The Prologue

Okay, so I’ve edited this historical novel of mine about a million times. Where I think I’m shaving off thousands and thousands of words I’ve barely skimmed two thousand. The book as it stands right now is too long and I know I have to cut – a lot. I have about fifteen more chapters to go in this round of rewriting before I can sit down with line edits, fine-tuning, make some corrections, and so on. I also have an amazing beta reader who is tackling one chapter at a time and providing me with spot-on edits.

I don’t willingly normally share my work. I remember editing a newspaper piece I wrote once so many times that the editor told me he didn’t even have to touch it. Of course, that piece took me two weeks to get “just right” and a lengthy review of my old college journalism books. Perfection is a problem with me and so sharing my work makes me a little jumpy. Because are the words ever perfect enough?

Right above my desk is a white board and a quote from the writer, Sean Platt, “Perfection is the enemy of done.”

Exactly.

That.

I read that damn quote every single day to remind myself to stop fiddling with this novel that has been with me now for several years. Oh sure I’ve written several books since this one but I keep coming back to it to rewrite…there is something about this book – a historical novel set in Los Angeles during WWII – that holds my heart.

But it can’t be my own personal baby forever. I must let it fly and go out into the world one of these days. I certainly can’t coddle it forever.

So here goes.

The Prologue to my historical novel. Perfect, not perfect, pathetic, awesome, lovely, horrible. Whatever it ends up being.

One more thing: the formatting may be a little wonky when I copied it over.

Prologue
1980

 

The screams could be heard from miles away.

It was 1959 and Sophia stood back and watched the horror unfold as the Los Angeles police drove their Ford Fairlane’s into Chavez Ravine with their sirens blaring and officers slamming doors with such force it felt like the earth was shaking. In an instant a woman was screaming and yelling and cursing in Spanish that Sophia could only guess what was being said. The bulldozers were ready to tear down the only houses left in what now looked like a giant hill filled with debris and dirt mounds. The sounds of crushing glass, wood crumbling to the ground, and cement cracking as easily as toothpicks filled the air of this once-tight community and left only hatred and anger behind in its wake.

The thin, dark-haired woman that Sophia remembers playing cards with and eating her homemade tamales was being roughly carried out of her home by the Los Angeles police, who held her by both her arms and legs like a rag doll. The more the woman struggled the tighter the police held onto her. Her black and white polka dot dress blowing in the mild summer afternoon as if she were sitting carefree on a beach chair instead of being forcibly evacuated from the only home she knew.

Her screams made Sophia shiver and even after almost six decades, Sophia still shivered when she thought of it.

Most people left Chavez Ravine broken and depressed but only the woman with the black and white polka dot dress, along with a mere handful of residents, refused and had to be taken out by force.

The media cameras captured all the horror and across Los Angeles people read with disgust what levels the residents of Chavez Ravine had sunk to. The image of the screaming woman being dragged out of her home would remain the sole image of Chavez Ravine used over and over for years to come.

Sophia stood on the hill, quite different from what she remembered, but in her mind the memories were as clear today, despite the smog that covered Los Angeles like a thin blanket, as they were over sixty years ago.

Looking around Sophia could still make out where Palo Verde elementary school once stood and if she closed her eyes she could see her four boys all playing on the playground and hear the laughter of young children. Of course, the elementary school has long since been buried underground, filled in with dirt and replaced by a cement jungle of blue and white.

This will always be home, Sophia thought as she stood lost in memories of the past.

Chavez Ravine. Her home. Her heart.

A place where Sophia and Joe Giacalone raised four boys and built their home on Davis Street overlooking the lights of downtown in a community that was wedged in a ravine surrounded by hills.

Sophia took pride in her home and loved decorating her living room with photos and light blue curtains. She embroidered towels for the bathrooms, hung shelves above her washing machine, and grew parsley in galvanized pots on the windowsill. The same windows that she had to close, even in the heat of summer, when the Arroyo Seco Parkway was under construction and the pounding noise made her crazed with the sounds of drills and hammers and sheets of concrete being laid into place. She didn’t care that this new stretch of highway was creating a faster passage from downtown to the suburbs of Los Angeles, Sophia hated the constant noise that lasted for two long years.

Sophia took a deep breath and was filled with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee as she waited for her best friend and neighbor, Blanca, to stop by for a quick game of gin-rummy and catch up on all the latest news in their tiny, shabby community.

Of course, Sophia never thought her quaint town was shabby. To her the dirt was love and the smiles of neighbors were golden. The tinny sounds of music that filled the streets on weekends, the friendly wave of a neighbor, and the fragrances of sweet peas and bread baking in hot kitchens was what her life was about then.

Chavez Ravine was never considered a desirable place to live by those that didn’t live there. There were no mansions and well-manicured lawns. In fact, no one even had lawns. Instead, their front yards were filled with large fruit trees, grape vines, colorful flowers, and lawn chairs to sit and enjoy the wonderful southern California sunshine, some with bottles of beer, others with a jug of wine, sipping from plain, stubby glasses.

There was nothing fancy about life in Chavez Ravine in the 1940s. Many homes had peeling paint and were supported by stacks of cinder blocks. But, when you walked inside the homes, they were filled with scents of chili peppers roasting in the oven and tomatoes cooking on the stove. The tiny kitchens, barely enough room for one woman, was a bustling thoroughfare of activity. Women baked breads and cookies every afternoon while they waited for the laundry to dry on the line outside. If a rabbit happened to hop within reach, it was often caught and cooked into a cacciatore for dinner.

A place where a B-rated actor, Crispy Martin, lived on Reposa Street and often threw parties for his neighbors which was a highlight every summer when everyone was given an invitation that was hand delivered and tied with a gold ribbon. In a time when most actors chose to live in places like Pasadena or Beverly Hills, Martin picked the closed-knit community of Chavez Ravine, giving his neighbors plenty of bragging rights.

The children of Chavez Ravine played make-shift baseball in the open fields and chased each other in the middle of Gabriel Avenue or Bishops Road where only a few cars ever traveled. Sometimes the children would roll down the large hills of Davis Street and Shoreland Drive and tramp through mud puddles on their way to the dime store to buy a few pieces of hard candy.

Chavez Ravine somehow escaped the trappings of life in a big city. The small valley in the middle of Los Angeles felt immune to the harsh realities of the city. In Chavez Ravine neighbors were also friends. They talked on the corner and housewives walked to Marbetta Market for their weekly groceries. They shared life stories after Sunday mass or over a game of cards. They had dreams and hopes for their small community. And, they watched and prayed as the country began sending their boys off to war.

For a while, not one boy from Chavez Ravine had been sent to fight in Europe. Of course, that wouldn’t always be the case but even war couldn’t break up the rhythm of Chavez Ravine and the beating heart of its residents.

One can always look back on a life spent and think of only the good, the idyllic, and the special. But, there were bad days in Chavez Ravine too.

Kids would get ahold of their parent’s liquor and break windows and tear down trees with saws. The Great Depression took the livelihoods of many men in the community and left poverty in its wake. When Dr. Wood, a famed Los Angeles surgeon, was killed on the streets just outside Chavez Ravine after a house call, the authorities automatically assumed the killer lived there. It took three years to finally free the innocent man who was wrongly accused. By then, however, a dark cloud had begun to hang over Chavez Ravine.

Sophia closed her damp tear-filled eyes when she recognized Effie Street below them and could still see where her family’s grocery store once stood off Boylston and Shoreland Streets. The one story green building with, “Marbetta Markets #5” printed in block white lettering above the double doors and painted signs offering quarts of milk for fourteen cents and five pounds of potatoes for a nickel.

Her mind went back to women wearing bright floral-patterned dresses and comfortable shoes carrying small baskets through the dirt parking lot as their children ran towards the doors of the grocery store. Inside the sounds of Frank Sinatra playing in the background as women squeezed oranges and smelled melons before buying them. The women carried their loot back home, walking because many had never learned, or been permitted to learn, to drive, humming “I’ve got the world on a string” and wonder why that song was stuck in their head?

And when the gossip of a baseball team moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles was on the minds of everyone in Chavez Ravine people would ask one another, “Could one man buy an entire town and turn it completely upside-down?”

Ultimately the answer would be yes and their world, as they knew it, would never be the same again.

Chavez Ravine proved it was not immune to the imperfections of life.

“Nana? Are we going to stay on this hill forever? I’m starving and my feet hurt,” Sophia’s granddaughter, Pippa, nudged Sophia out of her trance down memory lane.

Sophia looked at the box she was still holding onto and somehow it felt heavier now.

“Is this where we’re gonna to do it?” Pippa asked. For a young girl Pippa was more aware of life and death than Sophia remembered being at that age.

Sophia placed the heavy box on a bench at the top of the Lilac Terrace, a hill that still exists in Chavez Ravine, “Yes, this is the spot. This was where Papa and I lived and the place he truly loved more than anywhere else,” Sophia struggled with the sights around her. The trees that all looked too big now, the hills that no longer created a ravine, and the buildings of downtown Los Angeles that seemed much taller.

And now Dodger stadium occupied the space where her life had felt meaningful and rich.

Pippa had long parted her hand from her grandmother’s and began fumbling with her Sony Walkman trying to find her favorite song, “This very spot?” Pippa said not looking up from her Walkman.

“Yep. Of course, we lived here before Dodger stadium was built. And I think the hill got steeper because I don’t remember it being quite that difficult to climb,” Sophia chuckled to herself.

Sophia opened the box that was filled with Joe’s ashes.

His final wish, he had said in a note.

Actually, Joe had left Sophia with three final wishes, like a genie in a bottle Sophia laughed through her tears when she first read the note in the days following Joe’s funeral.

And she was about to take care of the first one.

Together they stood on top of the hill with the hum of people filling Dodger stadium and the distant horns honking in downtown Los Angeles and neither of them speaking for a couple of minutes. Pippa was thinking about hot dogs and peanuts and Sophia couldn’t seem to stop the mental walk down memory lane. But, since her granddaughter was growing more impatient by the minute, Sophia tried to stay focused on what she was here to do.

Sophia opened the box and scattered her husband’s ashes over what used to be Chavez Ravine.

The smog filled Sophia’s lungs as her eyes began to water.

For several minutes Sophia and Pippa watched as the ashes swirled and blew in different directions around them, floating finally down the hill and nestling among overgrown shrubs and weeds.

Now Sophia had to face Joe’s second and third wish.

One that she had been dreading from the minute she had read the last note her husband had ever penned, days before his death.

Pippa was hopping on one foot, restless, “Can we go now?”

Sophia nodded as she closed the box and gave one last glance around.

Sophia and Pippa waited in the long line and handed the woman in a blue t-shirt with matching cap, two tickets. Beside her, Pippa was excited to be at a baseball game, her favorite sport, and where Joe had taken her many times from the time she was five.

As they walked into the stadium, Sophia felt her heart began to race, “I never in a million years thought I would ever step foot in this place.”

“Really? Never?”

Sophia shook her head.

“It’s too bad that Papa had to die just before the game,” Pippa said.

“I didn’t even know he had tickets to Dodger games,” Sophia said quietly.

“Ohhh, Papa kept a secret! Papa kept a secret!” Pippa giggled as she chanted and Sophia couldn’t help but giggle too.

Joe had indeed kept a secret. He had season tickets to Dodger home games for the last twenty years, a gift, his final note said.

Sophia felt her heart race.

A gift she was about to meet.

Sophia and Pippa found their seats and nibbled on peanuts and drank soda. “Pippa, see where third base is?”

“Yeah,” Pippa nodded as she threw her shells on the ground.

“That was the spot where our house was. Where your father grew up.”

“Really? That’s cool, Nana. How can you be sure, though?”

“Well, I remember being able to see the police academy from our front door of our house and if you look out just beyond third base you can still see the academy.”

“Is that the same police academy when you used to live here?”

Sophia nodded slowly, “That’s all that has remained of Chavez Ravine, Pippa.”

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Are My Characters Real?

I gave a prologue recently to a friend to read. I normally NEVER do that. For starters, they never know what to say exactly so normally they will gush about it (or if you are a relative of mine you will point out every missed comma or random typo, gah). Also, their feedback – don’t get me wrong here – is hardly useful. They will say things like, “Oh this is great.” Or, “You have a typo on that last paragraph.” Or, “Shouldn’t there be a period after that sentence?” Or, “Wow, you really are a writer!” Or, “This was such a great read.”

Basically: useless.

Even my husband, in all his support and attempts at being helpful, is hardly any better. “Yeah, this is really good, honey”…“I like this a lot”…“Very good.” It all sounds the same between reading a chapter of mine and helping our daughter with algebra.

Also, if they are not normally readers of my books genre, their input will hardly be on point anyway. I have a friend who only reads romance so giving her a historical novel to read will bore her endlessly. I was in a writer’s group about a year ago that had mainly science fiction writers. It was a mess. They were clueless about historical fiction (and bored) and I was totally lost and confused in their outer space worlds and strange animals.

Anyway.

I gave a friend my prologue on one of my books. (For the record, she gushed and said, “Oh this is great” which was exactly the sort of thing I figured she would say.)

I should also point out that just because someone says, “Oh this is great!” doesn’t inflate my head or pump up my ego – I know it is them not knowing what else to say. I mean, are they really going to say something like, “Um, I found the characters to be one-dimensional and the plot appeared to be going nowhere. I almost fell asleep before I reached page three.” No. Are they going to say, “Sorry to tell you this but this SUCKED!” No. They are going to do everything to spare my feelings and so they will just be overly nice.

Anyway. I digress.

Again. (So shoot me.)

After reading the prologue my friend asked me, “Is the Sophia character your mom? Because I totally thought that as I was reading it.”

Hold me.

Okay, look.

Are characters somewhat derived and ever so loosely based on real people? The answer is yes. They are. I mean, it is hard to live a life and encounter hundreds of people in your lifetime so far and not have a few lingering…personality traits, body images, language quirks, bad habits, horrible spouses, interesting talents, or fascinating childhoods…of real people you know in real life.

However, that’s where it all basically ends.

My characters MAY have a personality trait or a little quirk or a bad habit of someone I know. I may even get inspiration based on real people (that happens A LOT) but the characters themselves take on a life of their own usually (hopefully) right from the beginning.

And for fear of sounding mentally unstable – the characters begin to come alive in front of me as I outline. They also start talking to me too.

No, really.

As I develop characters and give them voice, features, quirks, traits, habits, what they love to wear, what they hate to eat, where their favorite vacation was when they were ten, even what their name is…they seem to start standing in front of me as I write (hands on hips, staring me down if I get something wrong, those pesky pain-in-the-ass characters. And no, I’m not on any special meds.)

I can definitely start to see and hear them the more I write about their story. (If they can see me is a totally different thing. I’m kidding. You know that, right? I’m almost a hundred percent positive they can’t see me. But to be honest, I’ve never asked them.) As the story develops suddenly their voice gets louder – and when I type dialogue sometimes I feel as though I am only the fingers typing on the computer – they are the ones doing all the talking and telling me what to say and how to say it.

In one of my novels, a contemporary book set in San Diego and features a host of characters, I had outlined the chapter one way and my character completely said something different and totally off what I expected him to say…I typed it and decided to leave it – even though it changed the course of the story a bit.

The characters begin to transform from a one-dimensional name on a piece of paper into real, thinking, and breathing human beings.

In the case of this prologue my friend read: it is a story that features (more or less) my mom’s childhood home. And it is a story that features a small grocery business…which my uncle also ran. And there are kids that went to boarding school like my cousins did. Other than that, it is just a fictional story because the story is not about my mom or my uncle or my cousins.

In fact, my mom is eager to read the story (even though it isn’t totally edited to my liking yet) and I had to warn her: some of the details may sound familiar to you but this is NOT a story of YOU and YOUR FAMILY and your childhood living in Los Angeles in the 1940s. This is a totally fictional story with fictional people and events.

There is something that I remember reading about writers that I love. If you are around writers be careful what you say (or do) because it just might end up in their book.

Many phrases or scenes that have actually happened…I have turned them into sentences in the book. For instance, there is a scene about women at the church cooking in the kitchen for a big feast the following day. I can’t tell you how many of my afternoons as a child was spent with my mom and grandmother at the church watching these Italian women cook, laugh, and play cards with their 7up and biscotti after preparing for a feast. I have used these memories…and more…throughout the book. I also interviewed my brother (a baseball historian) a few times regarding facts and details that were unclear to me regarding the Los Angeles Dodgers and a few phrases and a few of his memories have become part of my characters voice and memory…like how my brother lost his collection of baseball cards, for example.

So, I told my friend: “No, Sophia is not my mom. She is not anyone but a character in my book.”

(Sophia is standing here in front of me with her floral apron on, hands on her hips, shaking her head at me. She hates when I refer to her as a character.)

Works in Progress

I have a list of dozens of writing projects.

I mean – DOZENS especially when I add in article writing to the mix.

Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself. Why do I put so many projects in the fire? Why must I have so many?

For me, the answer comes down to one thing: attention.

I don’t think I have any “real” attention issues but I bore quickly if all I was doing was one thing all the time. Believe me, over the years I have tried that approach and always wonder why I can’t seem to stay focused long enough without getting restless.

Then I discovered that I need to focus on more than one project at a time. Of course, I could easily achieve this with say, four projects. In my case I have over 20 projects pending. That being said, those twenty projects are all in various stages of completion. The cookbooks I have been slowly gathering and writing recipes and conducting research. A few of the fiction projects only have one scrap of an idea in them and still needs a full outline, etc. And then there are projects that are closer to completion like the “Chavez Ravine” novel.

As of today I have 9 chapters left to rewrite in “Chavez Ravine”. Meanwhile, I have a beta reader working the front chapters. So, I am rewriting the last chapters and also sending my BR the first chapters, which means I am looking those over too and editing before I send them to her. I am also beginning to write up book proposals for the project. This novel will be the first one I have moved out of “first draft” mode! I have another completed first draft waiting in the wings…which I’m excited to delve into and rewrite.

I am beginning to break up my days like this:

In the morning before I take my daughter to school I spend a few minutes reading some notes, checking out online freelance opportunities, making coffee, working out.

Once I take her to school I set the timer for 60 minutes and write and send out queries, pitches, proposals, and apply to whatever freelance job I can. (I also keep a dry erase board in front of me with a running tab of potential income, which keeps me motivated in a simple little way.)

Then, I dig out a chapter of my novel and set about rewriting. Sometimes I can complete the chapter in one morning, other times it can take me a few days to a week or more. I make check marks on the parts I need to research later.

By now it is late morning and I squeeze in some time to do some research reading, edit, critique – and update my blog. Okay, I check social media too, dammit…but only when I am eating lunch.

After lunch I try and go back over the novel chapter and research the parts I left blank and fill in the details. I try and set the timer again and pick up another project and try and do at least one task a day on a new project. Sometimes, I will spend a few minutes filing or sending out an email, or making a call or two. And depending on the time (everyone starts getting home from school/work around 3pm which is when I typically stop unless I am on a roll I will continue working for another hour or two) I will try and send out another query or pitch.

On my dry erase board I keep track of how many queries are in the pipeline, how many tasks I have completed overall, the number of words written today, and an ongoing total number of words written – a large several hundred thousand word count that keeps me inspired to keep going.

Today, I managed to send one pitch, start rewriting chapter 35 and chapter 5 (so I can send it off to my BR), write and send two book proposals for my children’s book, read a pile of research, critique a chapter sent to me, and work on a local pitch for a series of articles – and do some dreaded filing at the end of my work day.

In between the freelance writing work I am researching Gettysburg and the Civil War for a historian study – along with culinary history work too.