Noticing Magic Everywhere

Kate Comings' journal


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New Book

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A Shack On the Outskirts of Heaven is finally done, available here. Getting a book out had a steep learning curve, I found, and I messed up along the way. I had gone over the novel through multiple drafts in Scrivener and reread the converted manuscript again in Microsoft Word. I was confident there were no more typos when I uploaded the book to Amazon.

The book proof looked very different from the Word document. Beautifully formatted, it looked like a real book. I was thrilled… until I read it once again and found yet more mistakes. The biggest one was misspelling one of my main character’s names! “No way I did that!” I yelled at the computer screen. I found the original page in Scrivener, and there it was. How I managed to miss it is beyond me, but getting it fixed delayed the whole process.

I also messed up when it came to uploading an author photo. I have to say, the Amazon CreateSpace people were incredibly kind and helpful.

I’m working on the sequel to Shack.


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New book available soon!

High Resolution Front Cover.5830165

I was overwhelmed. There’s a lot involved in getting a book out, but it’s all coming together. I just received the cover image for my new book. I’m thrilled with the way it came out, and now I can finally talk about it. I’ve spent the last couple of years writing a series of four books. The series begins with Eileen…

Sculptor Eileen Gordon is at the breaking point. Her mind-numbing day job is crushing her, and her loneliness feels overwhelming. Then there’s her fiercely independent daughter, Celeste, who returns from travels in Ireland to discover she is pregnant. Mother and daughter decide to team up, take life by the horns, and rescue themselves by opening an art gallery. But their plan to “take life in big bites” threatens to backfire when past relationships resurface and present seemingly endless complications.

It’ll be available soon.


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Saw this book on display in the library and grabbed it.

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The jacket blurb says, “…the first book we fall in love with shapes us every bit as much as the first person we fell in love with.” For Laura Miller, it was the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. That got me thinking–what books did I most love as a child? For sure, not Narnia. The first books I checked out of the library over and over and over again were Ruth Stiles Gannett’s Elmer Elevator stories: My Father’s Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon, and The Dragons of Blueland. They were published between 1948 and 1951 and are still in print.

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I fell in love with Boris, the blue-and-yellow striped dragon. He was nothing like a conventional dragon; he looked like a cuddly stuffed animal. Elmer, the 9-year-old hero, was amazingly independent and responsible. The lists of supplies he packed for his rescue missions were unexpected and hilarious–pink lollipops, chewing gum, magnifying glasses (to better see fleas) and hair ribbons.

I also loved horse stories like Black Beauty and Marguerite Henry’s King of the Wind. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden started a lifelong love of gardening and of mysterious doorways.

I didn’t read the Narnia books until I was older. C.S. Lewis has an engaging, almost conversational writing style. He talks directly to the reader and draws you right in… then he bludgeons you over the head with his heavy-handed religious imagery and his proselytizing agenda. Laura Miller’s extremely well-researched book explores Lewis’s life and his friendship with J.R.R.Tolkien.  It brought home to me everything I didn’t like about university. I have serious problems with elitist academics and their continuous bickering, criticizing each other about things that have no connection to the way we live our lives and how we treat other people. What really got me while reading this book, besides the academic rivalry and stubborn old farts bickering back and forth, is the way different books and poetry resonate with different people. What hits one person on a deep level (Lord of the Rings for me) will strike someone else as shallow and just plain bad. Laura Miller and I don’t have the same taste in literature, but this book of hers was a fascinating read that I couldn’t put down.


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Manzanita

First off, I want this little house by the beach in Manzanita. Isn’t it cute?

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We’ve been having days and days and days of humid, ninety-plus temperatures in Portland, and I discovered that when it’s sweltering, my brain doesn’t work. I can’t concentrate, can’t focus… can’t write. I’m almost finished with the first draft of Zen Flowers, the fourth book in my series. It’s in two parts and has gotten up to a whopping 158,000 words and will be well over 160,000 when I get to the end. Big editing job ahead, but that’s in the future. Endings are excruciatingly difficult for me to write. Everything slows down to a crawl. I hate everything I write and keep deleting and starting the last chapter over again and again. That’s where I am now.

Yesterday, I couldn’t face going out for my daily walk and on impulse, drove to the Oregon coast where it was in the 60s, thirty degrees cooler than in Portland. I went to Manzanita for the day this time. People come here for writing retreats. I’d like to have one in the little house above (Yes! I could write here!) but one of the motels would be just fine, too. I will do it someday. Even before I got to Manzanita, ideas began to percolate. I brought my iPad for that just in case.

The beach is long; it goes on forever. First, I walked north to the end of the beach.

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Then I turned around and walked south for a couple of miles. As I walked, I told myself the story I’m writing in between gazing at the gorgeousness of it all and taking photos like the main character of the book.

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Looking east over the dunes, in the direction of Portland, the sky was an astonishing blue.

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There were lots of sand castles all along the beach. This one was my favorite.

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Whenever I go to the coast, I get hungry for clam chowder. I planned to sit at the restaurant table, write, and savor a bowl of chowder, but I couldn’t find a seafood place. Google said the one there was permanently closed. I wandered around the town for a bit, then stopped in Cannon Beach on my way home. By then, I was famished, and the bowl of chowder at The Wayfarer was wonderful, packed with clams. Between bites, I wrote down the ideas that came to me driving and on the beach. I can’t wait to get started again.


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Driving South

Oregon is looking pretty brown and dry.

Oregon is looking pretty brown and dry.

Long, monotonous road trips are inspiring for me as a writer. Taking a journey clears my brain like nothing else and empties my head, leaving a wide-open, inviting space for new ideas.

Early this month, I took a quick trip down to California for my high school class reunion and to visit my sisters. I got there Thursday afternoon and left early Sunday morning. The reunion included a beach party and a banquet. We managed to squeeze in dinner at Jack London’s in Carmel (their fish and chips were the best I’ve had in years), a reunion beach party, my sister Carolyn’s writers’ group, and the reunion banquet. My class reunites every September, but this was my first reunion. My sisters, Rosemary and Carolyn, both joined me and we had a great, though brief, visit.

I left Portland Wednesday as the sun was coming up. It was a beautiful sunrise, all pink and golden over the hills. It made me remember that old song by Melanie that goes, “Watch a baby day be born.” I found it on my iPod and listened to Melanie as I drove past Salem. I hadn’t played her stuff for years, but I like to keep endless choices on that iPod, soundtracks for whatever I’m doing or writing. I decided to play stuff I hadn’t listened to in a long time instead of my usual sounds. After Melanie, my car sang with Eddie Vedder’s “Into the Wild” soundtrack; then Enter the Haggis, Scottish rock with highland bagpipes; Glen Hansard; and The Frames, also with Glen Hansard.

Oregon wasn’t very green anymore. I dug my pocket camera out of my bag and took a few photos through my car windshield along the way.

I thought about the plot elements I’m having trouble with. Ideas don’t come to me in any particular order. More and more threads need to be tied up before I’m ready to start Part Two–yes, I’m still winding up Part One. In Part Two, a couple of my characters seem to have gotten married. How did this happen? I can’t just have them suddenly married. He has to propose… This is what happens when you’re a “pantser.” It can get extremely messy, and this book, “Zen Flowers,” is the messiest one yet. I write the same way I do road trips. I never make hotel reservations. I decide on the spur of the moment which town I’ll stay in, and then I pull over and consult the AAA Tourbook and see which motel/hotel looks good and what amenities they have that I need right then. A coffeepot in the room and free wi-fi are absolutely essential.

The drive took longer than I thought it would–there was so much road work going on. Interstate 5 was squinched down to one lane in a lot of places, crawling along at 20 miles per hour in first or second gear. I still drive a stick shift. There was plenty of time for new ideas to creep into my head. I asked my characters questions. I had three issues I needed to know about in order finish Part One. I voiced my questions out loud, and then I let go and just enjoyed the drive. I stopped at the Valley of the Rogue park and rest stop south of Grant’s Pass and ate my lunch. A woman joined me at my picnic table and we chatted. She and her husband were staying in Ashland and going to plays. In between, her husband was trout fishing in the Rogue. That park is usually my last Oregon outpost unless I stop in Ashland.

Leaving Oregon. This sign always makes me cry.

Leaving Oregon. This sign always makes me cry.

I drove south into California. I was too busy looking at the effects of the ongoing drought to think about writing. Shasta Lake was nearly empty, and Mt. Shasta was without its usual mantle of snow. The forests and mountains were still beautiful, though.

Mt. Shasta.

Mt. Shasta.

I pushed on past Redding and on to Red Bluff. By now, I had been driving for 10 hours, much of it stop-and-go traffic, and I was tired. At the last rest stop before Red Bluff, I checked out the AAA book and chose the motel with pillow-top mattresses, a Best Western. I found the motel, checked in, and cranked up the air conditioner. It was 102 degrees outside.

The rest of the drive down I-5 was miles and hours on end of hot, dry, barrenness and 90-plus degree temps, briefly interrupted by Sacramento and Stockton, which looked like oases by comparison.

Grain elevators in California's heartland.

Grain elevators in California’s heartland.

Hours later, when I turned off onto the Pacheco Pass toward Hollister, more episodes had downloaded into my head, including the marriage proposal, which was not what I expected. When scenes pop into my head like little movies, I don’t know where they come from. They feel like they’re coming from somewhere outside me.


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Writing Fiction: “Pantsing” my way through

Not knowing what’s going to happen when I sit down to write is a lot more fun than outlining a plot beforehand. For me, already knowing the whole story turns the writing of it into “work.” The downside, though, is that not planning sometimes results in a chaotic mess, like Zen Flowers, the book I’m writing now. It’s the fourth in a series, and I’m winding up Part One. I’m worried about whether it will end up a story or just a bunch of episodes that go nowhere. Lots of things are happening; but do they make a story? I don’t know yet, but since my characters still have such a grip on me, I decided to go ahead and finish the first draft. I can decide later whether it needs massive editing and restructuring, or whether it’s something I wrote just for my own entertainment.

My characters, Niall and Celeste, have been through a lot. They’ve been together five years now, and Celeste misses the romance they once had. I want to convey how romantic they still feel toward each other underneath all the stuff that gets in the way: their work, children who demand all their attention, financial problems, and the disagreements that make each one afraid the other would be relieved if they separated. I want something different from drinking at the pub or gazing at each other across a restaurant table; they’ve done plenty of that. I decided to take them to the beach, which meant I had to go to the beach. It’s 90 miles, and it was my birthday. So, last Monday morning, I packed up my camera and drove west to Astoria, then south to Seaside, a “fisherman’s wharf” type of place with arcades and shops and saltwater taffy and a carrousel. The beach is wide and flat and has a quality of light that makes me feel like I’m dreaming, and that I knew Niall, a photographer, would appreciate. It was sunny when I left Portland; we’ve had a bout of temperatures in the 90s. It was heavily overcast and about 20 degrees cooler on the coast, with heavy, low clouds. A lot of people were on the beach in spite of the cold weather, or maybe because of it.

Beach at Seaside, Oregon

Beach at Seaside, Oregon

Seaside has lots of seafood restaurants, and I headed over to Norma’s for their delicious clam chowder, packed with so many clams that I was full before I got to the bottom of the bowl, but I ate the whole thing–yum!

I headed south to Cannon Beach. I knew Niall would want to photograph Haystack Rock, a giant, iconic boulder rising out of the surf and hosting several bird populations. The light, however, was terrible for photography. My camera has a viewfinder, so I could at least frame my shots, but the glare was so bad, I couldn’t see the light meter or any of my settings. A girl asked me to take a picture of her with her cell phone, and I could barely make her out on its screen. I was, I think, the wrong time of day. Early morning or evening would probably be better.

Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach

Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach

Haystack Rock

Haystack Rock

People were flying kites. A long time ago, a guy said he wanted to fly a kite with me. I thought that was soooo romantic. Nothing ever came of it, but… I had my idea!

Kites at Cannon Beach

Kites at Cannon Beach

There’s nothing better than a long car drive for getting the ideas bubbling. When I drove from Portland to my old university at Santa Barbara, Calif., I planned to go over the manuscript of “Playing in the Apocalypse” at the place where it happened, but so many ideas for a new book downloaded into my head on the way that I couldn’t wait to start writing “Hostages” (working title). I wandered around Isla Vista and took lots of photos, but half my attention was on my new book. Funny how that works.


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Perseverence furthers

Photo on 6-19-14 at 10.27

Playing in the Apocalypse is available now at Amazon as a paperback book!

Formatting a book turned out to be incredibly hard–I won’t be trying that myself in Word again. I admit I’m a beginner when it comes to things like section breaks, but I kept ending up with headers on the first pages of chapters, where they didn’t belong, as well as blank pages that didn’t show up in the manuscript but nevertheless ended up in the proof. I don’t know how many proofs I went through before I let it go, but it was a LOT.

At UCSB, my friends and I carted around copies of the “Yellow Book,” The I Ching, a Confucian text full of Chinese wisdom. We had no bamboo sticks, so we’d toss quarters like dice to get readings, which came out uncannily appropriate for whatever situation we found ourselves in. I most remember the phrase, “perseverance furthers” — good advice for authors. I mutter it to myself during tedious proofing, formatting, and even writing when it’s going slow.


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Deja Vu: Tear Gas and Mayhem

Command Vehicle

Command Vehicle

Around 8 o’clock on Saturday evening, I clipped on Kieran’s leash and went walking after a day of writing. I love these long, June days. A breeze along with the setting sun felt good after the sultry heat, but about 8 blocks west of my house, police vehicles and yellow crime scene tape blocked the street. Lots of people were out enjoying the balmy evening, but no one knew what was happening. The police weren’t telling. Kieran and I cut over to the next block, and the next, but the police had blocked off the whole area all the way to Wellington Park. Cops stood around, leaning against their cars. They looked bored.

A guy in the park was checking all the news sites on his iPhone. He said KOIN Channel 6 reported that homicide detectives were investigating the whole area. I decided to turn around and head back home.

I was sitting on my bed, reading, my bedroom window open, when the pop-pop-pop of what sounded like several gunshots went off. It could have been gunfire… but it also sounded just like tear gas being shot at our apartments in Isla Vista—not a noise I will ever forget.

Sunday morning, I combed the Internet for news. The police actually had deployed enough tear gas into someone’s house to necessitate evacuation of several nearby residents. There was no explanation, just reassurance that no shots were fired, just tear gas–WTF? Talk about deja vu. Isla Vista was a peaceful, sleepy college town when I moved in, and Portland’s Roseway neighborhood has been quiet for the thirteen years I’ve lived here. It’s full of kids on bikes, skateboards, and scooters, playing ball in the street. There’s a basketball hoop on just about every block. I love it here.

I decided to see if the streets were still closed. They were, but Mason, the street with Wellington Park, was now open to the west. Kieran needed a good walk, so we walked out to Cully the way I had intended the night before and took Cully north to Skidmore and circled back up through the park to Mason. A guy with blue hair and a camera was talking to one of the police officers.

Mike BlueHair talking to policeman

Mike BlueHair talking to policeman

I decided to try and get a shot of the “command vehicle” on 66th and Failing street before I went home, and ran into the guy with blue hair again. He asked about my dog (Kieran’s a schipperke), and we got to talking. He’s Mike BlueHair of Film the Police, a police accountability organization.

The police still weren’t giving any answers other than that a woman was missing under suspicious circumstances, whatever that meant, but the homicide detectives and the Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) were involved, and the fact was that they had closed off an area of several blocks, had a command vehicle, and had requisitioned an empty Trimet bus, where they put the tear gas evacuees.

I went home and wrote some more. Sunday night was quiet. Today, Monday, my daughter texted me that The Oregonian had an article online about the doings in my neighborhood. Holy shit! It looked like they had done some serious damage to the house in question. The owner of the house, Gary Lewis, and a woman tenant, Renee Sandidge, who lived in a basement apartment are missing. They had been having a long, ongoing dispute. It sounds like the police thought Lewis was holed up in the house, so they used tear gas to make him come out. But nobody was there. During the investigation, the police somehow managed to wreck the house and utterly destroy the travel trailer in the driveway. I grabbed my camera and ran down there to take photos. I figured the street would be closed, so I had my telephoto lens so I could photograph the house from a distance, but there was no need. Media people were all over the place, and I joined them. The house was a mess, and we still don’t know what happened, but for a little while, I felt like it was 44 years ago in Isla Vista.

Wrecked House

Wrecked House

This was a trailer--what happened?

This was a trailer–what happened?


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Strange how a song can open up a whole package of memories…

It was 1982. My daughter and I were camping at Indian Mary Park outside Grant’s Pass, Oregon. Eithne was 9. She met another little girl there whose family was homeless. They’d camp as long as allowed and then move on to the next campground. It was a gorgeous day beside the Rogue River, but in the early evening, the inky black clouds of a fast-brewing storm loomed up on the horizon. Our little blue tent wasn’t waterproof, and I realized we’d better pack up. Frantic camp breaking ensued, and raindrops were splashing on the windshield by the time we got everything into the car.

I drove miles to the I-5 onramp and headed north. The heavy rain made it hard to see the freeway, especially after it got dark. I put on Dire Straits around the time lightning bolts lit up the sky. The incredible guitar and piano solo at the end of “Tunnel of Love” washed over me while thunder crashed and lightning bolts split the sky apart. I remember it every time I hear that song. Words like “epiphany” and “iconic” don’t even come close.

It got harder and harder to see the road. My little Datsun B-210’s windshield wipers were useless with rain slamming down and water splashing up from the flooded pavement. I took the first exit for Salem. I had no idea where I was going; I drove up and down streets in the pouring rain until I found a motel with a “vacancy” sign. It was after midnight.

The motel’s owner/clerk said he was from Nebraska, where they have lots of big storms, but this was the first time in over 20 years that he’d seen a storm like this in Oregon.

In our motel room, I was exhausted but still keyed up. I switched on the TV, and MTV came on. MTV was new. We didn’t have it yet where I lived, and I had never seen music videos before. When I was in university, I’d get movies in my head with songs like Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child.” MTV was just like the movies in my mind, and the first time I saw it was at that motel in Salem, Oregon, in the middle of the night. Falco blasted onto the screen with “Der Kommissar,” shades on, hair slicked back, running/dancing in front of a cop car. I was enthralled. I had never seen anything like it, and I watched most of the night.

Over 30 years have passed, and I haven’t seen another lightning storm like the one that summer night on the road.


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Writing

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Thought I’d share a bit about my own creative process since I spend so much time parked in front of a computer. The great thing about writing is that you can do it anywhere. Sometimes I’ll take my laptop to a coffee house or to the library, as a change of scene stirs things up and lets new ideas download into my fingertips. I often don’t know what’s going to happen until my fingers type it. My friend Kelly and I sometimes get together and write for a couple of hours at one of the Burgerville hamburger joints here in Portland.

Mostly, though, I write at my desk. I honor my writer self—put flowers on my desk, and sometimes I light a scented candle. While I’m having my morning coffee infusion (which I can’t function without), I read over yesterday’s writing to get a run on where I am and what I want to do next. I use Scrivener. It’s a scene-based application for authors. I write from multiple points of view and it’s perfect for me. Because I’m a “pantser” instead of a “plotter,” my chapters and scenes end up needing to be rearranged, and it’s a lot easier in Scrivener than it was in Word. I keep two documents open, side by side. On the left is my main/real manuscript; the one on the right is for notes, where I type in new ideas for something several chapters ahead so I won’t lose them. I also use that “notes” document for rewording something I’m not happy with, which happens quite a bit. Then when I finally get it right, I paste it in. Having the two documents open at the same time somehow makes it less scary, because I have to admit, writing can be a very scary business.

Sometimes I have no idea what to write or what comes next. When that happens, I grab a spiral notebook—I buy about 10 a year during the back-to-school sales. With notebook in hand along with my Waterman fountain pen, I sprawl on the sofa, music pounding in my ears, and free-write anything that comes to mind. Peeves I have, what the dogs are doing, what I want for my fictional characters, who by now don’t feel fictional at all and are as real as my friends. What I end up with is always a surprise—but that’s what makes writing fiction so much fun.

Music drives my pen, or my fingers on the keyboard. I have iTunes playlists for every imaginable mood: Laibach for the dump trucks full of gun-toting cops in Isla Vista; Crosby, Stills, and Nash for Joel and me, the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” for my whole philosophy at the time… music puts me in whatever place I need to write about.

How about you? I’d love to hear about how you write.