My Favorite Ghost Stories

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet (Act I, Scene v, Line 918)

I was at a writers conference this past weekend (Love is Murder in Chicago) and, on the first night, they had guest speakers from a paranormal investigative team. An extremely interesting topic with great examples of EVPs (Electronic voice phenomena), but the presentation itself was a little dull.

I believe in ghosts. There, I said it. Whether you agree or not is not important. I’ve never actually experienced a paranormal event, but I love ghost stories and when you hear stories of ghosts, there are things that just can’t be easily explained away.

And all that got me thinking about some of my favorite films that feature ghosts. I’m not a particular fan of horror-ish ghost stories. I prefer my ghosts to be more genteel and/or romantic and/or just plain funny.

In no particular order of importance, here are some of my favorites:

The Univited (1944) – Brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) purchase a beautiful seaside home on the Devonshire coast, and the purchase cost is well below market value. I love the fact that we never see the ghost, but hear her sobs and her presence is always known by the aroma of mimosa. The home holds dark secrets but the film has a few lighter moments, too. And a bit of a surprise ending!

Topper (1937) – Cary Grant and Constance Bennett play George and Marion Kirby, a rich and carefree couple, who are killed when their car careens into a tree. They decide they need to do a good deed in order to get into Heaven and set their sights on helping the staid Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), the president of the bank on whose Board George was a director. They set out to infuse a little spontaneity and, well, “life” into his life.

The Canterville Ghost (1944) – Charles Laughton is the cowardly Sir Simon de Canterville who, in 1634, fled rather than fight a duel. Simon forever haunts the castle halls until a descendent can prove themself in combat. He hasn’t had much luck until a platoon of American soldiers, including Cuffy Williams (Robert Young), are billeted in the castle. Cuffy is Simon’s great-great-great-etc. nephew and agrees to perform a heroic deed — but can he? Also stars Margaret O’Brien as young Lady Jessica de Canterville.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) – you really can’t a better ghostly romance than this film. Widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) and her daughter rent Gull Cottage in Whitecliff. The house, they are warned, is haunted and Lucy does experience ghostly manifestations. But she refuses to be scared off and demands the ghost reveal himself and it is Captain Daniel Gregg (a very debonair Rex Harrison), the cottage’s original owner. At first, they are hostile towards one another, but they develop a mutual respect and admiration for each other.

Heart and Souls (1993) – A 1959 bus accident leaves four souls (Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard, Kyra Sedgewick, and Tom Sizemore) attached to a young boy born that same night (who grows up to be Robert Downey Jr.). Years later, they discover that their special attachment to this human was intended to help them finish their business here on earth before moving on, but the amount of time they have to complete their tasks is growing short. Humor and pathos mix beautifully in this film.

If you don’t go for horror, what are some of your favorite ghost stories?


Don’t Antagonize Your Readers

Dorothy Parker, supposedly, wrote a book review that included the comment, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” We’ve all read something that fits this quote, I’m sure. I could name about three I’ve read in just this past year.

I just finished another book like that – I will NOT mention the author or title because this is strictly my opinion.

Why didn’t I like this? Certainly, it wasn’t because it was badly written, or have illogical situations, or have a disappointing ending. I didn’t care for it because the author did something I truly hate to see in books and novels or even in contest entries from potentially to-be-published authors.

As part of the story, the author makes disparaging remarks about another character strictly because that character’s political beliefs differ from those of the main character (and, I presume, those of the author). Please note I’m not even mentioning which political party is being insulted because I’ve read books that do the same for the opposite (as well as other) political beliefs.

Since the majority of people belong to either the Democratic or Republican parties, my question is: WHY would an author potentially alienate HALF of their readership?

You are very much mistaken if you assume that everyone who may read your book thinks along the same lines as you.

If you’re writing a non-fiction political commentary, fine – go ahead and rant all you want. But if you’re writing fiction, please for the sake of your readers, don’t insult the other person’s beliefs. Don’t make Democrats modern-day, drug-using hippies or Republicans up-tight, money-grubbing yuppies or make other political views look ridiculous. Not only is that insulting to potential readers, it makes for two-dimensional characters that aren’t very interesting to read.

Apart from the above rant about how this author treated differing political points of view, the book wasn’t all that bad – it’s not something that’s going on my keeper shelf, but fairly enjoyable. However, because of this author’s remarks, I will certainly be less likely to pick up another book by them.

I’m sure this author will not miss my $.60 in royalties (which they wouldn’t have gotten anyway because I checked it out of my local library), but losing potential readers can also affect your potential royalties.

Think about it before you write it. That’s all I ask.

Goals – not Resolutions!

I hope you survived the holidays and are ready to take on a brand new year. New calendars, new appointment books, clean pages to write on.

Every year I make resolutions (most often, resolving to lose weight and get in shape). Typically, those resolutions go by the wayside quickly since my birthday is only two weeks into the new year and I will often splurge on cake.

So I’ve decided not to make any resolutions this year. Instead, I’m listing goals I want to accomplish. This, in my opinion, automatically puts far less pressure on you.

Goal 1: Eat better.

Please note I didn’t say anything about losing weight here. In the past year, I hate to admit that I’ve resorted to eating a lot of fast-food – I’m not naming any one company in particular because I’ve probably gone through all of their drive-thru’s. Yes, it’s quick, but not the healthiest eating out there.

For the umpteenth time in my life, I’m giving up diet sodas as part of this goal as well.  I dearly love my new soda maker and, instead of syrups, I just put real lemon or lime juice in them for flavorings.  Yummmm – feeds my addiction to carbonation without all the additives.

I’m focusing on fruits and vegetables and making sure that every meal (and snacks) are healthy or, at least, healthier.

There is also no time limitation on this goal, although I do hope that all this healthy eating will get my blood pressure down in time for my next doctor’s appointment so he won’t know how much I’ve backslid since my last appointment.  (Dr. XXX, if you’re reading this, I apologize in advance.)

Goal 2:  BICHOK (Butt in chair, hands on keyboard)

There is nothing in the above goal that puts pressure on me in terms of the number of pages I need to write each day or week.  As the Nike Company says, “Just do it.” Once you’re in the chair (and, in my case, pushed the cat aside more than a few times), there is a comfort to sitting and writing.

Writing is empowering – this is my world I get to create and it’s kind of fun to play the Omnipotent One. I’ve created an entire studio, complete with its own library of films and stars. I control it all! Or, at least, the vast majority. There have been times when my characters didn’t do what I wanted them to do when I wanted them to do it, but it turned out they had a very good reason for disobedience (another blog post at some point).

I don’t have to write in sequence – I can skip around in the book if an idea for a specific scene comes to mind. The goal is to write at least one hour each day, with one day off in a week.

I am going to concentrate on this one book in particular. Yes, I have ideas for other books and I may take the time to open up a new document and write those ideas down, but I won’t work on those just yet. Note – I’m not berating myself for not working on my current WIP, but I also don’t want to rely on my memory if it’s a truly great idea.

Most importantly, I allow myself to write crap – just get the words on the page. Nora Roberts is often credited with saying “I can’t fix a blank page.”

And, I give myself permission to quit after an hour. However, so far, I’ve worked more hours this week than most of last year just because my writing engines are revved.

I have other goals for the year, but those aren’t worth blogging about. What they all have in common is that they are doable! None are so overwhelming that I’ll be throwing up my hands and bemoaning “I can’t do this!” while rushing out to buy a Snickers bar.

If you think that this is cheating and that I’m not really accomplishing anything, just remember that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

I wish you a happy, healthy, and productive new year!

God Bless You, Mr. Scrooge

During the holiday season, I’m positively glued to the television to watch all of the Christmas movies that start somewhere in the middle of November and continue all the way up to Christmas Day. With apologies to the producers, many of these aren’t very good (although that doesn’t stop me from watching them). And I can’t wait until one channel or other finally shows a version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – not adaptations like A Diva Christmas Carol or An American Christmas Carol (which are all fine in their own way) – but the REAL Christmas Carol, complete with Ebeneezer Scrooge, the Cratchits, Jacob Marley, and Spirits of Christmas – Past, Present and Christmases Yet to Come.

I’ve seen nearly every version ever filmed and can quote much of the dialog from memory. So consider yourself warned if you ever watch them with me.

I’m always fascinated how each actor interprets the role of Scrooge. Scrooge is a crotchety old man, that’s for sure, but as we go through his past with him, we see a little more of how he came to be the way he is. Whether it’s Reginald Owen (1938), Alastair Sim (1951), Patrick Stewart (1999 – and I even had the pleasure of seeing his one-man stage show as well – twice!) or even an animated Mr. Magoo (1962, with wonderful music by Jule Styne) or Jim Carrey (2009) to name just a few, we go along for the ride and we rejoice when Scrooge comes to realization that he has an opportunity to benefit mankind or just his own little corner of the world.

All of these performances are good but, for me, the absolute best redemption scene belongs to Alastair Sim. Once he awakens and knows he has not missed Christmas, he bounces around his bedroom, not quite knowing what he should do first. You can tell that the man is not accustomed to smiling and you can almost see his muscles crack from the strain of years of constant scowling.

But as most movie fans can probably tell you, one of the great film flubs also occurs in Sim’s redemption scene. If you have a chance to see it this holiday season – watch the mirror over Scrooge’s wash basin. As Scrooge deliberates what to do next, you can see a stage hand in the mirror’s reflection. Someone must have alerted him that he’s in the shot and he casually backs away.

Happy holiday viewing to all!

Shopping for Your Characters, Part 1

Apart from my love of movies, I absolutely adore antique shopping. If I have to shop for clothes, I want to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible. Not so with antiques where I must investigate every pile. I have certain collections I like to feed, but I discovered another plus to antique stores – I can find the characters for my book. Nearly every antique dealer will have a collection of old family photographs (some nice studio portraits or candid snapshots), typically under a sign inviting you to “Adopt a Relative.”

Some writers will cut out pictures from magazines of movie stars or models to serve as the inspiration for their characters. I like to browse through these old pictures to see if there’s anyone I can use. The advantage to these old pictures is that you have the period costumes right there to help with descriptive passages. Granted, most of the pictures you’ll find are from the early decades of the 20th Century or jump to the 1960s and ‘70s. Because my characters are from the 1930s, it’s sometimes more difficult to find just the right “character.” Like shopping for my couch, I don’t necessarily know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.

There’s usually a hugh pile of pictures, so you have to be patient but, in my case, perseverance paid off – I found a gem earlier this year. As soon as I saw this picture, I knew I had my Valerie Sharpe. Let me introduce her to you.

Valerie Sharpe 1Valerie Sharpe (born Lottie Schoenbrucher on March 2, 1907 in Pasadena, California) rose to stardom in the late 1930s to become the top comedienne of Majestic Studios (comparable to MGM’s Carole Lombard). Her Hollywood career started when sound came to films (1927) and she often played bit parts for comic relief until 100 Bedrooms (1933) where her role as a maid in a large New York hotel brought her to the attention of movie audiences and Studio executives who began to feature her in larger and starring roles.

Although gossip columns of the time often intimated at a romance between Valerie and the Studio’s top leading man Colin Hoskyns, Valerie married the Studio’s Head of Production, Samuel Jakes, in 1939. Jakes was nearly twenty-five years her senior, which also was fodder for the gossips. After the shooting death of Hoskyns on Christmas Eve 1943, fingers were pointed to Jakes for contracting the murder, but charges were never filed. Sharpe and Jakes remained married until Jakes’ death in 1949. At that time, Valerie retired from motion pictures and lived out the remainder of her life in the home she shared with Jakes in Majestic, California until her death in 1985 at age 78. Throughout her retirement, she refused all requests for interviews about the Hoskyns murder.

I’m still on the lookout for a picture that will capture Colin Hoskyns, who was the top leading man at Majestic (think of him as an equivalent to MGM’s Clark Gable or Warners’ Errol Flynn). If anyone thinks they know where I can find that, please let me know. In the meantime, while I continue to search, I’ll be introducing other characters along the way.

Tempus fugit (really, really fast!)

Even when you’re not having fun, time flies (or zooms in many cases….)

I’m always amazed at how quickly time can get away from you. I find it hard to believe it’s been nearly 7 weeks since I last posted (my apologies to any followers). Someone once remarked that, as we age, time speeds up and I find that’s an unfortunate truth. I moved to Chicago from Los Angeles in 1994 and it still seems like only last year, not (yikes!) 18 years ago.

When I last posted, I was about to embark on writing a short story. Did I make the deadline? Well, yes, kinda, sorta…. I did have to ask for a slight extension which they did give me. And now, I’m in the last stages of changes from the editors. When I have more details about the anthology, I will definitely post that information.

But back to time…..

I have a birthday coming up in a few months and I’m about to seque into a new demographic range, which I’m not particularly happy about, but it does beats the alternative.

So, maybe there’s a lesson in all this, but I have always been a slow learner. I need to seize the day. I don’t want to come to the end of my life with a bunch of “I shoulda” wishes and dreams. I guess that means I have to head back to my computer and get back to work.

New Years is always a time for resolutions, but why wait another two months? So, I’m going to get back to work (and maybe start my diet tomorrow, too).

Never say “Never”

Even James Bond knows not to do this, for crying out loud.

The first time I said I’d never do something was during my freshman year in college. As a design major, I was required to take the basic art history survey class, you know, the kind that covers cave paintings to modern post-impressionism all in the span of 16 weeks.  After surviving that class, I swore I would NEVER take another art history class for the rest of my life.  Let’s jump ahead a few years:  I am now an art history major, and I have to take another 9 or 10 art history classes. (Much too long of a story to get into here; I may post about it in the future.)  Bottom line:  I LOVED all those classes!

I thought I would never want to write a short story.  I don’t think in brief terms so the idea of writing a limited number of words frightens me. It’s hard work to encapsulate your ideas into a shorter form. One of my favorite quotes to describe my feelings is: “I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” (attributed to George Bernard Shaw)

I belong to a writers group that is putting together an anthology of short stories.  Too much was happening in my life between work and family, and I didn’t think I’d have the time to devote to this project. But my subconscious decided to work on it anyway and, before I knew it, I had an entire short story mapped out in my head. So, even though I said I’d never be able to contribute to the anthology, I’m writing like a maniac to finish it by the deadline at the end of this week (yes, this week).

Whether my story will make the final cut in the anthology, I can’t say at this point – that part isn’t up to me. But I am doing it and thoroughly enjoying the sense of accomplishment from doing something I didn’t think I could (or didn’t think I even wanted to) do.

A Time for Reflection

Tonight marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

Because this is a time for reflection, I started to look back on this past year of writing (an other things as well, but let’s focus on writing).  Was I disciplined about it? No. Did I set a time each day (or each week) to write? No. Did I do anything at all? Yes, but definitely not as much as I should (or could) have done.

My writers’ group always talks about making goals and keeping them realistic and accomplish-able. I can’t really say I did that either.

Lest you think I did nothing at all, you’d be wrong. But, in all honesty, I should be a lot further in my manuscript than I really am.

I can make excuses – lots and lots of excuses. My day job keeps me hopping and working more than a typical 40-hour work week, so I’m dead tired when I get home and all I want to do is curl up on the bed with my black cat, Hamish Macbeth. My mother was ill this past month and I spent a lot of time driving back and forth to see her (she lives about an hour away). Of course, Mom’s problems were only in the past month so that doesn’t say anything about the previous 11 months.

So, as I begin year 5773, I’m ready for a new beginning on my writing. A year where I am committed to my work, finishing it and (most importantly) getting it out there, whether that be positive or not-so-positive.

Even if you’re not Jewish, we’re nearing the end of 2012 and there’s no better time to think about your writing. If you’re like me, give yourself a mental kick in the butt to get yourself going.

L’Shanah Tovah – have a GOOD year.


Deserted Island Movie List

As I noted before, my love of movies comes from my mother.  It’s not uncommon for us to have long telephone conversations while watching the same movie.  A few years ago, we started a game:  if you were stuck on a deserted island (and, naturally, had access to electricity or could have the Professor from Gillian’s Island build you something), what 10 films would you want to have with you, i.e., what movies could you watch over and over and over again and never tire of them?

Depending on my mood, my list may vary slightly, but there are five titles I ALWAYS have.  These are, in no particular order of preference:

  • Singin’ in the Rain – a great satire of the advent of sound to motion pictures, and some of the best dancing on screen; it’s not uncommon for me to rewind Moses and watch it once or twice again (which makes up for always fast-forwarding through You Were Meant for Me and some portions of Broadway Melody)
  • Casablanca – just about a perfect film; six – count ‘em 6 – of AFI’s  100 best movie quotes are from Casablanca (see the full AFI list by clicking here)
  • 1776 – I was hooked in 1971 when my dad took the family to see the stage version in Chicago and we nearly wore out the original cast album; I often annoy family no end by reciting lines verbatim
  • Pride and Prejudice – this absolutely must be the Colin Firth version (but if that one weren’t available, the 1940 version with Laurence Olivier would place a VERY close second, even if it’s not exactly accurate to the book)
  • The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby  – but it has to be the 8½ hour filmed version of the Trevor Nunn’s theatrical extravaganza ; I’ve watched it at least three dozen times (yes, all the way through) and even seen it twice in the theater; like 1776, I know most of this by heart (complete with dialects)

These are the movies that, when on television, I get suckered into watching even though I own them on DVD and (with the exception of Nickleby) are also on my iPad.

Think about it and get back to me. Which movies would YOU list??

Mr. Capra Goes to War

American film director Frank Capra died on this day (September 3) in 1991 at age 94.  There are those who refer to his films as “Capra-corn,” a reference to the fact that his films will often have themes of man’s basic goodness.  But they’re just good films.  I dare you to watch It’s a Wonderful Life and not get just a little teary-eyed when James Stewart decides he wants to live again.

Capra was nominated six times for the Academy Award for Best Director and won three:  It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take it With You (1938).  Six of his films have been included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry:

  • The Strong Man (1926)
  • It Happened One Night (1934)
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
  • Why We Fight Series of seven films (1942)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

But what has always amazed me was his work on his film series, Why We Fight, created during World War II.  I had the opportunity to watch these films in college as part of an Art History class – American Film as Art.

But I need to provide a little background first….. (Okay, I’m a librarian, so this kind of trivia is in my blood.)

Shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Capra – aged 44 – quit Hollywood (and resigned as President of the Screen Directors Guild) to join the US Army.  At that time, the Army’s Signal Corps traditionally created documentaries for the Armed Forces.  But Chief of Staff George Marshall assigned Capra to create films that “will explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting …” (from his autobiography, Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography ; Macmillan, 1971).

What was unique about that series is that Capra took EXISTING footage, much of which were confiscated films from Germany and Italy.  All he did was change the narration and you get a TOTALLY different film – many of the shots of Adolf Hitler were taken from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Wills.  Added to that, the Walt Disney Company was enlisted to create some of the animations and Capra had some of the best film composers scoring the films, including Alfred Newman and Dimitri Tiomkin.  These were NOT your average Army documentaries.

It’s no wonder these are part of the National Film Registry.  If you’ve never seen these films – at the very least, Prelude to War – you need to high-tail it to your local library.  If they don’t have this series, try to get them through interlibrary loan – it will be worth it.

What’s your favorite Frank Capra film?