Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ga t he r i n gG h o s ts

n open fireplace serves little purpose than to coat a thin layer of charity across whatever appears in its light. Don’t count on it to warm your room, much less your heart. Turn from the fire on a winter’s night, and the shadows wrap you up cold.

But it does burn.

The night of which I write had me facing the fire in my study, while behind me, beyond my candle-lit desk, where paper and pen waited for inspiration, snow assaulted the windows. The power was out, so I welcomed the flames more than they usually deserved. The north corner of the house shivers at times like this.

I stood contemplating the temperature at which paper burns and how, thanks to Mr. Bradbury, we all know what that means. We who are readers, that is. We readers know individuals who have spilled out of pages and into our minds, heroes and heroines who, like us, have simple needs, simple goals. We know what happens when you toss water on a witch. What a child can achieve by saving a runt pig. How to find Wonderland, where the Wild Things are.

It was Marley’s ghost who menaced me that night.

I had pulled books from the shelves, books with ghosts in them, to surround myself in their wealth, to revisit the tales that had gone before, to nudge my urge to write a ghost story. On the footstool lay Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place, a bittersweet novel inhabited by lovers Michael and Laura, who manage to hold to their memories; near it, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, that timeless tale haunted by the headless horseman; the classic Wuthering Heights; the grief-stricken Hamlet; and Sebold’s contemporary The Lovely Bones, where Susie Salmon wanders her personal purgatory and the neighborhood she once thought harmless. A Christmas Carol spread open at my feet, the fire lighting half an illustration of Marley, poor soul, anchored to his money and remorse.

As I poked the fire in thought, searching for something new, his chains clinked suddenly nearby, and there stood Marley himself, in the flesh—or rather, spirit.

Leaving the poker ember-bound, I straightened up, and in an effort to not be unnerved, said loudly, “How’s Ebenezer?”

Marley loosened the rag that held up his jaw. “I’ve been watching you,” he said. “And my advice is—do not.”

In another attempt, I laughed, but it came out unsteady. “What business is it of yours?”

He leaned toward me, a tug on his weighted chains. “There are enough of us already!”
I looked him in the eye then (just one, for the other was lost to the dark), and said, “I have every right to my own ghost story.”

He flopped a hand toward me. “I entreat you—”

“I am not your beloved Scrooge!”

“—there are enough of us who suffer, fated, doomed!”

“Why do you trouble me? Had I known you’d object, I’d have left you on the shelf.”

After a long silence, in which a pine knot spat among the flames, Marley said, “I shall call out the others.” 

I thought then of his plight, and that of those who began to whisper from the books.

One whisper became a girl’s voice, and she said, “You don’t know what it’s like.”

I turned to see Catherine, standing by the snow-spattered window. “What’s it like?” I asked.

Flashing her eyes at me, she said, “Sorrow and regret all your days.”

“Most foul,” moaned a voice from the dark of the door. It was the ghost of Hamlet’s father, too much of a shadow to be distinct, and the light was too feeble to reach him. “Sulph’rous and tormenting flames.”

Feeling a chill, I stabbed at the fire, and here was the headless horseman, sitting on the floor, holding in his lap a large pumpkin, which grinned brutally into the blaze. I knew the blotches on the man’s shoulders had once glistened red.

Marley spoke again. “I’m here to haunt you until you see sense.”

I pivoted. “Is that a threat?”

“The power of death,” said Hamlet’s father, sounding like the poisoned king he was, “is in the tongue.”

“Which, in your case,” said Marley to me, “is in the pen.”

“Sorry I’m late.” It was Michael, from the Yorkchester Cemetery, with Laura right behind.

“We’re late,” she corrected.

Michael smiled carelessly. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”

“I wish,” murmured Laura.

“I’m here, too,” said a young voice from above. It was Susie, sitting on the blades of the ceiling fan, pale as a clouded moon. “Though I’m not sure why.”

“I know why,” I said. “Marley thinks—”

“Would you add torment to torment?” Marley asked.

The king cried from the door. “I stumble through my sins!”

I held myself to reason. “Marley thinks there are enough ghost stories in the world. He does fine to advise a miser. But he’s no author’s friend.”

Dragging a ledger across the floor, Marley turned to Michael. “Do you want to see another soul lost?”

Michael shrugged. “Naturally, living where I do, I’ve seen plenty of ghosts. Most of them don’t last a day.”

“Those of us who do,” explained Marley.

Michael coughed. “I suppose there are enough of us to fill a lifetime. Yes, several lifetimes.” He smiled at his own response.

"See?” said Marley. “Agreed.”

"I’m not so sure he does.” I looked at each one questioningly. “Anyway, I certainly don’t.” I moved toward the desk. “I will write what I will.”

Marley blocked my way, though it took effort to heave forth his chains. “Shall I enumerate your sins?”

I hesitated. Catherine, who had been gazing at the snow, glanced sharply back at me. King Hamlet moaned. Laura hiccuped. Realizing it was a bluff, I said, “I’m not Scrooge, Jacob. I’m a writer, that’s all. Let me write.”

“Obviously,” said Michael, a smile in his voice, “that carries no weight with him.” His humor froze in the cold, though the pumpkin’s grin seemed to widen.

“How can you say that?” I said. “What do you know?”

Laura immediately took his defense. “More than you. You think we dead haven’t learned a thing from this dreadful life?” Her words were followed by a quick laugh. “See? I’m desperate to still call it life!”

“You know?” said Michael. “I’m with Marley. Why create another character to suffer as we do? Yeah, I’m with Marley.”

“I’m with no one,” said Catherine. “Just release me from this place.”

I blew out my breath. “You don’t suffer, Michael—you’re in love.”

Michael’s smile fell, and his look sank into my heart. I knew I had spoken wrong. “Have you ever been in love,” he whispered, “and couldn’t do a thing about it?”

The candles flinched. The snow drifted high outside. The fireplace dimmed. Susie now sat on the floor, gazing at the space where the horseman’s head had been.

She said, “It’s not so bad. Once you get used to it.”

Laura blurted, “Spoken like a victim! You have no idea—”

“I do,” said Susie, softly. “It’s you who have no idea.”

I smiled to myself. This wasn’t working for Marley. Then he spoke, hauling his chains in close. “I’m haunting you till you give this up.” He looked around. “Other than Michael, anyone else?” One by one they nodded, even the pumpkin. All but King Hamlet, who was weeping in the dark.

“Why?” I argued. “What’s in it for you?”

Marley said mournfully, “I have forever. I can wait.”

“Some inspiration you’ve been,” I said, and strode to my desk. I sat down hard, my story now filling my mind, and began to write. But nothing came out, only scratches on the page. Shaking the pen thermometer-quick, I got the ink to squirm, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. Catherine was at the window, fidgeting with the latch. I continued to write. Michael coughed now and then, or pretended to. I continued to write. Marley was trembling—with rage or the cold—it was nothing to me. I pressed the last period in place and held the page up. “There!” I said. “My ghost story!”

Marley moaned. No one else made a sound.

“With no new ghosts.”

Marley stared. Everyone else, even Pumpkinhead, looked puzzled.

“Satisfied?” I said. “You’re now in another setting.”

They gaped at me.

“All of you. Consider it your home away from home.”

“You’ve ...” Marley gasped. “Where have you put us?”

“Here. In this very room.”


“I hope you’re better at being sociable than you’ve been so far tonight.”

The ceiling light flickered a single-frame moment, freezing the ghosts in an instant sketch, then died again. Snow was shifting.

Marley regained his composure. “I don’t believe you. This cannot be.”

“See for yourself,” I said, offering him my story. He peeked at it uncertainly. “I’ll read you a line.” I scanned the page. “How’s this? ‘He flopped a hand toward me. “I entreat you—”’

After blinking twice, Marley protested, “That’s no proof! That’s merely an observation, from memory.”

I searched for something specific. “This, then,” I said, and read, “‘A Christmas Carol spread open at my feet, the fire lighting half an illustration of Marley, poor soul, anchored to his—’”

“No!” cried Marley, stopping his ears.

I went back to the fire and jabbed it to life. And with one delicate toe, Susie—out of compassion, I think—nudged the open book, with Marley’s tortured image, away from the heat. Marley himself stepped back, his expression lost to shadow.

But Michael resumed the case. “Wait a minute! What if we don’t care to be here? This isn’t right!”

“Yet here you are,” I said quietly, gripping the story in hand.

The ghosts gathered near. King Hamlet became more defined, and his presence contorted the flames. He addressed me directly. “Thy threat holds nothing more than I ever condemn’d bear. To my prison house I must yield.”

“You have a second prison now,” I said. “Besides, you cannot escape your sins.”

He shuddered, and retreated to the door.

“I’m weary,” sighed Laura, her words not far from my ear, and she yawned in validation. “Let me go.”

“You’re free to go,” I said. I was weary, too—of this wretched company.

“No,” said Marley, reviving himself. “No! Not till you disown what you’ve done.” 

Catherine murmured agreement. “The living world’s behind us, true, and we cannot escape our fates. But don’t damn us all the more.”

“Call it what you like,” I replied.

“I’ll ever haunt you,” said Marley, and he loosened his rag so that his face gashed in half.

Repulsed, I turned from him and dangled the page toward the fire. “Leave me now, or into the pit you’re cast.”

Marley mumbled, “You wouldn’t!”

I kept my back to him. “One toss,” I insisted, “and you burn.” I considered just then that when the make-believe realm, in which exist all manner of beings, spills into that of our own, which we commonly and perhaps lazily call reality, equilibrium goes kilter. There’s no logical ground on which to stand, and anything can occur. I felt the ghosts considered this, too.

The page glowed perilously bright.

“Leave me, Marley, and my story remains. Haunt me, and into the fire you go. All of you.”

Before he disappeared, Marley tied up his bandage again, and said with gritted teeth,
“You’re harder to crack than old Scrooge!”

I turned to look at the rest. King Hamlet was no longer there. Beyond my desk, a window stood open, the snow swirling heedlessly in, and the candles had blown out. Susie fingered her charm bracelet, while the horseman shuffled his feet. He stood, pivoting his pumpkin to study her momentarily, then vanished. Susie vanished too, her charms tinkling in the dark.

Michael and Laura lingered before the flames, hands out, yearning for warmth, I guessed.

Michael sighed. “You’re right,” he said. “A writer is always right.” And taking Laura’s hand, though they both had no sense of touch, he declared, “It’s stifling in here.” Laura only laughed, a small, contradictory laugh, and they were gone.

I went to the window and latched it, opened the desk drawer, and dropped my story in. I gathered up the books and returned them to the shelves.

It was then I heard Susie’s voice, like an echo, saying, “Good thing you didn’t burn it—you’re in this story, too.”

I sat down speechless, right where the horseman had sat, and stayed the cold night through, watching the flames die out. 


text & illustration © 2013 by Troy Howell / illustration is graphite, ink, and acrylic on paper

Sunday, December 22, 2013

How I would describe the sky this morning to a blind child: Puzzle-piece clouds like the smell of an orange with the warmth of the sun, a strip along the horizon like the taste of spearmint, and behind the puzzle pieces the sky is a lullaby, or the feeling you get when you’re with your best friend.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Working Class

In a time when class distinctions and attitudes prevailed, John Ruskin believed there were two classes of people: the working and the idle. Both types exist among the rich and poor, hence the idle rich and idle poor become one class, the working rich and working poor another. He was encouraging understanding, acceptance, and respect among workers within all economic conditions, a focus on character and productivity rather than status and education.

Work is a curse and a blessing. We labor under its burden, we are lifted by its benefits. Its burden may be physical or psychological or both. The same is true of its benefits. They may be small or great, trivial or deep, transient or lasting.

Some winters ago, I spent two weeks in California’s Central Valley, working alongside a contractor friend, David, who was building two additional complexes for a boys' home. As we were hanging a set of doors, David remarked, “This is work!” I looked at him and said, “To me, it’s not.” True, my arms ached, my back was in a sweat, the splinter in my palm was burrowing in, lunch was too far off and always too soon to go.


I was not alone. I was not staring at blankness, grasping for inspiration. There were no contortions of ideations throbbing in my head. I was not on deadline. It was not the eleventh hour; this was not a painting I had labored over for days, or even weeks, that was going awry, that thousands of viewers would judge positively or negatively or with indifference, that the author would stake some of his or her hopes on, that I would actually be paid for, succeed or fail ....

This was not a year-long—or two-year or three—literary work.

This was a house. It would be a home. A home to some troubled young men who perhaps had no home, or who’d had no welcome offered from anywhere or anyone else.

However frequently the frosty mornings chilled my bones, the distant Sierras warmed my senses. However often my trigger-itchy finger (firing multiple nails when only one would do) sent David scurrying for cover, his laughter eased my chagrin. However occasionally the back-burdening hauling of lumber dulled my zeal, I considered this work to be a respite for me. And I considered the point of it all.

As I sit writing at an open window this evening, listening to the stillness, the crickets, the intermittent rain, I think how blessed I am. To have a home, to be at home, working.
Illustration from an early 20th-century poster, artist unknown

This is an edited repost from Penchant

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Day in the Life of a Clump of Plants

Once upon a time, long ago, an artist named Albrecht Dürer spent a day, maybe longer, painting a clump of plants. Five hundred ten years later, I stand in the National Gallery of Art, misty-eyed, seeing what he saw, exploring this section of earth and greenery, Dürer’s gift to me and to all who have discovered it. The room full of onlookers seems to orbit behind me and this intimate watercolor, as I accept its invitation to come close … closer … and spend, though not a day, at least a shimmering moment with stem and leaf and root, remembering my own moments lying in a patch of backyard vegetation or in a mountain meadow, the damp, comforting earth beneath. The work is not scientific—though each plant is identifiable—nor is it a structured composition: It is quiet commotion, gentle wildness, a day in the life of a broadleaf plantain and some dandelions, as seen, rendered, and shared by a masterful observer.
Whenever I view an exhibit, I judge the personal impact it has by asking, “Which work would I want to take with me? What is fixed within my eyes?” The collection includes Dürer’s dramatic woodcuts, his exquisite engravings, his iconic "Praying Hands," his drawing of Emperor Maximilian I, his vibrant "Left Wing of a Blue Roller," but I choose this modest miracle, this Great Piece of Turf.” 

Dürer is gone, these plants are gone, the world topples us at times, but a moment of truth, of wonder, remains.

"Great Piece of Turf" watercolor and gouache

Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina
Exhibit dates are from March 24 to June 9, 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

No joke—writing for kids is serious.

“A priest, a rabbi, and a children’s book writer walk into a bar …”

If you’re serious about children’s book writing, or want to know why we do what we do, here’s a piece I wrote for my writer’s group blog, summarizing a talk given by author Louise Hawes and hosted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

Monday, March 25, 2013

To edit a line.

Warning to non-writers: If you get bored with nuts-and-bolts stuff, this ones not for you.

My method of writing is not the usual draft-it-all-first approach. I
ve tried that and it doesnt work for me. If I dont get it the way I want it, early on, theres no sense in continuing. Because what comes first influences what follows. I take my idea and start expanding it. While mentally (and sometimes on paper) exploring its potential, I begin to perfect it.

I do this with every line. One line builds from another, until there
s unity within the whole.

s an example of the progression of a sentence in a work in progress, my middle grade* novel, Hans Andersen’s Ghost. The scene: Skim, a boy of twelve, is left standing in the dark on a hilltop far from home. One of the motifs in the story is shoes (he keeps a key in his left shoe).

ll start with the first version of the sentence. I would include the sentence before it, but this is the beginning of a new paragraph.

» There’s a rumble again; he feels it through the soles of his shoes. (I’m thinking: Hmm … “the soles of his shoes” —echoes of Paul Simon … a distraction, too sing-song for this moment.)

» There’s a rumble again; he feels it through his shoes. (Better, but it does not convey the immediacy of the feeling, because it’s telling us what he feels rather than sending us the feeling.)

» There’s a rumble again, rumbling right through his shoes. (Now we can feel what he feels. But Ill try an even closer description.)

» There’s a rumble again, rumbling up through his shoes. (There. It gives a sense of the vibration and its direction, from the ground up. I considered reinserting “the soles of”—it sounds good, but that added detail might compete with the rumble.)

Now for the next line, to see how it fits.

    There’s a rumble again, rumbling up through his shoes. Louder it grows, and stronger, like a mammoth mole tunneling under his feet.

I like the alliteration of the uh sound (rumble, rumbling, up, tunneling, under)—it enhances the uh-oh—something's-about-to-happen sense I want to convey. But I have a problem with the prosody the word tunneling creates. It has too many syllables, making the sentence drag at the end. So I consider some synonyms and come up with a few possibilities: burrow, grub, and bore. Bore is a little odd and calls attention to itself (besides lacking the uh sound), and burrow/ing is no better than tunneling. So, grub it is. Grubbing—two syllables. And I like the scariness of it.

    There’s a rumble again, rumbling up through his shoes. Louder it grows, and stronger, like a mammoth mole grubbing under his feet.

But, being a finicky writer, I think it still drags. So, I do as they say: I'm killing that darling grub.

    There’s a rumble again, rumbling up through his shoes. Louder it grows, and stronger, like a mammoth mole under his feet.

I think that says it. It might be even scarier.

 *middle grade defines fiction specifically suited for readers ages 8-12

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Voices of Children

I’m well into my second middle grade novel, and as I write I sometimes think of the comments readers have made about my first book, The Dragon of Cripple Creek (Abrams).  I think about what touched them, worried them, drew them in. It stirs the 12 year old within me, who jumps up, saying, “Yes! Told you!”
When a group of sixth graders wanted to know how a man my age could have the mind of a 12 year old, that’s what I told them: The 12 year old still lives inside me. As does the 18 year old, and the 24 year old …

When asked how I could think like a girl (my novel is narrated by 12-year-old Katlin Graham), I answered more thoughtfully, carefully: I have three sisters; I’ve raised a daughter; I listen and observe. While I developed the story, I lived the life of Kat, I dreamed her dreams. It wasn’t much of a stretch to do so, because a lot of the issues children her age ponder and face are not gender specific.

But more significant still, is how the imagination works. No one asked me how I got into the mind of a millennia-old dragon, but he was real enough that my readers didn’t doubt his existence within the confines of the story. Even cried over him at the end.

We humans are gifted with the ability to empathize and identify with other living beings. This gift is given in varying degrees of course, and equally true, the personal expression of this gift is in varying degrees. It’s one of those essentials that determines whether relationships succeed or fail, or fall somewhere whimpering in between, which, sadly, is where many relationships seem to arrive.

The same is true for the writer-reader relationship. The writer must speak in a voice that echoes at least one of the myriad voices whispering in our hearts, or risk losing connection.

The Dragon of Cripple Creek is on the Accelerated Reader list, and I know three teachers who have added it to their curriculum. Anticipating one of my school visits, several students wrote me letters. I've selected some of their expressions, and follow them with related thoughts. 

“I find your novel incredibel because it reminds me of my life.”
“Dillon reminds me of myself because we’re both clever and creative.” 

We as writers hold up a mirror before our readers, in which they can see themselves, identify more clearly who they are and wish to be. We also hold up a window, through which they can see beyond themselves, understand others. 

“I love dragons, wish I could meet one.”
“I also am in love with dragons, so, connection.” 

Dreams. Wishes. As a child, I wished I could fly, believed it was possible, wondered what it would be like. I had seen Peter Pan on TV. I tried with my whole being to fly, leaping off the couch, feeling I could soar. When I didn’t succeed, it wasn’t that it was not possible, but that I hadn’t discovered the secret. Another desire was to become invisible. Conversely, but coming from the same simplicity of faith, I was anxious I’d meet a ghost, in my wanderings outside at night, or when the house was vacant. My current work in progress features a ghost, though I doubt he will create much anxiety. That comes from suspense, from threatening circumstances, from the precarious hope that all will be well in the end. 

“The book had me anxious the whole entire time.” 

That’s included in the writer’s intent: to keep the pages turning, the reader engaged, then to bring it all together in a satisfying resolve. But it's more than that: There's a reason we become anxious, and it's personal. Like quiet harmony, our own hopes and fears are involved. The final resolve may not be without sadness—usually it is not if it reflects any reality—but a feeling of completion. We should not disappoint. 

“I will tell you the truth I don’t like to read but this is the kind of book I like to read.”
“I really, really hate reading, But …. when I read this its like I don’t wanna stop.” 

These are some of the most rewarding expressions a writer can hear. To know you’ve touched someone. It’s one of the wonderful reasons we’re on earth: to give joy and receive it in return. When I see a young reader holding my book up and grinning, it’s a reminder to me of what matters most.

From a third grade teacher: 

I am slowing down my usual pace [of reading aloud] because the kids seem fascinated with Kat's thoughts (which makes me want to read more expressively). Today we even turned out the lights, and I read in the semi-darkness as Kat inched closer to the gold. Their expressions were most gratifying. We've completed an hour of read-aloud this week and haven't made it to Chapter 2. With third graders one must stop for their commentaries—you've provoked a few. One girl had to explain [for a passage that mentions the uvula] "that thing hanging down the back of your throat."

"Fascinated with Kat's thoughts." Why is that? Perhaps it's to see "thinking" at work, be mindful of critical thought, help them process their own. 

And a few are intrigued by writing itself, of communicating through story: 

“I also think you should stick with writing children’s books more.”
“It must take years of practice.” 

It does take years of practice, and I’m still practicing.
Value the voices of children, who can reveal to us what touches them, entertains them, excites them, how they see themselves and others in their own context, as they relate to the worlds we’ve made.