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FINDING KATE with Author Maryanne Fantalis (Part 1)

I used to have a real problem with books that were retellings of other stories. I just didn’t get it for the longest time. It seemed  like the lazy way out to take someone else’s story and tell it from a different angle. It bothered me so much that I did what I always do when things bother me and investigated it very heavily. Leaning on the work I’d done on the Civil War and Reconstruction in my undergraduate History program, I wrote my master’s thesis in English on retellings of “other people’s stories.”

I looked at Geraldine Brooks’ March, a retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

I looked at Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, a retelling of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

And I contrasted historical narratives of the legendary Lowrie/Lowry War with Strike at the Wind (a play) and Josephine Humphreys’ Nowhere Else On Earth, two more recent interpretations.

It’s called Reconstructions: A Feminist Perspective on Twenty-First Century Literary Responses to Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Civil War and Reconstruction Narratives. And now you all want to run out and buy it, but you can’t because it’s never been published. So you will either have to visit Milner Library at Illinois State University or me at my house to check out a copy. It’s compelling reading—just ask my mom. (It also relies heavily on theories of haunting and space-place, so trust me, it’s cool.)

Anyway—all that is to say I got over my distaste for retellings long before I met my dear friend Maryanne, and I am so glad I did.

I recently read the first in her series of novels that retell the stories of Shakespeare’s women, and Maryanne agreed to stop by and chat about Finding Kate. Grab yourself a snack and your beverage of choice, because you’re going to want your energy for this discussion!

 

       Here’s Maryanne!

First, Maryanne, why retell The Taming of the Shrew?

Courtney, in response, thank you for having me here! And I definitely want to read your master’s thesis ASAP! I love to read retellings and adaptations, or any fiction that spins a beloved tale in a new direction or gives us new insights into characters we thought we already knew. So maybe it was inevitable that I ended up rewriting Shakespeare’s stories. As arrogant as that feels at times – How dare I? He’s the greatest writer in the English language! – I think he wouldn’t mind. After all, he borrowed most of his stories from other writers.

I had been kicking around the idea of adapting a Shakespeare play for a while, and in fact, I had begun working on both Hamlet and Twelfth Night in very preliminary stages. But it was a visit to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and experiencing their performance of The Taming of the Shrew in 2010, that pushed me to undertake this adaptation with a whole, committed heart. I’ve talked about this at length on my own blog, but basically, I was blown away by the CSF production. Within the first couple of scenes, there were lightbulbs going off in my head as I suddenly understood things about this play that I had never even imagined. I suddenly understood that this shrew had reasons! That she was never the first one to be harsh or cruel; that she was always on the defensive; that her family treated her abominably; and that Petruchio, the man who in his own words is the only husband for her, saw in an instant what no one else around her saw: an intelligent, vibrant woman being oppressed and warped by her environment. The challenge for him was how to get through to her, and how to convince her to see that her usual reaction – fight with everything she had – was counterproductive once she was removed from that toxic environment. A well-directed, well-acted production, like the CSF’s in 2010, can illuminate this play brilliantly. It did that for me. I hope my retelling can do that for my readers as well.

I don’t have the background in Shakespeare you do, but it seems to me that we don’t get much, if any, direct reference to current events in Shakespeare’s comedies. It’s like he’s determined that this is a comedy, people are here to laugh, and he doesn’t reference the real world in any substantial way. But you set your novel toward the end of the Wars of the Roses, several generations before Shakespeare’s time. Why did you choose that setting and what effect does that setting have on your story?

I had two primary reasons for setting the story during the Wars of the Roses. First, I have studied that period of time extensively, far more than either of the logical historical settings for any retelling: Elizabethan England, where Shakespeare lived, or Renaissance Italy, where Shakespeare set his Shrew. By choosing a time period I know well, I was much more comfortable writing everything – social relationships, economics, clothing, customs, language, housing, current events, etc.

I hear you there. Pro-tip, writers: if you can set your story anywhere, think about what you already know well. And Maryanne, I love that you didn’t go to the logical historical setting.

Second, with reference to the play itself, there is a moment during Kate’s final speech where she compares the relationship between spouses to the duty between subject and lord (“What is [a disobedient wife] but a foul contending rebel/And graceless traitor to her loving lord?” Act V, scene ii). In my take on the play, she doesn’t mean a word of the speech, and it hit me that it would be perfect to put Kate and Will against a political backdrop where most of the noble subjects are in fact “foul contending rebels” and “graceless traitors” to their king, and where the king himself is considered by many to be a usurper and a murderer. It gives greater import to her words, and puts Will, as a knight who will be placed by the king – and potentially by rebels and traitors – in a tricky situation as the novel progresses. The setting provided greater depth to the relationship between my main characters, and gave them a very real external challenge to contend with.

Speaking of genre, I remember a while back when you were struggling with what genre Finding Kate fit in? Did you ever decide? Did your publisher decide? The market is such a ridiculous thing sometimes. I feel like the message we get as writers is, “You must fit in this box. But not too much in this box. We don’t want it to look like everything else in this box. But sort of like everything else in this box.” It’s like we’re supposed to fit in while standing out. A hard balance, as any Strong Female Character knows, and as any woman knows.

Yes, it has been a struggle, and I still feel it. My publisher has listed Finding Kate as “historical romance” and while there are romantic elements to it, I do worry that the “romance” label will turn off some more serious (okay, snobby) readers. Unfortunately, romance as a genre does not get much respect, mainly, I think, because it is written (mainly) by women for women and about subjects that concern women…but we’d need pages and pages to deconstruct that problem.

At the same time, this novel is not a typical “historical fiction” either in that it doesn’t follow the usual structures or tropes of the genre, and it has a great deal of humor which is, again, not typical of the genre. I have often said if it were set in the contemporary world, it would have a wine glass or a cupcake on the front and it would be called women’s fiction, easy peasy. Unfortunately, the historical element throws that out the window. Why? Because women’s fiction doesn’t include stories set in the past…unless they’re terribly dramatic…I guess? When I wrote my queries, I described it as an “unconventional romantic historical” and I still think that works. But that’s not a category on Amazon, so…

Right. Well, whether or not it notches neatly into a category on Amazon, it is definitely the kind of book I have always liked to read.

There were so many times I related to Kathryn, related to her rage at the way the medieval world (and this one) treats women, and related to the things she said to other people or the things that were said to her. And we’re told as women that rage isn’t okay, that it’s not something “nice” girls feel, when in fact it’s the perfectly natural response of anyone who’s paying attention, especially these days. Here are a few lines I underlined:

“You always act like you’re better than me, than all of us, with your books and your Latin and doing Father’s sums. That’s why no one likes you.” (p. 106)

“You never will learn to be quiet, will you?” (p. 93)

“It would have been nice to have some idea of how to act, of how to be different from who I was.” (p.117)

Those first two are things that have been said to me multiple times over the course of my life, and the third is definitely something I have felt and still feel quite often. Care to comment on these lines?

The virtues the medieval world expected of women were chastity, obedience, and silence. When we look back at the past, we tend to focus on chastity, and male ownership of women’s bodies through legal and religious constructs. But to be an outspoken female was nearly as bad as to be an unchaste one. The “shrew” in literature is only one example of this. The idea that such a woman could – and should! – be beaten, physically muzzled, and verbally abused until she learns to be silent is appalling; that it would be the source of amusement in many plays and stories is worse. I believe that Shakespeare began a process of questioning that with his Shrew play. I hope that I have contributed in my own small way to the breaking down of that harmful stereotype.

The terribly disappointing, but perhaps unsurprising truth is that, five hundred years later, the traits we value in women have not changed very much. And that is something women like us talk about quite a bit, and we need to continue to do so. Fiction like Finding Kate, and like The Last Sister, can help with that conversation by helping frame the present in light of the past. Progress may be slow (five hundred years? seriously?) but it will only happen if we keep working at it.

As far as relating these lines to my own life, I definitely heard things like that first line quite a bit as a child. I wrote from the heart when I wrote about Kathryn’s desire to learn and her anger at the small-mindedness of those around her. I think many smart girls are belittled for their intelligence, and we learn to hide our curiosity and drive to learn fairly early on. In addition, our country seems to be in a strangely paradoxical state right now, where “geeks” and “nerds” are valued in our economy, but at the same time ignorance and anti-elitism is prized in our politics. I don’t know how we’re going to survive the schism.

Again, Courtney, I think you and I could have very long conversations about these issues.

We could and we should! And I encourage everyone reading this to think about how you can contribute to that conversation, whether through your writing or in your daily life.

Join us tomorrow when we’ll be talking about naming places and characters. You’ll also be able to enter to win a signed copy of Finding Kate!

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“Mr. Rogers Talks About Discipline” and I Talk About Mr. Rogers

One of the great things about having a  child is that I have an excuse to watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood from the beginning. While my daughter loves the show, especially snapping her fingers to make a “snappy new day,” I often find that Mr. Rogers says exactly the thing I need to hear in my own life and work, and he doesn’t shy away from the hard truths.

We’ve made it to 1982, to the week titled “Mr. Rogers Talks About Discipline.” I confess that my inner child groaned and rolled her eyes when she saw that title, thinking that it was about obeying your parents, blah, blah…but I should have known Mr. Rogers better than that.

It’s about the other kind of discipline. Self discipline, where you make yourself do hard things. Here’s a link to the full lyrics of “You’ve Got To Do It.”

I’d like to quote just a couple of the stanzas here. These are the ones that had me nodding along and (nearly) crying.

You can make-believe it happens, or pretend that something’s true.
You can wish or hope or contemplate a thing you’d like to do,
But until you start to do it, you will never see it through
‘Cause the make-believe pretending just won’t do it for you.

You’ve got to do it.
Every little bit, you’ve got to do it, do it, do it, do it
And when you’re through, you can know who did it
For you did it, you did it, you did it

If you want to ride a bicycle and ride it straight and tall,
You can’t simply sit and look at it ’cause it won’t move at all.
But it’s you who have to try it, and it’s you who have to fall (sometimes)
If you want to ride a bicycle and ride it straight and tall.

[…]

It’s not easy to keep trying, but it’s one good way to grow.
It’s not easy to keep learning, but I know that this is so:
When you’ve tried and learned you’re bigger than you were a day ago.
It’s not easy to keep trying, but it’s one way to grow.

Oh, my goodness, Mr. Rogers.

It’s you who have to fall.

It’s not easy to keep trying , but it’s one good way to grow.

I think these are things we tell children, but there’s this persistent idea that as adults, we should never fail and we should be grown.

How silly is that?

As a writer, I fail all the time. I fall all the time. And I try all the time, and I grow all the time. But often I forget that all of that is okay, that it’s expected, that it’s even a desirable state of affairs.

In 1987, I wrote Mr. Rogers a letter, and he wrote back.  My mother found his letter in our attic, and now I have it on my desk in a folder I call “Inspiration.”

He wrote:

 You asked me where the ideas for our puppets come from and why Daniel Tiger is scared and shy. Courtney, ideas for Make-Believe come from many places, just like ideas for your own pretending do.

[…]

I wonder if you ever do some play with puppets? You might like to try with sock puppets or puppets made from paper bags. I wonder what your puppets would be like? What you would think of would be unique because it came from you.

Sometimes, on bad writing days, I imagine how interested Mr. Rogers would be to hear about my work, how he would search for the roots of it in my childhood, ask me if I had always been interested in making up stories about history. (Yes. Ask the kids in my neighborhood about “Medieval Times,” everyone’s favorite game.) He would ask if my own little girl influences my work. (Yes. I want to tell stories that say something I would like her to know, but not in a didactic way, just in the way that all good writing says important things. I try to write books I would like her to have.) He would ask if I ever think about the people who will read my work. (Sometimes. I try to think about the pleasure readers, not the reviewers. But sometimes I can’t help thinking about the reviewers.)

I know all this because I’ve seen my share of Mr. Rogers’ interviews recently.

I got a lot out of watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, but I think I might need Mr. Rogers even more as an adult. Children know to keep growing. Adults sometimes need a reminder.

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The Joy of Caring Less

I always thought I was a one-project-at-a-time kind of girl.

I have discovered I was wrong.

In my January post at YA Outside the Lines, I discussed the frustrations I’ve been feeling about writing in the last year.

It was bad. As in can’t eat, can’t sleep, drive my family crazy bad.

I’m happy to report that it’s now much better, partly because I decided if writing was making me this miserable I shouldn’t do it because it’s not like it’s paying very many bills, either. But I can’t not write.

I used to write for myself, because I couldn’t not do it, and because I enjoyed making my mother and my English teachers cry—it is something, isn’t it, to make people feel? It’s a kind of power. I wrote with no thought of publication or awards. Those things were too far off.

Then I was published, and there was critical approval, if not money in it, and I have always loved approval better than money, anyway.

I wanted them again, those tiny hits of approval that really do hit my brain like a drug.

HOW COULD I GET MORE?

That became my goal, not writing what made me glad to write, not the projects that pulled at my heart and made me happy, but this.

WHAT CAN I GET PUBLISHED?

WHAT WILL MORE PEOPLE READ?

HOW CAN I MAKE PEOPLE LIKE ME AND GIVE ME MORE OF THOSE LOVELY APPROVAL HIGHS?

I discovered, in my desire for publication and approval, that I could not write. I was holding everything too tightly, afraid of failing, afraid of wasting my time.

Something made me let go. I don’t know what. Maybe my arms finally got too tired. I let myself drift.

I drafted (in longhand, which I haven’t done for over a decade) an historical fiction picture book. A book featuring real people (always very scary to write about) who spent a remarkable evening together and left behind a record of it so sparse it could not become narrative nonfiction because I had to fill in the gaps. It’s something I never would have let myself write while I was holding on so tightly to what would sell.

I began it two Friday nights ago while my husband bathed our daughter. I never write at those times, when it is loud and I can hear her laughing and splashing and him singing some song he loves from his own childhood about elephants playing on spider webs. I began it because the first lines came into my head and I needed to get them down before I forgot. I realized I had been an elephant on a spider web, and no elephant can play on a spider web if she thinks too hard about it. I felt joy in writing for the first time in a long time, and I woke up the next morning and finished the draft. Whether it ever sees the light of day or not is immaterial. Those six hundred words brought me back.

Last Thursday, I forgot to put my daughter’s school bag in the car, and I ended up driving to and from her school three times during what is meant to be my work time. It was okay because in that drive I realized which novel project I should be working on. The one I know is not “commercial” enough. The one I know can come from no one but me. (There are, however, pretty dresses in it, and the calculating part of my brain that knows I can sell historical fiction as long as there are pretty dresses—come on, you know it’s true—rejoices.)

In my research for various incarnations of the above novel over the past year, I stumbled upon a nonfiction story I wanted to tell. My husband has been after me for years to do nonfiction, because I do love it and I am good at it and I was trained as a historian first. I registered for a class on writing narrative nonfiction, because I also find great joy in learning and reading and homework assignments.

These projects are very different from each other, but they all have connections. All are set in my beloved eighteenth century because I think I am right, after all, after much wandering, to focus my work there. There is great joy in knowing a world well, and it’s interesting to see the same world from so many different angles as I work on different projects.

Working on three projects at a time enables me to hold them all with a looser rein. If one fails, perhaps another will succeed. I don’t feel so uptight about things. If I get stuck on one, I can switch to another. Nothing is life or death. Some people need to pour everything they have into one thing at a time, but I can’t. Because what if I give everything I have and still come up short? I can’t do it. I freeze in terror.

Working on a variety of projects keeps me from getting bored, from holding any one project so tight it can’t breathe, so tight I can’t breathe. It keeps me from caring too much. Caring too little is bad. Caring too much is bad. I need to care just enough to do the work well and then to let it be.

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Greetings from the Playroom (And the Office and the Nursery and Sometimes the Kitchen)

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to spend more time on my blog and social media sites. When my daughter was born (16 months ago!), I panicked and cut everything down to the barest of bones re: writing. That meant spending my precious, precious time actually writing books, so I quit on my personal blog. However, I kept blogging with my blog group at YA Outside the Lines, and sometime last fall I came to the conclusion that if I could write one blog a month there, I could do it here.

I thought I’d bring you up to speed by writing first about where I’m writing. This lovely room with dark paneling and a pretty fireplace (cold and covered in sharp places, don’t worry, the baby is safe) and wooden beams on the ceiling used to be my library. The walls used to be lined with bookshelves. It was my favorite room in the whole house.

I never spent any time in it. It was a storage room for books. Now it is my daughter’s playroom, and I spend lots of time in it. It’s still my favorite room because see: lovely.

About a year ago, we moved the bookshelves downstairs to the basement (finished and dehumidified, don’t worry, the books are safe), where they still provide relatively easy access to the books despite the fact that we have to maneuver around all the other stuff we don’t have room for upstairs. (In other news, I am Marie Kondo-ing my house. I know that book made a lot of people angry, but I have so far done my dresser and looking at my sock drawer is the definition of bliss. So, angry people who are perhaps a little bit sensitive about someone suggesting you own too much stuff, I suggest you do what you would do with any other self-help book and take the parts that work for you and toss the rest. I…really…the anger about that book just baffles me, but I like organizing and tidying, so maybe that is personal bias.)

I’ve just started writing from the playroom. I used to spend all the working hours in my office (like most people), except (unlike most people, I guess) my office is in our smallest bedroom.

Three summers ago, while visiting my parents, I worked in the dining room off the kitchen, discovering by accident that I work better with more going on around me. I can cook chicken while also writing! Who knew? Oh, the possibilities! My childhood home, which you can buy and I will hate you only a little bit, has an amazing kitchen desk, which I think is the greatest thing in the world. I would love a kitchen desk, and I don’t even do much of our cooking.

I’ve made a similar discovery in the playroom. While certain types of writing call for more focused attention, there are loads of things I can do while also taking bites of imaginary food.

And here’s where history comes in handy. It’s a very practical course of study because you realize that things have not always been the way they are right now. As with Marie Kondo, you can take and toss from various eras. Look at me being so postmodern.

I am embracing the meshing of work and life that used to be common when almost everybody worked at home and rejecting the compartmentalization common to the mid-twentieth century, when my house was built. I’m learning rooms can have more than one purpose. (This is probably obvious to other people.) I’m writing with distractions and without them. (To be honest, when I don’t have distractions, I create them. I’m the kind of writer who needs to look up between sentences. Hello, Facebook, what great/horrible thing do you have for me today?) My daughter gets loads of focused one-on-one attention from a variety of adults, including me, but it’s also a good thing for her to see me work, and we are lucky that I can do certain kinds of work and play at the same time.

I started writing this in the playroom, while watching my daughter transport pretend food from one side of the room to another. I’m finishing it in the quiet of my office. My favorite place to write is in the glider in the nursery. That thing is comfy, and when it outgrows its usefulness there, into my office it goes.

How do you use your space to best advantage? Where do you like to work and play?

 

 

 

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Spelling “Tuesday”

Just in case it makes any difference, Stephen and I have been reading aloud to our daughter while she’s in the womb. Our most recent selections are the Winnie-the-Pooh books, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne, which I have read many times but not since I wrote a paper on them in my undergraduate children’s literature class ten years ago and which Stephen has never read at all.

Owl Winnie-the-Pooh(Side Note: Judging by the “Lists of Inspiring Quotes from Pooh” and the abundance of Pooh-themed greeting cards, lots of people have never read these books because those “inspiring quotes” are either taken out of context or I have no recollection of Pooh ever saying them. Stephen learned the hard way never to buy me a Pooh greeting card because I will say something like, “When did Pooh say any of these insipid things? Never! Look, it’s not even punctuated correctly!” He has taken to calling this body of work “Apocryphal Pooh” to assuage my offended literary feelings.)

But back to my story. In The House at Pooh Corner, Rabbit observes that Owl must be respected because “You can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right.”

Owl gives it a go. He does something, even if it’s not perfect. As a writer, I often feel like I’m spelling “Tuesday” wrong. Like I’m failing even when I’m succeeding, because maybe I could have done better. Have I, in fact, always done my best? Will even my very best ever be good enough?

I was devastated for a minute when Stephen told me he thought my current manuscript was better than The Last Sister, because The Last Sister has a publisher and (some) people will read it and maybe find out that I am a total fraud at this writing thing, while my work-in-progress does not yet have a publisher and maybe no one will ever read it, which seems somehow worse. In both cases, perhaps, I have spelled “Tuesday” wrong. But at least I have spelled “Tuesday.” At least I have not spent my life not spelling “Tuesday” for fear of getting it wrong. Which, I suppose, is a fancy way of saying I have not allowed perfectionism to stand in the way of action. Which is kind of a big deal for me, because I am nothing if not a perfectionist. I have dared to do it wrong, but at least I have done it. I have to respect myself for that. I should respect myself for that, and my work should keep getting better. By the time a book comes out, I should be a stronger writer than I was when I wrote it.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms and devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

To me, that’s all another way of saying that we should try to spell “Tuesday,” even if we fail. What’s your “Tuesday”? How can you dare to spell it wrong today?

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Excuses and Expectations

Oh, you few but faithful readers, I have not posted in a while. I have many excuses, but the one that is most true is that I’ve just been working on too many other things. I had three deadlines at the end of February, but that’s the way it always goes, so that’s not much of an excuse, perhaps. I am working on a second novel that I am quite convinced no one will publish, but I like it too much to quit.

And I am expectant.

I am expecting two babies this fall. One of them is a book. One of them is a human. I have worked very hard and am still working very hard to help both of them into the world. Not to “make” them. I can’t believe I “made” either of them. They are too much themselves for that. I am part of their journeys, not their creator. The human is due in September. The book is due in October. I am afraid no one will care about the book because of the human, and that book has been—well, it has been a part of my life for a long time. It matters a lot. To me, anyway. I don’t entirely believe either one of them will happen. They were both so unlikely, such unbelievable near-twins. I have pictures that tell me they are real.

Authors say sometimes that books are like children. I think that is true. I have understood my feelings about the human through the emotional process I go through with books. When I’m writing a first draft, I don’t talk about it with anyone. It’s too small, too fragile to bear the world’s scrutiny. I protect it. The first noticeable symptom of the human I’m carrying was a desire to avoid the Internet. I couldn’t post on Facebook. I couldn’t bear to look at Twitter. I couldn’t possibly write anything personal anyone would be reading anytime soon. Someone would know. Someone would be able to tell. I couldn’t let anyone know. The human was too small. It needed to be guarded. And so the lack of blogs.

Also, readers, it has been cold. I haven’t been warm since the end of October. The cold has terrible effects on me. I know what some of you are saying. “Move south, Courtney. Come home.” Someday. I can’t, just yet. Not only because of the oft-blamed Husband’s Job and Amazing Preschool Opportunity. Because being gone gives me mental clarity. My book is set at home, albeit home long before I was born or thought of. If I’d lived there, I would never have written it. I wouldn’t have been able to see the forest for the trees. It took leaving to see the story clearly.

So those are my excuses, readers. Working, all the time because I am strange and my human baby has made me more productive than usual, which my husband attributes to the baby sharing with me some of his workaholic DNA. (He’s joking. Sort of.) The desire to protect a first draft—it’s hard for me to talk about my projects. The cold—really, you wouldn’t believe how it affects me. I don’t remember what it’s like to feel warm. Other women are always asking how I feel. I feel cold, readers. That is how I feel. I haven’t had any other real symptoms, and even if I had I don’t think I would have noticed them through the cold. The cold blankets everything. Oh, and the fact that most of my reading has been research-based lately, and I haven’t felt I had anything to say, though it’s all gelling in my head, and I will soon. I hate when people talk with nothing to say, especially when the talk is just for the sake of self-promotion, as so much of it is with authors.

The book that is coming in October is mostly out of my hands. The new book is in its third draft. The human is nearly in its second trimester. Winter can’t last forever. Spring will come. And then summer. And then fall, which has always been my favorite time of year.

 

 

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