About Beth Christopher

Hopeful writer who relies on music, nature and serendipity for inspiration, along with obscene amounts of coffee. www.bethchristopher.com

Happy Valentine’s Day to my Husband

Darrick and I have been married for ten years, and this year, Valentine’s Day consists of a romantic dinner with our wild children. After we wrestle the kids to sleep, we’ll probably throw on our flannel PJ’s and settle in for a rousing episode of Downton Abbey. Brew up some mint tea, and you’ve got yourself a party. You may think I’m cuckoo, but I swear, this is my idea of perfection.

Inspiration Martha Stewart...Ice Cream Sandwiches

Image via Wikipedia

It’s not that we’re anti-Valentine’s Day. We exchange cards and make a big fuss over the kids. This morning, Sophie donned pink and red, and said, “I can’t wait to CELEBRATE!” We both get a kick out of experiencing days like these through their eyes, and even better, rifling through their candy when they get home from school.

I think we’ve gone out for Valentine’s Day only once or twice in our marriage, and we both broke out in commercial-induced hives. Don’t get me wrong . . . I’m all about the romance. I just don’t want my romance dictated by Hallmark. It’s like there’s too much pressure or something.

Romance is at its best when its organic and unexpected.

Like when Darrick brings me Starbucks, just because. Or the time, early in our marriage, when he signed me up for a writing course at CU. I’d always loved to write, but thought I needed more “life experience” before getting serious. That class was the gentle push I needed, and somehow, he knew that.

Hands down, his most romantic gesture happened just before we were engaged. While I was on a business trip, he flew from Denver to Montana, rented a car, and drove straight into the middle of nowhere to ask my parents for my hand in marriage. I still wish I could’ve seen the looks on my Mom and Dad’s faces when he showed up out of the blue that night. It was crazy and expensive and unnecessary, but sweet and old-fashioned and wildly romantic.

Darrick will be mortified I’m posting this, but tough berries. I figure that if he has to put up with my spastic moods, my murderous need for caffeine, and my weird mini-crushes on Marcus Mumford and Buster Keaton, the least I can do is profess my love for him from the cyber rooftops. And Valentine’s Day seems like the perfect time to do it. In an organic, non-commercial way, of course.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! How will you spend the day?

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On the Trail with Author Lydia Kang

Today we’re on the trail with YA author Lydia Kang. Her debut novel, The Fountain hits the shelves in 2013. Here’s the official blurb from Goodreads:

17 year-old Zelia has a fatal flaw, and it’s not being a lab geek or dressing like a small troll. If she forgets to breathe, she’ll die.

 Zelia has suffered from Ondine’s Curse since birth, a malady that makes every breath a conscious effort. Yet after she and her younger sister Dyl are orphaned, it’s not Zelia’s misfit status that causes trouble. It’s her sister. Dyl isn’t just pretty and sweet—she’s illegal.

 In the year 2150, DNA must be pure by law, and anyone with enhanced genes face death. Before an underground foster family can offer the sisters sanctuary, Dyl is abducted by people determined to profit from her trait, whether she’s alive, dismembered, or dead.

 Zelia’s only allies are the freak-show inhabitants of her new foster home. Along with the unexpected love of a very strange boy, she will need her flaws, their illicit traits, and every single breath to save the only family she has left.

BC: We just got two feet of snow, so it’s a good thing we’re hitting the trail in your neck of the woods. Tell us about one of your favorite trails.

LK: This a raised trail at the Fontanelle Forest Nature Center in Nebraska. It’s one of my favorite places to go with my family. So long as the mosquitoes aren’t too bloodthirsty, it’s pretty amazing. They also put up these gigantic sculptures as outdoor exhibits too. We’ve encountered dinosaurs in the trees and a twenty-foot tall praying mantis sculpture!

BC: It looks dreamy. I love the multiple paths – kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure trail. Lydia, HUGE congratulations on your book deal and upcoming release. Is The Fountain your first novel? Tell us about your journey to publication. We’d love to know the juicy details, like how you found your agent, what the submission process was like, and how long it took.

LK: The Fountain is technically my third book. I did write a forty-page outline for a book in between #2 and The Fountain, which was a huge lesson in plotting for me. I started querying in May of 2011 and had a great request rate on my query. A few agents were on the fence, and passed for one reason or another. So I kind of knew I was close. In August I got an offer from a lovely agent, informed the others who had my full, and that’s when I got an offer from Eric Myers. I ended up signing with him in September. Luckily, the manuscript didn’t need any revisions, so we had it copyedited and got a pre-empt offer from Dial Books (Penguin) in October. Wow. Did that really happen to me? Sometimes I’m still in shock about it!

BC: A rock star publisher + a pre-empt a month after signing an agent = amazing! Since The Fountain is on its merry way to bookstores next year, what’s happening right now? How does the cover creation happen? Does your publisher help with a marketing plan?

LK: Thank you! As for the cover and marketing and stuff, it’s still very early in the game, so…I wish I could tell you! I’m still in the process of getting the manuscript ready for the final version. When that happens, the rest of that stuff will hopefully fall into place. In the meantime, I’m also working on a sequel.

BC: You’re not only a writer, poet, and illustrator, but also a doctor. One of those rare people who fully utilizes both sides of their brain. I love your blog The Word is my Oyster, and your Medical Mondays series, where writers can get advice about heaps of medical maladies. What has surprised you about the blogging community? How much time per week do you spend on blogging?

LK: That made me laugh. Illustrator? I doodle! Actually, the doodling started because I could never find the right illustration online for my posts. Plus the copyright thing always got in the way. Blogging has been amazing. I started to build a platform. I kept blogging because the community was awesome. They taught me so much about writing. Growing up, I was the girl that didn’t have a lot of friends. A small circle, at most. It’s crazy how many people I call friends now. It’s been wonderful.

I probably spend 3-4 hours writing posts on Sunday (much of that is spent researching the Medical Mondays posts), and probably 1-3 hours every day M-F. It is a huge time commitment.

BC: Wow, that is a big commitment, but on behalf of your readers, thank you for taking the time, as your blog brings a lot of joy, knowledge, and inspiration. What have you read lately that’s blown your doors off?

LK: Let’s see. I just read The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Steifvater. I loved the prose, so direct yet still so lyrical. Great world building. And I also loved Graceling, by Kristen Cashore. That one I started, stopped, and picked up again a year later. So glad I did!

BC: Both are on my TBR list, which is spiraling out of control. In closing, what advice do you have for aspiring authors?

LK. As hard as it seems, try not to compare your own journey to publication with others. There are thousands of ways to get there, and what’s most important is working on your own craft and skills. It won’t happen overnight, and there will be a lot of disappointments along the way. Most importantly–keep writing!

BC: Lydia, thanks so much. It’s been such a treat hearing about your journey. Best wishes to you and I’ll try to wait patiently for The Fountain.

LK: Thank you for having me, Beth!

On the trail of Buster Keaton

A good chunk of my novel takes place in the 1920’s, and when I heard about a silent movie playing in Boulder, I thought it would be a great opportunity to do some research. Notebook in hand, I couldn’t wait to snag details on the clothing, furniture, and music of the era that would help bring my scenes to life.

Buster Keaton starred in and directed the film I was about to see. The General premiered in 1926, toward the end of the silent film era, and is still considered by critics as one of the greatest films ever made. I found this out after the fact. That night, I had absolutely no idea what I was in for.

From the minute the first chords rumbled out of the piano, I was hooked. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I sported a silly grin through the entire movie, totally forgetting to take notes. I was blown away with the actors ability to tell intricate, complicated stories just with body language and facial expression. Enhancing the mood was an off-the-charts brilliant pianist who played in the dark, without a score. I was completely transfixed and entertained right down to my toes, by a film that was eighty-flipping-five years old.

After it ended, my friend Jenn and I walked out into a torrential downpour, the streetlights smearing in the rain and audience members running to their SUVs and mini-vans. It took a few rain-soaked minutes for me to snap back to this century. I was certain of one thing. I’d just fallen knees over teakettle for Buster Keaton.

I proceeded to google-stalk the stone-faced actor with the pork pie hat and world’s most expressive eyes. Harry Houdini gave him the nickname after he’d taken “quite a buster” down the stairs as a toddler. Buster performed with his parents in a vaudeville act through his childhood, learning quickly that the more serious he acted, the more laughs he got. What amazes me about Keaton, is not only his comedic prowess and directing talent, but his athletic genius. He did all his own stunts, including jumping off and on runaway trains, in and out of burning buildings, tumbling off ladders, etc. There were no special effects or stunt doubles in those days. Buster did it all.

It wasn’t long before I dragged my family to the Denver Silent Film Festival. There was considerable eye-rolling from my son, who couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to watch a movie with no talking. And in black and white.  But no one in that theater laughed harder than Sam once Buster slipped on a patch of oil. I’m talking hard belly laughter here — the contagious kind — and pretty soon the two of us were crying in hysterics, and I knew I had a partner in crime.

Thanks to Netflix, we’ve experienced Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle, too. My PC kids are mortified that anyone could’ve had such a nickname, and whenever they say, “Fatty,” their eyes go big, like they’ve just said a bad word.

Convenient as it is to rent those DVDs, the canned music often detracts, as does the grainy quality. Silent movies should be experienced in a theater. There’s something magical about being in that atmosphere — the live piano music surrounding you, real laughter from an audience enjoying the experience just as much as audiences did nearly a century ago. It’s a little like stepping back in time.

Silent film festivals exist across the nation. Here in Colorado, the Chautauqua Silent Film Series has been showing silent movies for the past twenty-five years in the Chautauqua Auditorium — a venue which housed them the first time around. How cool is that? Newer to the scene is the Denver Silent Film Festival, which was so popular last summer, many of the nights were sold out. Maybe there’s a resurgence in the art form, with recent movies like The Artist (Golden Globe winner for Best Picture) and Hugo. Lucky us.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know about the great Buster Keaton. If you get the chance to see one of his films in the theater, treat yourself and go. You won’t regret it.

The Pull of Home

Every red-blooded Montanan I know claims the movie, A River Runs Through It, as one of their favorites. So do I. And no, it’s not just because Brad Pitt spends most of the movie in a river, soaking wet . . . Um, where was I again?

When it hit the big screen, I was a college student at the University of Montana in Missoula. Make no mistake, we were as proud of that movie as if we’d made it ourselves. In the theater, when scenes from campus filled the screen and Robert Redford’s narrator said, “The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana,” we’d whoop in solidarity.

The movie centers around the Blackfoot River, and while I never fished its waters, I rafted them. Including the time it was at flood stage. When a bloated cow’s carcass with its legs poking into the air sailed past us, my friend Colleen traded her paddle for a stiff round of Hail Mary’s. I didn’t tell my parents that story until I was safely out of college.

Years later, I still adore that movie. It’s the only one I own. (Kid’s movies don’t count.) If you’re not familiar, it’s the story of Norman Maclean, Presbyterian minister’s son, and brother to troubled Paul. In their family, there was “no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” While I’ve seen the movie too many times to count, I hadn’t read Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Other Stories since my college days. I reread it just the other week. I also learned that he began writing fiction at age seventy. There’s hope for me, yet. Maclean’s words transported me to the Montana of my youth. Not that I was a fly fisherman, but we had a ranch, and a creek ran through it. (Pronounced crick in Montana.) The writing struck such a chord in me, not only for his gorgeous, poetic prose, but because of his ability to evoke the feelings I have for my home state.

A “Crick” Runs Through It. My old stomping grounds.

Few people have the unbridled enthusiasm for their home like Montanans do. I’m right there with them, and I’m sure it’s one of my more annoying traits. I can’t even tell you why I feel this way. I’m crazy about my home in Colorado. It’s got all the beauty you could dream of, but the trappings of a major city, too. And the winters are much more reasonable. My grandpa used to say, “Montana has nine months of winter and three months of rough sleddin’.” Not here. You can golf and ski in the same day. Seriously, Colorado rocks.

But still, there’s something about Montana that will always call to me. I’m not sure if it’s the pull of home, or something deeper than that.

All I know is that no one captures it like Maclean.

In the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. 

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. 

I am haunted by waters.” 

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Montanans, do you feel the same way about Maclean? If you hail from another state, what books evoke the pull of home for you?

On the trail of Buddha Bread

I’m not much of a baker. This time of year, however, I get the itch to get out the flour and  make a colossal mess of the kitchen. That, and it’s a great way to spend time with my daughter, who loves to bake. We crank the tunes, yip our heads off, and have a jolly old time.

The other day we tried our hand at making pulla, a Finnish cardamom bread. Our family calls it “boo-la”, but my daughter refers to it as “Buddha.” She associates my aunt’s house in Montana with “Buddha bread,” and she can’t get enough of it.

As we were kneading the dough, I thought of my grandmother, whose famous Finn bread was one of my childhood staples. Instead of using a measuring cup, she’d scoop handfuls of flour into the bowl with her hands. She’d pour salt into the crook of her elbow in lieu of a measuring spoon. And her bread, warm from the oven and slathered with butter — Sally, bar the doors. Over the years, the memory of that taste has become the stuff of legends. She’s been gone a long time now, but whenever I make Finn bread, I feel close to her.

As we kneaded the pulla, I told Sophie that making bread makes me think of my grandma. She gave me a funny look and said, “Making bread doesn’t make me think of anyone.”

A lump formed in my throat as I told her, “I think someday it will.”

Pulla or Buddha, depending on who you ask

Wishing you a glorious holiday season chock full of schmoopy moments!

What are some of your family traditions this time of year?

On the trail of the perfect gift

BOOKS!!!! This time of year, there is no shortage of lists that tout the top books of 2011. I’m still trying to climb my way out of my TBR pile from 2007, so if you think I’m attempting to join those list makers, guess again. However, I’ve read some jaw-dropping books this year and would like to offer my own list that might help spark the perfect gift.

Best books I’ve read in 2011, which were not necessarily published in 2011. Ahem.

Young Adult Contemporary:

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. This book won all kinds of awards in 2008. It’s the story of orphaned Taylor Markham, who lives year round at a boarding school in Australia and is haunted by dreams of a past that eludes her. Marchetta weaves together the story of two groups of friends, separated by a generation and a horrible tragedy, and creates a love story like nothing I’ve read before. Kind of a challenge to sink your teeth into at first, but the payoff is HUGE.

Young Adult Fantasy:

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. This book is hot off the presses, just published a few months ago. Set in historic Prague, Karou, a blue-haired artist raised by Chimaera (monsters), has the unfortunate calling of “tooth collector” for her father figure, Brimstone. She’s never told why he needs the teeth. No one tells Karou where her unusual tattoos originated from, where the forbidden door in Brimstone’s store leads, or why an angel wants to kill her. She’s about to find out. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is one heck of a page turner and love story. It’s hard to find an original concept in paranormal YA, but Laini Taylor succeeds with this very unique novel.

Middle Grade:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. The first novel to win both the Newbery and Carnegie awards, among numerous others. Nobody Owens, Bod to his friends, is a completely normal boy who happens to grow up in a graveyard. This is a delightful, imaginative, and sometimes scary novel for grades five and up. If you dig Harry Potter, you’ll love the world Gaiman builds.

Childrens:

The Ivy & Bean Books by Annie Barrows. Two spicy little girls who are opposites in temperament but partners in fun find themselves in all sorts of pickles — most of them self-imposed. There are eight books in this hilarious series. My daughter (seven) LOVES them and so do I.

Literary Fiction:

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie. I became a fan of Sherman Alexie after reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part time Indian, his smash-hit YA novel from 2007. Winner of the American Book Award, Reservation Blues is the story of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a Spokane Indian whose life is upended when legendary blues player Robert Johnson gives him a magical guitar. Alexie’s writing is quirky, hysterical, poetic and mystical. One of my all-time favorite writers.

Memoir:

Lit by Mary Karr. Karr’s memoir of her hardscrabble Texas childhood, The Liar’s Club, dominated bestseller lists in 1995. Cherry chronicled Karr’s adolescence, and Lit, published in 2009, is her “journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.” It reads like your sassy best friend talks when she’s at her feisty, candid best. Chock full of humor, poetry, and blinding honesty.

I’m always on the hunt for the next great read. What are some of the best books you’ve read this year?

Lessons from the Current River

Sometimes, on the trail, stories wrench their way out of my memory and demand attention, even if I’d prefer to keep them tucked away. This is one of them.

Several years ago, I was faced with having to say goodbye to a group of friends who had become like brothers and sisters during our year spent traveling with Up with People. The only consolation was that after everyone departed for their own corner of the globe, four of us would embark on a canoe trip through the Ozark Mountains on the Current River.

The memory of that canoe trip, with three of my favorite people on the planet, has crystallized over the years with images as vivid and sharp as if it happened yesterday. Old growth forests, dense and impassible. A lush, green canopy of oak. The earthy, musky scent of a slow moving river. Just the four of us, two canoes, and the knowledge that the end of our time together was imminent. Gaby would return to Mexico, Jussi to Finland, Mark would stay in Missouri, and I’d go home to Montana. But we still had two whole days and a glorious stretch of water before us.

We couldn’t believe our good fortune to have the river to ourselves. With no sign of the outside world, no responsibilities or jobs to return to, we were truly free. Time seemed to stop as we basked in the sun and each other’s company; swimming, climbing white bluffs, and jumping into deep pools. We found a sandbar, smack in the middle of the river, and set up camp for the night, only to unroll the tent and watch it practically disintegrate before our eyes. It had rotted since it’s last use, and we laughed ourselves silly, knowing that we’d be warm enough under the blanket of stars.

As we sat around the fire that night, Mark drug out an ancient bottle of wine that had been a wedding gift to his parents twenty-five years ago. It was a screw-top, something “fancy” like Ernest and Julio Gallo and his mother warned us that the wine was probably undrinkable by now. We didn’t care. We were young and broke and a free gallon of wine sounded pretty good to us. Mark said he’d buy another bottle when he got home, and we made a vow, that no matter what happened, the four of us would share it at our cast’s twenty-five year reunion. No spouses, no children, just the four of us.

We couldn’t have known, that night on the sandbar, that we’d lose our dear Gaby to cancer nine years later. If we’d had any idea of what the future would bring, I’m certain the next day would have been different.

The next morning brought hundreds of canoes carrying strangers who defiled our sanctuary with their laughter and shouting. I wanted our river back. I wanted the peace and serenity and that feeling like it existed only for us. We thought if we could just get ahead of this large group, it would go back to how it was before. So we paddled furiously. As we passed canoes, I felt strong, in control. We kept on, our oars slicing through the water in unison, determined to beat the throng and find our own place again. Soon, there were only a few canoes ahead of us. I remember smiling, the sense of accomplishment, when we’d passed them all.

And then, the sinking feeling of realizing we’d already reached the pull out, the end of our trip. I’d thought we had miles to go still, but our canoe trip – the one we’d anticipated for months – was over. Instead of paddling like banshees to pass all those canoes, why hadn’t we waited? Instead of rushing through those last miles, we should have savored them. I think I even turned our canoe around and tried to paddle upstream, desperate to hang on, just a while longer.

But that’s how life is, and sometimes, my angel Gaby reminds me of it. Slow down, she seems to say, as I row, row, row my boat, trying to stay on top of a never ending to-do list. This is your life.

My daughter turns seven today. She’ll never be as young as she is right now. I’ll never be as young as I am right now. Sometimes, if we let them, our regrets turn into gifts, in their sneaky, painful ways. I’m not making any promises, but I’m really going to try to stop paddling so fast. I can’t make the river stop, but hopefully, I’ve got a big, rambling stretch of it in front of me. Who cares if it’s not perfect, if it’s too crowded with canoes or a sticky floor that needs to be mopped. I’m going to savor the ride.

On the Trail of the Perfect Post-Pumpkin Pie Playlist

As I hit the trail today, in the effort to run off the obnoxious amount of calories that went down the hatch on Thanksgiving, I realized I’m a titch bored with my current playlist. These tunes still do the trick, but there’s nothing like new music to fuel the fire, eh?

So, I thought it might be fun to have a playlist swap. I wanted to get all fancy, so that you could click on the song and listen to it, but I didn’t have the patience or the mental bandwidth to figure that out. . .

In no particular order, here are some of my faves for running. Or vacuuming the house with extra fervor:

  • Little Lion Man – Mumford and Sons
  • American Girl – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
  • Seven Bridges Road – Eagles
  • Bohemian Like You – Dandy Warhols
  • Goody Two Shoes – Adam Ant
  • No Silver – Chris Bathgate
  • Safety Dance – Men without Hats
  • Zombie – The Cranberries
  • Desire – U2
  • Crazy – Seal

What songs put you in the mood to shake your tail feathers? 

Star Wars and the Art of Backstory

Courtesy of Wikipedia

In honor of my son’s ninth birthday, this post has a Star Wars theme, just like his cake. Nothing wrong with that kid’s imagination. He’s often engaged in imaginary battles, rife with explosions and mayhem. He arrests his sister in the name of the Galactic Senate. He talks like Yoda. “Time for dinner, it is.”

We recently watched the original Star Wars movie from 1977. It opens with farm boy Luke Skywalker discovering Princess Leia’s “you’re our only hope” message recorded on his new droid, R2D2. Throughout the entire movie, we don’t know Luke and Leia are twins. We have no foggy clue that Darth Vader used to be this likable but moody dude named Anakin. And it doesn’t matter, because the characters and story line have hooked us.

To a novelist, backstory is everything that happened before page one. Many writers struggle, especially in first drafts, with how much backstory to reveal and when to do it. (Thumbs pointing to myself, here.) It’s essential that the writer know the backstory inside and out, but the reader won’t give a hang about the backstory unless they’ve bought into the front story, which happens by serving up compelling characters in scene. Too much backstory, especially at the beginning, and you’ve put your reader on a one-way train to Snoozerville.

Star Wars got this right. The familiar scrolling text in the movie’s opening told us only what we needed to know. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . .followed by something about forces gathering to overthrow the empire. Or something. Wee disclaimer – I’m not the biggest Star Wars fan. Too many battles and not enough schmoopy stuff. Precisely why my son IS a big fan.

Revealing the backstory at the right time is key. How can we forget evil Darth Vader wheezing out the words, “Luke, I am your father.” BLAMO! Waaay more powerful than if it would have been info-dumped into the scrolling text at the beginning of the movie.

Besides Star Wars, my son also loves to write. His current work in progress is about Anakin and Luke being brothers instead of father and son. (That whole Anakin/Padme love angle grosses him right out.) I love to watch the creative spark take hold. When Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was playing the other day, he said, “Hey, that would make an awesome title!” Then, as he sat down to write Ring of Fire, the Continuing Adventures of Anakin Skywalker, he stared off into space. His eyes lit up. “Mom! I figured out the perfect opening line. It’s this: After all that drama . . .” and then he launched into Anakin’s latest battle. I have to say, I was proud that at his tender age, he skipped over the urge to explain and got right down to business. Wish it was that easy for me!