Category Archives: Writing

Big Knockers, Fringe Festival, and Local Characters

When my friends Abby DeVuyst and Kerry Young first told me about their show “Big Knockers: Debunking The Fox Sisters”, which would be performed at the 2017 Rochester Fringe Festival, I did a little dance of joy.

The show is a spoof on the Fox Sisters, often credited with founding the American Spiritualist movement thanks to their claims that they could communicate with the spirit world via a system of rappings or knockings.

If you read my blog or follow me on social media, you know that for the last couple of years I’ve been researching and writing a book about…well, it started as a book about Mt. Hope Cemetery, but it’s now rabbit trailed all over the place as I’ve encountered fascinating stories about Rochester’s history and the unknown residents who lay buried, often in unmarked graves, not only in Mt. Hope but other local cemeteries.

I’ve got piles of research notes, chapter drafts, and half-written blog posts on everyone from Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody to American aviatrix Blanche Stuart Scott, from clairvoyant physician Mrs. Dr. Jennie C Dutton to murder victim Emma Moore.

So when I offered to provide Kerry and Abby with some research that might help them put the Fox sisters in context with local history, they told me to send along anything I wanted. I went through my files and then inundated them with stories about local inventors, mediums, and clairvoyant physicians. I sent newspaper clippings and wrote rambling paragraphs outlining crazy stories that have fascinated me for years. I spouted facts and dates. I sent links to stories I’d already written.

And then I apologized a hundred times for overloading them with information.

And then they thanked me, and told me that they used what I’d sent them to help form the characters and stories in the show.

By that time, I’d already auditioned for and gotten a part in “Big Knockers”, so I was over the moon that these people who have lived for years in my head and in file folders would have their stories heard. But even better? I got to bring one of my favorite women to life: I play a notorious local madam named Matilda Dean.

While the “Big Knockers” writers obviously had to take liberties with dates and story lines in order to make it all work for the show (and add the humor), the characters actually are based on real people, and much of details they share about themselves are true. [update: here’s the review in City Newspaper] So for those of you want to know more, here is the “Big Knockers” backstory. Keep in mind that these are just small snippets of information; much more lies in folders piled up on my desk, waiting to find a home in blog posts and book chapters. Or who knows? Maybe on another stage?

* * * * * * * * * * * * Continue reading

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Dance of the Jingling Multitasker

This is NOT what I looked like belly dancing. (Image courtesy of Pixabay.)

I’m trying to make a pie crust, which isn’t easy to do when you’re also trying to write a column. It’s not that I’m a terrible baker or a terrible writer. I’m pretty good at both tasks (although my presentation of words is much prettier than my presentation of pie).

No, my problem is that I’m a terrible multitasker.

When I was a kid, the running joke was that I couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. I probably couldn’t run and tell a joke at the same time either, but we’ll never know. When I was in kindergarten, I got run over by a classmate doing laps in the gym. That pretty much put me off running for the rest of my life.

I used to feel inadequate because of my lack of multitasking abilities, until I learned that multitasking isn’t the ability to do two things at the same time. It’s the ability to quickly switch back and forth between two tasks. That’s a little better, but not much help when the tasks you’re doing need to appear as if they’re simultaneous.

Like when you’re belly dancing. Continue reading

Musings on newspapers, news, and neighbors

From the Rochester Union and Advertiser, 12 June 1860

One of the things that I love about doing research is that old newspapers offer not only unique stories and old advertisements, but a look into how publications viewed their job as purveyors of the news.

This clipping, from the Rochester Union and Advertiser, 12 June 1860, caught my eye. I’d posted it on my Facebook page last year, but came across it again today and have been musing on it all morning.

It appears that a rival newspaper had printed a story about two young people planning to elope, who in the end gave up their plan and returned home without incident. The Rochester Union and Advertiser noted that while they had the story several days earlier (before the Democrat *), the Rochester Union and Advertiser chose not to run it, in order to avoid embarrassment to the parties involved – who appear to be young. Their reason? Continue reading

Why all of the posts all of the sudden?

Just a quick note: if you got numerous notifications today that I’ve posted to the blog, my apologies. As much as I’d like to say that I’ve been writing my little heart out all day, I’m actually just moving some posts over from other blogs and posting drafts, and I forgot that even if I’m backdating the posts subscribers will get a notification.

Again, apologies for the nuisance! You can either ignore the notifications…or take some time to enjoy some very old posts…

Highland Park, paupers, and bodies in unmarked graves

marked-mt-hope-tour-prosperous-and-penniless-tour-2015-guide-sally-millick-051-2

My scheduled creative cemetery prompt today was a photo of the monument at Mt.Hope Cemetery, marking the place where several hundred graves of paupers, convicts, and the insane were re-interred after their bodies had been found in Highland Park in 1984, when bulldozers uncovered them while landscaping.

I scheduled the creative prompt photos days ago, and set them to post daily so that I don’t have to think about them. That means that my writing plan today was different than the photo – I was all set to write about a local madam. But this morning I decided I wanted to add something more to today’s photo caption, so I set out to find a quick fact – and ended up writing a draft about the institutions where these people lived.

It was a fascinating rabbit trail – and I’ll work on “Tilly’s” story tomorrow. But I thought you might like to see a bit of what I’ve uncovered today. Continue reading

National Novel Writing Month and creative prompts from the cemetery

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National Novel Writing Month started today, and while I don’t write fiction I am using the month to focus on getting a huge chunk of writing done on my book about cemeteries.

And I’m inviting you to play along at home!

Throughout the month, I’m going to post some creative prompts on my Facebook page, inspired by Mt. Hope Cemetery. As I’m writing about my experiences in the cemetery and the residents who have captured my attention, I’ll share some of my favorite photos of epitaphs, tombstones, scenery, and interment records. Use them to inspire your own creative efforts – and if they do, feel free to share links in the comment section!

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Confessions of an office (and school) supply addict

photo courtesy of pixabay

photo courtesy of pixabay

(Note: This post is cross posted at Patheos.com)

I spent a half hour today sharpening pencils. I enjoy the act of standing at an old-fashioned sharpener and turning the crank, hearing the blade grind the wood and graphite to a fine point and watching the shavings build into a pile at my feet. It helps me clear my head when I’m stressed, on a column deadline, or stumped by the Sunday crossword.

I picked up the yellow No. 2 pencils while I was out running errands. I limited myself to just one box because the truth is that if I didn’t, I would have skipped the milk and bread and spent the grocery money on school supplies.

Never mind that I don’t have kids in school anymore or that I’m not in school myself. It’s “Back to School” time, which means supplies are on sale, and that’s a dangerous time of the year for me.

Because I’m an office supply addict.

I have an abnormal addiction to pens, paper, pencils, notepads, journals—you name it. I rarely walk out of a store without purchasing some sort of stationery item—paper clips, file folders or a snazzy new pen.

I have a notebook in every room in my house, one in my car and one in my purse, so when I have an idea I can write it down quickly, before I forget it. I keep a supply of pocket folders in a range of colors to suit my every mood. I have a panic attack if I can’t find my stapler.

I think my addiction is rooted in my childhood. As a kid, I loved getting ready for the new school year, the smell of autumn and new possibilities in the air, my book bag filled with folders, freshly sharpened pencils and clean, white notebook paper just begging to be filled with stories, notes and essays.

Every fall, I would vow that this would be the year I would stay organized. This year, I would put the science notes in the science folder and the English notes in the English folder. This year, I would save all of the quizzes so I could study for the cumulative final. This year, I would record every homework assignment in my pocket calendar and never again be scrambling at the last minute to complete a project.

But it always ended the same. In less than a month, I had geometry theorems mixed in with grammar notes. I would show up to science class with my Spanish textbook (“Wait,” I’d ask. “Que hora es?”) and had taken to writing homework assignments on my hands (I had the first Palm Pilot). My locker always looked like a tornado had blown through a paper factory.

It’s more than 30 years later and I’m still not organized. I’m continually digging through a towering pile of folders on my kitchen table to hunt for research notes, paper clips and pens. I have three calendars within arm’s reach, but I never know what day it is.

I know what you’re thinking: there’s an app for that. Calendars on your phone, e-books, virtual folders and documents. But I’m not interested.

It’s not just the fact that I can’t keep up with the latest technology on a writer’s budget. The truth is that I like doing things the old-fashioned way. I like putting a real pencil to actual paper and scribbling away, crossing out words, rewriting sentences, and doodling in the margins when I’m mentally blocked. I think better that way.

And science backs me up on this. Study after study has found that students who take notes longhand actually comprehend and retain information better and longer than students who take notes on a laptop. Researchers think it has to do with the cognitive process necessary to listen to someone speaking, digest the meaning in their words, and then succinctly condense the information into notes. Our brains process that differently then when we’re typing the words verbatim on a laptop.

In other words, a valid rationalization for me to buy more office supplies. Thank you, science! Pencils and notebooks are still on sale! Who needs groceries, anyway?

(A slightly different version of this appears in my book “What The Dog Said,” a collection of humor columns penned over the years. It also appeared in the October 2015 issue of Refreshed Magazine.)