What’s Your Earliest Memory? Here’s Mine.

Allen Rizzi writes a blog that I follow. His post on March 30, 2021 (https://wordpress.com/post/janetswritingblog.com/17269) struck a chord with me and got me thinking. I made note of it so I could consider using the idea in one of my blog posts. I didn’t want to just duplicate the essence of Mr. Rizzi’s blog post, so I waited until I could put my own spin on it.

Mr. Rizzi asked his readers to share their earliest memories. The comments he received were surprising to me, for one woman remembered some details of a stay with her grandparents when she was nine months old. A man remembered his first ride in an airplane at the age of two.

I was amazed at both of those responses. I can’t remember anything from those early ages. I tried to think what my earliest memory was, but I was stumped for a few minutes.

My earliest memory

After pondering the question for a few minutes, I realized my earliest memory is of my Grandpa Morrison. He was the only one of my grandparents still living when I was born. He died when I was three years, five months, one week old.

Grandpa was unwell and pretty much bedridden by the time I was born. But he still had his cane. He spent his daytime hours in what is or was called a daybed. He kept his cane at easy reach. He didn’t shave every day.

My memories of him are specific: He delighted in taking the back of my tender little hand and rubbing it up his stubbled cheek to make me laugh. When I got within reach of his wooden cane, he delighted in tapping me lightly in the stomach to make me laugh.

Evaluating my earliest memory

I know what Grandpa looked like because I’ve seen photographs of him, but I have no recollection of what he looked like. Read that sentence again. Do you understand what I’m saying?

Taking it a step further, do you know why that sentence describes a distinct difference in memory? I didn’t understand the difference until I read Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting, by Lisa Genova last week.

Dr.Genova is a neuroscientist and an excellent writer. She has to be an excellent writer if someone like me can understand what she’s trying to get across. Seriously. Understanding the intricacies of science was never my forte.

In her book, Dr. Genova explains how our brains create memories and store memories. She explains various types of memories: episodic, semantic, working, and “muscle” memory. She explains how working memory is able to retain a small number of items and for only 15 to 30 seconds.

Photo credit: David Matos on Unsplash.com

It was interesting for me to read in Dr. Genova’s book that the average age for one’s earliest episodic memory as an adult is three years old, so my memory of my grandfather was right on time.

Dr. Genova explains how we’re able to remember the details of an evening on the beach such as the smell of salt air, the name of the song playing, what we ate, and a child getting stung by a jellyfish. We remember that collection of details in an episodic memory; however, another person who was present on that same beach that same night might not remember what song was playing but they might remember there were mosquitoes. That’s because we each pay attention to different details.

The reason I remember my grandfather rubbing my tiny hand up he stubbled cheek and poking me gently in the stomach with his cane is probably because he did it repeatedly. It’s not that I remember “that time” he did it. I remember it because that’s the way in his bedridden state he was able to interact with me and the way it made me feel created a memory in my brain.

Grandpa couldn’t hold me on his lap. He couldn’t push me in a swing. He couldn’t play hide-and-seek with me. He did the two things he knew he could do that made me giggle. Once he did them once, he remembered they made me giggle. With that memory, he probably did those two things every time I visited him thereafter. In a fascinating way, his memory to do those things also prompted my brain to remember them. His memory of what made me laugh in turn made my brain create a memory.

One last word about my memories of my grandfather.

One of the last chapters in Dr. Genova’s book is about Alzheimer’s Disease. One point she makes about Alzheimer’s patients is that they might not remember for five minutes what you said to them, but they will remember how you made them feel. She refers to this as emotional memory.

I hope I’m not making an incorrect connection here – because my point has nothing to do with Alzheimer’s Disease — but this made me think about my memories of Grandpa Morrison. I don’t recollect what he looked like. I only know what he looked like from seeing photographs; however, I remember how he made me feel – even though I was only three years old when he died.

Back to Allen Rizzi’s blog post and my original question

Even after reading Dr. Genova’s book, I still marvel that a nine-month-old baby could years later remember her stay with her grandparents or that a two-year-old could remember an airplane ride, but I don’t doubt them because the brain is a complex and wondrous thing.

Photo credit: Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash.com

The more I learn about the brain, the more I’m in awe of it. To paraphrase something I heard Dr. Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project and current Director of the National Institutes of Health, say in a speech at Queens University of Charlotte a few years ago: The more I learn about the human body, the more I’m convinced that there is a God who created it.

Since my last blog post

I have finished reading or continue to read a number of books. I’ll share with you more about Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting, by Lisa Genova, in my blog post on June 7 or June 14 when I tell you about all the books I read in May.

Thank you, Allen Rizzi for inspiring me to write today’s blog post.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have at least one good book to read. In her book, Dr. Genova says that one way we can try to avoid getting Alzheimer’s Disease (unless we’re predisposed due to our DNA) is to read books like hers that teach us new things.

Celebrate life and look for the positives. Look for the wildflowers! My yard and the open meadow across the road from my house are full of them!

Note: June is Audiobook Appreciation Month. If you’ve never listened to a book, try it. You might like it!

Janet

My Historical Short Stories

Upon completion of a fiction writing course I took in 2001 through the continuing education department of Queens University of Charlotte, I was afforded the opportunity to join the Queens Writers Group. The group thrived under the guidance of Queens University writing instructor Judith H. Simpson.

Before Judy’s death and the subsequent disbanding of the Queens Writers Group, I got to write historical short stories that were published in two books:  Inheriting Scotland, edited by Theresa Reilly Alsop in 2002 and Tales For a Long Winter’s Night, edited by Judith H. Simpson in 2003. Both books were self-published in paperback and printed on-demand.

Look for "The Tailor's Shears" in this book of short stories
Inheriting Scotland, edited by Theresa Reilly Alsop

Inheriting Scotland

For a story to be considered for inclusion in Inheriting Scotland, I had to choose an item that had been hidden away in Lochar Castle in Scotland centuries ago and write a short story around that item’s history when it is discovered in the 21st century. The item I selected was the tailor’s shears. My story, “The Tailor’s Shears,” is set in 1703 and begins on page 177.  Inheriting Scotland is available in paperback and Kindle edition from Amazon.com.

Tales for a Long Winter’s Night

Imagine my surprise when Judy told me that she had selected my story, “Slip-Sliding Away!” to be the lead story in Tales for a Long Winter’s Night! She praised the strength of my story and gave my writing ego a boost. My story is set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina in the year 1771.

I got the idea for “Slip-Sliding Away” from an oral history story about the funeral of President Andrew Jackson’s father. In my story, why did Daniel die? And why was his funeral so funny? This book is available in paperback from Amazon.com, and my story begins on page 3.

The short story about which I'm proudest.
Tales for a Long Winter’s Night, edited by Judith H. Simpson

It was a thrill to see something I’d written in print for the first time! I had fun writing the two stories and have toyed with the idea of writing several more historical short stories for self-publication in book form. I hold the rights to both stories, so I can publish them as I wish.


What’s next for me?

My semi-confinement due to my fractured leg and subsequent pulmonary embolism seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to pursue the idea of writing a collection of short stories. On February 29 I started working on a couple of short stories. I plan to write several stories set in America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It’s not been easy to get my creative juices running during this new normal in which we find ourselves. Slowly, though, I’ve gotten back into doing the historical research necessary for the writing of historical fiction. Although I take creative license in imagining some relationships and all conversations, I try to make the setting and the people as true to life as I can based on my research.

Most recently, I’ve enjoyed reading and rereading some documents and various books that offer background information for the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. Signed by 27 men of some standing in old Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (made up of the present counties of Cabarrus, Union, and Mecklenburg) on May 20, 1775, it predates the national Declaration of Independence by more than a year.

I’ve written a rough draft of a story set in May 1775 in Mecklenburg County from the perspective of a couple who feared that war with Great Britain was inevitable.

You’ll be the first to know when I’m ready to self-publish a collection of my stories! I think it will be a good way to “get my name out there” before I finish editing my historical novel. Self-publication will be a learning experience for me and one that I will gladly share on my blog. Stay tuned!

Since my last blog post

In addition to researching and writing a short story, I’ve been for physical therapy twice. It’s strange to put on a mask and enter a place of business where the receptionist and therapist are wearing masks and to try to make small talk when there’s nothing happening except the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s slowly sinking in that things will never go back to the way they were in 2019.

Restaurants in North Carolina are still open only for take-out or delivery. Banks are open on reduced hours. Essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies remain open for pick-up and delivery. As of May 8 at 5:00 pm, a few stores opened in the state, but there are restrictions on how many people can be inside a store at any time. As of Friday, we in North Carolina entered “Phase One” of reopening for business. Gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited.

Each of the 50 states in the US have their own rules and regulations for reopening businesses and getting people back to work. It is a confusing hodge-podge of conflicting and restrictions. I don’t think anyone knows just how bad this pandemic is and will continue to be for years to come until a vaccine is developed and made available worldwide.

Until my next blog post

Be creative. Be careful. Stay safe. Stay well.

I hope you have a good book to read. Last night I finished listening to Big Lies in a Small Town, by Diane Chamberlain.

Let’s continue the conversation

Do you like to read short stories? Would you consider purchasing a book of my short stories? (Don’t worry. I won’t hold you to it!)

Janet

C is for Characterization

This is the third day of the 2017 A to Z Blog Challenge, so today’s post must have something to do with the letter “C.” Thinking in the realm of writing fiction, I settled on the word CHARACTERIZATION.

Characterization can be shown through narrative, dialogue, action, and reaction. All four should be used by a writer.

There are many things for a fiction writer to keep in mind in creating and fleshing out characters. My writing mentor from Queens University of Charlotte, Judy Simpson, said, “Don’t begin writing your story until you know all of the major characters.” I can’t remember if I followed that advice when I started writing The Spanish Coin manuscript 10 or more years ago. (There! I’ve said it! This has been a labor of love that I have worked on in spurts and fits, sometimes not touching it for more than a year at a time.) But I digress.

The famous mantra of writing instructors comes into play in characterization:  Show, don’t tell. Don’t tell the reader about a character. Reveal character details through what they say, how they say it, and what they do or don’t do.

Even though the writer might have in her notes a driver’s license description of each character (e.g., black male, brown eyes, black hair, six feet tall, 180 pounds) that is usually not the best way to introduce a character to your reader. Let those details (or just the ones that are pertinent) come out gradually and in subtle ways.

Every character has strengths and weaknesses. A “goody-two-shoes” character is boring and, let’s face it, offensive and irritating. Likewise, even the most heinous villain probably has some redeeming value.

Characters unnecessary to the story should be omitted. Related to that, a writer should not include minor characters early on in a novel because the reader might be misled and lose interest.

There is also the matter of choosing names for all the characters. Writing instructors caution beginning writers not to give two characters in the same short story or novel names that are similar. For instance, you might not want a Phil and a Phyllis in the same book.

I have struggled over the name of a free woman of color in The Spanish Coin. She was Rachel for a long time because I think Rachel is a beautiful name and it conjures up an image of a strong and elegant woman in my mind. I changed her name to Clarissa in honor of a woman of color who made a great impression on me while I was writing local history articles for a newspaper a decade ago. It will be interesting to see what the character’s name turns out to be in the final product.

Another consideration that must be taken into account, especially when writing historical fiction, is that the writer must make sure to give characters names appropriate to the time and place. For instance, you won’t find a Tammy or a Kevin in The Spanish Coin because those names were not used in 1771 in the Carolina backcountry.

Each character should have at least one distinguishing characteristic in order to help set an image in the reader’s mind. A character could have a foreign accent, a disfiguring physical feature, a hearing problem, a lisp, a limp, an annoying laugh, a mental illness, or a word or phrase that no one else says.

Who knew there were so many things to think about when giving a fictitious character a name?

Until my next blog post tomorrow

I hope you have a good book to read. (I seem to always have too many on my bedside table! One night they’re going to topple over and give me a concussion.) If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

2017 A to Z Challenge Badge
Blogging from A to Z Challenge Badge 2017

B is for Background

On this second day of the 2017 A to Z Blog Challenge, my blog post is supposed to have something to do with the letter, “B.” I was tempted to write about blogging, but I’ve had that as my topic several times lately. I decided to write about BACKGROUND and what it means in fiction.

Foundations in Fiction

My first thought was to see what my fiction writing instructor in the Continuing Education Department at Queens University of Charlotte, Judith H. Simpson, had to say about background in her book, Foundations in Fiction.

Judy Simpson's book cover 002

Although background and setting are often used interchangeably, Judy chose to address them separately. Whereas setting is physical location, background is the story’s environment. Of background, Judy wrote in her book, “It is not the physical place but something more than that. It can be the hero’s job.”

Examples of background

Many popular authors use a background for their novels that becomes part of their brand. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels are set in New Jersey, but the background is bounty hunting — albeit of the bumbling variety. Tony Hillerman used Indian reservations for background in his Leaphorn and Chee series. Margaret Truman used iconic locations in Washington, DC in her murder mysteries, and Amy Clipston uses the Amish culture as the background in her fiction.

I enjoy reading and writing historical fiction. The historical fiction writer must create physical setting, create story background, and recreate a past culture, according to Judy Simpson. That last aspect — recreation of a past culture — is what gives historical fiction authenticity.

The writer of historical fiction must do extensive research in order to write believable characters. The novel manuscript I’m writing is set in the Carolina backcountry in 1771. People dressed and lived differently in 1771 than how we dress and live in that same geographical location in 2017. The culture, values, and accepted societal mores were different in 1771 than they are in 2017.

The writer of good historical fiction “must know the history of the period you are using; you must understand the social structure of this society; you must know how they lived, what they wore, what they ate, their monetary system, their transportation system, their social events, their daily lives,” according to Judy’s book. If you make an error, one or more readers will delight in bringing that mistake to your attention.

In writing my The Spanish Coin manuscript, I have done extensive research. The fear of making a mistake has paralyzed me sometimes. If I wait until my research is complete and my writing is perfect, though, my novel will never be published. At some point in the next 12 months, I need to conclude that it is as good as I can make it, push to get it published, and get back to writing the sequel.

The Flavor of Historical Fiction

Judy Simpson wrote the following in Foundations in Fiction and I try to keep her words in mind as I work on my book:

“Remember that what makes a historical novel different is the flavor, the sense of time and place of a long ago era. When the reader finishes the book, they should feel as if they were there, as if they really know what it would be like to live then. You have to capture the essence of that time and each period has its own flavor. Only you, the writer, can open the gate to that era for the reader.”

Until my next blog post tomorrow

I hope you have a good book to read. (As I was writing this last night, I was still reading The Heavens May Fall, by Allen Eskens.) If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

Writing talents from my mother

I’d like to think I inherited my writing talent from my mother, but she set the bar high. Today would have been her 104th birthday.

My mother was one of 10 children. She was the third youngest. She grew up on a farm in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, attended first grade a one-room school where all 11 grades were taught in one room.  When she graduated valedictorian of a consolidated high school in Charlotte, some of her city classmates were displeased. How dare a farm girl make the highest grades in the class! She went on to major in French and English at what is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro during the Great Depression. After graduating, she taught French and English on the high school level for five years (also during the Great Depression, being paid $70.00 per month) until her marriage and second career as a homemaker and mother.

Growing up with an English teacher for a mother can be frustrating at times. Such a child is not allowed to make grammatical errors, even in jest. Such a child is taught from birth to use the correct verb tense. You might say the use of an incorrect verb tense was my mother’s pet peeve. By her example, I grew up ever-vigilant in catching grammatical errors I heard on TV or read in a newspaper. Although my mother died more than two decades ago, I still think of her and cringe  every time I hear an error by someone on TV who “should know better” or read a mistake in a news article written by someone who “should know better.” It wasn’t until I became an adult that I appreciated what my mother did for me. It wasn’t until I tried to become a writer that I became painfully aware that I should have paid more attention to punctuation in English class.

My mother loved teaching and late in her life she wrote and self-published a history of the first 100 years of organized women’s work in our church congregation. She even wrote a little play to accompany that 100-year milestone.

I was a young adult when she wrote that book, and I did not fully appreciate her accomplishments. For one thing, I just always took for granted what my mother did. I assumed all mothers could make doll clothes and some of their children’s clothing, even if they’d never had a sewing class. I assumed all mothers taught their toddlers to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in two languages. I assumed all mothers knew how to make doll cakes for their daughters’ birthdays. I assumed all mothers could teach themselves how to knit and crochet. I assumed any mother could write a book. Wasn’t that just what all mothers did?

It wasn’t until I reached my 40s and she was gone that I realized just how gifted my mother was. I’ve had sewing and quilting lessons, but I still struggle to darn a sock or sew on a button — things she did with ease. I can make a cake and ice it, but it would take me all day to make a doll cake and it wouldn’t be as elaborate and pretty as the ones she made. It wasn’t until I took a fiction writing course at Queens University of Charlotte in 2001 and started writing short stories and longer fiction that I realized that writing is hard work. My mother made all these and a host of other things look simple. I’m 63 years old and I still can’t get all the components of a meal ready on time or at the same time.

Mama, how in the world did you do it?