Elle Cosimano

Tech'd Out In The Tavern

In November, I embarked on a solo journey to Colonial Williamsburg for 3 days of research and exploration in preparation to write THE SUFFERING TREE, my current work-in-progress. In developing my characters, I knew I wanted my protagonist to play an instrument, but I wasn’t sure which one until I attended a lecture/performance by fiddler Dean Shostak.

Mr. Shostak explained that fiddles were the most popular instrument in early colonial America, as they were both affordable and accessible to servants and gentry alike. He then performed a song called “Calliope House” (actually composed in the late 1900′s by Boys of the Lough) which happens to be a great example of the style of jig that may have been played in the southern colonies in the early 1700′s. I came away inspired. It was settled. My character, Nathaniel, would be a fiddler!

Later that evening, exhausted from ghost walks and lectures and tours, I settled in at Chowning’s Tavern for some hot buttered rum and roasted peanuts. Performers drifted in and out of the candlelit tavern rooms, performing and taking requests. I couldn’t resist. I had to hear “Calliope House” again! So I raised my hand and called to the fiddler and asked him to play it for me. To this, he responded he didn’t know the tune, but he promised to return in five minutes.

The performer stayed true to his word and returned with his fiddle, and of all unexpected things, an iPhone. He kindly asked me to hold the screen at arm’s length for him, as he read the sheet music via his wireless internet connection. The fiddler performed “Calliope House” in its entirety and without flaw while I gawked in sheer amazement over the juxtaposition before me. By far, the best live performance I’ve ever experienced and one I will not soon forget.

In The Suffering Tree, my protagonist, Nathaniel, performs a fiddle jig. I searched the web for a clip of the light-hearted piece I heard in the tavern and found this wonderful solo performance of the “cowboy jig” called “Calliope House” on YouTube:

My special thanks and appreciation to the performers in Chowning’s Tavern for indulging my special request and helping to inspire what I hope will become a great story.

Playing The Hand You're Dealt

One of the questions I’m constantly asked is whether or not I use an outline when I map out a story idea. It seems like there are two basic schools of thought on the “right” way to write… outline or fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a textbook Type A personality. I’m an obsessive planner. I am organized and goal-oriented to a fault. So, yes, the obvious answer is I do use some form of an outline. I need a strong sense of the destination, and at least have a map denoting a few key landmarks along the way.

But traditional outlines frustrate me. I find myself scribbling and scratching out and scrapping and re-writing them to accommodate shifts in my thought process or changes in direction along the way. While writing my first book, I abandoned the traditional outline in favor of 3×5 cards. I color code them (because I am ridiculously anal-retentive that way). For instance, the white cards are scene cards. I write down the loose description and bullet points of each scene in the story and put them in order. The red or pink cards are my “hot” cards. These are the critical scenes (you know the ones, that replay over and over in your head and you would never, ever cut from a story because they are integral to the plot or climactic in some uncompromisable way). The blue cards are my character cards, and have tidbits of back story or physical details, which I can then pepper into the scene cards to avoid huge chunks of exposition or flashback. You get the basic idea.

I keep my cards in a small folio sorter… pictured below… which allows me to move them, mix them up, replace them, burn them, shred them, and create whole new ones as the story begins to unfold. It’s essentially an outline, but it’s a living outline. It moves and it bends. It adapts to the impulsive side of my imagination, and can continue to do so as the confines of my research, or restraints of my word count, change the direction of my work.

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In my mind, this system of organization parallels the way I try to organize my life. I have a strong sense of where I’m going and what I want to accomplish, and I have my uncompromisable priorities duly noted, but I leave myself flexible to adapt, try new things, and write new scenes for myself along the way.

While at conference, a writerly friend noticed my folio and commented on it. I’d assumed lots of people probably worked this way and I’d never imagined that the question of an outline could be so black and white. But it appears, not everyone has a system that allows them to manipulate their hand mid-play, and still have a tangible plan for a predetermined outcome.

So here it is. My cards are on the table for everyone to see. My question to you… do you wing it or do you outline, or do you have your own kooky system in place?

Scrubbing Down The Past

When I was young, I attended Hebrew school, every week, twice a week. I learned Torah, I prepared to become a Bat Mitzvah, and I learned the holidays, celebrations, and history of my people. For the most part, these were happy lessons. But not all periods of human history are worthy of celebration.

I recall many a Saturday morning, sitting in a darkened room watching video footage and documentaries of the Nazi work camps and death camps of the Holocaust. At the time, we all asked why? Why must we watch these horrifying images over and over again? The crimes committed in those camps were terrifying, offensive, and difficult to accept.

The answer, our teachers told us, is because we risk repeating the atrocities we choose not to remember. Remember it all, they told us… especially the ugly parts, the times in human history that shame us most, so that we never let them happen again.

Some interesting discussions have recently come about regarding the new version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For those who may not be aware, a proposed new version will replace the controversial “N” word with the word “slave.”  The word “Injun” is likely to be replaced as well. The literary community seems torn on the question of whether it is better to get a “scrubbed down” book into the hands of more libraries, schools and teens by presenting a “less offensive” version of the tale, versus the moral and ethical argument of whether it is acceptable or appropriate to alter the published work of a deceased creator.

While I understand both sides of this debate, my concerns lie less in the literary implications than the social and historical ones. What risks do we run when we justify “minor” edits to the stories that reflect our nation’s history? Twain’s book was written in such a way to accurately depict the mindset and prejudices of our country during that time period. We all know and understand why the “N” word is offensive and should never be used today, but I fear that when we “scrub” clean the ugly face of our history, we risk something worse than offending readers. We risk forgetting. And what we forget, we could very well repeat in future generations.

Why is it necessary to polish away the ugly parts of who we were? Why talk down to teens and insult their capacity to have an adult conversation about prejudice and racism? Why not use these books as a launching pad for real conversations about hatred and intolerance and how they shaped the history of our nation?

I worry that this new version of history… this happier, shinier face we paint today… may one day become the only “acceptable” version of our past. What if Twain’s original version eventually disappears, falls out of print for lack of an interested audience, forever to be replaced with the less offensive version we find so much easier to swallow? One hundred years from now, will we forget how much damage name-calling and bigotry can do? Will we look back on the ugly parts of our past less critically? Will we be more accepting of who we were and allow new cycles of violence and atrocity to take root?

Am I over-analyzing the possible impact of erasing two words from our literary history?  I don’t know… for now, maybe it is only two words. But what happens when two minor edits become acceptable? And then two more? And then two hundred more? Will we risk forgetting who we are?

Coincidentally, I just finished reading a remarkable dystopian YA tale called MATCHED by Ally Condie. If you’ve not read it, I highly recommend it, and I apologize in advance for any ***SPOILERS*** in the thoughts I share with you today.

The story takes place in our not too distant future, in a Society that is rigidly controlled. The Society has been completely purged of all historical evidence of anything that could be construed as imperfect, controversial, offensive, or reflects poorly on the image of their world. Entire libraries are destroyed, all artifacts collected and controlled by Officials who ultimately determine what books are allowable, what poems will survive, what music is socially acceptable, and what the people are permitted to know of their own history. The goal of the Society is to present a clean, uniform, content people who are blissfully ignorant of conflict, oppression or rebellion. All members of Society carry pills on their person, by the order of the Officials. The green pill relieves anxiety, and ensures all people are sedated into numb compliance. The red pill makes them forget, and is the band-aid Society uses to cover up the occasional discoveries or ugly memories by those who doubt that the world is as rosy as they’ve been led to believe.

I have to ask myself, is a new version of history our own form of medication? Do we read the new version because we feel more comfortable, less anxious, and better about ourselves? And by doing so, are we also taking a pill that will make us forget?

It is no wonder to me why dystopian fiction has become such a popular genre for teen readers. There are so many comparative lessons to be learned in stories like MATCHED.  I hope we don’t let our history “go gentle into that good night” and risk becoming complacent in our fight to preserve our own humanity. I hope we don’t take that red pill and forget who we were — even our ugly parts — so that we never have to relive them again.

ownotherssegschools

Note: These milestones of our nation’s history are memorialized along the walkway to Great Hopes Plantation in Colonial Williamsburg so that we never forget.

Editing My Life Through Weight Watchers®

January is synonymous with two prevalent resolution themes: weight loss and self-improvement. What kind of blog would this be if I didn’t somehow manage to address both?

As a writer, I have the annoying tendency to think in metaphors — to see the patterns in my life reflected in seemingly unrelated pursuits and find symbolism where others might not.

It occurs to me that Weight Watchers® shares a few common threads with my thoughts on editing a manuscript and re-shaping my life. I am a lifetime member of the Weight Watchers® program, after successfully achieving my goal weight following the birth of my first child, so I consider myself familiar enough to discuss the basic principles. Here are a few that come to mind, and the lessons I continue to find in each of them.

Stay Hydrated and Nourished. Every two hours, it seemed like I was shoving something in my face whether I wanted to or not! How was this supposed to make me skinny?! To my surprise, it worked. My body regulates my metabolism based on regular consumption of calories, and it needs lots of water to do it right. I think the same probably applies to writing and life.  New experiences, human interaction, reading other people’s books, and just getting out of the damned chair all help fuel my imagination. I can’t write about what I can’t imagine. And I can’t fully appreciate what I haven’t experienced. So get out and live a little, I say. It keeps us from becoming one dimensional and our stories from becoming flat.

Be Accountable for What I Consume. For six months, I carried measuring spoons and cups in my purse and a diary with a calculator. I counted fiber, calories, and fat and measured every portion. And you know what I learned? I was happier when I consumed things that nourished me, kept me “regular” and gave me long term energy. Similarly in life, I learned to nourish my soul with the right kind of support. I learned to measure and evaluate my relationships to make sure I’m getting out of them what I put in. And I learned to seek sustenance and eliminate the junk and fat… those people who make me feel good for a short while, only to let me down, hard and fast as a sugar rush. I learned that I can choose who I surround myself with, what I feed myself, and finally to be honest with myself and accountable for the results of those choices. In writing, I am fortunate to have chosen an amazing critique group… supportive, encouraging, and sometimes painfully honest, but I know they have my best interests at heart.

Everything in Moderation. Denying myself the foods I love inevitably leads to a hard fall off the wagon. When I was weight watching, I indulged my guilty pleasures every week (thin crust pizza and ice cream were my favorite Saturday treats), but I had to be accountable, and keep it in moderation, making sure I didn’t compromise my goals. In life, this has meant rounding out my interests and becoming more than just a mom, or just a wife, or just an employee, and making sure those new pursuits compliment the long-term goals I’ve set for myself. I am delighted to learn this same lesson applies to editing a manuscript! Too many modifiers have the same effect as an Oreo binge. The first few taste pretty good, but after a while, it’s a little sickening and leaves me with that odd artificial feeling on my tongue… you know the one. And too much exposition can weigh a scene down in much the same way as a double portion of a dense dessert. Sometimes, less really is more. Essentially, balance in all things keeps life light and moving forward.

If It Doesn’t Feel Good, Don’t Do It. Let’s face it. When we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we know (and our bodies know) things that make us feel bad are usually bad for us (ie: the Oreo cookie binge). I’ve learned to trust my gut. It’s never let me down before. I’ve learned to trust the little voice that says get rid of that stagnant chapter, or in life, “this isn’t the right path for you.” I’ve learned to check my characters’ voices and actions for authenticity. Would they really do or say that? Am I true to them? Am I true to myself?

Exercise Every Day. It doesn’t have to be a marathon run, or a daily strong-man competition. A little bit, consistently every day, becomes the foundation for a new routine and allows the behavior to become habit-forming. When I started Weight Watchers®, I walked for twenty minutes a day. If I think of my mind (or my career) as a muscle, then the same principle applies. It takes a little self-development every day to keep it strong, improve, and grow in the direction of my goals.

Weigh-In Every Week. A defining characteristic of a goal is that it be measurable. Every week, I attended a Weight Watchers® meeting. Yes, I weighed-in. I took off my shoes and belt and earrings, and wore shorts in the snow to give myself the benefit of the doubt, but I got on that freakin’ scale every week! Sure, there were those weeks when I didn’t hit my goal, but part of the journey was honestly acknowledging both my achievements, as well as my failures, and finding a way to get back on track. Every day was a new day to be honest with myself. Every week was a new chance to see the fruit of my efforts. Now, my scale is my word count, my blood pressure, and time spent with my children. And, I weigh-in. Each week I take stock of where I am in relation to my goals.

Do It For Reasons That Last. The reason Weight Watchers® worked for me is because I was committed to a lifestyle change, not a quick fix to fit in a cocktail dress for a singular event. While editing my work I ask myself, will this scene or this character pull the story forward? Do they contribute to the overarching plot? Or are they empty calories? I’ve made some pretty monumental changes in my life this year, and with each one I’ve asked myself, will this choice result in a lasting happiness?

Ideally, a life lived in accordance with these basic tenets should result in a healthier self, a more fulfilling life, and a svelte and sexy manuscript.

How about you? What changes have you made in your life or your lifestyle since weighing-in on New Years Day? Are you staying true to yourself while making changes toward a lasting happiness?

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On Risk, Beauty, and Truth

It’s New Years Eve. I’m writing. I haven’t slept. I’m bleeding and sweating for my dreams in 2011. I have a goal, and a self-imposed deadline. This blog post will be short, but I couldn’t let the New Year slip by without acknowledging what it means to me.

I will remember 2010 as the year I learned what it means to take risk. To sacrifice wealth, stability, and sometimes relationships in search of my authentic self. It was the year I stopped straightening my hair, choosing instead to embrace my unruliness rather than squashing it flat. It was the year I stopped listening to those voices outside of myself, and started heeding the one within, and found the courage to let it speak out loud.

As a children’s author, I know that Henry Miller isn’t an obvious choice for inspiration. But this sentiment resonates with me. It is my truth for the new year.

“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heart-ache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, to discover what is already there.”

— Henry Miller (1891-1980)

May 2011 be the year we all discover our own power, appreciate our own beauty, and have the courage to speak our own truths.

I wish you all a sparkling, joyous, and most of all, an authentic new year.

— Elle

Consult the Magic 8 Ball

As we all look ahead to 2011 and wonder what the future holds for us, I thought it might be fun to dust off the old Magic 8 Ball.

Ask your question out loud and press the button for reliably random answers to all of life’s greatest mysteries.

Post your question and the 8 Ball’s answer as a comment if you dare!

Dec

27, 2010 |

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Gena's Mexican Chicken Stew

In my favorite chapter of Dead Blue, Gena serves up a hearty, spicy stew. Her dish was inspired by my mom’s recipe, and it was actually what I had for dinner the night I wrote this part of the story. My parents live in Mexico on the Mayan Riviera, where my mom experiments regularly with local ingredients. Her natural ability in the kitchen means she rarely measures or records, and often improvises, much to my frustration. She’s a tough act to copy, but this recipe is pretty darn close to the real deal.

Gena’s Mexican Chicken Stew

2 ½ lbs skinned, boneless chicken thighs

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 large onion, chopped

1 jalapeno, seeded and minced

1 red pepper, seeded and chopped

1 green pepper, seeded and chopped

3-4 carrots, peeled and sliced

1 can diced tomatoes

2 small cans Herdez Salsa Casera

2-3 Tbs fresh chopped cilantro

1 can whole black beans, drained

1 can corn, drained

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In large skillet, brown garlic and chicken in 1-2 tbs olive oil.

Season chicken with salt and pepper while browning.

Remove chicken and set aside.

Add onions, peppers, and carrots to pan. Cook until onion is translucent.

Place chicken on top of vegetables. Pour diced tomatoes and salsa over chicken.

Add cilantro. Cover pan and cook for 15 minutes. Then add beans and corn.

Cover and continue cooking. Stir frequently.

Let chicken simmer for 1- 1 ½ hours.

If necessary add small amount of water.

Serve over rice with following toppings: chopped grated cheese, sour cream, cubed avocado and fresh cilantro.

… Who Shall Not Be Named

“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

— Albus Dumbledore

There is power in a name. Ask any faerie. To know a faerie’s name is to wield immeasurable control over him. He will not give it to you willingly.

Why? Ask any student of Hogwarts and they will tell you the story of “He Who Must Not Be Named”. The Dark Wizard’s name invoked such terror, other wizards dared not speak it, fearing it might invite evil upon them. Yet Harry Potter, the boy who lived, confronted his enemy. Harry called him by name. He spoke it aloud. Voldemort! And by doing so, claimed control of his fear.

And sometimes — in our less than supernatural world — we must do the same. By naming our enemy, we solidify our understanding of it. We give it shape, identity, and definition. We take smoke and fear and confusion and we ball it up in our hands until it is something tangible. What we can touch, we can influence. What we can hold, we can control.

A year ago, my oldest son was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome. A neurologist (who will not be named… I know, I know… but it’s a necessary concession to the dark powers that be) told us we would be better off if we didn’t diagnose him at all. In his professional opinion, Tourette Syndrome carries too many stigmas for an eight year old boy to bear. He felt it would be better not to call it Tourettes. We should simply tell people that he has tics. Perhaps he would outgrow them, he’d said.

We tried this route for a while. It hovered over us, casting dark shadows, an evil without a name. It had no definition, and because there was no definition, there were no answers. When my son asked, “Why does my body do these things?” I had no response. We were grasping thin air. We had no finger-hold. No way to contain or control the enemy that caused my son’s body to perform embarrassing movements and noises. Because we couldn’t explain it, no one else could understand it. Fear and prejudice were born of ignorance, and the teasing began. By denying the name of our enemy, we left our son without a weapon. He had no tool to control his fear, or the prejudices of others who couldn’t understand why he made strange faces and why he couldn’t sit still.

So we changed battle strategies…

We told our son that he has Tourette Syndrome. We armed him with information and facts. We consulted teachers like Brad Cohen, authors like Dylan Peters, listened to speakers  like Marc Elliot, and other kids with TS. We educated his peers, his teachers, and his friends about it. We gave our enemy a face. We gave our son back his courage and his pride.

Now, my son is surrounded by friends and teachers that support him. They clearly identify his enemy and they’ve got his back every day. He is a member of his school’s Distinguished Honor Roll. He says he doesn’t notice his tics anymore, because he’s too busy and having too much fun to care. My son is the boy who lives.

In our home, we call Tourette Syndrome by its name. And we control our fear of it. If you know a child or parent that needs help understanding and educating others about Tourette Syndrome, the Tourette Syndrome Association can help.

Dec

10, 2010 |

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Those Three Little Words…

How did she do it? I smack the book into my forehead. Bang it over and over again, hoping the seventh knock against my skull might be the magical one. Osmosis. I need to somehow soak up her gift. The ability to capture a kiss in three little words.

So what, you may ask, are those three little words?

“Sweet, soft demolition.” — Kelly Creagh, NEVERMORE

Kelly Creagh manages to do in three little words what most writers struggle to achieve in three overly-written paragraphs, and still does exquisite justice to Varen and Isobel’s kiss. Masterful. I suppose it’s true that sometimes less really is more.

Dec

10, 2010 |

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I Can See Forever…

PaaMul

I wrote Nearly Missed while living in a jungle tree house overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

So, you are probably asking yourself… what does a jungle tree house overlooking the Caribbean Sea look like?

A palapa is an open-sided dwelling with a thatched roof made of dried palm leaves. I can see forever from the roof deck — across the jungle, over the beaches, and all the way to Cozumel — and it’s particularly magical during a meteor shower.

Nov

28, 2010 |

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