Finding inspiration – The Open Road, a novel

I’m pleased to welcome M.M. Holaday to my blog today. You may remember Holaday (aka Nan Johnson) from the story she wrote about Perkins Corner, a post that struck a chord with many readers. Holaday has published her first novel – The Open Road – and it launches this month.

Set in the American West after the Civil War, as settlement hastens the close of the frontier, The Open Road tells the story of two adventurous young men, a horsewoman, and an Arapaho who discover the depths of their character as they tie their fates together in a heart-felt story of friendship. Click here to read my review.

In this post she answers a frequent reader question: ‘Where did you get your inspiration?’

Drawing from the inspiration well

By M.M. Holaday

Writers gather ideas from all sorts of places. For me, a lyric from a song on the radio or a tactile experience like weeding the garden will spark an idea. That random thought is filed for a time when I need to add texture to a story. But then there are other experiences that etch themselves deep into our hearts and minds. As I wrote The Open Road, a poem, a novel, and my grandmother inspired me.

The yearning for connection

I confess I do not understand nor appreciate every line of Song of the open road by Walt Whitman. He goes on and on for forty-plus stanzas; perhaps he is intentionally long-winded to show how journeys themselves are long, winding, sometimes arduous, sometimes delightful, and filled with an array of experiences, moods, and people.

His opening lines are exciting and the most quoted: Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road. Recent Volvo commercials have familiarized more great lines from the poem: The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine. All seems beautiful to me.

The very last lines of the poem, however, grip me and break my heart every time I read them. For all the bravado the traveler expresses about getting out of libraries and into living life, he ends the poem with: Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

In the end, the traveler in the poem wants connection; he wants companionship. The final lines speak volumes to me and inspired much of the plot and interplay between Win, Jeb, and Meg, the main characters in my story.

Importance of place

I read Willa Cather‘s My Antonia for the first time as an adult over 25 years ago. Cather beautifully captures the bittersweet attraction, platonic love, loyalty, caring, independence and interdependence, and ultimately shared memories, between Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda. The connectedness they shared was similar to what I wanted for Win, Jeb and Meg.

In contrast to Whitman’s poem, Cather gives the reader a profound sense of place. Antonia represents home, as the narrator states in the Introduction before Jim takes over telling the story, More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.

Jim’s recollections of his Nebraska prairie farm and Antonia are tightly interwoven; it is impossible to think of one without the other. I wanted to examine the “connection to place” from the different perspectives of Meg, Jeb, Win, and Gray Wolf.

A lively grandmother

A third important influence that helped shape The Open Road was my grandmother. I only knew her as an old woman, but when she was young she taught school and spent her summers working in Yellowstone Park. Before she married, she and her girlfriend sailed for Europe, expanded her world view, and perhaps caught the travel bug that she and my grandfather later shared. In her senior years, she still had infectious energy; her conversations were always lively, but they had substance. She was grounded and steady; I could count on her.

While no character in the book is patterned after anyone I know in real life, Meg comes the closest to being modeled after my grandmother. She embodied the push-pull dynamic of home and adventure that tugged at Meg.

What ideas or inspirations can you trace to specific books, experiences, or people? What made a deep impression?

Author M.M. Holaday

A graduate of St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota Graduate School of Library Science, Nan Johnson (who writes under the pen name M.M. Holaday) is a former reference and rare-book librarian. She lives in Missouri where she writes and where she and her husband maintain a tall grass prairie.

To learn more about Holaday, visit her website.

The Open Road is available on Amazon in hardcover and ebook formats.

Food will win the war – Campaign on the WWI home front

April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the United States entry into the Great War later known as World War I. To mark the anniversary, I’m sharing some information I uncovered as I researched my novel Go Away Home.

When the U.S. entered the war, the country marshaled forces for both the battlefield and home front. One home front initiative was the U.S. Food Administration led by Iowa’s own Herbert Hoover.

Years of fighting in Europe devastated people and farms. The U.S. Food Administration set out to provide food for U.S. troops and our Allies, as well as to feed the people of both continents. Rather than use strict rationing as Europe had done, Hoover choose a food policy based on volunteerism spurred by patriotism. He said:

Our Conception of the problem in the United States is that we should assemble the voluntary effort of the people … We propose to mobilize the spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice in this country.”

Indeed, self-denial and self-sacrifice became rules of the day as Hoover orchestrated a comprehensive campaign under the slogan “Food Will Win the War.” Posters, articles, workshops and educational materials blanketed the country, promoting such approaches as Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays.

The campaign appealed primarily to women since they were responsible for raising food and buying and preparing meals. The campaign offered recipes instructing women on substitutions, e.g. corn syrup or honey for sugar, fish or cheese instead of meat. Instructions encouraged stretching critical resources, e.g. augmenting wheat flour with corn or oat flour.

Waste became a public enemy. Women were counseled to stop waste in connection with such food preparation efforts as peeling potatoes, cutting off bread crusts, throwing out sour milk, meat and chicken bones.

The campaign exhorted men and children to do their part, too, particularly when it came to cleaning their plates.

The effort was a success. Over the course of the campaign, domestic food consumption reduced 15% without rationing. Over a 12-month period from 1918-1919, the United States furnished 18,500,000 tons of food to the Allies.

The campaign continued after the 1918 armistice, sending 20 million tons of food to European allies.

I can’t help but wonder if such a campaign based on personal sacrifice would engage Americans today. What do you think?

 

What can we learn from annoying, repetitive TV ads?

Have you ever been watching your favorite show and wanted to throw a brick through the TV when the fifth Burger King commercial plays in the course of one hour? My husband changes the channel. I head for the kitchen.

As annoying as those repetitious ads are, I know the advertisers understand what I always told my clients when we discussed media strategy.

“You have to hear a message three times to remember you heard it at all. You have to hear it seven times to be willing to act on it.”

Repetition is key in advertising, memory, and art. This tulip is my second project at the shadow color stage.

This basic premise of communication – the importance of repetition – has come home to me in a real way during my pastel art class. I’m hearing everything in that class for the first time. Words I’ve never heard before, like “madder.” Theories for mixing color and building color. Even the names of colors mean nothing to me. Which is Burnt Umber? How does it compare to Raw Umber? Or Burnt Sienna?

Even though I listen attentively and take notes and try my level best to focus, it’s all new to me. Each time I step up to the easel, everything the instructor said disappears in the muddle of unfamiliar words and concepts and ideas. Hence the frustration I talked about last week.

At nine weeks into the class, however, a light switch flicked in my brain. I realized that one rule of pastels was firmly embedded. That rule is this: “The shadow colors are the complements of the local color.”

Those of you with an art background understand this. To those of you without an art background, the idea may be as Greek to you as it was to me. Don’t worry, it’s the point that matters.

Here’s the point. From the very first class, the instructor commented over and over about shadow colors. After he said it three times, I admit I remember hearing him say it. But it was only after he’d repeated the message several more times, after I’d tried it on my own (and erred), and done it again, only then could I say I owned that concept and could act on it in the future with reasonable confidence.

Last week I stepped away from my easel and joined the instructor where he sat keeping all of our easels in view. “I get it about the shadow colors,” I said. “You must have said it seven times.” He smiled.

As annoying as the Burger King ads are, I get it. I’ve heard them so often I’m ready to act. You notice that when they came on, I headed to the kitchen.

 

What’s your experience with repeating messages until they sink in? With your kids? Your spouse? Your writing? Yourself?

Who knew color would be such a challenge?

A box full of color with so much potential.

Anxiety. Hopelessness. Despair. These are the feelings I experienced a couple of months ago, not because of some major life crisis, as you might expect; instead because of the pastels art class I’m taking. This class is the first time in adult memory I’ve found myself in a situation where I have not the first clue what I’m doing.

In the first weeks, with my box of pastels so fresh and ready, I waited like a small child for the instructor to tell me every single step to take. Except I was completely unlike a child. A  child would have jumped into all those beautiful colors and done something.

I admit, as a writer with a lifetime of experience behind me, I’m used to being confident taking on a new project, even when it’s in a new genre. The underlying principles are there; I simply need to use them in a new way. With color, I recognized no underlying principles to rely upon.

The reasons I took the pastel class – to learn something new, to have some fun, to follow through on my life-long desire to ‘do art’ – were lost to me. No matter how often I sought to remind myself to relax, to be open to the experience, to let the learning process unfold as the instructor meant it to, I reached the end of class tired and unhappy.

Then I remembered the 10,000-Hour Rule. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a field. How could I think I’d know anything, let alone be able to create a passable work of art, when I’d only just begun?

We were a couple of weeks into the course when I lamented to the instructor, “In the context of 10,000 hours, I feel like I’m on hour one. Still,” I added, “I can see I’ve learned a couple of things.”

In a deadpan serious way, he responded. “Just wait till you get to hour two.”

Indeed. I’ve grown up knowing the rules and following them. This art class could be no different. But the 10,000-hour perspective, along with my instructor’s humorous response, helped me relax. I could go easier on myself. I could take some time. I could be in the moment.

Since then, I’ve opened up to the experience as I hadn’t before. Two months into the class, I’ve internalized some of the rules. I make a conscious point after each class to take a step back, breathe, and consider what I’ve learned. I’ve made mistakes and learned more. I’m also having some fun.

Have you tackled an unexpectedly difficult new task? How do you gain perspective in the face of a challenge?