Tag Archives: Life & all that Jazz

A Postcard from Lugano II

Lago di Lugano, Switzerland, with San Salvtore beneath the moon.

Lago di Lugano, Switzerland, with San Salvtore beneath the moon.

I’ve been absent from posting for a few weeks now, as I was away on holiday and I left most of my writing at home.  Most.  Last summer I wrote you the first Postcard from Lugano; and I will say that not much has changed.  It’s still beautiful, with lazy hot days with a cool breeze coming off the lake, and warm evenings with glistening stars  overhead and a glittering city below.  This first photo was taken at about 4 in the morning (I have no sleeping rhythm, which is handy when such scenes present themselves).

 

Villa Helios:  The back of the mansion with the terraced walk leading toward the lake.  Under renovation.

Villa Helios: The back of the mansion with the terraced walk leading toward the lake. Under renovation.

But as I told you, I left most of my writing at home – not all.  When in Lugano, I’ve been working on a novel the past few years; it started out as a fun idea to explore, and gradually developed into a  more serious endeavor.  I thought I’d share it with you as it may inspire you to take on such a writing project of your own on holidays (it may not classify as travel writing per se, though in some ways [like my postcards] it may at times take on those characteristics):  Our family flat overlooks a sprawling mansion that we have watched decay from neglect for over 20 years; it was most likely trapped in an inheritance dispute.  It had been boarded up, its windows bricked in, its magnificent garden going wild until it was an impassable jumble of green.  About three or four years ago suddenly a crane was set up, and renovations began!  Of course it sparked my writer’s brain – who had inherited it, or purchased it?  What was its history?  From the looks of it I will have several more years to ponder its end as the renovations continue; but by now the gardens and the terraced walls have been brought to life, a new drive laid with mosaic stones, and the house itself has been set free of its bricked-over, blinded windows, the roof replaced, and the beautiful stones (I would venture to guess Bath Freestone) sand-blasted and cleaned to their pristine beauty.

Villa Helios, as seen from our balcony.

Villa Helios, as seen from our balcony.

Called Villa Helios, it was designed by architect Otto Maraini, who was born in Lugano on 8 November 1863 and died there 16 January 1944. Villa Helios in Castagnola was built in 1901-1902, including a series of walls and terraces that formed part of the lake shore.  I came across a few historical photos at arteeidee – thank you to them for sharing the old magazine photos (“The Modern Building” monthly magazine of architecture and construction practice, August 1904)!  Check out that blog post for the older photos (click on them to enlarge); The photos I’ve added here are current shots.  I’ll just say two things about the crane:  Note the box hanging from it, near the vertical shaft – that is the tool crate, hung up at the end of work days to deter construction site thieves.  Also, though the crane interrupts our view of Lugano at times (it shifts freely with the wind when not in use, so sometimes we barely see it), it gives us a brilliant view of birds that take over when the workers are gone – there’s a constant conversation between the seagulls and the Hooded crows.  I’d love to do more research on this building, but most of the information is in Italian, which I can fight my way through only passably, but as I said I still have plenty of time.  That’s the beauty of holidays.

To you writers out there:  Find an interesting old building in your own area, research into its history, and create a story with the building as one of the characters and not merely a location.

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One-Sentence Stories

One of the most challenging things as a writer is to remain succinct; “every word counts” needs to be printed on the back of my hands whether I’m working on a book manuscript, writing to a friend, or answering grammar questions on a forum I lead.  Occasional ramblings are far more acceptable than chronic ones; everyone has a friend, acquaintance or family member who rambles (or – you know who you are!):  I have a neighbour near our building who can turn the reply to a simple, “How are you?” into a 45-minute explanation of how her cousin’s frog’s nephew’s classmate’s teacher’s son’s uncle came by with a blue – or was it green?  You know the kind of green that looks like wilting grass, no, that’s too yellow… by the time she takes a breath she’s gone down so many detours I have NO idea what she’s talking about, or even what the original question was.  Needless to say, when I’m on a deadline I politely avoid that side of the house.

I’ve come across a website that would be a literal impossibility for that neighbour, and would even be a challenge for many of us who consider ourselves to personify the phrase, “brevity is the soul of wit”:  Click on the image below to see “One Sentence – True Stories Told in One Sentence”.  Take the challenge – can you write a story in one sentence?  And take inspiration from the site as well; there are some great starter-sentences there that could be expanded upon to make a short story, or even a novel.

Note:  Since this was originally posted, the site at the link below has gone offline.  Instead, just go to Google and search for “one-sentence stories“, and you’ll come across several great options.

That One Sentence

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How To Boost Your Focus

I’m probably the most organised person I know; I’m not OCD about it, I just work better when things are organised.  Writing a book means that I accumulate bits and pieces of information, research facts, website links, editing tips, formatting guidelines, historical trivia that I can integrate into my plot (but only if I can find it when I get there), maps, diagrams, lists of names in various languages, grammar points to remember (I’ve made up a word for “points to remember” – poitrems – you heard it here first), How-To cheat-sheets for PhotoShop, publication checklists (pre- and post-), Shelfari to-dos, and… need I continue?  I’m just getting started.  And that’s my point.  If I’m not organised, I’ll waste half my day looking for something… where did I put that note about the dimensions of a modern casket?  Was it hot arsenic or cyanide that smells like garlic?  Are blue diamonds more valuable than pure white?  What kind of micro-organism poops arsenic?  A friend of mine complimented me one day when I told her some of the things I was researching; she said, “You’re just weird.”  And it’s something my husband repeats fondly on a regular basis.

So, I’d like to share a few of my organisational tips with you:

1)  Know thyself.  Know your weaknesses (You know, those distractions, procrastination excuses, time-eating habits like “just checking into Facebook for a minute before I sit down to write” and an hour later you’re hungry, then you see that the kitchen needs cleaning… you know who you are.).  Recognize those time-wasters, and nip them in the bud before they mushroom into a day wasted.  Keep your cell phone at a safe distance; wear earplugs if you need to; turn on music if it helps you focus, turn it off if it distracts you.  Write down points to research and only dive into research when you have 5 items on the list (and stay away from time-monster sites like Facebook and Youtube while you’re working!)

Character Profile Worksheet 12)  Find a system that works for you.  I organise my notes, etc. in various ways:  I have pocket-sized Moleskin books for quick reference character profiles, lists of words, family trees of characters, etc.; I also have lined notebooks with those heavy-duty post-it tabs labelling the sections (that are well-spaced apart for future additions); I write the section names on the front and back of those tabs so that I can find it from either way the notebook lands on my desk.  For instance, one notebook I always have at hand has sections like publications, pre- & post- publication to-dos, paperback formatting checklist, KDP guidelines, CreateSpace guidelines, grammar, PhotoShop Elements helps, editing checklists, proofing checklists, Beta checklists, and step-by-step guides for various publication formats.  Another notebook I keep on hand has things like time-related notes (Julian calendar terms, Ages [Stone Age = ~6,000-2,000 BC], etc.), medical notes (that’s where I put that note about modern casket dimensions), glossaries for archaeological terms, 18th century England notes, lists of museum curators’ names, phone numbers and emails, etc.  Besides notebooks, I keep “cards” – here’s an example (to the right):  I type up the information in PowerPoint, then save each “card” to .jpg format through MS Paint.  These cards are then saved onto my Tab through Dropbox, and Bob’s your uncle, I’ve got them handy whether I’m writing on the couch, on holiday, or in a café.

Pomodoro Time Management Tips3) Learn to focus.  I’ve recently found a great way to focus better through those hours of the day and night when I know I’m going to be most distracted:  It’s called Focus Booster.  It’s basically a timer on your desktop that counts down time increments, with an additional break-time at the end of each cycle.  The standard unit of time is 25/5, though you can adjust it to your rhythm.  The thinking is that anyone can focus on a given task for 25 minutes, even those who struggle with ADD.  In using it, I’ve realized how often I get distracted by a thought that comes into my mind while writing and I get up to do something quickly.  This way, I stay working for a solid amount of time, and use that 5 minutes to switch gears and get other things done; it’s amazing how much you can get accomplished in 30 minutes.  I’d encourage you to download it and give it a try if you struggle with concentration.  Here’s a second card I’ve made with the basic principles for the Booster.

Those are just a few ideas; if you struggle with a specific area, or would like suggestions on dealing with specific challenges in focusing, just ask away!  Focus well, and your writing will flow so much more smoothly and swiftly.

 

 

 

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Writing to Distraction!

Squirrel_DugIf you’re a writer you know exactly what that title means.  Working on a project usually requires research; I don’t know what I’d do without internet connection, honestly – I’m too busy to take a day and plough through the local library, and as my local library consists of 99.9% German books anyway it’s not very helpful for writing English novels.  I have an extensive library here at home, and my research section is better equipped than the public library… but I digress.  Sometimes distractions come at you from every side; I feel like those dogs in “Up”… Squirrel!

And that’s the point.  Let’s say I go to YouTube for research:  It’s a great place to find out how to do just about anything, from how to throw a keris dagger and the aerodynamic difference between the wavy and the straight blade; how to make a vase out of a plastic bottle; how to make yarn from plastic bags; how to make an emergency stove out of a coke can or a light bulb out of a PET bottle with water, and the list goes on and on and on and on.  There are also hundreds of documentaries available on YouTube, from entertainment like the Horrible Histories series, to astronomy, science, history, you name it.  But if you’re like me you are interested in all of the above; and like Pringles, it’s hard to watch just one.  When I need a change of pace I also like to watch things on YouTube like the Actor’s Studio series, or talk show interviews (and we don’t have English-language television channels, which is actually fine by me – we use our television for sports programs and DVDs – but I digress.  Again.).  And YouTube is just one resource.  I have dozens of links to glossaries, websites that specialize in various aspects of history, science, technology, historical fashions, linguistics, etymology or other areas of interest, reference and research.

An important rule in dealing with online information is to have it confirmed by legitimate sources before using it, for instance, as a basis for anything substantial in a novel or other work of literature.  That rule has led me more than once to buying a book online.  In researching for The Price of Freedom and Redemption, I was especially frustrated with online research in the area of accurate apparel:  1788 was a world of difference in England to 1790, as the French Revolution changed fashion sensibilities in England – people distanced themselves from France, and patriotic influences as well as English fashion designers and trend setters came into their own more because of the vacuum.  But most online research that I came across either had the 18th century all lumped into one style, or “1700 to 1750” and “the latter half of the 18th century” which meant “French Revolution and thereafter” nine times out of ten.  Dubious at best, that.  Not even contemporary paintings are an accurate reference, as many of the “new middlings” had their clothing, and even background houses and gardens, “augmented” (read “upgraded”) for their paintings to add elegance to their new money.  And often, when I search for “18th century” I come across sites that actually mean the 1800s (that is, the 19th century).  My definitive source of information on that topic has become “The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England.”

So in trying to find one tiny little detail for fleshing out a scene, one can spend hours surfing, reading, searching, scanning and getting distracted by something else interesting along the way.  Yesterday I spent hours trying to find online PDFs or text of any kind from actual October 1789 The Times (London) newspaper (I’d have been satisfied with any month of that year!), just to find out what topics were being written about in the newspaper at the time aside from the Revolution.  What were the gossip columns writing about?  What kind of advertisements were there?  What were things considered newsworthy in that newspaper that year?  So far, Research – zilch, Time Spent – 3+ hours.  I looked at archives.com, Google images… nothing.  If anyone knows a resource for that, please let me know!! (If you think it would be impossible to find such old bits and pieces online in the cyber age, think again; I’ve found all kinds of documents far older that have been digitalized; someone out there is interested in it besides me, and chances are, someone has uploaded it into cyberspace; it’s just a matter of finding it in the static of cutesy videos and brainless teenage selfies…)

It can be so easy, and so enticing, to “waste” hours researching.  I try to follow two rules, and perhaps they’ll help you save time as well:

1)  Set a time limit for research.  When I need a break from the manuscript, but I don’t want to stray too far, I look at the clock and set myself one hour to find something on my research list.

2)  Make that research list; as you’re writing, keep a list somewhere (I have an e-post-it on my desktop) of things you’ll need to research, and do it all at once or in organized chunks.  It helps keep you focused on the manuscript, and makes the time you spend both on and off the actual script more efficient.

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Lost in Translation: Foreign Signs

I love it when signs or notices are translated by non-mother tongue English speakers;it can be anything from cute to funny, misleading or just downright embarrassing.  I especially love Asian translations!  Here are a few examples.

Lost in Translation 1 Lost in Translation 2 Lost in Translation 9 Lost in Translation 11 Lost in Translation 23

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60 Uncommon Things Men Find Attractive About Women

Here’s a list that proves attraction is just weird, and that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder! I find this interesting especially because of the possibilities for finding that quirky element for building fictional characters. Enjoy, and be inspired to write depth and breadth!  Click on the image below to view the article:

Shutterstock

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It’s a Small World After All

What happens when complete strangers, from enemy-nations, meet face to face?  Or in this case, screen to screen?  Smiles, and the realisation that at the core, humanity transcends race, colour, creed, nationality, culture and language.  Coca-Cola engineered the experience; unfortunately it’s not a permanent installation due to the complex technology involved, but what if it one day could be a permanent fixture?  So many people are alone in a crowd; it would be a possibility to connect with a stranger face to face, and maybe in the process, even meet a new friend.  To read the article and see the video, please click on the image below.

Small World 2

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5 Inspiring Gadgets

Once in a while I like to go surfing… internet, that is.  I like to search for inspiring images, whether people, architecture, Hi-Tech, transportation, or whatever floats my boat.  I come across them through a wide range of sites, and I’ve collected them for so long that I have no idea where some of them are from, but I hope that they will inspire you to go surfing, and find them on the original sites, read the articles, and be amazed, awed, or just dumb-founded.  So without further ado, here are a few gadgets:

1:  Airless tires.  How cool is that?!

Airless Tires

2: Blood-powered tattoo display.  It’s perhaps just a matter of time.  I wonder what all of those people will do who are already covered with tattoos? “Oops, lost the phone again… I know it’s on my arm somewhere…”

blood-powered-tattoo-display-gadget

3: Insect Spy Drone.  Whether or not it’s really in production by the US government, it’s either a frightening thought, or inspiring for Sci-Fi writers… either way, feel free to swat mosquitoes, even if they’re multi-million dollar ones.

Insect Spy drones

4:  The Skin Gun was developed by Jörg C. Gerlach and colleagues at Stem Cell Systems GmbH in Berlin.  It replicates the healthy skin of burn victims, injecting it straight onto the burn area to grow new skin, avoiding skin-graft rejections.

The Skin Gun, developed by Jörg C. Gerlach at Stem Cell Systems GmbH in Berlin

5:  Duluth, GA-based global systems integrations firm Polytron – transparent cell phone.  I know a lot of teenagers who already have enough trouble keeping track of where they saw their phone last.  Now make it invisible… that’s either a fun prank, or just mean.  Either way, it’s cool.

Duluth, GA-based global systems integrations firm Polytron - transparent cell phone

 

 

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Food and a Hug

There are restaurants, and then there are places that serve experiences.  Here is an amazing story of Tim Harris, restaurant owner, 10-time Olympic medalist, and a hugger.  Yep.  He serves food and a great hug.  And he might also have the distinction of being the only owner of a restaurant who also happens to have Down Syndrome.  And he’s so right:  People with disabilities are a gift to the world.  Through their perspectives and challenges, love of life and courage to face it with a smile (even though they have moods along with the rest of us!), we can learn to appreciate what we have, and take each day as a gift.  Click on the photo below to follow the story, and come out smiling!

Tim Harris's Restaurant

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On Getting an Education

Christmas is over and schools are starting back up this coming Monday here in Switzerland.  We all know the adage of the older generation answering the complaints of the younger generation about going to school with, “When I was your age, I (fill in the blanks)____________ (had to cross a snow storm on my hands and knees every day / rode a horse sixty miles one way / had to eat the horse halfway to avoid starvation…).”

I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but here children need to know what they want to do with their careers by the time they’re 12 or 13 so that they can begin training specifically in maths or sciences toward that goal.  I don’t know about you, but I never thought that far ahead at that age!  I don’t know a child who does; so it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on them at a far too early age, if you ask me.  Having said that, children here don’t have to traverse war zones, landmine fields, or floods to get to their school here.  Some may have to cross mountains, but they do so in a school bus.  Yet for all of that, education is one of the most precious assets on the planet; with it, the world lays open before us; without it, opportunities often remain just out of reach, or so far away that they’re completely out of sight.

So the next time you hear a teenager you know complain about going to school, just show them the photos from the link by clicking on the images below, and may we all remember to count our blessings!

risking-lives-for-school[2]

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