Friday, December 9, 2016

A Childhood Memory Of Finding A Christmas Tree

Do you have memories of going with your family to find just the right Christmas tree? Maybe it was on a snowy night, cold and clear. Or perhaps a Saturday afternoon when you went out to the country to cut down a tree. My family went to the same tree lot every year. Today's story is about the simple act of a family finding the right tree which has stayed a fond memory. You, too, can write about the same topic. Let your family know what it was like when you were growing up. 

A Christmas Tree, A Pink Dress and Golden Wings
By Nancy Julien Kopp

 In the 1940’s, we city folk didn’t cut down a tree in the fields but kept our own tradition. On a cold December evening, Dad announced that it was time to find a Christmas tree. My two younger brothers and I grabbed heavy coats, hats, gloves and snow boots, and flew down three flights of stairs to our 1939 Plymouth. Our excitement bubbled over in giggles and hoots.

The corner lot Dad drove to, normally empty, now held dozens of evergreen trees. The pines and firs seemed to have appeared magically, lined up like the toy soldiers my brothers played with.  A wire had been strung around the lot and bare light bulbs attached. There was plenty of light to allow buyers see the assortment of trees that would decorate the homes in our neighborhood.
The proprietors, who were also hunters, had erected a wooden teepee-like frame in a prominent corner to display two dead deer and a black bear. They were hung from hooks and occasionally swayed when the wind gusted.

My brothers and I marched round and round the frozen animals.

“Go ahead, touch it,” Howard dared.
My hand reached within inches of the thick, matted fur of the bear, but I quickly drew it back. “You first,” I challenged, but Howard only circled the animals, hands behind him.

Meanwhile, Dad walked the rows of trees, pulling a few upright, shaking the snow off.

He called to us and we crunched across the snow-packed ground

 Dad held a tree upright. “No,” we chorused. “It’s not big enough.”

We followed Dad and thumbed our noses at several other trees. “Not big enough,” we repeated, stamping cold feet to warm them.

The owner ambled over, so bundled up he looked kin to the dead bear. He kept a cigar clamped in his teeth and wore gloves with the fingers cut off, so he could peel off dollar bills from the stack he carried to make change.

Dad shook the man’s hand and said, “OK, let’s see the good trees now.”

The burly man moved the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other, rolled his eyes and finally gestured for us to follow him.

We scooted across the pine-scented lot to a brick building. The man opened a door, and we tromped single-file down a long flight of concrete steps.

Even more trees leaned against the walls. Dad pulled out one after the other until he found a tree that we three children deemed “big enough.”

Silence now, as the serious part of this adventure commenced. Dad and the cigar chomping man dickered about the price. Finally, money changed hands, and Dad hoisted the tree. We jostled one another up the steps to be closer to the green treasure.

Dad fastened the tree to the top of the car with the rope he’d brought with us. The boys and I knelt on the back seat, watching to make sure the tree didn’t slide off the roof of the car during the short drive.

Once home, Dad hauled the tree up three flights of stairs to our apartment and put it on our small outdoor balcony. We’d wait until close to Christmas to bring it in and decorate the branches. Several times a day, I peered through the glass door to check that no one had stolen it. Why I thought someone would climb to the third floor balcony to steal our tree is a wonder.

Days later, Dad carried the tree inside and tried to put it in the stand, but it was no use. The tree was too tall. It should have been no surprise, as it happened every year. He always caved to our chorus of “not big enough.” Dad found his favorite saw and cut several inches off the tree trunk. When he put it in the stand, it rose like a flagpole, straight and tall, nearly touching the ceiling. There was a collective “Ahhh” from the entire family.

Dad hummed a Christmas tune as he strung the many-colored lights, then Mother helped us hang sparkly ornaments, and we finished with strand upon strand of silver tinsel, being warned to place it strand by strand. “No throwing it at the tree,” Mom said. Near the finish line, we did throw that tinsel when Mom went to the kitchen. It was great fun to toss it and see how high we could throw.

Finally, Dad climbed a step-stool and placed the last piece on the top. What joy to see our special angel with the pink satin dress and golden wings. The tree was so tall that her blonde hair skimmed the ceiling. I visited her every day while the tree was up. There were days when it seemed she smiled at me. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without her.

That sweet angel got lost somewhere over the years. Most likely, she’d become tattered and torn, and Mother discarded her long after we children had grown and left home.

Now, my husband brings our tree upstairs from a basement storage closet. Artificial, always the same height, never needs to be made shorter. It’s easier, but I miss those cold, snowy excursions to the tree lot with my brothers. I still put an angel on top of the tree. She’s nice but not quite the same as the one with the pink dress and golden wings. Not once has she smiled at me.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Reasons To Give Books As A Gift

It's the gift giving time of year. Books make fine gifts. You don't need to know a size or a color or a kind of fabric the person likes. I've heard people say they don't buy books as gifts because it is like art--a personal choice.

Consider this. If you select a book that does not appeal to the person receiving it, he/she can always exchange it for another. Include a gift receipt and it's easy for the person to swap titles.Even if the book is something different from what the person usually reads, maybe it will be incentive for him/her to delve into a new genre. 

I especially encourage giving books to children. By today's standards, my childhood collection of books was minuscule. Once I could read on my own, I had a Grimm's Fairy Tale book, a Raggedy Ann book, and The Wind in the Willows. That's all! The Wind in the Willows did not interest me very much. Even at an early age, I liked stories about people, not animals. Thus, it was the fairy tale book that I read over and over and over. Because I had so few books of my own, I became a big library fan, making the trek to and from our local branch at least once a week. What a treat it would have been for me if my aunts had given me a book for my birthday instead of pajamas or whatever basic item they might have chosen.

As a result of having so few books as I grew up, I made sure that I bought books for my grandchildren from the time they were infants on up. I loved selecting the books for them and reading them aloud. I liked hearing my grandchildren read the book to me in those early reading years, too. Of my four grandchildren, all but one are readers. The fourth one reads what is required for school but seldom more than that. I hope that someday that grandchild will discover the true joy of reading books. 

Giving books as a gift has another perk. It allows you to spend time browsing in a bookstore or book area of a larger store. For those of us who love to read, that is a gift in itself. When I'm shopping with my husband and we pass a bookstore, I have pangs of regret that I cannot zip right in the door. It wouldn't be fair to make him wait for an hour or more, would it?  Even so, I'm greatly tempted but keep moving on for his sake.

Book Page is a great website to keep up on the newest books. Choosing a bestseller for a gift is always a good choice. Many libraries subscribe to the print edition of Book Page which comes out monthly. I never fail to pick up my free copy at my library. It helps me know what new books I'd like to read and it feels like a trip to a bookstore as I sit in my comfy chair and turn page upon page.

If you have a writer on your gift list, select one of the newest books that detail the craft of writing. If someone you want to give a gift to is a woodworker, look for a how-to in that field. The books you give don't need to be fiction. Non-fiction, biographies, and coffee table books are also great gifts.

If you don't have time to go to a bookstore, there's always Amazon or Barnes and Noble online. You can sit in your chair wearing your jammies and order. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

10 Things On My Writing World List For Santa

It's definitely time to make your Santa Wish List. I have been trying to get my two youngest grandchildren to send theirs to me for weeks and weeks. No luck. Unusual as they generally have a very lengthy list to email Grandma. I guess that means they get sox and underwear this year. It definitely does help when I have list of things to choose from. That way, they get what they want and I'm not duplicating something they already have.

I have a Santa Wish List in my writing world. I bet you do, too. 

Nancy's Writing World Wish List

1. publication of my middle grade novel

2. being able to write clearly so readers aren't questioning this or that

3. to write with enough emotion, but not too much

4. to have more readers sign on as Followers on my blog

5. to have an enriched vocabulary

6. to be able to attend my writing group's conference next spring

7. to remember to use sensory details in all my writing

8. to reach those who want to be better writers through my blog posts

9. a muse that stays with me instead of flitting here and there when I need her most

10. to have my work published in quality publications

When looking over my list, I noticed that I asked for some things that depend on me, not on Santa. I have the ability to bring several to fruition. I am in control of numbers 2, 3, 5, and 7. I might need to depend on Santa for the others. 

You can help me with number 4. If each reader asked one more writer to sign on as a Follower on the blog, I would be delighted. I have far more readers than Followers. For some reason, people are reluctant to sign up as a Follower. It obligates you to nothing but it does make the blogger feel good.

How about you? What kind of Writing World list would you make for Santa? What are your fondest dreams in your writing world? Now's the time to ask for a few gifts in that category. Like me, you may find that many of them are ones that you can gift yourself with some deep thought and hard work. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Grammar--A Boring Necessity


Grammar--A Boring Necessity

Poor Yoda.... English grammar, difficult it is...:

This is a post written several years ago, but it's still pertinent today. I am adding one more paragraph at the bottom (in red) about a grammar situation, yes, situation that irks me. 

Grammar! We plow through it in grade school and high school. We're expected to know it well by the time we hit our college campus, and as writers, we are held to the highest expectations in using proper grammar. But as much as we'd like to be viewed as perfect, few of us can accept the award for 100% correct grammar in every piece we write. 

That said, I'd like to see writers reach the A level if not the A+ the majority of the time. I didn't mind studying grammar in school. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. My love of words was formed early in my life. I knew kids who absolutely detested the grammar part of English classes. I liked learning the rules and using them. Maybe it's because I'm an organized person and it allowed me to keep things as should be.

Now, many decades later, I get truly irritated when I see poor grammar in public places like written words on a TV screen, or an advertisement, or a story/essay/article written and published with glaring grammatical errors. 

I've seen the misuse of your and you're over and over again. It's beyond me that people do not readily see that  you're is a contraction of you are  and your shows possession, such as your mother, your sweater, your passion. It seems so simple, and yet it is mixed-up by an amazing number of people. 

Affect and effect are two more words that are often misused. The easiest way to remember the correct way is that affect is a verb and effect is a noun. So, Age affects the ability to think clearly. and The effects of age can slow us down considerably.

Many confuse they're and their. Again, they're is a contraction of they are while their is a possessive. I heard they're going to the concert tonight to see their daughter perform.

Grammar sometimes seems boring, but I deem it one of life's boring necessities. Pay attention to the little things like this when you write.

It has become quite common among our younger generations to abuse one particular grammar rule. When using a compound subject including a pronoun, it is correct to say: 
    John and I hurried through the gate to find our seats before the game started.
Today, we more often hear a sentence like this instead:
     Me and John hurried through the gate to find our seats before the game started.
I hear it over and over again from young people and even, not-so-young, people. Remember two things:
1. Never begin a sentence like this with the pronoun 'me', or most other pronouns. 
2.  Never use 'me' instead of 'I' in the subject part of the sentence. 

Once we begin to use poor grammar, it becomes a habit. It's a habit that is difficult to break. The other night, a network news anchor used the "Me and _____ want to wish you a happy holiday season."  What are university English professors doing to correct this poor grammar habit? 

Monday, December 5, 2016

A Christmas Memory

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I'm going to share a few of my Christmas themed stories off and on this month. This one was published in a special anthology about holidays of all kinds. It's a memory from my growing-up years of something that was special to me then and still is these many decades later. Some of you will be able to relate to this, I'm sure. If you have a similar memory, why not write about it for your Family Memories Book?

Magical Windows of Christmas

At least once during the Christmas seasons of my 1940’s childhood, my mother and I rode the elevated train from suburban Oak Park to downtown Chicago, exiting at the Marshall Field’s station. Pigeons strutted on the wooden platform and railings, flapping soft gray wings now and then, drawing my attention, but Mother pulled me toward a long flight of steps to the street, leaving the pigeons far above us.

We headed to a special, magical place, the big department store’s Christmas windows. Often, the wind and cold air stung our cheeks. Sometimes snowflakes floated lazily over us, but it didn’t matter. A crowd formed close to the windows of Marshall Field’s, and Mother and I wiggled into the center, moving closer and closer to the front until we stood before Christmas Window #1.

There, before us was a wonderland that brought oohs and ahs from the crowd. “Look, Mommy!” could be heard off and on as well when excited children pointed out the obvious to their mothers.

Marshall Fields initiated the Christmas window display in 1897. During November, the windows were covered with brown paper and not unveiled until the day after Thanksgiving. For weeks, designers and their staff worked long hours to create a story told in eleven successive windows, using a fairy tale or child’s book theme. Animation came in later years, and the designs grew more and more lifelike.  Piles of snow and frost-covered trees looked real enough to touch. A tray of gingerbread men near an oven so perfect, I could almost smell the spicy aroma. A scroll or some other unique prop told part of the story, and the rest came with our imagination.

The earlier windows were toy displays, a marketing scheme that drew thousands of shoppers. Later, in the mid-40’s, the story windows began, and Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly were introduced.

We moved from window to window enjoying the continuing tale. Stories like Snow White and Pinocchio came to life behind the giant windows. They were probably more exciting in the days prior to television, for we had nothing like this anywhere but the movie theaters. By the time we’d walked the entire route, our feet were tingling with the cold, and we headed into the store to warm up.

What better place to thaw out than in the line that ended with a short sit on Santa’s lap. By the time, we reached Santa, we’d shed gloves and hats and unbuttoned our heavy coats. I told Santa my dearest wishes, never doubting that he’d remember and bring at least one of the items I’d requested.
When the 1950’s rolled around, I made the trip downtown to Marshall Field’s with my girlfriends. Even then, my excitement stayed at a high pitch. I noticed more details, and my friends and I giggled and chatted, and pointed things out to one another. With rosy cheeks and numbing toes by the time we’d gotten to the end, we headed into the store. Not to see Santa but to savor a cup of hot chocolate and then spend some time wandering through the massive place looking for Christmas gifts for our family members. We might finish the day with a Frango Mint, the candy made famous by Marshall Field’s.

Today, Field’s is no more. The sign in front now says Macy’s. It was a sad day for me when that happened. A piece of my childhood crumbled, never to be the same. But the memory of the Christmas windows and my visits to Santa remain even many decades later. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Sometimes Inspiration Finds Writers, Not The Other Way Around

 This morning, when I opened the blinds in our bedroom, I was startled to see dense fog and icy crystals on the grass. I continued opening the rest of the blinds and went into the living room to read the morning paper. Bad move!  I should have written a poem instead. The fog and the heavy dew were perfect subjects for a winter poem. Sometimes story ideas surround us but we are blind to them. In this case, I definitely did not use my writer's eye as I viewed the early morning scene. 

Jack London's quote says we sometimes have to go after inspiration with a club. In this case, someone should have used a club on me to awaken me to the great possibility spread out before me. Yes, I could work on the poem now, trying to bring back what I saw but I don't think it would be nearly as good as one that was written at the moment of inspiration. 

When inspiration hits, act on it as quickly as you can. Many writers do so. They're the ones who have lots of everyday chores left undone because they answered the call of their craft instead of cleaning fingermarks or doggie nose prints off the sliding glass doors. If you're serious about your writing life, that's quite alright. The fingerprints will be there waiting for you tomorrow but the inspiration may have flown out the window. Like all things, there's a fine line between what is alright and what is overkill so we do need to be wary of that. 

It seems to be that when you are busiest, inspiration pops up out of nowhere. This holiday season is a perfect example. So many times during a Christmas concert or seeing a special window display or attending a children's program, I am inspired to write a story or a poem. It's when that notebook we should all keep with us comes in handy. If you can even write the bones during that inspirational moment, it's a big help. Wait until you get home to do it and the magic moment may be gone. The emotion you feel when true inspiration hits fades quickly when time intervenes. Yes, you can write it later but I don't think it will be quite the same unless you have the ability to recreate the scene in your mind with all details involved. 

I remember an old movie of long, long ago when a man in a cocktail lounge in New York City wrote the lyrics to a song on a paper napkin. The song became one of the greatest hits (of course!). What if he had waited a day or two to act on his idea? Might have been a more mediocre song that was soon forgotten. The act upon it now message was not lost on me. I don't remember the name of the movie or the person it was about but I do remember that scene vividly. 

You may have many instances where inspiration hits you instead of you chasing it with that big club. When it happens, grab it with both hands and start writing. Sometimes, inspiration finds writers, not the other way around.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

If I Had A Magic Wand,...

My wish for all you writers who read this blog is to find at least three acceptances from editors in your stocking. Or maybe your inbox of your email account. If I could wave a magic wand and make it happen for you, I would. 

Sadly, I have no magic wand and no powers that would make it change your writing life for you. You are the one who has control of your writing life. No one but you alone. Sometimes, it feels a little lonesome being the one in charge, doesn't it? It might be a comfort to have someone guide you finding a home for your writing.

You can make the chances of your work being accepted much greater by doing simple things. Submit! Send your work to an editor! Query a publisher! Study the markets until you're sick of looking at them! None of your work will ever be published unless you do these things. 

If you're a writer, you know that this is what you must do. But knowing it and doing it can be two different worlds. Consider these points:
  • Concentrate on your strongest areas of writing
  • Send work to editors you've worked with in the past (doesn't hurt to remind them that you were published at their publication)
  • Cruise the writing world newsletters for contests to enter
  • Read newsletters that include calls for submission
  • Study the art of writing a query letter before you actually send one
  • Read market listings in writer magazines, newsletters, or online by using a search engine
  • Follow writer guidelines to the letter for a better chance of acceptance
  • Be aware that time sensitive work must be sent months ahead
  • Make it a goal to send X number of submissions each month--you choose the number
  • Have submissions out every month of the year, not just now and then
Instead of waving a magic wand, I'll hope that this month is a spectacular finish to your writing year.