Freelance Ne’er-do-well

January 21, 2008

Moving day

Filed under: Uncategorized — ellenbooraem @ 8:18 pm

I’m sorry to say this, but I’m moving my blog over to Blogger. There are many, many things I prefer about WordPress, but I just am not handy enough with computers to make my blog look the way I want it to over here.  I’ve moved all the existing posts from here to there.

 Sorry for any inconvenience. See you over there!

January 18, 2008

Books and Trivia

Filed under: Books,Class of 2k8 — ellenbooraem @ 10:23 pm
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I’ll start with the trivia: I seem to have mislaid my sidebar. I was trying to upload a widget created by Jacketflap for the Class of 2k8 (it’s a slideshow of everyone’s covers), but I guess I must have to buy more WordPress space to make it work.  Cleverly, I killed the rest of the sidebar in the process.

 The inanimate world and I have never been friends. Up to now, I’ve thought of computers and web sites as animate. But I guess they line up with the doorsteps and pill bottles, out to get me.

 On to the world’s best animate objects: Books.

As the New Year dawned, I was finishing The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd, prizewinning author of history, biography, and historical fiction (often, like this one, a mixture of the three). This odd little book is about Heinrich Schliemann (here renamed Heinrich Obermann)–the flamboyant archaeologist who uncovered what lots of people think was ancient Troy– and his young Greek wife, Sophia. 

I don’t know enough about Schliemann to know where history ends and fiction begins. In Ackroyd’s version, Obermann is obsessed with finding the Troy depicted in Homer’s Iliad, but the realities of ancient life keep emerging inconveniently from the Turkish dust. Obermann steadfastly ignores, misinterprets, or falsifies his findings in the service of his obsession.  As an archaeologist, moreover, he has a split personality: sometimes the truth-seeker, but often the treasure-hunter with a cache of ancient gold hidden under the floorboards. 

His wife, a scholarly lady who barely knows her new husband, keeps digging up increasingly disturbing evidence that he isn’t what he seems. She, too, tries to ignore the truth until it finally gets the better of her.

This is a quick read and a fun one, although the character of Obermann is so heavy-handed that it seems Ackroyd must have had it in for Schliemann for some reason. The character of Sofia makes up for him–nuanced, absorbing, mysterious in her own right. While this isn’t the best novel I’ve read, it made me want to read some of his others.

Since I finished Troy I’ve been reading Christmas presents, this year almost all mysteries. I started with The Dead Cat Bounce, one of the “Home Repair is Homicide” series by Sarah Graves of Eastport, Maine. I’ve wanted to read one of these for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed. As a writer “from away,” Graves does a pretty good job of depicting Maine people as intelligent and unquaint (although you should bear in mind that your informant is herself “from away”).  The plot is OK, the characters 3D. She’s no P.D. James, but I had a good time.

I moved on to Janet Evanovich’s Lean Mean Thirteen, which made me laugh out loud in places. All her books are similar, so you don’t want to read two in a row. But if I can reread Pride & Prejudice every eighteen months or so, I can be an Evanovich fan that often, too. So there.

Now. Off to find that sidebar.

January 16, 2008

Literary Theft

The Class of 2k8 blog is getting to be quite a hoot.

Last week, the feature was Liz Gallagher, author of the newly published The Opposite of Invisible. Next week it’ll be Lisa Schroeder, whose I Heart You, You Haunt Meis also out this month.

This week, various class members are blogging about things they “stole”  for their books. (Not, I think, deliberately planned to coincide with the current brouhaha about romance novelist Cassie Edwards .)  In 2k8’s case, the thefts are the likes of Elizabeth Bunce taking the name of a dog from Jane Eyre and Sarah Prineas studying Tolkien’s Elvish language to give her magic spells a little…well, magic.

This worries me, because I can’t think of anything I stole for The Unnameables. I know there has to be something. How could there not be? My mind’s a trash heap of trivia–surely there must be a line from Narnia or Harry Potter in there waiting to hit the page.

The Unnameables does create and quote a publication called A Frugall Compendium of Home Arts and Farm Chores by Capability C. Craft (1680)–sort of a combination of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, Martha Stewart, and Miss Manners. I acknowledge in print a bunch of sources for the “tips” in the Compendium, my favorite being the sixteen-year-old George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. I keep racking my brain to make sure I didn’t lift anything verbatim.

George’s reminders to himself about proper behavior bring home the fact that the Founding Fathers once were proper Englishmen. Here’s Tip #26: “In Pulling off your Hat to Persons of Distinction, as Noblemen, Justices, Churchmen &c make a Reverence, bowing more or less according to the Custom of the Better Bred, and Quality of the Person. Amongst your equals expect not always that they Should begin with you first, but to Pull off the Hat when there is no need is Affectation, in the Manner of Saluting and resaluting in words keep to the most usual Custom.”

This one’s my all-time favorite, though: “9th Spit not in the Fire, nor Stoop low before it neither Put your Hands into the Flames to warm them, nor Set your Feet upon the Fire especially if there be meat before it.”

OMG. While looking for quotes from George I found this: “keep your feet firm and even.” I did incorporate those exact words into one of the Book’s behests. Hmm. Better check with my editor.


January 12, 2008

Tiny Town

Filed under: Maine — ellenbooraem @ 6:37 pm
Tags: , ,

There are thousands of reasons why I love living in a tiny coastal Maine town (population 900, in the winter anyway). One of them is my neighbors’ ability to combine concern for each other with respect for each other’s privacy.

 A couple of weeks ago, a lady in her mid-80s (we’ll call her Jane) ventured down her icy driveway to get her mail. On the way back from the mailbox, she either passed out briefly from a medical problem or slipped on the ice. Whichever it was, when she came to she found she couldn’t get up. So she left her mail scattered all over the driveway and crawled to her front stoop. She still couldn’t get up, so she lay there in the  snow.

Four hours later, the sun set. A neighbor glanced out her window and noticed that Jane’s house was dark–no lights on. So the neighbor’s brother (or husband–reports vary) went over to see what was what. Finding the mail scattered all over the driveway speeded him up a bit. And there she was, soaking wet, still conscious, lying in the snow at the bottom of her front stoop.

By some miracle, Jane survived all this. (Apart from her native feistiness, she can thank her stars that this happened when the temperature was in the 30s rather than the teens, as it had been the day before and would be the day after.) She’s now staying at her daughter’s in Southern Maine while everyone tries to convince her she shouldn’t live alone anymore.

This tale reinforced our understanding that we need to watch out for our neighbors, especially if they’re old and especially if it’s winter.

Fast forward to last week, when some regular early morning dogwalkers noticed that another older couple’s chimney had no smoke coming out of it for the second day in a row. 

This couple is extremely private. They’re lovely people, but they do not welcome visitors and have distanced themselves from just about everyone. They live in a small house with a yard that consists of a vegetable garden and a gazillion woodpiles. Once in a blue moon, the dogwalkers get to say hello to Mr. Jones (as we’ll call him), but usually they hear the door slam before they get close enough.

So there was the smokeless chimney on a cold day. And the truck wasn’t out front. Did that mean they weren’t home? Or was something wrong with the truck, so they were in there freezing to death with no way to get help? Adding to the unease was the rumor that Mr. Jones had been in ill health.

Nobody wanted to knock on the door for fear of upsetting Mr. and Mrs. Jones. So the dogwalkers went home and called around, finally finding the one family in town with whom the Joneses have stayed in touch.

Turned out the truck was in the shop and the Joneses were perfectly warm. They may not have gotten up yet when the dogwalkers passed by, and so hadn’t lighted the stove. Whatever. They’re fine.

And their privacy is slightly frayed, but basically intact.

January 9, 2008

Editing Terror

Filed under: Publishing,The Unnameables — ellenbooraem @ 10:11 pm
Tags: , , ,

I got my copy-edited manuscript today, along with a  letter from Harcourt’s managing editor gently reminding me how expensive and risky it will be to change anything beyond this stage.

I started writing this novel in November 2003. I’ve revised it five times, three times since Harcourt bought it almost two years ago.  That’s four years of waking up at 2 a.m., grabbing a pen, and writing something like “would they know about prunes?” on the pad of paper beside my pillow.

Now the former Medford and the Goatman is called The Unnameables and is in the Harcourt fall catalogue. Once I finish going over this manuscript, that’s it. If I wake up at 2 a.m. and realize that Medford could not possibly know about prunes, that thought is arriving too damn late.

He would know about prunes.  His language is basically the English of 1705. According to the Oxford English Dictionary,  Shakespeare wrote about prunes in “Measure for Measure” in 1603. The word showed up in household accounts in the late 1400s. I know this. I looked it up twice.  

At 2 a.m., though, who believes the Oxford English Dictionary?

January Thaw

Filed under: Uncategorized — ellenbooraem @ 9:42 pm

Turns out I’m living in the past, or possibly some parallel dimension. There I was, out in the unfeeling world looking for an after-Christmas sale on cross-country ski equipment.

 And there was everyone else, looking for exactly the same thing.

Elementary marketing: When there’s a ton of lovely snow, people rush around buying skis even before Christmas. Even after Christmas, supply is low and demand is high. Sale, schmale.

It wasn’t just that nothing was on sale. Nothing existed. I couldn’t find anything in my size in Ellsworth, so I went to Bangor. I found one pair of boots in my size (well, maybe a tad too big but OK with thick socks). Fortunately they and the skis were gently used.  Almost like being on sale.

I went skiing once (gorgeous). Then the temperature went up to 50 degrees and the rain started. It’s been in the 40s and 50s for three days now. The ground is bare in places.

I am not responsible for the January thaw. I am NOT responsible for this! Many, many other people bought skis when I did. This is not my fault. Not.

I’m so sorry.

January 2, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — ellenbooraem @ 6:10 pm

The Class of 2k8 is celebrating the start of Our Year at its blog, . Two of our number have books coming out in January–Lisa Schroeder with I Heart You, You Haunt Me (young adult, Simon & Schuster) and Liz Gallagher with The Opposite of Invisible (young adult, Random House).  They sound amazing and I can’t wait to read them!

 Added later:  There’s a web site, too! It’s

December 31, 2007

Snarky Weather

Filed under: Uncategorized — ellenbooraem @ 8:57 pm

The New Year is coming in snowy here on the Maine coast. One storm just brought us six inches or so, and another’s coming in tomorrow with about the same amount.

It’s gorgeous out there, but my attitude could be described as “modified rapture.” (That’s a quote from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Mikado,” which means, yes, I am a dork.) Winter on the New England coast can break your heart if you’re a snow-lover. For every storm that brings lovely, fluffy, skiable snow, there’s another that turns to rain, sleet, or falling slush. It just doesn’t do to get your hopes up.

Twenty-three years ago, when we moved here, Rob and I bought each other cross country skis for Christmas. (Actually, we waited for the after-Christmas sales, but we had holly in our hearts so that’s what counts.) (That’s almost a quote from “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. Dork, dork, dork.)

We bought cheapo plastic skis because that’s what we could afford. This turned out to be a good move for several reasons. Because the skis were nothing to cherish, for the next two decades we could gleefully head off into the woods when there wasn’t quite enough snow, and scrape our way across rocks and roots without wincing.

A couple of weeks ago, my cheapo plastic boots finally came apart. I’d been nursing the skis along for several years. They have oddball bindings that probably won’t fit any other pair of boots in the world, so the death of the boots means the end of the skis, too. Considering that I paid about $100 twenty-three years ago for skis, boots, and poles, they don’t owe me a thing.

I have my mother’s skis and boots, but the boots are a full size too big and I don’t feel safe wearing them into the wilderness, thanks. So if I want to ski in the woods, I have to buy another set of cheapo skis, boots, and poles. (The poles I’m using now are mismatched-one of them mine, one of them my father’s-and close to breaking. Do I know how to pinch a penny or what?)

Here’s the big, existential question: Do I live for Myself Alone, or do I sacrifice myself for Others?

It is a fact that New England weather loves to break hearts. It is a fact that the universe has a mischievous streak. Therefore it is a fact that, the minute I spend money on new skis, the snow will melt. And from that point on we will get only rain.

And if I don’t buy skis, of course, we will have the best snow we’ve had in ten years.

So, do I get the skis now and condemn everyone to a lousy winter? Or do I delay the purchase until spring and content myself this winter with skiing around the yard in my too-big boots while everyone else enjoys the snow in the woods?

I’m afraid I know what I’ll end up doing. My rational side will say cheerily, “Oh, don’t be silly, the universe doesn’t care whether you buy skis or not.” Which is true. Of course. Right?

Enjoy the snow, coastal Maine. While it lasts.

December 26, 2007

A Freelance Ne’er-do-well

Filed under: Publishing,The Unnameables,Writing — ellenbooraem @ 6:31 pm
Tags: , , ,

It’s never too late.

I’ve been a paid writer for 33 years.  But I’m on my third attempt at becoming a novelist. It might be working this time.

When you’re the child of Depression-era New Englanders, willfully leaving the paid workforce is the eighth deadly sin. I feel even uneasier about this because of how hard it was to land my first writing job in 1974, the early feminist era. (For example, an advertising executive told me in a job interview back then that the best way to become a copywriter was to start as a secretary. “Yeah,” said Idiot Girl. “I noticed all the male secretaries on my way in.” End of interview.)

That’s why, every time I quit a perfectly good writing job for no good reason, I always tell everyone I’m “going freelance.” This sounds much more dashing and grown-up than the truth: “I’m going to sit and stare at a keyboard, and after an hour or two of that I’m going to eat cookies. Then I’ll take a nap. After several months, I’ll panic and look for paying work.”

The two times before this one, when I was in my 30s, I panicked almost immediately. Both times I actually did end up freelancing. But instead of fantasy freelancing — writing for impressive national magazines while turning out fiction on the side—the first time I wrote employee newsletters for corporations (by my low standards, fairly lucrative) and the second time I wrote for tiny local newspapers in Maine (not lucrative by anyone’s standards, but a real hoot).

The second attempt involved moving to Downeast Maine just when hippies and yippies (my generation) had been replaced in the popular imagination by “young urban professionals,” known as yuppies. My partner, Rob, and I decided we were orfans—“older, rural freelance ne’er-do-wells.” One of my new friends in Maine made us T-shirts saying that, so we felt like a trend.

In 1984, just after Rob and I moved to Maine and just before I panicked, I managed to write a dreadful, 60-page kids’ fantasy called Medford and the Goatman. Thrilled to have actually finished something, I “copyrighted” it by mailing it to myself—the local postmaster cheerfully stamping the date all over the envelope—then stuck it in a desk drawer and forgot about it.  

(Sociology note: The postmaster was a woman. There’s no such thing as a postmistress, at least not in Maine. They’re called postmasters, male or female. Same with selectmen. One time, a rogue typesetter at my tiny local newspaper took it upon himself to change “selectman” to “selectwoman” where applicable, ignoring the stated preferences of the town officials themselves. The community thought we were idiots—well, they already knew that, but this confirmed it. The typesetter got fired.)

I ended up working full time as managing editor for one of the tiny local newspapers, and later as arts editor for the much larger county weekly. I was perfectly content, without even a nudge of a thought about that envelope in the desk drawer. Then, out of the blue, in the spring of 2003 I decided to take a dialogue workshop offered by Cynthia Thayer, a novelist who lives in the same county I do. I had a great time, and was shocked to find that I wasn’t as rusty as I’d expected to be.

Two months later, with no cooperation from my brain, I heard my mouth giving the county newspaper three months’ notice. I was going freelance, I told everyone. And I would write a kids’ book.

Imagine my surprise when I actually did write a book, with characters and a plot and everything. It was a brand new version of Medford and the Goatman, four times as long and at least twice as readable. 

Even more shocking, local summer residents Genie and Bill Henderson liked the book (he’s the founder of the Pushcart Prize and they’re both published authors) and sent it to Kate Schafer, a colleague of Bill’s agent at Janklow & Nesbit. Kate took me on, and eventually sold Medford and the Goatman to the patient and inspired Kathy Dawson at Harcourt.

Three re-writes later, Medford is called The Unnameables and scheduled for publication October 1, targeted for ages 10 and older. I’ve written another, smaller book for younger kids, which is seasoning in a drawer at the moment, and am about a chapter away from finishing the rough draft of a third book for the same age group as The Unnameables.

I can’t believe I keep finishing books. I can’t believe one of them is getting published. No T-shirt could capture this experience.

I never felt younger. In fact, I have a zit forming.


October 4, 2007

Blogging? Me?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ellenbooraem @ 6:27 pm

Hello. I’m the author of The Unnameables, a fantasy novel for ages 10-14, to be published October 1, 2008, by Harcourt Children’s Books.

I’m a private sort of person and not all that Web-savvy. Nevertheless, when I get my courage up I will be writing here about books, life in rural Maine, career changes at the last minute, the through-the-looking-glass experience of publishing a first novel, and other topics yet to be decided. Stay tuned.

And I’m a proud member of the Class of 2k8, a group of debut novelists who write for kids and young adults. We’re going live January 1, 2008, at http://www.classof, so check us out!

The Rubric Theme. Blog at


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