Friday, May 29, 2009

Living History

I'm currently furiously trying to finish an article about the Pottsville Maroons, the once-pro football team that hailed from the coal region. In 1925, they were technically the winners in a hotly contested game against the Chicago Cardinals, but in a move that has been mired in controversy for over 80 years, the Maroons lost the title (officials claimed they violated a territory rule and had to give up the championship.) Sports historians, fans, and those who remember the team from Schuylkill County have been very vocal about having the title restored, even 80 years later.

Last night I had the great pleasure to speak with Scott Warren, an unofficial Maroons historian who provided me with more information than I could ever put into an article. He helped to give me a better sense of who these guys were, the odds they faced, and why it's important that their legacy--their correct legacy--lives on. A few months ago I also had the opportunity to speak with David Fleming, a writer for ESPN Magazine who wrote a book about the team, Breaker Boys, a few years ago. I'm as far from a sports fan as you can possibly get, but I love history (particularly the 1920's), and the more I learn about these players, the more fascinated I am by the team's story. Though my article certainly won't reach the audience Fleming's book has, I'm hoping that in some small way I can help to spread the word about these players and right the wrong.

I'm also involved in another local history project--a magazine publication (we think that's what the final version will be, anyway) for Schuylkill County's Bicentennial. Though I'm familiar with some chapters in the county's history, I'm seeing this as an opportunity to learn even more about local landmarks, events, and of course, the people from the county's past. I'm involved in a wild goose chase of sorts, trying to track down any historical documents about Coaldale Hospital (the "old" hospital that was built in 1910). It's right near my house, and I've always been curious about the building and what it looks like inside.

I've had a love/hate relationship with this area for most of my life, but the more I learn about the place where I live, the more I can't help but appreciate its colorful history. I'm very excited about these 2 projects. I only wish I'd spoken with Scott Warren earlier--I'm sure I could've gotten the chance to see some of his memorabilia and learn even more about this long-forgotten team.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Thoughts on Angels and Demons

Last night we saw Angels and Demons, based on Dan Brown's novel. Love or hate either, what can I say about this book and The DaVinci Code that hasn't already been said?

I enjoyed the book, and the movie, for the most part. The pope dies and the conclave gathers to vote the new one in. In the meantime, an underground ancient order known as the Illuminati has resurfaced and are making their presence known through branding some of the kidnapped cardinals (the top 4 in line for the papal seat.) Gotcha. Tom Hanks playing Robert Langdon? Sure, I like Tom Hanks in just about anything. OK, Hollywood, entertain me.

The problem I had was the ending. It was a liiiiiittle far-fetched. The link between the worlds of science and religion were a bit too disjointed for my taste. The Vatican, the ancient symbology, Rome, the Illuminati...that was enough of a storyline right there. Adding the scientific elements, antimatter, blah blah blah, just confused things. I also had trouble understanding why, if the antimatter would cause the Vatican to be "destroyed by light", it actually wasn't destroyed by light at the end once the canister of antimatter was found. There was little more than a hurricane-like wind for a few minutes, a huge mushroom cloud, and that was pretty much it. Yawn. But wait! The priest just parachuted out of the helicopter! How did he not die, either from the fall itself (this was during the mushroom cloud), the supposed lethal antimatter, or from the fact that he hit nearly everything in sight (buildings, statues, you name it) on the way down?

What's the best way to create a compelling ending that ties up all of the loose ends, or at least keeps you intrigued enough to want to read the sequel?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Creating a Writing Ritual

At our last writer's group meeting on Saturday, our speaker talked about finding your writer's voice, though it was more about creating a writing ritual that works for you. Every writer has a few "must haves" in order to be productive. I have a friend who sits in her recliner and does some freewriting for a few minutes before sitting down to do the real work of the day. Others need to have their caffeine before they get started. Some write in longhand and must use a certain kind of pen. And still others need to get started by a certain time of day and have a particular time schedule they swear by.

I'm not lucky enough to have hours to devote to my writing each day, but I'm more productive than I've been in months. I'm finding that I've been doing my best work during the early hours of my weekend mornings. If I can get started no later than 8:30, I can work until about 11:00 and get through quite a bit, whether it's a query, article, column, email, what have you. I've also started sitting down around 10 p.m. each night and chipping away at some smaller things. My other "must have" is music. My current favorites are Enya, Chris Botti or some other smooth jazz, or something mellow. No matter the time of day or what I'm working on, I absolutely can't stand silence when I'm writing. If my typing fingers are the only sound in the room, it drives me batty. Every writer has the little rituals that work for them--what are some of yours?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Top 10 Movies About Writing and/or Writers

When I'm feeling low and uninspired, these films can usually help to get me back on track. Of course, anyone's "Top 10" list is up for debate, but these are a few that work for me:

10. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1997). This movie is less about writing than it is about the writer who inspired it. Get out the LSD, folks--you're gonna need it. Johnny Depp stars as the trippy journalist Raoul Duke, based on the '60's Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson pulled no punches with his renegade approach to writing and politics. He was a true individual who had little respect for convention (after he died in 2007, his ashes were launched into space. Depp, a close friend, helped make it happen.) Depp is joined on screen by Benicio del Toro, who plays the equally wigged out Dr. Gonzo.

9. Freedom Writers (2007). A film about the healing powers of journaling. Hilary Swank stars as an inner-city English teacher who helps her students to find their inner voices and putting them on paper. Based on a true story.

8. Misery (1991). Stephen King takes a walk through the dark side of literary stardom in this classic. James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, a writer who veers off the road during a snowstorm and flips his vehicle. Fortunately (or unfortunately, as he later finds out), he's rescued by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), his unabashed "biggest fan". Annie, a little mentally unstable to say the least, holds Paul prisoner in her house. He is forced to write his way to freedom and churn out a final Misery book to appease Annie. Writer's block isn't an option for him this time around.

7. Moulin Rouge! (2001). Although a bit over the top, the heart of this film lies with Christian (Ewan McGregor), a penniless writer who strives to find truth, beauty, peace, and love. He finds it with Satine (Nicole Kidman), a beautifully tragic showgirl at the glamorous Moulin Rouge. Set in turn-of-the-century Paris, the film's soundtrack includes some classic tunes re-worked and performed by both Kidman and MacGregor (both have surprisingly amazing voices!) Best song by far is "Come What May". I wanted to like this film much more than I did, but I enjoyed MacGregor's tortured poet character. John Leguizamo also appears in the film as artist Toulouse Lautrec.

6. Possession (1998). Based on A.S. Byatt's bestselling novel, this film has all of my favorite elements--love, passion, intrigue, libraries, and, of course, writing! Aaron Eckhart plays Roland Mitchell, a research assistant who comes across secret love letters written by Randolph Henry Asch, the 18th century poet Mitchell happens to be studying. He enlists the help of Maude Baily, a snooty fellow English professor, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. The two stumble across a love affair that Asch kept hidden for years. An enjoyable literary love story.

5. The Paper (1994). A glimpse into the fast-paced world of big city journalism. Michael Keaton takes the lead as an overworked, underpaid reporter working for a struggling city daily. When the paper stumbles upon a big scoop, Keaton gets the chance to prove himself. Will he stick with his boss and mentor, played by Robert Duvall, or go with the new opportunity? I thoroughly enjoyed this film, though it didn't set the box office world on fire. A stellar all star cast--besides Keaton and Duvall, Marisa Tomei and Randy Quaid also star--put in solid performances.

4. The Hours (2001). Based on Michael Cunningham's novel about three characters in three different time periods directly or indirectly linked to Virginia Woolf's book Mrs. Dalloway. Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her portrayal of the tragic author (I think her fake nose sealed the deal). Julianne Moore plays a 1950's housewife who sacrifices everything to start a new life. Meryl Streep plays the modern-day best friend of a dying AIDS patient (the son Julianne Moore's character had abandoned thirty years ago).

3. Sylvia (1996). A biopic about the tortured and tragic poet Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow). Life, writing, loves (including a tumultuous marriage to writer Ted Hughes), this beautiful film captures the highs and lows of the author of The Bell Jar.

2. Miss Potter (1996). I hadn't given much thought to the life or work of Beatrix Potter before, so this film intrigued me. Part biography, part love story, and part animated fun (some of Potter's drawings come to life), this film was really enjoyable and, in my opinion, was sorely overlooked. Renee Zellweger plays Beatrix Potter and Ewan MacGregor plays her publisher and eventual love interest. A glimpse into the life of the creator of some of literature's most beloved characters.

1. Shakespeare in Love (1998). One of my favorite films ever, not just about writing. What I like most about this movie is that it humanizes William Shakespeare, played by Joseph Fiennes, in all of his womanizing, tormented, writer's block-suffering glory. It also provides a good idea of daily life in Elizabethan England. The film focuses on Shakespeare's years in London as a hired player and playwright. In my humble opinion, no other movie best captures the beauty and torment of producing a literary work. The rest of the cast--including Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Geoffrey Rush, and Gwyneth Paltrow--are at the top of their game. (OK, so maybe I'm biased.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Finding Sources Online

One of the biggest challenges for a writer is to find sources to help you in your research. If you write nonfiction, you need expert sources to provide you with quotes and additional information that can round out the info you already plan to include. And if you write fiction, you may want to craft a story that includes something you know nothing about. Good sources are invaluable to any writer. So how do you find these know-it-alls (or knows-something-about)? It's as easy as a click of the mouse--or even looking right under your nose.

  • Friends and family. Your grandpa has always whittled and made his own furniture. It's so much a part of your life, you barely notice it anymore. But what if you suddenly find yourself writing a story on early American furniture making, and you need to include information on caning chairs? Did you ever think of your grandpa? I bet you didn't. But your family and friends all have interests and areas of expertise, and would probably be happy to sit down with you and explain the basics. Most people love to talk about what they do and the things they feel strongly about--all you have to do is ask!

  • Social networking sites. Time to use your Facebook account for something besides taking the quiz "Which chemical compound are you?" You're working on a story about a chef and you want to include some "behind the scenes" information about the inner workings of a restaurant's kitchen. Why not comb your Friends lists and get in touch with your friend's friend, who is a chef in a big city eatery? Or post a general bulletin about needing sources for an article on a particular topic--you're bound to know someone (or one of your friends knows someone) who can help you with your article.

  • Authors' websites. I've done this a few times. I like to include at least one author in most of my queries. If I don't have a book on that topic, I'll simply do a search and come up with a few titles. Then I'll track down the author (most well-known writers have websites) and email them directly, asking if they'd be willing to be interviewed. Sometimes you have to go through their publisher, but I've never had an author turn down an interview request. (P.S. Sometimes they'll send you a free copy of their book, too!)

  • ProfNet. If you want to broaden your search for experts, this is one of the most useful sites that I've seen. You need to have an account with the site (it's free to join), and once you have that set up, you simply go down the list of questions that will help you find exactly the kind of experts you're looking for. Even with the most outlandish request, I've never gotten less than 5 responses. The "query" reaches professionals of all kinds--you simply choose the sort of folks you want. If you're doing a story on adult learners, you may want to interview adult educators, career counselors, or life coaches. But the option is there to reach bloggers, publicists, activists, and other professionals. This is a particularly useful site if you live in an area with limited options for expert sources, depending on your topic.