saucers. The prompt was to synthesize the two. Here, unedited, is what I wrote:

Don't break that tea cup. My daddy brought it back from Charleston when he went once. And don't break that one. He got it when he went to Atlanta. Don't know why he thought a tea cup was the thing to bring me but that's he did.

All right now, you can help me wash them all up, but you got to be careful. I got, I don't know, how many. One or two get broke over time. I'm not one to put a pretty thing away and never use it. I use one to break eggs in when I separate them for a cake. See, you don't want to pour the whites out straight in the beating bowl because you might get a speck of yolk in and then you can't ever get them to beat up fluffy. So you crack the egg, pour the white in a cup and when you know there's no yolk in it, you pour it into the bowl. One at the time. I can't tell you how many a cake's been saved by my doing that. The yolks--they don't matter. Just dump them in the batter bowl any old way.

What else do I use a tea cup for? There's tea drinking, ha ha. And this one with the pink inside--it's my sugar measuring cup. This one with the green and yellow sprigs--it's how I measure butter. This one, the red rimmed one, I mix up salt and pepper all together so when I reach for a pinch of one, I get both. Saves me all kinds of time. So you best be careful how you wash 'em. Turn 'em up on a tea towel by the sink to dry. Mother Naure's the best dish dryer. She never cracks or chips anything.

My daddy, he worked hard, he could plow the straightest furrow you ever saw and he put up the posts for the clothes line I'm still using. But even so, he had a little wanderlust in him and if he could find a reason to be gone a few days, he'd take it. Charleston, Atlanta, Richmond, even Miami Beach. Most anywhere the railroad went. Mama fussed. She didn't like it when he was gone but he always come home. He always brought her a length of fabric and a silver teaspoon. Me, he brought me a tea cup. He had an eye for something pretty. You can see that. He liked to stand on the proch when the sun was just down behind the trees and say, "Sister, aint' this a pretty place? I keep looking but I can't find nothing prettier." Oh I remember it so good, how he'd say that.

Lord, what did I do? Careless. I get thinking and recalling and I get careless. No, honey, don't worry. Get the broom and the dustpast. At least it wasn't one of the real useful ones. No crying over spilt milk. You know what I do with the broken ones? Toss 'em down the old privy.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Week in the Life

About the decision: I fully expect I'll publish Beyond Doubt as both an ebook and a print-on-demand book. I realized the decision had made itself when a friend told me she is on the agent search and my inner voice asked "why?" I didn't say it. Not my business. But a viseral reaction must be right.

On Thursday this week, I went to Fayetteville to meet and talk with a reading group that has been going for decades. They promised to have me back when the book is in hand and I had a great time talking about how the story has evolved, the different points of view and structures I've experimented with to get where I am. I told them that on Saturday, my writers group would be going over the manuscript in fine detail. Several of ladies promised to pray for me on Saturday morning. I've heard that all prayers are answered one way or another.

On Saturday--yesterday--I got what I expected from my Girls Writing. Love, to be sure, for me and also for my story. And honesty. And great ideas. I want this book to be the best it can be, and by golly, so do the Girls.

So for a while, I'll be in the Act of Rewriting. Reimagining. Listening more closely to my characters, and giving them voice. It may only take a few weeks, or it may take a few months. I'm excited.