Wednesday, March 31, 2021

My Experience with a Writers' Group

Image by Oli Lynch via Pixabay

Spoiler alert: it's fantastic! 

Fear of looking foolish, and the misguided notion that I should be self-sufficient, but mostly fear, stopped me from seeking out and joining a support group. I am also a bit shy, so it was hard to embrace the concept of joining something established where everyone knew each other.

Enter the brilliant networking and advocacy group Women in Media, which I thoroughly recommend for any woman/woman identifying person working at any level in film or television. They inaugurated a writers' program last year, just in time for the pandemic, and created a system of writer's groups. 

Here's what was neat about it - they assigned us to brand new groups of mostly strangers (in my case all strangers) taking all the hard work out of it. We then determined our goals for the group, worked out our own schedule of meeting, style of group, and the focus. I feel like our group captured lighting in a bottle. I love these women, who all have unique and beautiful points of view. A couple of folks had different preferences, but now we have settled into a routine, embraced the occasional new member, and helped each other to all kinds of writing successes. 

For me, I have been encouraged and inspired to rethink my middle grade novel, rework some aspects of my fractured fairy tale story, and to commit to making my short film. It really has been wonderful, to also feel that I have been of some use to others. Even just hearing my work read aloud by other people is valuable, let alone the golden feedback I have received. 

So my advice to new writers, of any kind, is to find and join a group - or start one. Here are some tips that I have gained from the experience of others and my own.

  • Aside from the practical considerations of time and schedule, set expectations from the start about what kind of projects you will discuss. We do mostly scripts, with some treatments (and I had my own novels that I was working on adapting to scripts.)
  • Plan the meeting structure. How many pages will you read each session? How many writers will you critique? How do you decide who goes first? Will you be reading aloud during the meeting, or reading in advance (or both)? Does the writer get to make remarks, rebut or ask questions, or are they more of a fly-on-the-wall? 
  • Embrace technology. We meet via Zoom, have a Google Drive designated for pre-loading the pieces, and have a private Facebook Group for general discussion of other matters. One person sends a group email with the reminder and the link (we meet every other week), which allows us to RSVP as well. So far we have cancelled altogether only once when it turned out that only two people were available that week. Honestly meeting via Zoom is something that I enjoy even without the lockdown. It's so much easier than getting in the car and going someplace - plus our members are all over the country. 
  • Set up a time in the future - either a date, or after a set number of meetings - to officially evaluate how things are going, and if you want to continue. In our case, so far, the idea of stopping makes us very sad. 
  • Allow a specified time for each discussion and consider adding a few minutes for other business or announcements at the end too. That works well for our group. 

Being part of a group has given me a kind of accountability that I value - you know that I also recommend a writing buddy, especially if you have a deadline. But it has also given me inspiration and what feel like a bunch of new friends. Like I said, we are all over , but I hope I can meet every one of these people and host them in my home at some point in the future. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

Speaking at a Home Education Conference in May

 LIFE is Good Conference

I'm excited to be speaking once again at LIFE is Good Unschooling Conference, alongside my daughter, at the end of May. This year the conference has gone completely virtual - which will allow us to reach a worldwide audience. 

If you wish to learn about the homeschooling method and lifestyle known as Unschooling, from the point of view of parents and families who have been doing successfully for many years, this is a great conference. There will be speakers, Q&A and discussion sessions, and various entertaining virtual funshops. 

I will be speaking about our unschooling journey, and also presenting about first jobs and resumes. This is the writing that I will be thinking about for the next few weeks. As well, my daughter and will be doing a joint Q&A - something we have done before, and which people seem to enjoy.

So please check out the conference site if this sounds like an interesting event. 

Friday, March 19, 2021

Latest updates including for Dervish Dust

I'm excited to tell you that we have moved into the next phase with the James Coburn biography, which is the final edit. The lovely people at Potomac Books have been utterly delightful and supportive.

We had some discussions about the possibility of changing the title, but we all agreed to keep Dervish Dust: The Life and Words of James Coburn - it really was what he wanted his memoirs to be called.

And, y'all the cover is going to be beautiful! An unusual image and really classy lettering and color choices. I will be doing a cover reveal soon, as well as announcing the new website for the book, where you will be able to sign up for pre-ordering news and what I hope will be some neat little gifts for the early purchasers. I will be showing some images that did not make it into the book on that new website, as well as some extra stories - so that will be fun for the fans. So far everyone who has read the book has been pleased overall. 

In other news, I am writing a short film script with the intention of directing it myself. I will be looking at starting pre-production by the end of the year, and will be spending the next few months putting together a team. The current working title is "Authorized Personnel Only" but don't get attached to that.

And finally the other ongoing writing projects I have are still Mermaid Lake rumbling along and working with my husband on his upcoming new textbook about Production Sound - Sound Mixing the Coburn Way. This book will not only teach people about recording sound for film, but also have some neat stories from sets and James' travels. 

About Photos and Images

In my naivete, I had no idea how tough and lengthy the process of securing permissions and licenses for photos would be. A writer is entirely at the mercy of other people's timelines. I tend to think that the Covid-19 pandemic added time too, as people were working from home, and some folks were furloughed leaving the ongoing workload to be taken on by fewer individuals. In the end we found a range of price points, and some very kind fans among both the photographers and studio licensing folk who gave us great deals, and have helped to make this book really fun. The easiest thing - working with photographers' agencies who have all the procedures in place, as well as the photos in high definition.

(The image on this post is one of Dad's last headshots - but it is not part of the book, which means I can use it here.)

It has been a learning experience about scanning quality - and more props to my daughter who knows how to do some of the graphics things like increasing image sizes for printing. Most of our images are in great condition and were able to be scanned at 600dpi - only some of the very oldest are damaged or blurry on the actual print that we have. But that sometimes adds to the authenticity of the family photo.

So the learning experience is don't leave this task until late, but start the process early, set aside some money in your budget for the purpose, and keep a good track of where you find images. Scan the backs as well if they have information on them, and remember to check your scanner settings. Lastly, it seems that publishers like TIFF files for images. Read your publisher's guidelines to confirm the sizes and settings required. You lose nothing by sending a higher definition image than the minimum. 

You will be able to buy this book very soon! Yay. 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Research, Writing and Memories

James Coburn in costume- Hell is for Heroes (1962)
I’m currently working with my publisher, Potomac Books, to finalize the content and design of Dervish Dust: The Life and Words of James Coburn. I’m so glad that my employer, the James and Paula Coburn Foundation who commissioned the book, had a good lawyer who was able to give guidance on legal issues.

One of these is that of interviewee clearances. When you are working on a nonfiction book and plan to cite interviewed sources, it's a good idea to have a clearance form available at the time. This is a simple legal document that people sign giving you permission to use their words. It means that later on you don't have to scramble when the publisher asks you about it.

I was writing a fact-based book, that included research that was backed up by documents such as dates stamped in passports and published newspaper articles, as well as paperwork from movie productions, such as call sheets and the daily production report. This meant that it was easy to fact-check and cross reference the recollections of individuals. I was fortunate in one aspect, which is that director Sam Peckinpah was notorious for keeping every scrap of paper that he ever made a mark on or crossed his desk, all of which can be found in his files at the Margaret Herrick Library. I'm told that his section is 75 linear feet of papers. I think I already mentioned, but it bears repeating, write down ALL the details of any published source you use for your footnotes/endnotes. 

However, sometimes fact-checking is impossible, when there are no actual written sources referring to events that happened 50 years ago. Does this mean that opinions or recollections cannot be included? No, but it means that you should say that it is a person’s memory or belief, or otherwise express that this is a rumor, or “reportedly”, or “generally believed”. 

If two people have different recollections, it's okay to say so. That the other person recalls an event differently, may even make the story more interesting. Sometimes it was a case of another family member saying that's not how that happened. It is up to you to determine whether you are going to dispute the storyteller in the main text, or add it as a footnote that another person has a different recollection of the event. In my case I was writing a biography that was based on James Coburn's memoirs. I was reiterating what he recalled about events, so if another family member had a different recollection, in the absence of written sources, the dispute usually tended to go into the notes.

Sometimes a person's recollection was just completely wacky compared to what other people knew to have occurred, or the differences were of tiny and minor details between two individuals who had been there. If the details were unimportant to the story, I just left them out altogether rather than have a bone of contention. For example, this was the case with the color of one particular car belonging to Paula, unlike Jim’s cars, the colors of which were mentioned often in various sources.

The most important thing I learned was about memory. Memory is very malleable. We know this from researchers examining how memories are formed, how they are held, and how they can change over time. In this case I was writing a book that was founded upon a man's memories sometimes going back over 65 years of his life. What I realized in going over Jim's memoirs, that he had recorded in response to conversational prompts from an interviewer, was that people often forget factual details, such as dates. What they remember are their emotions - how they felt, what they focused on that made an emotional connection with them. They will remember events, but not necessarily the exact sequence.

For example , Jim had very strong recollections of his first trip from Laurel to Compton, when his family moved. His memories were a series of vignettes of moments that made an impression on him, made him laugh, things that he specifically noticed in the context of the people that he was traveling with - his father, his aunt, and his mother. However, what he couldn't remember accurately was how old he was. His age went variously from being 4, 5, or 6. He just had a vague recollection that it was early in his life. Thanks to research and the prominence of the Coburn family in Laurel, so that their doings were mentioned in the local newspaper, I was able to pinpoint the exact date that they left because it was written down.

Dervish Dust: The Life and Words of James Coburn is scheduled to be published in Fall 2021.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) - a Personal Response

Well known publicity still from the film, in the JPCF archive
A High Wind in Jamaica was released in 1965, but I know that I didn’t see it in the cinema since I would have been only four at the time. I must have seen it when it turned up on television a few years later. I'm not even sure what country I was living in at the time. But I know it made a strong impression on me as a child.

I always loved seeing movies about children, with child actors.  Since I was a little girl, I nursed an ambition to be an actress myself. For my entire childhood, I never wavered in that idea and even went to acting school as a young adult. I ended up discovering the technical and design side of Performing Arts, but that's another story. The point was I wanted to be acting myself as a child, but never had the opportunity.

I always loved seeing films about children behaving with autonomy. When I saw A High Wind In Jamaica, I was disappointed that the children ended up back with their parents in the end. When Deborah Baxter's Emily stared at the toy sailboat in the pond in London at the end of the movie, I saw a longing in her eyes. I always imagined that the character would, as soon as she was old enough, run away to return to the Sea, or return to island life at least. She would grow up to be a strange girl with odd ideas, hard to marry off.

The intent of the original book, which Alexandra Mackendrick described as a “strange little Masterpiece”, and of the movie, was to posit the idea that children were inherent savages that would revert to barbarism without the guiding hand of paternalistic adults. Pirates represented the ever-so-thin demarcation line between civilized and uncivilized grownups. For me, the idea of children being free to be whatever they wanted, pursue their own interests, and be taken care of by people who regarded them as interesting in themselves, was fascinating. I didn't see this movie as a cautionary tale at all.

To me the pirates were nice, and mostly kindly. They protected the children most of the time. And while it was based in superstition, many of the Pirates seem to regard the children as powerful. James Coburn portrayed what might be considered the villain of the piece, other than maybe the authorities. His character, first mate Zac, never warmed to the children in the way the Captain did. Zac was not amused at having a bunch of kids underfoot in the workplace, which was hardly a stretch for the actor, and felt their presence was dangerous. His foreboding unfortunately was justified. 

As a child watching the film, I didn’t care that the pirates were actually trying to return the children to safety, and missed that the children had been presumed killed. Their parents were representatives of the authoritarian culture the kids were escaping. It took becoming an adult to realize that some people don’t care if they kill children, and to feel some sympathy for those poor frantic parents.

I remember as a child being infuriated that Emily was so stupid and tongue-tied on the stand in the trial. I was baffled as to why someone who I saw as being my age at the time was so incapable of speaking coherently. I remember thinking along the lines of, “Why don't you just tell them you were afraid of the Dutch Captain? Why don't you admit you did it? They won’t put you in jail - you are a kid. Why don't you tell the story more clearly?” I felt like she could have saved them, but in the end, she was just a foolish little girl. In my mind, she had squandered the opportunity to be free. 

The movie did not do well in theaters, because it was poorly marketed leading to mistaken expectations from the audience. The reviews reflected the confusion about what kind of movie it was supposed to be. Perhaps it could have gone darker, to be closer to the original material. Alexander Mackendrick later opined that great books shouldn't be made into movies, but mediocre books could become great ones.

James Coburn admired his directing style tremendously, and had a very good time on that shoot. He enjoyed being in Jamaica with his entire family, enjoyed working with Anthony Quinn even though they had very different approaches, and knew that the film was yet another important turning point in his career and march towards leading man status. There are some behind-the-scenes stories about this film shoot collected in the book.

I still enjoy watching it when I see it. I love the color palette, the mis-en-scene, the ragged interpretation of clothing from the 1870s. I still feel a tug of yearning longing to go back in time and magically be a little girl who could run away from the responsibility to be well-behaved. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

My Tips for Effective Historical Research Notes

Here is just a small stack of the notebooks and tablets I used
When I was writing the biography, I had access to some existing research that included interview transcripts, material on tape, and collated records of old newspaper articles from an out-of-State archive. After reading through all that, in addition, I spent a considerable amount of time going through physical paperwork and records at a couple of different libraries that hold archives from filmmakers and organizations, as well as doing my own interviews. I also did online research at various sites, most of them membership/subscription services. Finally, I spent quite a lot of time reading magazines and books either in physical form or digitally. The latter was easier because I could use a search term to discover useful quotes.

I learned a few tricks using Google searches and I got good at scanning written material quickly. I also learned the enormous value of having an index in your non-fiction book. After some trial and error, here's what I learned about how to organize research notes when you are writing Creative nonfiction, or a historical novel or anything that relies on research.

Keep very meticulous notes about the sources of your research

Not everything will be quoted and have a footnote/endnote, but additional sources should be included in your bibliography. I recommend having a dedicated notebook for this purpose. I also wrote down all that information on the page of my research notebook (a composition book) with my notes from the source.

Go to the opening dedication page with all the publication information. Note the full name of all the authors or editors, the publisher and the city in which they are based, the month and year of publication (even though most of the time you will only write down the year.) Note the chapter and page numbers that you read, especially for any quotes that you will use. For e-books, there probably won't be a page number, but there still should be a chapter. 

When you are looking at books online, including Kindle books at Amazon,  you can scroll all the way down below the publisher's blurb and summary of the book, to find the publication information.

When you are planning to quote from a magazine, you need the name of the article writer if it is available (sometimes there won't be a byline and it will say "Staff Writer"), the name of the publication of course, the volume number if available, and the date of publication. You also want the title of the article. Don’t neglect to write that down because writers or columnists often have multiple articles in a publication.

If you are planning to photocopy or tear out sheets from a magazine that you are for your files, also keep the front cover and the publishing information page - that is sometimes before the contents or at the end of the magazine - along with the relevant pages. In the James Coburn archives, I found a number of magazine articles where they kept only the pages of the article, and I had to do a lot of detective work to ascertain the actual publication. In the end, I had one magazine where I couldn't tell you the issue even though I did manage to work out which magazine it was. This is especially important when a magazine has ceased publication and no longer has accessible archives. Letters didn't produce a response. Of course, I could have traveled to London and visited a library there, but sometimes you just have to get on with the writing.

If you are using online sources including blogs for your research material, it is important to make a note of the writer, the blog title, and the title of the specific post, plus the date of posting. Write down the full web address of the relevant item, and the date that you looked it up. The date when you “accessed” the material is part of the footnote.  When you come to publish your book, it is worth revisiting the sites to ensure that the blog post is still available. You can either update the date visited, or if the link is now broken, it's okay to say so.

Pencil notes
The point of footnotes/endnotes is to ensure that you are following fair use guidelines, giving credit properly where it is due, to avoid any accusation of plagiarism, and so that interested people can check on your research and follow it back.

When you are doing research for your own fiction writing purposes, you are less likely to cite sources in your story. However, it's good to keep the records so that in the future you can find your material again, direct anyone who queries you to the research, and who knows, maybe one day you will write a non-fiction piece about the world that your book is set in. 

Make your research time productive

Research can be so seductive. I found that I would go off on long rabbit-hole tangents exploring all kinds of interesting tidbits that were not actually useful for the biographical narrative that I was writing. If you have a time limit, it's important to be aware of how much of a time suck or procrastination tool research can be.

I recommend that you keep a notebook for your ongoing research that is immediately relevant, and another notebook for sources and ideas that you might wish to revisit at a later time when your main project or assignment is completed. The research is not going to go away. You can always return to the library, the website, or the book later.

Here’s is a cheat for research: When searching on Google, do a Google Books search. This will access other things than just books, including magazines and some journals.

When you click on the link to the Google Books page for a particular source, you can often then put specific search terms into the box. Most of the time the searches are limited because of copyright, but you can usually read some of the pages. 

Then, you can take the book title that you have discovered, and go to Amazon and find the listing there. Go to the Hardcover if available, and do a “Look Inside”. Most of the time the e-book format will only show the first 10% of the book and the back cover, but the hardcover will allow searching with a search box. 

I found that between the two ways of looking inside books, I was able to find the occasional quote, or ascertain quickly whether this book was worth purchasing or finding at the library because it had a lot of useful content.

Useful websites, and’s document search features were crucial for me to find material and documents related to my research. These are subscription services. Another helpful place is the National Archives. When you find documents online within an archive, it is important to make detailed notes of where they come from for your citations. For example the “author” of the Census is the United States government. (BTW, has the Census searchable by name; the National Archives does not, yet. Sometimes you have to consider which factor you want to save - time or money.)

US Census Page
The Library of Congress also has archives. And many countries have an archived system connected to their own government and civil records.

Final thoughts

Every day more and more material is becoming digitized and is available online for free or via subscriptions.  Digital catalogs at libraries are also becoming more common. I found the search feature at the Margaret Herrick Library invaluable. I was able to reserve items from various Collections and then go into the library to have them ready for me to access.  By the way, check the rules at whichever Library you plan to visit before you go. At Margaret Herrick they don't allow ink pens of any kind. They do supply pencils, but I prefer my own. They also don't allow phones, so be sure to tell people that you won't be available for certain amounts of time. They do supply lockers for you to keep your stuff in, and let you use your laptop.

Your librarian can be your best friend. They can often have a greater understanding of what is inside the stacks and research collections, beyond Search terms you may have thought of when exploring the catalog.

Having visual material can be helpful too. I use Pinterest to hold research material that I wish to explore more of on a secret board. 

Good luck with your research - remember KEEP COPIOUS NOTES and record all details of your citations.