Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

30 August 2007

From the ashes like a phoenix

Last week, on 29 August 2007, New Orleanians commemorated the second anniversary of the failure of the federal levees that left 80% of New Orleans under water and more than 1500 people here dead. It was perhaps the greatest manmade disaster in American history.

The only bright spot of the catastrophe was the revelation of the generosity of individual Americans and people from other countries. More than a million Americans came here as part of formal groups to help us recover. Many, many other people helped in the rescue effort; contributed money; housed and fed homeless relatives, friends, and complete strangers; and helped in many other ways. Our government may have abandoned us, but ordinary Americans and people from other countries rushed in to help.

New Orleans was battered but not beaten. Today I'm proud to post a few photographs that show the spirit of New Orleanians, who faced disaster with humor and determination. (First image copyright 2005 Vince Roberts; all other images copyright 2006 Shauna Roberts.)

Zip code 70125 was still officially closed to residents when this picture was taken, but that didn't stop us or our neighbors from going into the city to start the first step of rebuilding: throwing out ruined refrigerators and other trash.

Creative reuse #1: submerged car becomes street art

Creative reuse #2: ruined musical instruments becomes Christmas decorations

Funny—no takers for this generous offer

No street signs, no problem; people made their own

Signs of people returning

Despite all their hardships, people still found the time to make elaborate costumes and take part in parades, throwing beads and toys to the eager crowds.

Fare thee well, New Orleans. I may not blog for a couple of weeks because of our move to California. See you then from the other side of the Rockies!

28 August 2007

Ten simple steps to catchy coverlines now!

I promised in my tribute to Peter Banks to post the list of tips he sent me for writing better magazine article titles. (The list is actually for coverlines—those phrases on the front of a magazine that get you to buy it—but work just as well for articles. Or, for that matter, blog entry titles.) Here they are:

Use exciting verbs. Polish, perfect, or pump up, don’t improve. Banish, don’t reduce.

Make it immediate. Promise change now, fast, in 30 days, in ten minutes.

Promise lasting change. The only diet you’ll ever need. Stay healthy forever.

Create mystery and intrigue. Man’s weirdest disease. 10 symptoms you dare not ignore. Secrets of top chefs.

Get personal. Pump up your image. Custom workouts for your 20s, 30s, 40s...and beyond.

Make change manageable. 23 secrets of peak nutrition. Ten steps to success.

Use words that have emotional resonance for the reader. For a health magazine, these might include active, youthful, vigor, health, power, energy.

Don’t be afraid to play on people’s fears and inadequacies. Lower your cholesterol the new and smarter way.

Use short, simple words. More energy now!

Solve problems. Men’s symptoms...what they mean, what to do.

22 August 2007

Do you see what I see?

Many people have recently blogged on writers’ different methods of creating. No one has yet mentioned the difference I find most fascinating: In your mind’s eye, where are you in the story?

I was startled the first time I heard a writer say that she watches her story unfold in her head as if she were watching a movie. Since then, I’ve come across many writers who view their story in the same way. I see my story very differently—out of the eyes of the point-of-view (POV) character.

Each perspective may have advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps the reason so many beginning writers don’t understand third-person POV or don’t use it correctly is that they see the story from outside the characters, just as when in the theater. Perhaps the reason I write so little description of my protagonists is that I’m so firmly behind their eyeballs that I don't notice what I/they are wearing or look like.

What about you? Do your stories play like movies in your head? Are you ensconced in the body of one person in each scene? Or do you experience your story in some other way completely?

15 August 2007

Missing Innsbruck, missing New Orleans

When I first started learning the recorder 25 years ago, “Innsbruck, ich mu╬▓ dich lassen” by Heinrich Isaac (1450–1517) was among my beginner tunes, and I fell in love with the melody.

As I progressed to playing the four-part version in consort, I learned the sad words and loved them too. “Innsbruck, I must leave you. I must travel streets in foreign lands. My joy is taken from me...I will be in misery.” (If you're interested, you can find a score with words at

Isaac’s great love for the Austrian village awed me and made me sad that I had never felt that way about anywhere that I had lived.

Now I have found a town worthy of such love, and now I too must leave it.

In September, we are moving from lush and beautiful New Orleans to the mountainous desert of southern California—a foreign land indeed. The landscape there has its own beauty, a raw exhibit of the power of tectonic plates that fold and tear rock into jagged peaks and strew boulders about like beads at a Mardi Gras parade.

Still, I will miss nearly everything about New Orleans (the bugs, potholes, and stifling humidity excepted), the first place I’ve ever felt I truly belonged.

I once bought an old book of photographs of Innsbruck at a garage sale. Published before the Allies bombed most of Innsbruck into nothingness in World War II, the book showed the medieval village at the foot of the Alps had changed little over the centuries since Isaac's time.

I no longer have that book. When the federal levees failed two years ago after Hurricane Katrina, the flood destroyed it. Is there another copy left anywhere in the world? If not, Innsbruck of old exists now only in the memory of the eldest of elderly people.

New Orleans has risen from the ashes (literally, in two cases) several times, and it will rise again from the “Federal Flood.” Unlike Innsbruck, plenty of photographs of New Orleans before the flood survive; its beauty won’t be forgotten.

But the essence of New Orleans was more than its beauty. It was walking out of my house and seeing a cart pulled by a horse; buying produce at a corner stand; going to lunch and seeing a horse-drawn hearse pass by with a second line dancing behind it; having birds singing so loud outside my office window that my clients could hear them over the phone; smelling flowers everywhere in spring. One day, like the elderly Innsbruckians, I will be among the last people who remember what New Orleans lost when the federal flood walls gave way, not least of which was our innocence. And I’ll be remembering it from a foreign land.