Creative Distractions

I saw this title as a blog prompt, and thought it a great idea. There are times when the writing just isn’t working, for whatever reason, or my brain just needs a break. So what to do that still keeps the creative juices flowing, but is completely different from writing? Here are a few of my favorite non-writing creative endeavors.

  • Quilting. This is my biggest non-writerly hobby right now. I started back when I was a teenager, hand-sewing a baby quilt that eventually went to my best friend’s first baby. I made a few more quilts, but didn’t really get into it until a few years ago, when another friend whom I’d given a quilt to for her first baby called me up and asked me if I could teach her to quilt. Nothing like teaching somebody else how to do something to get thoroughly involved in it yourself! I’ve taken it up in earnest since, and I love it. I’m not at all artistic, and quilting gives me a great outlet to test different forms of creativity. I’ve even started creating my own patterns, which don’t always turn out so well, but are so much more satisfying than following somebody else’s. Right now I’m hand-quilting one quilt for a friend’s baby, planning another (my friends seriously need to stop having babies so close to each other; I can’t keep up), and hoping to get a quilt done for my little Grace, who moved to a “big girl” bed this winter, and who has been sleeping under a drab brown comforter until I can get her sunshine quilt made. Then, of course, Carl has been after me to make the quilt I’ve been promising him for years for our bed … I even have all the fabric, just haven’t had a chance to cut it out yet!
The first quilt I ever made – all pieced by hand!

Grace’s baby quilt. I loved adding ribbons to the blocks for a touch of whimsy!

The most recent quilt I completed, made for a friend with fabric from Africa!

  • Cooking. This is another fairly recent discovery. A love for cooking runs in my dad’s family, and apparently I inherited that gene, because I have been taking great joy in the last couple of years in finding and trying new recipes, both for baked goods and meals. My absolute favorite thing in the whole world to make is homemade bread. It always reminds me of my grandmother, who made the best bread in the world, and my mother, who never really enjoyed cooking but always made sure to have homemade bread on hand for my sister and me (we, ungrateful children, always wished we could have Wonder Bread like the other kids – until we tasted it and realized it had neither flavor nor texture, and was somewhat like eating air). Plus, there is something both soothing and stimulating about kneading bread dough. I need to get a batch whipped up today, as a matter of fact!
Oatmeal Cinnamon Chip Cookies, our favorite treat

Two loaves of french bread that melded into one during baking – they didn’t look very pretty, but the taste was fine!

One of our favorite easy-but-special meals – pasta carbonara, homemade focaccia, and roasted asparagus. Delicious, especially with a glass of white wine!

  • Scrapbooking. I don’t do this much anymore, but I would like eventually to finish both Joy and Grace’s first year scrapbooks, and maybe even eventually get around to putting wedding photos in a nice scrapbook. I think once the girls are older and I don’t have to worry so much about them getting into my supplies this might become more fun again!
  • Music. This is something else that runs through my dad’s family. Unfortunately, though I inherited the love for it, I did not inherit the knack (that gene went to my sister instead, who also got the cooking gene – talk about unfair!). I can read music, and play a little on the piano and the guitar, and I took voice lessons for three years, but I’d never be considered an expert. It’s still something fun I like to work at when I get the chance, though. I keep promising myself that someday I’ll take piano lessons again, maybe actually memorize the bass clef properly this time around.
  • Photography. I’m a complete amateur at this, but I do so enjoy taking pictures, and not just of my littles! My digital SLR is a constant companion on all our family hikes and outings, and I love getting unusual shots that most people wouldn’t consider. So fun!
So there you have it – I joke that I am a “Jack (Jill?) of all trades, master of none,” because I have so many hobbies, and only dabble in most of them. Writing is my true passion, but I’m glad I have so many other ways to express myself!
What are some of your favorite creative distractions? Do you quilt? Have you ever become better in something because someone asked you to teach them how to do it? Do you have a sister who is disgustingly good at everything she does (love you, Beth!)? Do I have too many hobbies?

Also – do you prefer to read blogs that always post on specific days, or ones that just go up whenever the blogger feels the urge? I’m trying to decide if I should set myself a blogging schedule, or keep following my own sweet whims.
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Why Fantasy?

This is a reasonable question, yet one I’ve never really asked myself before. Why, out of all the genres out there, is it fantasy, most specifically YA fantasy, that appeals to me the most?

My bookshelves are so full that I have to stack books on top of books, and some of the books that I don’t want to get rid of but rarely read (ahem *Star Wars novels*) are packed away. I’d plead for more shelf space, but Carl has hogged it all already.

On my shelves, I have a smattering of classical literature – mostly Austen, Gaskell, Dickens, and Shakespeare. I have some of the Russians – Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky – but I’ve never made it all the way through one of their novels. The problem is I keep picking them up when I’m either pregnant or just had a baby, and I’m already prone to depression … not a good time to read the Russians, I have found.

There’s my history books covering two shelves, the books that I gleefully claim I need for research, but really just get because history of all kinds fascinates me. Then there’s my children’s lit – LM Montgomery, Maud Hart Lovelace, Elizabeth Enright, Louisa May Alcott, etc.

Agatha Christie gets one entire shelf to herself (she was a Very Prolific Author), and Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, and Dorothy Gilman cover the next (none of them, alas, were as prolific as I would have liked). I do enjoy a good mystery, especially one that’s not too gruesome. And if you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time at all you know I have an illicit love affair going on with Lord Peter.

The rest of my shelves are all fantasy, and mostly YA or MG. From Narnia to Middle Earth to Prydain to E Nesbit’s England to Mossflower to Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom to the Enchanted Forest and covering a whole lot more in between.

So why? What is it about fantasy that draws me so, that makes want to read it more than anything else? What is it that makes it my default for writing? Even trying to write a simple adventure story set in 1920s England turned into an alternate history type fantasy (really have to get back to that as soon as I’m done with the rough draft of Cadi’s story – Maia does not take kindly to being set aside for a time).

I never got all that into the traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasy. I’ve read some of those sorts of books and enjoyed them, but not for writing, and I usually only borrow them from the library instead of buying them for my very own. And I’m definitely not big into paranormal or urban fantasy. I have yet to read the book-whose-title-is-synonymous-with-dusk, and vampires etc just don’t really interest me terribly. Unless that vampire is Angel. Duh. Again, I have read some urban fantasy and enjoyed it, but not to the point where I ever want to buy any of the books.

So what is it about certain types of fantasy that draws me the most?

This might be an unfair post, because I don’t really have an answer yet. I think it’s important to ponder, though, and I suspect it boils down to something along the lines of a Lloyd Alexander quote I love:

Fantasy is hardly a way of escaping reality; it’s a way of understanding it.

I think that for me, fantasy has helped me understand this “real world” better, while also allowing me to accept things which we cannot see or understand. I do still believe in fairies, you see, and that belief has helped to shape me into a better person.

And if I can be an ambassador of a magical realm to this one, then that is a task I am proud and yet oddly humbled to accept.

What are your favorite genres to read or write, and why? Do you believe that fantasy does help us to understand reality better? Do you – as Peter Pan might demand – still believe in fairies?

Influences: Diana Wynne Jones

Even though I only discovered her a few years ago, DWJ has ended up being an enormous influence on my writing, especially right now.

Every time I would pass her books in the store or library, I’d see the edition of one of the Chrestomanci books that has a cat on the cover, and I would think, “Ugh, feline fantasy. BORING.”

(Note to publishers – if a book is not, in fact, about cats doing magic, you might not want to imply that on the cover.)

Then, in recent years, more and more of my friends started recommending her books. I was getting desperate for good YA Fantasy, since Lloyd Alexander was gone and my list of favorite authors was growing smaller and smaller. Finally, I picked up the very volume with the cat on the cover, and gave it a try.
You can imagine my indignation when I discovered this wonderfully witty, clever, pithy writer, with a delightful story that had pretty much nothing to do with cats! I felt so cheated. I could have been reading her for years, and I’d missed out just because of a dumb cover. Her twisty way of turning plots around kept me tearing through the stories, and then going back and re-reading them so I could pick up the little nuances I missed the first time around.
Even better, for me, than the Chrestomanci books was Howl’s Moving Castle (I think it’s that way for a lot of people, yes, no?), with the delightful Sophie who only figures out who she truly is when she’s transformed into an old woman and no longer cares about society’s conventions and her family’s expectations.

I had already starting writing The Eldest Sister before I read DWJ, but I admit to being a little concerned about some of the superficial similarities between it and HMC. I didn’t let it worry me too much, though, since TES was such a different story and different tone.
Then I re-read HMC just a few weeks ago, and realized that I would much, much rather read that than TES. The similarities were just enough to show me how far off I had gotten with my own story. And that was what prompted me to ultimately pick it up and start from scratch again, changing a few of the basics so that it wouldn’t seem to be copying too much from DWJ, and determining to make it me, my voice, E Louise Bates as distinctly as all Diana Wynne Jones’ books are hers. 
I freely admit that I am nowhere near as witty or talented as she is, but that’s okay. I have my own voice, and thanks to DWJ, I am remembering how to use it.

My Favorite Literary Couple

Betsy Ray and Joe Willard are one of my all-time favorite literary couples. I love everything about them, from their first meeting in “Heaven to Betsy,” to the absolutely lovely recounting of the first years of their marriage in “Betsy’s Wedding.”
I’ve wondered sometimes what makes me like them even more than most classic couples, such as, say, Anne and Gilbert
Or Elizabeth and Mr Darcy
Or even Taran and Eilonwy (a classic couple for fans of YA Fantasy)
I even like them a little bit better than Molly Gibson and Roger Hamley, which is shocking.
But there you have it. For some reason, Betsy and Joe just stand out above the rest for me. After thinking about it, I’ve come up with a few reasons why:
(Note: I’m not saying that none of the other couples I mentioned don’t have all these traits, just not all together, like Betsy and Joe)
  1. Joe really respects Betsy. He doesn’t just adore her without thinking of her as a person, or think her perfection without recognizing her human flaws, or worship the ground she walks on without acknowledging that she has a brain. He respects her as a person, a human being, and he doesn’t try to shelter, coddle, or protect her. He critiques her writing honestly, and tells her real ways she can improve it. He is fiercely competitive in the first three years of their high school writing rivalry, but it is always a friendly competition.
  2. Although Betsy and Joe meet when they are fourteen, it is not at all certain they will end up together by the end of the series. There is an obvious attraction there, but while the reader hopes they will act on it, between their own stubbornness and outside influences, one can’t be at all sure. So that, when they do end up together, there is simultaneously a sense of “Of course!” and “Whew!”
  3. (and somewhat connected to 2) Because we get to see Betsy with SO many other boys, and Joe with at least one other girl, we are able to see even more clearly how perfect they are for each other, in contrast with all the other romances they’ve had.
  4. They are neither best friends nor bitter enemies. Nor do either of them think of the other as a sibling, while the other is hopelessly in love. Thank goodness!
  5. They don’t start dating (or courting, I suppose, given the era) and immediately get engaged and then married and everything is perfect. We get to see them continue to quarrel and make up, and even to break up for a time. Things aren’t perfect after they are married, either, but they meet every challenge with love and humor, and it makes them so human. In fact, everything about them is human and realistic, while still romantic enough to make the reader swoon.
So there you have it! My top five reasons why I love Betsy and Joe so much. All good things to keep in mind, for me, when writing romance between my own characters.
Who is your favorite literary couple? What are some things that you love in a literary romance, and what are some things you hate? Out of the five couples I mentioned, which do you like the best? Don’t you love Vera Neville’s illustrations for the Betsy-Tacy books?