Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thoughts on Gratitude and Regret

"Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some." Charles Dickens

I was thinking about the topics of regret and gratitude this week as I worked on the first draft of my small town mystery and plumbed the depths of a character that has deep regrets about earlier events in her life. In my own life I have known people who have been paralyzed by their past, unable to get beyond some deep regret or mistake they made that cost them dearly. Some become bitter, others simply live with unhappiness.

On another end of that scale, I have known people who made mistakes, acknowledged them, carried on, and counted their blessings.

I find gratitude is a much better road. I'm coming up on yet another birthday--for which I am grateful--and perhaps that is another reason I've taken some moments to consider the topic of regrets and blessings.

Teaching American Literature in high school over several decades, I was always fascinated by Benjamin Franklin. I taught several sections of his Autobiography which I'd read several times in college. He began the book at age sixty-five, smiling a bit at his youthful naivete. He wished to live a life of moral perfection, never making an error. Even today I smile at his belief that mankind can be perfect. And yet years earlier, in 1728, when he was only twenty-two, he wrote "A Printer's Epitaph" in which he acknowledged his imperfections and believed that, after death, they would be "Corrected and amended By the Author."

Trying to reconcile these two very different outlooks, I would postulate that the older Franklin was his own best PR agency in later years.

Even so, I find it difficult to live a life of regret over past mistakes. Better to acknowledge the past or apologize, go on, and try to do better.

A blessings bracelet
This week I was playing cards in a bridge club and noticed my partner's bracelet. She said it was a "blessings bracelet" she had received as a gift. The idea is to count the pearls on the bracelet each time you put it on and acknowledge as many blessings as pearls.

Blessings can be children, grandchildren, pets, spouses, friends, events, health, or any other person or item that you count in gratitude. Psychologists will tell you that gratitude is part of a spiritual life, a full life, and a balanced life.

I went on the internet and typed in "blessings bracelet." Up came several sites where I could buy such a bracelet. And I did. I have noticed, since wearing this bracelet and counting my own blessings, that a certain calmness and happiness result.

Of course I am not advocating that life is wonderful and everyone should be drowning in happiness. But I do find that expressing thanks and gratitude is essential even in the most difficult events of life.

This is what some noted people have said about gratitude:

"He is a wise man who does not grieve for things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." Epictetus

"The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts. No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving." H.U. Westermayer

"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." Albert Schweitzer. 

"For each new morning with its light, For rest and shelter of the night, For health and food, For love and friends, For everything Thy goodness sends." Ralph Waldo Emerson

"A proud man is seldom a grateful man, for he never thinks he gets as much as he deserves." Henry Ward Beecher 

Gratitude is a healthy habit to cultivate; even in the darkest of times we can find something for which to be grateful.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Creating an Imaginary Town

        One of the questions I'm often asked is, "How do you come up with the names of places in your writing?" So I thought I'd tackle that question today.

        Let's examine some of the place names in the book I'm working on: A Silent Place to Die.

        My first name is that of the small town where my  mystery takes place. This town's name is extremely important because it occurs throughout the book and reflects some of the characters' attitudes. I chose Endurance, Illinois. Because I've lived in the Midwest most of my life, I wanted to write about a place with which I'm familiar. I realize people on the coasts feel like nothing exists in the middle of the country, but I find a great deal of pleasure living in this part of America.

        I chose the name "Endurance" because I wanted to acknowledge both the past and present of my little town. Hardy Presbyterian stock settled this small town by traveling through all kinds of hazards and difficult terrain. Despite the tiny and precarious beginnings of the town, more and more settlers arrived and endured harsh winters and the usual difficulties in starting new lives.

        "Endurance" also describes the strong heroine of my novel. Grace Kimball has survived some terrible life experiences that have left her with scars but also with strength. A fire in college killed her roommates and left a scar on her hand but she survived. Her husband died in his thirties of an unexpected heart attack, leaving her to raise three children alone. But she survived and endured. Now, in my novel, she will face another daunting experience: a killer is on the loose in her town, and even her own life may be threatened before all is said and done.

The town has institutions that--typical of the Midwest--arise from its name. We see the Endurance Historical Society, Endurance High School, the Endurance Public Library, Endurance College, the First National Bank of Endurance, and the town's newspaper, the Endurance Register.

        Now it's important to have some street names in my town. I chose many of them because of their sounds. Grace and Roger's home is on Sweetbriar Court. Sounds like a pleasant place to bring your bride. Another street name I liked that I heard on the local news is Tanglefoot Road. That is on my "must" list, along with Main Street. Most small towns have a "Main Street."

        I also imagined various names for businesses in Endurance. Many of the scenes take place at a busy local sports bar where the townspeople tend to gather. I called it "Tully's" after the owner, Bill Tully. His character and back story explain his decision to name the place after himself. Other names I chose because of their sounds. This would include Patsy's Pub and Dirty Dave's (bars in town). Downtown you will visit the Cafe on the Square, Little People Day Care Center, Gimble's Paint and Wallpaper Store, and Harlow's book store. The last two are named for their owners.

        I did have a bit of fun with the last stop for most townspeople: The Homestretch Funeral Home.

        The cemetery outside of town where many of the early founders are buried is called the Shady Meadows Cemetery. It needs to have a welcoming and restful sound.

        At one point in A Silent Place to Die I needed to come up with some place names for Indianapolis, Indiana. Grace Kimball grew up there and went to college in her home town. I needed a name for the college and the street where Grace lived. So I researched the history of Indianapolis and discovered that Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison, came from Indiana and was elected president in 1889. Grace's alma mater became Benjamin Harrison College (BHC). During Indiana's territorial days, General Anthony Wayne was an Indian fighter. I named Grace's street Wayne Avenue. I also found the name of a small town in Indiana and one in Illinois to become the home towns of Grace's roommates. I envisioned these two women coming from small towns.

Endurance is a small town (population 15,000), and I created other towns in the surrounding area because Endurance had to have a context. The largest town nearby is Woodbury and many of Endurance's inhabitants go there for additional shopping and services they can't find in Endurance. Other small towns in the area include Charlotte and Lexington, towns with fire departments who have reciprocal agreements with Endurance.

All of these places exist only in my imagination and are important factors in the lives of my characters and plot. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Growing Up at the Drive-In With Jimmy Stewart and Friends

I grew up at a drive-in theater, literally. A few years after my dad returned from WWII, my great uncle decided to buy land and build a drive-in movie theater outside our home town of Galesburg, Illinois. It was 1948 and this new outside movie idea was really catching on.

          It was a simpler time and people enjoyed simpler entertainment, but it left me with wonderful memories and a half-cocked belief that anything could happen if you dreamed big enough and were part of a movie. I'm sure many of my ideas about love, honor, values, heroism, courage, character, dreams, and even death came from those early movies.

          I was probably six by the time I was old enough to remember much about this drive-in theater my father managed. It was 1952 and the drive-in was a huge draw, particularly on weekend nights.

          As manager, my father booked the shows, trained the high school boys that worked in the concession stand, maintained the grounds, checked on the films to make sure they had been sent in or out, ordered the supplies for the concession stand, kept an eye on the ticket booth, and--along with a few other ushers--walked the perimeters checking for "problems," like alcohol (which was illegal on the grounds), or the possibility that children were being conceived. It was a family-centered place, you know!

          During those years when our family owned the theater, it was extremely clean and well maintained. Picnic tables and a playground were added near the screen so kids would have something to do before the show. The policy was to charge for adult tickets but kids got in free. This did cause an occasional problem with movie companies who produced children's movies and who did not believe in free tickets for children.

          I'm sure I was oblivious to all of my father's headaches and responsibilities because I simply saw this as a marvelous playground. At night my mom would put my brother and me in pajamas and we'd go to the show, often falling asleep in the back seat before it was over.

          Even now, sixty years later, I can hear the sound of the car tires as we turned off Losey Street and onto the whirring brick sound of Kellogg Street, waking me up because, even in sleep, I knew we were almost home. It's a distinctive sound that stays in my memory forever.

I remember watching The Greatest Show on Earth seven times in a row, and going back home each day to have my own circus parade with my friends, around and around the block. I grew up with Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall, Sophia Loren, Humphrey Bogart, Debbie Reynolds, Grace Kelly, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, and so many others. I still can remember the sad ending of The Benny Goodman Story or the courage of Jimmy Stewart in The Spirit of St. Louis. I rode around the arena with Ben-Hur, was terrified with Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window and Vertigo, laughed with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon, and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, and was entranced by John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man.

          I can still see in my mind, on the walls of my father's office within the screen building, wonderful movie posters, probably considered collectibles these days. To me they were part of the enchanting place that was "the movies."

          We--my brother and I--shared other memories too.  Some nights after my dad had to close the place at one or one-thirty a.m., we'd drive to the bank with the night's receipts, a policeman following behind us. Then all of us would go to a restaurant and have breakfast. I'm sure if a parent were to do this today with his six-year-old, people would be calling DCFS. A child out in a restaurant at 2 a.m.? But I still remember fondly those summer breakfasts at the Huddle Restaurant. Even the policeman, Bill Allison, would often join us.

          The sound of the car tires, the gray metal speaker sitting on the front car window, the fireflies dancing around just after dusk, the shadows as people moved back and forth past our car to the concession stand, the smell of popcorn, and the triangle of light as the projector sent the film onto the huge screen: these are my precious memories of growing up in a small town in the 1950s.