Friday, December 19, 2014

A Christmas Memory Story--A Family Trip To the Tree Lot

For the next few days, I'm going to post some of my Christmas memory stories. This first one is about our family buying a Christmas tree--at least me, my dad and my brothers.

A Christmas Tree, A Pink Dress and Golden Wings
By Nancy Julien Kopp

 In the 1940’s, we city folk didn’t cut down a tree in the fields but kept our own tradition. On a cold December evening, Dad announced that it was time to find a Christmas tree. My two younger brothers and I grabbed heavy coats, hats, gloves and snow boots, and flew down three flights of stairs to our 1939 Plymouth. Our excitement bubbled over in giggles and hoots.

The corner lot Dad drove to was normally empty--now in December, dozens of evergreen trees magically appeared, lined up like soldiers going into battle. A string of electric light bulbs ringed the entire lot, making it appear like a stage show.
The proprietors, who were also hunters, had erected a wooden teepee-like frame to display two dead deer and a black bear in a prominent corner. Animal rights groups didn’t protest in those days.

My brothers and I marched round and round the frozen animals.

“Go ahead, touch it,” Howard dared.
My hand reached within inches of the thick, matted fur, but I quickly drew it back. “You first,” I challenged, but Howard only circled the animals, hands behind him.

Meanwhile, Dad walked the rows of trees, pulling a few upright, shaking the snow off.

He called to us, and we crunched across the snow-packed ground

 “No,” we chorused. “It’s not big enough.”

We followed Dad and thumbed our noses at several others. “Not big enough,” we said, stamping cold feet to warm them.

The owner ambled over, so bundled up he looked kin to the dead bear. He kept a cigar clamped in his teeth and wore gloves with the fingers cut off, so he could peel off dollar bills from the stack he carried to make change.

Dad shook the man’s hand and said, “OK, let’s see the good trees now.”

The burly man moved the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other, rolled his eyes and finally gestured for us to follow him.

We moved across the pine-scented lot to a brick building. The man opened a door, and we tromped single-file down a long flight of concrete steps.

Dozens of trees leaned against the walls. Dad pulled out one after the other until he found a tree that we three children deemed “big enough.”

Silence now, as the serious part of this adventure commenced. Dad and the cigar chomping man dickered about the price. Finally, money changed hands, and Dad hoisted the tree. We jostled one another up the steps to be closer to the green treasure.

Dad fastened the tree to the top of the car with the rope he’d brought with us. The boys and I knelt on the back seat, watching to make sure the tree didn’t slide off the roof of the car during the short drive.

Once home, Dad hauled the tree up three flights of stairs to our apartment and put it on our small outdoor balcony. We’d wait until close to Christmas to bring it in and decorate the branches. Several times a day, I peered through the glass door to check that no one had stolen it. Why I thought someone would climb to the third floor to steal our tree is a wonder.

Days later, Dad carried the tree inside and tried to put it in the stand, but it was no use. The tree was too tall. It should have been no surprise, as it happened every year. Dad found his favorite saw and cut several inches off the tree trunk. When he put it in the stand, it rose like a flagpole, straight and tall, nearly touching the ceiling. There was a  collective “Ahhh” from the entire family.

Dad hummed a Christmas tune as he strung the many-colored lights, then Mother helped us hang sparkly ornaments, and we finished with strand upon strand of silver tinsel.

Finally, Dad climbed a step-stool and placed the last piece on the top. What joy to see our special angel with the pink satin dress and golden wings. There were times I could swear she smiled at me.

That sweet angel got lost somewhere over the years. Most likely, she’d become tattered and torn, and Mother discarded her.

Now, my husband brings our tree upstairs from a basement storage closet. Artificial, always the same height, never needs to be made shorter. It’s easier, but I miss those cold, snowy excursions to the tree lot with my brothers. I still put an angel on top of the tree. She’s nice but not quite the same as the one with the pink dress and golden wings.

Family traditions may change, but the memories last forever. They are what makes us the people we are today. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Memories Make Good Stories

On a recent December evening, Ken and I were having a glass  of wine and some cheese and crackers before I started fixing dinner. We were enjoying the Christmas tree we'd just decorated and the other Christmas things we'd scattered around our home. 

I mentioned to him that our tree, and all the ornaments on it, was filled with memories of the fifty years we've been married. He said he'd been thinking much the same. See what happens when you live together that long. You think alike! Happens to us often. 

Many of the ornaments on our tree are ones we've purchased on trips we've taken. Each one brings back a memory of a place either near or far away. A few are ones that were gifts from friends and family and those bring us a mental picture and fond feelings. The ones our children had during their growing-up years are now on their own trees as I boxed them one year and gave each of our children their own ornaments. Those designer trees in the magazines look spectacular but there are no memories adorning the branches of those trees. 

The many Christmas activities this month, or for those who celebrate Hanukkah, trigger memories of days gone by. It's when those memories come floating up to you that you should write a family memory story. I know, I know--who has time now? The thing is that it's when that memory comes back to you that the emotion is there and the story you write will show that. Think about it in February and you might have the facts but maybe not the same emotions. 

Even so, here's a list of triggers that might bring Christmas memories back to you now or in February. Your choice.

1.  What did you do in school to celebrate the holiday?

2.  When did your family put up the Christmas tree?

3.  Did you get lots of gifts or only a few or even just one?

4.  Did your family do something for the less fortunate at Christmastime?

5.  Did you make a visit to Santa in a local mall or department store?

6.  Did your family go to a Christmas parade?

7.  What traditional foods did your family have?

8.  Did you hang stockings for Santa to fill? Fancy ones or your own socks?

9.  What did Santa put in your stocking?

10.  Did you perform in a Christmas program at school or church? 

11.  Did you make some of the gifts you gave?

12.  Did you ever have a sad Christmas?

13.  Did you have one very best Christmas gift ever? 

14.  Did your mother do a lot of baking during Christmas?

15.  Did your family attend Christmas Eve services?

16.  Did you have a tradition when picking out a Christmas tree?

Hopefully, these questions will help bring long-gone days back to you and a story or two will be written to add to your Family Memory book. Don't forget that Chicken Soup for the Soul is ready for submissions of Christmas stories. Check the website for information on the latest call. The Christmas book is the fourth one in the list. Read the guidelines before submitting.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Little Lessons For Writers

Have you visited the Wordsmith site lately? Poems, stories, and spectacular graphics to go with them. This site is a place for both writers to post and for readers. Swing by today and see what's new.

Good quote today. When things go wrong in our writing life, there's usually a reason. When we discover what the reason is, we will hopefully see the lesson.

What kinds of things can go wrong?

1.  You might have a great beginning and middle for a story and cannot come up with a proper ending

2.  You might have worked hard on a project, submitted and received a rejection

3.  You might spend hours on a story and then decide it's pure drivel when you read it over again

4.  You might have a story you've written that you love. You take it to your writer's group and receive a negative reaction from all who critique it

5.  You might have submitted work for years and never had an acceptance

6.  You might lose your desire to write

7.  You might have to deal with that old enemy--writer's block

What kinds of lessons can you learn from these things that go wrong?

1.  You can see how strong a writer you are

2.  You may need to look harder for inspiration and in new ways

3.  You may find out that rejection is not the end of the world

4.  You may find that a first draft is just that--a first draft--not a finished product

5.  You may need to realize that the negative reaction of others will help you make the story better when you rewrite

6.  You my learn that nothing is perfect, that you need to work on honing your craft constantly

7.  You may need to read your own work with a more objective eye

8.  You may find out that there's not much about writing that is easy

9.   You might discover the degree of passion you have for writing

Whenever things go wrong in your writing life, look for a reason, then look for a lesson. Next, do your homework and carry on. When life is good, go right ahead and be especially grateful.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What's In A Name?

When writing fiction, there are so many little things to take into consideration. One of them is names for your characters. Do you pull out a name from the air and plunk it onto characters A, B and C? Then forget about it?

Or do you give considerable thought to naming your characters? Should you pick a strong name for a strong character and vice-versa? Should a glamourous woman have a name that goes along with her physical traits? Should a nerdy guy have a nerdy name?

If you've ever had to come up with a name for a newborn baby, you know the thought process involved. There are names you like, ones you hate and would never use, ones that are traditional in a family and ones you and your spouse cannot agree upon. It's a difficult job and naming your characters is not easy either.

One of the things to consider is the time in which your story is set. If it's a historical setting, don't go for 21st century names. Names in the colonial era of our country were different from those during the Civil War time period. In science fiction, you might even make up names no one has ever heard of.

Don't use names that have already been made famous in other novels. Forget Scarlett, Huckleberry, Ebenezer or any name that has instant recognition. You want your character's name to stand on its own. Who knows? Maybe your character will become one like the famed ones we already know.

Many authors use alliteration when choosing a name. That's OK if you do it occasionally but don't make a habit of it. Don't have several characters in one story with a first and last name beginning with the same letter. 

Is it alright to use real names you've run across in life? I think it is. You often see a page in front of the book that says something about the characters all being fictional. A protection for the author. Now and then, we run across a name of a real person that we think would be a good character name. When I was writing a juvenile novel, I used a name that I heard a friend mention once. She was telling a story about something in her hometown and mentioned the woman's name--Bertha Bloomer. It struck me immediately that I wanted Bertha Bloomer in my book. And she did end up as a woman who ran a boarding house for coal miners in my story. She was only a minor character but perhaps a reader would remember her for her name.

Consider the personality traits of your character when selecting a name for her/him. That might help you choose a good name. Is your character kind, cruel, sleazy, a pervert, or a helpful person? 

There are times when writing fiction that the name of a character comes to you without any thought process at all. It's just there. When that happens, I consider it a gift. It was meant to be. It happens fairly often which is a real plus for the writer.

Charles Dickens had a knack of selecting memorable names. Some fit the personality of the character and others were ones you remember because of the character himself. Names like Oliver Twist, Uriah Heep, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and more. 

Don't toss up a group of names and let one land on your character. Give it some thought. Google naming characters in fiction for some detailed articles on this subject. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Writers--Sail Your Boat Into the Harbor of Hope

Those who read this blog regularly know that the two keywords in my writing world are Patience and Perseverance. Today, I'd like to add one more. Hope

Anyone who wants to succeed in the writing world must have an expectation of good things to come. They have to sail their boat into the harbor of hope. Without hope for positive happenings in our writing, why bother continuing? I fear we'd feel defeated before we got started.

It's hope that makes us continue writing. It's hope that spurs us to submit our work for publication. It's hope that lifts us up when we receive a rejection. Maybe the next editor will accept this submission we tell ourselves. I've lost count of the number of times I've said this to myself. 

Writers fall into two categories--the negative ones and the positive ones. Which group do you think holds on to hope? To be hopeful, you need a positive attitude. Those who live day to day with a negative attitude tend to pull themselves down farther and farther and grasping hope becomes more and more difficult.

You've heard people who say Man, she needs an attitude adjustment! An easy solution perhaps for the person making the comment. But those who tend to live in the negatives of life can't just turn it off with a switch. It takes time and working at it before there can be an adjustment of attitude. 

How can you go about changing from a negative person to a positive one? To start with, whenever a situation comes up, ask yourself what a negative person might do or say and then what the positive person would do or say. Stand back and look at both objectively. Which one is more appealing? Can you move from one side to another? You can if you have the desire and the will to continue working at it. Will it happen overnight? No. But you can use a dose of that Patience and Perseverance to help you, 

Writers need hope to:

1. continue growing as a writer

2. keep on submitting work that has already been rejected

3. inspire them to write regularly

4. stay a positive person

5. stay on their writing path

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Bells of Christmas

Today I'm posting a poem I wrote several years ago when putting together a program for a church group. The theme was The Bells of Christmas, so I had the title for the poem ready made. We read and write Christmas stories, both fiction and creative nonfiction but consider trying to write a poem with a Christmas theme. 

The Bells Of Christmas

Keep Christmas in my heart, Lord.

Help me remember the love and joy
that Advent season brings each year.

Let me hear the bells of Christmas
long after the sacred day is done,
ring them loud, ring them clear.

I want to celebrate your birthday
each and every day, if only quietly.
Let me not forget the beloved tale.

If I spread the love of Christmas
all January, June and hot July,
will its message sound as dear?

Keep Christmas in my heart, Lord.
Ring the bells of Christmas softly,
hold them close so that I may hear.

When everyday cares and woes
push the Christmas story far away,
let the blessed bells bring it back again.

Keep Christmas in my heart, Lord.
I'll ring the chimes for those who've
not yet heard the message of the bells.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Pondering Our Writing Journey

Wouldn't it be nice if, once we decided to pursue a writing career, that we move from the bottom of the ladder to the top in an express elevator. You know the ones in those skyscrapers in big cities. You step inside, hit the button for the top floor and in an instant you're there. No stops or bumps along the way.

A writing journey doesn't work like that. We have lots of starts and stops, lots of slowdowns and bumps on our writing path. Sometimes we even slide backward several steps, then have to make up for lost time.

Once we do find some success in our writing efforts, I think the slower journey has benefited us. We can look back to see where we started and where we traveled to get to whatever success we've found. When we do, we should take some pride in what we've come through to attain something good in our writing world.

The hard part is getting through that slow journey, step by difficult step. Keep in mind as you do so that any goal you have is worth some effort to achieve. If it's too easy, it's not going to mean nearly as much to you, is it? If you hit a goal after lots of hard work, you can be proud of your accomplishment. It may be trite to say, but nothing worthwhile comes easily.

As you move along your writing path, know that each new step you take is bringing you closer to where you want to be. Maybe you'll never reach the peak of the mountain but as long as you continue to work and grow in your writing, you'll be a lot higher than the day you started out.

One goal we as writers should set for ourselves is to conitine to grow as writers, to keep on learning our craft, and to continue working at a steady pace. If we do all those things, we are going to continue climbing rather than sliding back to the beginning of our writing journey.