Archive for the ‘The Writing Process’ Category

… should you care to accept it…

Saturday, November 24th, 2018

I am so enjoying the interviewing and researching process involved in my current Observer series, “Our Grands and Greats.”  I am blown away by how much (but sometimes how little) those I interview know about their forebears.  I’ve just completed the eleventh article in the series and I have a formed a tentative rule of thumb about our knowledge of our ancestors:  the closer the family has stayed to their ‘roots,’ the more they know.  In general, those who are fourth or fifth or sixth generation here on the Peninsula know far more about their forefathers than their recently arrived neighbors.

It stands to reason, of course.  If people didn’t move on to start a new life, they obviously remained better acquainted with and connected to the place of their origins.  And, probably, their ‘things’ did too – the photographs, perhaps some treasured letters, their “good” furniture or Sunday dishes were less likely to become disbursed.  And with the things, there are often stories.  If we’re lucky those don’t get lost either.

For me, it’s the stories that really connect us to our forebears.  With all the possibilities these days on ancestor.com and similar sites, we may have the illusion that we are learning about great-grandpa or great-great grandma.  But are we?  What lies beyond the dates and place names and copies of marriage licenses?  What sort of person was he or she?  Who were their neighbors and how did they get along? What of their character traits?  Did they have a good sense of humor?  Were they outgoing?  And what would they have considered their crowning achievement?

I loved listening to my grandmother when I was a child.  One story she told me was about her love of swimming in the “tank” (as they called the indoor swimming pool) when she was a girl.  “As soon as I dove in, I’d kick off my swimming togs,” she told me.  “I loved the freedom of being unclothed in the water.”  I remember only that I wondered why she felt that way, little realizing what the swimming ‘togs’ of the 1880s looked like and must have felt like weighted down with water.  Nor did I wonder about who else might be with her or any other privacy ramifications.  I wish I’d asked, but I’m ever grateful that I had that even that little peek.

And my mom’s story about being the only girl of the 14 kids about her age in Oysterville.  “I was always a tag-along,” she told me.  And when I asked, she said, “Yes, I was definitely a tomboy.  I was the youngest of seven and I think my mother just let Willard and Edwin look after me.  She let me wear coveralls at home, but I had to put on a dress when I went up to Grandpa’s house.”  My totally feminine mom — with her hats and her jewelry and her love of clothes shopping!  A tomboy!  Putting that together with her first-ever purchase of blue jeans at 86 years old – she was going out with Les Wilson on his boat – gives a totally different look at who she was.

That R.H. Espy had a “tot” of whiskey every day before breakfast makes him a little more human.  That my great aunt Dora – so stern and formidable seeming as an old woman – begged and begged her mother for hair ribbons when she was a girl or that my garrulous Aunt Mona confused “no” and “yes” when she was very young — until the day someone offered her a piece of candy and, at her response, didn’t give it to her.

The stories don’t have to long.  They just have to go a bit farther than a name and a date.  Write them down!  One here; one there.  They’ll add up to more than you can imagine.  And while you’re at it – write down your own stories – What was your most embarrassing moment as a teen?   Who was your best friend before you started school and what kinds of things did you do?  What was your biggest adventure as a young adult?  Write it down!  For posterity!  So your descendants will know more than a name and date.

Tooting My Own Horn

Saturday, October 13th, 2018

Just last night, I took a lot of (fairly) good-natured ragging from my own beloved husband for “telling all” in my blogs.  All about him, that is.  The subject came up because it was “Friday Night” at our house and a number of our friends had gathered for our usual “guzz’n’gossip” session, as someone once termed such get-togethers.  Comments about Nyel’s experiences of the last week – broken leg, hospital(s), EMTs, wheelchair, etc. – led him to remark that, because of my blog, he had no secrets.  I agree.  That’s pretty much true.

So, in order to balance things out a bit, today I’ll talk about me.  (Not that I don’t do that quite frequently, anyway.)  This time, though, I am unabashedly tooting my own horn!  The first thing I saw when I woke up my computer this morning was a photograph of a plaque with my name on it and this message from Chinook Observer Editor Matt Winters:

Chinook Observer news, photo and opinion coverage of immigration enforcement on the Long Beach Peninsula today was honored with the top statewide Community Service Award at the publisher association’s annual convention in Yakima. Sydney Steven’s landmark series on the subject led the way. Special thanks is owed to the brave individuals who spoke with us during this months-long effort, often at grave risk to their freedom and ability to remain with their families in this country.

Erin Glenn

Matt also wrote:  Congratulations to Sydney Stevens for this major statewide honor. Though we couldn’t quite pull off a Pulitzer in this hectic news year, winning Washington state’s top press honor is no small thing!

I have to confess I felt a little teary, and that whole cliché thing – my mind flashing back to all my journalism teachers and professors – did, indeed happen.   So corny.  So real.  But, mostly, I thought of my friend Erin Glenn and her gentle insistence that I should “do something” to help and my (equally insistent) reply that all I can “do” is write.  I’m so glad she prevailed and paved the way for me with introductions and translations and insider insights.  Her name should be on that plaque, too!

About “George by George!”

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

My cousin Ruth’s book is out!  I am so pleased for her and proud, too.  She did what so many of us “threaten” to do – documented a branch of her family by writing and publishing a hard-cover book, complete with reproductions of documents, photographs, and letters by and about her beloved grandfather, George Maloney.  But it wasn’t just a two-and-a-half year project.  Her documentation is rounded out by information gathered on her trips to the UK over the course of a lifetime and by her contuing contacts with family members there.

Ruth retired several years ago from her long-time job with Farmers Insurance and has devoted a huge portion of her time to this project ever since.  I think it’s a “limited edition” with enough copies printed for family members and perhaps a few more.  She was her own publisher but she did hire an editor to assist with the final putting-together part.

Ruth Espy Maloney is my second cousin on the Espy side.  Her father and my mother were grandchildren of R.H. Espy.  George Maloney was Ruth’s mother’s father – the “grampa” on the other side of her family.  She grew up right next door to him and can credit many of her interests, skills, and character traits directly to him.  I know this because I had the pleasure of reading the book about Grampa George earlier this year and the privilege of writing a foreword for the book.  And I’ve known Ruth all her life.

Shortly before Grampa George died at age 86, he began writing the story of his life.  He called it “George by George” and when Ruth completed her book based on that autobiographical material, she thought it was a most fitting title.  It evokes a long-ago time – the time when my own grandfathers and their friends used the expression, “By George!” to underscore or emphasize a thought or an idea.  “A mild expletive” the dictionary says, that can be traced back to the 16th century, “comparable to words like golly and gosh.”

I don’t know about the “expletive” part – but I do know that Ruth has set the bar high for the rest of us family members who have the idea that we’d like to write about a relative or forebear.  Ruth, you did a great job, by George!

Previews and Insider Information

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

Yesterday morning I spent being whisked from one delightful setting to another that I’d love to tell you about – and will! – but not yet.  Six beauty spots right here on the Peninsula.  Each to be featured on the upcoming Music in the Gardens tour on July 21st.

But it’s not quite time for the Big Reveal.  Maybe in a week or two.  Right now, gardeners are doing a lot of fluffing up and last-minute grooming, musicians and visual artists are learning where they will be ‘stationed’ for the day, and refreshments are being planned.  I felt like I was on a backstage tour as preparations for the opening night gala were being fine-tuned.

Delight in the Dunes

I was chauffeured, escorted, and introduced to the gardens by Nancy Allen and Darlene Houser, the two extraordinary organizers of this annual event – a fundraiser for the Water Music Festival.  Proceeds each year are earmarked for the Ocean Beach School District’s music program.  My teeny-tiny part in all of this is to do a bit of writing for what the Music in the Gardens website describes as a keepsake brochure.

I don’t think I’m telling too much to say that each of the six gardens could be the subject of an entire book, not just a short description in a brochure.  And each could be classified within its own separate genre – an art garden, an instructional garden, a children’s garden, even a garden that I would classify as a mercantile garden.  But, lest I reveal too much too soon, I’ll not extend this little ramble.

Work in Progress

Speaking of which, the gardens varied in size from what Nancy described as a “grandma garden” (which would be just about a manageable size for some of us less sprightly gardeners) to an acreage among the dunes with trails to walk and vistas to behold. Every garden…  different!  Every one magical!  Every one with secrets to reveal.

And here we are back to secrets!  Stay tuned (as they say in the music world.)  Meanwhile, you can pre-order your tickets online through the Water Music Festival website at https://watermusicfestival.com/event/music-in-the-gardens/.

When Perfection Isn’t Good Enough

Friday, May 4th, 2018

The Ilwaco Cranberry Exchange

Eleven of the photographs submitted to Arcadia for “Washington’s Cranberry Coast” are not acceptable for one reason or another and need to be replaced.  In the great scheme of things, eleven out of 198 isn’t too bad, I guess.  We are scrambling to find suitable substitutes.  Another deadline!  Yikes!

There are two that are going to be difficult.  The emails between the Title Manager (my Go-To-Contact-and-The-Buck-Stops-Here person) have been flying back and forth. Today I’m sending the original 1913 brochure (from which one of the photos came) back to South Carolina for ‘Production Team’ to take a look at.  Maybe, just maybe, they can find a way to use that one.  It’s the only known image of the Ilwaco Cranberry Exchange building.

The other is apparently hopeless.  Sadly, it effects the ending of the book and I’m wracking my brain on how to salvage the concept with another photograph.  The rejected image is also from the early 1900s and is a picture of two women holding the sign for Cranberry Station – one of the railroad stops on the old IR&N.  It’s the perfect photo to make my ending statement and, as far as I know, there is no other like it.  The trouble, according to Arcadia, is “low resolution” and the image will apparently pixilate when reproduced to the size needed.  Total bummer.

Cranberry Station Sign

So, I’m on the search for a period photograph (early 1900s) from Washington Coast that has the word “cranberry” in it and, if possible, shows a bit of context in the background.  And I have exactly a week to find it and re-write the text accordingly.  Oh, yes.  And it will have to pass muster at the other end of things.  Perhaps the Cranberry Gods read my blog and will get in touch with me…

Thanks a lot, Maggie!

Monday, April 30th, 2018

Everyone needs a good friend like Maggie.  I mean that sincerely.  Maggie is my best ever cheerleader when it comes to writing.  And she is my best tell-it-like-it-is critic.  Besides all that, she knows of what she speaks.

Maggie is an author and an editor.  She’s been in the book business for thirty (or maybe forty) years.  She’s worked in publishing houses in New York and she is ‘connected’ (as they say) with agents and editors and movers and shakers of all descriptions.  So, when she asked to read my “Willard Book” as I’ve come to calling it, I was delighted, if a bit intimidated.

The book is on hold.  I thought it was finished five years ago – at least finished enough to send it to WSU Press as a possible companion book to Dear Medora.  Not interested came the reply.  I’d like to say it’s because they have a new editor now, but in my heart of hearts I know that the book is not ‘there yet.’  As is often the way, though, other things have taken precedence and I never seem to get back to Willard.  Not seriously.

945

Willard at Work, 1

When I do look at it, I get caught up in its… morass, for lack of another word.  It’s full of family and secrets and stories that only I know.  But my voice isn’t clear; Willard’s is clearer.  It’s not the book I have in my head and it doesn’t do the book in my heart justice.  I know that.  So, even though it was with some fear and trepidation, I entrusted this rejected version to Maggie and, amazingly, she read every word.  Yesterday she came over to talk about it.

Like the good cheerleader that she is, she began by saying, “You are a good writer, Sydney.”  The next sentence, though, is the one that counted.  “You’re better than this.”  And she tapped the pages of notes she had written.  Chapter-by-chapter notes taken as she (probably) slogged through my manuscript.  I loved her approach, of course, but the main part that I heard was – re-think and re-write.  And I knew she was right on the mark.  She said the words that I have been refusing to formulate for five years or more.

It didn’t even occur to me to respond, “Easy for you to say.”  Because if anyone knows how hard it is to come at a book from a different angle, it’s Maggie.  She’s paid her dues many times over and she knows of what she speaks.  But… she didn’t leave it at that.  She had some ideas for me.  Different approaches I might take.   None that resonated right then… but I woke up this morning with something stirring.  Some thoughts taking shape.  Some work waiting to be done.

Thanks a lot, Maggie!  And I do mean it sincerely!  I hope you’ll keep cheering for me and saying it like it is.  There aren’t many friends who can or will.  You are the Maggiest!

By the Numbers

Friday, April 13th, 2018

Arcadia Books

Most people are probably familiar with books put out by the Arcadia Publishing Company.  In fact, perhaps most people have even written one.  There seems to be one on every conceivable subject or place of interest that you can imagine – your favorite restaurant chain, your home town, your college or high school or daycare center.  You name it and there is an Arcadia book about it.

Says Wikipedia:  Arcadia Publishing is an American publisher of neighborhood, local, and regional history of the United States in pictorial form. Arcadia Publishing also runs the History Press, which publishes text-driven books on American history and folklore.  Just now I am involved in writing my sixth Arcadia book.  Two of mine have been of the “text driven” History Press variety.  This current project, like three others I’ve done, are of the “pictorial form” – that is a book covering a topic by showing photographic images with limited words, all in the form of captions.  I call them “books by the numbers.”

Author’s Guidelines

Right off the bat, the author is told that the book will be 128 pages long, will include 180-240 images and must contain between 8,000 and 18,000 words total. Furthermore, total word counts are designated for the dedication (encouraged), foreword (optional), for the general introduction (not optional), for the back-cover text (not optional), and for the bibliography and/or index (also optional). In addition, you must have a Table of Contents for which you must create and list three to ten chapters for your book. Chapters may only begin on odd-numbered pages.

As if all this is not daunting enough, there are further specifics.  The General Introduction may be two, three, or four pages.  A two-page introduction must contain 1000-1,2000 words, a three-pager between 1,600 and 1,900 words and a four-pager between 2,000 and 2,700 words.  And oh, by the way, if you choose to include a foreword, your general introduction will need to be two to four pages long.

Layout Planner

And, just to keep you on your toes, do bear in mind that pages can contain up to two images and two captions in various combinations and with particular word limits:  Two images/2 captions: 50-70 words; two images/one caption 100-140 words; one image/one caption 140-180 words; 1 image/chapter-start-age 50-70 words; one double-page image (limit three for the book) 100-140 words.  All images must be originals, scanned in gray scale at 300 dpi, and saved in tiff.  And, even so, they may not pass muster.

Yesterday, my editor wrote:
1.  How many images have you selected for use in your book?
2.   How many of the selected images have been scanned to Arcadia’s specifications?
3.   How many of the selected images have a completed caption?

Answers: 145-185; all but 12; 99. The only number looming larger than any of the above is 11.  As in 11 days left before my deadline (which was kindly extended when I was so ill.)  April 24 — the only number that matters right now!

 

Me? Neurotic? Well, maybe just a little…

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

Sydney at Work

It’s a sad, sad situation when you spend all day in your bathrobe without benefit of being sick.  But that’s what I did yesterday.  I was on a roll – a cranberry roll, if you will – working diligently on my current book project and, before I knew it Nyel said lunch was ready.  By then there didn’t seem much point in switching gears, so I ate and just kept on keeping on until dinner time.

And here we are… Easter Sunday!  I am reminded of my sixteen-year-old Aunt Medora’s diary entry in 1915:  April 4th Easter Sunday and no new Spring clothes but I didn’t mind as I was in Oysterville… Still, I wonder if she ever had the luxury of schlepping around in her bathrobe all day.  Not on that long-ago Easter, for sure. We had a gay time getting the children ready for Sunday, but they were finally dressed and all looked very well, especially Mona.  She looked so dainty and dear.

1912 – The Espy Children (Dale, Willard, Edwin, Mona, Suzita, Medora)

Maybe if I had four or five little children to get ready for church, getting dressed would be a sure thing.  But… I have weeks to go before this book is print-ready and, as much as I love my soft warm bathrobe, I think I’d better give it up sooner rather than later.  I don’t want to turn into one of those neurotic writers who could only write under very specific and peculiar circumstances.

 James Joyce, for instance, wrote lying on his stomach in bed, clad in a white coat, and using a large blue pencil – perhaps because he was nearly blind by the time he was in his twenties.  Presumably, the white coat helped reflect light and the crayons were more visible than pen or pencil.

Jack London in his Office, 1916

Some of Truman Capote’s routines included not beginning or ending a piece of work on a Friday, changing hotel rooms if the room’s phone number included the number 13, and never leaving more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray, tucking the extra ones into his coat pocket.  And, of course, there are many tales of authors who assigned themselves word quotas. Jack London wrote 1,000 words a day every single day of his career.  William Golding, Arthur Conan Doyle and Norman Mailer each subscribed to the 3,000-words-a-day formula.

Now that I think of it, living in my warm, red bathrobe for a day or two isn’t sounding all that weird.  However… I’m sure I’ll get just as much accomplished in my old blue jeans and sweatshirt.  If not… all bets are off as to my sartorial decisions for the next few weeks.  Right now, my life is all about deadlines.

I’m almost ready to plant!

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

“Cranberry Gothic” from Legendary Locals of the Long Beach Peninsula

I’ve always taken to heart the phrase Just walk a mile in his moccasins (from the 1895 poem “Judge Softly” by Mary T. Lathrap.)  I don’t think any of us can completely understand someone else unless we have experienced what they have been through.  I try to hang onto that thought when I feel myself getting all judgmental about someone else’s actions.

Of course, taking on someone else’s role in life, even for a few days or hours, is not always possible.  I have found that the next best thing is trying to write a book from the other guy’s point of view.  Listening to the words, even seeing the pictures, isn’t quite enough.  But sometimes it’s the best you can do.  (I hasten to add that my reasons for writing books are many but they don’t include wanting to walk in someone else’s steps.  That’s just a bonus.)

Yesterday I spent many hours with my cranberry mentors preparing the land to plant a bog.  First, we located a likely spot – properly marshy – and cleared away the brush and took out the trees.  We used several methods – the old-fashioned way “by hand” and also with benefit of power tools.  We leveled, we dug ditches (using shovels and huge equipment, as well.) We put in sprinkling systems and dikes. We hauled sand from the beach, sometimes bucket by bucket, and layered it over our bog(s).  We explored a century of procedures and systems, of successes and failures.

Holman’s Bogs, Oysterville 1935

At the end of the day, I was exhausted!  Months of hard physical labor compressed into an afternoon of sorting photographs, talking pros and cons, and getting some first steps done for the “cranberry book” – working title: Washington’s Cranberry Coast.  I’m here to tell you that the next best way to walk in a cranberry farmer’s hip boots is to understand his work well enough to write a book about it.  I fell into bed, still shoveling sand in my mind and even woke up twice with leg cramps!  Probably over-exertion.

Yesterday’s “work” was all about sorting images – hundreds of photographs from dozens of sources.  The next few days will be writing about them – the true test of whether I fully understand what is entailed in getting a bog ready from scratch.  I hope that I’ll be ready to “plant and tend” by the end of the week.  I’m here to tell you, being a cranberry farmer is not a job for the faint of heart or the of weak of back.  That much I understand perfectly.

With a Head Full of Cranberries…

Monday, March 26th, 2018

In a moment of extreme weakness (apparently), I agreed to write a book about the cranberry industry in Washington state.  Sometimes, my heart simply takes over.  That’s the only way I can explain it.

From a logical standpoint, it was the correct decision to make.  Absolutely.  After all, I’ve written a book about our Long Beach cranberries.  Long ago (1998), C is for Cranberries was my first venture into self-publishing; it was the beginning of “Mrs. Stevens’ ABCs” – eventually nine books that were what I describe as quick “down and dirty” overviews of subjects near and dear to my heart.

Following the cranberry book were O is for Oysters, I is for Indians, O is for Oysterville, D is for Discovery, P is for Papa Train, P is for Peninsula, Q is for Quicksand, and K is for Kidnapping the County Seat. Each one holds special memories for me, maybe especially the cranberry book since it was the first.

My friend and soulmate, Gordon Schoewe, illustrated it for me in his own inimitable style.  A careful look will reveal his signature bunny rabbit, Ambrose, tucked in on the “X is for Xmas” page.  Kim Patten (previously known to me-the-schoolteacher only as” Eli’s dad” and also as a member of the School Board) spent lots of time educating me into the world of cranberry statistics – varieties and pests and yields and laws.  And, my colleague Patty Brewe’s husband Kyle read my final copy and had a gentle suggestion or two.  Precious memories all these years later!

This time, the cranberry book will be a collaborative effort.  I am so grateful that saying “yes” to the Pacific Coast Cranberry Research Foundation was not the end of my association with them until publication!  They are right beside me, all the way!  Not only my head but my emails are full of cranberries!  Melinda Crowley and Ardell McPhail and I are bound together in cranberry vines for the duration.

Arcadia Publishing is doing all the nitty-gritty-get-the-book-printed work.  Their demands are stringent and creative wiggle-room is limited, but they relieve us from worry about the publishing details.  We only have to be concerned with 8,000 to 18,000 words of text and 180 to 240 images, deliverable on specific dates.  No pressure!

A month from day before yesterday, the book will be done.  (Read “vill be done” with a heavy accent.)  But I’m sure I’ll continue to have a headful and heartful of cranberry memories for a long, long time afterwards!