Every week or so I comment on my writing, how it's going, the frequent frustrations, the occasional successes. This is your invitation to watch a writer at work - and sometimes find out what I'm cooking for dinner.
My Writer's Journal
October 21, 2014
My mother really knew how to dress. She wore elegantly tailored suits with hats and gloves and made sure the seams of her stockings were straight, and of course she wore a girdle. Several times a year my parents attended dinner dances, and I loved to watch them get ready for these events, my father in a tuxedo and my mother in a formal gown. My favorite was pale blue lace with an off-the-shoulder neckline. For such special occasions she stuffed "falsies" in her bra.
But my mother's excellent taste did not seem to extend to me. My clothes were ugly. I thought so then, and I think so now. My mother chose my clothes, and I always seemed to end up with something green or yellow and unflattering. Left on my own, I tended to go overboard. My mother had bought me a "Gibson Girl" outfit, a high-waisted velvet skirt and a plaid blouse with puffy sleeves. I decided that a lace handkerchief pinned to the sleeve would be a nice touch. The idea was promptly vetoed. (Okay, she was right about that.)
Here I was, at the start of seventh grade and begging for a brassiere. Mother argued that I had no need for one, but finally she relented and passed on some of her old ones, which I stuffed with hankies. I wore nylon stockings to church; on the Sunday I was confirmed I worried all through the service that my uncomfortable garter belt would fail, and my nylons would wind up puddling around my ankles.
And the hair? My mother had beautiful naturally curly hair, but mine was dead straight. Every night I wound my hair in pincurls held in place with bobby pins or settled for a home permanent. ("Which twin has the Toni?" was a popular ad campaign of that era, showing two girls—one supposedly with natural curls, and her identical sister with a Toni home permanent.)
Then I had a home ec course at school and learned to operate a sewing machine, producing an apron after one semester of stitching and ripping out the stitches. But I was not deterred. I bought myself a Singer with birthday money and set out to sew my own clothes. I don’t even want to think about some of the weird items I made and actually wore--until my mother intervened again.
September 20, 2014
I still couldn't hit or catch a ball, or win a race, or hold on when the kids played "Red Rover." But, boy oh boy, could I read (the fifth grade teacher had me tutor kids who couldn't), do multiplication and long division, answer every question about the Boston Tea Party, and win spelling bees. Naturally, this earned me the derision of the other kids, who dubbed me "Professor Pisspot."
I discovered boys, another lost cause, since in addition to my social liabilities I was the only child in my school with glasses, and I was going to have to wear braces to correct my buck teeth. Dreams of being a Cosmopolitan cover girl were doomed. My mother's ladies' magazines triggered romantic daydreams that involved white satin wedding gowns, and I wondered if I'd ever get a chance to wear one.
I'd gotten very curious about sex and asked a lot of questions that my mother wouldn't answer, and so I made stuff up and solemnly passed around my misinformation as scientific fact. Nobody else knew much, either.
I was glad to be leaving my country grade school but worried about what was coming next. My parents decided not to send me to the rural high school but to enroll me in the junior high school in town. At least I wouldn't have to ride a school bus--my dad would drop me off every day on his way to work.
Professor Pisspot was scared to death.
September 14, 2014
Every afternoon at 5 o’clock I tuned in to “Hop Harrigan, Ace of the Airwaves” and then acted out that day’s developments, embellishing them with my own ideas. In the early part of the war, a friend of my mother’s came to stay with us for a few months with her two daughters, both younger than I, and I enlisted them in my scenarios. I played the part of Hop Harrigan, of course, but Nancy, age 6, could be Gail Nolan, a nurse and possibly Hop’s love interest, or Tank Tinker, his sidekick. Linda, age 4, was always cast as the enemy, Japanese or German, depending, until we captured her and made her stay under the card table, a POW.
Later, there was “Baby Snooks,” played by Fanny Brice. My only cousin, Harold, in his teens, began to call me Snooks, a nickname that stuck for much too long. And Red Skelton, and Fibber McGee, and all those soap operas: Mary Noble, Lorenzo Jones, Ma Perkins. When I began to think about being a writer someday, it was writing radio scripts that I saw in my future—not books.
But meanwhile, we had a war to fight! I got a Junior Commando armband to wear on my snowsuit and tried, without success, to enlist classmates to march with me. I had a plane identification chart, so I’d know if our little Pennsylvania town was under attack from Zeros or Messerschmitts. I saved tin cans and used my allowance to buy 25-cent War Stamps to paste into War Bond booklets.
And then, at last, the war was over, and my daddy came home.
September 6, 2014
I didn’t much like kindergarten. I was an only child, wore glasses, and had no idea how to get along with other kids. At Halloween my mother dressed me in a clown suit, and I was put at the tail end of the parade through Miss Keller’s dining room and parlor and into the sunporch that served as our classroom. Leading the parade was pretty, curly-haired Janie, in a pink fairy costume with a little crown and a wand with star at the end of it. I dropped out soon after that.
First grade was also miserable. I hated recess and refused to go outside and play with kids who ran and yelled and threw balls. That was when I learned to read. I don’t remember, but it must not have been a struggle, like learning to ride a two-wheeler or to roller skate. I do remember the books I loved: "Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue," a series about insufferably good children; "The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew," a family that was poor but always happy, no matter what; and the "Uncle Wiggily" series, about an elderly rabbit with rheumatiz and his muskrat housekeeper, Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy. All of these books had been published long before I was born. Somebody must have given them to me—probably my grandparents, who also gave me a lot of Bibles (Pop-pop Meyer was a Bible salesman.)
I also remember learning to write—that is, to form big, squarish capital letters and then to string them together to form what I believed were words. My mother preserved some of those early attempts. A favorite word was “interrupted,” which I translated as INARAPDAD.
Then, in the middle of first grade, everything changed. We came home from church one Sunday and turned on the Philco radio to listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It was “inarapdad” by news that upset my parents tremendously: the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I had no idea what that meant, but six months later my father enlisted in the Air Force and was gone for the next three years.
July 15, 2014
There are many stages involved in writing a book, from the early minutes/hours/days when an idea starts to emerge until the day the first copy is in my hands: the research, the writing of several drafts, the comments of the editor, followed by more rewriting and more comments and more tweaking, and finally the sense that I've told my story as well as I can. A time to relax a little, clean out my files, sew on buttons, answer letters.
But not so fast! You're not done yet! The copy editor has yet to speak. This person not only looks for sloppy punctuation and points out that you have used "get" or "got" a few dozen times too many and notices that the guy you call Sam on page 37 suddenly becomes Bill on page 119. The CE, as she's known, also acts as a fact-checker (sometimes another person takes over this job). If one of your characters plays a song on the piano, was that song actually written by that time? If you write that 1920s movie star Rudolph Valentino died on Monday August 23rd, why does your character, a devoted Valentino fan, not hear about it on the radio until Wednesday the 25th?
It has to be said: Copy editors are a pain in the neck, but they also save your neck, too. Because if those little errors and inconsistencies and quirks aren't caught now, you can be sure they will be later. Years ago I mentioned a "horny toad" in Texas and how it hopped, and I was promptly nailed by a gleeful expert who pointed out that they are not toads but lizards, they don't hop, and since I was so wrong about that fact he would never again trust anything I wrote.
And that's why I say thank you to Lisa and all the other unsung copy editors who have kept me from embarrassing errors in so many books over so many years.
June 4, 2014
I just looked up the word, Doldrums, to be sure I'm using it correctly. It came into use in the 18th century when sailors sometimes encountered periods of calm in the ocean when there was no wind for days, the sails flapped uselessly, and the ship went nowhere. This is what Coleridge wrote about the doldrums in his poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner":
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, no breath no motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
That's where I am today, with no wind in my sails. This is not the same as "writer's block." Young writers often email me and ask what I do about it. I don't believe writer's block really exists. My advice is to put that idea out of your mind and simply write something--anything--even if you throw it out the next day. The cure for writer's block is to write.
The Doldrums is not the same thing. A few weeks ago I finished rewriting WAITRESS: THE JOURNAL OF A HARVEY GIRL, and now I'm waiting to hear from the editor if the manuscript has been approved or if another round of rewrites is needed. The galley proofs of ANASTASIA AND HER SISTERS came back from another publisher, and I read through the 300 pages and made minor corrections, so that's done.
I did additional research for an upcoming project that has not yet gotten a final go-ahead, and I'm about 25 pages into a draft, but I'm reluctant to proceed without approval. I've done a lot of background reading for another proposal that has so far had a first-round approval, and now I'm waiting for final word: YES - full speed ahead! or NO - this book is not for us.
The waiting drives me crazy. Being "between books" drives me crazy. I'm as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean, and although it's nice to have a break from the pressure of deadlines, I'm happiest when I'm deeply into a new novel. Let's hope the winds come back soon.
March 25, 2014
In 1986 after VOICES OF SOUTH AFRICA had been published, I took off again, this time for Northern Ireland, to learn what I could about "The Troubles," tension between Catholics and Protestants that too often erupted in violence and death. I wanted to hear from the young people in both camps, about their feelings about "the other."
For six sodden weeks that summer I traveled the counties that make up Northern Ireland, armed with very few contacts and a pair of not-quite-waterproof shoes. I prepared for the trip by reading history, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and set out to discover how the people managed from day to day in a country long torn by religious, political, and economic strife. I found the people charming, friendly--and exasperating.
I spoke to Catholics and "Prods," to police and soldiers, to kids whose fathers and grandfathers had been unemployed for as long as anyone could remember. I visited with peace groups and groups claiming connection to the IRA. I attended family celebrations and wakes. And I found that life goes on, pretty much as usual.
But they couldn't quite figure out how to label ME--my name didn't fit into either camp. Interestingly, they always decided that my sympathies surely lay with THEIR side.
And then I came home and wrote the story--which turned out to be my story as much as theirs.
December 7, 2013
From the book jacket: "I cried when I left South Africa. I cried because it is a rich and beautiful country torn by strife, fearful Whites on one side, angry Blacks on the other. And I don't know if there is enough compassion and goodwill to triumph over misunderstanding, stubbornness,, and greed and to to prevent the disaster that seems inevitable. I had met dozens of South Africans, become close to a few of them, liked them even when I disagreed with them. When their lives touched mine, my life was changed; maybe theirs were too. When I left, I knew that I would never see most of t hose people again. But I will not forget them."
I wrote those words in January 1986, shortly before publication of the book. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, worked to end apartheid, was elected the first black President of his country in 1994, and served for five years. He died two days ago at the age of 95.
November 21, 2013
What is it like to be the daughter of the most beautiful woman in the world?
Hermione knows . . . her mother is Helen of Troy, the famed beauty of Greek myth. Helen is not only beautiful but also impulsive, and when she falls in love with charming Prince Paris, she runs off with him to Troy, abandoning her distraught daughter. Determined to reclaim their enchanting queen, the Greek army sails for Troy. Hermione stows away in one of the thousand ships in the fleet and witnesses the start of the legendary Trojan War. In the rough Greek encampment outside the walls of Troy, Hermione’s life is far from that of a pampered princess. Meanwhile, her mother basks in luxury in the royal palace inside the city. Hermione desperately wishes for the gods and goddesses to intervene and end the brutal war—and to bring her love. Will she end up with the handsome archer Orestes, or the formidable Pyrrhus, leader of a tribe of fierce warriors? And will she ever forgive her mother for bringing such chaos to her life and the lives of so many others?
Carolyn Meyer is the author of more than fifty books for children and young adults, and has no intention of quitting any time soon. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The Story of Hermione and Helen of Troy:
After years of writing about the young lives of fascinating women of power, from Cleopatra to Victoria, in BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER I've drawn on the myths of ancient Greece to tell the story of what it must have been like to be the daughter of the most beautiful woman in the world.
When Helen leaves her husband and daughter and runs off to Troy with handsome Paris, a thousand Greek ships sail for Troy to bring her back..and her daughter, Hermione, goes with them as a stowaway. Hermione's adventures on the Trojan beaches, her struggle for survival,, and her search for true love of her life drive this story.
Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/cmeyerbooks
Facebook: Carolyn Meyer Books
Queen Victoria’s personal journals inform this captivating first-person account of one of history’s most prominent female leaders.
Queen Victoria most certainly left a legacy—under her rule as the longest reigning female monarch in history, the British Empire was greatly expanded and significant industrial, cultural, political, scientific, and military changes occurred within the United Kingdom. To be a young woman in a time when few other females held positions of power was to lead in a remarkable age—and because Queen Victoria kept personal journals, this historical novel from award-winning author Carolyn Meyer shares authentic emotional insight along with accurate information, weaving a true story of intrigue and romance.
It is the first century B.C. Cleopatra, the third of the pharaoh's six children, is the one that her father has chosen to be the next queen of Egypt. But when King Ptolemy is forced into exile, Cleopatra is left alone to fend for herself in a palace rife with intrigue and murder. Smart, courageous, ambitious and sensuously beautiful, she possesses the charm to cause two of history's most famous leaders to fall in love with her. But as her cruel sisters plot to steal the throne, Cleopatra realizes there is only one person on whom she can rely--herself.
In Cleopatra Confesses, award winning author Carolyn Meyer writes the story of the teenage girl who would become Egypt's most unforgettable queen, from her early years to her her ultimate destiny.
The Wild Queen
Mary Stuart was just five years old when she was sent to France to be raised alongside her future husband. But when the frail young king dies, eighteen-year-old Mary is stripped of her title as Queen of France and set adrift in the harsh world, alone. Determined to reign over what is rightfully hers, Mary returns to Scotland. Hopingthat a husband will help her secure the coveted English throne, she marries again, but the love and security she longs for elude her. Instead, the fiery young queen finds herself embroiled in a murder scandal that could cost her the crown. And her attempts to bargain with her formidable “sister queen,” Elizabeth I of England, could cost her her very life.
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November 16, 2013
For the past few months I've been writing about the story behind each book, recalling something about the inspiration and my writing process. So far I've reached back to books I wrote more than 25 years ago. Now I'm taking a break from that to consider the end result: what happens when the book is finished and goes out into the world.
The actual time for research, writing, rewriting, and re-rewriting a book takes about a year; add in time for the editorial work and production (fact-checking, copyediting, proofreading, jacket design, printing), and a couple of years roll by from the birth of the idea to the arrival of the book on the shelves.
Then another process begins, and it can be both exhilarating and painful. I wonder how the book will fare, now that it's out there. Will reviewers love it or hate it or simply ignore it? Once upon a time, before amazon.com and goodreads, only "professionals" reviewed books--librarians, for instance (School Library Journal), and services that advise booksellers (Kirkus). Years ago I wrote a monthly column about children's books for the now defunct McCall's Magazine. What I learned is that reviewing a book is a totally subjective enterprise, and I'm not very good at it.
I've written more than 50 books--closer to 60 now--and almost every book has been both praised and trashed. Another thing I've learned is that great reviews, although great for the ego, don't always translate into great sales--and vice versa. Amazingly, my very first book, MISS PATCH'S LEARN-TO-SEW BOOK, published in 1969, is being reissued next fall--after 45 years! And one of the books I wrote for the Royal Diary series, ANASTASIA: THE LAST GRAND DUCHESS, published a dozen years ago, has just been reissued in a new format.
Negative reviews are worthless. It's impossible to learn anything useful from them, because they are often contradictory. One amazonian may mutter that the opening is too slow and the ending is too rushed, while another will grumble that it started out well and then ran out of gas at the end. One goodreader might complain that there's too much detail and another says too much has been left out.
Sometimes I wonder if they're talking about somebody else's book, because I don't recognize my own. At some point I reread my book--I've been away from it for months, and I'm deeply engrossed in a new project--and try to see it through a stranger's eyes. Then I ask myself if I could have done something differently. The answer is always no.