Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Highland Farm: The sound of music….and happiness

All the sounds of the earth are like music,
The breeze is so busy it don't miss a tree,
And an ol' Weepin' Willer is laughin' at me.
- Oscar Hammerstein II

Recently, a blogger for the New York Review listed the reasons she hates visiting the former homes of writers, primarily because they only reinforce the belief: “That real estate, including our own envious attachments to houses that are better, or cuter, or more inspiring than our own, is a worthy preoccupation. That writers can or should be sanctified. That private life, even of the dead, is ours to plunder.”

I’m therefore pretty sure she should not visit Highland Farm Bed and Breakfast in Doylestown, PA, which just happens to have once been the home of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.   Not only can you snoop around his house, but you can even sleep in his bedroom.  And that’s exactly why my family and I wanted to stay there.   

From the Highland Farm website: 

The Hammerstein family lived at Highland Farm for 20 years. During their residence, the home was constantly alive with many guests and children. Mr. Hammerstein was known to fly different colored flags as a message to the local children. One said, “Come and swim.” Another meant, “Let’s play tennis.” And still another said, “Stay away today.” 

In addition to their own children, the Hammerstein’s were also known to take in other children in need of a home. As a young boy, Stephen Sondheim spent considerable time at Highland Farm and received his secondary education from The George School in Newtown. Mr. Hammerstein became a mentor to young Stephen and encouraged him to hone his talents as a songwriter. 

Other guests include Mr. Hammerstein’s good friend, James Michener, and his long-time collaborator, Richard Rodgers. Rodgers once said of Hammerstein, “He’s a meticulously hard worker, and yet he’ll roam the grass of his farm for hours and sometimes for days before he can bring himself to put a word on paper.” 

Built in 1840, the house feels like the sort of place that’s infused with a long history of happy experiences. Perhaps we plundered a bit of Hammerstein’s private life, perhaps we even hoped to steal inspiration from the home where he created some of his most famous works. We sang tunes from South Pacific, played a little Oklahoma on the piano, and enjoyed every moment of it.  

I hope Hammerstein would be glad we found a temporary refuge in his old home, just like the many friends, family, and guests before us whose memories are now as much a part of the place as his own.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Flambards: The greatest YA series ever

I'll chant you no anthems of sweet-smelling ladies
Uttering small talk at vicarage teas;
Instead I'll sing of a smiling survivor
Who's been through the wood and the trees.
-“Song of Christina” by Alan Plater and David Fanshawe

Because I like the cover of the DVD set better than the cover of the book.
Country estates, cute boys, airplanes, hunt balls, and horses.  What more could a girl want?

Since I’m writing for YAs I’m expected to read YA.  At least that’s what I tell myself.  In truth I’m still a 14-year-old at heart, and that heart is hopelessly besotted with Flambards.

Years and years ago I watched the television show on PBS, but only recently learned it was based on a series of books by K.M. Peyton.  They are now some of my favorite books ever (except for Edge of the Cloud which I just skimmed through since horses > airplanes).  I just see them on my shelves and want to pull them down and hug them.  They’re that good.

The series tells the story of orphaned heiress (aren’t all the best heroines?) Christina Parsons who is sent to live at Flambards with her horse crazy Uncle Russell and her cousins Mark and William. Uncle Russell’s diabolical plan is to marry Christina off to the older brutish Mark and sink her inheritance into the crumbing family manse, but Christina is drawn more to the younger sensitive Will (don’t think about the cousin thing too much and it won’t bother you, promise). 

Christina is a young woman of passion and impulse and spends the four books torn between three men: Mark, the handsome huntsman; Will, the idealistic aviator; and Dick, the devoted stableboy.   

What makes Flambards great is that every single character written by K.M. Peyton is so multi-dimensional you can actually spend hours debating their actions and motivations (and many people on the yahoo discussion board do, I checked). Throughout the series the characters grow and change, especially after the ravages of World War I.  They don’t always make the right decisions, often behaving selfishly and foolishly.

But boy are there some swoon-inducing scenes.   

A lot of controversy surrounds the fourth book, Flambards Divided, because of its adult themes (miscarriages, adultery, and one very ugly divorce set-up).  It was also written 12 years after the third book and following the airing of the TV show.  Some people love it - others want to erase it from their memory.  Personally, it’s my favorite of the series (as the worn spine of my copy will attest).

So please please someone else read these books soon so we can start discussing the merits of William vs Dick vs Mark. 

And now I think I have to go read them again.  After all, the fox chasing season will soon be upon us…

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Inspirations: Paul Landry

"The sea, the villages that border it, the people who work it, and the flowers that bloom among them all hold a great fascination for me. The quality of ever-changing stability makes them unending sources of inspiration as they beckon my heart and hand."
-Paul Landry 


Paul Landry is a renowned artist who finds inspiration in the fishing towns of Nova Scotia and the seaports of New England (especially Mystic, CT). A collection of his work, The Captain’s Garden, is a beautiful trove of maritime art that embodies the mood and tone I strive to capture in my work.  I feel like he is painting the world I visualize when I’m writing, he just happens to be a little more successful in his execution.  If ever I have a choice of artwork to put on one of my covers, it will definitely be something of his.

The paintings above are available as prints at many marine art galleries.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Review: The Outer Banks House


That’s how I felt about this book in the beginning. Not because of any lack of literary merit on the part of Diann Ducharme, but because of some unfortunate similarities to my WIP. After a few pages I almost put it down.

Quick summary: set in post-Civil War Reconstruction era North Carolina, The Outer Banks House is the story of Abigail Sinclair who teaches a “Banker” boy (Ben) how to read and inevitably falls in love him.  Complications ensue once she secretly begins teaching in a Freedman’s school.

So what was my problem? Well let’s see, my WIP is about a young woman in a post-Civil War New England seaport.  And her last name is “Sinclair”!  What am I supposed to do? Change my character’s last name? I don’t want to change it. Plus, her romantic complication is a poor local boy with blonde hair and ocean-blue eyes (so maybe that’s not wholly original. I mean, there can be lots of romantic interests with blue eyes and a way with boats, right?) Okay, these surface similarities are too generic to get worked-up about (except for the last name issue, it’s still bothering me.)  But if Ben had turned out to be dyslexic I would definitely have thrown the book away. Fortunately he was not, I kept reading, and….

Double grrrr…I actually enjoyed it. I got so involved in the developing romance between Abby and Ben that I found myself smiling on the metro. Some of the characters were unfortunately one-dimensional, especially Abby’s father and Abby and Ben’s romantic foils, where more depth would have added nicely to the relationship tensions. As for the racial aspect of the plot, it’s not really my place to judge its effectiveness, but it did provide a believable avenue for Abby’s character progression. 

Diann Ducharme is currently working on a sequel to The Outer Banks House. As long as she doesn’t have Abby contract a life-threatening illness (yes, spoiler alert for my own yet-to-be written sequel), I’ll be okay with it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Happy Friday!

Under the heavens we journey far,
on roads of life we’re the wanderers.
So let love rise, so let love depart,
let hope have a place in a lover’s heart. 

I love the natural beauty of our world.  I love Enya, especially when she sings about “hope.”  What can better than a video combining two things I love?  Happy Friday and enjoy!

Disclaimer: This isn't my video, I just stumbled upon it on YouTube and wanted to share. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A world in ruins

A few years ago I was able to realize one of my life's great dreams and visit the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia.  Once the center of the great Khmer empire, for centuries these ruins lay hidden in the jungle near Siem Reap until "discovered" by French explorer and naturalist (oh how I would love to have that job description) Henri Mouhot.

Below are some photos from that trip.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The ghost and the lighthouse

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
and on its outer point, some miles away,
the lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.

Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
in the white tip and tremor of the face.
 -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

 The lighthouse at Point Lookout State Park-
reputed to be the most haunted lighthouse in America.

Last Saturday I was flipping through the channels and landed on a decently creepy movie called Behind the Walls about a haunted lighthouse in Maine.  I then thought of other scary movies featuring lighthouses: The Fog (skip), Darkness Falls (not bad), Shutter Island (disturbing), and The Ring (terrifying).  A quick google entry of “haunted lighthouses” brings up 4,490,000 search results.

Since two of my current works in progress include ghostly encounters at a lighthouse, I started to wonder: what is it about these unassuming structures that we find so eerily inspiring?

Is it their remote locations on islands and rocky outcrops? Do they conjure images of unforgiving storms, deadly shipwrecks, and dangerous rescue attempts? 

Could it be the mystery surrounding lighthouse keepers themselves?  After all, why would someone willingly take on such a solitary vocation? How does prolonged isolation affect the mind? 

Or do we like to believe a keeper is so dedicated to his duties that he remains at his post long after his death? 

Whatever the reason, these lighthouses will always hold a special place in our collective imagination and give us a few more ghostly tales still to be told.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Annie Oakley I am not

This past weekend I did something I’ve never done before: I shot a gun.

It all started with an email from one of my friends: “Hey, shotgun tournament. No experience necessary.  Want to come?” 

Not only have I never shot a gun, I’ve never even been near a gun being shot. Of course I said yes. 

You see, the other night I was watching a documentary on The Real Lonesome Dove with my father and said “I should write a Western one day.”  It could happen, and from what I’ve gathered after watching The Magnificent Seven and True Grit, the Wild West must have been one of the most dangerous places ever (and therefore not on my list of places to travel back in time to, even if the men did look like Josh Brolin).  People were always shooting or getting shot.  Always.  So it would make sense I should at least know how to use a rifle.  To write a Western without ever having fired a bullet is like writing a sailing yarn without ever having been on a boat, right?  And I am clearly all about historical accuracy.  

Saturday came around and let me tell you, I was scared. Riffles are heavy.  And, oh yeah, they kill people.  I was terrified to even hold the thing, let alone point it somewhere.

But I did it.  25 whole rounds of it.  I loaded.  I aimed.  I pulled the trigger.  I even hit a few (bright orange, who knew!) clay pigeons.

All for the sake of art.

That’s not to say I would last a week in the Wild West, but I’m sure Larry McMurtry would still applaud my efforts.   

Next required Western skill: calf roping. Someday.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A dream of beauty

"My decorations belong to the poetic and imaginative world where a few choice spirits live."
-Thomas Wilmer Dewing

 After Sunset by Thomas Wilmer Dewing at the Smithsonian’s Freer-Sackler Gallery

I love this painting.  On days I’m feeling especially overwhelmed or anxious I wish I could escape to Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s dreamlike world of the poetic and the imaginative.

That’s all.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Book Review: The American Heiress

I didn’t intend on writing any book reviews on this blog, but after finishing The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin I knew I had to share it with anyone willing to take my recommendations.

Endorsements promote the book as required reading material “for those suffering from Downtown Abby withdrawal.”  Yes, that’s exactly what I am suffering from this summer, and The American Heiress is nothing if not an exquisitely detailed costume drama

Based on the “Dollar Princesses” of the Gilded Age, The American Heiress is the somewhat predictable story of the wealthy and beautiful Cora Cash who marries Ivo Maltravers, Duke of Wareham, in order to cement her family’s social status in America and bring much needed wear-with-all to the Maltravers estate.

On a side note, I can’t help but be a little jealous of Cora.  Last time I fell off a horse while on the hunt field all I got was a snide “have you been riding long, my dear” from a very Charlotte Beauchamp-like woman, not a besotted Duke.  Oh well.

Though there is nothing particularly earth-shattering about the storyline, Daisy Goodwin is a beautiful writer.  In the Acknowledgements section she says: “this book has taken me an age to finish.”  I like to think that’s because of the care and attention she put into her graceful descriptions.  I almost wished I could read the whole thing with a highlighter in hand.

I appreciated the use of shifting points of view in any given scene and am glad to see this literary technique making a comeback.  What satisfied me the most, though, was the book’s finale.  With no intention of spoiling the story I will simply say it was not a trite happy ending tied up in a perfect bow (I’m looking at you film version of The Buccaneers sending Nan merrily off into a South American sunset with lover Guy Thwaite).  The American Heiress ends in a way that feels true to life, if not a little emotionally messy.

Daisy Goodwin admits that she based the character of Cora on Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough and one of the most famous of the Dollar Princesses.  By the end of the book I could not help but think of a portrait I had recently seen of Consuelo, and the solace so clearly found in the bonds of love between mother and son.