Daddy's Christmas Angel

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Do You Have a Writing Vision?

Do you have a vision? For your project? For your career? For your life?

To get my young art students to focus, when they enter my classroom I ask them to close their eyes and see in their minds some object. Usually what I ask them to focus on will be part of the project for that day. Last week, I had them see a sky filled with stars. We were talking about Vincent Van Gogh and his paintings, especially "Starry Night".

I like to tell children about Van Gogh's work because during his troubled lifetime, he produced an amazing number of masterpieces that have grown more important and more valuable over the years. I don't believe that Van Gogh had a vision. It is fortunate that his sister-in-law did not throw away his work following the death of Van Gogh's brother, Theo, which occurred about six months after the artist's death. Instead it appears she developed a plan to make his work known.

Just like when the artist stands in front of a blank canvas and starts to visualize what he/she will place there, so each one of us must develop a vision for our writing. What kinds of books will we write? Will they be fiction or non-fiction? What will be the settings? Will this be a series?

More and more authors appear to be creating a character who will be part of a continuing series. That seems a good way to carry forth a vision as a writer.

Some writers don't have a plan. They are "seat of the pants" writers who let characters and situations take over as they create their books.

October starts next week; fall is already here. This is a good time for writers to sit down with a notebook and outline writing plans for 2011. Sketch out a brief synopsis for each story you'd like to write. Think about and list the markets for which they are directed. Schedule the days you will write and create a time table for completion of each project.

To be successful, you must have a vision. Create one now.

Vincent Van Gogh did not have a vision. He sold only one painting during his lifetime.

Do you want to be well-known for your work now, or, if you become famous, do you want it to be postmortem like Van Gogh?

Like my little artists, you need a vision and a plan.

(I'll post about career visions another time.)

Mary Montague Sikes

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fitness Makes the Cut

In the late 1980s, six Virginia artists created the "Woman as Muse" sculpture for the Virginia Caucus for the Arts. I was one of those artists, and my part of the expansive art piece that filled an entire gallery was "Physical Woman". The work was exhibited at the art museum in Roanoke, Virginia and was part of a national sculpture conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.

I chose "Physical Woman" because I already was seeing the need for writers and artists to have a routine of physical activity. Conditioning and playing tennis were also an important part of my lifestyle.

"If you have your health, you have everything," my mother often told me.

As with most other things, my mother was right.

Since the mid-1980s, I have kept on a regular schedule of exercise--step aerobics three times a week and tennis three times each week as well. Writers do a lot of sitting in front of their computers, so we need the physical break. I've found if you keep up a routine, you are less likely to break it. My fitness routine has helped me stay in good physical condition.

Although you may need to give up some writing or painting time, nothing is more important than good health. For me, fitness makes the cut.

Physical Woman
Do you make time for fitness in your life? I'd like to know. Really, how important is exercise to you?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Exotic Spots Make Sweet Book Settings

Hyatt Regency Union Station - Sikes art
Last week, I presented a program, "From Exotic Destinations to Book Settings" to the Richmond Branch, National League of American Pen Women. During my talk I told them that my fascination with exotic book settings began years ago when I traveled in Europe just prior to my senior year in college. 

Part of my trip was spent in Vienna, Austria where I had some incredible deja vu experiences. All the buildings and even the feel of the city was familiar to me. I felt like I was coming home.

In more recent years, I spent another week in Vienna and once again experienced a familiar feeling with the old city surroundings. I even felt secure walking alone along the ancient streets. That was when I began to wonder, "Why do we have vu experiences?"

I told the group about my research into the subject of reincarnation that followed. That research encouraged me to use that subject as the theme of my first novel, Hearts Across Forever

Trips by car and by bus across America led to “wanderlust” and a desire to put some of the thousands of photographs I was taking into a coffee table book that became Hotels to Remember. To my surprise, I discovered that the design for St. Louis Union Station (the Hyatt Regency Union Station) was based on Carcassone, a fortified town in the south of France that has stood in some form for about 20 centuries. Since I had just returned from France and had taken photographs of the fortified town, I put two of them into my book. 

Sedona, AZ, the Grand Canyon, and Bell Rock became part of that book as well as part of the setting for my novel, Eagle Rising. Photographs taken in those areas of Arizona also inspired a series of my large acrylic paintings, I explained to the group. 

I talked about the Caribbean islands as settings that inspired more books, including Secrets by the Sea and Night Watch my latest mystery/suspense novel. More books will be set in the Caribbean, especially on the island of Guadeloupe where I've had some frightening and exciting experiences.

The island settings inspire me, but I haven't had other deja vu experiences as dramatic as my visits to Vienna brought on. And I haven't yet set a book in Vienna.

I love to travel and I enjoy sharing my experiences with other writers and artists. It's always fun to think, "What if?" And I continue to wonder what inspires other writers to choose a setting...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Guest blogging with Linda Sole

Today I am blogging on the new Linda Sole site where she will be putting up author interviews. Hope you will check out the blog that tells a lot about my mystery/suspense novel, Night Watch. Hope you will take a look.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Woes of a Non-Cook, But Sometimes a Non-recipe Works

I've never claimed to be a cook. In fact, when I was growing up, my mother wouldn't let me near the kitchen until it was time to clean up.

Once when she was called away from home due to a family illness, Daddy had me make crab cakes. Since I had no idea what to do and formed the crab into big fat balls that didn't cook properly, we wound up dining out at the town's only restaurant. I didn't mind that but I felt guilty wasting the crab!

Earlier this week, my refrigerator was basically bare except for some thawed cooked home style pork ribs. Since we didn't want to go to the store, I decided to improvise. I put the meat in a large pot, turned the heat to medium and added three or four cups of water. I let this mixture come to a low boil and cook until the meat was hot. Then I went into my freezer and took out a bag of baby lima beans and a bag of sweet corn kernels which I added to the pot and let boil for a while.

Next I added a large can of diced tomatoes (from the pantry) into the mix. As this was heating, I decided some sweet onions would give it flavor, so I cut up two medium onions and threw them in.

Since I had put in so much liquid, the mixture was looking thin which prompted me to go to the refrigerator and pull out a box of potato flakes. I added a cup or so and let the soup (Brunswick stew?) continue to heat. Finally I ground some pepper with garlic into the thickened mix.

The result actually was delicious and because of the extra liquid/potato flakes, we have enough for several dinners. Served with a salad, this stew makes a great meal.

As I mentioned, I'm no cook and can never expect to replicate my creation. Still, just putting together ingredients I have on hand works in a pinch!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Spending a Year of My Life at Hilton Head

As a writer and an artist, I spend a lot of my time thinking and dreaming about settings and possible settings for books and for art. Over the years, Hilton Head Island, SC has become one of my favorite setting destinations. Since 1980, we have spent at least one week and often two weeks a year playing tennis at resorts located on Hilton Head. When you do the math, you'll realize that's at least one year of my life spent at Hilton Head.

A lot has changed since our first visit. At that time, there was only one grocery store on the island and much less traffic on the one road--highway 278. Over the years and many stores later, much of the land on the island has been developed. The once vacant property along the beautiful beach between Island Club and Port Royal now features a hotel and large timeshare property.

Favorite restaurants have come and gone, including a Cracker Barrel, often a crowded spot elsewhere, that no longer exists. Most of our time has been spent at Island Club which has a outstanding tennis program. A restaurant was located at Island Club when we first purchased a timeshare there. Although the facility in the rotunda building was a great convenience, that restaurant closed in a couple of years.

For several years, we looked forward to the Boathouse 2 champagne brunch on Sunday morning with a build your own omelet that included crab meat as one of the choices. This year, the restaurant was under new ownership and is now the Skull Creek Boathouse. Even though the omelet bar is gone, the menu is excellent, and the facility now features walls of televisions creating a sports bar setting for major league baseball games and NFL football.

Over the years, the wide, scenic beach at Island Club has provided many photo opportunities for me. I've created art cards from my photographs and have made pastel drawings and painted large acrylic canvasses using photos from the Hilton Head waterfront. A photo of a sunset on the Island Club beach became the cover of my mystery suspense novel, Secrets by the Sea.

One of my favorite images is that of the ducks swimming in the lagoon by the deck of our condo. Several years ago, an alligator moved into the lagoon and killed off nearly all of the ducks. This year, the alligator was not around, but the ducks were. I was happy to see them back.

Hilton Head Beach - MMSikes
I've spent more than a year at Hilton Head. Although things change and new facilities take the place of old, I still look forward to visiting the island every year. I look forward to seeing a fresh look and discovering what new element I can add to a story because of that change.

Mary Montague Sikes

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dragonflies, Luck, Magic, Hemingway, and Night Watch

Hemingway House Dragonfly Fountain
Not long ago, when we arrived at our vacation condo, I was surprised to hear persistent thumping against the wide sliding glass doors that overlook a lagoon. When I went to investigate the noise, I discovered two large dragonflies crashing into the glass outside. It was as if they were trying to attract my attention.

I had to smile. For me, the dragonfly is a symbol of good luck.

Earlier in the summer, I discovered I'm not the only writer who is enamored with the dragonfly. When we entered the yard of the Hemingway House in Key West, the first thing I saw was a fountain in which a dragonfly sculpture was central. Before I snapped a large array of photographs, I sat by the little fountain for a while just studying it.

What is it about these little fast-flying creatures with the luminous wings that attracts us? For the past few months, I've noticed the symbol more and more--scarves in the Butterfly Conservatory gift shop, jewelry in catalogs, Christmas decorations. They are everywhere.

But the item that has attracted me most is a necklace created by artist Tina McCloud. When I first saw her wearing that necklace, I fell in love with it and bought it from her on the spot. Then, suddenly, I was compelled to find a place for it in the book I was writing at the time.

How could the necklace be connected to the plot of my mystery/suspense story, Night Watch, set in Trinidad? I pondered until I imagined the perfect way to create a critical tie between the heroine of my book and that necklace.

Now, I wear the necklace often, especially when I go somewhere to promote Night Watch. Wherever I wear it, perfect strangers stop to admire it and ask about it. It's another symbol to let me know that dragonflies are magical. And I feel the magic every time I see one.

Writers need magic and a lot of good luck. They need dragonflies.

Friday, September 3, 2010

East Coast Stormy Waters and Hurricanes

"Stormy Seas" by MM Sikes, Woman's Care, Williamsburg, VA
September is the time of year when hurricanes tend to disrupt the lives of those living on the East Coast. Thankfully, Hurricane Earl gave Virginia only a glancing blow today. It also brought our small Tidewater community some much-needed rain and no wind.

Still, some folks I take aerobics classes with were worried about the flooding high tides might bring to low-lying areas of the Gloucester/Mathews Middle-Peninsula. And with wind, there's always the concern about power outages--an especially traumatic situation for writers. Even those with generators don't want to chance using their computers.

On September 18, 2003, Hurricane Isabel struck a devastating blow to our little community. The winds swept up the York River and gave our town a direct hit. We lost most of the trees in our orchard and a giant oak tree in our woods. A tree next to our house fell away from it instead of on it. We were fortunate. People living on the York lost homes or had homes that were badly flooded. One property owner watched her piano float up the river. We were without power for days; some people living in our county went weeks before their power was restored.

Earl and Isabel are examples of how we depend on nature being kind to us. A resident of the Outer Banks of North Carolina commented that she enjoys the beauty of her surroundings so much, she is willing to deal with the weather worries for a few days a year.

I enjoy my surroundings as well. I love looking out into the woods that form the view from my writing office. However, I'll never forget that night seven years ago when rain pounded our windows and trees crashed all around.