The Gift of Our Elders

Americans live in a society that does not value its elderly. This is a fact, and a sad one. I am heavily interested in genealogy, and even though my parents taught me early on to respect the older members of our family (and society), it was not until I got older that I began to appreciate them as real people. People with amazing stories to tell and wisdom to share. And at just about the time I began to realize what a treasure they were, they began to die.

On June 11, my family lost two gems on the same night—my great-aunt Clare (aged 93) and my great-uncle Ed (aged 90). Ed was married to Clare’s sister. Clare and her sister were my grandmother’s sisters—the last three people to carry the Warren surname in my line. Now only the youngest sister remains.

I didn’t get to know my Aunt Clare nearly as well as I would have liked. She lived on the opposite coast, in Washington, so I saw her rarely. As the eldest of the Warren sisters, we called her the Matriarch of the family. Aunt Clare lived up to that title—she took great pride in the Warren clan and all of our accomplishments. She found great joy in joining us all for rare sprawling family reunions, and loved getting cards from us even as her health declined.

The few times I met her in person, I remember her quick laugh and sparkling eyes, and the genuine interest she showed in every member of the family, no matter how young. And I remember her telling us that she always disliked her formal name of Clara, and therefore always used Clare—so much so that her younger sister had never even known that Clara was her real name! We will all miss her warm heart and bright smile.

I knew Uncle Ed slightly better. I had visited him and my great-aunt several times at their retirement community. He was a fantastic woodworker, carving birds and ducks so good they should be in a museum. He enjoyed trains, too, and cars—for years Uncle Ed had met my father, brother, nephew, and uncle for the annual Philadelphia Car Show. Uncle Ed was also a compulsive photographer. While I can’t honestly ever remember him with a camera in his hand, he had carousels of slides from when his children (and my father) were young, and he loved to show them when given the opportunity.

Uncle Ed embodied kindness—a soft voice, a welcoming smile, and gentle eyes. His love for all his family was always obvious, as was his love for his wife. Once, when my husband and I were visiting them, Uncle Ed told us that his courtship with my great-aunt had several parallels to ours. Among them was that he had lived in New Jersey, my aunt in Pennsylvania. He had to cross the river every time he wanted to see her and pay the hefty 25-cent toll. He decided he had better marry my aunt quickly, before he went broke!

The year my husband and I married was Uncle Ed and my aunt’s 60th wedding anniversary. We made sure to take a picture with them at our reception, to commemorate their achievement and in hopes that we can do as well in our marriage. Uncle Ed and his wife faced all of their lives—the good and the bad—with love, laughter, and faith, and we hope we can do the same.

Unlike Aunt Clare, Uncle Ed did get to meet my daughter at one of the monthly family get-togethers at a diner near their house. I am grateful for that, although my daughter will not remember. But I will remember.

I will remember these two warm, kind, gentle people who lived their lives with discipline, fortitude, and respect for their fellow human beings. I will remember that while the world they grew up in has vanished, their values and principles should not. I will remember how they lived and how they loved, and be forever grateful for this gift from my elders.

The 3 “C”s of Believability

Reality can be strange.

On June 11, within hours of each other, my great-uncle Ed and my great-aunt Clare passed away. Uncle Ed was married to Aunt Clare’s sister, so they were in-laws. One lived in Pennsylvania, the other in Washington state. If an author put something so odd in a book, people would say, “That could never happen in real life.”

This got me thinking about the importance of believability in our writing (rather than something profound, like, say, my own mortality). No matter what world we are writing about, whether it is contemporary or science fiction or fantasy, readers must be able to believe in it—to feel that it is real. I identified three elements that make—or fail to make—that belief happen.

The first is context. You need to situate your readers firmly in your world. You need to lay out what they need to know early on, so their expectations match what you are going to give them. They need to understand the rules of your world and then you must follow the rules you set. The events that occur in a story must be plausible—not merely possible, but probable.

The second element is consistency. By this I mean internal cohesion in both events (see above) and in character actions. Characters must always act in accordance to their personality. If you have them suddenly do something far out of character, it rattles the reader. This doesn’t mean that your characters cannot act in surprising ways. But the characters must act in accordance with the internal logic of the story and of themselves. All of us know that sometimes we act out of character—but there is always a reason, and that reason is always consistent with who we are as a person. As long as you clearly show that reason for your character, the reader will believe in him or her.

The last is confidence—a deft authorial voice. If readers feel that they are in good hands, they will follow you more willingly. They will suspend disbelief just a shade more because they have faith that it will all make sense in the end. A tentative, hesitant, or wavering voice will give readers pause and perhaps even make them more attuned to flaws in believability.

If we lack any one of those three elements, we run the risk of breaking the dream for our readers. The moment we step outside the believability box, the spell breaks and we may not get the chance to recapture the magic.

Are there other elements of writing that you think are essential to creating and maintaining believability in our writing?


I mentioned in an earlier post that I was joining a group blog called The Author Chronicles. We launched the blog the last week in May and have been thrilled with the results!

Our posts on Balticon45 and the 2011 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference (Overview, Closing Panel, and Photos) generated a ton of traffic, and we are pleased to see that a lot of those readers have stuck around. We’re keeping up with our weekly Tuesday posts, which will rotate through the five writers in the group. We’ve established our Top Picks Thursday feature, which is a roundup of links we found interesting and helpful throughout the week, and we hope to add interviews and guest bloggers to the lineup in the near future.

Although adding another blog to my already jam-packed schedule may seem insane, I believe this was a wise move. The Author Chronicles has driven traffic to my website and to this blog as well. I also love working with fellow writers Nancy Keim Comley, Gwendolyn Huber, J. Thomas Ross, and Matt Q. McGovern. Their voices are fresh and their enthusiasm is catching!

I look forward to continuing to grow The Author Chronicles readership, to bringing our readers useful and engaging content, and to applying those same lessons here at The Goose’s Quill. I also look forward to figuring out how to insert pictures properly into a blog post and how to make the number 8 followed by a ) not automatically turn into a smilie face. 8)

I am enjoying my new adventure, and invite you to come along. If you haven’t checked out today’s Top Picks Thursday, you’re missing some great links!

My Biggest Takeaway: 2011 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference

“Takeaway” is a word often used in the business world, meaning the lesson, advice, or information you got from a seminar, meeting, or conference. “What’s the takeaway?” is a common question. Oddly, I could not find that definition online on any of the big dictionary sites. They all told me it meant the same as “takeout” – as in, “Do you want fries with that?”

You have probably seen the posts I did on the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, both here and on The Author Chronicles blog. So you know there was a TON of awesome information in those workshops.

But none of that was my biggest takeaway.

My biggest takeaway came from my pitch with Sarah Yake of Frances Collin Agency.

You may know, from previous posts, that I struggle with anxiety. That I would have rather suffered another C-section than pitch face-to-face. You may also know that the Act Like A Writer Workshop in March 2011 caused an epiphany which let me approach my nemesis with an entirely different mindset.

That didn’t stop the terror when faced with a real agent, however.

I sat at Sarah Yake’s table and waited. She wasn’t there. In fact, none of the agents were in place yet. Every one of the agent tables held only a nervous writer staring into empty air, a rather bizarre tableaux repeated five times.

I wondered if I would remember to breathe while speaking. If I would remember to make eye contact. If I would remember my pitch. If I would remember my name. After a few minutes which felt like an epoch, all the agents hurried toward their tables.

Sarah was personable, enthusiastic, and interested. She was also slightly flustered because a faulty clock had made all the agents a touch late, and this show of humanity went a long way to calming my nerves. Sarah also appeared to be younger than I am, which I think kicked in some of my mommy instincts – I wanted to make her feel at ease, since she was obviously embarrassed about being a little late!

Once we began talking, the most unbelievable thing happened. All my anxiety drained away. My hands stopped shaking. My stomach stopped twitching. Not only did I remember to breathe, but I breathed easily. I sailed through my pitch confidently. Even when I missed some information, I deftly inserted it later in our conversation.

If I had not had such a nice person as the first agent I ever pitched to, I suppose my experience might have become a nightmare. As it was, it became the most profound takeaway I could have imagined.

I can pitch.

I can pitch well.

The confidence I draw from this lesson will carry far beyond my writing career.

Thanks Jonathan Maberry & Keith Strunk (Act Like A Writer teachers), Don Lafferty (I didn’t forget your pep talk just before Sarah came down), PWC, and Sarah Yake (such a sweet person!) for giving me a takeaway that will change my life in ways I can’t even imagine yet.

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