Views from the Front Porch: September, 2020

Image via Depositphotos

One of the most common questions writers get about our work is, “where do you come up with your ideas?” I understand, because until I wrote my first book I couldn’t imagine how writers came up with those ideas either. And it’s a strange mixture of things we can’t control and things we can. But at the very essence of it all is observation.

Preparing to be a writer is something that happens in ways that aren’t conscious or planned. We absorb the world around us–its people, its landscape, its events–and all of that percolates in our brains eventually coming out in creative bursts of storytelling. Sometimes we’re having those bursts almost from the moment we’re conscious, other times it doesn’t happen until much later in our lives. But we are always born observers.

If the average person is walking along the sidewalk of life, preoccupied by where they’re going, how hot it is that day, or why they have a blister on their heel, writers are sitting on the porch adjacent, watching. We watch how you limp when that blister hurts, we overhear bits and pieces of your conversations, we notice if you’re wearing a lavender dress with your favorite black sandals and the sound those shoes make on the concrete as you walk. Writers are on the proverbial porch observing every moment throughout our lives.

Luckily, most of this observation is subconscious, we aren’t focused on it, it just happens. Then we withdraw it like from you do cash from a bank. The expression of someone we saw here, a conflict we watched unfold in a movie there. For whatever reason, our writer brains store these observations from the front porch like little nuggets of gold that we can then use to mold a beautiful piece of jewelry that brings joy to readers.

But just because this capacity to observe is something that happens naturally to writers, doesn’t mean others can’t cultivate the skill. If you’re interested in how we get story ideas, just sit on your porch in silence and watch for a while. Let your mind clear, and look at everything you see, hear, and feel. Imagine what your favorite movie star might be saying or doing as he walks down the street with your neighbor. Notice the way that grandfather leans down to speak to his grandchild, and guess at what they’re saying to one another. Look at that old car parked across the street and try to figure out how it got that dent in the front fender, or who might be driving it and where.

This is how the mind of a writer works without even trying. But you can train yours to do the same, and before you know it, you might have a story of your own brewing. It’s where stories come from, it’s how we formulate our ideas. And you never know, you may have a story inside too!

Views From the Front Porch: Late July, 2020

image via Depositphotos

I’ve raised four kids, two of them stepchildren, none of them alike. But with each of them, I could distill my experiences down to this: parenting is a years long process of allowing your child to take one more step away from you each day. First you let them walk across the room, then across the house, and eventually, you allow them to go as far as the front porch. But from there, the process is much more fraught. Once they leave the figurative and literal safety of your home, parenting becomes much more complex.

My youngest child turned seventeen this summer. And as we stumble our way toward autumn in the northern hemisphere, he is racing into the autumn of his childhood. While society would like to view eighteen as a magical line that separates childhood from adult life, any parent will tell you that simply isn’t true. My son will continue to be dependent on us both financially and in other ways for a few years to come, but his time as my boy is nearing an end. And true to youngest children everywhere, he’s somehow managed to give me a pandemic for his senior year in high school.

There’s a lot being written and discussed about the challenges of parenting young children during this global crisis, but parents with older kids know our families face unique challenges. The mental health of teens is something that those of us parenting them feel as a pressing issue each day. I’ve watched my son see-saw between days of angst and days of boredom and days of plain old anger throughout this ordeal. He’s an honor student, and a very good kid, but even for him this is a challenge. He’d had a driver’s license less than a year when lockdown began, barely having achieved that vaunted freedom that teens throughout America dream of, and then it all ended.

When our state did begin to reopen, an entirely new set of problems developed. Would I allow him to see one friend at a time? Two? Three? Would they have to be outside the whole time or could they go inside to play video games with masks on? Could they eat inside a restaurant or only outside? Should I let him have a summer job? What would he do if he didn’t have one? Was he allowed to date? If so would they have to meet up so they didn’t ride in the same car? Was there really any point to a rule like that when they might be kissing anyway?

Every activity, every event, every interaction has been a process of negotiation and concern. His frustration level has been high, and sometimes mine has been higher. In no parenting manual ever has there been instructions for how to raise a happy, healthy teenage boy in the midst of a pandemic.

At some point my husband and I had to face the reality that as the parents of a seventeen-year-old we face a greater risk during this time than some others–because there is no way to keep a kid that age locked down. Even introverted teens will have a service industry job or a church youth group or a school sport to attend. And those who do socialize are out there in the broader world, exposing themselves and their parents to whatever is in their community.

That reality means I’ve had to allow my son to do things that I’d prefer he didn’t: a group of eight on a camping trip, a new girlfriend who works at the local ice cream parlor, gaming at his best friend’s house. I make conditions for these activities–sleep in your own tent, drive your own car, only eat outside, masks on in the bestie’s house–but the reality is, I don’t know if my son follows my rules when he’s out of my sight. Which is the case always with teens, but a deadly disease makes those stakes seem higher.

The bottom line of parenting a teen during a pandemic is that you’re experiencing a compressed and more intense version of parenting teens generally. And when your kid is entering the autumn of his childhood, the simple fact is, he’s taking that step from your front porch into the rest of the world. While the pandemic has made me want to keep him safe here forever, I know I can’t. So I make decisions one day, one event, one interaction at a time, and I hope that he knows how serious the stakes are now, and how much trust I’m putting in him at a moment like this.

Eventually this global ordeal will end, and parents around the world will breathe a collective sigh of relief that will be heard on the moon. And maybe at that point the parenting manuals will once again be useful. Maybe then our decisions will have more logic and less fear. Maybe then we’ll be able to look at our kids and relax when we see that they’re more resilient than we ever give them credit for.

Until then, I’ll be standing on my front porch, hoping for the best, waiting for my son to come home.

Views from the Front Porch: July, 2020

My great-grandmother’s front porch in Kansas in about 1944. The two little girls are my aunts, both of whom are deceased. The little boy is my father who recently celebrated his 80th birthday.

There is a saying in architecture: Form follows function. It means that how a space is used will determine how it looks. There was a great deal of debate over that idea when it was first coined by architect Louis Sullivan in 1896. Specifically, designers wondered if ornamentation and decoration should be erased if function was all that drove form.

Our modern world, particularly in the United States, has taken that mantra to heart. We are masters of creating things that function, but we too often neglect the importance of form. If the purpose is to cover your skin, why worry about what your clothes look like? If your town needs three-bedroom houses, what difference does it make if they’re all the same? If we need a place to put cars, build a concrete bunker with ramps.

But what we miss when we adopt an unyielding form follows function approach to our world is that what we do matters, but so should how we do it.

The purpose of a front porch is clear: it’s a transition zone between the outside world and your private world. The function of porches is to provide a place for people to approach your home, stand, sit, talk, and otherwise interact with you in semi-privacy. Porches also function as a place for you to get outside and see your neighbors without having to leave the comfort of your own space. The porch is yours, but also a conduit to the rest of the world.

However, if function were all that mattered, we would never take the time and trouble to fix up our porches as we do. After all, any old chair or bench would work. Any delineated space outside the front door would be fine. But that’s not how we view our porches (or our balconies or patios). As a culture, we care about what our porches look like–about their form as well as their function.

Lots and lots of American houses have porches, even if it’s nothing more than a concrete square one step higher than the walk that precedes it. And they all serve the function of a porch–the transition zone between your world and the outside world. But let’s be honest–the appearance of a porch speaks volumes about the person who owns it. A porch filled with garbage tells us the person is probably a hoarder. A porch covered in empty beer cans screams, “college students.” Porches strewn with toys and strollers and no furniture convey, “exhausted parents of young children.” What do they need with porch furniture? They’d never have time to sit in it.

In all those variations, the porch itself–its function and purpose–doesn’t change. What changes is the form–not what is done, but how. And that form tells the world all sorts of things about us. The form speaks to our view of ourselves, our role in the community, and our care for the world. You don’t have to be wealthy or have a great sense of design to have a porch that communicates what you want it to. I’ve seen beautiful porches on mansions and on mobile homes. And those beautiful porches are equalizers, because they show that in both those places someone cares not only what is done, but how.

The how of porches and buildings and yes, life, is where the art meets the craft. We can build a highly functional life, but if we leave it bereft of the things that make it beautiful, what message are we sending to ourselves and those around us? We can own a home, and put food on the table, and pay all our bills–that is a functional life. But the form–the care and beauty–are where we show ourselves and the world around us what matters. So yes, function must come first, but decorate your porch. Make it sparkling and beautiful and full of meaning. Show the world who you are, and invite them to rejoice in it, because the how matters.

Love, Abby.

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Views From the Front Porch June 2020

Some of the best photos I saw from lockdown earlier this year were of people all over the world using porches (and balconies and stoops) to interact with one another from a distance. Images of Italians singing from balconies, Brits applauding from stoops, and Americans having happy hour from neighboring porches helped make a scary time feel much safer.

The front porch is an iconic American image, and I’ve always loved the sense of safety but connectedness it provides. When my children were tiny we had a glassed-in front porch where they could play and watch neighbors go by. They could make a mess on the front porch because the floor was concrete. Balls would bounce there and paints could spill, but they were safe in way they’d never be outdoors in the city we lived in.

For me, writing is a lot like being on the front porch (and I actually do quite a bit of my writing on my own front porch). It’s someplace familiar and safe where I can observe a whole other world. When I write a story, it’s a safe space to meet different people and worlds and events. Not that different from reading, right? My mind can experience things it wouldn’t otherwise, all through the secure stability of my MacBook Air.

I’ve just begun my debut romantic women’s fiction novel, but I’ve written over thirty books under a pen name in contemporary romance and romantic suspense. And while working in a new genre and building a new audience can be daunting, the core of it—the writing—is safe, and familiar, like my front porch.

While I work on this book, I want to get to know all of you. We can talk about great books, and family, and share the occasional chocolate torte. I hope you’ll join me by subscribing to my newsletter. It’ll come straight to your inbox 1-2x a month, and it will have this blog, my book reviews, some free short stories I’m writing, surprise gifts, and probably some pictures of my dog because he’s super cute.

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View From the Front Porch

I’ve been a writer for over eight years now, and I’ve seen just about everything you could imagine. In the midst of 2020, (a year I’m sure most of us would rather forget), I decided I needed a fresh start, new inspiration, and a new world to write in. So I took my love of family, friendship, and falling in love and I began writing a romantic women’s fiction set in the world of Glade Lake, a small Colorado town full of colorful characters, strong women, the men who love them, and families and friends that last a lifetime.

So where does the front porch come in? Simple! From the front porch you can see all of Glade Lake wandering by. Your friends, your neighbors, your family. The front porch is the place you had your first kiss, and that nice cool glass of lemonade in the summer with your grandma. Our fluffy friends hang out on the porch, and you can watch the kids playing from the front porch after a long day at work. Front porches are the perfect gathering place and in Glade Lake they’re where we congregate, gossip, and fall in love.

So come join everyone in Glade Lake on the front porch and get to know your new favorite book.

Love, Abby.