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Writing: Pain or Pleasure

Tessa's Office (2)Tessa's Books & Swag (2)Tessa's Cowboy Quilt (2)

When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” – George Orwell

“I don’t believe in being serious about anything. I think life is too serious to be taken seriously.” – Ray Bradbury, WD

Like every author, as I prepare to plot my next novel, I examine these two very different approaches to writing and plan the book accordingly. As I prepare to write my eighth novel, I realize that I’m more inclined to take Orwell’s advice than I am the Bradbury approach. And yet, I consider it my civic duty to keep abreast of what readers are looking for.20160115_143648 (1)In the Crescent Falls Series, I just finished the last book, My Dearest Chloe. I ended up being nearly a year behind schedule. As I examined what kept me from publishing this book, I realized that I was going a bit outside the box because readers consider my books Sweet Romance. Chloe was a recovering alcoholic and had abused drugs, as well. She bordered on narcissism, something I deplore. But in the end, she completely reinvented herself when circumstances forced her to step up and care for her Alzheimer’s ridden father. And when childhood friend, Luke Owens, threatens to kill the man who nearly ran both of them over in a tragic accident, it’s Chloe who intervenes and keeps Luke from destroying his family and boy scout clean image.

Five years ago I wouldn’t have touched the topic of substance abuse with a ten foot pole (as the cliché goes), but today, we’re living in a different world. With another heroin epidemic among us and prescription drugs seriously out of control, it’s important to me that fictional works bear some resemblance to real life.  My Facebook friends apparently agree with me because when surveyed, they articulated how important it is for writer’s address real life issues. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take Bradbury’s advice and stop taking ourselves too seriously. My next novel (which I’d like YOU, the readers, to name) will address the struggles of political spouses being thrust in the limelight. My Facebook friends indicate this would be a timely topic. While politics is something, indeed, to be taken seriously, we can all agree that, at times, elected officials invite us to poke fun at them (in an ever so kindly way!)

I’d love to receive your feedback on what YOU would like authors to write about. Feel free to leave a comment and please sign up for my newsletter which comes out only 3 times a year. I invite you to follow me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/authortessagray

Regards,

Tessa

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Downton/The Rhythm of Life . . .

Like many of you, I was addicted to PBS’s Downton Abbey and choked back tears when it ended. Truth be told, the theme song for the program is still set as one of my ringtones. I suspect it’ll remain set to that familiar tune until mid-summer. Spring is a time for new beginnings, but sometimes letting go of things we hold dear proves difficult. But, of course, life has a certain rhythm to it, and like it or not, even without Downton,  Life still goes on, doesn’t it?

Debra, Patty and us (500x375)My first book signing took place three years ago and any author will tell you that nothing is comparable to that mountain top experience. Not only did I sell all 25 books the bookstore had on hand, but over 40 people attended, including hubby, Jim, who took everything in stride as patrons referred to him as “Mr. Gray.” (Tessa Gray is my pen name). What made this particular book singing even more memorable is that one week after the book signing, the bookstore went out of business. I lost everything, except the memories, of course. Still–life still goes on, doesn’t it?

Aunt June & Uncle Tommy with QuiltTwo weeks ago we said goodbye to my husband’s, Aunt June. June left Pittsburgh in the 1950’s and headed to The Big Apple to begin a career in music. My personal claim to fame is that I have an aunt (she’s actually not my blood relative, is she?) who sang in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera. Pretty cool when you think about it. My niece, Tricia lamented over how much she’d miss June’s laugh (it actually had a lilt to it, just like people write in their books!) I made her a memory quilt several years ago and celebrate how much she enjoyed it. Aunt June can never be replaced, of course, but Still–life goes on, doesn’t it?

Dearest ChloeIn May, I’ll be saying goodbye to a book series I thoroughly enjoyed because all 4 books are set in my beloved native state: Minnesota. As I wrote them, memories flooded me. The last book is dedicated to my classmates at good old Osseo High School. We (the class of ’66) will celebrate our 50th reunion on August 27th. These books were a labor of love and brought back many fond memories of my high school years. Still–life goes on, doesn’t it?

GetAttachment.aspxAs you begin celebrating the beginning of springtime in a few days, I challenge you to create new beginnings–to overcome whatever disappointments you’ve experienced along the way and start fresh. I saved all my high school homecoming buttons and they remind me of several classmates who insisted I must have been a cheerleader because I’m an eternal optimist. In the writing world, and frankly, in any endeavor, we are sometimes forced to be our own cheerleaders–to believe in ourselves when no one else does. As you recover from setbacks and move forward, may you hear that familiar Irish Proverb ringing in your head:

May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back.

In the grand scheme of things, Life goes on, doesn’t it?

Tessa

 

 

 

 

What New Year’s Resolutions?!

Only about 6% of us make New Year’s resolutions. Why? You know darned well why! Almost no one keeps them which brings to mind a recent post on Goodreads. St. Martin’s Press was offering Sally Hepworth’s newest novel, The Things we Keep to individuals who posted a New Year’s resolution. Well hell’s bells…that’s easy enough to do. As luck would have it, mine was apparently good enough to earn me a hardcover copy of this amazing book! (a great read, BTW…I posted it on Goodreads).

I played it safe and posted that one of my resolutions was to get healthy. Since I’ve probably made this resolution about forty-seven other times, I decided to purchase a workout that I’d actually enjoy. I quickly settled on the Jane Fonda Workout video I did in the 80’s. Heck, I looked great back then; maybe I could get in  shape for my 50th high school reunion. Long story not so short, seven weeks later I’m still going strong…thanks to St. Martin’s Press and Goodreads. Maybe they can use me as their poster child!20160216_181143_resizedThe second part of my New Year’s resolution was to read more books. I assured Goodreads I could do 20. I’m on book 6 and am discovering some amazing new authors. Many writers, including myself, spend too much time writing and not enough time reading. I’d love to hear from y’all and see what you’re reading! Let me know if you stumble upon something unusually good and I’ll add it to my list.

Since I mentioned my high school reunion, I’m posting the most hideous car anyone had to drive during high school–the old, enormous black and orange Nash Rambler. I looked like a giant ladybug driving it down the street, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I was darned lucky back then to even have a set of wheels!


Girls with Nash Rambler

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank all my readers out there for reading the first 3 books of my Crescent Falls series. While the subject of families afflicted with Alzheimer’s isn’t always easy to deal with, your encouragement and support tells me I’m on the right track. The last in this series will be out in April and is dedicated to my high school class of 1966. I love these kids! (Yes, I still call them “kids.”)

May this year bring all of us joy, peace, and renewed friendships!

TESSA

Dearest Chloe

Memories: Magical or Malevolent?

Megan's Quilt

With Christmas in the rearview mirror, New Year’s is a time for resolutions. Creating a memory quilt for my daughter was one resolution I actually followed through on. As a writer, I adore the happy memories–some this memory quilt reflected. But as I reflect on many works I’ve read, it’s the most painful memories that often impact us the most.

Several years ago the movie Saving Mr. Banks came out. While most are familiar with the movie Mary Poppins, few know the background of this classic. The author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, based the patriarch of the family on her own father, Travers Goff. In the movie, Mr. Banks as an enormously successful banker, albeit a man with rather eccentric ways. In reality, P.L. Travers’ father was an alcoholic unable to hold a job. Eventually he forced his entire family into poverty and died before their very eyes.

In the movie Saving Mr. Banks, P.L. Travers butts heads with Walt Disney regarding the way her father was depicted. She’s not a fan of Walt Disney’s over cheerful version of Mr. Banks. Through the course of their conversations about how horrific Travers’ childhood was, Disney soon comes to terms with his own troubled past about a father who often beat him. Disney eventually convinces Travers to finish the story for the children that will be viewing the movie. He implores her not to let the past dictate her life, but to view this movie as helping save P.L. Travers from her tragic childhood.

For those of us who write, Saving Mr. Banks was a lesson about life that we already knew.  Writing the happy endings we may never have experienced is a healthy coping mechanism that often creates compelling novels, plays, or movies. In 1839 Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The guy was spot on. In this age of violence and paranoia, what better way to overcome adversity than to create something readers can cling to–something giving them hope?

I wish you a blessed New Year and may 2016 prove to be one in which you create beautiful memories.

Peace, Love, and Blessings,

Tessa

 

 

A Christmas Homecoming

Megan & Susan's Wedding 016

With the Christmas season upon us, this precious little elf I acquired over thirty years ago was one of the first ornaments I placed on this year’s tree. Technically it belongs to our grown son, Matt. But when we turned the ornaments over to him, I couldn’t bear to part with it-yet . . . the bright red attire on the elf reminds me of a very special gift I received over half a century ago; a gift that would forever change my life.

On a snowy Christmas Eve in 1957, I gazed out the window, watching a plethora of snowflakes float to the ground, wondering as most nine-year-olds do about what this particular Christmas might bring.  As a foster child shuttled between homes for the past four years, I had a cynical outlook on the holiday season, having spent each one in a different foster home. Although this one felt different, I’d learned at an early age not to get my hopes up.

“Time for bed, kids. Before you head to bed, you can open up one gift each.” My foster mom had a twinkle in her eye as the three of us raced over to the Christmas tree, rummaging through the small pile of gifts.  Before any of us could grab a present, she retrieved a gift and placed it in my hands. She quickly did so with all the other family members. I stared at the long, rectangular box, certain it was some type of clothing. Like most children, toys trumped clothes. Her next comment confirmed my suspicions. “Go try on whatever is inside the box and then come out here so we can see what you got.”

I raced into my bedroom and tore open the box. Examining the contents, I reached inside and pulled out the crimson red and white flannel material. Holding it up against me, I realized it was a pair of pajamas I’d seen in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. I slowly removed my slacks and top to put on what I hoped would be the only article of clothing I received during my first Christmas at the Roselands.

By the time I strode back into the living room, everyone else was already gathered around the tree, whispering something I couldn’t quite make out. Each member of the family stood with their fists knotted at their sides, grinning at me as I entered the room. Squinting from the glare of the twinkling, jewel toned Christmas lights, I looked on as both my foster parents, Lloyd and Elaine Roseland stood, along with their daughter, Melody smiled. My brother, Billy stood beside them; all were donned out in the same red and white striped pajamas that I wore. In unison, we broke into peels of laughter.

For some children, this was simply a funny joke–almost a prank, but to me, it was  personal. For the very first time in my life I was truly a part of a family. The pajamas were a symbol of that unity.  Thankfully, I remained with that family until I headed off to college. I kept touch with them over the years and will be eternally grateful that they welcomed me into their home with open arms.

So, as you might have guessed, giving back the little elf proves difficult. I suspect it’s because he wears the very same shade of red that those pajamas were–the ones I first wore on that crisp, snowy Minnesota Christmas Eve so long ago.

Christmas blessings on you all. I wish you joy and peace, but most of all, I wish you a sense of belonging–a sense of community. May you find the acceptance and love from others who surround you–just as I did in the winter of ’57.

 

 

 

 

 

This Long and Winding Road called Life . . .

Orchard House
Since author Louisa May Alcott’s birthday is November 29th, it makes perfect sense to post something about her.

Several years ago my husband and I took a trip to Massachusetts to visit our daughter, Megan. For me, the most amazing part of this vacation was when we visited the home of Louisa May Alcott (author of the beloved novel Little Women. As the tour guide led us about The Orchard House, I was mesmerized by the lush greenery of the countryside.

Once inside Orchard House, we ascended the steps leading to the second floor and were delighted to gaze upon the very desk Alcott wrote from as she created this book which has stood the test of time. It impacted me profoundly that Alcott spent years caring for her ailing father as she created Little Women and I suspect creating characters in her novels that sprang from the page no doubt added pleasure to what was no doubt a very mundane time in her life.

After I said my goodbyes to the tiny town of Concord, Massachusetts, I arrived back home to Texas and made the decision to begin a series of novels about four sister’s (the Hanlon girls) who struggle with their father’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Each sister reacts differently to the diagnosis and tries to find a healthy way to coop with the family saga. As I wrote the second book in the series, MY DEAREST CLARE, I thought back to my travels when I visited The Orchard House and felt compelled to bring my heroine, Clare, back to that very special place. Like Alcott, Clare struggles to balance family obligations with her personal life–something we all do on a daily basis.

Odd, isn’t it, how the struggles of one person can mirror another’s over one hundred, fifty years later? As we all live out our lives, may be take pleasure in the accomplishments of those before us and stride to create a lasting legacy to those we love. A happy November to all of you and do take the time to offer Thanksgiving for all of those who’ve impacted your live significantly. In the end, that’s all that really matters.

Blessings,
Tessa

Full Circle . . .

On October 13, 2015, I had the distinct honor of sharing my writing journey with members of the Plano Retired Teachers Association, otherwise known as PRTA. As I gazed out at the audience, I reflected on the enormous contributions these colleagues of mine made to the Plano Independent School District over the past forty years. As teachers, our work never ends, not even for retirees. If I could add up the number of hours these folks volunteer, it would astound even the severest workaholic. Their volunteerism runs the gamut, ranging from learning new crafts to wandering through Bob Woodruff Park picking up trash. I shared my writing experiences with these lovely folks, and discovered that, although it’s cliché to say, “the best is yet to come,” there’s a good deal of truth to it.

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The average age of PRTA members probably hovers around sixty-eight years old and many are challenged with health issues. In spite of this, most continue making a contribution to this world, in hopes of leaving some type of legacy. I gave a brief summation of the most recent series I’ve written, one in which the patriarch of the family struggles with Alzheimer’s and frantically strives to leave his legacy before he’s robbed of his faculties. After my presentation ended, several educators approached me, asking how they could turn the memoirs, poems, and reflections they’d accumulated during a lifetime into a written peace of work that could possibly help others.

I must confess that during the past couple of years, I’ve whined a bit about the perils of aging. But after watching this band of merry teachers make plans to revisit their writings, edit their work and pursue the road to publication, I’ve decided that the aging process, wrinkles and all, is well worth it. The memoirs we write, the stories we pass on to a younger generation will have authenticity and hopefully, change the course of people’s lives. Not only am I convinced I gained some fellow writers during that brief presentation, but I’m wondering if there’s a potential Pulitzer Prize winner out there. Who knows? Stranger things have happened!
Dearest Maggie
href=”http://www.tessagray.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Dearest-Clare.jpg”>My Dearest ClareMy Dearest Sarah

Characters Worth Remembering . . .

A dozen years ago I read a book by author, Debbie Macomber, called Dakota Home. By the time I finished, I’d fallen in love with her hero, Jeb. I couldn’t stop thinking about him and for three weeks I headed to bed early so I could dream about him. He wasn’t some shirtless hunk, but a rancher who probably wore overalls to do chores. I’m guessing Macomber spent months (or even years) working with the character of Jeb until she had it just right. Twelve years later I still think about Jeb and his family.

If we fast forward to 2015, it’s obvious the writing industry has changed considerably. Today’s authors are sometimes forced to crank out 3-4 (or more) books per year, leaving them little time to create a cast of unforgettable characters that will stay with their readers long after the book has ended. Three years ago as I set out to self-publish my first novel, Last Chance Texas, it became apparent to me that while I liked the hero, Nathan Wainwright well enough, he didn’t stand out as an unforgettable hero. Something had to give.

The best money I ever spent was purchasing The Complete Writer’s Guide to HEROES & HEROINES: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Cowden, LaFever, and Viders. Not only did it help me create authentic characters, but it gave specific examples of how different character types would interact and what problems they’d undoubtedly encounter in their relationships. There are a multitude of books on character development, and although this worked for me, it’s not for everyone. Which leads me to Tip number one:if something isn’t working for you in creating believable characters, mix it up and try something else. Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.” It turns out he was right!

Tip number two: Get your hands off that keyboard, go sit outside for hours and think long and hard about those characters you’ve created. I can’t explain what it is about breathing in the air and staring out at our pasture of donkeys and goats that gets my creative juices flowing, but it does. Sensory imaging has become very important in the characters I create. I often close my eyes and listen to the characters speaking to one another. I cannot articulate how or why this works; I just know it does.

Tip number three: Write down at least one page of questions to ask your characters. Conduct an interview with them. If you don’t know how they’ll answer the questions you posed, you don’t know them well enough. (I do this silently at my computer so my husband won’t be tempted to cart me off to an assisted living center).

The rewrites for Last Chance Texas took me over a year to complete. In the end, hero Nathan Wainwright barely resembled that beta male I’d created in the first chapter of the book. Admittedly I was discouraged at times, thinking about how most of my friends were cranking out books at a frantic clip while I was not. Still, I stuck to my guns and when I read an excerpt from Nathan Wainwright’s point of view at a book signing several years back, those listening fell instantly in love with him, and one went so far as to ask, “Does Nathan have a brother?” Of the six books I’ve written, this will forever be my favorite. Maybe that’s because I had to work so hard to get it right. Students learn a great deal by doing the homework required; so do writers.

Someone once said, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” I have no idea who said it, but it’s particularly true in writing. For all you readers out there, who is your unforgettable character and why? I’d love for you to leave a comment! Happy reading and writing.

Tessa
Last-Chance-Texas

THE BEST ADVICE . . .

Gay's portraits
With the dog days of summer upon us, I finally have some time to write. Two days ago I read some tips to help me become a better writer. Tip #1: READ MORE…WRITE LESS. Realizing I seldom read and spent far too much time writing, I took that advice and ordered both of Harper Lee’s books. The purpose of reading both her novels: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and GO SET A WATCHMAN was to glean tips from this famous author and improve my own writing.

Not comparing these two books proved impossible since the characters and storyline had distinct parallels. The most glaring problem for me in GO SET A WATCHMAN was that although it contained a plethora of southern historical information, I had the distinct feeling the author was “dumping.” In literary circles that simply means a writer just interjects a bunch of details (some which have little to do with driving the story forward) at the expense of the storyline. It’s a way of telling the reader without taking the time to show them.
NOTE TO SELF: Show rather than tell!

The second thing I found rather disheartening in GO SET A WATCHMAN was the way the author book beat readers over the head, cramming information down their throats rather than letting the readers figure things out for themselves. In defense of Harper Lee, I believe the immense change in Atticus Finch’s character was a tough sell and she more or less had to over-explain things rather than allow readers to figure out what actually made Atticus Finch tick. In the last few chapters of this book, much of the conversation between Scout (now called Jean Louise) and her uncle reads like a Psychology 101 manual as she tries to explain the real Atticus. The question looms…which one is the real Atticus Finch?
NOTE TO SELF: Never dumb it down; readers are more savvy than you think!

The most disappointing thing about GO SEE A WATCHMAN was that several of the same characters in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD bore little resemblance to those in the recently published book. The African American woman the Finch family hired to cook, (Cal) moved out immediately after Jem’s death (Atticus’s only son). It was illogical that the woman who stayed with this family for two decades, raising Atticus’s two children, would abandon this family as such a difficult time. The Cal I knew and adored simply wouldn’t have done this. The characters of Atticus Finch was problematic to many readers in Harper’s new novel, as well. The seemingly new and improved New Atticus bore little resemblance to the previous one. He never spoke of his only son’s death, something I found unsettling. As someone close to Atticus’s age, I’m noticing a trend. As we grow older, the values we hold dear become MORE pronounced with age. In reality, the old Atticus would have continued fighting for equality, just as he always had and, if anything, his views would have been even more progressive than they were in TKAM. (Of course, if you’re of the mindset that the real Atticus was a bigot, then this doesn’t really apply).
NOTE TO SELF: When writing, know your characters well enough to give them a lengthy interview, asking them tough questions. If they aren’t authentic, readers will quickly lose interest.

I was raised in the 1950’s and 60’s, and I don’t recall such a fierce hatred toward our government as was exhibited in Harper’s last novel. This was apparently what drove Atticus Finch and other townspeople to dislike blacks and try to limit their opportunities (according to GSAW). To me, this struck me as odd, and I found myself wondering why Harper never eluded to that in TKAM. It felt like the modern day concept of anti-government was being stuffed down our throats rather than reflecting those times with authenticity.
NOTE TO SELF: Avoid the urge to politicize the events according to your own, personal views.

This is a novel filled with lovely descriptions, but beyond that, it was disappointing. Still, in spite of the fact I took several days to reread TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and two more days to read GO SET A WATCHMAN, I’m forever grateful to Harper Lee for generating conversation and forcing me to remember that writers labor over their works, trying to give meaning to this thing we call life. At least, that’s what we’re SUPPOSED to be doing. Lee’s last book has generated nearly 500 reviews on Amazon, forcing readers to reevaluate how they feel about Scout and Atticus. Anytime we question old ideas and take a fresh look at life as we know it, that’s a very good thing. I encourage you to reread your favorite classic and see if the lens through which you see it has changed.
Thanks for letting me share. It would mean a great deal to me if you’d leave a comment. If you’ve read either of these books, I’d love you to share your thoughts!

Laugher: The Best Medicine

Toast at The Barking Crab

On this warm, Texas day in July, I’d love nothing more than to be seated at the Barking Crab just off the Boston Harbor,but then I remember how we humiliated ourselves at that bar. My husband, Jim, and I were having drinks with our daughter to celebrate her graduation. She’d just earned her master’s degree and what better way to celebrate than having a drink at this popular site?

My husband isn’t Italian but sometimes talks with his hands. He hangs out a lot with our dogs, goats, and donkeys, so perhaps that accounts for why he uses so many hand gestures. It was indeed a stroke of bad luck when Jim flailed his arms wildly to make a point at the very instant the waitress appeared with our tray of drinks. She must have been a gymnast because miraculously, nothing was broken as the tray tottered from side to side. Sadly, she wasn’t quite as amused as we were! As the bar began filling up, we made the decision to leave. Unfortunately, I forgot we’d been seated at a raised table with a step beneath it. (You know where this is going, don’t you?) I missed the step and staggered wildly about to keep my balance, nearly collapsing into the arms of several patrons seated at the bar. We couldn’t get out of this place fast enough! Although this happened two years ago, our daughter teases us mercilessly about not being welcome at The Barking Crab any longer.

This picture serves as a reminder not to take myself too seriously. In the grand scheme of things, we’re not quite as important as we’d like to think. If you’re a writer, making characters flawed with occasional missteps along the way only adds to their depth, makes readers identify with them, and creates a great read. And remember that old saying, “Laugh and the world laughs with you!” (If you remember who said it, please leave a comment! If you’ve had an embarrassing moment, I’d love you to post THAT in the comment section too!