into the sugarhouse

August 21, 2016 | Leave a comment

When I was a little girl, my Uncle Tommy used to take me, along with my brother and sister, to the sugarhouse on his property high in the snow-clad hills. There, the maple trees grew wild, and we could commute back to the house on a toboggan that fit all three kids in a row, crash landing more often than not.

My uncle was deaf from birth, and he always felt most at home in nature, where the communication did not demand words. He loved working the land year round, raising game birds, Irish setters, cattle and crops–but the tail end of winter was a slack time, when everything lies dormant.

Or so we think. People in sugarbush country know that the earth is just waking up from the long cold winter. In late February or March, the daytime temperature creeps above freezing, and the thaw begins. Deep within the heart of the sugar maple, the sap comes alive and runs–at first a trickle, followed by a steady flow, and when the conditions are just right, almost a gush.

I used to get in trouble for climbing the maple trees, because my clothes would get sticky with sap–but tree climbing never bothered my uncle. He collected the sap in the old way, by drilling a spile (hollow metal spout) into the tree and hanging a bucket to catch the drips. It was probably cold, muddy, miserable work, but I don’t remember that part. I just remember riding through the woods on a stone boat behind the tractor, bringing the tanks of collected sap to the sugarhouse.

That was where the magic happened. A roaring woodfire under the big evaporator pan performed an act of sweet alchemy, transforming the clear, sweetish, watery substance into gorgeous amber maple syrup, bottled in tin quart drums labeled Tee Jay Farms. When the temperature reached its zenith–219F–my uncle would treat us to “sugar on snow”–a splash of syrup on a mound of fresh snow. It would harden instantly into the purest candy you can imagine.

The flavor of maple brings memories of family favorites–iced maple bars, fried doughboys, oatmeal swimming in syrup and maple creme brulee. And memory, any writer will tell you, gives rise to inspiration. I imagined a woman far from home, nearly destroyed by disaster, coming home to a place like Switchback, Vermont, to reconnect, to remember, and ultimately to heal.

My childhood took a turn when my father’s career sent the whole family to live in far-flung places overseas. Those early memories, then, are gilded by nostalgia. In my writing, it’s the backdrop to the deepest and strongest themes–family, friendship, romance, hope and healing. It’s the terrain of the Lakeshore Chronicles, and now Family Tree.

I’ve spent summers on the beaches of Rhode Island, renting a clapboard house with terrible insulation, a faulty propane tank and a dead-on view of Narragansett Bay. Easy friendships revolved around food–lobster rolls from Aunt Carrie’s, clam bakes on the beach, beer and awful music at Schiller’s bar. Readers of Summer by the Sea and Passing Through Paradise will recognize the salty, scenic locale in my fiction.

Somerville, Massachusetts was my home while I was in graduate school. My landlady was a fiery Irish American woman serving a term in the statehouse, and the neighborhood teemed with Italian bakeries and delis–thick, square cuts of pizza, fresh cannoli stuffed with cream, and fried scrod served in paper cones. Steve’s Ice Cream was my decadent splurge. On a chilled countertop, they kneaded the flavorings right into the heart of the scoop. While living in a postage-stamp-sized apartment with a golden retriever and a manual Olivetti typewriter, I had the kind of creative energy only a twenty-year-old possesses. I held down a teaching job, finished my master’s degree, learned to cook gourmet meals on two burners, knitted Fair Isle sweaters…and I wrote my first novel.

A writer’s path is filled with unexpected twists and turns, much like a well-plotted novel. Yet ultimately, we return to the places of our heart–a seaside village, an urban enclave, a moment in time, or a mountaintop clad in sugar maples, with the sugarhouse in the center, maple-scented steam rising from the roof vents, and a warm fire burning deep into the night.

back to basics :: from my writer’s notebook

August 03, 2016 | 3 Comments

When I’m in the throes of rewriting a book (and wondering why I didn’t write it right the first time), I go back to basics. My study is strewn with lecture notes on writing workshops I’ve attended, dating all the way back to 1986, the year I sold my first novel.

One of my favorite writing teachers is a screenwriting expert–Michael Hauge. If you ever get a chance to see him in action, run don’t walk! My notes include asides about Family Tree. Doing this always makes the story sound so pedestrian! But it’s a good exercise. It’s lengthy so I’ll post it in parts over the next few days. Here goes:

first draft - not a pretty sight

first draft – not a pretty sight

The hero is the story’s protagonist. It’s a generic term so the gender pronoun doesn’t matter. Briefly, the hero is the one whose goal drives the story. His goal is the finish line the reader wants to see the hero reach.

The ultimate goal of a story (fiction, narrative nonfiction or memoir, film, drama) is to elicit emotion. This is achieved by creating a character who has a powerful desire, facing a conflict that keeps her from fulfilling that desire.

A story’s first audience–agent, editor, first reader, etc.–wants to know how this story is going to sell. Who are we rooting for? The most consistent problem with stories is that they are overcomplicated. The solution? Make it simpler. How? By understanding plot structure.

A story exists on two levels, the outer (visible) journey and the inner (emotional) journey or arc of growth (or deterioration/failure).

In the outer journey, the desire is visible. It’s a journey of achievement or accomplishment. What tangible thing does the hero want? It should be something the reader can see. (In Family Tree, Annie wants to reclaim the life that was derailed after a horrific accident.) There is a visible finish line, and the hero’s outer motivation is also visible.

The conflict must also be visible. (Again in FT, we see that everything Annie wants to reclaim has been ripped away from her.)

There are 4 general types of goal/conflict setups in most commercial stories (including novels, narrative nonfiction and films).

1. To win – a sports contest (Rocky), the love of another character (most romances)

2. To stop something from happening –most thrillers seek to keep a disaster at bay

3. To escape–character must get out of a bad situation (The Count of Monte Cristo, anything with “escape” in the title)

4. To retreat–quest stories in which the character must go and get something and return with it.

Michael calls these the 4 basic Hollywood goals. And you should believe him. He’s very smart about these things.

This is the outer plot. There is also a second level underneath the visible plot–the inner journey. A journey of fulfillment and/or transformation.

The love story is a great tool for developing a character arc.

Who is your character and what does he desire? What sort of plot will your story follow?

(In Family Tree, Annie Rush is the producer of a successful cooking show who faces overwhelming odds following an accident. Her journey brings her face-to-face with the past she left behind in Switchback, Vermont–a past that includes the town bad-boy-turned-good, aka the path not taken.)

Michael created a chart showing a 6-stage plot structure in 3 acts. There are 5 key turning points in a story. If I make my revision goal today, I’ll post his general structure for the OUTER journey.

NOTE TO READERS WHO PREORDERED FAMILY TREE! You are qualified to enter to win a $100 gift card because you were an angel and you preordered the book!


Pre-order FAMILY TREE (from any of the 3 links below) Email a photo of the receipt, your FULL NAME, PERMANENT ADDRESS, EMAIL ADDRESS, PHONE NUMBER, and the NAME AND LOCATION OF WHERE THE PRODUCT WAS PURCHASED.

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