Friday, November 27, 2009

Remembering the Present

I have this odd holiday ritual. At some point during the day, I slip away from the festivities, find a quiet place, then close my eyes and try to take in every single detail of the celebration: The people. The voices. The laughter. The music. The food (I pay special attention to the food). Who and where my friends are. The clothes I’m wearing. What my hair looks like (even if it’s a bad hair day). The weather. The conversations. Everything.

Of course, I take in all those joyful moments, but if there are times of stress, I think about that too. Good or bad. Ordinary or remarkable. Whatever is happening during the day, I let it sink inside me.

This year, I noted that seemingly arbitrary sentences caused my older brother to break out in song, that my sister’s homemade gluten-free pizza is getting better and better, that my niece seems like she’s at a great place in her life and that those super cute shoes I found in the back of my closet were way too tight (btw, there’s always a very good reason why you stopped wearing shoes stored in the back of your closet. It’s best not to put them on ever again.)

I’m not sure how this started, but I’ve been doing it ever since I was a child. I wonder if it came from a book I read. Some of my best ideas came from those middle grade books.

After I’m convinced that I’ve taken in every detail, I tell myself to remember. Then I imagine all those holiday images wrapped up and stored somewhere in my mind. I hope I’ll be able to retrieve them in the future. After all, you never know when you’ll need a memory.

(The shrimp in the picture was cooked by my younger brother for one of our holiday celebrations and is definitely worth remembering)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Other Side of the Reference Desk: A 24/7 Librarian

It’s 2 am. The house is quiet. You’re busy writing. It’s all good. But by 2:01, you've hit a roadblock. You can’t write another thing because you need a piece of information that will change the course of your w.i.p. Your entire novel rests on your finding this wonderful and interesting little bit of info. (Okay. I know there’s a lot of good NaNoWriMo-type advice which says you should keep writing and deal with the information crisis later. But stay with me on this one).

Suddenly, you need to do a little research. You could hop on Google and wade through tons of sites or ignore all those caveats about wikis and head straight to Wikipedia (if you don’t know about the pros and cons of wiki-info, stay tuned for a future post). Or you can ask a librarian.

That’s right. At 2:01am you can chat with a real live librarian. Many libraries or state library systems have a 24/7 library service that allow you to ask your question and get some help.

I’m one of the hundreds of librarians who participate in a program called QandA NJ, New Jersey’s 24 hour library service. Here’s the inside scoop of how it works. We all have different shifts where we log onto a site and wait for questions. Customers hop onto the site and ask us what they need to know. Then we find answers. We also give quick lessons on how we found the info or offer suggestions for how to find resources if you've got a major research project.

Think about it. Right now as you’re reading this blog post, there’s an army of librarians waiting for your questions.

To find out if your area has a 24/7 library service, go to your library’s webpage or give your local library a call. Below are only some of the 24/7 virtual library services. I'll post more links as I find them.

New Jersey

Next time you have a pressing information need, try asking a 24/7 librarian. (btw, notice my dog, Chi, is sporting a baseball cap that says QandANJ)

Added info: Here's a list of "Ask a Librarian" services in the United States.
(Thanks Beth Cackowski of QandANJ for this great list)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Other Side of the Reference Desk: A Writer Puts on Her Librarian Hat

So let’s say your main character’s parents own a funeral home and a single engine prop Cessna airplane. They just learned that the body of dearly departed Great Aunt Wilma is 500 miles away. Poor Wilma died while dancing the tango at the Professional Elvis Impersonator’s Convention. Even though the weather looks grim, Mom is going to hop in the plane to bring Aunt Wilma home. (Of course she promises to be back in time for your main character’s big soccer game).

Sound plausible? Well, I have a few questions. First does a body fit into a single prop engine Cessna? Would a mortician fly a plane with an impending storm? Would Aunt Wilma really get one last airplane ride? And would she still be dressed as Elvis?

If someone came into my library with these questions, I’d tell them to contact the Flying Funeral Directors of America. This is an association for licensed airplane pilots who are also in the funeral industry. According to their blurb, the organization enables members “to participate in two activities which are very much a part of their lives: funeral services and aviation.” I suspect that one of the 100 members of this group would have some answers.

I’ve found answers to some of my most challenging reference questions by contacting associations, like the Flying Funeral Directors of America. I’m amazed at how generous people are with their time and knowledge.

There’s an association for everything. They exist for professions, hobbies, fan clubs, medical problems, trades, sports, unions, governments, religious affiliations, ethnic groups, patriotic groups, veteran’s organizations, cultural groups..the list goes on. You can find over 150,000 of them in The Encyclopedia of Associations (Gale Publishing Group, Detroit). This multi-volume treasure is available in many libraries and is a favorite of librarians.

As a writer, I use the Encyclopedia of Associations as a starting point for my research. When I needed to know what jails were like in the Mississippi Delta in 1926, I made a phone call to American Jails Association. In one twenty-minute conversation, I learned about jails in the twenties, about the current size of the jail in my own county and about a sheriff in the 1800’s who believed that his prisoners could exist solely on a diet of tomato juice. I also received a few complementary issues of American Jails magazine. For another story, I needed to know what could make a pet squid sick. A quick email to the American Malacological Society and I had an answer.

Here are a few hints when contacting associations:

*Be respectful of the person’s time. I write down my questions beforehand to try to keep them brief.

*When you call an association, try to get past the receptionist. Introduce yourself, tell him what you’re looking for and ask if there’s someone who can answer a few quick questions.

*If the association specialist doesn’t have the answers, ask for suggestions about where else you can look. A knowledgeable person in an association can often point you in the right direction.

Next time you’re in your library, take a look at the Encyclopedia of Associations. It's a great resource for writers.

Oh and regarding Aunt Wilma, I have one more question. Do they really dance the tango at Elvis Conventions? Let's check with the Association of Elvis Impersonators.

This is the first of a series. Every Wednesday, there will be a post about fun, quirky, useful resources for writers. Look for future posts on databases vs Google (trust me, it's more interesting than it sounds), the invisible web and very cool reference books. Hope you'll check back.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's In My Writing Space: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I have visions of writing in a beautiful, tranquil space. I can see it now. A giant desk.. no wait.. a table, with nothing on it but wisp of a computer (which despite its tiny size has an exceptionally large screen and a perfect keyboard). I'd be surrounded by books I love and all my favorite objects would be perfectly arranged on bookshelves (ones that were lovingly made to fit contours of the room as opposed to the ones made from medium density fiberboard that you put together yourself). The look would be uncluttered, yet comfortable. Calming yet inspiring. And there would be giant windows overlooking... (okay here's where I'm stuck. I can't decided between a view of the ocean, a mountain lake or the Eiffel Tower) but you get the idea...

In real life, my writing space leaves a lot to be desired. True, it does have a certain charm, if you define charm as tiny, cluttered, and completely devoid of any natural light.

Here's what I like and don't like about my current writing space:

THE GOOD: (where I make an attempt at a serene, orderly, inspirational space)

That's my rock collection, which is filled with thoughtful words like "create" "imagine" "believe". The sparkly "Hope" was a gift from a friend. Right by the door, there's a handmade switch plate with more inspirational words on it. (Do boring generic switch plates bother anyone else? There was a time where I'd proselytize about having creative switch plates. I even made my own out of polymer clay. It's a weird quirk but it makes such a difference in the tone of the room.) Other favorite things include two bulletin boards filled with quotes (more words), a bookshelf (made of medium density fiberboard) filled with my favorite books, some bamboo plants, framed song lyrics and a collection of good luck tokens from various cultures. Oh and chocolate.

THE BAD: Disclaimer: There is nothing in my "bad" category that I want to go away. I'm terribly fond of everything here. But that's the problem. I'm too fond of them.

This is a category of writing distractions (albeit beloved writing distractions). They include family members and friends (sometimes I let them into my space), my dog (who lives underneath my chair), the telephone (even now, it's right next to me), the tbr pile (it should never be this close to your desk). Oh sure, I know that everything here is necessary for a healthy balanced life, but sometimes all that health and balance can take a toll on your writing. That's my dog, Chi, and part of the tbr pile. The book on the bottom is Libba Bray's Going Bovine and Chi can't take her eyes off the cow on the spine.

THE UGLY: Also known as clutter and time zappers

We live in cramped quarters so my writing space also doubles as the room where we put things that we don't know what to do with --like an old footstool and various electronic equipment. It also serves as a pc graveyard. All the formerly used pcs are piled (neatly) in the corner ( I don't know why we keep them, but I digress..). It's also where we toss our unread mail, pay bills, store bills, and do laundry.
Plus these time-zapping items seem to find their way into my space --things like slinkies and bubbles and formadehyde free nail polish (current favorite color is walluka watermelon). Oh and don't get me started on spider solitiare.