Friday, February 29, 2008


Really, I don't want this to become an anti-FEMA blog. But poor Rob spent six hours in a classroom this week and has another six ahead of him next week, and for no good reason.

I gather from his anguished mutterings that the course is about Incident Command Structure in the kind of interdepartmental response that would be required if, say, a 747 took a nose-dive into Herrick Bay. The students are all rural volunteer firefighters used to "mutual aid"--the system around here that allows a local fire department to call in assistance from surrounding towns in case of a big fire or other disaster. So what they're learning in this course is either old hat or geared to city folk.

In a mutual aid situation, the fire chief in the town calling in the aid usually is the incident commander, but there is a graceful and efficient system for relinquishing command to someone else who has more experience with a particular situation. (For instance, a boatyard fire can involve dangerous and flammable substances specific to boatyards, so you probably want to turn incident command over to the person on scene who knows most about boatyard fires.)

The local firefighters are not likely to appoint a finance officer for the incident, as this FEMA course would have them do. "If we need a bulldozer at a woods fire," Rob told a large glass of wine the other night, "we call in the nearest guy with a bulldozer. We don't go out for competitive bids."

The firefighters have to take this course in order for the town to be eligible for FEMA grants. So next week they'll all sit there, glassy-eyed, for another six hours.

On a more positive note, looks like we're getting DSL in our little burb. At least some of us are--you have to be within 3 miles (or is it 3.5?) of the substation next to the library. I never thought I'd see the day. Now I have to decide whether to stick with my original plan of nickel and diming myself to death (i.e. buying the less expensive and slower plan) or getting the faster wireless version. I'm tempted, but I need to do more research on whether I really want more radio waves under my roof. Any insights out there?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Recent Reads

The great thing about a dull winter (definition: no skiable snow) around here is that you do get some reading done, at least in between tap-tapping on the keyboard and consulting travel guides about our upcoming trip to England.

Here's the recent under-the-covers-with-the-flashlight tally:

1. Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Yup, I'd never read it. And it's a jewel: funny, intriguing, endearing, fluent...all the good things. I loved American Gods, so now will rush out and grab Anansi Boys and whatever else I can get my hands on.

2. The Princess Bride by William Goldman. Nope, never had read that one either. It, too, is very funny, but I found myself just slightly let down, probably because I'd been hearing about it for so long. I don't have much explanation for the fact that I had to make myself finish it--I got tired of the clever "book about a book about a movie and a book" framework, I guess. I'd still recommend it--it's a great ride, funny, suspenseful and, of course, well written.

3. The Opposite of Invisible by Liz Gallagher. OK, I had to read it because she's in the Class of 2k8 and it just came out. But I didn't have to love it, and to be honest I didn't expect to because I'm not a big teen romance reader. I keep saying this...teen romance has changed A LOT since I was a teen. It used to be a barren wasteland of clean-shaven boys and girls in pastel dresses. But Alice and Jewel, the star-crossed best friends in Gallagher's book, are great characters--lots of edges and interesting corners.

4. Ditto I Heart You, You Haunt Me by 2k8er Lisa Schroeder. It's in verse, and it works like a house afire. It's a simple story of guilt and love-beyond-the-grave, and the verse format gives it its third dimension. Wish I could figure out why, but it does.

5. I knew I was going to love A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce. (Yeah, yeah, another 2k8er. So sue me.) It's based on Rumpelstiltskin but is NOTHING like a fairy tale. It's kind of a romance, kind of a ghost story, but mostly it's about a young woman taking charge and making things right at a time when women often didn't (or at least didn't get credit for it in history books written by guess who). Great detail about the era (late 18th century, as I recall) and the textile trade.

6. A Fall from Grace by Robert Barnard. A good ol' British murder mystery. Not much to it, but fun.

Right now I'm reading Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, a Christmas present a friend gave to Rob. It's sci-fi, which I haven't read for a long time. I'm enjoying it. Tell you about it later.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bad Blogging and Space Object Re-entry

I have to scurry to get something on the blog so it won't be an entire week since I last wrote here.

It was a busy week. I interviewed for and wrote a story for The Ellsworth American and helped Rob pull together some stuff for a magazine that's going to display some of his work. Wrote a Filioli synopsis and some first-person Filioli commentary to interject between chapters. (I'm sure there's a formal word for "interjections between chapters" but I don't know it.) Cleaned up the first six chapters as much as I could--changing the main character's age at the last minute, because it's first person and I wanted less time to have elapsed between the events and the time of narration. Probably this'll turn into a major screw-up, because it was so last-minute, but I guess anything can be fixed at this stage.

Got the Filioli package to Kate the Superagent yesterday. So we'll see. A long time from now, probably, life being so busy at Harcourt in the wake of the Houghton-Mifflin merger.

Last night we went to see "The Gondoliers," put on by the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Hancock County. Their past director and music director are back--yay, although last year's show was pretty good, too. Gorgeous music, singing and dancing, great costumes, nice set--only marred, as usual, but the fact that you couldn't understand a lot of the lyrics, especially when sung by the chorus or a neophyte soloist. You could tell what you were missing when one of old pros came on--every word as clear as if he were sitting next to you. But it was all fun--except for sitting next to Rob, who doesn't like "The Gondoliers" very much and was more annoyed than usual about the mysterious lyrics. This afternoon I'll write a review for the paper.

One highlight of our week was an email from FEMA telling Rob what to do if a satellite fell on his head. Some years ago, he agreed to be the Emergency Management Director for our little town. Before 9/11, this was an unpaid position with no responsibilities. In recent years, it is an unpaid pain in the butt. Rob and other firefighters had to be trained to combat Global Terrorism--Rob jokes about standing his ground when Al Qaeda frogmen march up from the harbor--and he's always having to do some little emergency-related chore.

This time, he got a memo warning him about the satellite's "uncontrolled decent." (Do you suppose they meant "decency"? Because I thought we had that well under control.) Then it said: "We will have six Federal Joint Interagency Task Forces located around the country ready to deploy the moment we know the impact area, responding to assist you in your role of immediate consequence management." It attached a nine-page "First Responder Guide for Space Object Re-Entry," which I plan to keep among my souvenirs. There's a novel in there somewhere, don't you think?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Miniscule Monday

Just little stuff today.

1. We had weekend guests, for a welcome midwinter break. Their names are Linda and Michael, and they brought with them Dudley, their six-month-old golden doodle (a poodle-golden retriever mix). That's Dudley at left--his baby picture from six weeks ago, actually. Right now he's bigger than our black lab, Callie. Can't wait to see how big he is when he makes his summertime visit in August.

The cat was not impressed with Dudley. She spent the weekend in the cellar, now and then poking her head out her little cat door to see if the coast was clear. It never was, so back she went for six more weeks of winter.

2. The 2k8 blog has an entertaining contest involving cover mutilation and multiple-choice questions (my favorite in high school). The Unnameables doesn't have a cover yet, so remains unmutilated. Should be getting a draft cover any time now--an unnerving thought, since having a cover makes everything so final, like a coffin lid. (My, aren't we in a cheery mood today? Too much wine last night, perhaps?)

3. I went to an orthopedist Friday to see why my knees hurt so much. I ruined them several decades ago running down a mountain-ette in the Lake District in England. (Waving my arms in the air and singing "The Sound of Music," as I recall.) Ever since, I've been doing what I can to keep my quadriceps (the front muscles in our thighs) firm and strong so the tendons attached to them will keep the kneecap from wobbling around like a weak frisbee throw. Turns out my quadriceps are now so much tighter than the rest of my thigh muscles that the tendons are shoving the kneecaps backward. Plus the inside thigh is much weaker than the outside, so the kneecaps are set crooked. So I have to have physical therapy to undo it all. Good going, Ellen.

Interesting bit of trivia: When you sit down and do ankle-lifts, the outside thigh muscles do the work from floor level to half-way up, and then the inside thigh muscles take over until you straighten your leg. Who knew.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Well, temporarily done. Modified rapture.

I finished the rough draft this morning. Twenty-one chapters, 206 pages. The plan next week is to polish up the first five chapters, write four more bits of commentary by my small supernatural beings, and...oh, yeah, write a synopsis that makes the book sound unputdownable. Gah.

Then pack it off to Kate Schafer, superagent. (Check out her new agency by the way--kt literary. And she does a publishing advice blog as the shoe-aware Daphne Unfeasible) Then, if all is well, Kate will send it to Harcourt to see if they want it.

And while they're cogitating (and after that and after that), I revise, revise, revise, revise.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Lovely, Ugly Day

For various reasons, this kind of day has been rare lately: entirely devoted to writing fiction, with just a dollop of skiing for starters. It's the best kind of day I know.

We're having Weather, so school was cancelled and with it my junior high writers workshop. Then the lady I was supposed to interview this morning turned out to have the flu (just as well--for me, not for her--since it's NASTY out there).

So, nothing to do but write.

First, I took advantage of the five-point-three seconds of decent snow out there and skied in the woods for an hour--my favorite kind of woods, too, lovely, dark, and deep. Snow coming down in a mist, sticking to the branches and sides of the trees. Silence. Tiny critter footprints, filling up with snow.

Got home about an hour before it all turned to rain. (Note to self: Remember, there are good things about living by the ocean. OK, snow may not be one of them. But try kayaking on a wheat field.)

And then I worked on the last chapter of The Filioli. I'm so close to finishing the first, rough-rough-rough draft that I can see the last sentence lying on the ground under that tree over there. Lots more to do after I get there--LOTS more to do, thanks to character work I did last week. (I write "journal" entries in the voices of various characters, and haul surprises out of their brainstems every time.) But still, it's progress.

Now the wind's coming up. If the power goes out we'll spend the evening staring at the fire instead of Jim Lehrer. Nothing against ol' Jim but...

Monday, February 11, 2008


Had a lovely time playing with democracy (and Democracy) yesterday, when our little town participated in the presidential caucus. A hundred Dems showed up at the elementary school gym (not bad for a town of 900). We voted 75 Obama to 25 Clinton, thus anointing three Obama delegates and one Clinton delegate.

Somebody said the Republicans only got 13 voters last week. This used to be a Republican town. Everyone I know has a story about some dyed-in-the-wool Republican who's left the party because of Bush.

Interestingly, quite a few households were divided--husband for Obama, wife for Clinton, or vice versa. Everyone was cheery about it, though. I think we'd all be pleased either way. A woman sitting in front of me on the Obama side was a Republican until four years ago. Her husband, who changed parties when she did, was on the Clinton side.

It can take courage to vote with your entire body in a small town. This came home to me when the woman next to me gasped and said, "Why, John Smith!" (Fake name.) Turns out John was over on the Clinton side, when he might have been expected to be an Obamite. He probably had to explain himself later. You don't have to do that with a secret ballot. You can even lie about your vote if you want to.

The speeches were interesting. Pro-Clinton: It isn't every day you get to vote for another woman; She's got more experience and knows the foreign leaders; Clintonites know what to do about the economy. Pro-Obama: He's energizing young people; I haven't been this excited since 1960; It's time for young people to lead. Head vs. Heart, mostly.

Standing in line to sign in, one point of view was unanimous: Everyone was leery of the super-delegates deciding the nomination. The state party chair, who is from our little town, has said he will cast his super-delegate vote with the majority of Maine voters, which turns out to mean for Obama. The people around me thought that was a fine idea.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Lizzie Bright

Yesterday at 4 p.m., I finally sat down to read Gary Schmidt's "Lizzy Bright and the Buckminster Boy," a Newbery Honor book published in 2004. I took a long break to watch two kinds of news, eat dinner, and watch "Survivor," but then refused to go to sleep until I'd finished it.

The book takes off from the actual history of Malaga Island, Maine, at the turn of the century home to several black families. In the book, the business community of nearby Phippsburg wants to clear the island of its shantys and inhabitants to make way for a resort. Young Turner Buckminster, son of the new Phippsburg minister, befriends Lizzie Bright Griffin, the daughter of the Malaga preacher. Turner tries to save Lizzie and her neighbors, one way or another. Tragedy ensues, but also beauty.

It was the character of Turner, of course, who pulled me in on page one and held me to the end. I loved Lizzie, Turner's parents, the evil townspeople and the two old ladies (especially Mrs. Cobb, who evolves). But Turner--such a slave to his better nature, so forthright and brave in the less noticeable ways--is the reason the book is such a prize. It's in first person so you're in his skin from word one. And it's tragic yet uplifting, and funny in an understated way. (It is, after all, set in Maine, where the understated humor can just about kill you.) Those Newbery folks know what they're doing.

Snow update: It's been coming down all day in lackadaisical fashion. I'm going to try skiing around the yard later. Better than nothing.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Pros and Cons

Good news: It snowed some more. Bad news: It's still not quite enough to ski. One more like this and maybe we'll talk business.

Good news: Today was a writing day, after a century and a half of frigging around with lesson plans and symphony reviews and copy edits and maps and volunteer projects biting me on the ankle. Bad news: I had a bad case of First-Day-Back-itis, and wrote as if I had claws instead of fingers. I did get some thinking done on various plot holes, though, and tomorrow will be better.

Good news: Since the Democratic race is so close, all of a sudden Maine means something. Yesterday, half the newscasts forgot our little caucus existed. Today, Obama and Clintons-squared announced plans to come to Maine over the weekend. Obama will be in Bangor, which is tempting but I'd rather have a writing day. Bad news: Regardless what we do in Maine, we risk a brokered convention and angst aplenty. And McCain's going to be hard to beat.

Good news: Hey! I blogged two days in a row! Bad news: I did it so I wouldn't have to write.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Snow and Other Stuff

After two days of rain and yuck, this morning's drizzle finally turned to snow. Nice to look at (the photo's from my office window) but useless for any recreational purpose. I suppose I could build a snowman or sculpt something. But I'd rather ski or possibly even skate. Weather gods take note.

At noon I mushed through the slush to the opening meeting of the weekly writers group I run at the town library for a small group of elementary school kids--five kids this year, sixth through eighth grades. One was sick, so only four today. MUCH different from last year, when I had eight kids. Should be easier to give everyone the attention they deserve. The noise level will be better, too.
Three out of the four were excited to be there, which I found astonishing and gratifying. One (a returnee from two previous years) actually said he was looking forward to filling out My Main Character forms. This made me feel like one of those Star Trek or Dr. Who episodes when some tired, dying race tries to tap the life force from some younger, vibrant race. Nicely energized, I hope without damage to the young writer.

He will be a writer, if he wants. He exults in the process, and he's got a fantastic sense of humor. Last year, his main character was a boy living in a cartoon world. Confronted by the traditional anvil falling on him from the sky, he asks peevishly: "What are anvils actually for? And who keeps them in their house all the time?"

This year, I'll be asking them to write a short story in third-person, from two alternating points of view. Since I've never done that myself, really, I'll probably participate as writer as well as a teacher. Cool.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Bad Blogger

Oh dear. I seem to have done exactly what I promised myself I wouldn't do, and let Life overcome Blogging.

Here are my excuses:

1. The maps arrived. The Unnameables will have a map of Town spread over two pages, and a map of Island on one page. Very, very exciting, especially the map of Town, which seems like it sprang out of my subconscious. However, there were some problems. Town Hall didn't have the all-important back entrance to the cellar where the jail is. There was no tree for Medford, Prudy, and Earnest to lean against to rest up from carrying the rescued journals to Boyce's house. Merchant's store didn't have a liveable second floor. Much nitpicking and angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin dancing. In some places I changed the text to match the map, because I'm such an accommodating (i.e. freaked out) author.

2. I'm so boggled by Life that I can't remember what 2 is.

3. I rashly told my agent and editor I would immediately work on a proposal for the next book (working title: The Filioli), which I thought I had almost finished drafting. I then realized that the book was lacking a certain oomphiness. So I came up with an idea (not highly original, but what is?) of allowing Durindana the Filiola (kind of like a fairy) short bursts of narration in between chapters narrated by my heroine, Mellie. This sets the proposal back a few weeks, but cheers me up no end.

4. The newspaper I freelance for asked me to review a symphony concert, ignoring my protests that I would be lucky to notice if the piccolo player fell into the tuba. I read up on the pieces and got CDs of them out of the library, hoping this would help me figure out if something went significantly haywire. Went to the concert yesterday and wrote the review this morning. Fortunately, it seemed that everyone else around me agreed that the concert was wonderful. Wonderful I can write about. Mistakes, not so much.

5. Plus my writing workshop for local kids starts Wednesday and I'm having trouble finding good examples of omniscient narration.

I have more but I can see you're getting bored. I'll do better next time, I promise.