Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Preparing a Reading of a Historical Document

Jana Segal

I had such a good time performing the reading of Sharlott Hall's short 1880's story, “The Fruit of the Yucca Tree,” at the Tombstone Territory Rendezvous last year that I decided to do another reading. After some discussion about what would be a good fit for this group of Tombstone enthusiasts, historians and researchers, organizer Jennifer Lewis and I came up with the idea doing a reading from pioneer letters or journals from the Southwest. Jenn generously did some speedy research and found, “The Journal of Mrs. Mary Ringo.” It's the mother of Johnny Ringo's accounts of her family's wagon train trek from Liberty, Missouri to Austin, Nevada. I perused the journal. It included plenty of hardships and Indian attacks! We were set!

So, how do you cut a 38 page journal into a 4 ½ page script?

First, I read it through marking all the juicy parts and possible story threads that could be built into a compelling story. For instance, I marked all the passages about Indians - including the interactions with friendly Indians so I would have rising and falling action. I wanted to show some of the scenic beauty along the way and their daily activities without getting too boring or repetitious. On a second read, I included a strand about the sick cattle. I figured that the TTR audience would be interested in anything about the young Johnny Ringo (who later became a famous outlaw) so I marked the little I could find about him. The most dramatic journal entry was Mary Ringo's account of her husband's death, so I decided to set up his character by including whatever I could find about him.

I typed up all the journal entries I had selected – double spaced to have room for the comments when I “break down” the script. Since this is a historical journal, I decided to stay true to it by not changing Mary's wording. But I did cut sentences here and there to lessen repetition and boring details (like how many miles they traveled each day.) I tweaked and cut until it flowed as a story.

Time for some research -

I did a little research to find out Johnny's age at the time of the wagon trip (Johnny was 14) and the route they were traveling (from Liberty, Missouri to Austin, Nevada). I also found some facts about Johnny that I could use in my introduction. Johnny Ringo (also known as Ringo) started his life of crime by killing a man in the Mason County War. He later ended up in Tombstone embroiled in a conflict with Doc Holliday. Wyatt Earp went after Ringo believing that he was one of the Cowboys responsible the murder of his little brother Morgan. My next step was to look up any old-timey words that I didn't know so I could interpret it accurately.

Next, I “breakdown” the manuscript.

I underline the words I want to emphasis and put slashes where I want to pause for effect. I mark different parts for tempo - for instance exciting passages that I want to read fast or sentences I want to sloooow down. I love it when I find a line I can YELL (and wake up that audience.) At this point, I practice it aloud and circle lines that are awkward to say so I can work on them. I might watch a period accurate movie set in the same time period to get a sense of the dialect. If I'm having trouble with some stiff dialogue, I might leave the page and try saying it in my own words to get more conversational.

Now I put on my actor hat, and re-read the journal for hints of who Mary was so I can flesh out her character. (For example, Mary Ringo bought a new dress along the way so she cared about her appearance. She also puts a positive slant on everything.) I might even write my own journal entry in her voice to really get in her head. I search for sections where I can add emotions and mark them. I ask myself how she would feel about a certain situation. Are there any clues about how she feels? I try to incorporate as many emotions as I can and contrast them. I work towards building the emotions to a dramatic climax.

How do I know when I've practiced enough?

I practice it until I know it well enough that I can look up from the page to the audience. At some point, I like to read it out loud to another person – so I get used to having an audience. This helps offset stage fright. If I can, I practice in the space to get comfortable there. It's really about reaching a certain level of comfort and confidence – then let me at it! I'm ready to perform!  

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Unruly Weaving

by Lorna Kerin Beall

For a change of pace in our blog, I’m talking about something humorous (and I admit, naughty) that I did as a child.

When I was twelve years old, besides doing outdoor chores, it was my job to dust the living room of our humble, but cozy farmhouse. When I entered the room, I couldn’t help but groan. My older stepbrother, Bobby had been fixing a radio on the coffee- table. He’d left wires, parts and various tools scattered all over. This wasn’t unusual. He was always puttering with one thing or another in our front room. And of course, in my parents’ eyes, 15-year-old Bobby could do no wrong.

"How can he leave such a disaster in the living room, and yet have a spotless bedroom?" I asked myself. The last time I’d called him for supper, I’d taken a good peek. Nothing was out of place. The room was perfect. The bed was made and his shoes were lined neatly by it. All his clothes were hung up. And even his old electronic magazines were displayed in the artful shape of a fan! He had a big bedroom. Why the heck couldn’t he fix all those old radios and things in there?

And then I had an inspiration. I knew Bobby had gone somewhere with a friend. I hurried to his room, tumbling the covers on his bed. I even threw his pillow on the floor. I scattered his magazines. And as I was leaving, for good measure, I gave his colorful throw rug a big kick.

Of course, Bobby tattled. Mom told me later, that she couldn’t believe her ears! (She thought I was such a goody-two-shoes.) “I don’t know what got into Lorna,” she told him. “And the only thing I can think to have you do is to mess up her room.”

Bobby loved the idea. For once my bedroom was clean, and he messed it up good. He even pulled some stuff out of my trash and set it about, including a partly eaten powdered sugar donut. He could hardly wait till I went in.

But the joke was on Bobby. I sailed into my room and sat down on the rumpled bed. Removing the donut from on top of my book, I took a bite (it wasn’t too bad). Then I proceeded to read.

I still chuckle over the incident. I can’t remember if I apologized. I hope so. Bobby passed away several years ago. And I picture him up in Heaven, shaking his head and chuckling. In spite of our squabbles, he always had a good sense of humor.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Celebration of My Creative Mind (or Overcoming Writers' Block)

fast writing sample. Notice messy writing in the columns.
items crossed out weren't edited, but checked off because I used them in story.

Jana Segal

After getting some good feedback from the Scriptwriter’s Network, I was anxious, no, excited to begin rewriting my modern day Tombstone comedy, “Behind the OK Corral.” And I was motivated! A potential manager would be reading my revised script soon! Then life happened. My mom came to visit and we started this blog to promote our writing. I attended to two baby showers and a wedding in Missouri. I get home, all rarin' to write and....my husband asks for a divorce. Five days later he loses his job. So I've got all kinds of thoughts going through my head... How is this gonna affect our boys? How am I going to get a job after being out of the workplace for 25 years? In a single day I had every emotion in the book rushing through my body – panic, anger, loneliness, sadness, fear, relief, and anger. After the initial shock wore off, I put together a resume and went on my first job interview. I tried to be kind to myself and give myself time to grieve the loss of the marriage. But what I really wanted to do was write. And I was angry that I couldn't. But to write, you have to use your brain and mine was just a little preoccupied at the moment. When things finally settled down, I sat down pen in hand. I came up with nothing, nada. My brain was blank. But I was determined. I read over the notes from Scriptwriter's Network. Great advice. Nothing. I reread my writer's notebook. Nothing. I scribbled in my notebook. Still nothing. I was officially in a writers block.

Let me define what I consider writer's block. It is when I can't for the life of me figure out what to write or I'm stuck on how to solve some story problem. My mind has gone blank for a period of time. Articles have been written on how to overcome writer's block. One suggestion is to get some distance from the problem by going for a walk, painting a picture, or planting a garden. Just relax and the answer will come to you while you're taking a shower or washing dishes. This generally happens when you have already been mulling over your story for awhile. There was a seed of an idea. Sometimes inspiration comes BANG from something you read or see on the news. When this happens, be thankful and, for Pete's sake, write! It is a gift from God.

I believe that usually you need to plant the seed before inspiration will grow. That is why writing is work. Sometimes you have to force yourself to write something on that blank page. It is easier to keep writing if you have already been writing (the rock in motion theory), so it is important to develop a writing habit. Writing on a regular schedule (whether once a day or once a week) tells your subconscious that you're serious about writing. This is the cool part - your subconscious will actually continue to write even when you aren't consciously working on it. When things are really stewing in my subconscious, the ideas just flow. I feel a certain euphoria that resembles being in love. I call this being in a “writing mood.” It is one reason I write.

But how do you plant the seed? One trick I use is to write a question down in my notebook which I fully expect my subconscious to work on. (It is also helpful to do this right before you go to bed especially on the evening before you start a new project.) Then just write. Write anything. Don't edit. Just crap on the page. This part of the process should be messy. That's all right. There's even a name for it. It's called “fast writing” (from the excellent book, “Writing Down the Bones.”) Have faith. The ideas will come. It is all in you. You just need to let go and write. The important thing is not to edit – that blocks the creative mind. Just resign yourself – the first draft will be crap. Think of it as the discovery draft. You just want to release it from your head and onto the page. There will be plenty of time to sort it out and edit later when you rewrite. And you will rewrite.

Speaking of rewriting, lets get back to my recent writer's block. It was the result of interrupting my writing schedule which made it a struggle to get my head back into the story. But even with some monumental distractions, I overcame my block by using the techniques above and having faith that the answers would come when they were ready. And they did.

Now back to my screenwriting... :)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Mended Valentine

by Lorna Kerin Beall

Years ago I had a beautiful blue willow platter that I treasured hanging on my dining room wall. One day when I was gone, my two younger daughters chased each other around the table, and knocked the platter down, shattering it. Filled with remorse, they found each miniscule piece and glued it back together again. I promptly hung it up again. My oldest daughter, Jana, pointed out something I already knew. The platter was ugly. But I persisted in leaving it up for years. Finally, in an act of love, Jana replaced it. I took the broken platter down, and proudly hung the new one. But I still cherish the remembrance of how my younger daughters so lovingly mended the other. That incident and something a friend told me about an experience of hers inspired this little piece.

The Mended Valentine

When my friend’s lovely home burned,
with all its fancy furnishings and fine collectibles,
she said the thing she regretted losing the most
was a torn and taped-together valentine.

Her grown son had made it when he was just 6 years old.
She’d been canning that day long ago,
and was tightening the lid on her last jar of peaches,
as her boy labored to get both sides even on a valentine.
His little tongue was stuck out in concentration,
as he drew and smudged and erased, again and again.
She tried to help, but was pushed politely away.

“Must be for that little red-headed girl he likes,
the one who lives in the brown house down the street,”
she told herself, as she continued her tiresome canning job.
She sighed. The steam from the kettle, the 100 degree heat,
and the blazing wood stove were wearing her down.

With great effort, she hoisted the last rack of filled mason jars
from the giant pot that was boiling and splattering on the stove.
In the hot sun streaming through the kitchen windows
the peaches in the glass jars looked like gold.
But they felt more like lead.
She fanned herself with her wilted apron.

Her son chose that moment to hand her his creation.
“For me?” she asked, taking it, but then setting it down,
as she pushed the kettle to a cooler spot on the stove.
When she turned back she saw that her teary-eyed son
Had snatched it up, and was ripping it to bits.

She tried to hug him, but he pulled away, and ran from the room.
She got down on her knees and picked up each tiny piece.
She put the valentine back together with tape, tears and love,
And after she showed it to him, she placed it with all of her other treasures, in an old cedar chest.

My friend had saved the valentine all those many years.
Occasionally when the chest was opened,
her tall and bearded son would pick up the valentine,
admonishing her for keeping the silly old thing.
And sometimes, his face as red as the valentine he’d made,
he’d even admit that he was glad she had.

And though the mended valentine is long gone,
along with the polished keepsake chest that held it,
I know it remains secure and cherished in both their hearts.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My Storytelling Journey

Jana Segal

I started attending Tucson's Teller of Tale's storytelling meetings three years ago. As a part of each meeting we would go around the room introducing ourselves. Every time I would say, “I'm here to enjoy the stories and hopefully get inspired to do a story some day.” This went on for years, until one day... they stopped having introductions.

It had been so long since I had been in a play - since before the kids were born. But I finally got that ol' itch to perform again. So when master storyteller Glenda Bonin offered a storytelling workshop, I dug out my one-woman “storytelling” musical, Magic Shoes, polished it up, and e-mailed it to her. Knowing my theater background, Glenda cautioned me about trying to act. Storytellers TELL their stories off the top of their heads. Enchanted by the story, she agreed to let me read (and sing) it at the storytelling workshop anyway. With all the carefully crafted description, we discovered that it was really more of a one-woman musical than a storytelling piece. I watched in awe as the other students actually told their stories – hoping to become inspired to do it too. Someday.

Someday came sooner than I expected when Glenda asked me if I wanted to work on a story for the professional studio recording of TOT members. While listening to other members practice, I finally got inspired! I remembered Sharlot Hall's 1880's Christmas story, “The Fruit of the Yucca Tree” that I had adapted for my short chick Western, Desert Angel. I was excited about revisiting that touching story. So I condensed it and revised it and started memorizing it (which I wasn't supposed to do) and got cold feet. I told Glenda I wouldn't be able to do it. It had been so long since I had even memorized a monologue.

Glenda gently encouraged me. She suggested that I read the story for the recording. And I sure hated to miss this opportunity to be recorded on a CD with professional storytellers! She made it so easy for me. I practiced it on my own. Then she timed my story as I read it over the phone. She said it was a lovey piece. I wasn't sure if I was ready, but thanks to Glenda's support and incredible patience, I got through it. I am proud to be on a professional storytellers' CD.

Since I was already practiced up, I volunteered to read the story for the Tombstone historians and enthusiasts at the Tombstone Territory Rendezvous. Unfortunately, some of us went dancing the night before and I must have been shouting over the music, because the next morning my voice was horse and barely audible. Afraid that no one would be able to hear me, I tried to arrange for a microphone - with no luck. When I got up to the podium, I found that I couldn't see the words on the page. I had to wear my new glasses. (Which also made me feel old since last time I was on stage I didn't need glasses.) A friend in the front row said that I looked nervous for a moment as I adjusted my glasses. The next thing I knew, it was over and the audience was applauding. Historian Casey Teffertiller graciously commented that I had a gift!

After that Glenda said it was time for me to do actual storytelling – not a reading, not a memorized monologue. She said I knew my story and I should just “tell it” at the annual TOT Christmas party. At Glenda's suggestion, I made an outline and tried to visualize the story. Lounging on our host's sofa, my fellow storytellers took turns telling their favorite Christmas stories. My story would fit in perfectly! I opted for more bean dip instead.

I discovered that I knew it better than I thought when the dialogue kept running through my head. So, after recovering from the shame of not performing, I agreed to do the storytelling performance to promote the Teller of Tales CD at Bookmans. I decided that it was alright to memorize the dialogue because of the distinct old timey dialect. It shouldn't be that hard because it was the same dialogue I knew from my short film. And I worked at paraphrasing the rest. I wasn't at all sure that I was ready for this. I was scared to death that I would forget a line and lose my place. But with my son Vlad there for support, I ran the story through in my head on the bus ride to Bookmans. Vlad helped me on with my 1880's apron and I went for it. There were sections I forgot, but in the grand tradition of theater, I kept going. And then it happened. I started telling it to the two little kids in the audience. (Vlad tells me the kids laughed.) I know their mom hung on every word! Then, just like that, it was over. Glenda asked if I wanted to do it again. Heck, no! I just got through it!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Delighting in Books

by Lorna Kerin Beall

When my daughter, Jana, was here we had a great time visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Mansfield, Missouri. It was a beautiful July day, surprisingly not too hot. We enjoyed the museum, the grounds, and touring both homes. Two of my favorite things were the buggy they traveled to Missouri in and Pa’s fiddle. I also love the paper dolls of Laura and her sisters that I bought in the gift shop for my granddaughter’s birthday.

As Jana and I looked at the books, I was intrigued once again by how both Laura and her daughter, Rose, were writers. (As Jana and I are.) I have always loved Laura’s Little House books (especially since I also write children's books.) I’d recently purchased a used copy of Rose’s Young Pioneers that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Both Laura’s and Rose’s books were exciting survival stories where the protagonists
faced all kinds of dangers and challenges. (Often on the prairie.) The Little House books had more description. (Something I don’t care for in other books.) But seeing things through young Laura’s eyes was different. I ate it up like my grandma’s Finnish pulla. (cinnamon rolls.) Perhaps this was due to the fact that when Laura’s sister, Mary, lost her vision, young Laura became her eyes, describing everything for her. This enabled Laura to see everything in a new and fresh way. Sometimes with wonder and delight. And sometimes with dismay and hurt. This came through in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing.

Though Laura and her family overcome all sorts of challenges and problems in the Little House books, and there’s plenty of plot, I feel the books are definitely character-driven. I feel I know spunky little Laura who got all excited over a tin cup, a stick of candy and a penny for Christmas. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

"The Help" - Some Traditions are Meant to be Broken

There are some wonderful films that give you a taste of the Southern traditions - “Steel Magnolias” and “Fried Green Tomatoes” being among my favorites. But some traditions are meant to be broken. “The Help,” set in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, is the first film to deal with the shared delusion that blacks and whites are separate in the South. Despite the Jim Crow laws designed to keep them apart, their lives have been intertwined since the days of slavery. Generations of white children have been raised by their black “maids.”

When the president of her bridge club drafts up a petition for a law forcing people to have separate bathrooms for their black servants, housekeeping columnist Skitter decides to draft something that will make a difference – a book on “the help's” perspective. The problem is that it's the dawn of the civil rights movement when blacks are still being lynched outside their homes. The maids could lose more than their jobs. It is inspiring to watch these women stand up for what's right despite their fears. Change starts with one act of courage.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Check out my complete review at:  www.reelinspiration.blogspot.com