Sunday, March 30, 2014


By Laura P. Valtorta

Boubacar Traore. Amadou and Miriam. Tinariwen. Sure, the Malian music playing at our house is cool and helps me write. The best place to write, however, is inside Clara and Ross’s house in Austin, Texas.

The cool white tiles and the big windows out into the yard help me. Plus the sense of being on vacation. I don’t have to worry about the meals. Clara and Ross will take care of that. Give me some French press coffee, pressed by Clara, and the hope of Thai take-out, and I’m happy.

The place where we write affects us: the ambience. Place affects mood.
Even a quiet hotel can be inspiring when you’re on vacation. I got tons of work done at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, DC when Marco and I were there in February. Most of the creative work took place in my head. We went to the National Portrait Gallery and saw the winners of the portrait competition (Artist builds self-portrait from rice-- sculpture; Musician goes crazy in Whole Foods – paper-mation). Visual art always heats up my literary imagination. Then when we returned to Chapin, and while it snowed for four days, the words poured out of my fingers.

While we were in Austin, we attended some of the South By Southwest free shows on the side. Frankly, the music in Austin is usually a lot better. This time, the SXSW festival sucked up all the good acts and we were left with the crumbs and a bunch of beer guzzlers on the street. One exception: the Andrew Combs band from Nashville. It’s nice to see a cute young man playing some hipster- pleasing country swing music with his friends.

On Saturday night, there was a Tinariwen concert outside. I was hoping for more inspiration. No such luck. We got to see what the singers looked like (skinny French-speaking Touaregs in burkas, dancing scared like deer in the headlights) but their sweet folk music was RUINED by the horribly stentorian amplification. Yikes.

In order to write, the background must include the right kind of sound. Not a beer-blast concert. Not Marco yelling at me and flapping his arms. Yes – Sonia Jacobsen’s album, "Avalanche." Yes, Marco cheering a soccer match in the other room. Yes, Clara making French press coffee and the tropical sounds of birds in the background in Austin.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Did You See Her Dress at the Oscars? Describing the Action Can Make You Money

By Kimberly Johnson

Best Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o wore a gown at the Oscars that fashionistas are still talking about.  

Here’s some blog chatter: 
When Lupita stepped onto the carpet in that sparkling, sky blue silk georgette gown that was custom made for her by Prada, she looked absolutely breathtaking… In Lupita’s red carpet interviews Lupita said she chose this shade of blue because it reminded her of her native Nairobi and quickly #NairobiBlue became a trending topic. .(Nicole Gibbons,

The “It girl” of this year’s awards season, Twelve Years a Slave star Lupita Nyong’o made her Academy Awards debut in a custom Prada robin's egg blue gown. … Nyong’o—who brought her mom, Dorothy, along for the night—topped off the winter wonderland fairy princess look with a gold and diamond Fred Leighton headband. (Josh Duboff, Vanity Fair) 

My sideline interest is to write about the haute couture frocks, chapeaus and zappos worn by the Hollywood elite and the up-and-coming. I thought about it – turning a descriptive phrase can be rewarding (financially and creatively). I checked out Paula Rollo’s blog, "How Much Do Bloggers Really Make?, Part 2."  In her post, she lists poll results in which she queried bloggers about pay, time spent on the blog and monthly page views.  I found out that just-getting-started writers put in over 20 hours each week on content and the pay ranges from $10 to $500 per month.

Recently, I’ve been bouncing this sideline thing around to a friend or two. One worrywart said, “Will people take you seriously, writing about what so-and-so wore?” My take on this seed of doubt is that a blogger is no different from a New York Times reporter: conduct the research, become a subject matter expert, find refreshing angles to present the facts and deliver the message. It is like the advice of a high school English teacher: Tell a story about a moment/event that means a lot to you. Get right to the action. Describe the action and use all five senses.

Nick Levitan’s blog, "Is It Time To Take Fashion Bloggers Seriously?," crushes that seed of doubt and sums it up pretty well:
…Because of the ever-growing power of bloggers, and the decline of traditional fashion magazines, it is likely that bloggers will become more powerful than ever. It is true that with the fast pace of modern fashion, a once a month magazine is simply not able to keep up with the evolving trends and changes that occur in fashion seemingly overnight. The day of the fashion blogger is now, and if everyone does not take notice, they will be left behind.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


By Bonnie Stanard

As a writer of historical fiction, I am disturbed by Andrew Delbanco’s claim that a novelist using historical characters and settings has no obligation to factual reconstructions.  Delbanco, in a review of a novel on Abraham Lincoln, says:

The novelist … can take liberties—suppressing this, embellishing that, even inventing situations, characters, and words that were never actually spoken … A novel is beholden to no external measure of truth; it must only be true to itself.*

Only true to itself! Why write historical fiction if you’re only going to be true to your imagination? When I place my characters in history, I have freedom in defining their thoughts and motives. Their acts and the events surrounding them are restrained by historical fact. The defense that some writers pose of “capturing the spirit” of the truth doesn’t give them the freedom to alter facts.

Think of it this way, should we create distortions that may change our readers’ perceptions of historical people or events? What would you think of novels in which:

John Brown’s army wins a victory at Harpers Ferry
Hitler has a love-child with a Jewish mistress
Alexander G. Bell beats his wife
Al Capone is elected mayor
Henry Ford murders his brother
The Wright Brothers bash a gay bar

In the same vein, I would assert that movies have a similar responsibility to history. When script writers create events contrary to proven (as opposed to speculative) history, they break faith with their audience. For example, in The Patriot is a scene in which British soldiers burn down a church filled with families, an event with no supporting historical evidence. In cases such as this, the fabricated excitement arouses misguided feelings of insult or mistreatment.

I can’t agree more with Edward Rutherford, author of Sarum and other historical novels, who said in an interview :

My fictional characters are free to follow their personal destinies; but I never alter the historical record just to suit my convenience, or my prejudices. Novelists and movie-makers are sometimes tempted to do that and maybe they believe it doesn't matter. I think it does matter.

… so much political propaganda is based upon the falsification of history. An extreme example would be the medieval blood myth told against the Jews, that they kidnapped and sacrificed Christian children … It seems to me that those of us in the business of storytelling, in books, plays or movies, have an ethical obligation not to mislead our audiences over the historical record, especially when subjects may be emotive and affect our attitudes to others. The bigger the audience, the greater our responsibility; and I don't think we can evade that responsibility, whether we like it or not.**

Because our stories have the power to create myths, we writers of historical fiction have a responsibility to the record. We can distance ourselves from propaganda by sticking to a framework of facts. If that’s too much of a burden, other genres are less demanding, such as scifi or fantasy.

*The NY Review of Books on Gerome Charyn’s novel I am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


By Fred Fields 

Writing is a more difficult task than neophytes imagine. Getting "A" on your essay in 12th grade English is not comparable, although it's a good start.

You must acquire knowledge of the craft. Learn how to write for a more discriminating audience. Let your characters tell the story, and short paragraphs are more willingly read than long ones are important examples.

Surprisingly, correct language or grammar is not always required. The best illustration of that, for me, is the character Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's epic, Catcher in the Rye. As the narrator of the tome, almost the entire book is told in Holden's voice, which is, for me, a very annoying ultra-typical teen vernacular.

An important element of the craft is getting your facts straight, which requires considerable research. As the author of a story you are expected to be the expert of your tale. If your research is incorrect, it detracts from the reader's concentration and the believability of the story. Luckily, that is made somewhat easier with today's computers.

For the beginner, most writing coaches suggest writing about something you already know. Catcher in the Rye is also a good example of this. Like Holden Caulfield, Salinger went to private schools. And his personality issues revealed in later life suggest the experiences and thoughts of the unhappy teen were likely autobiographical.

There are many other considerations to taking up the craft of writing, not the least of which is getting your work recognized and purchased by the public-at-large. Many writers write for their own gratification. Most, however, prefer to write for the public's enjoyment and the resulting profits. Thus, an author will spend a lot of time marketing his work, often with unsuccessful results.

A professional writer soon learns that the pursuit of the craft demands more talent and effort than merely writing a good story or essay.

Sunday, March 2, 2014


By Laura P. Valtorta

Screen writing involves more collaboration than writing a novel or a poem. To be serious at all, the writer needs to submit the screenplay to intense criticism in a class or from an editor. The criticism relates to the form of the story, the style of the writing, and the visual aspects of the film. Nobody writes screenplays for friends and family. Screenplays are written for production. Ultimately, they need the approval of a spouse, a best friend, business people, and plenty of enemies. Truth tellers.

Making an independent film requires the involvement of even more people: producers, cinematographers, lighting engineers, gaffers, and production designers. Musicians. Actors. The director relies on a team.

Recently I traveled to Washington, DC to film an interview with the head of a large company. This interview, if I can obtain the right to use it, will be the centerpiece of my documentary. I discovered that while writing the narration for the film as we neared the end of initial shooting. I needed that interview.

In order to shoot the interview, I required the help of many players. The CEO’s assistant, Tom, had been instrumental in scheduling the time and place. My husband, Marco, came along to keep me company and give advice. To do the filming, I had hired a Washington-based film company called “Blue Sky.”

Blue Sky sent me a cinematographer named “Jackson.” He was a friendly guy who wore a ski hat and a down jacket throughout the entire shoot. He came in with three huge bundles of equipment that he unpacked and set up fast. We tried out the lighting and sound, and then we waited.

The CEO arrived 30 minutes late accompanied by her COO. By then I was high on coffee and cold weather. Outside it was snowing a little. I wondered whether we would make our flight home.

The CEO settled right into the hot seat. She had read my questions and maybe even practiced several of the answers. I threw in a couple more questions to make her think. She answered those as well. I admired her training and expertise. She stated she had an engineering degree and an MBA. She showed me pictures of her young family.

Once the filming was over, Marco and I dashed out of the hotel. We grabbed a cab to take us all the way to Dulles – something we’ve never done before. The cab driver became part of the filmmaking process, too. We arrived at the airport in time to catch one of the last planes to leave before the snowstorm hit.

More than anything else, filmmaking is just plain fun.