Archive | Debbie Thomas

A Surprising Catch

Today’s post by Debbie Thomas from our sister blog, Novel Matters | @NovelMatters

I know what I like. I’ve been reading for 40…ish years, so yes, I should know by now what floats my boat when it comes to books.   Strong characters, authentic motivations, deep and worthwhile themes that resonate with me as a reader and settings as character that make me loathe to leave at the end.  Where do I consistently find these books? If there were a section so labeled in bookstores, I would camp out on their shores.

But there is no such shore. So, I cast my nets wide in the stacks of new releases or trawl musty secondhand stores for well-thumbed books. Dog-eared corners don’t lie – they have a reader’s stamp of urgency about them.

Occasionally, I reel in a surprising catch.   Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and left me running breathless through the stacks.  His even darker book, The Angel’s Game, had me cowering under the covers with a booklight into the early hours of the next workday and thanking God for people of courage. Flavia de Luce pulled me onto the back of Gladys (her bike) to race through Bishop’s Lacey for poisons. I promptly downloaded her next three books on my Kindle at the end (thank you, Alan Bradley).  The unabridged version of Jane Eyre left me aghast at what incorruptible spiritual truths had been gutted for word count and brevity in the version I’d read early on. I tasted the desperation and joys of a New York slum in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I laughed open-mouthed at Green Shadows, White Whale. Who knew Ray Bradbury could turn writing a screenplay for Moby Dick into a thing of hilarity?

So, yes, I love the heftiness of velum and cloth cover in my hand, the knowing scent of old type and fuzzed edges of well-worn books, the cover photo that stirs the waters of imagination, the lure of a title that befuddles, the quick catch of a downloadable world.

I never want to be so sure of what I like that I steer away from unknown waters.   What have you read that surprised you?

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Snapshots From Life – A Novel Matters Guest Post

Today’s post from Debbie Thomas of our sister blog,  Novel Matters  |  @NovelMatters

An interesting thing happened on my way back from a family reunion a few weeks ago. At the end of a very long five hour flight between Baltimore and San Diego, a passenger bolted from his seat as we were landing, sprinted to the front, grabbed the door handles and yelled, “Let me off this plane! I have to get off the plane! ”

Oh yeah.

Two male flight attendants tackled him and pinned him down as we all watched, dumbfounded.   It seemed like an eternity before the wheels finally touched the runway, but in reality, it took only moments.

What goes through your mind when stuff like this happens?  Initially, you can’t really believe what you’re seeing because you have no frame of reference for it.   It’s not every day that someone goes haywire on a flight and tries to get off before the plane has landed.   Fellow passengers glance around at each other, just as startled and nervous and disbelieving as you, seeking some kind of verification that it’s really happening.

It wasn’t until I’d disembarked and medicated myself with a white chocolate mocha that the reality of it set in.   It could have turned out so differently if… no, we’re not going there.     But I wouldn’t be a writer, if at some point I didn’t shamelessly wonder how I could use this in a story.   Most writers would.

Digging through the rubble of life gives stories authenticity.   As writers, we often process our own experiences through the thoughts and actions of our characters. Sometimes these experiences provide snapshots of what makes people tick. Sometimes it’s a way for writers to make sense of life.

Here are some things I stored away in my inner journal:

  • The young man on the plane didn’t struggle after he was tackled.   He grew docile and cooperative immediately.  Had he been subdued or was he biding his time?
  • He looked like any other 20-something in shorts and a t-shirt. He could have been my son…or yours.   Tragically innocent or understatedly evil?
  • The woman beside me in the aisle seat said that if she’d known he was coming, she would have stuck out her foot to trip him. It brought out her inner ninja.
  • Several passengers were gracious and wondered if he had mental health issues, rather than making assumptions of malicious intent.
  • The young man was barefooted.   The security officer found his flipflops at his seat. If he’d been intentional about causing harm, wouldn’t he have slipped his feet into his shoes before running to the front? It seemed more likely that he panicked and reacted to some turbulence.
  • The whole incident seemed to go on forever because all the window shades were drawn to keep out the heat and we had no idea how close we were to landing.   I remember thinking (praying!) and trying to will the plane to touch down.
  • It occurred to me how odd that all three flight attendants were brawny males.   When does that ever happen? In fiction, it would sound contrived, but in reality it was ordained, I think.
  • Even the babies and little children were quiet. There was a moment of silence — a pause in the universe — before people started whispering and questioning.

What I observed in the reaction of such a large group of people to this situation was story fodder.   I saw how a simple thing like altering the physical setting (having the shades drawn, adding some turbulence) can disorient the protagonist, slow down time and heighten suspense.   How one person can find her inner ninja while another sympathizes with a potentially volatile and dangerous character.   How something as simple as shoes left behind can suggest the difference between spontaneous or premeditated actions, a confused soul or a scoundrel.

Every writer makes use of personal experiences, but if we fail to look past the obvious event and dissect the nuances of the scene and the reactions of those involved, we may miss the chance to incorporate them into story.

As a side note, when I had time to consider it all, I was deeply moved and grateful for the grace shown to us all on that flight.  And I sent an email to the airline commending the flight attendants for the quick response.

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The Keys to the Castle – A Novel Matters Guest Post

Our own Bonnie Grove wrote an inspiring post a few days ago on the value of daydreaming and its connection to imagination titled “Scribble on the Walls of Life. “   She encouraged us to play, to imagine and pretend.   Rejuvenating stuff for harried, stressful lives.

On a vacation last weekend, I was able to revisit a major source of imagination from my childhood — The Enchanted Forest in Ellicott City, Maryland.   Revisit isn’t exactly the word. We pulled off the highway and took photos at the castle entrance.   The park’s been closed since the 1980s when it became a retail shopping center.   Now Old King Cole directs shoppers to the Safeway instead of the quaint park that fired our dreams and imprinted our hearts with wonder.

The Enchanted Forest, built in 1955, was the first theme park in Maryland.  It had no mechanical rides or flashy special effects.   It offered a fairytale land with Peter Pumpkin Eater’s house, a rainbow slide, Alice’s Wonderland, the seven dwarves’ cottage and glittering cavern, the three pigs’ homes, Robin Hood’s barn, a gingerbread house…sigh.   When you crossed the threshold, you raced to leave reality behind.

My niece and I were only four years apart in age, and we would lie awake the night before our yearly visits planning the route we would follow and which souvenirs to buy.   I still treasure my souvenirs from the gift shop.   We didn’t care that some of the paint was flaking off the mache-like characters and the pond surrounding Mt. Vesuvius smelled faintly of chlorine.   Reality held no power there.   We had permission to escape to the land that shimmered with fairy dust.

Once we stuck our toes in the waters of enchantment, it was a short swim to full-length fiction.   Narnia, Middle Earth and Camelot unfolded their road maps.   We searched out secret openings in cupboards, kept our eyes peeled for hobbit footprints among the ferns and sharpened our makeshift swords.   When the stories ended, we remembered with fondness our time there and treasured the souvenirs we picked up along the way.

Imagination is an illusive thing that must be nurtured to grow. Writers know that it meets you at the same place at the same time each day, if properly trained.   If you miss a day or sleep in late, your characters will be lined up at the entrance, arms crossed, tapping their feet.   But they won’t wait for long.

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