Dispatch from London 1: What Plots Await at the Tower of London

Today I toured the Tower of London via Walks, a company that I used when I was in Rome last summer to see the Vatican in all its claustrophic glory. Our guide, Richard, was fantastic at giving us the highlights and lacing humor and factoid into the big picture of how this complex — a village, rather than a tower — served its purpose over centuries as a fortress, palace, prison and epicenter of drama for the royal families of England. 

Maybe writers should try their hands at being walking tour guides. I know a number who could learn a thing or two from Richard.

Anyway, there were so many little details that could lead to amazing stories. I found myself wishing I could go back and major in history along with journalism so I’d feel qualified to write some of these potential topics:

  • “Cromwell’s Mistake:” There’s a conspiracy that when the original Crown Jewels were destroyed by Oliver Cromwell after he overthrew the throne, they weren’t totally burned. So there could be some remnants of the original Crown Jewels floating around out there, but A) you’ll never be able to prove it and B) If you could, you wouldn’t be able to do anything public with them without incuring the wrath of the current royal family. So what happens if someone discovers that the family heirloom is actually centuries old and escaped Cromwell’s purge?
  • “The Whipping Boy:” The term “whipping boy” comes from Henry VIII’s rule. When his only son, the sickly and weak Edward, misbehaved, they wouldn’t punish him like they did other kids — with the whip. Instead, they’d whip one of his friends, the “whipping boy,” and he’d have to watch. Imagine a two-sided story of Edward and his friend, the “whipping boy,” as their friendship is tested by this situation. Of course, Edward died at age 14 after serving only two years as king. I’d like to think this story ends with his coronation.
  • “Two Princes:” When one of the many Richards took the thrown, he was actually usurping it from his nephew, the rightful king, and his nephew’s brother, the rightful second heir. He promised the young boys he’d just lead until they were old enough, and in the meantime they could stay at the Tower of London and learn to fight and joust. The day he was coronated, the boys disappeared, never to be seen again. Their presumable bodies were found buried in an archway under the tower years and years later. I guess if they did DNA testing, they’d be able to confirm that the bodies are indeed theirs, but Queen Elizabeth II won’t let that happen. After all, if they’re confirmed to be the two sons, that puts the legitimacy of the current royal family in jeopardy. I’d love to do a “what if” piece on the rogue anthropologist who submits the DNA for testing anyway.
  • “Jane:” When Henry VIII’s heir was close to dying, one of the court’s highest advisors sought a way to insert his own family into the royal lineup by having his son marry Jane Grey, the most likely (in his mind) to succeed Edward. But what he didn’t count on was Mary, Henry VIII’s firstborn, to show up with an army supporting her claim to the throne. But there she was, and so Lord Guildford Dudley and his wife, Lady Jane Grey, were executed as usurpers. Guildford was executed in the town where everyone could watch, but not until after he had to watch Jane die in the middle of the Tower of London’s courtyard (the same spot where two of Henry VIII’s wives met their end — there’s a lovely monument there now). Guildford apparently scratched “Jane” into the window sill of his quarters, and it’s still their today. Just retelling the story from his perspective would be interesting.

Of course, people probably have already told these stories. I just ordered Lacey Baldwin Smith’s book, English HistoryMad Brief, Irreverant and Pleasurable. If you have a better suggestion, please share it in the comments. I picked Smith’s book because my mom grew up near him and has mentioned him when talking about her childhood. 

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London calling: Another, but far different, airport scene

I’m sitting in the American Airlines Flagship Lounge at O’Hare and it’s a definite departure from the last time I blogged at Chicago’s international air hub. No corned beef and red wine for $20 this time. Now it’s free self-serve champagne (and harder, if you want); a buffet of free sushi, salads, pork loin, you name it; and a PA that announces the next boarding flight when you need to hear it.

What hasn’t changed? The people watching is still spectacular. 

A group of legging-clad women just left after only putting their phones down to doulbe-fist champagne and coconut water. One of them said something about “If she really wants to be a rich-bitch, sure,” and I couldn’t help but think how money can’t buy self-awareness.

An older couple took their spot and tried to decypher their kid’s text mesage to them warning them not to eat too much of the sushi in the buffet. I think the “LOL” threw them off.

And now I’m anxiously awaiting the announcement that my flight to London is boarding so I can get my A1 seat in business class. I sold my soul to corporate almost four years ago, and today I don’t particularly regret it.

But a note: While I’m in London, I’m going to try my hardest to post once a day, either a “scene of the write” or a part of the book I’m working on in between running a senior leadership meeting, touring one of our company’s factories, and trying not to get lost on the Bakerloo line. Thought what could be better than hearing Helen Mirren announce that you’re on a subway line called “Bakerloo?”

Writespiration: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama

Trust me, when I cracked open Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, the last thing I expected to get out of it was writing inspiration. An increased respect for one of my heroes, inside look into the Obama administration, and painful nostalgia at how far we’ve fallen since her time in the White House, sure. But who on earth would turn to the memoir of a former First Lady and forever champion of children, equal rights, health and fitness for a pep talk on writing?

But there it was, page 43. 

“Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.”

Obama was writing about her elementary school in Chicago’s Southside. In seventh grade, the Chicago Defender ran an opinion piece that claimed Bryn Mawr was a “run-down slum” led with a “ghetto mentality.” Despite protests from the teachers, principal and community saying otherwise, that article contributed to a growing fear that her once diverse neighborhood was finally succumbing to the blight that struck communities affected by White Flight in the 1970s. 

The theme continues throughout the book, and she brings it up a couple other times when describing college and her husband’s 2008 campaign. But when I read that line, I immediately applied it to my writing.

Nobody’s Hero is a wreck right now. I’ve been her before with other projects, most of which are now collecting proverbial dust on a literal hard drive, not even close to being continued, let alone finished. They vary in style and genre, but they all have one thing in common: they were chucked aside as soon as I started feeling like I was failing them.

Reading Obama’s story — the major shifts in her career from lawyer to community advocate, the highs and lows of her husband’s presidency, the love she has for her country — you know she wouldn’t be in a place to tell us her story if she had surrendered to that feeling of failure instead of pushing through.  

All writers have those projects that they stuff away because they become too challenging, too messy. It’s not easy to declare something a failure and move on to the next project, but it can be a lot easier than continuing to work on a book or script or poem that’s complicated to untangle. I wonder how many pieces with great potential we’ve left languishing in forgotten drawers and cyber folders because we never got past the feeling that they were lost causes. 

Another surprise from the book: I have never before read a memoir that I couldn’t put down. I think I literally consumed the whole thing in four sittings (thanks, cross-country flights!) thanks to its candid and conversational writing style. It’s an absolute must-read for anyone contemplating writing a memoir — or writing in general, come to that.

Writespiration: “Sigh” by Unloved from Killing Eve

This song makes me want to smash five bottles of champagne on the floor and dance over the pieces in five-inch stiletto boots made of leather. 

If that seems oddly specific, it’s because you haven’t watched Killing Eve,  a rightfully lauded show that debuted last year and gained Sandra Oh an oh-so-deserved Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. This song appears a couple times in the most tense, plainly cool moments of romance between two women who have yet to meet face-to-face. 

Seriously, watch Killing Eve.

A Nyquil-loaded writer’s review of 2018

A fairly healthy 2018 has decided to bid adieu by deploying a nasty cold in its final days, so I’ve been spending the last 72 ours valiantly fighting it back in hopes that it raises the white Kleenex flag in time for my darling friend Hannah to arrive in Chicago tomorrow afternoon.

On the upside, this gives me plenty of time to write. 

On the downside, this also gives me a great excuse to rewatch seasons 3-5 of Archer because “I need rest.”

So forgive however this year-end recap turns out, as it is a product of Nyquil, procrastination and self-disappointment at said procrastination.

Last year I published several listicles highlighting my favorite 2017 write-spirations. Although this year came with an equal amount of creativity fodder, I grew so tired of reading other “best of 2018” recaps that I decided not to scream into the already loud fray. Yes, we all loved Killing Eve, and Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer was revelatory, as was her live tour. You don’t need yet another person telling you this. (Though really, Killing Eve is marvelous and available on Hulu).

Instead, I thought I’d compose a list that’s probably less SEO-friendly and certainly less replicable, unless everyone commits to selling out Sleigh Bells’ next tour and gets to stand up as a grooms-maid at a friend’s wedding. So here it is, a list of experiences I had this year that contributed to my writing:

1. This year came with a few steps closer to being a published novelist. I had a short story printed in Z Publishing’s Emerging Illinois Writers collection, which I remind myself is how Chuck Palahniuk started — having Chapter 6 of Fight Club appear in an anthology of Oregonian writers. 

I also got signed with TZLA shortly after that because one of their agents liked a tweet I sent out about my then-work-in-progress, Omaha. He has since started submitting it to publishing hoses and recently assured me that “2019 will be a great year!) I’m holding him to that, but I’m not slowing down. 

2. The Man with Time on His Arm, full stop. His creative sense of humor, patience with my complaints about writers’ block and generosity of ear (and input) to my half-cooked story ideas is worthy of a Booker Prize in itself. When I told him Omaha was going to be represented by TZLA, he hugged me and said he was proud of me, and honestly it meant more to me than if he had said “I love you.”*

*Sub-item: I built on my wealth of material for a romantic dramedy by saying “I love you” during the intermission of Dita Von Teese’s Chicago House of Blues burlesque show on May 18. I was very drunk on vodka. The timing was wrong, but the sentiment was not.

3. In June I spent ten days in Barcelona and Rome, and talk about inspiration. Not only did I see the palace that belonged to Livia — the wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus and poisoner of probably a hundred different people, all in the name of becoming a goddess (can you say diva, queen and legend all at once?) — but I also walked the streets where artistic revolutionaries like Botticelli, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway once walked. It sounds cliche, but you can’t escape the hope that some of their brilliance might come home with you on the soles of your fashionable Guess walking sandals. 

4. I was part of my friend Ryan’s wedding party and stood (though things got shaky for a minute there) in Louboutin heels and a tuxedo among some people he’s known far longer and better than me. More potential romantic dramedy material: however: I once was in a (weird, long-distance) relationship with the officiant, so naturally….everything was fine, and the lack of memoir-worthy hijinx was the only complaint I could make about the whole event, unless you count introducing a Missouri-bred bachelor party to Malort early enough in the evening so they would really remember it. 

Unfortunately, being this fresh off the Keelers’ nuptuals has led me to shelve my short story, “The Wedding,” due to an entire plot premise that could be terribly misconstrued for a reimagining of the ceremony and events leading up to it. Stay tuned in 2020, if not later.

5. Despite losing a toenail and being slightly bruised the next morning, I had the time of my post-apocalyptic life in the mosh pit at Sleigh Bells’ Chicago show. But I already wrote about that. Other life-changing musical events included seeing Elton John in the flesh and being just a tackle’s distance away from Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, as he sprinted past me on the main floor of his stadium show. The man knows how to wear thin linen pants. 

I was going to continue this post with a list of 2019 goals, but the Nyquil is really kicking in now, and the letters are starting to look a little wobbily. Remembering how my roommate in college posted four solid tweets of nonsense under the influence of the miracle flu-drug, I think I’ll sign off now while I stay coherent.

Foot.

Teddy bear.

Suitcase.

Four-poster bed.

Trigonometry.

Auld lang syne.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Post mortem: A landfill of chaos

I’ve been away from the blog for a while because I’ve been recouperating — in all aspects of life: sleep, social, day job, reading. Turns out devoting all of November to 50,000 words of a book really detracts from, well, everything else.

But here I am, 50,788 words later, with 2018’s National Novel Writing Month behind me. Goal achieved. Book…in progress.

Because that’s really all this year’s NaNoWriMo accomplished, really. By the middle of the month I abandoned my usual approach of “write with a few plot points in mind and the connective tissue will come together naturally.” Instead, I found myself writing blurbs, scenes, and conversations in roughly the order I expect they’ll appear in the final product. 

I gotta say, my first three chapters are super tight, and there’s some real filth that would make EL James blush.  

In 2017, I wrote Omaha, the book that I had been planning for three years, submitted a detailed synopsis for, and promised to an interested agent. With Omaha currently “in sub” (a term I learned from a fellow corporate novelist that means “in submission with publishers”), I was both blessed and cursed with lower stakes this year. And that allowed me more wiggle room to write whatever parts of the book I wanted. 

But that’s the point of NaNoWriMo, as most participants understand. Author Chuck Wendig has the best, or at least most colorful,  perspective on the 50,000-word, 30-daylong sprint:

“What once was an innocent tract of unbroken order is now a landfill of chaos….That, I think, is the guiding principle of National Novel Writing Month: you are here not for purity, not for innocence, not for perfection. You are here to ruin a perfectly good empty page. And that isn’t just the purview of this month — but it’s writing any story, on any day.”

In a different blog post, Wendig also points out that you don’t win NaNoWriMo by hitting the 50,000 word mark by 11:59 p.m. local time on Nov. 30 — you win when you finish the book. And I agree. Here I sit with 81 pages of everything from full chapters to quippy five-sentence paragaphs that have to eventually get strung together into somethign coherent, and I don’t feel like I jogged across the finish line triumphantly but rather scratched my way across it, breaking a few nails along the pavement.

(Apologies to anyone like me who still feels their sphincter tighten when they think about that shot from inside Buffalo Bill’s well in Silence of the Lambs.) 

So as I finally sit down with enough energy to do a post-mortem on my work in November, I recognize that I’m far from winning NaNoWriMo, regardless of the snappy e-certificate they sent me. There’s a lot of work to be done, and I eb in and out of excitement and dread at it. But it’ll get done, and I’m a lot further along than I was in October.

Now it’s just time to bring some order to the landfill of chaos.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 19: An artist known as Epsom

The sculpture garden had exactly seven lifesize clay statues, donated to the gala by a nephew of one of the board of directors. His name was Matthew Gimley Solomon IV — a curse of a name handed down from grandfather to father to son to grandson — but the underground art world knew him better as Epsom. It was a little science joke he had created when he learned his initials, MgSO4, were also the formula for magnesium sulfate, better known as epsom salts.

It wasn’t that his work for the Gladstone Gala sculpture garden was particularly good. All seven statues were of humanoid creatures — an angel, a demon, a little girl, a little boy, a sorcerer, an archer, and an oracle carved from stone and each possessing a single rusted-metal feature — and while they demonstrated his talent for sculpture, they didn’t showcase any of the creative spirit he put into his other work, which was too avant-garde for this crowd. The board wanted to show open-mindedness by spotlighting the work of a one-name artist but not alienate their more traditional — and generous — donors, so while they allowed Epsom to go by his art name, they asked that he refrain from his usual melting-wax statues of screaming refugee children or towering spires made of tarnished wristwatches with broken glass faces.  

Matthew Gimley Solomon IV had put up a fight for appearances sake before publicly acknowledging that in the spirit of hope and healing, he would be creating something “new and fresh for the gala that aligned with the foundation’s values and hope for a better world.” What he really did was go into the old storage unit he rented for unwanted work and taken a feather duster to a seven-piece collection he completed in his second year at art school. Some repairs should have been made to the metal embellishments, as a couple pieces had submitted to time and rust to loosen from their clay holds, but Epsom couldn’t be bothered. A bitter taste flooded his mouth as he remembered how the professor had given him a passing grade with a neon yellow post-it note that read “Great technique, but no heart.” On the upside, those five words had inspired him to make his work all heart, with very little technique. On the downside, that approach had gotten him kicked out of the school. 

Epsom had refused to attend the gala, insisting that he had another appearance priorly arranged. He was present for the installation of his seven clay-and-metal creatures but left under the cover of a hoodie and jogging pants before the guests had arrived. The only appearance he had to make that night was a date with a former Calvin Klein underwear model at his penthouse where there was always a bottle of Moet in the fridge and box of condoms in the nightstand drawer. 

So he had no idea that his mediocre art school project was about to become the focal point of a vigilante-villain showdown.