Learning from Great Novels-To Kill a Mockingbird


If you’re going to produce good writing, you have to read good writing. In this series we’ll look at some great novels and see what they teach us. We’ll start with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite books. Here are a few things you can take away from this classic. Keep in mind this was the first novel Ms. Lee wrote so don’t think you can’t do great things as a first time novelist.

Write what you know.

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it.” With that one sentence, Harper Lee transports us to a small Alabama town in the 1930’s. You can picture the dusty streets and the faded, clapboard houses that line them. You feel the sun beating down on your arms on a summer day. Why do you leave the place you’re standing in and step into that town? Because she was describing a place she knew well. She set her story in the town she grew up in and you can tell. Good writing is more than the words you put down on the paper. It’s about the emotions and impressions behind them. The more real those feelings are to the writer the more chance the reader will feel them.  So don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s nothing worth writing about in the time and place you know best. There’s drama everywhere.

Base your characters on real people.

This leads to our second point. She based the people she wrote about on people she knew. Atticus Finch had a piece of her father in him.  As she runs through the town, playing with Jem and Dill you are beside them, remembering what your relationships were with your brothers and the kids in the neighborhood. Of course, you can take artistic license. You don’t have to describe everyone to a tee. It’s probably better if you don’t. The rule is: if it serves the story, it stays. You might have to change people a little to get the story told, but imbuing your characters with personality traits from people you know will make them live and breathe to your readers.

Don’t be afraid to tell the good, the bad and the ugly.

Harper Lee writes about Alabama in the 1930’s and she includes negative and positive experiences. You get the sense of a small town community. You see her and Jem being raised by the village. You get to know Atticus as a quiet, courageous man, the type of father anyone would be proud to claim. But you also see the ugly side of the racial issues that were part of that time and place. This makes the story real. We all grew up in the same kind of time and place. There are people and events we love to remember and claim as our own and there are things we’d rather forget. To ground a story in reality both the good and the bad memories have to be there. It might be painful to remember and recount some stories, but that’s the kind of narrative that draws readers in.

I hope this helps. Next we’ll look at one of my favorite books, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marques.

Best Friends

There are some memories that are so vivid you can feel them as if they were happening again. On an unusually warm afternoon in November I walked home from Washington Elementary School with my best friend, Marcella. For some reason we had been let out early on a Friday. In the fifth grade, that’s usually a reason to celebrate.

As we walked we heard conversation among the older kids about the reason for our early dismissal. The president had been shot. We weren’t sure what to make of it. We were growing up in uncertain times. A little more than a year before, we had walked home wondering if the Russian ships had turned around or if there would be a war with atomic weapons. On that sunny afternoon we wanted to know if the Russians had shot our president.

We separated at the driveways that divided our properties, agreeing we would change (there were school clothes and play clothes back then) and meet at Marcella’s house. I can feel myself standing next to her, squinting at the television as the late afternoon sun shone through the living room windows. When a picture of the young, handsome president appeared, the glare made the screen a little hard to see. I shifted my stance to the right a little and saw the graphic in the upper right hand corner. John F. Kennedy 1917-1963.

“I think that means he’s dead,” I said.

“Yes, it does,” she confirmed.

And every November twenty-second since then, when the nightly news carries the inevitable piece about that sad anniversary, I remember that day. I remember standing next to my best friend and learning one of the most frightening things I had ever heard. The next three days are firmly etched in my mind, too. For anyone who was alive then the images of the coffin lying in state, the widow and children paying their respects, the funeral, the cort├Ęge and a host of sad events are all a permanent part of our memories.
First Day of School 1959
And through it all, my best friend was there. We talked about our feelings and the reactions of our parents and the world. And sharing those confusing times with someone I loved and trusted made it bearable.

So it was through many years. Whenever there was something to talk about, something we struggled to understand, we handled it together. We negotiated our way through the births and deaths in our families, the confusing stages of growing into women, matters of war and peace and every big and small event in our town, country and the world.

I want to say ‘thank you’ to Marcella for traveling that road with me. And I encourage everyone to think about the person you considered your best friend when you were growing up. Have you talked to them lately? If not, find them. It’s not hard to do in this information age. Tell them how much they meant and still mean to you. They’re part of who you are.

Four Reasons You Should Be Writing

Second Avenue Story Club is dedicated to the idea that we all have stories to tell. Here are some reasons the effort it takes to write about them is worth it.

1. It’s good for your brain.

The ability to say things correctly and in a manner that is understood by the reader is a bedrock skill of an educated person. Not just for someone who makes his/her living writing, but for anyone in any field. The benefits accrued to the brain and mind by learning to express ideas clearly in the confines of a grammatical structure are invaluable.  In the same way a brisk walk or an aerobic workout makes your body feel good, using your mind to organize and express thoughts makes your brain feel good. You get a ‘brain exercise high’.

2. It’s good for your self.

Writing is a way to express who you are. We all need to be heard. It's essential to happiness to know that what we think and feel is important to at least a few other people. Expressing your thoughts and having someone listen is the antidote to loneliness. People choose from a myriad of ways to express themselves. Some sing, dance or act. Some paint or sculpt. The arts are a uniquely human pursuit. So join in. Express your humanity.

3. You know some great stories.

Some of them have been circling around in your head for a while. They might be things that happened to you, a family member, a friend, or someone in your town. Recently I read a story in a Sunday newspaper about a woman’s struggle to overcome being born on the wrong side of town as a member of a cultural minority. The way she handled the challenges she faced lit up all the lights for me. I’ve tucked it away for future work. If you have a writer inside you, you’ve likely reacted to a story or two in the same way.

4. You’ve always wanted to write.

If this is you, I commiserate. Do you remember how old you were when you decided to write stories for other people to read? I was eleven. Any writer will tell you they write because they have to. They’re not happy if they’re not writing. It’s the same as people who sing, dance, paint, or play an instrument. For a writer, the act of storytelling is a compulsion. Why deny it?

What kind of stories do you want to write? Do you have a great spy novel percolating in your head? Are you a fan of historical fiction? What about a great coming-of-age story? Any of these ideas can be the foundation of a wonderful adventure. Start scribbling down your ideas and get going on your first novel. Take the advice of William Wordsworth, who said “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”


The Perfect Recipe

 A few days ago I was thinking about what to make for dinner. Thumbing through a cookbook, I saw a recipe for homemade pasta. It brought back the same memory that always accompanies homemade pasta. I thought about my grandmother’s gnocci.

Some people call them potato dumplings but to me they’re pasta. We ate them in all the ways people eat pasta, with all the same sauces and toppings. My grandmother made the dough, kneaded it then divided it into smaller portions. On a floured wooden surface she rolled each portion into long, thin ropes. After she cut the ropes into small pieces, it was my job to press down with my thumb on each one, making the indent that’s unique to these little pieces of delight. One of my most cherished memories is of helping my grandmother make gnocci. I say ‘cherished’ now but back then it was a different story.

The truth is, try as she did, my grandmother could not instill in me an appreciation for the domestic arts. I was much more interested in being outside, running around with my friends. I thought it was fun to eat gnocci but I had no desire to be stuck in the house making them while the world went by outside the window. It gave me the feeling I was missing something.
My grandmother, circa 1950

Now I realize I was missing something by running out the door so quickly. I have no idea what my grandmother’s recipe for gnocci was. I’ve found some good ones online and they suffice, I suppose, but I wish I could tell you how she made that dough. Like so many great cooks of her generation, my grandmother did not write down her recipes. She cooked from memory. I’m sorry to say the recipe for that gnocci dough is not in my memory.

One recipe isn’t so big a deal but the principle applies to so many things, especially collecting and writing a family history or memoir. People’s memories go with them and no one has forever. So if the idea of writing a family history appeals to you, don’t wait.  Start now, while the thought is fresh, collecting those stories and writing them down.

If you have memories of being in the kitchen with your grandmother or your mother or your aunts, that’s a great place to start. Think about the aromas, the tastes, the conversations that made up those experiences. Maybe that’s where you heard many of the great stories you know about your family. Working together seems to loosen people’s tongues, particularly when it happens around food.

Wherever your memories are centered, make sure they’re not lost. Take the time to collect them and to write them down. It’s admittedly difficult in this busy life to find the time to reflect and to record those stories but the rewards are more than worth the effort. It might help to start by carving out ten minutes at the beginning or at end of your day. If you do that on a regular basis you’ll have a good amount of material in a short time.

Don’t lose the perfect recipe or the perfect story. Write it down so everyone can have a taste.


The Storyteller’s Art

Have you ever listened to someone tell a story, sometimes about a serious or even dramatic subject, and found yourself bored and anxious for the person to stop talking? Their narrative just doesn’t hold you. On the other hand, do you know people who keep everyone on the edge of their seats with accounts of the most everyday events? What makes the two experiences so different? The first person has no idea of how to relate events in a way that holds our attention. The second one knows the storyteller’s art.

Is the storyteller’s art something you are either born with or not? Some people do seem to have a head start. Don’t despair if you feel you’re not a natural, though. Storytelling is an art, but also a craft and, as such, can be learned and developed like any other skill. What’s the first step? Ray Bradbury, one of the most instinctive storytellers ever, had a deceptively simple piece of advice.  You have to read.

“I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves – you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.”

In that comment you can hear his passion for the world of stories and ideas.  That passion drove him to read, literally, everything he could get his hands on. And he wrote…and wrote…and wrote. So how do we become skillful at the art and craft of weaving stories that hold people’s attention and move them? Ray Bradbury had a thought on that.

“I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true – hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice.”

So set some time aside. Carve out a little space in your day, even if it’s not as long as you would like it to be, to write. We’re not talking about thinking about writing. We mean writing.  People who want to write usually have more than one story running around in their head waiting to be told.

It’s like coffee percolating on the stove in one those old metal coffee pots. It started to boil then you could watch the coffee being forced up into the glass knob on top of the pot. And you thought about now good the coffee would taste. And you watched the pot as it percolated. And you thought about how good the coffee would taste. And you kept watching the pot. It would have been all for nothing if you hadn’t taken the pot off the stove and enjoyed a great cup of coffee!

“We are all cups, constantly and quietly being filled,” Bradbury said. “The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”  
The challenge is to find the time to tip ourselves over and let some of the good things out that have been percolating. Start with fifteen minutes. Make yourself sit down and write about what’s on your mind. Do it everyday and it will turn into half an hour before you know it. Guess what will happen to the half hour. That’s right. It will become an hour. Writing will be a habit. And once you tip the cup over, who knows what beautiful things will come out?


Summer Wine

We’ve been discussing the idea of becoming your family’s historian.  A fictionalized memoir is one way to approach the task. This form will allow you to use some of the allowances of fiction to tell the stories that are important to you.

The characters can be as closely based on the people who inhabited your world as the story needs them to be. No one lives alone, so your alter ego needs a family. Why not use your own as the basis or type for the one that lives in your story? Everything has to happen someplace. Why not the neighborhood you know best? The setting can be exactly the place you remember or one you’ve created by combining your street with an imagined lane.

All of this comes to mind today because Ray Bradbury died recently at the age of 91. His novel Dandelion Wine is one of the best examples of the art of using imagination to tell the story of growing up. Dandelion Wine is Mr. Bradbury’s recounting of the summer of a twelve year boy, Douglas Spaulding. Douglas is growing up in Green Town Illinois, a place full of beautiful moments and awful fears. Mr. Bradbury wrote about his childhood often and the novel came out of that habit. 

What better place for a writer to start? Childhood is a time of vivid and dramatic memories. We remember the sun shining more brightly, the trees being fuller, everything being bigger and the people around us were heroes or villains, nothing in between. And is there a more evocative time than summer? The days are long and lazy and you’re waking up when your dreams end instead of being jolted awake by the call of the school day. Most important, childhood is a time of wonder.

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds,” Mr. Bradbury wrote. “See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

No one wrote about the wonder of living better than Ray Bradbury. He was able to keep that sense of every minute being a miracle throughout his life. That’s not easy to do. Obligations, deadlines and the most menial of tasks can drown it out. The writer, more than anyone, needs to maintain that surprise at the beauty of being conscious.

So where do you start? The elements of telling a story are always the same. We create drama by giving a protagonist a goal and putting obstacles in his/her way. The motivations that move her will have emotional dimension if you inhabit the character, so start with yourself. How would you have handled the drama you’ve created? Once your main character starts to react, your story will move along.

“Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write,” Ray Bradbury advised. “The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”

That ranks with the greatest advice on writing I’ve ever read.

So don’t hesitate. Push off from the shore and start to float. As you drift, you’ll pass by the people and places that hold the most meaning for you. Write whatever you remember, whatever moves you, whatever carries you back to that time and place. There’s no question you’ll do the best writing of your life.

Happy writing.


Where Do I Start?

Making the decision to start a family memoir or to compile a family history is exciting.  You remember sitting and listening with fascination to the adults in your life as they shared memories that made them laugh, sigh or sometimes caused a sad quiet to fall over the room. It was like looking through a window into a time and place so different from your own. It’s equally fascinating to revisit those stories and put them down on paper.
A window into the past
Your next thoughts may be more practical. Where do I start? Which stories should I include? How much do I need to remember about dates and details? Are there some things I should leave out? 

Not to worry; you’re hearing the editor that lives inside all of us.While he/she will serve a vital purpose at some point, in the beginning you may need to ignore that voice. The first thing to do is just to sit down and write. Write about the first thing that comes into your head. This will make you remember other accounts and people. Before you know it, you’ll be off and running with plenty of time to edit and reedit later.

As with any task, writing your family history will be easier if you break the big job down into smaller ones. Which character will you focus on first? What particular story about him/her made an impression on you? What lessons did you take away from your time with that person? When you ask these kinds of questions the story begins to tell itself.

There’s no need to get bogged down with how it should sound, either. This is another matter for rewrites. The more time you spend writing, the more comfortable you’ll become. It may be years since you sat down to write something of any length, but it will come back to you. We all know enough about sentences and paragraphs to just start writing.

Of course you want your writing to be eloquent and grammatically correct. After you’ve gathered the raw material for an account, you can be your own English teacher. If you don’t already have one, it’s a good idea to get a grammar guide book. There are several excellent ones on the market. There are even online guides if you prefer a digital environment. It will be worth your time to do some research. I’ve found The Blue Book of Grammar and Pronunciation by Jane Straus useful. It’s easy to use and has all the information you’ll need to sharpen your skills.

How exact do you have to get about dates and places? The more detail you can include the more real and immediate your account will be. Sights, sounds, dates and details allow the reader to picture him/herself in the world you’re describing. If you’re not sure about some facts and there’s someone you can ask, by all means make the time to do that. With a little practice you’ll become a skilled interviewer.

If it’s your intention to publish your material for the public, you may also have to decide whether certain things will be included in your accounts at all. Some stories may include sad or embarrassing parts. Should you write them or skip them? Will everybody be pleased if you include them? It can be a sticky subject and may require some skill to tell the truth and still respect the dignity of all involved. This is a skill that will come with experience, too. We’ll talk more about this, as well as developing your interviewing skills in a later post.

So take a breath, jump in and enjoy the ride. Happy writing!

The Road Home

When he turned eighteen on December 10, 1942, Andrew knew his draft notice would soon follow. It took seven days, arriving on December 17. His older brother Frank had already shipped out. The two brothers fought in different parts of the world, Andrew mostly in occupied Italy and Frank in Asia.  As the war raged on they never communicated directly, hearing only snippets of information about each other when letters arrived from home. 

Uncle Frank and Dad, 1946
Unlike many families, theirs did not suffer the ultimate loss. They both survived the war.  In a circumstance that seemed written for a movie, after being unsure of the other’s condition for some time, they were discharged within days of each other and arrived home on the same day.

  After returning from the war, both brothers lived with an uncle in New Haven, Connecticut. One day, to his horror, Andrew’s cousin came home from work and informed him she had volunteered him as a senior prom date for a girl who worked with her.  He was livid, telling her he had no desire to go on a blind date or, at age 23, to take anyone to her senior prom. She told him she had talked him up to Elsie, telling her young friend how nice her cousin was and that they would make a perfect couple. She prevailed, convincing him to at least meet the girl. He agreed, and to his surprise, liked her enough to take her to her senior prom. In October of 1949 they wed. I was their second child. Good thing his cousin convinced him to meet her.

Mom and Dad October, 1949

Stories with those kinds of twists, turns and what-ifs are in every family. We all know accounts of almost missed opportunities, and the consequences. We’ve heard stories about people in our families who observed or even played a part in the major events of the twentieth century. It takes a little listening and asking a few questions to flesh out the accounts, but it’s worth it. The stories you gather are priceless and part of who you are.

     Second Avenue Story Club is dedicated to the idea that you cannot make up the things that really happen to people.

     In the weeks to come we’ll open up a conversation about writing family memoirs, whether actual accounts or fictionalized, as is the case in the novel Warming Up. We’ll discuss finding these stories and we’ll talk about how to tell them. The story teller’s art is in all of us. We just have to cultivate it a bit.

     Second Avenue Story Club will also include interviews with friends who have shown a knack for telling a story, and from time to time we’ll share some of the stories we gather.

     So, think about the unbelievable accounts you’ve heard from all the amazing characters at your family gatherings. You'll be sure to think of stories that need to be told. Maybe you'll become your family's historian.

     Thanks for reading. See you again soon.