Describing Things (10 – 12)

These descriptions are a little longer. I got caught up talking about some of my favorite finds.

*

The first public school in the city was built in 1908. This one wasn’t the “endowed” school built several blocks to the east, a grand structure with a central portico and dome, where the children of wealthy white citizens attended. Nor was it “the Negro school,” constructed at the north end of the city, a big red brick box. The “public school” was somewhere in between those two extremes, both in location and style. It was three stories high and almost a perfect square, a solid and stolid building. The severe silhouette was softened by rows of arched windows, a decorative ridge along the top, and peaked dormers at regular intervals. The cream-and-burgundy color scheme, including inset brickwork delineating each level of the building, gave the massive block some architectural flair. The school was built to impress the poverty-stricken kids who attended here—both as a sense of pride, and as a reminder of what the city had bestowed upon them.

*

By the time I noticed the house, it had lost all personality. It was the same style as a thousand others built around the same time, a two-story white house with three unadorned windows lined up over an unremarkable front porch. A short, gnarled tree grew in the narrow lawn, stretching cantankerous limbs most of the length of the house. A tall pine stood nearby; almost as if in mockery of the other tree, this one had been sheered of all its branches and was now just a twenty-foot-tall stump.

The homeplace had not always been so bleak. Down the dirt driveway, past a weather-darkened shed, was a small pond and a grassy field that extended to a line of trees. It was easy to imagine a small vegetable garden behind the house, fenced off from the roaming chickens, and girl catching grasshoppers for her cat on a summer day. Like the old pine tree, though, this place had been stripped of its vibrancy. It now just awaited the inevitable end signaled by the large yellow FOR SALE sign posted in its front yard.

I took this picture in 2018. The house has now been torn down.

*

I’d seen the old house for years, every time I drove to the bank or the grocery store. It was a big house, two stories high and three rooms deep, with an extra wing on one side and outbuildings out back. A single slender chimney was set far back on the peaked tin roof; a fireplace in that position would have trouble heating such a large space, suggesting that the extensions were built once heating didn’t depend on fire.

The house was empty, but still appealing. Its siding was painted white, with light-blue trim around the windows and doors. Instead of a front door centered underneath the double-level porch, this one was set into the corner of the house, flanked by two lights and two empty flowerboxes. White ruffled curtains still hung in the glass panes.

When it was announced that the highway was expanding, I knew that the old house was doomed. I went to see it while it was still standing. I wondered if a farming family had lived here—now vanished along with any trace of farmland. Or perhaps it had been a boarding house with a motley collection of residents. I imagined a boarder coming home on a cold winter evening, shivering her way through the front door, and hurrying up stairs, down hallways, and past bedrooms to find the warmest part of the house.

As I walked along the porch, I noticed something scratched into the concrete. 9-25-53. Someone had loved the place enough to mark a date in stone. Even though I hardly knew the house, and knew nothing of the people who had lived here, I was glad I could tell it goodbye.

*

Previous posts: 1-3, 4-6, 7-9

Describing Things (7 – 9)

The more I practice this little exercise, the less intimidating it gets. I still don’t have the easy style that other writers do, but at least I’m enjoying myself now. Any building is more than just the arrangement of windows or the color of the siding; it was somehow part of someone’s life, and that’s what fascinates me about these old places.

Please note, by the way, that I have only the sketchiest knowledge of how to tell when a building or house was constructed, so I just use whatever estimate best suits my purpose. You can’t tell me no because you aren’t my mom. (But my mom has a very good sense of architecture and history and probably could tell me.)

Previous posts: 1-3 here, 4-6 here.

*

The little porch was just big enough for two rocking chairs and a well-mannered dog. Lacy woodwork and elaborate corner columns gave a tasteful flair to the otherwise common-sense framing. The railing, constructed of whimsical cutout designs on teardrop-shaped panels, lined up neatly and in good order. All this decorative woodwork had probably been mass-produced and shipped by train to finish a house built from a kit. But that wasn’t the sort of thing one talked about on this porch.

*

Brighton Avenue was a casual jumble of history. The houses that lined the street reflected every era, from an eighteenth-century daub-and-log cabin, to late nineteenth-century townhouses with more window than wall, to a little 1920s peaked-roof cottage. Twentieth-century power lines crisscrossed the sky, while the street below was full of compact twenty-first century cars hurrying through their busy lives.

*

The house was mostly windows and rooflines. There were tall narrow windows, large square windows, double windows, single windows, half windows, and corner windows. Two squat windows peeked out from under an upper dormer, and an extra one overlooked the front porch swing. These windows were compassed about by an enthusiastic variety of rooflines. A flat porch roof underscored crested dormers, and all was crowned by a spreading upper roof piled high with peaks and gables and overhangs. What was life, the architect seemed to say, if you didn’t make room for windows and roofs?

Describing Things (4 – 6)

More practice in the art of description, using photos from my walks around town.

#4. The old house was pink. It wasn’t flashy; if one had to paint century-old bricks pink, this was definitely the right shade. Otherwise, the house was rather plain, a rectangular box topped by a peaked roof with a chimney sticking out of the center. It didn’t even have a porch, merely an oversized brick doorstep ornamented by a single urn of mums. Squeezed in among newer homes and an ever-expanding city street, this old home had nothing going for it except its coat of paint. It should have receded into invisibility. Yet it still caught the eye.

**

The three houses marched up Campbell Street in a line. They were built in the traditional style of four windows across the upper story, and three windows plus the front door on the ground floor. A porch below echoed the peaked roof above, and a stubby chimney on either end kept the balance. Crowning the whole well-ordered assembly was a front gable with an arched-and-winged window in the center.

Despite their obvious shared pedigree, however, time had not treated them all equally. The first house was in good repair, with pale yellow siding, burgundy shutters, and a new metal roof. The second house was painted light blue, its shutters a darker dusky blue; it too had a metal roof. These two homes were connected by a small breezeway building between them, and had been converted into apartments sometime in the past.

But the third house was not so fortunate. No one had modernized its roof or repainted its walls. White paint peeled off its wooden siding and its shutters were missing. This third house had not prospered in the same way that her sisters had.

The first house actually has five windows across so doesn’t exactly match the other two; but as fiction goes, I smudged the details so they’d blend better.

**

#6. Just off the busy street was a small triangular courtyard where two buildings clustered close to a towering ivy-covered wall. A wrought-iron gate, flanked by stone topiaries, opened the way to a smooth flagstone pathway that curved through ornamental grasses to a tall, narrow doorway at the other end. There, a pocket of a porch lay hidden away from the anxious city.

Describing Things (1 – 3)

I love writing, and by that I mean, I love creating characters and crafting their interaction with one another. When it comes to description — setting a scene, or (to use that threadbare cliche) “painting a picture for the reader” — I loathe writing.

Describing a landscape, a building, or a even room is hard for me. I haven’t improved much from my thirteen-year-old self, who once described a house as “a cedar house with colums [sic] in front” and a room as having a wall and a chair. The words I need aren’t easily accessible for me. It’s… a house. It’s wood-colored. It’s got windows and a roof. Look, here’s an idea — how about if I just list the elements of the setting in brackets, like this: [a house, some trees, and and red front door]. Now readers can arrange it however they like!

As I’m working on a new story idea, I realized that I would be moving my character to a new location for each story. This meant I’d have to set some scenes and paint some word pictures. Since brackets aren’t an option, I could either labor through descriptions and hate every minute of it, or I could take some time to practice the art and get better at it.

The other day, as spring is settling in around here, I walked a couple of blocks in the old section of our city and took pictures of buildings that caught my eye. Back home, I practiced describing them. After all, if I found them interesting enough for a photo, surely I could communicate why in a paragraph.

I’ll be posting the photos and my descriptions here, because It’s turned out to be an entertaining little exercise, and I do think it’s helpful. Besides, this way I get to show pictures of some of the interesting old buildings around here.

Here are the first three.

**

124 Robinson Street been built as a stylish little duplex many years ago. Two bay windows faced the street, each flanked by a real wooden door. A small square window was set above each door. Everything was painted light yellow and framed with ornamental white trim, giving it an understated charm. Yet time had taken its toll. The brick steps were darkened with weather and grime from the street. Rusting metal awnings shaded the windows and doors; one awning was bent in the middle, and another missing completely. Ground-floor windows, originally allowing light into the basement level, were painted shut with sloppy white strokes. All these years later, the building was just too tired to keep up appearances anymore.

**

The hulking building had been built for dreary governmental business. About forty years ago, some enterprising developer renovated the interior into apartments. It was a smart use of existing space, although it never quite shed the feeling that one’s neighbors might stop by at any time with a question about the Hodson file. The exterior of the building remained unchanged; the only disruption of its utilitarian symmetry was a twelve-foot wall that jutted out from the side of the building in a warped semi-circle. Usually the gate was closed, but today it stood partially ajar. The opening gave a glimpse into a grassy courtyard, a startling oasis of nature within a desert of brick and concrete.

**

A row of three brick townhouses stood along the sidewalk. Matching sets of five concrete steps led up to three small square porches, each framed by brick and wooden posts. The single ground-floor window suggested a bay window without quite committing to it. Across the upper story, three windows across the flat façade mimicked eighteenth-century colonial manors. Each window featured a pair of shutters, painted dark green to contrast with the cream-colored window trim, and—to their credit—each with a real mechanism to shut them. The roof was steeply pitched, with a squat dormer window in the center. At the back of the last unit, a brick chimney rose above the sharp peak of the roof. It was hard to tell if it had been a real chimney, or was just added for effect. In all honesty, the townhouses looked a lot like modern buildings dressed up in historical costume.

More will follow as I work through my photos. I’ll probably never paint pictures for my readers; but maybe I can learn to dash off a quick sketch for them.

The True Spirit of Writing

About a year ago, after giving me the bad news that my novel needed a lot more work than I expected, my editor added, “I know you know this, but it’s just a reminder — you can write just for fun. It doesn’t always have to be a big and important idea.”

Well, I shelved the novel, and found myself with nothing to write, important or otherwise. Eventually I produced the mini-collection A Bowl of Pho just to prove to myself that I really could bring a project to fruition, but it wasn’t really enough. Then I stumbled on a book that turned everything around.

It purported to be a collection of recipes transmitted to the author by ghosts. The book was transparently fiction although it claimed to be real, and all the recipes sounded like they came from the Mt. Olive Baptist Church Women’s Bible Study cookbook from Centralville, Ohio, circa. 1963. It was a terrible book and I loved it.

I’ve always been a fan of ghost stories, which is connected to my longing to be able to see and know the past. According to this book, some ghosts stayed on earth because they were attached to something and couldn’t let go. Obviously all of these stories involved recipes of some kind, but it fired up my imagination. What if a ghost was attached to a baby who had her name? What if a ghost never realized that her shift at the diner was over? What about somebody who was sure she was so essential that she had to stick around and make all the right decisions?

From that seed of an idea, a new project flourished. Not only did I write ghost stories, but I was able to put together a collection of stand-alone stories with a unifying thread that tied them together into a larger story. I’ve wanted to write this kind of thing for years, and in 2021, I did it.

In tone, they’re much closer to Go Right and A Bowl of Pho than The Fellowship. Yet I do still touch on themes of women’s empowerment, racism, and faith — not because I feel I need to, but because my stories deal with humans (both alive and dead), and those are human issues.

I’m still deciding exactly what to do with my ghost stories, but rest assured that you’ll see them in some form sooner or later. I can’t wait to share them. Not because I think it will change the world, but because they were born from the sheer joy of writing.

New Short Story Collection: A Bowl of Pho

A Bowl of Pho: very short stories by [Sara Roberts Jones]

I’ve written some short stories for your reading pleasure. Well, to be honest, I wrote them for my writing pleasure. But I hope you like them too.

A Bowl of Pho is a collection of ten very short stories. When I say “very short,” that’s what I mean. The whole project began with a challenge to write a 300-word story. Since I recently had to shelve my 131,000-word novel, telling any kind of story in 300 words seemed both trivial and impossible. I was half-wrong — and fortunately it was about the impossible part.

It turned out that writing these vignettes was therapeutic. I let myself go beyond the 300-word limit, but I still kept them all short. It was fun, low-pressure, and got me excited about writing again.

As my catalogue of “mini-stories” grew, I wanted to prove to myself that I can still bring an idea to completion, despite the smoking wreckage of a novel behind me. So I did it. I didn’t overthink anything (as in, I’m pretty sure the art on the front is ramen, not pho). I just I wrote the stories, designed a cover, and put the collection up on Kindle Direct Publishing.

The stories are similar in style to Go Right: they’re warm, fun, and perfect to read over a cup of coffee. I didn’t tackle anything very weighty. I wrote what I liked and called it done.

It’s currently available on Amazon for $2.99. A “pocket-book” size paperback will be coming soon. I hope you check it out!

Found Things

I’m still emerging from the long dark tunnel of winter. It’s taking longer than usual because this year, instead of having a completed second novel as I expected, I’ve just got a shambles of a story that I have to rework from the ground up. That isn’t to say that I’m not writing at all. I have another little project in the works that I hope to say more about soon.

Meanwhile, here are a few writing-related things that have crossed my Shire lately.

By the way, I utterly despise inserting links. It’s tedious. So while I’ll link a few of these items, some of them I’ll just trust that you can cut-and-paste search terms.

Possessed by Passion. A friend, Tracy A. Ball, contributed to this collection. Full disclosure, this isn’t a genre I enjoy. Instead of finding the characters and the situations exciting, I just want to recommend counseling to everyone involved. But you might like it. Click through to the site and you’ll know instantly whether it’s the kind of thing that appeals to you. You should check it out.

Half a League Onward Press. I haven’t read This Do in Remembrance by Dave Dentel because, again, it’s not a genre I enjoy. However, Dave is a friend and I’m very excited that he’s putting his work out there. It might be something you like. You should check it out.

The Legend of Zare Caspian by Abigail Cossette is a web serial with adventure, intrigue, romance, and a “strong female character” who actually is strong and female — not just loud and obnoxious, and not just a man with boobs. While I haven’t read every episode, I have seen the behind-the-scenes work she puts into her stories. (As is possibly apparent by now, I happily support friends even when I’m not a dedicated fan of their genres.) Abigail, by the way, also does all her own artwork. You should check it out.

How Not to Write a Novel, Mittelmark and Newman. A friend sent me this book with the caution, “It’s pretty frank in places.” Well, yes. Definitely an adult audience. But said audience should enjoy the book’s ironic angle. It purports to be advice on how to remain an unpublished author, and goes through some of the best ways to derail your story. I’ve had this book for many years, so it didn’t exactly come to my attention “lately” — except that I recently cleaned up my bookshelf and rediscovered my TWO copies of it (one to lend, one to keep). It’s my favorite writing-advice book. You should check it out.

Go On Write. This is the best site I’ve found for pre-made book covers. He also does custom work—in my case, the cover to my short stories, Go Right. I drop in on the site periodically to see what new offerings he has. You should check it out.

Dominic Noble on YouTube. He’s a young Brit in California whose channel compares books-vs-movies. I found him a couple of years ago when he did a long series on Fifty Shades of Grey, which was highly entertaining, informative, and chock-full of profanity because of his passionate objection to the series. He doesn’t just take down books, though; he sometimes dedicates a video to books he loves. His appreciation of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted — one of my all-time favorite books — convinced me that we’d get along. You should check it out.

Bad Movie YouTubers. These channels aren’t specifically related to writing, but it’s informative to discuss why some stories don’t work. That’s my excuse, anyway. The truth is that I just love a good takedown of a bad movie. Jenny Nicholson, Kennie J.D., Fanboy Flicks (Weird Movies with Mark), and Good Bad Flicks — you should check them out.

My own books. Okay, this isn’t something I just “found lately.” But maybe it’s a discovery waiting for you! I’ve written a novel, The Fellowship, and short stories, Go Right. Both are linked to the right and also under the “Writing” heading at the top. I, too, am supported by friends who very possibly haven’t read the books — but you should because they’re really good. As mentioned above, as I mourn at the graveside of my ruined second novel, I’m also working on a new project which I’ll definitely update you on. You should… well, you know by now.

A 2020 Planner

At the end of last year, I bought a 2020 Planner. Isn’t it lovely?

I had a good reason to buy one. And no, it wasn’t so I could schedule my days, track my goals, and do all that other weird organizer stuff that people usually use planners for. (Note: I tend to be friends with weird organizer people. Also, I marry them.)

No, I liked the idea of filling in a planner for a fictional character. This one promised lots of space for that.

I mean, you could even rate each day, track your goals, write to-do lists, track your water intake… It was perfect for developing an entirely different person in an entirely different life!

But of course, this the year that things went so haywire that even the phrase “2020 Planner” is a joke.

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out this planner and flipped through the few pages where I’d jotted down some initial thoughts. The planner fell open to December 2019, and I wrote at the top, “This month I saw one article on Facebook about a new virus in China.”

My fictional character faded from view as I paged through the blank calendars and began to write notes. Everything began shutting down this week. It was hard to get toilet paper. I made masks for the family and felt a little sheepish, but figured it was a good policy.

And then came June, when our old national sin of racism flamed to the surface again after George Floyd’s death. DJ and I attended our first protest, and I saw white friends finally see truths that the black community has been saying for generations.

But I also saw other friends repeating the same old defenses — the same ones I wrote about in my current novel. Many claim to be Christian, who insist that we must repent as soon as the Holy Spirit shows us sin, and our entire duty is to obey God and let him handle the consequences, Yet when it comes to the hard work of repenting of a history of racism, they can’t manage to let go of their political loyalties enough to do so.

I ended in August, when homeschooling is suddenly mainstream, masks still political statement, and the presidential elections looming.

I also noted that I’ve decided to set my novel aside until the end of the year. 2020 threw me off-balance. I feel like I need to reconsider everything from my setting to my characters to the scope that my story takes in. I hope to fill in the rest of the planner at the end of the year, and maybe I’ll be ready to engage with the novel again.

As I look at this accidental journal, I’m glad I took a couple of hours to fill it in. I didn’t set out to write an overview of this year; it just happened. And I think that’s a fitting theme for a 2020 Planner.

Gift Ideas For Your Writer Friend Who Just Got Edited

Do you have a writer friend who has recently received feedback from a professional editor about her manuscript? You’ll know because of her stunned expression and eyes filled with silent pain. Naturally you want to support your friend through this harrowing process, but what can you do? Well, lucky for you, I’ve got ideas!

(Note: I’ll be using the pronoun “her” because English doesn’t give us a neutral pronoun. It’s just for convenience. Not because “she” who runs this site might also be undergoing said harrowing process.)

Gifts for a Writer Undergoing Editing

  1. Send her a text or email to reassure her, “You are a good writer!”
  2. Remind her of the heart of her story and why she wrote it to start with.
  3. Write her a note reassuring her, “You’re going to make something great out of this novel!”
  4. Enclose a gift card to her favorite coffee shop.
  5. Oh, wait, unless it’s 2020 and her favorite coffee shop is open for curbside service only. 2020 sucks.
  6. Make a gift basket for her, filled with writer-friendly treats like new pens, a crisp blank notebook, and a bottle of glue for her shattered ego.
  7. Play a version of Monopoly where all you do is draw Chance cards that say things like, “My editor completely misunderstood how I drew this character,” and the editor has to go directly to jail every time.
  8. Give her suction darts and a target with one big bullseye that has Editors written on it.
  9. Reassure her, “You are a good writer” by engraving it on a brass plaque and mounting it on a stone pillar next to her front door.
  10. Remind her that this is a necessary part of the process; that she’s survived it before and she will again; and didn’t she pay her editor to find everything wrong with her manuscript? And then you should run.

These are just a few ideas. Be creative! After all, your friend is throwing a big ol’ pity party for herself. You’ll have time to think of something.

A Visit from the Story Fairy

The Story Fairy bounced onto my bed. “Okay,” she gushed. “While you’re waiting for your novel to be edited, I have the best idea!”

“How much of an idea?” I asked warily. “That novel was supposed to be a novella. 70K words, not 130K.”

“No, this one is definitely shorter. It won’t take you two years. So what I’m thinking is…” She launched into a story pitch.

“Wow,” I said. “I think that will work!” I catapulted to my laptop. “I need to get this down! I might have a draft written in a month!”

“Right? I told you it wasn’t going to be as involved as the last one.”

About halfway through, however, my fevered typing slowed down. I wrote a paragraph and then deleted it. I sat back and stared at the screen. Finally, I said, “I’m stuck. Where do we go from here?”

The Story Fairy didn’t meet my gaze. “Hm? Oh. I didn’t really work out that part.”

“What do you mean that part? This is the entire second half!”

“Hey, sorry, I have to go. Other authors to inspire, you know!”

“You can’t just leave me hanging halfway through!” I shouted, but the Story Fairy was already gone.

A moment later, she stuck her head back into my room. “Um, have you considered an explosion?”

I threw my coffee cup at her.