Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

© 2006-2019 All rights reserved

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Last Day of School

Yesterday was my last day in the classroom. I gave my notice several weeks ago. I still have exams to give next week, but exams are hardly teaching days. All I have to do is hand out papers, then sit and watch. And grade, of course, but that comes later.

When I answered the ad for a part-time adjunct English instructor back in 1999, I only meant to teach at Ferrum College for a semester. Then I was offered another semester, then another. I officially retired from public school teaching in 1997. Then I taught a couple of classes at ECPI in Roanoke and discovered I really liked teaching adults. When my husband and I moved to Franklin County, I saw an ad in the paper for the Ferrum position. On a whim, I answered. The rest, to use a cliché, is history.

As an adjunct instructor, I’m sort of an academic sharecropper. I come in each semester, sow some seeds, fertilize, and harvest a crop at semester's end. Then I sign up to do it again. The only crop I ever grow is English 101—freshman grammar and composition. And now my last harvest is nearly done. Oddly enough, I don’t think I will miss it. I have other things I want to do (such as maintain this blog).

I never meant to spend so much time in the classroom. When I was six, I started first grade at Huff Lane Elementary School in Roanoke, Virginia. My mother walked me to school and saw me to the door of Mrs. Willhide’s room. She told me she’d wait in the hall. Before the week was out, I learned that she lied. However, at the end of the first day, there she was in the hallway where she said she’d be. As we left the school grounds, I asked Mama how old I had to be before I could quit. She told me sixteen.

Later that day, I was playing on the sidewalk in front of my house when Mrs. Wertz from up the street came by.

“How did you like your first day of school?” she said.

“I hate it,” I said. “I’m going to quit when I’m sixteen.” Although I meant what I said at the time, it turns out I lied. I didn’t quit.

One thing led to another, I went to college and became a teacher. (In the mid-sixties, career choices were still limited for women: I hated the sight of blood, so nursing was out. I couldn’t see myself sitting at a desk all day, so secretarial work was out. The only career left was teaching. Besides, I’d gotten used to being in a classroom.) I got a teaching job, then married, moved to South Carolina, and couldn’t get a teaching job the first year in SC so I started grad school. After I received my masters, I was back in one classroom or another—junior high, high school, middle school, and college—until yesterday.

After 54 years, I finally did quit.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Romancing the Story

This winter, I spent a few weeks reading romances. I’m not a romance fan, but I’d heard that romances are easier to sell than most genres. Indeed, even Harlequin, a major romance publisher, posts on its website guidelines for its multitude of imprints. Consequently, I decided to investigate the genre by reading a few assorted romances.

I read four—a Harlequin Super-Romance written by an online acquaintance, a Harlequin Intrigue Gothic Romance whose cover caught my eye at Wal-Mart, and two print-on-demand ones written by acquaintances of mine. I also skimmed through Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies and I looked at a bunch of on-line suggestions. From my reading and research, I concluded the following:

The heroine will be young and beautiful. She will not have a common name, such as Mary or Anne. Her name will either be at least three syllables or it will be exotic. Katherine is an acceptable name, as is Virginia or Elizabeth. She will be intelligent and might even hold a high-paying job, but she will have lapses of common sense— especially where a handsome man is concerned—and, despite being in her late twenties or early thirties, she will be a virgin or at least won’t have had meaningful sex or maybe won’t have had any sex for a very long time. Or possibly a combination of the above. Anyhow she will either be innocent or seem to be innocent. She will have long hair and legs, but not hairy legs. While she will have good fashion sense, she will not necessarily wear sensible shoes. Odds are good that she might have a secret about her past.

The hero, who must appear within the first five pages, will have a one syllable, masculine name—Flint, Brett, or Chad, but not Bob or Fred. He might have a two-syllable name if it sounds old-fashioned and respectable. Harry or Robert is an acceptable name, but not Horace or Herbert. His muscles will be taut. It doesn’t matter which muscles—perhaps his chest, his arms, or buttocks (the latter revealed by his well-fitting riding pants as he gallops his stallion). If horses are involved, the hero will only ride a stallion. (The heroine, of course, will only ride a mare.) Not only will his muscles be taut, the appropriate ones will ripple. The hero will also have good hair and lots of it on both head and chest. The head hair will be wavy. If his eyes are blue, they won’t be just blue— they’ll be ice blue or steel blue. Odds are good that he’ll also have a secret about his past.

There will most likely be a young female character, probably the daughter/niece/ ward of the hero, which the heroine will be a role-model for—or at least will be able to reach in a way that no one else has been able to, because the young female character has issues of some kind. Possibly several kinds. While this character might make some bad choices or cause the death of a minor character, she will nonetheless be good at heart.

Several other characters will be mysterious and appear bad to throw the reader off track until it is revealed that they are really good at heart—or at least misunderstood and just not very attractive.

There must be an evil character, who possibly works for the hero, is related to the hero, was once married to the hero, or once lusted for the former wife of the hero. He or she will either lust for one of the main characters or will try to bankrupt them if a heavily mortgaged estate is involved. This evil character will not be successful in his or her evil designs and will probably be killed by falling off a cliff or something shrouded in fog.

Speaking of weather: Fog is an essential element in a romance, but the fog will lift so that the main characters can see something revealing. Often the action takes place on a large estate (that may or may not have fallen into decline) or an exotic vacation spot. If any animals are featured, they will be horses, which someone else will groom and have ready. Naturally both hero and heroine will be excellent riders. Cats and dogs, for some reason, are not conducive to romances and don’t play major parts. Small rodents—ferrets, gerbils, or hamsters—are not the stuff romances are made of, either.

Bodily functions in romances usually involve the heart. Hearts tilt, flip, race, thump, thud, clutch, or are touched in some way—but usually not physically. Stomachs tighten, churn, or clench. Breathing is important; breath is held, taken away, or gasped. No one has bad breath—or bad hair—unless it’s the evil character or possibly the misunderstood minor characters. The main characters do not actually sweat, no matter how passionate the moment.

Speaking of passion: Sex between the hero and heroine is usually done standing up and possibly in the shower or under a waterfall or perhaps in a horse’s stall. It won’t happen until late in the book, and it will come (no pun intended) as a surprise to both characters who won’t have any trouble shucking their clothes. The word “shuck” will not, or course, be mentioned, nor any word that rhymes with it. Either the hero will use a condom (which he will have handy even though he had no previous intention of having sex) or else the heroine will have had a hysterectomy. After their wild and passionate tryst—during which they do not sweat, the hero and heroine will realize they should be married and will make plans to do so as soon as a few pesky plot twists are untwisted—such as trying to figure how to get back into the right century or figure who is trying to kill them. Or both.

Speaking of plot: There will be lots of plot twists with seemingly loose ends. For instance, one character might be revealed to be a long-lost someone or other who is important to another character. However, by the end of the book, all the loose ends are untwisted and tied up, the evil person meets with a very bad end, the family fortune is restored or a main character gets a good job, and all the nice people live happily ever after, even if it means the heroine has to give up her great job to marry the hero. Good triumphs over evil, vice triumphs over virtue, yada-yada-yada.

Besides reading romances this winter, I have also been reading Miss Snark’s Blog. In December 2005, the anonymous literary agent, Miss Snark, asked her readers to send their synopses to her for her on-line critique. Naturally, she found fault with most of them. However, her critiques prompted me to attempt a synopsis of the romance novel that I will never write. Here it is:

Thudding Hearts and Galloping Passions

Twenty-year-old Celestine, having left the Sacred Heart and Inner Sanctum Convent where she had spent her entire life in quiet contemplation and computer studies, finds herself in Virginia horse country near the University of Virginia where she had allegedly come to study for an advanced degree in computer systems administration and cyber-philosophy after convincing the head nun, Sister Mary Ignatius, that the convent’s website needed someone with more training, especially in the interactive areas of the on-line confessional and virtual rosary.

Celestine is in somewhat of a mental fog, having recently learned that she is the illegitimate daughter of Sister Mary Magdalene and Father Vinnie, who’d had a brief but passionate tryst in one of the confessionals shortly after Mass, where Father Vinnie’s rippling muscles had excited the repressed emotions of most of the nuns, except for Sister Mary Butch and her very good friend, the hot-blooded Scottish nun, Sister Mary Bruce, both of whom just happened to notice unusually passionate sounds emanating from one of the confessionals that also appeared to be rocking. Thinking they’d witnessed a miracle and hoping to score points with Mother Superior, they immediately reported what they’d witnessed. Mother Superior, upon opening the confessional, found the disheveled nun and the defrocked priest in what was not a missionary position. Vowing to keep their sin secret so as to not stain the otherwise immaculate reputation of the Sacred Heart and Inner Sanctum Convent, she sequestered away Sister Mary Magdalene and gave Father Vinnie a missionary position in Bolivia. Nine months later, Celestine was born, and Mother Superior pretended that she’d found the baby on a doorstep, which wasn‘t so much a lie as it was a sin of omission about the doorstep actually being the one to Sister Mary Magdalene’s garret. Sister Mary Magdalene, under a vow of silence, kept her mouth shut.

Celestine prospers in the care of the nuns, although they are unable to give her a sense of fashion, a knowledge of pop culture, or any hair or make-up tips. They do, however, allow her full access to the convent’s computer system, where she finds out these things for herself while she grows into a beautiful woman with long flaxen hair, an impish smile, and a set of 38-Ds that a nun’s habit would never be able to conceal, should she decide to become one, but that career choice holds no appeal for her.

Having arrived at UVA too late to gain entrance to a very competitive program, Celestine is at a loss as to what to do—both at the moment and with her life. While sipping latte in a cyber-cafe, she answers an online ad for a governess at a nearby estate.

Having walked the entire six miles in her Pradas and having bumped into several large trees in the fog, she arrives late and somewhat worse for wear. Seeing the lights on in the stable, she wanders in where Ambrose the stable-boy mistakes her for a woman of easy virtue and is about to force his unwanted attentions on her in Lord Dunsinane’s stall, when Harold Fairchilde rides into the barn on his stallion and rescues her. Tossing Lord Dunsinane’s reins to Ambrose, Harold removes his riding jacket to real massive rippling muscles and wraps the coat about the shivering Celestine, whose heart thumps and whose breath is momentarily taken away when looks into his icy steel blue eyes and sees what a hunk he is.

Harold carries Celestine up the curved and cobblestoned drive to Monte Hall, an imposing Georgian structure that the moonlight reveals is a bit worse for wear, a detail that only adds to its charm and mystery. Ensconcing her on a burgundy leather club chair in the library, he pokes the fire to warm her spirits, but her heart is warmed at the sight of his taut buttocks as he bends to tend the fire before offering her a glass of sherry.

While she sips sherry and basks in the decadent splendor of the library, Harold tells her to call him Hal (“Despite the pretentiousness of the place, we’re pretty informal around here,” he says) and informs her about his ward, 12-year-old Penelope, and how he’s been unable to reach her since she arrived two months earlier following the untimely deaths of her parents who ventured too close to an active volcano while doing a photo shoot at some exotic location (Note to self: look up exotic locales that have active volcanoes). Penelope survived only because she disobeyed her parents and didn’t follow them to the volcano’s edge. (Note: Do volcanoes have edges?) While Hal tells her that he didn’t actually know Penelope’s parents (Penelope’s father Vincent Vermicelli was a friend of Hal’s maternal grandfather Guido), he is flattered that they entrusted him with her care and he was looking for something meaningful in life since he has so much money left to him by Guido that he doesn’t have to actually work.

Hal is, however, concerned that Penelope spends all her waking hours on the Internet instead of riding to the hounds, listening to loud music, studying modern dance, writing angst-filled poetry, defying authority, or becoming infatuated with the stable-boys as any normal incredibly wealthy 12-year-old would do instead of sharing her feelings with him. The expression “sharing feelings” touches Celestine’s heart, so she tells Hal she will take the job. He orders the old housekeeper, Mrs. Bartleby, show her to her room. Mrs. Bartleby says she would prefer not to, a phrase that she often repeats during the next several months while Celestine works as governess, but she shows Celestine to the third floor room anyhow.

To make an incredibly long story short, Celestine hacks into Penelope’s computer and discovers that Penelope is actually eighteen and was planted by her family, the Vincent Vermicelli branch of the Blue Ridge Mafia to find where their old rival Guido Garibaldi hid the jewels he converted his drug money into after buying the estate. However, Celestine is infatuated with Hal and forgets to tell him what she discovered until they are out riding one fateful foggy morning. Celestine, although not raised around horses, is nevertheless a natural horsewoman and is soon jumping four-foot-high fences and galloping over the incredibly picturesque and rugged countryside on her mare Birnum Wood.

On this fateful morning, Ambrose the stable-boy, jealous of the attention Celestine is giving Hal and vice-versa, neglects to tell her that Birnum Wood is in heat. As Hal and Celestine race their horses toward the (insert name of Nelson County River here—preferably one with very high banks), Hal reins back Lord Dunsinane, the better to admire Celestine’s up-tuned bottom revealed by her designer riding breeches as she gets in perfect two-point position to jump an imposing downed tree. Lord Dunsinane, sniffing the air and realizing that Birnum Wood is in heat, whinnies to the mare who turns in mid-air and comes to Dunsinane who mounts her.

Celestine tumbles off and rolls clear of the coupling horses, although she is left breathless. Hal dismounts and, realizing that Celestine is the woman of his dreams, scoops her up and carries her to the fallen tree, where she regains her breath as the fog clears to reveal Dunsinane in all his stallion manhood doing what stallions do to mares in heat.

This gives Hal and Celestine an idea, and fortunately they are able to lean against the tree whilst expending their pent-up passions upon each other while a light rain begins to fall. Fortunately, Hal discovers a condom in his pocket. Hal then proposes to Celestine, who tells him she will think about it and then reveals what she knows about Penelope. Their conversation is interrupted by a loud splash, as if a body fell off the very high bank and into the river, but the rain has stopped and fog has returned so they can’t see who it is.

They ride back to Monte Hall, stopping as soon as they see it to admire the full Monte for a breath-clenching moment, and then racing full gallop to find Mrs. Bartleby bound and gagged, Hal’s desk broken open, a large hole in the library wall, and one of the BMWs and a large roll of duct tape missing. Of course Penelope is gone, too, as is Ambrose.

Fortunately, Celestine remembers accessing a travel site on Penelope’s computer, so she is able to provide full details to the police, who arrest Penelope for speeding on I-64, recover the jewels that she took from inside the wall, and find the duct-taped body of Ambrose (who is—or more correctly was—actually Penelope’s lover as well a spy for the Blue Ridge Mafia) bobbing about in the river.

Penelope, repentant for all the trouble she caused, begs forgiveness from everyone and makes a full confession. They finally remember to unsaddle the horses and ungag Mrs. Bartleby, not that it makes any difference because she would prefer not to comment. Soon the FBI arrests Vincent Vermicelli, who did not die in the volcano, and discover that he once hid out in the Sacred Heart and Inner Sanctum Convent twenty-three years earlier by assuming the guise of a priest. . . .

That’s as far as I’ve gotten so far. I’m not sure I want to go any further. I will stick to writing social commentary disguised as redneck humor, which is considerably easier to write than romance.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Who am I?

Who am I? I’m a sexagenarian who writes.

Being a sexagenarian isn’t as much fun as it sounds. Gravity has taken its toll; parts of me can no longer be described as “perky.” For me and my contemporaries, the sands of time are running out. However, we sexagenarians—having been (pick one) baby-boomers, the Pepsi generation, hippies, free spirits, etc.—are continually redefining ourselves. I have it on good authority (OK—the March 18, 2006 issue of Parade) that 60 is the new 40. We like catchy phrases, so we now identify ourselves as the Sage Group, the XYZ Group (extra years of zest), Grand Years, Age of Dignity, Third Half, Bonus Years, or P.S. Stage (post-sixty). As we age a bit more, we might become Seasoned Citizens, OPALS (older persons with active life styles), Geri-Actives, or eventually SOCs (Septuagenerian to Octogenarian Citizens).

When I hit 60, I decided to blog. I intended to start this blog on January 1. I never got around to it until now. (Sexagenarians like to procrastinate.) I figured if I got it online by May 1, I’d be doing well. I've just made my deadline with a few weeks to spare.

So, what do I write about in this first blog entry? I’ll write about writing.

In 1993, after decades of grading papers and a lifetime of reading or being read to, I started writing. At first I wrote short stories—I’m a five-time winner of the Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest and a three-time winner of the Sherwood Anderson Contest—but my writing moment of fame came when I won the 1996 “Worst Western” division of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. The B-L is for the worst opening sentence of the novel you haven’t written. Consequently, I am a nationally ranked bad writer. My entry:

Following the unfortunate bucking of his horse when it was startled by the posse's shots, Tex—who now lay in a disheveled heap in the sagebrush—pushed back his sweat-stained Stetson from one deep-set eye, spat a stream of tobacco juice at the nearest cactus, and reflected momentarily that the men approaching him with ropes probably weren't just out for a skip, and—if they were—his freshly broken ankle would have to cause him to decline any entreaties to join them.

In 1999, I received a “Dishonorable Mention” in the Bulwer-Lytton Bad Fiction Contest for this entry:

“Well, Mummy,” replied little Felicity in response to her mother's chiding, “I know for a fact you are lying to me and that I was not left on the doorstep by gypsies, as you are fond of telling me, for gypsies are not in the habit of abandoning infants on the twentieth floor of New York apartment houses, and furthermore there is absolutely no room on the street for them to park their horse and wagon, so—when you are old and in need of custodial care—we shall then see who has the last laugh as I abandon you in a substandard adult care facility.”

I also won a 1999 Hutton Publications “Rotten Romance” prize that paid ten bucks for this bad sentence:

When Fred slipped off his sweater to reveal the sexy slope of his shoulders and confided to me in a voice barely louder than a whisper that I was indeed special, my pent-up longing burst forth, and it was all I could do to contain my desire (the revelation of which might forever destroy his television career and invoke the jealous wrath of Mrs. Rogers, who was rumored to lurk unseen somewhere in the shadows of the neighborhood); and thus I placated my passion by plastering my lipstick kisses all over the TV screen until the glass was all but obliterated under a mass of Revlon’s “Ripe Plum Surprise.”

Thus, my claim to fame is that I’m a nationally ranked bad writer. I currently write a twice-a-month humor column, “Peevish Advice,” for the Smith Mountain Eagle, a weekly newspaper published in Moneta, Virginia. “Peevish Advice” is social commentary disguised as redneck humor. The Eagle actually pays me for doing it. I've also self-published a couple of books.

I live in rural Virginia with a husband, dogs, cats, and horses. I retired from public school teaching in 1997 and am now in my last semester of teaching college. In 1999, I took a part-time one-semester adjunct position at Ferrum College and somehow kept teaching freshman English for seven years. Recently I decided to leave while I still enjoy the job. I’m not getting any younger, and I have other stuff I want to do. The sands of time, etc.