What Is Winter For, Anyway?

In my novel The Governor’s Lady, Mickey Spainhour is suffering from congestive heart failure and figures she’s not long for this world.  Her son-in-law Pickett is running for President.  In January Mickey says, “I hope I make it to March.  I would hate to die in February.  It’s a miserable month.  If Pickett gets to be President, I want him to outlaw February.”  Mickey’s daughter Cooper, who has just taken office as Governor of the state, says, “I doubt Pickett will waste a minute on February.”

Well, he should.  Let me hasten to associate myself with Mickey’s opinion of February.  It can be, often is, a miserable – nay, a wretched – month.  Just ask Boston.  If I get to be President, I will outlaw February by Executive Order.

But…fair-minded fellow that I am, I admit that February does have one redeeming characteristic: Valentine’s Day, when my heart is full to bursting with thoughts of my own true love.  So I would move Valentine’s Day to March.  February also has the Chinese New Year, but the Chinese can deal with February as they please.

One thing about winter in the Carolinas, where I live, is that it may grab you by the throat, but not for long.  Even in abominable February, we always have a mild and pleasant day when winter loosens its grip and gives us some hope that cold and gloom are not a permanent state of affairs.  Most of our winters here are mild, and maybe we don’t appreciate them enough.  Even February.

What is winter for, anyway?  It makes us hunker down, gives us grim looks and sniffles and a bad outlook on life.  On the surface, winter seems to have little redeeming social value.  But perhaps Mother Nature knows what she is doing when she gives us winter.  Maybe she intends it as a time to just be quiet and wait and listen to the secrets locked deep in our hearts, to discover anew who we are and where we’re bound.

We modern humans are unaccustomed to silence.  We surround ourselves with recorded noise and idle chatter.  Much of our daily existence is filled, as the Bard said, “with sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

But Nature is smart enough to spend the winter in quiet contemplation.  Deep in the icy ground, or under the awesome silence of snow, animal and seed are locked in winter’s thrall, listening to the secret ticking of the great clock of the universe.  The hands move slowly, as nature’s creations regenerate and replenish, gathering strength for the noisy explosion of spring.  Nature knows when to dash about madly and when to bide her time, waiting and listening.

As I write this, the wind is howling outside, rattling the shutters and shaking the bare limbs of the trees.  The temperature will dip to 20 degrees tonight, even colder tomorrow.  But I am hunkered down inside – some peaceful hours at my desk working on a new book.  Soft music on the stereo, a cup of hot tea, my imagination.  A time of discovery, possibility, serendipity.  And Valentine’s Day is just ahead, hearts and flowers, my own true love.

Okay, maybe February is okay.  But just.  Still, like Mickey Spainhour, I hope I make it to March.  I’ll leave it to you to figure out if she does.

Bad Weather? Blame an Author

There are some folks who seem to think my writing contributes to natural calamities.  There may be some truth to that.  The evidence keeps piling up.

DSC00001.JPG

As I look out my office window, there is a foot of snow in my back yard and on the golf course just beyond the hedge.  Kids on sleds are having great fun barreling down the twelfth fairway while some of their parents are slipping and sliding along the roadways in our area.  It’s the biggest snowfall in North Carolina in a decade.  For those who consider anything more than an inch of snow a calamity, I’m afraid they may start blaming Cooper Lanier.

Cooper is the heroine of my latest novel, The Governor’s Lady, newly-elected governor of her southern state.  On the second day she’s in office, the state is hit by a blizzard which paralyzes everything, and the snow serves as a backdrop against which a test of wills plays out between Cooper and her husband Pickett (former governor and now presidential candidate).  Will Cooper be a figurehead, a stand-in for Pickett, or will she be a dynamic decision-maker in her own right?  How she deals with the blizzard sets the stage for what comes after.

When ill-prepared Atlanta got flummoxed by snow a couple of weeks ago, several readers suggested that the honchos there should have read The Governor’s Lady to see how to handle things.  So far, no one has suggested that my inclusion of the blizzard in the story was a portent of Atlanta’s calamity.  But with a foot of snow in my back yard today, and folks slipping and sliding, I’m a tad concerned that rumblings will begin and Cooper and I will get the evil eye.

Nonsense, you say.  But it has happened before.  I grew up in a river town in Alabama, and during my youth the local lore was rife with stories of the Great Flood of 1929, when the river got out of its banks and inundated the town.  My grandmother and her four kids had to escape their home in a rowboat.  While I was growing up, the river behaved itself.  Then in 1991, I published Old Dogs and Children, set in a southern town much like my own.  One of the major events is a flood.  My heroine, Bright Birdsong, escapes with her small child in a rowboat.

The novel had barely made it into print when – you guessed it – my hometown flooded.  The river, calm all those years, went nuts.  Local folks are invariably nice people, and no one said to my face that the book was to blame for the calamity, but for years after, I got jaundiced looks whenever I visited, even in church on Sunday.  I think most folks have finally forgotten and forgiven.

I would like to share the blame for any natural disaster with my fellow storytellers.  We may all be complicit in this sort of thing, whether we write of calamities or not.  The computer age has a lot to do with it.  I sit at my keyboard typing away and constantly mashing the backspace key or even highlighting and deleting entire sentences – nay, paragraphs – of slovenly prose.  By definition, it is bad stuff, not worthy of human consumption.  Where does all that bad stuff go when I zap it from my computer?  I wonder if it may be floating around out there in the ether, roiling the atmosphere and contributing to floods, hurricanes, forest fires, sun spots, and other assorted natural maladies.  Who knows, it may even be contributing to the dysfunction in Congress.

But if any of this is the case, my fellow storytellers and I will just have to live with it.  We scribble on, employing imagined disasters as grist for our tales.  All we ask is, the next time a blizzard hits your locality, don’t run over your local author with your sled.

The World of "What If?"

Okay, I confess it: I lie for a living.

I make stuff up and write it down on paper and talk people into publishing and performing it.  When I write the stuff, it’s very real to me.  I see people moving about, hear what they say, even know what’s inside their minds and hearts and souls.  But it all takes place in a made-up world.  It’s all fiction.

But then, it’s not.  That fictional world I’ve imagined has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is me.  It begins in my version of reality – the sum of all the things I know.  It’s where imagination begins. 

Here’s an example:

When I finished college in 1965 I went to work as a TV news reporter in Montgomery, Alabama.  My beat was the state capitol, where George Wallace was the governor.  Wallace had run for President in 1964 and made some waves, winning a couple of Democratic primaries and causing a lot of heartburn for the party regulars.  He planned to run again in 1968, this time as a third-party candidate.  He had a strong power base in Alabama – a source of money, political talent, influence – but that would evaporate when his term as governor ended in 1966.  Wallace asked the legislature to change the state constitution to allow him to serve a second term, but they refused.  So George convinced his wife, Lurleen, to run in his stead.

It was understood from the beginning that Lurleen would simply be a stand-in for George, that he and his cronies would continue to hold the reins of power, make the decisions, chart the course.  Alabama’s voters had no problem with that, and given George’s enormous popularity, they had no problem with giving Lurleen an overwhelming victory.  She served gracefully but mostly benignly until she died of cancer less than two years into her term.

I tucked away the George and Lurleen Wallace story in my memory bank and went on to other pursuits – among them, fiction writing.  And then many years later, their story came bubbling back up.  A woman governor of a southern state whose husband is running for President.

But then came the point where the story became a work of fiction.  That’s when I asked, “What if?”

What if the story is set in the modern day: a presidential aspirant helps his wife get elected governor and intends (a la George Wallace) for her to be a benign stand-in.  But instead, she’s smart, feisty, independent, determined to chart her own course?  What if she has a political bloodline of her own, and with it, solid instincts.  And what if she finds allies who can help her navigate the treacherous shoals of male-dominated, good-old-boy politics?

So with that “What if?” a new story is born, eventually becoming a novel, The Governor’s Lady.

There’s a line in a Kris Kristofferson song: “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.”  And that’s what a story is, a contradiction.  It’s real stuff, made-up.  It has to be grounded enough in reality to be authentic and believable to a reader, a solid point from which the reader is willing to take a leap of faith into the imagined world.  That imagined world is what transforms the reality into something new, and that world begins when the fiction writer asks, “What if?”

So yeah, I lie for a living.  But every good lie has to have a grain of truth in it.

Think about all that, and so will I, and I’ll have some more to say about it in my next post.

Always, Always, Follow The Money

One of the most intriguing characters I’ve had the privilege to imagine in my career as a novelist is a woman named Mickey Spainhour: a crusty, profane, hard-nosed political operative (if you’re casting the movie, think Shirley Maclaine).  Mickey has nurtured the careers of politicians for years and in The Governor’s Lady, is – near the end of her life – providing advice and wisdom to her daughter Cooper, who is the newly-minted governor of her southern state.

Final cover.jpg

Cooper, despite having been the daughter and later wife of a governor, is somewhat naïve about the behind-the-scenes machinations of the political process.  Now, having taken office, she’s struggling to establish herself in the treacherous world of good-old-boy male-dominated politics.  She and Mickey have been estranged for years, but now, she needs help.  She needs Mickey, and Mickey needs a last political hoorah.  Across the chasm that divides them, mother and daughter have an opportunity to re-connect.  Mickey’s experience and savvy can become Cooper’s best resource.

My friend D.G. Martin, the host of “North Carolina Bookwatch” on the state’s public television network, reviewed The Governor’s Lady and, with his keen eye for nuggets of political wisdom, zeroed in on one particular piece of advice from Mickey.  D.G.’s review is entitled, “Always, Always, Follow The Money.”

Mickey’s advice comes as Cooper is considering whether to approve a land transaction – a piece of state-owned land, swapped for another privately-owned tract.  Cooper says it doesn’t appear any money is involved.  Here’s Mickey’s take on it: “

“Don’t be sure.  Money, real money, is quiet.  So quiet you have to listen hard to hear it.  The noise in politics, it’s mostly about what people call ‘issues.’  Folks at opposite ends of the spectrum yelling at each other: the gun nuts and Bible-thumpers over here, the bleeding hearts and tree-huggers over there.  Smoke and fire, thunder and lightning.  But back in the shadows, being quiet, are the people with the big money, people who stand to make a lot more money, depending on who holds office.  And they don’t really care which bunch it is, gun nuts or tree-huggers.  They can do business with either, or anything in between, or both at the same time.  Don’t get me wrong, money people have ideas and opinions, but they rarely let them get in the way of their money.  So always, always, follow the money.”

The debate about big money in American public life goes on – the buying of influence, the stacking of decks, the inside trading.  Some believe that using money to sway political decision-making is simply the exercising of free speech; others think that big money drowns out the free speech of the little guy.  Make up your own mind.  But while you’re doing so, consider the wisdom of Mickey Spainhour.

A Sense of History

I like history.  I think we have to know where we’ve been before we can understand how and why we got where we are now.

It’s true of the world at large, and a lot of what we call history is the recounting of momentous events and larger-than-life people doing momentous things.  But I’m even more interested in small histories -- the very personal, intimate stories of individuals.  The sum of our small histories gives texture and meaning to the larger sweep of mankind.

Personal History.jpg

If you read one of my novels, you know the importance I attach to backstory.  I have to know how my characters got here, how the baggage they tote from their past affects how they’re moving through the present.  When I offer a story, I’m like a lawyer arguing a case before a jury.  I need to give enough background to let you know that my story and characters are authentic.  I need to offer what lawyers call extenuating and mitigating circumstances.  In my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, I devote chapters to my central character’s history.  In other works, it may be a sentence or paragraph here and there.  But the backstory is crucial to me in understanding the character, and then presenting the character to my readers.

That really hit home when the Hallmark Hall of Fame folks were making a movie from my first novel, Home Fires Burning.  I adapted the two-hour screenplay from a 500-page novel, so I had to leave out a great deal.  But Glenn Jordan, the director, required the cast members to read the book before they came to the set, and I’m sure that in a thousand ways, they brought a richer understanding of their characters to the portrayal.

StoryLine Bus.jpg

My love of histories large and small is what intrigues me about an oral history project going on these days in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  It’s called StoryLine, and it’s based on the premise that when people in a community share their stories, it fosters an understanding of what they have in common.  StoryLine does its work from a small bus that serves as a studio.  You and a story partner sit down before microphones and have a conversation about who you are and where you come from.  Some of the stories, in edited form, air on local radio stations.  They all go into an archive at the Forsyth County Library: a treasure trove for the community’s understanding of itself, now and in the future.

But you don’t have to have a studio in a bus to record history.  Any kind of recording device will do just fine.  The thing is to sit down with a friend or relative and just talk about who you are, how you got where you are now, your hopes and dreams.  It’s especially important for the older generations in our families.  Before it’s too late, preserve their stories.  I wish I had been smart enough to do that with my parents.  When they passed on, I lost a good bit of my own history.  I’m poorer for that.

I once heard a semi-famous man say, “We never see the handwriting on the wall until our backs are to it.”  I think he was right in the sense that we often turn our backs on our history and keep repeating mistakes.  But it needn’t be that way.  It takes having a sense of and appreciation for history – and then, like StoryLine, doing something about it.

Give A Bookseller A Hug

Some authors are shy.  I’m not.

I remember a bookseller telling me some years ago about a visit to her store by an author whose work I admire.  This fellow had a fine new book, which the store owner had read in advance of his visit and was eagerly looking forward to recommending to her customers.  She arranged an appearance for the author, drew a crowd, had plenty of books available.  But she realized to her chagrin that the author was a terminal introvert.  He mumbled a few pages from his book to the assemblage, didn’t take questions or comments, barely met the eyes of people whose books he autographed, and scurried quickly away as soon as possible.  It was not a successful event.

Contrast that with another writer whose work I like a very great deal – Pat Conroy.  Pat is warm, funny, self-effacing, accessible, generous, and enormously talented.  When Pat appears at a book store, he seems to reach out and gather people to him.  Pat’s writing alone guarantees him an audience, but Pat makes the experience of meeting him in person a treat.  And it’s all completely genuine.  Booksellers love Pat Conroy.

Booksellers have a tough job – especially independent stores whose very existence has been in jeopardy for years.  The big box stores, Amazon, the e-book tsunami, have decimated their ranks.  In one good-sized city I’m familiar with, there were perhaps a dozen fine independent full-service bookstores not too many years ago.  Now there is one.  The stores that have survived are owned and run by people who combine savvy business sense with a love of books and work hard to deliver personal service to their customers.

Mid-list authors like me survive because of the independents.  We love to have our books available in any store of any size, and we have come to embrace the brave new world of the e-book.  But independents hand-sell our books.  Walk into one and ask, “What have you got that’s good to read?” and the bookseller will have a ready recommendation.  If independent booksellers like an author’s work and are willing to recommend it, that’s huge.

Park Road Books, Charlotte NC     

Park Road Books, Charlotte NC  

When I visit a book store of any kind or size, my attitude is that I’m there to help the bookseller.  I’m grateful for the invitation and I love meeting and talking with readers.  I really like people, and I’m thrilled when someone thinks enough of my work to want to read it and hear me talk about it.  If I enjoy myself and genuinely connect with the folks who take time to come out, it makes a successful event for the store and leaves a warm glow that will last long after I’ve left.  I try to be just like Pat Conroy.

I’m embarking on a promotional tour that will take me to a lot of bookstores of all kinds in the next couple of months.  After the years of hard labor it took to bring my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, to life, this is the payoff, and I don’t just mean in monetary terms.  It’s a time when I get to tell booksellers and readers how grateful I am for having the work to present, and the opportunity to present it.

We’d be a poor, sad society if we didn’t have booksellers.  So visit a store, give the bookseller a hug, and take home something good to read.  If you visit while I’m there, I’ll be mighty glad to see you.  Hugs are optional.

The Case For Women

I’ve just finished what I think is an important book for our time: Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead.  The author is Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook.  She makes a compelling case for the greater involvement of women in every facet of leadership in today’s society.

Sandberg.jpg

Sandberg is a staunch believer in the right and obligation of every woman to choose the life that fulfills her, whether it’s in the home, or in the world at large, or some combination of the two.  She says it is all honorable and valued work.  But the crux of her message is for women who choose careers in the public arena – especially, business and government.  Her fervent advice for those women: welcome challenges, take risks, boldly seek opportunities to lead.  Sandberg lives her advice.  She leads one of the world’s most successful, most vibrant businesses.  She has found balance in life, dedicating herself equally to her family – husband, children, home.

While reading her book, I thought about the raising of our own two daughters.  My wife and I encouraged them to think boldly about their futures, to choose the paths that suited them.  “You can be whatever you want to be,” we told them, “and we will help you prepare yourselves and overcome obstacles.”  They’ve chosen different paths, but the important thing is, we made sure they felt free to choose.

I also thought that Sheryl Sandberg was talking about the central character of my new novel, The Governor’s Lady.  Cooper Lanier, after spending much of her life in the shadow of politics and politicians, chooses to leap headlong into that world.  She is elected governor of her southern state, and makes the choice to fight for her place in the often-treacherous world of male-dominated politics.  She welcomes challenge.  She seeks leadership.  She goes boldly.  I love her for it.  I think Sheryl Sandberg would be proud of Cooper Lanier.

Final cover.jpg

As Cooper and her story unfolded in my imagination, I came firmly to the notion that we need more women in government at every level – local, state, federal, elected and appointed.  We have a gracious plenty of testosterone in public life – men whose primary purpose often seems to be simply winning a point, skewering an opponent, advancing an ideology at all costs.  (See Congress, United States).  I think women often come at the business of governing from a different angle: What works?  How can we get things done?  How can we work together?  We could use a great deal more of that.

Women are making strides, gaining ground, breaking glass ceilings.  But not enough.  We need to let them know that what they’re doing is important, valuable, enriching to all of us.  We need to keep encouraging them to lean in.

If You Want To Be Published, You Will Be

            I sometimes lead writing workshops.  Folks who sign up are a diverse group – women and men, young and old and everything in between, folks from just about any walk of life you can imagine.  There’s one thing in common: they write and they passionately want to be published.

Manuscript.jpg

            I try to be honest with the folks in those workshops, and until fairly recently, I had to describe how difficult it is to get a book of any stripe into the hands of readers.  I warned them about unscrupulous agencies that will offer to read your manuscript for a hefty fee, then blithely tell you there’s not a market for it.  Companies that will promise to publish your book (for an even heftier fee) and market it (another big fee).  They ship you boxes of books, and that’s it.  Little or no marketing or promotion.  You’re on your own.  I had to tell them how difficult it is for a first-time author to find an agent, how hard it is to get an editor at a reputable publishing house to even look at your work.

In short, publishing these days is a daunting affair, and many good, worthy books never make it into print.  For a first-time writer (and even for some grizzled veterans like me) it can be a crushing experience.

            But now I can give my workshop friends some really good news.  I start the first session of a workshop by saying, “If you want to be published, you will be.”  Faces light up, the energy level in the room goes way up.

Final cover.jpg

The reason, of course, is the e-book: Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Apple.  The traditional publishing houses have embraced it.  John F. Blair Publishers is making my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, available in both hardcover and e-book editions.

But the e-book phenomenon has given new life to literally millions of people who don’t – or can’t -- go through a traditional house.  They publish an e-book themselves – straight from computer file to internet.  It’s not hard to do, and other than some initial out-of-pocket expenses (cover art, copyright registration) it’s free.  Kindle, Nook, and the like welcome your work and walk you step-by-step through the process.  I put my first four novels on the internet last year and did the vast bulk of the work myself, with some great guidance from writer friends who had already done it.

The big challenge is those millions of other people self-publishing e-books.  Some of it is sheer junk, some so-so, some really good.  As a new author, you have to compete with all those other folks to find readers, and there’s no traditional publishing house putting its muscle behind marketing and promotion.

The first thing you have to do is make your work as good as it can possibly be, to separate it from the junk and so-so.  When readers find something they like, they tell other readers.  Then too, there are lots of resources out there – Websites such as Goodreads, how-to books on the internet – to give you marketing ideas.  People who’ve done it successfully are eager to share what they’ve learned.

By some accounts, half the fiction sold in America is now on e-books.  Fiction is easier because it’s usually just text.  Non-fiction and children’s books are harder because e-books don’t handle pictures, illustrations, charts and graphs very well.  But that’s improving.  We’re just at the beginning of the e-book wave.

I’ve heard writing described as a disease you can’t cure.  I like to think of it as a passion that’s both maddening and exhilarating.  For so many of us who scribble, the e-book makes it possible to show the world what our passion has produced.

Giving Birth to an Elephant

Elephant.jpg

Writing a novel is similar to giving birth to an elephant: the gestation period is very long, and when the dear thing finally pops out, you hope nobody notices that it has long, floppy ears.

Well, I’m in the final stages of labor.  My new novel, The Governor’s Lady, debuts August 29 at Park Road Books in Charlotte, NC.  My first four novels were birthed at the same great store, where owners John Barringer, and later Sally Brewster, have nurtured and supported my scribbling from the beginning.  You might call them the delivering physicians.

This book has been more than ten years in the making, and there were times I wondered if I’d ever finish it, and if so, if it would ever see the light of day.

The book publishing industry has changed dramatically in the time since my fourth novel, Captain Saturday, came out.  It’s mostly a bottom-line business these days, and midlist writers like me, even with decent publishing records, have a tough time placing a new work.  So many books of merit that used to get published with little problem now have a much slimmer chance of finding an audience.

I’m incredibly fortunate.  The Governor’s Lady will be birthed by a wonderful house, John F. Blair Publishers in Winston-Salem, NC.  Yesterday, I held the first copy off the press and marveled at the beautiful presentation Blair has made of my story.  Carolyn Sakowski and her staff have done everything right and given the work its best possible chance to succeed in the marketplace.  They’ve arranged an extensive promotional tour (www.robert-inman.com/appearances) where I’ll get the opportunity to present my book to booksellers, librarians, and readers.  It will also have an e-book edition for those who are making the move to devices like Kindle, Nook and Kobo.  I’m proud to be a Blair author.

Now, it’s up to me and my little elephant.  Readers will decide the merits of the story, and I’ll do everything I can to help the cause.  It’s where art meets commerce.  I’m proud of the work – the characters and the story -- and immensely grateful to everyone who has provided wise counsel and guidance along the way.

If you see me on the street pushing a very large baby carriage with a long-eared little darling inside, at least honk and wave.  We’re on a mission, and we need your good wishes.  A few bucks for the book would help, too.

Floating To Earth On Faith

My father was a paratrooper.

He served as an infantry officer in World War Two, and settled into a mostly quiet life as a father of four in a small Alabama town.  Then the Army summoned him again.  He was called back to active duty for the Korean Conflict, and that’s when the paratrooper business began.  He was a rugged guy, a former college football player, and for some reason he sought the more rugged side of Army life.  He joined the Rangers, and then the Special Forces.  He was a Green Beret who jumped out of airplanes.

I suspect my mother thought he was nuts – a guy with four young children at home who jumped out of airplanes.  It wasn’t until he was back from Korea that we learned that he and his comrades jumped out of airplanes behind enemy lines in North Korea and did mischief.  It’s a good thing we didn’t know.  He stayed in the service for awhile after Korea and we lived on Army posts – Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, Fort Benning.  He kept on jumping out of airplanes.

Paratroopers.jpg

Sometimes we watched.  Mother would load the four kids in the car and we would park next to a large field.  We’d hear the drone of the planes and then they would roar into view and people would start jumping out of them.  Suddenly the air was filled with parachutes, hundreds of them, all floating to earth.  It was an awesome sight, and as the oldest of the four kids, I thought it was fabulous.

It all came to an end when Dad’s unit got orders to go to Japan – a two-year peacetime deployment.  That’s when Mother put her foot down.  Enough foolishness.  Dad got out of the Army and we returned to small-town Alabama life.  If Dad missed it, he never said so.  But I suspect he did.

I’ve thought about those paratroopers often in my adult life.  I did an Army hitch, but never jumped out of an airplane.  But I’ve always wanted to.  It’s on my bucket list.

I’ve also thought about it in another way – how similar it is to writing.  When a guy jumps out of an airplane, he’s taking a leap of faith – trusting that his parachute will open and he will float to earth.  When I stare at a blank page and begin to tell a story, that’s also a leap of faith.  I have to believe that my characters will truly come to life and lead me through the roller-coaster ride of the tale.  I have to believe that somewhere in the future I will land safely and write “The End” and think I’ve done okay.

It’s taking that first leap of faith that’s the hardest part – flinging oneself out the door of the plane of imagination.  It takes a bit of a certain kind of courage, and maybe – like my Dad – a touch of madness.  There are so many people with a tale to tell and the aptitude with words to tell it.  But few ever do.  Taking the first step can be daunting, even terrifying.  My friend Ralph Keyes talked about this elegantly in his book The Courage to Write.  If you’re thinking about writing, you should read it.

This new book I have coming out in September, The Governor’s Lady, took me ten years to write.  It was a time when I was becoming a playwright – seven plays, two of them musicals, all produced and all published by Dramatic Publishing Company.  But the book was always there, and I always returned, trusting that I would land safely and write “The End.”  Eventually I did, and readers will decide if I did okay.

There’s an old joke among paratroopers.  A young trooper, about to make his first jump, goes to his sergeant and confesses he’s terrified.

“Nothing to it,” Sarge says.  “Your parachute is attached to the plane, and when you jump, the line pulls the chute out of its pack, it opens, and you float safely to earth.  In the very unlikely event the main chute doesn’t deploy, you pull the handle on your emergency chute, it opens, and you float safely to earth.  When you get down, there’s a truck waiting to bring you back to the barracks.”

Reassured by Sarge, the young trooper leaps out of the plane.  The main chute doesn’t open.  He reaches for the handle of the emergency, and it comes off in his hand.  As he plummets toward earth, he says, “Yeah, and I bet there ain’t no danged truck down there, either.”

I guess that’s the risk paratroopers and writers take when they make the leap of faith.  As one who’s leaped a few times, I can say the risk is worth it.

The Music of Writing

            My grandmother was a piano teacher.  Widowed in middle age with four children, she made her living by sharing her love for music with several generations of young folks, me included.  The popular book for beginners back then was “Teaching Little Fingers to Play,” which is about an apt a title for any book I can imagine.  Thousands of little fingers stumbled across the keys of her Story and Clark upright piano, and many became proficient, a few truly talented.  I fell somewhere just shy of the middle.

teaching little fingers.jpg

            I wish I had stayed with those piano lessons longer, but at a point in junior high school I got a job and discovered girls, and left the lessons behind.  Still, there are things about my hours at the keyboard of that Story and Clark that have stayed with me.  I can read music, I understand harmony, I have a good feel for rhythm.  The basics.

            Music has always been an important part of my life.  I sang in the high school glee club and church choir.  I became a teenaged disc jockey and worked my way through college spinning records for stations in Tuscaloosa.  I came over time to an appreciation for just about any musical genre  you can imagine – rock, pop, country, bluegrass, classical, jazz.  I retained enough of those basics of composition to write the songs, music and lyrics, for two stage musicals.  I hear music in my head, and some of it is new stuff.  I know enough to put it in a lead sheet and then turn it over to my music professor friend, Dr. Bill Harbinson, who arranges it into what I call “real music.”

keys13.gif

            Music informs my storytelling.  I figured out early on in my playwriting career – from studying the work of talented people like Rodgers and Hammerstein – that a song in a play should illuminate character, advance the plot, or (hopefully) both.  The songs should be an integral and seamless part of the story.

            Music and lyrics are woven into my novels.  In Old Dogs and Children, Dorsey Bascombe plays the trombone, and he tells his small daughter Bright that “a trombone is the sound of God breathing.”  In my new book, The Governor’s Lady, a bluegrass band “makes the air dance with their fiddles and guitars and banjos.”  And Pickett Lanier, later to become a governor and presidential candidate, writes and sings a song for his new wife Cooper:

            If I was a three-legged dog, two legs front and one leg rear,
            I’d rouse myself in the evening time, get my three old legs in gear;
            Leave my place in the cool, cool shade, drink my fill of Gatorade,
            And hippity-hop to you, my dear.

            It says a lot about Pickett, and not for the better, that he puts aside his guitar and turns to politics.

            Music has also given me a sense of the rhythm of a story, especially one played out over the length of a book.  To me, a good story has an ebb and flow to it.  It can’t go at break-neck speed all the time.  It needs moments to pause in the cool, cool shade and ponder.  Those are important moments to me in discovering who my characters are and why.

            So it started there on the bench of my grandmother’s Story and Clark upright as she patiently taught my little fingers to play.  Now, when I write, she’s always at my elbow.

Robert Inman’s previously-published novels – Home Fires Burning, Old Dogs and Children, Dairy Queen Days, and Captain Saturday – are available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo in e-book format.

The Girl He Couldn't Do Without

They’re honeymooning at the beach – our young friend and the girl he couldn’t do without.

It’s a piece of advice my mother gave me when I was single, dating this girl and that one, occasionally bringing one home to meet the parents.  “Marry the one you can’t do without,” Mother said, and I took her advice to heart.  When things began to look a trifle serious with a young lady, I would ask myself, “Could I do without this one?” In every case but the last one, I could.  Then I met Paulette.  We’ve been married for 46 years.  I couldn’t do without her back then, and I can’t now.

I suppose it’s a tough yardstick to use when you’re considering a relationship that could become a lifetime.  But as mother said, if you choose someone you could do without, the odds are you eventually will.  Better to be tough going in than tough coming out.  Better a broken heart when a relationship is in its infancy than when it’s over.

So Paulette and I joined the crowd of friends and family in a rural Baptist church in south Alabama last weekend to see John and Candy begin a life together.  The way they looked into each other’s eyes as they stood before the preacher and said their vows told us they’ve chosen the ones they can’t do without, and that bodes well for a long life together.

There are times in any marriage when things seem to be coming apart at the seams.  It’s easy to just walk away.  But if the person on the other side of the conflict is the one you just can’t do without, you’ll make the extra effort to work things out and keep the partnership together.

I thought about my mother’s advice a lot when I was writing my new novel The Governor’s Lady which comes out in September.  There’s a marriage at the heart of it, and there a point where Cooper and Pickett have to face the essential question: can they do without each other?

Every good story needs a dilemma at its heart.  How the characters respond to the dilemma tells us who they are and how the story unfolds.  How this one unfolds will have to wait for September.