A dear friend and colleague passed away recently. To honor her memory, I wrote this short free-verse poem. I know very little of poetry, so please forgive the amateur effort. Most of my writing is from the mind. This piece is from the heart.
A Light Shines Through
When darkness comes
It slips in on padded feet
Silently, stealthily, unknown
It comes to us all
Young, old, in-between
And no matter how prepared
We may be
Still we must accept it
The best we can
And move forward
But it leaves a tiny hole
In our heart
A hole that never heals
But that same hole
Lets in light and life
And so we go on
With the memories
We hold precious
Until darkness comes
During the Covid years, I, like so many of you, had time on my hands. I finished my latest novel, The Tree of Lost Secrets, but I also wrote a few short stories, and bits and bobs of memoirs. Here is one I thought I would share. Enjoy!
A Girl From Brooklyn
Five-year-olds have a pretty creative way of viewing the world. When the world is made up of brick and concrete, automobiles and elevators, their perceptions are even more creative.
At five, I lived with my mother and father (my brother wasn’t born yet, thank God) in a classy, at least at the time, apartment building near Linden Boulevard. The apartment itself is a blur. What has remained in my memory, were the hot summer evenings I spent catching fireflies, those amazing flying bugs that blink on and off in the night as if battery-powered.
I would accompany my parents to the rooftop, “tar beach” they called it, greet their friends, assembled in deck chairs across the asphalt, drinking Long Island Ice Teas and smoking Lucky Strikes and Camels (before they became Kool Kamels.)
Friends like Mrs. Goldblatt, a syrupy, buck-toothed woman whose hair was always perfect. I mean perfect. Blonde, cut short, and poufed to a bubble shape, it was coated with so much hair spray that if you accidentally bumped against her head, you’d be bruised for a week. Mr. Goldblatt, on the other hand, must have wished he were so fortunate to have hair like his wife’s, since he was mostly bald with some long, wispy black strands stretched across his shiny pate.
The evenings always started the same. Mr. Goldblatt would grab me around the waist, lift me from the ground and spin me around until he was dizzy. I learned to close my eyes so I wouldn’t get dizzy too, although it would have served him right if I threw up on him. Then, he would set me down and pinch my cheeks in his calloused fingers, leaving two red welts behind. I grinned and bore it.
I tried to make my escape to my favorite corner of the roof, but fifteen-year-old Tony Parucci began his usual cant, “Lynnie, Lynnie, what a little ninny.” Everyone laughed. I kicked his shins but made no impression.
“Beat feet, you little ankle-biter.” His ugly, pimply face chortled at his own dumb humor.
Meantime, Mrs. Goldblatt began her litany about the heat. “Oy vey, this is the hottest summer I ever remember, never such humidity, mein Gott, what is happening to the planet?”
“Hilde, love,” Mr. Goldblatt would reply. “You say this every summer. It’s always hot.”
Two points for Mr. “G.”
The rooftop door opened then and two of Tony’s pals from high school swaggered out. The three of them clustered together yukking it up, hands in the pockets of their baggy shorts and tank top undershirts that made them look like hoodlums. I knew about hoodlums, of course, from watching Dragnet on the brand new black and white television my father brought home one day. Sergeant Friday would frown and tell his partner, “Those kids will turn into hoodlums yet.”
“Yup,” his partner said, in a tone so serious you’d think he was talking about something important. What an odd ball.
I loved TV, even though my mom wouldn’t let me watch much. She thought my time was better spent learning to read and write. In fact, the only reason we had a television was because my dad owned an appliance store on Atlantic Avenue.
My father was cool. He was six foot-two, fair-haired with hazel eyes–a Kirk Douglas look-alike, arrogant and smooth and super smart. I inherited his hair and eyes. My mother, on the other hand, was a tiny, five foot-0, dark-haired woman with blue eyes and high cheekbones. She had a lot of spunk but not much education. I got her high cheekbones, short stature, and spunk.
Rooftop soirees were a stage for my dad. He would entertain the neighbors with his adventures from the War, how he captured a Japanese flag in the Philippines and received the Medal of Honor for killing a kazillion “gooks” along the way. Was that a good thing? Mr. Carney from the first floor would pipe in with his experiences and off they would go, back to Germany, or Italy or the South Pacific.
At this point, I was thoroughly bored, so I reached into my mother’s giant canvas bag, pulled out my jar and slipped away to a dark corner at the top of the world. There I would sit cross-legged (we said Indian-style) and gaze up at the black sky dotted with shimmery stars.
Each sojourn to the roof gave me the opportunity to hone my bug-trapping skills. I would open the hole-punched top of my mayonnaise jar, its insides smeared with a tiny bit of honey, and sit quietly with it, waiting, hardly breathing, until a blinker would alight. Then, if I were lucky, I would catch him in the jar with the lid and twist it on. I could spend hours and hours watching him buzz and twinkle inside the jar.
At some point in my forays into the science of entomology, perhaps I had turned six, it dawned on me that the little critter was desperately trying to escape and not just flitting around to amuse me. I was horrified. How could I be so cruel? Immediately, I unwound the top and set him free. From then on, my rooftop visits were no longer as thrilling, but I glowed in my new magnanimity.
What’s So Funny?
I’ve always heard that movies rarely live up to the great book from which they originate. Often, when the movie is spectacular, I find it was written originally as a screenplay and not a book.
What I have noticed recently is that books with a sense of humor do not translate well to screenplays. Two authors come to mind: Richard Russo and Liane Moriarty.
Richard Russo’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Empire Falls, had wry humor throughout the story. In the television series, however, much of that was missing. I didn’t find myself laughing out loud like I did in the book. That’s disappointing. Still the series kept my interest. The characters, setting, and pace were all glorious. And the story was poignant and compelling.
The same was true of Russo’s Nobody Fool. Perhaps the humor in the book would have made the scenes too comical in the movie? In this case, the author and the screenwriter were the same so I assume he left out the humorous lines because he felt they would not work as well in viewing as in reading.
In the last few months I have been engrossed in books by Liane Moriarty. After reading Big Little Lies, I decided to try the HBO Series. Truly, it is wonderful . . . suspenseful, delightful characters and a storyline that builds to a heart-pounding ending. However, where did the humor go? As I read this book, I recall many laugh-out-loud moments. As I watch the series, none. Did I miss the funny lines?
Which brings me to the reason for this blog. Is it not possible to translate humor from a book to a screenplay? Does the script writer make that decision because it is too difficult or because it simply doesn’t work on the screen?
Big Little Lies works as both a book and a film series. But in my opinion, without the wry and clever humor of Moriarty, which is her signature, it loses something in the translation.
Chapter endings are as important as beginnings. Read the endings of your chapters. Go ahead. Are they riveting? Are you anxious to turn the page? Will your readers be? Take a closer look at the ho hum ones and begin to focus on endings that would compel a reader to keep going.
I skimmed through some books to see how those authors ended their chapters. Here’s one from Deception Point by Dan Brown. “Rachel felt weightless for an instant, hovering over the multimillion-pound block of ice. Then they were riding the iceberg down – plummeting into the frigid sea.” The reader is not likely to put the book down at this point, at least until they find out what happened to Rachel and her friend. Brown could have ended with something like: “Rachel stood motionless on the block of ice and prayed the block wouldn’t fall into the sea.” Nah.
Here’s another. “Emergency Room. Code Blue. Susan ran for the elevator.” This is from Chelsea Cain’s The Night Season. What if Cain had stopped at Code Blue? Would it have the same impact as her running for the elevator?
I believe this idea of compelling endings is not only important for fiction but for non-fiction as well. Take Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: “Sometime that day, or perhaps the day before, he had taken off his uniform, picked up a sack of rice, slipped into the Naoetsu countryside, and vanished.” Vanishing, dying, running, falling, are all great ways to end a chapter on a high, cliffhanger note.
How about this from my mystery, Time Exposure: “As he sank to his knees, he lifted his head to gaze up at the Blackhawk. Captain Geoffrey Farrell smiled down at him. A boot to the head put him out.” Or this from Pure Lies, in the form of dialogue: “Well, you may be nuts and I wouldn’t testify to this in court, but between you, me and the microscope, honey, these signatures were all written by the same person.”
Scene endings can follow this rule to some extent, but it might get tiresome if every scene did. I think you have to let the reader rest once in a while and catch up with the action.
Not all chapter endings must end on an action note either. Many can end with inner conflict or conflict between characters. Gives the chapter tension. What happens between these two people next? Does Anna May leave her husband? Does mom throw Maynard out of the house? Does little Davey start to cry? Is Barbara in danger of being fired, of losing her health insurance, of missing a plane to an important event? If you care about the characters, you will turn the page.
A glimpse into my latest novel. Journey back in time over three centuries with a magical golden retriever and a wise, old sugar maple to solve four long-hidden mysteries.
Helen Ainsley is a best-selling mystery writer struggling with cancer. She begins to doubt her storytelling ability, so to restore her confidence, she returns to her childhood home in rural Brattleboro, Vermont for the serenity she hopes will rekindle her imagination.
Ainsley Hill Farm was originally an Inn dating back to the American Revolution. With a new-found friend, an old golden retriever, and an ancient sugar maple, Helen’s life is about to change.
Initials carved on the tree trunk suddenly appear. . . then disappear. Helen is impelled to investigate. She realizes that the majestic tree is a portal into past injustices and it is up to her to bring closure to the lost memories of the dead.
From World War Two, Italy, and the anti-Nazi partisan movement, she moves back in time to events during World War One, in Nova Scotia, Canada, and the Halifax explosion, which obliterated the city in an instant and took thousands of lives. Next, Helen learns that Brattleboro was a stop on the Underground Railroad and runaway slaves used the Inn as a sanctuary on their journey north. Finally, she returns to the Inn’s early days during the Revolution, where she discovers that her ancestors played a significant and dangerous role in the survival of the thirteen colonies.
Through her venerable maple tree, Helen finds her own storytelling artistry re-emerge as she sets out to immortalize the heartbreaking past of the Ainsley Hill Inn.