Tea Sipping

Image from www.designedtoat.com

In Texas a Tea Sipper is a name given the University of Texas students by the Aggies, a rival state institution. I always laugh when I hear someone say this as if it’s a bad thing, because I’ve been a tea sipper from long before I moved to the great state of Texas and birthed a child who grew up to be a Longhorn.

I never did learn how to drink coffee. Despite my gardener’s love for the grounds, the brew itself is too bitter for my taste. My mother got me started on Constant Comment tea when I was in high school and I have since migrated to a variety of teas — I pick the flavor to suit the moment. My palate isn’t as sophisticated as S. J. Rozan’s Chinese-American detective, Lydia Chin, who often sits down to a fragrant cup (the better to get answers out of a recalcitrant witness) but I do have my personal preferences. English Breakfast in the morning. Earl Grey or Constant Comment in the early afternoon. Lemon Zinger in the late afternoon. I also drink most of my tea “white”. I started doing this the year I lived in Moscow and my fellow Nanny, Di Biggin, always put a dollop of cream in without asking. Pretty soon I couldn’t drink it black without feeling uncouth.

There are a number of good mysteries featuring tea. Laura Childs’ Tea Shop mysteries are the first that spring to mind.  Alexander McCall Smith’s famous detecting duo at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency are tea-drinkers. My second book, Three Dirty Women and the Bitter Brew has tea in it, but the published version had much less about tea than the first draft did. I had to change just about everything in that book once I realized I’d hung the plot on a murder weapon it would be rude to use.

The Charleston Tea Plantation, purchased by Bigelow Tea in 2003 from William Barclay Hall, a third generation tea-taster. (Yes, that’s a real job!) Hall developed the brand American Classic Tea, which is still marketed by Bigelow. As the only domestic American-grown tea, it truly is a treat to enjoy. I took the tour of this lovely plantation in the summer of 2000 with my Uncle Ed, a canny businessman who was very impressed with their business sense. They had a wonderful harvester that clipped the Camelia Sinensis hedges at just the proper level to get the leaves at their utmost freshness. The minute I saw it, the warped and highly imaginative writer in me wanted to use it as a murder weapon. (Fictional!!) I began the story and it sailed on until I got to the middle of the book. In an effort to get my creative efforts back on track, I called the Plantation to do some due diligence by getting permission from Mr. Hall and his business partner to use their location in my book. I had been so wrapped up in my need to write that I hadn’t truly considered how others might feel about this notion of clipping a victim with the tea harvester until I heard the shocked response to my horribly naive question. Out of respect for the gentlemen-owners and their efforts I pulled the location and the murder weapon from the story and started over.

What seemed like a writing (and personal) disaster became a gift. Without the gimmick of using a murder weapon that no one else had ever used, the story became much stronger. In short, I owe this business not only for many wonderful cups of tea, but also for a stronger sophomore effort.

Cheers!

Writing in the Open

I love doing character sketches. When the children were small, I’d take them on an outing and while they were playing in the sandbox, or the ball pit, or on the swing set, I would pull out a notebook and jot down a character sketch of the Nanny putting her children into the Cinderella Carriage at the Pumpkin Park, or the man reading his newspaper with the collar of his polo turned up against his neck against the morning sun, or the gentleman who drove by me in his truck, speeding up as he hit the puddle to splash muddy water up against the side of the curb with an evil glance sideways as if to say it might as easily been tobacco juice he spat out the window. Each and every person who came into view became a potential inspiration.

A particular way of walking, one shoulder dipping to indicate an old injury, leads to thoughts of how that injury occurred, which leads to thoughts about who else was involved in the accident, which leads to speculation about his motivation for being in that particular place at that particular time. All of these things go into making him who he is. Someone I do not know, but someone who, because I’ve lumped a bunch of motivations and incidents onto his one characteristic, becomes someone I want to know. Make no mistake, I do not consider this construct to be the human being right in front of me. If I’ve done my job correctly, a character sketch wanders pretty far from the truth. At least I hope I have created someone up out of whole cloth. I’ve never been brave enough to fact-check my character study with any real folks. Just doesn’t seem like a likely way to make too many friends.

I first learned about character sketches from a book on writing. Then learned a bit more from a class offering at a conference. Then even more from practice. While I do take notes on my characters while writing my stories (It sure helps to keep the person straight from one end of the book to the other!) I don’t use characters I concocted from my character sketching exercises. Those are more about stretching the imagination muscle and less about finding the perfect character for any particular story. Even more fun for me since I did this so often when the kids were small– my son, Edward, evidently does this when he’s riding the subway into Manhattan for work.

Here’s one way I flex my character sketching muscles :

Pick a likely looking person, one who has something about them that really stands out. For example, that gentleman who came into the park that day, limping on his left leg as if it hurt. It was a clear day, so I decided it wasn’t gout, but the poor dear had been in a terrible accident. I then start looking around and take one physical characteristic from each of the other people nearby. Sometimes this particular character would take hold of me and follow me into What-a-Burger for lunch.

Totally out of the blue: Name: Shorty Gibson

Age of man who just drove by: 57

Sex of first person to enter the door: Female

Height on next person in the door: 6′ even

Weight of woman sitting behind me: 190

Hair of man second in line for the checkout: Sandy, greying, thick, straight, cut like he might have served in the military and couldn’t shake it off. (Since Shorty is female, it will be a little longer than this guys is…)

Then I start making things up:

Favorites: Food, places to sit and relax, family member, pet, vacation,

Happiest childhood memory?

What does she want more than anything else in the whole wide world?

What is she most afraid of?

What is her weakness at work? In a relationship?

Is she in a relationship? If not, how did the last one end? If yes, how did the last one end?

Where was she born? Lived?

Where does she live? City, state, type of housing, own, rent…color of bedroom?

Does she live alone?

Pets?

Who is her best friend? Frienemy? Enemy?

Where does she work? How high up the food chain is she while at work?

How did she get that limp?

How does she get around? If car, what make, model, year, color? Bike? Same…

Does she have any special skills? Fly a plane, know how to wire a light socket, plumb a toilet, break down a shotgun in 1.2 seconds?

As you can see, you can go into incredible detail, or just hit the high points — it’s just a game really — you get to play it how you like. If you make up your own rules, it can be kind of fun, like eavesdropping on the next table during a meal at a busy restaurant. So go out there, write in the open, and have some fun.

Happy Writing!

Read It Out Loud

Microsoft stock clip art

Better yet, get someone else to read it for you. I was reintroduced to this wonderful practice last month when I attended my second SCBWI-Houston meeting. I was pretty excited about finding a knowledgeable critique group and really wanted to hear what they had to say about my Middle Grade work. I’m used to working for adult audiences, and kids “hear” things very differently. It is important to get the voice, subject matter, and characters just right so that the audience for which the prose is intended appreciates it. If I’m not going to do it right, then I don’t want to bother doing it at all.

 

I’ve been part of nuturing critique groups and critique groups inhabited by the devil incarnate. Listen first to any group, then run if you feel wholesale bad vibes. Most groups are a mixed bag of people, and chances are that at least one person in the group will give you some valuable insight. One thing you absolutely must be able to to do before sharing your work with others is to be able to listen without being defensive. If you start defending each and every point, then you aren’t going to learn a darn thing. They’re trying to help you. (Well, most of them are. Some, like my long-ago devil, are simply blocked writers shedding their misery all over your manuscript. That’s easy to deal with. Don’t keep the pages that person held and/or scribbled all over. Burn that set with some ritual sage to clarify your creative passages and move on.) I have learned more from good critiques than I got out of an entire How to Write a Novel course. Thank your lucky Muse for these folk and listen with your heart as well as your ears.

 

The SCBWI group was one of the good groups. Each set of pages was read by a different person, but never by the author. This was a variation on the theme from my last critique group where we read our own work. I liked it. Hearing someone else stumble through what you thought was witty dialog or over a name that is difficult to pronounce is informative. Plus it leaves your hands free to take notes! There was a wide variety of material being critiqued, as well as a wide variety of skills being brought to the table to render critiques. Not everything said applies wholesale to everyone’s work, but you never know which of the points being made strikes a resonating worry you didn’t even know you were harboring over a sentence or wildly diverging plot point you’d snuck in your piece.

 

Finding a critique group is the hard part, but you can always start by attending a local professional writing organizations meetings. Houston is fortunate to have many active writer’s communities: MWA, West Houston RWA, NW Houston RWA, Houston Bay Area RWA, SCBWI, Houston Writer’s Guild, Houston Ritual SF BreakfastBay Area Writers LeagueClear Lake Area WritersFinal TwistHouston Writers NetworkInprint,  Scriptwriters, HoustonWhite Oak WritersWoodlands Writers Guild, and  Writer’s Ink. This is not a comprehensive listing, but a good place to start looking if you live in Houston and write.

 

Now sit down and get to work!