To Parent or Not

It’s one of the most common topic of discussion for YA and MG fantasy – what to do about the parents?

The orphaned hero is become so cliched that people do tend to roll their eyes automatically when they see it, but writers seem to be left with little choice – either create some elaborate scheme to have the parents out of the picture, or just kill them off, because if the parents are around, much of the tension for the young protagonist is removed.

Oddly enough, I’m not a huge fan of that whole “remove the parents” idea, though. I know that it’s mostly because I am a parent now. But it’s also because while it makes it trickier for the protagonist to be the one driving the story, it also adds another level of tension – how does one go about having magical adventures when one’s mother is right there reminding one to keep safe and be smart? And what does a mother (or father) do when adventure finds one’s child – go with the natural instinct to protect one’s kid, or stay in the background and allow the kid to learn through experience?

These are the sorts of themes I really do enjoy seeing played out in books.

DSC_0009Edward Eager and E. Nesbit both handle parental presence well in their books. Usually, the parents are completely unaware of magic, and that unawareness becomes in itself another obstacle – the mother in Half Magic thinks she’s going mad because of all the magic she’s witnessing; Anthea has to go to extreme measures to hide from her mother that the magic carpet took the baby away in The Phoenix and the Carpet; Granny gets her hands on the magic book in Seven-Day Magic and leads the children on a madcap adventure they can’t escape until they get the book back, because she thinks she’s just dreaming … and so on and so forth. My favorite Eager parents, though, are Martha and Katharine, both of whom had magical adventures when they were children, and aren’t afraid to set their children straight when it comes to magic. And in The Time Garden, when the children travel back in time and end up in one of their parents’ magical adventures, and have to rescue them, it gets thoroughly delightful (side note: I wonder at what point in time did Martha, Katharine, Jane and Mark look at each other and realize, “OH! Those strange children from our desert island adventure that time – those were OUR KIDS”?) and mayhem-y.

I read a duology recently where the daughter was kidnapped to a magical realm to help free her father from a spell there, and the mother went back voluntarily to rescue the daughter. I thought the concept was fabulous, except in execution, the mother spent most of her time as a prisoner in the palace, dithering about what was best to do, while the daughter escaped her kidnappers and had wild piratical adventures while on her way to rescue her father. It was a bit of a disappointment, because I really, really wanted to see a YA book that had an equally strong mother and daughter – in the same place but separated, both having awesome adventures.

I guess maybe someday I’ll just have to write that story myself.

What are some good example you can think of for parental inclusion in YA or MG adventures? Do you prefer to read stories where the children have to work with or around the parents, or where the parents just aren’t there at all? Would you want to read a story that features both kids AND adults being awesome?

Come Down, Lady, Come Down!

I never used to have weird dreams. Nightmares, yes, all the time when I was a kid and teenager, but never fun, weird, harmless dreams. That changed when I got pregnant. I had the most bizarre dreams almost every single night. I thought the dreams would stop when the pregnancy hormones finally left my system, but they haven’t really. I don’t get them every night any more, and they usually aren’t quite as strange as the ones I had during my pregnancies, but they still come with great frequency, and they are … odd. Usually fun, too, though sometimes not so much.

Last night I started out with an ordinary weird dream – hanging out in PA with some of our friends from back there, and Todd Eldredge, and all laughing and chatting and waiting for the wrecking ball to swing by and destroy the house down the street, and Todd found out and was picking on me for fangirl-ishly stalking him over the years (for the record, in real life, I’ve only seen him and asked him for a picture ONCE, and that was at the ’98 Worlds, and I was asking LOTS of the skaters for their pictures), and Colin Firth was singing this in the background.

(Just Colin and the guitar, though, No Rupert Everett and the piano, which makes me sad.)

Then the dream switched the that age-old stand-by: I had emerged from a long series of dark tunnels (which in real life would send me into a claustrophobic coma, but didn’t seem to faze me in my dream) and needed to get through a ballroom filled with people waiting for a wedding to start in order to reach the hotel lobby and complete my secret mission. And I was only in my underwear.

No, really. I had that stereotypical dream of being at a wedding in my underwear. I didn’t even have that dream when I was stressed out from planning my own wedding; I don’t know why I would have it now!

The really interesting thing is, though, is that I was not embarrassed or ashamed. I don’t remember the reason I was in my underwear, but whatever it was, it wasn’t my fault, and so I stood straight and tall and simply walked through that ballroom without even blushing. I got to the end, and everyone was whispering and shocked, and I spun around and announced “If it bothers you all so much, then maybe one of you could lend me a shawl or something?”

And someone did, so I wrapped myself in that and went to the lobby, delivered my message, was given some clothes by one of the guys there, said hi to Todd (who apparently felt the need to pop back into my dream just for a brief moment, thankfully after I had pulled on the jeans and black t-shirt), and then left to go help my dad judge swimming trials for the Olympics.

I enjoyed the entire dream, but I’m still pondering over me not being at all bothered by my lack of clothing in front of well-dressed strangers. I’m wondering if it indicates an increase in self-confidence? The fact that after two kids my sense of modesty has completely altered (hey, you try having kids wandering in and out of the bathroom while you’re on the toilet and not have your sense of modesty shift)? Maybe that I’m willing to be more honest in my writing and not worry so much about people misjudging me as I did when I was younger?

Or just the result of that glass of red wine I had with dinner?

The Journey is the Treasure

Five years ago today, Lloyd Alexander died.

I was visiting my parents at the time (I don’t remember why). I was checking my email on Mom’s computer when I saw the news.

I was devastated. Numb. I just sat there in Mom’s chair and stared at the computer screen. It didn’t seem possible. I spent much of that day in a daze, trying to come to grips with it. Thankfully, my parents understood completely – Mom even told me that she’d felt much the same when Agatha Christie died, that same sense of losing a close friend, even though it was a person she’d never met.

But that was the thing with Lloyd: he was a friend to every one of his readers. He didn’t just create some of my favorite heroes and heroines; he was a hero, himself, to me, simply for his honesty, his humor, and his love for adventure.

I’ve written before about the tremendous influence Lloyd has been, both on my writing and on the way I try to live my life. On my very approach to life, really. His writing is wonderful for children, who are still trying to figure out the world and where they fit in it. It’s just as wonderful for adults who need to remember the deep joy and magic that can be found simply in the grand adventure of life itself (that sentence sounds pompous. Don’t worry, Lloyd’s books are never pompous). His heroes smash every popular idea of what heroism is all about, and they do it while still remaining joyous and real. Just look at some of the quotes from the Prydain Chronicles:

“In some cases,” he said, “we learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.” 

“There is much to be known,” said Adaon, “and above all much to be loved, be it the turn of the seasons or the shape of a river pebble. Indeed, the more we find to love, the more we add to the measure of our hearts.”

 “Is there not glory enough in living the days given to us? You should know there is adventure in simply being among those we love and the things we love, and beauty, too.”

“This much have I learned: A man’s life weighs more than glory, and a price paid in blood is a heavy reckoning.” 

And this, my favorite: 

“I have learned there is greater honor in a field well plowed than in a field steeped in blood.” (Oh, Adaon!)



If someday I can write books that bring half as much joy and inspiration to people as he did, I will consider my life well lived. When I heard that today was being informally dubbed Lloyd Alexander Day, I knew I had to participate. How could I not join in honoring the man who has had the greatest hand in shaping the type of writer I am, the type of stories I love, the type of hero I want to be?


I have written a few stories posted on ff.net in the Lloyd Alexander section. If you’ve read all of his own works and are looking for something more, I humbly offer my own attempts. Amaranth is based on The Arkadians; Night Phantoms is a surprisingly (at least, it was a surprise to me) melancholy glimpse into King Smoit’s character; Magic of the Heart looks at what life in Prydain might have been life for the generation after the events of The High King, as seen through the eyes of Taran’s youngest daughter.


If you’re interested in more Lloyd Alexander fanfic, do check out any of the writers in that section of ff.net; I especially recommend anything by Companion Wanderer and Adaon45.


Above all, read something Lloyd himself wrote! And then go plant some turnips in honor of Coll.


And I leave you with some others of my favorite quotes from Lloyd …

“All that writers can do is keep trying to say what is deepest in their hearts. ” 

“I intend to follow the path of virtue. It will not be overcrowded.” 

“You have a point,” said Fronto, “and even a poet must occasionally bow to logic.” 

 “You’re showing mercy.” Catch-a-Tick nodded. “That’s heroic, too. But not as good as smiting.” 

“If a storyteller worried about the facts – my dear Lucian, how could he ever get at the truth?” 

“The journey is the treasure.” 

Sharing the Secrets of the Garden

I recently started reading The Secret Garden aloud to Joy (and Grace, when she sits still long enough to hear). We finished up with Betsy-Tacy and were wondering what chapter book to start on next when I saw my beautiful green-and-pink copy on my shelves, and knew that was the one.

http://contentinacottage.blogspot.com/2010/07/tasha-tudor-estate-family-feud-still-in.html


The Secret Garden is one of those books that shaped my childhood. Books in general shaped my childhood, really. But some stand out more than others. The Narnia books … The HobbitHalf MagicThe Four-Story Mistake and Thimble Summer and the Gone-Away books … The Wizard of Oz … the Betsy-Tacy books … the Anne and Emily and Story Girl books … Dad’s old Lone Ranger books (don’t judge!) … and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s tales about two very different girls, Sara Crewe and Mary Lennox.
I was a little torn, in fact, between reading The Secret Garden or A Little Princess, but Sara’s tale of cold, gloomy, fog-ridden London always seems more fit for winter, to me, while Mary and Dickon and Colin all coming to life with the garden is so very much a spring tale. And seeing as how we started our first garden this spring, I thought the littles would enjoy it best right now. We’ll tackle A Little Princess this winter.
It’s not an easy tale to read aloud – the Yorkshire accents are tricky to pull off without sounding ridiculous – and much of the vocabulary is far beyond my four-year-old, but she is still riveted every time we read. We’re only four chapters in (I can’t get through more than two chapters at a time before my voice gives out), but I honestly think she would sit through the entire thing at once if I could do it. Right now she is as eagerly anticipating Dickon’s first appearance as Mary is, and I am loving seeing this world again through her eyes – the magic of the moor, and the manor with a hundred locked doors, and a pert maid who speaks broad Yorkshire when surprised, and a hunchback, and a robin, and of course, the locked-up garden with rose trees inside. It’s captured her imagination just like it did mine when I was a kid, and I suspect she is already imagining herself friends with Mary – just as I did.
Burnett bears much of the responsibility for my love affair with England. CS Lewis shares that responsibility, as do E Nesbit, Susan Cooper, Tolkien, … oh okay, there are a LOT of authors responsible for turning me into the anglophile I am today. But Burnett is right up there. When I think of Yorkshire I do not first think of Downton Abbey and the misadventures of the Crawley sisters; I think of Mary Lennox and Dickon and a walled-in garden (as a young woman, by the way, Mary would wallop some sense into those sisters – she wouldn’t stand for Lady Mary’s dramatics for one second, and Colin and Lady Edith would probably fall in love only to have both Lord Grantham and Mr Craven disapprove, and Sybil would try to fall in love with Dickon, but of course everyone KNOWS he and Mary are meant to be together, and no I haven’t been tempted to write a crossover fanfic about this, why do you ask? Ahem). I know, in my head, that England is not at all like Burnett wrote it, but when I close my eyes and conjure up images of it in my head, I see a moor covered in heather, and children playing with wild animals in brilliantly-colored gardens, and a foggy London with hansom cabs. The England of my heart is peopled with Dickons and Marys and Colins, secret gardens and gloomy mansions, a wide-spread moor and wise country mothers; with Saras and Beckys and Large Families and even Miss Minchins and Miss Amelias, boarding schools and attic bedrooms.
(When I close my eyes and think of Wales I see Will Stanton and Bran and Merriman, seven riders and a grey mountain and an afanc – but that’s a different post.)
I’m not sure much in life brings me more joy than being able to introduce my children to the books that I have loved so well my entire life, to think that they will be making friends with the same timeless characters that have been my friends since I was small, to see their eyes light up with the same joy I feel every time they see the familiar dust-jacket of certain books. I can think of no better childhood than one spent roaming the moor with Mary and Dickon (yes, and Colin too, even though I never liked him – I would have been much happier if the book had just been about Mary and Dickon the whole time, although I did love it when Mary so magnificently put him in his place during that one tantrum) and Dickon’s creatures.

Just a few more years, and we can start reading about Narnia and Middle-Earth. I really can’t wait for that. Every child should be able to go adventuring with Lucy and Bilbo!

Television Heroes

I’ve done a list of my favorite literary heroes, but never of favorite tv heroes. Silly me! Lately I’ve been looking at the rather disparate list of characters I love on tv, and trying to figure out what it is about them that draws me – whether there is one common theme, or if I like each for completely different reasons. So then, naturally, I decided to blog about it.

Here, then, is my list of top five television heroes, with one thrown in as a bonus at the end.

Chakotay (Star Trek: Voyager):  Carl and I recently started re-watching the Voyager series (re-watching for me, first time for him – true love!), and I was astounded to discover that it was nowhere near as awesome as I remembered from when I was watching it as a teenager. I mean, the basis is awesome, and the acting is brilliant, but the writing, oh the writing. It’s pretty much “The Janeway Show,” and none of the other characters really get much development until Seven-of-Nine shows up. Then it’s the “Janeway and Seven Show.” And that sucks, because really, it could have been so amazing. And Chakotay was one of the most amazing characters on it. A basically kind, gentle man with enormous compassion and such strong ethics, forced by his principles into a life of violence. So much conflict in him, and clashing loyalties, and his rarely-seen but wickedly delightful sense of humor … yeah, even after all these years, and even with the major issues I now see with Voyager, Chakotay is still one of my all time favorite television heroes.

Leroy Jethro Gibbs (NCIS): Ah, Gibbs. I knew I loved him from the moment I heard his preferred method of dealing with politicians was to shoot them (actually, that’s his preferred method of dealing with most people, come to think of it). Taciturn, rude, terrible people skills … Gibbs still manages to win the hearts and loyalty of those who work with him. Probably because along with all those negative traits, he’s also fiercely loyal to his people, protective, deeply loving, and almost always right. The NCIS team really is like one big family, and Gibbs is unquestionably the father-figure to them all (well, aside from Ducky, who is most definitely the eccentric great-uncle of the clan). If I were ever in mortal danger, it’s Special Agent Gibbs I’d want protecting me.
Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly): I hate to admit that I was kind of on the fence regarding Mal at first. It wasn’t until the end of the episode “Safe” that I made up my mind on him. When Simon was asking him why Mal came back for Simon and River, Mal says “You’re my crew.” “Yeah, but you don’t even like me,” Simon pointed out. “You’re my crew,” Mal said blankly. “Why are we still talking about this?” And that’s when I fell irrevocably in love (not really, Carl). I love Mal’s stubborn loyalty, the fact that he will do anything at all to protect his people, whether he likes them or not. The fact that he never, ever gives up, even when he is utterly beaten just adds to his endearing qualities. As someone whose stubbornness goes far beyond reasonable limits (be quiet, Carl), I like seeing that portrayed as a good quality in fictional characters.
Carson Beckett (Stargate: Atlantis): It is entirely possible that much of my fondness for Carson is influenced by his adorable Scottish accent, along with his habit of calling people “son” or “love” or even “wee man” (that last one delivered with killing sarcasm). Mostly why I like him, though, is for his Everyman qualities. In a company made up of scientists, military persons, and administrators, Carson is the one normal guy (though a perfectly brilliant MD in his own right), the one who genuinely cares for everyone, who treats each person as an important individual, who is never too busy with his own tasks to take the time out for others. He’s perfectly sweet, and did I mention the Scottish accent?
The Tenth Doctor (Doctor Who): The Ninth Doctor was my first introduction to the show. I’m still tremendously fond of him, but oh, the Tenth Doctor. That unique blend of remarkable kindness and ruthlessness, compassion and cold-bloodedness … not to mention his delightful sense of humor, his zest for life. His occasional rudeness, usually followed by sheepishness at having been rude adds to his charm. And his loneliness just breaks my heart. Weep, weep! If Gibbs is the person I most want to have my back if I’m in danger, the Tenth Doctor is the one I think would be the most fun to have around when I’m in peril. Even if he caused much of that peril to begin with.
And the promised bonus: Sherlock Holmes, my dream husband.

I expected to like Watson best in the latest BBC adaptation of Sherlock. On the surface, I do like him best. Sherlock is an egotistical maniac, cold-hearted and quite thoroughly amoral, self-described as a “high-functioning sociopath.”

And yet … it was Sherlock that I dreamed was my husband (literally – I dreamed Carl and Sherlock were the same person). It was quite a friendly dream, actually – Sherlock/Carl, John Watson and myself, solving a mystery together, the two of them totally in character, nothing racy or anything I’d be embarrassed to have my mother read on this blog. Sherlock/Carl and I just happened to be quite happily married, as well. And somehow, every time I watch the show, I find myself more drawn to him. No idea why. I’ve quit trying to analyze that one.

“John, stop chattering on this phone – the game’s afoot!”

So, in looking over this list, describing the characters, I am indeed seeing a pattern. Ruthlessness when necessary, compassion and kindness, fierce loyalty and protectiveness toward “their” people, and a wry sense of humor. Not exactly the dashing, noble hero of traditional fiction, nor even the typical anti-hero such as Han Solo or Jack Sparrow … but it works for me. And also explains a lot of the hero-characters I find myself writing!

Who are some of your favorite tv heroes, and why?

Disclaimer: I really don’t watch a whole lot of tv. So I’m sure there are some fabulous characters out there that I just haven’t discovered. If I left your favorites off, it’s not necessarily because I don’t like them! 


Disclaimer #2: I know there aren’t any female characters on here. I’m going to do a post later on with favorite tv female characters. I’m not sure why I separated them, except that maybe that helps me squeeze two posts out of this topic instead of one? Or maybe that it’s so much harder to find strong female leads on tv (which is a post in and of itself, but not one that I think I’m fit to tackle), so it’s going to take me a bit longer to figure out five that I really love as much as I love the five mentioned here. But I’ll get there eventually!

Spies, Murder, and Mystery Marathon

In celebration of the official release of A Spy Like Me, Laura Pauling is hosting a three-week blog series: A Spies, Murder and Mystery Marathon. Woot! Woot!
Authors galore, guest posts and book giveaways almost every day!
Gemma Halliday, Cindy M. Hogan, Elizabeth Spann Craig,
Nova Ren Suma, Elisa Ludwig, and Anne R. Allen….
Just to name a few!
And here’s why she’s celebrating!
Stripping your date down to his underwear has never been so dangerous.
After dodging bullets on a first date, Savvy must sneak, deceive and spy to save her family and friends and figure out if Malcolm is one of the bad guys before she completely falls for him.
Head on over to Laura’s blog for the start of the Spies, Murder and Mystery Marathon. You won’t want to miss this sizzling series as we head into summer. Stock up on some great thrilling reads! If you dare…

Objective

I promise, this is my last navel-gazing post for a while. Really.

It’s just, I think I’ve had a breakthrough in figuring out some of my frustrations with where I’m at with my writing (and a lot of other areas of life) right now.

It isn’t so much that publication is my goal. But I DO want to be read by others, and this is a major reason why:

When I love something, I want to do it as well as I possibly can. I don’t have to be the absolute best at something, but I want to do it as best as I can. I love to write stories, and I want to write good stories. And the problem is that for so long, only people who love (or at least like) me have been reading my writing and commenting on it. And they’re nice to me. Not since college have I had someone completely objective reading my work and commenting on it (I’m assuming that the objective readers on ff.net are the ones who simply don’t comment), and so I no longer know from someone else’s perspective what my strengths and weaknesses are as a writer (aside from the grammatical weaknesses Laura pointed out on my last piece she critiqued. I do know my technical writing issues, just not the creative aspect so much).

I’m the same way with music. When I was taking voice lessons, my awesome teacher never hesitated to tell me when something was good and when it needed work. Occasionally by banging her head on the piano keys, but hey, it got the message across (there was also the threat of  “if you sing like you’ve swallowed your tongue ONE MORE TIME I’m reaching in your mouth myself and pulling your tongue,” which was remarkably effective). Since stopping lessons, I’m kind of adrift – not sure anymore of my strengths as a singer and my weaknesses.

I don’t need to be the next JK Rowling. Nor do I need to be a concert vocalist or the next American Idol (or whatever current singing-related show is popular now – I can’t keep up). What I do need is to be the very best Louise I can be at whatever it is I do. Somehow.

Objectivity. It’s a beautiful thing. And it can be so hard to gain when you don’t have someone outside of yourself assisting you. My husband is always happy to help me where he can, but he’s my husband, he has to be nice to me. I’m pretty sure that was in our vows.

Naturally, realizing all this doesn’t help me actually gain that needed objectivity to my own skills, but it does at least help me from feeling generally “I suck”-ish about said skills. Which is good.

So. Knowledge gained. Good thing. Next step, finding those objective observers. Which will take more work, but hey. I’m never scared of lofty goals so long as they are defined. It’s the vague ones that scare me.